Friday, February 28, 2020

putting the gras in mardi

My friends in Oregon and Nevada frequently ask me how I spend my days in these Mexican villages by the sea.

There are a lot of answers to that question. The only limitation is one's imagination.

Anyone who does not want to indulge in self-amusement can fall back on the never-ending parade of events that are manufactured here. This week, it is Carnaval.

My blogger pal Felipe in Pátzcuaro recently escaped Carnaval in his village by exchanging it for a Venice-touristy trip to Guanajato( grape leaves in guanajuato). I am staying put for ours. It starts later this afternoon.

Rather than telling you about the version of Carnaval that hangs out here, I will simply re-print the announcement that greeted me this morning on Facebook.

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There is so much going on! Take your vitamins and drink your coffee black to stay alert and jazzed:

Today starts with the parade at 5:00 pm on the Nueva Espana near the new OXXO.  It will go to the town square.

The event opens with a few words from the President of Cihuatlan, Fernando Martinez Guerrero. There will be "burning of mal humor," leaving all the "bad vibes" behind. 

And then it's all about the foreigners! The Foreign community presents their candidates for Queen and King of Carnaval at 7:30. There will be live music, 50/50, carnaval "bling" on sale and more.

Saturday's events start at 8:00 pm and include ballet performances, music and presentations and introduction of the candidates for carnaval queen with representatives from several local municipalities vying for the title.

Sunday is jammed packed, starting with the FUN RUN FOR A PURPOSE at 8:00 am. Sign up now or at the event. You'll run from the town square to the gym along the walkway to Jaluco and back. 5 km. I know you can do it!

Then there's the fish fest, with restaurants selling tastes of fish cooked in lots of different ways for your enjoyment. 

There is entertainment during the evening in the town square including the popular talented Singing Kids (Jorge and Nathaly) AND a performance by the magical Vegas-Style Angeles Locos Dancers and so much more!

What an amazing time to be in Barra!

This is only a few things on the schedule. There's more! Wait for it! Carnaval continues until next Tuesday. Don't go anywhere!

hugs, Linda

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There it is. Now, it is your turn to comment.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

strike three

The local political hotline is buzzing.

And, to northern eyes, it seems like an odd topic for so much angst.

Despite its reputation for being a land of fiestas, Mexico has only seven statutory holidays -- one of the fewest of any nation. They are: New Year's day, Constitution day, Benito Juarez's birthday, Labor day, Independence day, Revolution day, and Christmas day. There are other recognized holidays, but these are paid holidays. If the employer requires workers to work on any of those days, he must pay them triple wages.

Since 2006, three holidays have been held on a Monday, rather than the date of its historical occurrence. Constitution day is held on the first Monday in February, Benito Juarez's birthday on the third Monday in March, and Revolution day on the third Monday of November. Those days are known as bridges (puentes).

If AMLO, Mexico's current president, has his way, those three dates will return to the day on which they occurred. He will send a proposal to the Mexican Congress at the end of this school year setting out the details of the shift. One idea that has been floated is to add two weeks on to the current six-week school vacation in the summer.

The 2006 law should sound familiar to the residents of most countries. Re-purposing vacation days to create a long weekend has been common for decades.

The stated reason for three-day weekends is to give workers a bonus opportunity to spend more time with their families. And Mexican families put those days to good use -- if our little villages by the sea are any measure.

I need to add a personal confession here. When The States morphed Washington's birthday (re-named as that nomad-apostrophe President day), Memorial day, Veterans day, and Columbus day, I reacted in opposition. Oddly, AMLO's justification for re-creating Mexico's holidays as historical events, was every bit as reactionary as my own: "I know that it will create controversy, but those who don’t know where they come from don’t know where they’re going."

In response to criticism that moving the days will adversely affect the social well-being of Mexican citizens who relieve stress on the long weekends and that tourist areas will suffer with the elimination of the bridge days, he used one of those diversionary responses that put him in the presidency: “We’re doing a lot of things that are helping tourism grow. We’re cleaning beaches, we’re building the Maya Train and working to increase road security. So this won’t impact tourism. On the contrary, we’ll be affected if we forget our past.”

None of the Mexicans I have talked with are convinced. Since 2006 they have acclimated to three-day weekends just as quickly as I adapted to the migration of Veterans day. Three-day holidays just seem normal to me now. I doubt I would join any movement to move the clock back. (I save that reactionary spirit for the actual rolling back of time associated with daylight saving time.)

Most of the people I know here make all of their living from tourism. And three-day weekends help fill the till.

Will it happen? If AMLO wants it to happen, it will. His MORENA party (along with both left- and right-wing parties in his coalition) control both houses of Congress.

But do not underestimate the populist power of the Mexican public. At heart, AMLO is every bit the populist as any peronista. It will be interesting to see if the Mexican public will relinquish their nine days of vacation. For obvious reasons, two weeks of non-paid vacation just does not sound as enticing as three days of paid vacation.

On this point, though, I am just an observer. After all, I spend life (and my money) as if life were a three-day weekend.

Or, as P.J. O'Rourke puts it: "It's better to spend money like there's no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there's no money."   

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

putting the case to bed

Some stories never end.

Two weeks ago, I had two flats on a trip to the Mexican highlands. One flat is a nuisance. But two flats are the stuff that stories are made of.

When I returned to Barra de Navidad, I was driving on three different sizes of tires. The front tires were fine. But the right rear tire was a spare and the left rear tire was an emergency-buy in Guadalajara to replace one of the flats. And it was an inch larger than the front two tires.

Mixed tires are a safety nerd's nightmare. For good reason. My braking system was thoroughly confused by the combination. I needed new tires. Quadruplets.

Before I could get new tires, though, I had the suspension problem fixed that started this house-that-Jack-built problem. And, then, as you know, I lost two more days getting my battery replaced. (I am still wondering which genius engineer at Ford thought it was a good idea to tuck the battery under the dashboard.)

