Tuesday, March 31, 2020

move on

It has been said that during the Black Death whenever there was a large gap between letters of frequent correspondents, the worst was assumed.

Should any of you have been so bold as to assume last Friday's essay was the last of Mexpatriate, fret (or hope) no more. I have not yet been demoted to the ranks of Dead-White-Male.

My absence from the keyboard did involve my health, but not what you are thinking -- or what I briefly thought myself. According to my doctor, it was a bout of "food poisoning" -- meaning that I had picked up a virus, bacteria, or parasite that had taken up residence in something I ate.

But almost everything is back in working order now. And I am glad for it. Yesterday the Mexican federal government performed one of those policy u-turns that strain necks more than credulity. Everyone has been asked to home-shelter for the next 30 days.

Because my stomach affliction kept me in bed over the weekend, I felt as if I had been in rehearsal for what I will continue doing -- staying mostly at home.

That means I am now back to finding something worthwhile to do. My new-found addiction to watching SNL "Weekend Update" re-runs on YouTube does not come close to meeting the "worthwhile" criterion.

My former work colleague Carl Wilson posted a list of "Five movies I never tire of (at least the five I have likely watched most often)." He then invited the rest of us to post ours.

I did not submit one for the same reason that I do not find the on-line tests to pick a presidential candidate very satisfying. By the time, I am half-way through the process, I start changing my mind about my earlier answers.

I suppose that is nothing more than a variant that all taste is subjective -- except that argument disintegrates with only a few questions, as Roger Scruton has proven. Instead, I tend to find what is beatutiful in each movie I watch.

That is all prelude to my next Project of Distraction. I plan on watching each of the movies in my collection that was awarded an Oscar for Best Picture. There are 29 of them -- from 1938 to 2019. That should keep me away from the Devil's Playground for the next 30 days.

1938 -- Gone With the Wind
1942 -- Casablanca
1950 -- All About Eve
1959 -- Ben-Hur
1961 -- West Side Story
1962 -- Lawrence of Arabia
1964 -- My Fair Lady
1965 -- The Sound of Music
1966 -- A Man for All Seasons
1970 -- Patton
1972 -- The Godfather
1974 -- The Godfather II
1976 -- Annie Hall
1982 -- Gandhi
1984 -- Amadeus
1987 -- The Last Emperor
1991 -- The Silence of the Lambs
1993 -- Schindler's List
1994 -- Forrest Gump
1995 -- Braveheart
1997 -- Titanic
1998 -- Shakespeare in Love
2002 -- Chicago
2003 -- Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2004 -- Gladiator
2010 -- The King's Speech
2011 -- The Artist
2014 -- Birdman
2019 -- Parasite

In truth, I have already begun the Festival of So-called Best Pictures. Before I fell to my intestinal infection, I watched Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. I have never been a fan of the Margaret Mitchell work. It is simply filled with enough cringe moments that I doubt I will watch it again. Casablanca has aged far better.   

There are some movies on the list that I would rank among my top 100. There are others that I do my best to find some redeeming social value. Interestingly, the movies I most enjoy are not on that list -- with the possible exceptions of All About Eve and Shakespeare in Love.

If nothing else, I will re-acquaint myself with some artists who are master craftsmen.

And I can think of nothing simpler to keep the correspondence flowing during this "plague."

Note: No discussion of Casablanca would be complete without a clip of my favorite scene.

Friday, March 27, 2020

loaves and fishes

It has been only a week or so since northern tourists decamped to their homes above the Rio Bravo -- leaving a growing economic stoppage in its wake.

In a normal spring, the weeks between the Feast of San Patricio and Semana Santa (Holy Week) represent half of the year's tourist bonanza here.

Some tourists always leave early, but a hearty handful hang on and keep feeding pesos to landlords, tour guides, waiters, pool and cleaning staff, and street vendors. And then comes Semana Santa, the week before Easter. Mexican Families from the highlands jump on buses and into SUVs and migrate en masse to the beach for a full week.

Think of those two events as being our local Black Friday. During those weeks, the workers hope to earn enough money until the bounty of the 6-weeks of summer school vacation, and then for another dry spell between late August and the arrival of the first northern tourists in October.

But that is not happening now. Because of the coronavirus, tourist-oriented businesses are in real trouble. Most of the restaurants in Barra de Navidad have closed. Some are offering take-out. A sizeable number of roasted chicken, taco, and tamale stands are still offering street food. Without customers, those businesses have a short-term dark economic future.

That is why one of our local Facebook pages is putting together a list of take-away eateries -- with all the information a customer might need. (I shamelessly stole the photograph here from that effort. Absolution is pending. After all Holy Week is almost upon us.)

If you are going to be using these services (or similar services where you live in Mexico), let me pass along a suggestion I heard.

Work has already disappeared for a lot of people. My neighbor is a fisherman and provides boat rides to tourists. His is the only income for his extended family. Every day he walks to the malecon and tries to convince people to go for a ride. But there is almost no one there.

I have two young friends who were hired as construction workers. They were proud of their income. Until Saturday when they were laid off without pay because the owner was not certain if he would continue building.

The needy list is already long. Single parents who have lost their income -- a few who once worked cleaning houses for northerners.

I have heard of a resident here who buys two or three extra dinners when he buys take-away. He then delivers the extra two meals to families he knows are facing financial difficulty.

That act of kindness will not reverse the long-range economic tsunami that is facing Mexico. But it will be a grace note in healing some rifts that have opened over the past two weeks.

One of those rifts comes from misunderstanding. People here regularly post that Mexicans have no regard for self-imposed isolation. But they are looking at the dilemma from their perspective and not from the perspective of the person who is desperately looking for some food to feed his family. We could help reduce that exposure (at least by one) if we used our resources to alleviate the worry that is setting in here.

There are probably a lot of other points of light that could be lit here. If so, please share them. Just as you share your food.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

waiter, there's a coin in my soup

There is nothing like an impending crisis to trigger ingenuity.

We start doing things that we would never have dreamed of doing under other circumstances. Some of them quite creative. Others are just a bit creepy.

No one knows if the coronavirus has made its way to the little villages by the sea where I live. If it did not travel here with our recent Feast of San Patricio crowds, I would be surprised. The local officials' approach to the coronavirus seems to share my idea of medical care: if you do not go to the doctor, you will always be in perfect health.

That does not keep us from adopting the same attitude as Russian peasants waiting for the inevitable invasion of Batu Khan at the head of his Mongol army. Because we do not know what may or may not work, we try a bit of everything.

Every graybeard (as Solzhenitsyn would put it) knows that currency is the preferred public bus service of pathogens. The internet is filled with urban lore that the microbes dancing on top of a 10-peso coin are more numerous than a French kiss from a TB patient.

In this case, the urban lore has the advantage of actually being true. We did not need the coronavirus to tell us that.