Then came the easy part. I drove to Manzanillo this morning and left The Great Escape with at a tire shop to be outfitted with four new tires. By the time I returned from Telcel and Office Depot, my SUV was ready to hit the road. Les Schwab could not have been more efficient.

Well, I was ready to hit the road just as soon as I let the cashier ring up $7,472 (Mx) on my credit card -- about $387 (US). That was the most expensive part of this little repair exercise. But it was pesos well-spent.

I almost floated home like a cloud. Well, like a cloud caught in a jet stream. The ride was smooth and fast.

But, as I suspected yesterday, this tale is not yet done. The mechanic invited me to an impromptu walk-around under the car while it was on the lift -- something that should have made a liability insurance attorney wince. The interior of two of the wheels were noticeablly damaged as if a metallic Woody Woodpecker had had his way with them, and a third wheel had a small crack that made it problematic to get a good seal on the bead.

I have known about the crack for almost two years (class photo). A local mechanic discovered it in May 2018 and told me I could pay for a new wheel or I could periodically add some free air to the tire. He called the second option the "Mexican choice." I took it.

But it looks as if time has given me an opprtunity to pick the first option. If I need to replace two wheels, I may as well replace all four. They can wait, though, until I return from India. I need to do a bit of research on where to order a full set.

For now, though, I am considering The Odd Case of the Exploding Tires to be closed.

It is about time to move on to some other area of life's little malfunctions. Maybe the house.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

the great escape

As is true with all good serials, I left you hanging almost two weeks ago in The Odd Case of the Exploding Tires (driving adventures -- part two).

In our last episode, I drove Omar, Yoana, and Pancho to Tepatitlán (almost six hours from Barra de Navidad) to let Omar apply for dental school and Yoana to apply for law school. Along the way, I discovered I had suspension problems  that resulted in two flat tires on what was an adventure-filled day.

On the Monday after we returned, I took the car to my favorite mechanic, Cowboy (named for his sartorial footwear), to develop a repair plan. I needed four new special-order tires. But first things first. Whatever was causing the suspension problem needed fixing.

The last time I had suspension work done at Manzanillo Ford set me back 60,000 pesos. About $3,200 (USD). So, I braced myself for Cowboy's estimate. I should have known not to use my experience with Manzanillo Ford as a predictor. Cowboy said he could have my suspension in great shape for just over 4500 pesos. About $235 (USD).

The few parts that required replacement could have fit in Queen Betty's handbag. And my car was driving straight down the road.

All I needed to do now was drive to Manzanillo to buy my new tires. I was going to do it on Monday. But my battery decided that was not a good idea. When I tried to start my car in front of the post office, all I got was the tell-tale click-click-click of death.

My friend Julio gave my car a jump, and Cowboy and my friend Lou both verified that my alternator was working properly. The problem was the battery. Here on the coast, battery life is about three years. And it was three years ago that I replaced my last one.

For most cars, replacing a battery is a snap. Not so, on The Great Escape. The battery is installed in the rear of the engine compartment. Parts of the motor need to be removed before the battery can be released. It took Cruz four or five hours to replace the battery three years ago (power drain).

And that is where the SUV is right now. With Cruz. When the job is done (probably this evening), I will pick up on my trip to Manzanillo where I left off yesterday. I would say this was an unexpected episode in our serial. But every episode is unexpected in a serial, isn't it? That is what makes the genre operate.

If all goes well, I will be off to Manzanillo early tomorrow morning. While the new tires are being installed, I will drop clothes at the dry cleaner, and make advance payments to CFE, Telcel, and Telmex in anticipation of heading off to south Asia next month.

And absolutely nothing could go wrong with any of that, could it? 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

venn in rome --

We all have them.

Those moments that instill a sense of optimism in us. That things really are not as bad as we often think they are.

I had one yesterday. Mine was a simple conversation. But a conversation that reminded me of the value of frank and civil exchanges between people with different perspectives.

A couple of years ago I met with a woman who has had cultural connections with Mexico and Central America for more than three decades, and currently lives on a lake in the Mexican highlands. She contacted me last week to let me know she was going to be in town and asked if I wanted to get together for lunch.

I did. I recall our last conversation as being rewarding. But finding a mutually-agreeable lunch date proved to be more difficult than usual. I spent most of this last week having the suspension in my car repaired -- an adventure I will discuss later. But we managed to finally find a time yesterday afternoon.

In Blood Will Out, Walker Kirn discloses one of the dark secrets of all writers: "A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too." For that reason, let me call my lunch companion Sarah. It is not even close to her name.

Sarah and I share a few important characteristics. We are retired lawyers from the Pacific Northwest who have chosen to live the rest of our years in Mexico.

And that was our starting point -- Mexico. As immigrants, our perspectives of life here is a bit different than other foreigner's. I suppose that perspective would be even more different if we both elected to move one step further into Mexican citizenship.

That exchange was interesting because I learned some new things about Mexico from her. But most of the time we were simply reinforcing our own viewpoints, especially our mutual (and continuing) battle of divesting ourselves of colonial attitudes.

Like most conversations, the opening exchanges needed to weave a mat of mutuality and confidence before venturing into the minefield of more controversial topics.

I have friends and acquaintances here where some minefields need not be approached. I was at a gathering last week and made a rather mild jest at the expense of one of my political opinions. A woman I have known for years snapped at me: "I don't need to hear your boorish thoughts." And then there are the people who I do not see very often anymore because they feel very uncomfortable with opinions other than their own.

It was different with Sarah. Our political views are not polar opposites. However, if I drew a Venn diagram of our political positions, the area of mutuality would most likely qualify as another San Marino or Monaco.

We did plop our views on the table. But, rather than indulging in the political prejudices of hysteria, we took the time to analyze why we disagreed with one another -- and what the source of that disagreement was.

I thought I had an explanation for why we were able to do what my other acquaintances and I cannot do. The obvious answer was that we were trained as lawyers and we fully-understood that any good advocate must be capable of arguing the other side of a case as easily as they advocate their own case.

And I think there is some value in that argument. But it is far too facile. I am aware of an acquaintance here who is law-trained and could no more discuss politics rationally with me than fly to the moon in bedclothes.