So, what to do with those coins in our pocket? We never give them a second thought that we might catch the flu, a cold, or a rather nasty case of explosive diarrhea from them. But the coronavirus has centered our attention on any chink in the cordon sanitaire we have tried to build around our lives.

Facebook is filled with posts of people who have implemented a rather simple method to feel better about their cocoon. If coins come into the clean room that is now your house, just dump them in a bowl of heavily-bleached water, and let them soak.

I tried it last night. I had about twenty coins in my pocket. That was unusual because I do not care for coins. They wear holes in my pockets in about the same way dogs seek freedom by digging holes under fences. If offered coins at a store, I almost always leave them behind.

But I did have some coins in an intact pocket. I chose a small bowl, filled it half-way with water, added a bit of Clorox, and dumped the coins in the solution for their private spa treatment while I watched The Darkest Hour. By the time Churchill had successfully manipulated his way through the pessimistic wiles of his colleagues, I took a look at what I had wrought in my bleach bowl.

The coins looked as if they had just rolled out of the mint. When I looked at the liquid in the bowl, I saw why.

That is a photograph of the bowl at the top of this essay. On first sight, it looks like a bowl of indifferent miso soup.

Soup it is. But that is not miso. It is the non-paying passengers on the coins I was carrying around in my pocket.

None of this should surprise me. In my youth, I was a coin collector. One of the first thing a collector does when digging through piles of coins for a potential prey is to clean them. I am accustomed to the detritus of daily living that attaches itself to coins. But the broth in last night's bowl was a perfect reminder of just how much gunk can attach itself to the daily items in our lives.

Coin-soaking is never going to be the nuclear weapon of the coronavirus age. But it is one of those distractions that makes us feel as if we are doing something for The Effort -- like Victory Gardens and scrap drives during the Second World War.

Of course, once this wave passes, all of this coin lore will be as interesting as last week's miso.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

not quite staying at home

Last week the governor of Jalisco ordered a 5-day voluntary "stay-at-home" request.

I will admit that I was skeptical of how effective it would be. Mexico had not yet been hit hard by the coronavirus and the potential effects on both health and the economy had not been a regular point of discussion with my Mexican acquaintances -- especially, the younger ones.

I should have known better. When the Calderon administration shut down public gatherings in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic, people complied. The announcement scared people into the reality that avoiding otherse was the best way to stay not-dead.

The governor's current order has had something of the same effect. Certainly, not immediately. On the weekend, the shopping street in my neighborhood was filled with people going about their daily duties.

Cars, trucks, and motorcycles were playing a deadly game of tag. Streets were being swept. Hands shaken. Cheeks kissed. In the evening, the street restaurants were a little less busy, but they were open and no one was even thinking about social distancing.

My skeptisim seemed to be well-based. But I was wrong.

Last night I decided to walk to the malecon to watch the sunset and to see if the activity level had diminished from my visit on Thursday (making steve a dull boy). It had.

This is what the area designated to tourist indulgence looked like.

I have a confession to make. I had to wait for a car to pull out of the shot before I took it, but it sums up the future of tourism in our little town.

It took this area of Mexico almost 6 years to recover from the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. No one knows just how long this event will tamp down tourism. But a study issued today estimated that 18 million jobs will be lost in the early stages of a Mexican recession.

The malecon was not devoid of people last night. But it would be an exaggeration to call the people who were there a "crowd." There may have been 50 people. Mostly Mexican tourists enjoying Barra's charm. Some northern tourists who kept darting away if anyone approached them.

At this time of year, Barra's tourist trade is still active. A large portion of northerners do not flee north until around Easter. And there are lots of Mexican-American families who have come south to spend Spring break with their extended families. When I flew down from Los Angeles a couple weeks ago, not a seat was available on the airplane. The majority appeared to be northern families heading to the Old Country.

Almost all of the restaurants on the malecon and in centro were closed last evening. A few family-run operations were open, but they had only a smattering of customers. All of the tourist souvenir shops were closed. There were simply no customers. Just a few strollers.

I stopped at the Kiosko to buy a bottle of water and ran into the largest gathering of people I had encountered on my trip. There must have been 15 people in the store. But Kiosko is always busy.

Three young women were sitting at the table in the store -- drinking their Perrier water. Out of curiosity, I stopped and asked them, in Spanish, where they were from and how they were enjoying Barra.

They just stared at me and then started giggling amongst themselves. I took it for the usual social awkwardness when any old man starts a conversation with young women.

But I pressed on and asked them what they enjoyed most about Barra.

One girl shyly asked: "Do you speak English? We don't know Spanish."

It turned out that they were all cousins. Third-generation Americans, who lived in southern California. Like the people on my flight, they were here to visit family.

All three agreed on one thing. They were happy that their great-grandparents moved from this area. They enjoyed visiting their relatives, but they found Barra to be boring, and they could not understand a lot of things about their cousins who live here.

Even with schools closed up north and many jobs being placed on hold, the Mexican-American families will soon be returning home. With the other northern tourists now long gone, there is only one regular revenue source for Barra's tourism industry. Week-end tourists from the highlands -- and, of course, the Semana Santa crowd.

This weekend will be the first test following the expiration of the 5-day order to see if the tourists show up. That may be the best barometer whether anyone will appear for Semana Santa.

If I were a betting man, all of my chips would go on black. By Easter (or before), Mexico should be in the height of its portion of the pandemic. If 2009 is a good guide, Mexicans will stay home rather than trek to the beach.

A fitting ending to the day -- in front of my least-favorite sign.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

it is all a mystery

Come on down!

It is time to play Name That Dish!

The rules are simple. Open the freezer and choose any freezer bag filled with food. Put it on the counter, and, without opening it, name that dish.

I used to dream of being able to spend my entire day reading. Like most people, whenever I start reading anything, I am interrupted by the telephone, visitors at the door, or, if I am out in public, someone at the next table who wants to know where to find the best deep-dish Chicago (redundant though that might be) pizza in Melaque.

I have discovered that I would be a lousy prisoner. Even without interruptions, I have been burning out on reading. I have noticed that phenomenon recently while sitting in airport lounges waiting for connecting flights. I can stay focused on my reading for only so long.

It happened this morning. I read today's newspaper, scanned two articles in National Review, and reviewed the Economic and Financial Indicators chart in The Economist. What finally broke the reader's back was one last Facebook post of moral smugness on -- well, does it really matter which topic?

I closed my electronic devices and headed over to the kitchen to see what I wanted for lunch. I had bought some potatoes in the morning to prepare Bombay potatoes to accompany the beef dish I made yesterday. The combination struck be as a bit oxymoronic. But that could wait until dinner.

We have been running low on fresh produce in the house. I have made several trips to our local markets, but the produce on offer is certainly not fresh. So, I took an alternative path.

When I make too much of one dish or another, which I do frequently, I am faced with the same choices every cook has: 1) toss it out, or 2) freeze it. Some dishes are donated to the neighbor's dog. But most end up being bagged in individual portions and frozen.

I point "individual portions" because it is the sole piece of my own advice on freezing leftovers that I regularly follow.

Home-made frozen dinners are far superior to anything your good friend Marie Callender will sell you -- if for no other reason than the fact that cooks know how to cook for themselves. Marie is not you.

But Marie Callender's products have an advantage over most of our home-made frozen dinners. They come in a box. With a pull date.

And so should the bags in my freezer. I have written essays in the past about freezing techniques. I have three basic packaging rules. 1) Freeze in individual portions. 2) Label the bag with its contents. 3) Label the bag with the date you put it in the freezer. (I had a friend who took me literally on that last point. She wrote "Monday" on the bag. And, yes, she was a lawyer.)

All of those are good ideas. But when we "bag-and-freeze," we are often in a hurry. I know I am. A successful operation is when I do not pour the whole concoction into a 2.5 gallon bag and have done with it.

Sure enough. None of the bags in my freezer are labeled. I did find three bags of Thai red curry that I had frozen up from a five-gallon bucket of the stuff. On its own, that would not be a good lunch.

Then, there were two layers of multi-colored something-or-others that undoubtedly had been semi-liquids at one point. One might have been a Mexican pasta sauce I made -- I guess I really don't know when. Or a soup. Or maybe a pork stir-fry. (Though I doubt that. Stir-fry is one of the worst foods to freeze -- as any consumer of a Stouffer's Hunan Chicken dinner will tell you.)

So, out on the counter it went to thaw. One of these days, I am going to try to figure out the contradictory physics of why the ice in a drink melts in five seconds when left on the counter while my Temple of Doom dish will still be frozen when the sun goes down.

If you cannot join me this afternoon playing this little game, it is perfect for The Self-Isolated.

Go to your freezer and play along at home. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Or you could start pursuing those Economic and Financial Indicators charts in The Economist. It is your choice.

As Dr. Nick would say: "What a country!"

Monday, March 23, 2020

carless in barra

When I dropped off my car last week with Cruz, body shop guy par excellence, he was quite clear that he did not know when my car would be repaired until he started looking at parts. 

Car accidents are a bit brain surgery. You cannot know the damage until you open up.

He had mentioned the possibility that my Escape might be ready on Saturday. Since I had not heard from him by Saturday afternoon, I did not bother walking the two miles to his shop. It also gave me an opportunity to give the impression that I am self-isolating by not leaving my house.

This morning the telephone rang just as I was getting ready to leave the house. The call was from Cruz. He told me each layer of broken parts he has removed reveals additional shards.

I did not need a translation for the subtext. More pesos were about to swap hands.

When I arrived at the shop, the car was still there. But it was now stripped of an additional layer of parts. It looked like a well-planned archaeological dig. What was showing appeared to have been on the losing end of a ballpeen hammer.

Cruz said he needed to ordered another part for the front-end. So, I handed over 14,000 pesos. He was not certain when the part would be here. Like most things automotive, it had to be shipped from Guadalajara.

So, I will wait for the next call.

It was nice to step outside of my house walls for a walk -- and a brief conversation with another person. I was not too surprised to see that there is still a lot of traffic on the road to Barra and there were about the normal number of shoppers in our neighborhood shopping district.

While I was walking home, I decided I would make carne con chili for dinner. Not chile con carne -- even though I do like it. They are related.

Carne con chili is just what it sounds like. Meat cooked with chilies. It appears that it was originally cooked by Mexican women in southern Texas using cheap cuts of meat and spicing them up with a salsa. The Texans then revised the dish as a Tex-Mex standard -- and started a beans-or-no-beans culinary dispute that rages to this day.

Like most rustic foods, there is no truly authentic recipe. It is like potato salad. Everybody's mom makes the best. So it is with carne con chili. And like all rustic foods, it lends itself to fusionists -- like me.

The dish is usually cooked with large chunks of beef. What northerners call stew meat. I prefer mine cooked with thin-sliced bola.

I picked up some grocery items across the street from the butcher. It was my first encounter here with shop workers dressed in masks and plastic gloves. They could have been hard at work in a Tokyo sushi shop.

It is a simple meal to make. I bare-grilled my serranos, garlic, onion, and tomatoes, and then chopped them up while I fried up some bacon for its grease.

When the grease was rendered, I sautéed cilantro and cumin seeds until they were toasted, and then added the dry-grilled vegetables I had chopped up. When the vegetables were soft, I added some beef broth, a can of chipotles, and a large dollop of oregano, cumin, and cardamom, and let the mixture simmer while I separately grilled the beef. Each piece took less than 10 seconds to cook.

When the flavors of the chili mixture had melded, I blended it into a smooth salsa with an immersion blender, and then added the beef and bacon. A little rice vinegar topped it off.

I had never used bacon in any of my prior versions of this dish. It did not quite work as I expected. The bacon's texture fights with the soft tenderness of the beef. But the bacon grease did add a new layer to the dish.

It has not been a bad day. I did get to see what was happening outside my gates, and I brought back the makings for a passable dinner.

The number of neighbors coming to my door for money because they are not working has increased. Even during good times, they come. But, in the last few days, people are starting to come to grips with the huge economic damage that will be caused by the coronavirus -- even before its full effects are felt in Mexico.

That thought made me realize just how inconsequential my car is right now. And will be -- for some time.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

zeroing out the future

It finally happened. I have an electricity bill of zero pesos due.

Of course, any of us who have CFE (the government-owned Mexican electric company) can replicate my rather simple parlor trick. All we have to do locally is to drive over to the county seat of Cihuatlán and plunk a wad of pesos on the clerk's desk.

Our bills will then register zero pesos -- until the pre-payment runs out. This is where I need to indulge in a bit of self-disclosure. I could be accused of merely doing that. But there is more to this little tale than that.

And here is the rest of the story.

For the past year, I have been living off of free power from the sun -- with a little help from the thousands of dollars-worth of equipment tripoded on my roof. My electro-collaborator, Rick Noble, calculated how many panels I would need to meet my peak power needs. And that is how many panels we installed. As a result, my solar array generates far more electricity on average than I need for any particular day.

But, as Milton Friedman correctly reminded us, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In addition to my capital outlay that would have paid for a two-week stay in a suite at Brown's in London (with several West End tickets thrown in for good measure), CFE still charges me a fee to be connected to its system. Let's just call it a "connection fee." It sounds like what you would pay to the neighborhood thugs to be certain your business did not have something bad happen to it -- like a fire or an accidental bomb.

Because I have two electric meters, CFE sends me two bills every two months for the power I do not consume. One for 42 pesos, the other for 41 pesos. (I have no idea why there is a 1-peso difference.)