The reason Sarah and I could share our ideas without rancor is that we realized the political position Venn diagram did not define our discussion. Early on, we knew that even though political positions had the power to divide us, our political interests (what we would like the world to look like) were almost synonymous. It is an old trick of mediation: move the parties away from their divisive positions to the interests they share.

That is what made me so optimistic about what was a charming conversation. If it was solely the art of thinking like a lawyer that Sarah and I share, that would create an exclusive paradigm. If people would be willing to discuss interests in politics, and set aside their positions, I honestly believe we could once again start talking civilly with one another.

Or maybe that is a pipedream. At least, for yesterday and today, I think it is worth a shot. And I am going to try it.

Even if I have to share my boorish thoughts with others.     

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

fusing my cuisine

It is morning in Mexico, and it is time to cook something I have not eaten before.

About two years ago, I decided that life was too short to get stuck in the routine of eating the same food day after day. The number of potential dishes are almost limitless. Why imprison our tongues in the handful of recipes that constitutes most cooking at home.*

My goal is to never again eat a dish that I have eaten before. That is not as difficult as it sounds. Simply altering an ingredient or two will completely change the dish's taste.

The most difficult meal should be breakfast. The first meal of the day tends to be a rut-setter. But it is not a problem for me. I dislike most traditional breakfast fare, and end up eating leftovers in the morning. (Yes. There is a Leftover Exception to my variety rule.)

This morning, the leftover spot in the refrigerator was bare. So, I needed to improvise something new.

I was craving a combination of beans and eggs. I do not know if I have had a similar dish in the past, but I could envision exactly what I wanted. Flourless egg pancakes topped with beans and meat. The concept is so simple, it must be part of some nation's cuisine.

The filling for my eggs was a rather basic combination of meats, beans, and vegetables. I cooked up some bacon and used the grease to sauté onion, serrano and habanero chilies, tomatoes, ginger and garlic as aromatics, combined with black beans, chopped bacon, some leftover ham, and pepperoni. Touched up with fresh lime juice and sriracha.

While the bean mixture was simmering, I made two flourless egg pancakes. They are simple to make. I whisked two eggs in separate containers with seasonings. Today I used cinnamon, star anise, cloves, garlic, Szechuan pepper, ginger, and fennel seed.

I melted some bacon grease in a large skillet and poured the egg mixture in the center. A large skillet is necessary to let the egg flow out as thin as possible. I baste the egg to ensure speedy, thorough cooking. It takes mere seconds for the pancake to cook.

While the second pancake cooked, I put the first pancake on a plate and seasoned the egg with white pepper, and then topped it with the bean mixture. I slipped the second pancake on top with a little more white pepper, and finished it off with a salsa of golden plum sauce and Thai fish sauce (for that elusive umami) and a generous dose of Tabasco with a dash of Worcestershire sauce.

Here is my question for you. Does that dish sound vaguely familiar? Or a variety of it? If it does, please let me know. I am still racking my brain -- and, even under torture, it is not confessing.

Wherever the idea came from it, the result was a very pleasant (and delightfully spicy) way to start my day.

* -- Studies have shown that dinner in the average American home is limited to twelve recipes; in Britain, it is nine.

Monday, February 17, 2020


I am a law and order type of guy.

I report all of my income and pay taxes on it. I would not even consider taking a pencil from work. And I would no more be tempted into using illegal drugs than I would be to split an infinitive.

Sure, there are some laws that I bend beyond their flexibility -- like, speeding. But, on the whole, I comply with the laws just as my mother and father taught me to do.

That is why what I had to do today was something of an adventure for me.

On Saturday I stopped at Rooster's for a quick chat. For the past month or two finding a parking spot near the restaurant is next to impossible. So, I drove a block away from the beach to a street that does not have much traffic. And it had even less traffic than usual because a house was being constructed and the workers' motorcycles were parked higgledy-piggledy where I would normally leave my car.

Instead, I parked across the street with my car facing toward what would be the opposite direction of travel -- if there was the possibly of any car traveling from that direction. And I dashed over to the restaurant.

Of course, I did not stop briefly. I chatted. I ate breakfast. I held court with the waiters. Two hours later I wandered back to my car.

When I rounded the corner, I saw a large piece of paper on my windshield and knew immediately what it was. I have seen the traffic wardens wandering up and down the street in front of Banamex and Rooster's handing out citations for illegally-parked cars.

That is exactly what it was. A parking ticket.

It was the first one I have seen up close. They are wonders of details. The two sections of the traffic code I had violated were clearly marked. And I could have read the code language on the back of the citation if it had not been printed in a font so small that not even a Mexican eagle could have read it -- even if he had borrowed my glasses.

As fortune would have it, I had just talked with a Mexican acquaintance about traffic infractions last week. He had been cited for riding his motorcycle without a helmet. I asked him what he had done with the citation -- meaning where he had paid it. "You are suppose to pay it in Cihuatlán, but I threw it away."

I decided that it was bad enough that I knew I had violated the parking rules without exacerbating the situation by ignoring the citation. So, I was up early and off to Cihuatlán (at the same office where I had renewed my car registration last month) to wait in line for about a half hour to pay the citation.

Other than the lost time, the full penalty of 86 pesos (reduced by half to 43 pesos) -- or $2.30 (US) --was hardly an incentive not to become a parking pariah.

Though I doubt I will be tempted to park that way again. After all, there is plenty of space to park here as long as you are willing to walk an extra block or four.  

Sunday, February 16, 2020

the circle grows tighter

Jane Lokan
10 September 1921 - 11 February 2020

This morning I was reading the newspaper over a warmed-up chimicanga and a pot of Zen tea.

All of the usual suspects were there. Taxes. Failing levees (and levies). A peace deal with the Taliban. And, of course, more news about the coronavirus and a group of entitle-minded Americans complaining that they were being treated just like any other group of people potentially exposed to the disease.

I always look forward to reading the obituaries. I have lost track of most of the people who I have encountered in life. The obituary page is an opportunity to meet for one last time.

The Sunday Oregonian has the largest number of obituaries. Probably brecause the Sunday edition of the newspaper has the greatest number of readers. At least, that was the case when I had a paper route during the Taft presidency.

My habit is to read down the list until until I see a name I might recognize. That happens once or twice a month. I then read the full obituary. Otherwise, I just skim the names.

This morning I got to the last name on an unusually long list -- and stopped. Jane Elinor Lokan. It was a name I had not seen in a long time -- and I had not seen Jane for an even longer period.

And that is a shame. For almost a full year in 1988 Jane and I were tied together closer than man and wife.

I met Jane for the first time when I returned to Oregon after leaving the Air Force. She was heavily involved in the 1976 Reagan presidential campaign. We would then regularly run into one another at various political functions over the years.

When I decided to run for the state legislature in 1988, Jane and her friend Marjorie Hughes volunteered to take over the nuts and bolts of my campaign. Jane would manage and Marge would find a treasurer and help me with fund-raising.

They also brought along voluteers from the local Republican women's groups -- most of whom I had worked with for over a decade. Within a week, we had a full army of women volunteers who adored Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Dole, Jean Kirkpatrick. I had my work cut out for me to live up to those role models.

Jane ran a marvelous campaign -- doing her best to keep me on message. My mother was already very active in the campaign, but Jane realized what an asset she was. She said Mom was like "a movie star," and we needed to keep her up front at all events. We did. Jane was correct.

Without Jane's skills, our campaign would have been strapped for cash. But she was able to cut deals with providers that I thought were imopossible. A friend of hers told me I had never seen a Finn in negotiating mode. "They make Scots look like spendthrifts."

We squeaked by in a very hard-fought primary and then spent over a week waiting for the results against the two-term incumbent. Eventually, we lost -- with a handful of votes separating the candidates.

Jane was ready to mount a second camopaign. I wasn't. I had once dreamed of being a United States Senator. But the campaign had tauight me I would spend a frustrated life if I had taken that course.

Eventually, Jane won the seat for herself and served in the Oregon legislature for three two-year terms where she became an advocate for some of the same issues of our campaign together: controlling government growth and taxes, improving public education, reforming mental health and domestic violence programs, and creating a healthy climate for small businesses and job growth.

Jane had no delusions that it was possible to take Oregon back to the days of her youth in the Finnish community of Astoria. But she knew that some virtues are not diminished by the passage of time. Family. Discipline. Caring for others more than for yourself. Virtues she learned in a life-time in the Lutheran Church.

During her terms in the legislature she would use the dining table in my house to meet with some of her colleagues to develop tactics and strategy. On the surface, Jane could often seem distracted. I quickly learned that was a Columbo disguise. I know at least two lobbyists who underestimated her wiles, and paid a price for their gullibility.

There is a tendency when we speak of dead friends to turn them into something they were not. That is a shame. By idolizing them, we strip their humanity from them. And I fear that is what I am about to do.

The photograph at the top of this essay is from Jane's obituary in the newspaper. That is not how I remember her. After I left Oregon for my permanent home in Mexico, I did not have any further in-person contact with her. So, the dignified lady who almost reached her century mark is not one of my memories.

But this is the way I like to remember her.

Jane in campaign mode. Trying to make a difference. Interested in an Oregon where things could be better for everyone.

Of course, she played other important roles. Mother of six children. Bread winner. Political consultant. Public servant. Proving to others that it was possible to have both an active public and private life -- just like her role models.

And now, To the refuge of the earth, we entrust our friend's body. To the protection of our God 
in Heaven, we entrust her soul. To ourselves, we entrust her spirit and the principles she lived by. 

We are going to miss you, Jane.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

driving adventures -- part 2

About half-way through My Favorite Year, Peter O'Toole tells the other television cast members, "This is the most fun and the hardest work I've done since the world was young."

That is what I felt about my California adventure with my friend Stan (driving adventures -- part 1) fifty years ago. That day has almost been pushed out of first place by another road trip this past Tuesday.

On Monday afternoon Omar sent me a message that we needed to drive to Tepatitlán de Morelos. He had an appointment at 2 in the afternoon to submit his application (and to pay the associated fee) for dental school.

I have become accustomed to these last-minute notices. My old northern nature would have peppered him with a volley of questions -- starting with "How long ago did you know about this?" But I have done my best to tamp down those instincts because, in the end, they do not matter. If he had to go, so did I.

My sole concern was that I had scheduled a trip to the mechanic because I had been experiencing some odd handling problems with the SUV. On rough road, it felt as if it was floating from side-to-side. But, when I took my hands off of the steering wheel, it drove straight. And the 
drive to Tepatitlán would take about 6 hours. One way.  

But I put all of that aside. Every father I know wants to spend more time with his son. With our schedules, I often go for days without seeing Omar. The idea of talking and enjoying life with him for a full day completely extinguished any concerns I had about the drive.

He then told me that his girlfriend, Yoana, and her father, Pancho, would be joining us. Yoana was applying to the law school at the same university.

That was fine. I knew both of them very well. But it would mean that my Spanish skills would be put to a test. As it turns out, having Pancho along was a God-send.

Omar wanted to leave at 5. I suggested we had plenty of time if we left at 8. We settled on 6, and, after picking up Pancho and Yoana, we were on our way.

For the first hour, we chatted and laughed -- completely enjoying the drive in the early morning. Until about a half hour past Manzanillo. We all heard an ominous thumping from the right rear tire well. A thumping that soon crescendoed into a flapping.

I stopped. The source of the noise was immediately obvious. One side of the tire was disintegrating.

I pulled out the spare, the jack, and the lug wrench for a little road-side surgery. But I could not find the lug lock anywhere. 

I knew where it was. The service department at Manzanillo Ford had twice failed to return it to me after my car was serviced. Apparently, they had failed a third time on my last visit.

Just like the Bakersfield trip, we were lucky enough to be within two blocks of a small tire shop, where I quickly learned the uselessness of locking lug nuts. The mechanic broke off the lock within five minutes.