That bimonthly payment causes a bit of bother when I travel. For some reason, my northern bank will not permit me to make a credit card payment for the bills without going through the nonsense of calling the bank, getting a code, and hoping I can enter it before it expires in 15 minutes. That process does not work very well when I am in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan.

There are two obvious solutions. The first is to get a Mexican credit card. I tried that through Banamex, but the manager told me I was a loan-risk because of my age. I suppose he presumed I was going to corner the market on Depends, and then immediately keel over with no assets in my savings.

I have not followed up with Intercam. But I should.

Instead, I rely on the simple expedient of paying in advance. CFE is my only bill that I cannot prepay at the bank. That is not entirely accurate. I can prepay for the amount on the last bill. That is usually sufficient.

And I did that when I went north to Oregon last November. I paid the bank clerk 83 pesos -- thinking I had paid the next bill in full. The January bill was waiting for me at the house when I returned. Instead, of zero pesos due, I owed 12 
(less than zero).

I had forgotten to give the clerk the service fee for paying my CFE bills at the bank. Had I not returned when I did, Omar would have been without electricity. All for the want of about 60 cents US.

In the belief that I was heading off to India earlier this month, I drove the 15-minutes to the CFE office in our county seat, Cihuatlán, to deposit enough pesos in both accounts to keep the home lights burning for a year or so.

I need those lights burning. During my semi-self-isolation-and-loathing, I have declared Facebook a no-go zone. I became so obsessed with Coronavirus blathering yesterday that I did not read one column-inch of The Economist.

It was a bad trade. Instead of being informed of the doings of the world outside the context of a virus, I spent all of my time digging into the deepest parts of people's darkest psyches. It was like being a cockroach on a psychoanalyst's wall. And far less interesting than it sounds.

To mitigate my own weakness, I put together an Alfred Hitchcock Film Festival in my library. I have had two nights of interesting movies -- starting with Hitchcock. The conceit is similar to one of my favorite movies: Shakespeare in Love. It is a mini-biography of Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) centered around the making of Psycho. With a superb supporting role by Scarlet Johansson as Janet Leigh.

I followed that up with what some critics believe is Hitchcock's best film, North by Northwest. A lot of the movie strikes me as a bit corny, but it is so well-made technically that the corn disappears under the soufflé

Last night, it was Rear Window and Vertigo, two Jimmy Stewart roles that have him hanging on the edge of life -- literally. I suspect both are good choices for this coronavirus era.

You may recall there was a controversy about including a portion of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score in The Artist. The music was used because Herrmann's score is recognized as one of the best ever written for a film.

I have been listening to it all morning. Here is a sample for you, as well.

As long as the electricity holds out, there will be films to be watched and music to be listened to. If my payment calculations were not correct, I can always pull out a jigsaw puzzle.

I do not need to pay anyone for that pleasure.

Friday, March 20, 2020

making steve a dull boy

I am turning into Jack Torrance.

That is one of those names that sounds vaguely familiar to you, but it is hard to place. I suspect because of the California-ish connection.

Jack Torrance is Stephen King's main character in The Shining. He is a writer who accepts the position of winter caretaker at an isolated resort closed for the season. It is the perfect gig. Very few duties. And lots of solitude to help him write.

Of course, it does not turn out that way for him. One of the movie's climactic scenes is when his wife looks at the pages Jack has been typing. They are all the same "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Actually, it made him a mad boy.

Now, I know there is something a bit perverse about a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer, but the spirit of Jack Torrance haunts my computer keys.

I have tried to come up with some essay topics that have never heard of the coronavirus. It has not been easy. The morning newspaper is fuilled with coronavirus stories. Facebook seems to know no other topic. Even The Economist has sacrificed a lot of space to the virus

Even though I am bored with the subject, I take the virus seriously. In the same way I take music seriously. But there are just so many words I can hear or read without turning into a very dull boy.

I have been dallying with self-isolation here in Mexico. Not that it much matters. Whenever I get the urge to venture forth from my medieval castle, the streets in these little tourist villages have turned into the hallways of the Overlook Hotel. With only the specters of the past wandering about.

A week ago, the Feast of San Patricio and the three-day Benito Juarez birthday holiday were winding down. The villages were packed with residents, and Mexican and northern tourists. Most of the Mexican visitors left by Wednesday. And our Canadian population was rushing back north.

I had already dropped off my car to be repaired by Cruz, so I walked the four-miles to San Patricio to replenish my cash to pay the rest of the repair bill when my car was done. Usually, I run into a lot of northerners walking on our andador. Not on Wednesday.

San Patricio was still filled with a fair number of people on the streets. The Intercam branch was busy with northerners making their last-minute financial transactions. What surprised me most were the large number of Canuks-on-Bikes. Obviously, not everyone had yet boarded the last plane to Lisbon.

One of my favorite ways to top off my day is to walk to the Barra de Navidad malecon to watch the sun set. The sun puts on a good show every evening.

But the malecon is also a good social barometer of the size of crowds in town. Wednesday night, there were a few -- about the same number as during the much-dreaded shoulder between the end of Mexican school vacation in August and the early arrival of northerners in October.

On the way home, I stopped at a restaurant with sidewalk seating for dinner. Three other couples had the same idea.

Last night, when I visited the malecon, I did not see one person on the street between my house and central Barra. No one. I could have been walking through one of those deserted mining towns in the Sierra Nevadas.

And I soon knew why. The malecon, which had had a smattering of visitors the night before, was almost bereft of people. The restaurant I had stopped at the night before had a sign blocking the entrance, but stating the restaurant was open.

I suspect the sign was the result of a meeting yesterday between the restaurant operators and the local health department. The health department had instructed the operators on how to improve sanitation practices -- and still stay open -- during the epidemic.

Apparently, the local authorities had met in another meeting to develop a plan how to deal with the crowds that will inevitably descend on the beach for their traditional vacation the week before Easter. Some countries (Peru, for instance) have militarized their beaches to avoid crowds gathering. I guess on the assumption that crowds of police officers and soldiers will not infect one another.

That is not going to happen here. The decision was to leave the beaches open but to "tamp down" vacation expectations by convincing hoteliers to not rent rooms. Several housing providers have already closed down their establishments. But I talked with two operators of large hotels in San Patricio yesterday who said they are staying open, and they are already fully-booked.

The dilemma is obvious. Semana santa is one of the biggest revenue streams for businesses who cater to tourists. Losing the income would be like all American businesses losing their revenue from Black Friday to Christmas.

This is not the first rodeo for most of these businesses. When H1N1 hit (or started in) Mexico in 2009, the economy was already headed to recession. But it took six years for tourism to recover to the 2009 levels.

This ride on the bull is starting out the same. Mexico had negative growth in the last quarter of 2019, and there was a danger it would slip into recession this quarter. The collapse of oil prices guaranteed there would be a recession. The coronavirus is now the last buck of the Brahman.