A quick look at my car from the rear disclosed what I should have seen earlier. Something was amiss with the rear suspension. Both rear tires were as pigeon-toed as a Jerry Lewis character. The tread was almost entirely missing from the inside of both rear tires.

I did a quick calculation. We would not have enough time to buy a new set of rear tires and get Omar and Yoana to the admission office on time. And the mechanic did not have an old tire that would fit my rim.  My plan was to stop in Guadalajara on our way back to Barra de Navidad in the afternoon.

The effect, of course, was similar to a general using up all of his reserves in the opening minutes of battle. That is exactly when the commies hit you from the left flank -- and you have no reserves with which to respond.

So, off we shot again. About three hours later, we were on the new ring road that skirts Guadalajara to the south. The road cuts off at least an hour of travel time on trips that used to require driving through the city.

Omar had just told me the name of the lake north of us (Cajititl
án -- a name I can never remember) when we heard a loud pop. Not so much a pistol shot as the sound of a cork leaving the neck of an indifferent Champagne).

Of course, it was the left rear tire. I was in the left lane with a truck on my right when it blew. I slowed and drove to the shoulder.

I had just told Pancho of the complete lack of exits and services on that stretch of road. And services we now needed.

Under normal circumstances, I would have replaced the flat with the right tire we had earlier removed. But that was not possible. We still had the lost key problem. 

I pulled out the service telephone number on my toll receipt. The green angels are a marvelous and convenient benefit on Mexico's toll roads. Omar called the number. We waited. He called again. We waited. He called a third time and was told the road we were on is not under the jurisdiction of the green angels.

He called a taxi. They would not come. Pancho called a series of tire repair shops. Unsurprisingly, they would (or could) not come to us. We had to go to them.

Pancho suggested that we slowly drive on the flat to the nearest service spot. Against every bit of advice I have heard from my father and brother, I drove on the flat at 20 kph for 28 kilometers.

We stopped at a tiny tire repair shop at the Chapala toll booth. The mechanic broke off the lug lock in 30 seconds, put the dying tire on the left, and we were off to find a someone who could sell us an old tire -- armed only with the type of directions that never quite get you where you need to go.

But we found a shop that had a serviceable tire that would fit, and we were ready to head off -- having lost three hours of driving time. We made it to 
Tepatitlán in good time. And then the drive had to add one last jest.

On Monday, I told Omar that I would not make the drive unless he gave me an actual street address to put in Google Maps. I have been on several trips with Mexican friends where our destination is somewhat chimeral, and we end up wandering through strange towns with no idea where we are or where we are going.

He could not get an address, but he entered the name of the University of Guadalajara branch. I thought that would be good enough. It wasn't. It took us to a four-way stop with nary a building in sight.

So, we starting putting new words into the search function. After wandering around the city aimlessly for a half-hour or so, Omar managed to get a destination in Google Maps that actually took us directly to the campus.

And a nice campus it is. While Omar and Yoana spent about five minutes submitting their applications, Pancho and I took a quick look around the place. It is a long way from home, but I think Omar and Yoana may enjoy going to school there.

We then piled back into the car and had lunch in a serviceable Italian restaurant before we jumped back onto the toll roads home.

The drive back was anti-climatic. We had lost too much time to stop in Guadalajara for tires. But I could buy them in Melaque or Manzanillo -- as well as getting the suspension repaired.

The only interesting layer to our adventure on the way back was the Google Maps voice in my telephone. I have long called her Carlota. When she was mis-directing me in 
Tepatitlán, I must have hurt her feelings -- or drove her into eponymous madness.

I knew exactly how to get home, but, for fun, I filed a flight plan with Google. Even though we were on a straight toll road, she would erratically blurt out irrelevant directions. "Turn right." "Head north." "Make a sharp right turn." It was almost as if she had recently contracted a severe case of Tourette's.

But she did not deter our return home after a fascinating day. We pulled into Barra de Navidad around 10 PM. It was sixteen hours of adventure and bonding. The kind of event that builds bonds and character.

And now you can see why, during Tuesday's drive, I thought of my trip to Los Angeles with Stan Ackroyd. If my Scottish genes hold up, fifty years from now, I will be telling both tales as a double feature at dinner parties.

Fun comes in various packages.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

driving adventures -- part 1

Some days are larded with memories.

The year was 1972. I was stationed at Castle AFB in California's San Joaquin Valley. My university friend, Stan Ackroyd, had stopped by and suggested that we should drive to his cousin's wedding in Los Angeles.

With little more thought than that, we piled into my 1967 Olds Cutlass Supreme convertible and hurdled south down Highway 99 toward Los Angeles. I say "toward" because the car did not get there.

Just south of Bakersfield and short of the much-storied grapevine, oil started forming on my windshield. My oil pump was in the midst of a major failure. But fate was partially on our side. The failure happened near the shop of a shade-tree mechanic.

He could fix the problem, but not then. He did not have the part; it would need to be ordered. It might take a week or so.

That did not deter Stan and me. Even though we were dressed in our wedding finery, we headed out to the highway hoping we could hitch a ride further south. We were lucky. A rather ratty Chevrolet pulled up driven by what seemed to us as an older guy. He was probably in his 30s.

Through a cigarette clinched in his teeth, he told us he could only take us a piece down the road. We accepted the offer -- both of us sliding across his front bench seat. After all, what could go wrong?

We exchanged pleasantries and were only a couple of miles on our way when, between swigs from a beer bottle that rested between his legs, he volunteered the fact that he had recently been paroled from San Quentin. He came home from the war and found his soon-to-be-ex-friend and soon-to-be-dead wife in bed together. He shot them dead.

Now that tale sounded a bit like a bad movie script. I did not know what to make of it until Stan used his eyes to give me the universal look-at-the-floorboard look.

Behind the driver's feet and tucked only partially under the seat was a pistol. A revolver. I cannot tell you the make, but the image of that gun is burned in my memory.

I knew Stan was thinking the same thing I was: "How do we end this journey?" We need not have minded. Within a couple of minutes, he stopped the car and informed us he was heading a different direction. We should be able to catch another ride on the freeway overpass.

And away he drove. To a bank robbery? To discipline another friend or girlfriend? I could only imagine. But he was no longer a character in the tale.

If I remember correctly, a family in a station wagon gave us a ride to the nearest little town where we bought a Greyhound bus ticket to Los Angeles. I guess we had had our share of Hitchhike Bingo.

And I have as little memory of the bus ride or where it left us in Los Angeles -- other than the young woman across the aisle from me, who was a baker's dozen of oranges short of a full crate, and insisted that President Nixon was actually Nikita Khrushchev
 in disguise, and wanted to share her life insights with me.

My next vivid memory is Stan and me walking through the oil fields of Los Angeles looking like two forlorn figures that had just fallen off of a gay wedding cake. Fellini could not have filmed a better scene.

We missed the wedding ceremony, but we arrived in time for the reception to dance with the bride. And that was enough for us to declare the trip a full success. I suspect both of us have been dining out on this story for years. It is one of my favorite memories.

But it does point out the oddities of how our minds store memories.

Why do I remember the chatty woman on the bus, the details of the driver who picked us up, and dancing with Stan's cousin? And yet I cannot remember any other details of the bus ride, what the rest of the driver's car looked like, or anything else about the reception?

Or how Stan and I managed to get back to Castle AFB? Or how I retrieved my Olds? I have no memories of either event.

And speaking of questions, why am I telling you this whimsical piece of fifty-year old nostalgia? Where is the Mexico hook?

I cannot answer the memory questions, but I can answer the last two. And I will later this week. It is about Tuesday -- a day that will undoubtedly be one of my favorite Mexican stories for years to come.

Monday, February 10, 2020

tipping into chapala

Things have changed in Barra de Navidad.

When I moved to this area in Mexico eleven years ago, I would often refer to it as a "small fishing village by the sea" -- shamelessly lifting from the tales of Lake Woebegone. But, even back then, the description was anachronistic. Navidad Bay was a magnet for more tourists than fishermen. Mexican tourists in the summer; Mexican and northern tourists in the winter.

I cannot tell you when, but it seems about two years ago, we hit a tipping point. More so in Barra de Navidad than in Melaque. But something had changed.

The little villages that arc around the edge of the bay were famous for providing a basic Mexican beach experience for tourists. It was not Cancun. It felt more like the little town I grew up in the mid-1950s.

What changed was not the mix of tourists. In the winter, the ratio to northern tourists did not alter. But, the marketing to northern tastes did increase.

Local businesses and government officials made a conscious decision to attract more northern dollars to the area. Events were created that would meet the never-ending desire of northerners to "do something."

The plan worked. Last week I opened one of our gringo-run Facebook pages to discover fourteen events directed at northern visitors. I felt as if I was on a cruise in -- well, almost anywhere.

That is not a criticism. Mexican business owners are simply doing what any good businessman would do. They are maximizing their profits.

It has come at a price. The pleasure of simply enjoying a relaxing day at the beach is still here. But a more frenetic layer of activity has been laid over the top placing Barra de Navidad in the same league as other northern playgrounds like Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende, where a minority northern population has set the cultural feel of the place.

On Saturday, I wrote an essay on the irony of having a solar-powered water heater in tropical Mexico (not in hot water). As often happens, the conversation in the comments section took a sharp left-turn from the topic.

I had included a footnote about a new lunch place in our neighborhood run by a northern immigrant couple. A reader, who immigrated to Barra de Navidad from The States over 30 years ago and raised a family here, asked and commented: "Do the owners stick around during the lean months or do they just take advantage of the gringo season and diminish earnings for the locals? What a shame."

His comment is representative of some northerners here who will not eat at any restaurant who is not owned by a Mexican. Some of them extend that rule to art created by non-Mexicans and houses for rent owned by northerners. That group is, at least, consistent with its boycott-mindedness.

I understand their position. But I do not agree with it. Entirely.

There may be an exception or two, but the non-Mexicans who own restaurants here are immigrants. They have chosen to make Mexico their permant home. As immigrants, they do exactly as immigrants to Canada or The States do: they try to survive financially by providing a service that would not otherwise be available. And I appreciate the service just as I appreciated the Mexican, Lebanese, and Ethiopian immigrants who were brave enough to open restaurants in my neighborhood in Salem.

The xenophobic argument would make far more sense if the few restaurants owned by non-Mexicans were driving Mexican-owned businesses out of customers. Restaurants are not a zero-sum economic enterprise. If I want a supper of beef stroganoff, I can go to Out to Lunch or I can make it myself. A purveyor of chicken mole loses nothing in that transaction.

The health of Mexican-owned businesses is hearty in my neighborhood. Five new restaurants have opened, and all seem to be doing well -- even after the northern tourists leave.

I will confess that I preferred the much simpler life of a decade ago here. But it was inevitable that change would occur. And not all of the change dynamic has been caused by northern tourists. The increase in middle class Mexican tourists has had its own effect. There will be no going back.

Perhaps that is why I find myself spending more time in my house and talking with my local neighbors. I have managed to create my own far-simpler time bubble.

And, for now, that is good enough for me.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

not in hot water

Yesterday, Irwin and Chris, the owners of my favorite neighborhood restaurant Out to Lunch,* told me they had been having trouble with their electric showerhead water heater. Without hot water, showers on our recent cool mornings have been -- well, bracing.

I empathize. When I bought my house, one of my favorite features was the solar water heater.

It made sense. We have plenty of sunshine here, and it would be one less draw on my propane tank.

All was well during the first few months in the autumn. The water heater produced as almost-endless supply of hot water. Not that it mattered. Up until December, the mornings were warm enough that I had the shower turned to Bernie left -- nothing but cold water. On our warm mornings here, hot water is about as welcome as an ex-girlfriend at your wedding.

That changed during the middle of December when our mornings cooled following a couple of overcast days. A burst of warm water would have been welcome.