The Economist, a magazine that is often sympathetic to economic growth in Mexico, took President Lopez Obrador to task for failing to implement minimal national standards to combat the virus. Like his fellow-populist up north, he is still publicly shaking hands and embracing people. The decision not to close the beaches appears not to be an oversight, but a conscious decision.

Mexico would be better served if the government would do more to try to limit exposure to the coronavirus. The more crowds that gather, the more people will be affected.

No nation has a medical system capable of dealing with the number of severe cases of this epidemic. The reason is simple. No nation can afford a system that is primarily based on peak epidemics. Mexico is no different. It will treat until it runs out of resources.

Any economist would tell us that a system that is prone to clogging up needs to control the variable at the start of the process. That means reducing the number of people who are exposed and infected by the virus.

I am not a poster boy for self-isolation. I already told you of three excursions out of my house since I theoretically went to ground on Tuesday with the abandonment of my car. But, with the exception of the bank, it was easy on each excursion to avoid people -- people who are no longer on the streets.

Time will tell how Mexico (rather, Mexicans) survive this storm. Maybe something in this fatalistic culture will pull the country through.

Whenever I write lines like that, it reminds me of some of the most-amusing words from Tom Stoppard's pen in Shakespeare in Love

That may be a bit light-hearted for the times we are in. But it was the bard who reminded us: "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come."

But I am also prudent enough to take Michael Che's advice from the Weekend Update skit on Saturday Night Live:
I don’t want to make jokes about this coronavirus and not because it’s too sad. It’s because I don’t know that I don’t have it yet, and if I do have it, the internet is going to play this clip of me making fun of it over and over again."
So, I will take this epidemic seriously. Seriously enough that I will try not to axe my way into the bathroom like Jack Torrance.

Instead, I have started my own Alfred Hitchcock film festival in The Steve Cotton Memorial Library. But more on that later.

See you on the other side.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

cooking up some fun

Here is a recipe to spice up your life.

Take a handful of distraction, a dash of assumption, and several pieces of being late. Slip them into your car at a busy instersection, and you can treat your car to a week-long spacation in Barra de Navidad.

Last Saturday I was running late for a dinner date in San Patricio. Of course, every hindrance imaginable waltzed into my way. When I finally made it to the Y-intersection to Highway 200, I was ready to make up time.

There was only one vehicle -- a sturdy old pickup -- waiting for a break in what had been a steady stream of cars heading toward the little fishing villages where I live and play. He started to ease into traffic. I cleared to the left then to the right. There was plenty of space for both of us to merge into traffic.

The problem was my assumption. I thought the pickup had continued to move. It didn't. And neither did until I smacked into the pickup's bumper.

We both got out. I had a small mark on the front of my car. There was no indication on his bumper that I had even touched it. I was surprised because the impact was hard.

He had no physical injuries. His truck was fine. We parted -- and he had a story to tell of the hyperactive gringo.

On Monday night, my friend Joyce asked if my hood was open. I told her I did not think so. But I would check. I looked at it when I got home. It was in that released-but-not-open position. And it would neither open nor close. I had obviously done some damage to the car.

I had promised to take Omar to Manzanillo on Tuesday to buy him some shoes. Instead, I told him a story. Children always love parental stories -- especially when it is an obvious smokescreen for denying them something they want.

It must have been 1967 -- or thereabout. I had asked my then-girlfriend Donna if she could find a blind date for my friend Graden. She said she could.

On the arranged night, Graden and I were driving to her house to go to a movie -- or dinner -- or something. On 82nd Avenue (one of Portland's busier streets) Graden rear-ended a car. The radiator survived, but the hood latch was broken. We tied it down with some wire.

We were very late in arriving at Donna's place. It took a bit of talking to get us back into the girls' good graces. But we were soon on our way to wherever we were going.

Wherever it was, we needed to drive south on I-5. Just as we entered the dreaded Terwilliger curves, the hood popped up and folded itself over the winshield and the top of Graden's convertible. How Graden managed to avoid a collision, I do not know.

He pulled to the side of the freeway, and we once again tied down the now-severely deformed hood.

I don't remember if the four of us ever made it to where we were going. It would be hard to imagine that anything else could have been more entertaining. I am certain I never saw Donna's friend again.

By the time I was done explaining to Omar why I dd not want to drive to Manzanillo with a sprung hood, he was drowsy. His attention probably drifted off somewhere between the accident and arriving at Donna's house. Instead, I took my car to Cruz's body shop.

At times, the prospective listeners to my stories must feel like Edwin Stanton in Lincoln when the president starts telling a story about Ethan Allen. Stanton loses all patience: No! No, you're, you're going to tell a story! I don't believe that I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now!"

But sometimes we need stories to get us through our day. This morning I stopped reading the newspaper because every story -- even the election news -- was filtered through the coronavirus. Enough is enough.

Keith Proudman, a local denizen of Facebook, commented this afternoon that people should start sharing interesting and fun stories about our lives here instead of obsessing about the coronavirus. I agree. Life does not stop because there are troubles in the world.

Of course, some troubles mean that Omar does not get new shoes. And I am certain he finds that far more traumatic than contracting a virus.

Monday, March 16, 2020

grounding out

We are living a scene from Jaws.

You remember it. The town leaders have discovered a shark is plying the waters off of Amity Island (a thinly-disguised version of Martha's Vineyard), but they hide that inconvenient fact because the island lives off of its tourist trade. 

The next scene is of hordes of tourists rushing off of the ferries to spend a portion of their vacation enjoying the sybaritic combined pleasures of sea and sand. To the audience, they look more like fried chicken in buffet bins.

When I returned to Mexico last Wednesday, I knew the feast of San Patricio, in the eponymous village, would be under way. It is one of the most-loved and most-attended local events of the holiday calendar. Probably second only to semana santa.

And I was correct. When I drove over to San Patricio for dinner that night, the streets were packed with cars and Mexican revelers. The feast was in full swing. and would continue until the saint's day on 17 March, capping off a ten-day celebration of skimboard contests, beer consumption, and a nightly towering firework display, called a castillo, that puts life and limb in danger.

What I had not anticipated was the perfect storm effect of crowd creation. When I drove back to Barra de Navidad on Friday night, there was a solid line of headlights on the highway coming down from the highlands. It stretched as far as I could see. It was repeated on Saturday night. And Sunday night.

It looked as if people who live in large population centers were fleeing a zombie war -- or some other bad Allenesque disaster film starring Brad Pitt. But that was not it.

A quick look at my calendar explained the exodus. If the Mexican president has his way, this is the last three-day holiday in Mexico (strike three). Ostensibly, Mexicans are celebrating the birthday of Benito Juarez this three-day weekend rather than on its actual date of 21 March.