I turned the shower to Cruz right -- and waited. And waited. And waited.

A week prior I could have plucked a chicken under the scalding water from the showerhead. Not that morning. No matter how long I waited, the water was no more than tepid -- and was getting cooler.

That was when I discovered the inherent irony of solar water heaters. Without sunshine in the winter, I may as well move in with Irwin and Chris. There would be no more hot water until the sun dared show its face. No matter how patient I was.

Before you shed too many tears for my dire plight, let me define what passes for a cool morning here. In the winter our early-hour temperatures hover in the low 70s -- or, on the odd day, in the upper 60s. What people in my European homeland of Scotland call summer.

We do not have mornings where bird baths freeze as they occasionally do in the Mexican highlands. On our coldest days, tropical fish could survive in our bird baths.

But all of us become accustomed to a certain temperature range. On our cool mornings, Omar bundles up in his leather jacket and gloves as if he were an Iditarod participant rather than merely riding his mororcycle to work. None of my dad-persuasive power can convince him that these cool mornings build character.

One of the joys of weather patterns is that the cool mornings will soon morph into warm mornings -- and it will be too warm to shower in anything other than well-temperature water.

Of course, I will then write an essay pointing out that a solar-powered water has has little utility in the summer because no one in the house will need hot water.

But it will give Irwin, Chris, and me something to talk about around the cracker barrel.

* -- Out to Lunch is located in Barra de Navidad on Nueva España across the street from the outdoor "indoor" soccer field. This week I have enjoyed bean and ham soup, beef stroganoff, a pulled-pork sandwich, and a well-constructed lasagna that was by far the best lasagna I have tasted in these parts.


Thursday, February 06, 2020

making do -- making better

Mexico has taught me to be thankful for what I have.

At least, this part of Mexico has.

When I first moved here, I would often ask why it was not possible to get certain food items. After all, NAFTA was designed to tear down trade barriers and open up the largesse of each country to the others.

It did not take me long Io change my tune. I was thankful to be able to buy what was available. And, each year, the variety of food on offer has increased. Not just canned and jarred goods, either. Also fresh fruits and vegetables. Leeks and lemons, for example. Or oyster mushrooms.

My restraunteur friend Gary put my thankfulness to the test earlier this week. He gave me a large handful of kumquats and dared me to come up with something new. I love cooking with kumquats, but it is a challenge to find foods that complement their bitter citrus taste.

My first thought was a Cuban sour orange pork. Almost any dish that calls for sour oranges is even better with kumquats. But that was a bit too ordinary. I wanted something a bit more exotic.

I had pretty much decided on using pork leg. The pork in this part of Mexico is the most flavorful I have ever tasted. It is even better than the chicken -- which is superb. But I needed an accompaniment.

When I was in Oregon, I had experimented with combining broccolini and Brussels sprouts. The bitter and the sweet blended well. But, I have never seen broccolini here, and Brussels sprouts tend to crop up only at Christmas time to titillate northern tastes.

Rather than resorting to culinary Stalinism by resorting to a recipe, I stopped at three of my favorite grocery stores in Melaque and San Patricio to see if there was anything fresh on offer that might work.

I scored at my first stop. Alex at Hawaii had a fresh carton of snow peas. Snow peas are not rare here, but, within a day, our tropical heat will drain them of their snap. But these were almost as fresh as if they had just been picked. And their sweet taste would balance the kumquats -- similar to broccolini.

A couple of shallots. Some gingerroot. A bok choy. A serrano and a habanero. Garlic. An oddly-shaped red bell pepper. I was ready to decide on a cooking method.

I had thought of a soup, but that was not really what I was after. Or braised pork cooked in the Instant Pot with the vegetables. One look at the prepared vegetables led me in one direction -- a quick stir fry. And that is what I did.

I browned the pork in sesame seed oil with a sprinkling of seeds -- black mustard, cumin, and anise. I then added each of the vegetables individually layering them into a rather simple dish with plenty of flavors.

Looking at that list, I would have been surprised twelve years ago if anyone had told me they were using black mustard seed, bok choy, snow peas, or even shallots in their daily cooking. And that the ingredients had been purchased locally.

The best thing, though, is that when I cannot find any of those ingredients, there are plenty of alternatives for cooks who have liberated themselves from the tyranny of recipes.

As a reward for his generosity in providing the kumquats for the dish, I am taking a bowl to Gary tonight. You will have to ask him for a review. 

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

populating facebook

It appears our Noah-diluvian weather has broken. At least temporarily.

I sent out both a raven and a dove. The dove has not returned. So, I will assume it is safe to leave the house on foot.

While I was housebound, I searched for something I had written on one of our local Facebook pages. I must not have been paying attention because I used the search option for other blogs rather than searching the page I was on.

I typed in "steve cotton," and the first option that popped up was not my Facebook page. It was "Former 'friends' of Steve Cotton."

Former friends? What have I done now?

I suppose all of us, from time to time, tick off people we know. For someone to go to all the trouble of putting together a Facebook page for the sole purpose of dissing a former 'friend' was something quite different.

I am not certain whether it was a bout of self-awareness or just garden variety narcissism, but I entertained the idea that the page was peopled by my former friends -- a group that would stretch to the horizon. After all, even though my name sounds common, it is not. I have googled myself, and, even though there are other Steve Cottons out there, we are not legion.

I will admit I felt a bit voyeurish when I clicked on the link. The group has only two members. Both are young women. Nicki and Kate.

Kate was rather ambivalent about why she was in the group. But Nicki had a grudge. I assume she founded the group. But I knew I had been absolved of this particular sin when Kate said Steve had caused her to "move house."

This was an English dispute. Or, less ambiguously, a dispute in England.

Facebook has created such an extensive network that a neighborhood dispute thousands of miles away sounds as if it might have happened here in Barra de Navidad. There are both strengths and weaknesses in those connections. We can now meet people anywhere in the world. But those meetings often simply intensify the growing tendency that everything that happens everywhere is a crisis -- when it isn't.

So, rather than spend any more time at my computer right now, I am going to head out into the day. Lunch beside the sea sounds like a good idea.

Maybe I can recruit some new members for that group.

Monday, February 03, 2020

as welcome as flowers in may

English is larded with weather adages.

"As welcome as flowers in May" is one. It is the corollary of the just-as-optimistic "April showers bring May flowers." Just wait, everything will turn out well in the end. It always does. Or so goes the adage.

Yesterday I wrote about the number of Mexican tourists who are in town for the three-day Constitution Day holiday (feliz cumpleaños, señor constitución). I assume most of them came in expectation of spending sunny days on the sand and in the surf. My church lady friend, Leigh Vincent, commented: "Just wish the families had a bit more ☀️ to enjoy their 3 day beach holiday!!"
For the past five days, we have had overcast skies. A northern cold front has intersected with the jet stream providing us with a natural umbrella. An umbrella that would be more welcome during the hot days of summer. In the cool of the winter, it is a bit redundant.

A few days ago we even had a light rain. That is not news-worthy. We have winter rains every year. But, as the empathic Leigh points out, average weather does not relieve the disappointment of 3-day holidayers.

That may be projection on my part. My experience is that, unlike northerners, Mexicans generally are not complainers; they take life as it is delivered. There are Mexican families on the beach this morning running in and out of the surf.

Last night, a wind strong enough to slam my bedroom doors shut blew in for about a half hour. Then, it started to rain. Not a tropical train. More like a London rain. Soft and steady. Enough to keep me sequestered in my library catching up on my reading. Twelve hours later, the rain is still falling.

Part of the trellis in front of my bedroom gave way under the weight of the rain on the vines. The vines are supported by a thin mesh. Apparently the mesh tore away from where it is tied to the top of the trellis. Later today I will walk down to the hardware store to buy some new ties. When the rain stops, I will pull out my trusty ladder, heft the fallen warrior to its rightful position, and all will be as it once was.

After all, February showers bring February flowers -- or something like that.    

Sunday, February 02, 2020

feliz cumpleaños, señor constitución

Deduction is often a sloppy tool. But it did not fail me today.

The circumstantial evidence was right there. The streets of our little villages by the sea were alive with Mexican-plated SUVs and late-model sedans. Parking spaces were non-existent. Most tellingly, a restaurant that caters to gringo-style breakfasts was filled with Mexican families. Not a northern tourist could be seen.

Something was up. And my first guess was correct. It had to be a three-day Mexican holiday. And I knew which one it was.

For all of its civic holidays and religious fiestas, Mexico has only seven federal statutory holidays (eight in a presidential election year). This was one of them.

It is Día de la Constitución -- Constitution Day. The day Mexicans celebrate the Constitution of 1917. Until 2006, It was celebrated on the anniversary of the day the Constitutional Convention approved the Constitution on 5 February 1917. Since 2006, the day is celebrated on the first Monday of February -- guaranteeing workers a paid holiday.

The Constitution of 1917 was the political document that enshrined the political and social accomplishments of the Mexican Revolution, and was the first national constitution that stated the positive rights that the government must provide its citizens rather than negative rights protecting the citizens from the actions of the government.

The revolution itself was the most important event in Mexico's history. It finally answered the question what type of country Mexico was and what being a Mexican meant. The 1917 Constitution provided some answers.

The big losers were the Mexican Catholic Church that lost almost all of its power and property that had not yet been seized by the government during President Juarez's reforms, the owners of large estates who saw the land taken for land reform -- or to enhance the wealth of revolutionary generals, and the foreigners (British, Canadians, and Americans, primarily) who owned most of Mexico's mines and infrastructure.

The Constitution discarded the earlier concept espoused by liberals like President Benito Juarez that government should take only a limited, passive role. The new national government now had an obligation to take the lead in promoting the social, economic, and cultural well-being of its citizens.

This is just a partial list of the Constitution's provisions.
  • Provided that "National benefit" would be a limitation on private contracts and property
  • Established a system of free, mandatory, and secular education, thus restricting another traditional role performed by the Catholic church
  • Set up the foundations for land reform through the ejido system
  • Declared all mineral resources in the subsoil belonged to the state
  • Provided for liberal labor rights -- minimum wages, right to strike, and join a union
  • Placed ownership of all property in the hands of the state and restricted foreign ownership of property near borders or on the coast ("Private property is a privilege created by the nation")
  • Increased the restrictions on the Catholic church beyond those of Juarez's constitution -- including the seizure of church buildings
  • Empowered the government to expropriate property -- from the hacienda owners, and particularly property owned by foreigners
  • Prohibited the reelection of any official -- especially, the president
  • Guaranteed the right of persons to own firearms in their home
  • Established social security, public health, and welfare systems 

The Constitution was so admired by both the Weimar Republic and revolutionary Russia that both nations used the Mexican Constitution of 1917 as a model for their own.

The Constitution has been amended almost 150 times since it was enacted -- one of the most recent removed the prohibition of officials to seek reelection. The only elected official in Mexico who cannot seek reelection is the president. That makes sense because presidential reelections were one of the triggering events of the revolution.

Because this is a Mexican holiday, it will be accompanied by fireworks. Last year, someone wrote on Facebook that the fireworks were the usual religious blasts. His theory was that the Catholic Church was celebrating the constitution. It was not.

I found the assertion more than a bit ironic. One of the primary goals of the Constitution was to strip the Church of what property and authority it had retained following President Juarez's reforms. 

A subsequent president, Plutarco Calles (the same guy who ordered Pancho Villa's assassination) would so stringently impose anti-clerical laws under the auspices of the Constitution that some Mexican Catholics rose in rebellion. That was known as the Cristero War -- a rebellion that had strong support in our home state of Jalisco.

So, that is why our little beach villages have been filled with Mexican tourists this weekend. Most are celebrating this major step in the development of the Mexican state just as Americans celebrate the Fourth of July or Canadians celebrate Canada Day -- by lugging the family to the beach for good food and a lot of sand.

Feliz cumpleaños, señor Constitución.