The result is that the small villages-by-the-sea where I live and play are as full as they will be for semana santa in a mere three weeks. That is, unless behavior is altered by our own great white shark -- the coronavirus.

As you know, I had contemplated a trip to either Los Angeles or Cozumel this weekend. The ink was not yet dried on my essay when I decided the former would be logistically insane (especially now that health screenings are clogging northern airports) and the latter would interfere with some parental duties that I was not aware of when I wrote the piece. So, I am staying put.

Because I had not attended a castillo-lighting in years, I decided to have dinner in San Patricio and then to stay on for the events in the jardin -- being careful to keep my distance from the great white that was undoubtedly circulating amongst us.

Julio had recently told me of a newish ramen and sushi restaurant in San Patricio -- Sweet Monster. I decided to eat there.

The restaurant is a small, but adequate affair. You could easily miss it. There is no sign, but there are Japanese lanterns hanging in the tree on the street.

It is open only on Saturdays and Sundays. That is because the brains behind the operation -- a young man named Everling Alejandro Velazquez Galvez -- is in medical school. He learned sushi-making at a course in Guadalajara. And he learned it well.

The sushi is mainly California rolls in the western, not Japanese style. Lots of flavor and color. And because this is Mexico, cream cheese is slathered on with abandon. Because each serving is custom-made with the precision of a surgeon, fortunate for me, the cream cheese can be excluded.

Sushi order to go. Not mine.

I would recommend the place. The menu includes a variety of Japanese-inspired dishes. Or as Stefon would say: "This club has everything!" Gyozas. Nigiri. Yakimeshi. Udon. Ramen.

Having finished off my plate of gladiator sushi, I wandered over to the jardin. Because it was only 7, the crowds had not yet begun to gather. The castillo is not lit until 10. Or sometimes 11. Or midnight.

But it was under construction when I arrived.

Watching it lit is a thrill. But I get almost as much pleasure out of watching its construction.

If you have not seen one. A castillo is a set of fireworks mounted on circular devices that spin when lit. While the apparatus is spinning, it shoots out fireworks into the crowd. Seeing it in its raw form, though is just as rewarding.

The castillo has everything that should be part of a good fiesta. Fire. Noise. And the very real possibility that you will get to re-enact that scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown is shot in the chest. It is a local rite of passage for small boys to run through the fire cascades from the castillo using only flammable cardboard as a shield. The braver boys do it bareback.

If a Mexican man or boy has grown up here, he will show you his scars that commemorate his passage through fire with as much pride as a Prussian will show off his facial dueling scars.

It is difficult to be any place where other people are gathered without thinking of the coronavirus. It is a sieve through which we now filter reality,

The northern tourists who are still in town appear to be divided into two almost-warring camps about how they should deal with the fact that the Mexican health minister has predicted that Mexico will be in epidemic status before the end of this month.

Some have gone to ground; some were already sitting in the jardin waiting for the night's crowd.

That division was apparent in the extreme during my dinner. The tables at Sweet Monster are set up perfectly to create a cordon sanitaire during times like this without interfering with a writer's favorite research tool: eavesdropping.

There were two other occupied tables while I was there -- with two northern couples at each.

The first table was rehearsing the populist chorus. The whole coronavirus was a hoax for governments and big corporations to control our lives. Trump had released it to kill "colored people" (their words, not mine). Somewhere along the line, Trudeau was pulled in as a fascist. All of this delivered with that three-chardonnays-deep-into-a-loud-party voice that seems to be a trademark of some people.

The other table was of the "Hunker-Down" party. They wanted to eat their dinner quickly and get back to their bungalows before they encountered any more people on the street. Their primary topic was how to move up their airline flights to get back to Canada before being stuck in Mexico. "I cannot even imagine what would happen to us." They had the same desperate look at the cafe crowd at Rick's in Casablanca -- waiting for the last plane to Lisbon.

Last night I saw a meme on Facebook that made me laugh. I cannot remember it exactly, but it went something like this: "Isn't it a miracle that people who thought they were constitutional law experts during the impeachment have now morphed into microbiologists?" I thought that was funny because I realized I had been doing that very thing.

By reading a few articles, I have been posting comments as if my PhD in virology had got lost in the mail. All of us seem to be far more interested in being right (when no one on Facebook is qualified for that role). Kindness should be our goal. Instead, most of us seem to take great pleasure in posting information that will discomfort someone who does not see life as we do.

For that reason, having had a good meal and a short stroll, I decided to drive home to catch up on my reading. Of course, I ended up wasting most of my time rehearsing my microbiologist credentials on Facebook.

That is coming to an end. I am going to be spending most of my time at the house. I have asked Dora and Antonio if they wanted any time off with pay. They declined the offer. But I will ask them the same question on each visit. My concern is that I might infect them.

I will go out for dinner now and then, and I may look in on the festivities in the San Patricio jardin tomorrow -- the climax of the festivities. Otherwise, I am staying in the house with no name washing my hands more frequently than a rabid raccoon.

I am also going to watch if any of my elderly neighbors (you know, people like me) do not have anyone to look in on them. I can think of only one house where an older woman lives and does not have family locally.

Whatever this virus brings, we will survive it if we are kind and are willing to share with one another. It is at times like this that the better nature of humanity shines through.

Nine years from now, we will be telling tales of the 2020 epidemic just as we do now about the 2009 epidemic.

I should be selling t-shirts. "I survived the great white shark of 2020."

Saturday, March 14, 2020

playing the security lottery

I am a travel addict.

On Tuesday I fled south to Mexico to get away from the television-fueled hysteria in The States.

There is an odd dynamic when rational information that sounds level-headed, when read in a newspaper, becomes the stuff of spontaneous combustion when presented on television. Maybe it's the immediacy of television. Or maybe it is that I-am-about-to-burst-a-lung tone that television news presenters of all stripes have adopted.

Whatever it is, I am happy to be away from it. The same information in my morning newspaper is still concerning, but I no longer feel that the coronavirus asteroid is going to hit Earth and wipe out us latter-day dinosaurs.

But the travel itch has already started. I feel the need to be on the road. There was an impetus for my newly-lighted urge. Two, actually.

Last night, my Colombian cousin posted a beautiful sunsetfrom Cozumel. Dan and Patti, the cousins with whom I spent almost a month traveling the roads of southern Mexico five years ago, have settled there for a spell. The photograph and the memory of our road trip made me start thinking. Why not a trip to Cozumel while they are there. I have not been to the island since -- well, well before I moved to Mexico.

The second prod came in the form of a notice from the immigration service. The one in The States, not the one just down the road a piece.

Even though I do love travel, there are two irritations of air travel to The States or domestically. Immigration lines and security lines. You might notice what those two have in common. They are not only irritating. Sometimes, they are also inconvenient.

The greatest inconvenience is missing flights because of immigration lines. My port of entry from Mexico is almost always Los Angeles. Twice I have missed a connecting flight when multiple international flights arrived at almost the same time -- creating hour-long lines at immigration.

The security lines at Los Angeles are long, but not as inconvenient as those in Seattle. And I often have to deal with both on my trips to Oregon.

In the past, that was not a problem. For some reason I do not understand, my boarding pass has been marked TSA Pre-Check for years. The designation makes a difference. If I go through the pre-check line, I do not need to dump out all of my electronic devices from my backpack or perform a mini-strip starting with my shoes. And the pre-check line is always efficient because most of the flyers perform the routine regularly.

There has long been a simple solution -- a Global Entry card. It will give me TSA Pre-check on my flights and will allow me to pass through immigration in a truncated line.

So, if it is such a simple solution, why have I not signed up for it? Certainly, I fly enough to justify the $100 application fee.

The answer is just as simple as the solution. One summer day in the 1990s, I was involved in an immigration violation. The captain of our two-week sailing jaunt in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia and the San Juan Islands of Washington failed to make his first stop at immigration and customs after crossing over from Canada. We were all initially fined $10,000.

To qualify for Global Entry status, an applicant's past must be clear of all life's transgressions. I doubt most strict Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony could have qualified. That immigration fine has kept me from applying in the past.

But, after two excruciatingly inefficient security checks on this last trip, I decided to bite the bullet. I applied online for the Global Entry designation while I was at the Redmond airport.

Last night, just after I saw Patti's Cozumel photograph, an email arrived informing me my application has been tentatively approved. I now need to set up an interview with immigration at an office at one of several American airports. And soon.

The email dropped Cozumel to second place. I started looking at flights to Los Angeles on a Wednesday for a Thursday immigration appointment and a return to Mexico on Saturday.

That was easier said than done. The flights are heavily booked. Canadians are heading north and Mexican-American families are heading south for Spring vacation. And, of course, there is the Trump-AMLO posturing of who is going to close the border first.

Cozumel was starting to look a lot better.

I do have certain qualms about Global Entry. I know several people who tout their privilege as if they were gas station royalty. "After all, we do live in a double-wide at the mobile home park."

I ran into one of their ilk in Singapore. A man and his wife were pushing ahead in line shouting all the way: "Global Entry. Global Entry." A Singapore immigration official told them to go to the back of the line. The man responded: "You have to let us through. We have Global Entry." The official responded firmly, but genially: "No. You have to go to the back of the line. Your card is no good here."

Nor did Singapore need a special card. Immigration there, like most governmental services, are eerily efficient -- like a cross between Sweden and Mussolini Italy.

Depending on how long travel is disrupted because of the coronavirus, I will probably be well-served by staying inside the borders of Mexico. I have not checked on the domestic flights yet, but I suspect northern Spring break and the possibility of Mexican university closures may fill seats heading to Mexico's largest island in the Caribbean.

If I do go, I will need to return here before the semana santa crowds start arriving. My itch is not quite that intese to battle beach-bound Mexicans.

Or I could just hunker down here. And that is not very likely to happen. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

the sheriff this way cometh

One of the first things that welcomed me on my return to Mexico on Wednesday afternoon was news that Omar had accepted service from the municipality of two extremely official-looking documents.

Over the years my Spanish has improved, and my reading skills in Spanish are far superior to my speaking abilities. But the documents were written in language that would have felt at ease in the court of Carlos I. Lawyers universally write in jargon that would do a religious cult proud.

Before I looked at the documents, I thought they might be billings for what has been a long-standing battle between the former owner-builder of my house and her contractor. They both disputed who should pay the IMSS assessment (essentially, workers' compensation coverage) for the construction of the house. When I bought the house, I was assured that the dispute had been resolved.

That was wrong. I did not discover that, though, until two months later when an inspector from Puerto Vallarta showed up at the house demanding money. I referred him to my realtor, who put him off. For about five months. He then returned with a written demand. Once again, my realtor deflected his advances, and advised me to simply ignore him in the future.

I thought these documents were another salvo in that battle. So, I forwarded them to my realtor.

Before she could respond, I parsed my way through the Spanish. The demand was not from IMSS; it was from the county. And the documents were not demands for unpaid workers' compensation premiums, but for unpaid property taxes. Billings for almost $10,000 (Mx) for the tax years 2016 through 2020.

I knew that was wrong. I have religiously paid my property taxes early and have a file folder of receipts to prove it -- including the years on the billings. Having isolated the issue, I was prepared to drive to the county seat, Cihuatlán, yesterday morning to straighten out the matter -- or to be straightened out myself.

The fact that there were two different documents kept gnawing at me. Both listed the former owner's name and included my address.

My house is built on two separate lots, but I thought they had been consolidated for property tax purposes. I also played with the possibility I had been paying taxes on the wrong lot. That did happen with my annual water, sewer, and garbage payment that had been applied to a different property for three years.

Then I saw it. Even though the service address listed my house, the billings were for two other houses the former ownder had built just north of me on a side street. That street was listed on the billings.

Early yesterday morning my realtor emailed me her interpretation of the documents. She concurred with my read: neither of the billings are mine.

Like a good neighbor who receives a neighbor's mail by mistake, I walked the documents over to the houses listed on the dunning notice. It was not the best gift that I have ever delivered.

Being greeted by a debt (even one that I did not owe) was not the best welcome home greeting. But it did satisfy that elusive goal of mine for moving to Mexico: getting up every morning and not knowing if I would get through the day.

However, I am glad to be back. Mexico will be a good place to ride out the coming waves of coronavirus. Having spent a week up north and now reading the news of The End of Mankind, I am happy to be here.

And, yes, I know that when the coronavirus hits here, it will be a repeat of the 2009 swine flu epidemic in Mexico. But we all muddled along. That is, with the exception of the 4000 people who died while the Mexican government, for almost a decade, declared the number was only 80.

Wherever you have decided to ride out this pandemic, I wish you well. For now, I am simply happy to be home in my over-billed house with no name. 

Monday, March 09, 2020

shaming the smoke

I know a trip has been good when I have discovered a poster, billboard, or sign that sums up a bit of cultural mores.

This trip's find was in the elevator of the Embassy Suites at the Los Angeles Airport. There was a similar sign in my room.

My frst reaction was that it was just another of a long line of shaming episodes to show moral opprobrium against some activity that The Right People lower on The Wrong People. Like eating veal or driving anything with a gas engine.

Shaming tobacco smokers has long been the mission of modern puritans. Adding vaping to the list was a simple step. It just looks too much like the Other Thing We Do Not Like.

I have long wondered why pot-smoking was not on the shaming list. Well, no, I didn't. Even though it emits fumes every bit as disgusting as tobacco, marijuana had favored status -- probably because of its vaguely anti-establishment reputation.

That has all changed now that marijuana has legally turned into the new tobacco. In the process, it has joined the shame list. At least, for Embassy Suites.

Of course, the signs at Embassy Suites are not designed to shame. They are designed to warn. Apparently, all three smoking pursuits pollute rooms sufficiently that they need to be deep-cleaned before The Right People can rest their heads in peace. And The Wrong People end up having their credit cards involuntarily charged $250.

There may be a moral in there somewhere about America's love-hate relationship with smoking, but it is not my moral to disclose.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

sinking in all the wrong places

One of my first memories of Debbie Reynolds was as Molly Brown warbling "I Ain't Down Yet."

And that is as good as any anthem for today's essay.

As you know, I am in Oregon to visit my family before I fly off to Seattle and then to Dubai on Wednesday. Well, I will end up in Dubai on Friday. But you know what I mean. Or would have.

The cruise was originally scheduled to depart Singapore later this month with ports of call in Thailand, Sri Lanka, three cities in India, Oman, and end in Dubai.

Then came the coronavirus. Last month, the cruise line determined that any passengers who arrived in Singapore on a flight that had connected through China or Hong Kong 15 days before the ship set sail would not be allowed on board. Of course, my flight on Cathay Pacific from Los Angeles connected through Hong Kong.

That meant I had to cancel that flight and find a way to get to Singapore from the east. It took a couple of hours, but I was booked on Emirate Airlines from Seattle to Dubai to Singapore. I was irritated enough about the change that I almost cancelled the cruise.

Then Singapore shut down. The cruise changed itineraries eliminating Singapore and Thailand to start and end in Dubai.

Then Sri Lanka closed its ports to cruise ships -- undoubtedly taking into account the number of Flying Dutchmen that were plying the seas.

That was when I flew to Oregon. Even though the itinerary was getting as short as a menu in a Saturday Night Live cheeseburger-chips skit, I was still determined to go. After all, my best travel stories have never been based on shots of the Eiffel Tower, but on surviving fascist riots in Florence, avoiding being mugged in Recife, and dodging kidnappers in Alexandria. This trip was custom-made for me.

By Saturday morning, it became obvious that India was going to shut its ports to cruise ships -- and that would have removed the major incentive for booking the cruise. Though there had been no official announcement, I could see the train hurtling along the tracks of inevitability. (And the Edward Bulwer-Lytton 
Purple Prose alarm going off as a result of that sentence.)

So, I called my cruise agent and told her to start the cancellation process. Celebrity had finally seen that its "no-refund-for-cancellation" policy was hurting its customer base. The company announced it would give a full credit for cancellation, but the credit had to be used only on Celebrity and had to be used within the next cruise season. It was better than nothing.

As luck would have it, yesterday was my agent's husband's birthday, so she could not immediately act on my request. That was good. Because that afternoon, Celebrity canceled the cruise after India closed its ports to cruise ships. As a result, Celebrity would refund the cruise fare and pay a 25% credit for a future cruise.

I spent the rest of Saturday canceling my airline reservations both ways (I have nothing but praise for Alaska's customer service) and setting into motion requests to receive some reimbursement from the non-refundable hotel reservations -- about $2000 (US) -- I had made in Dubai and Singapore.

The result of all this is that there will be no travel tales. But Darrel and I did have a lunch with Mom for her birthday at a Chinese restaurant. That certainly counts for something.

My sole concern about the trip has been a concern that I might get stuck somewhere along the line in some sort of quarantine.

And that is the reason I have booked a flight back to Mexico on Tuesday. If I am going to ride out the vagaries of the coronavirus, I would much prefer to do it in Mexico. So, home I go.

I have no idea if I will ever get to India. But it is still on my travel list. When the coronavirus has become nothing more than a vague memory (like the much-dreaded swine flu outbreak in 2009), I can try the cuisine of Goa.

Until then, I will have to create Goa in the kitchen of the house with no name.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

oregon stones

I have often wondered what the first Paiute who wandered into Yosemite Valley must have felt.

I  can only assume that he felt what I did when I first drove into the valley in 1972. Towering rock faces. Cascading waterfalls. The next site more wondrous than the last.

Oregon may not have a Yosemite, but it does have a catalog of natural wonders. We visited one of them yesterday.

The year was 1860. Lincoln had not yet been elected president, and Oregon had just been admitted to the Union. In March, a 60-year old Army major -- Enoch Steen -- was assigned to survey central Oregon from Fort Dalles on the Columbia River to Harney Lake in the southeast corner of the state.

His route took him through the Ochoco Mountains -- some of the wildest beauty he had ever seen. While leading his team down the broad floodplain of what is now known as Mill Creek, he wandered across a spire of rock that towered above the surrounding forest.

He had stumbled upon one of the sacred sites of the local Shoshone. But, as so often happens in the midst of conquest, the rock took on a new name -- a name it bears to this day. Steins Pillar.

And that naming is a lesson in mid-19th century spelling. Local folk transformed Major Steen's name into "Stein" and then provided another example of the nomadic aprostrophe. What was supposed to be known as Steen's Pillar became Steins Pillar.

A similar name shift happened when Major Steen explored an area known as Snow Mountain. When it was renamed in his honor, it turned into Steens Mountain -- completely losing the apstrophe.

But the name is not as important as the sight of the unusual rock structure.

If Steen had been a geologist, he would have realized that he had been traversing a 10-mile wide volcanic caldera before he reached the pillar. A caldera that had been formed 40 million years before his expedition in a massive explosion.

When the volcano exploded, the ash was compacted into a rock known as tuff. And that is the sole composition of the pillar -- tuff. It was once a much-wider ridge, but millions of years of snow, rain, and wind eroded it into its current 350-foot form.

But the pillar is not the only evidence that the land it juts out of was once volcanically active. There are car-sized boulders everywhere. Most of them were eroded from the caldera's rim. But some of them were once volcanic projectiles.

The best way to see the pillar is on the road that follows the Mill Creek valley. But the experience can be best-enjoyed by making the 4-mile two-way hike through old-growth forest to the base of the pillar. And that is exactly what Darrel, Christy, and I set out to do.

The hike is a rather easy one. Because the trail has to gain altitude, it wanders up and down the sides of three ridges with several simple switchbacks. But the views were well worth the exertion.

We were doing well until we encountered long patches of snow that had melted and refrozen into mini-glaciers that morphed the trail into a skating rink a bit treacherous for us senior folk. It took us about a half-hour to inch our way along a 100-foot portion of the path -- along with two rather humorous falls for each of us. The Keystone Cops could not have presented a better performance.

Even though we were about a mile from our destination, we decided to turn back before we needed to visit The Broken Hip Clinic. After all, we can try it again when the weather melts the ice off of the path.

We did get close enough, though, to see the other side of the pillar. That, of course, is simply another version of what politicians say when programs fail.

It may not have been El Capitan, but it was good enough to act as a magnet for a future adventure.