Tuesday, December 28, 2021

they say it rolls downhill

Every small town has it list of recurring conversation topics.

Barra de Navidad is no exception.

The unchanging weather. The ever-changing beach. Who can win the contest of spending the least amount of money to stay here for six months this season.

But for the northern anal retentives, who could easily enrich the wallet of a Freudian, there is a perennial question -- Where does all of Barra's sewage go?

Wags will say that it is discharged into the salt water laguna south of Barra. And they are not entirely wrong.

During the summer rains, the sewers are frequently over-powered by the sudden water surge and the sewage fountains into the streets, proving Newton's law of universal gravitation is not just for apples. In the summer months, the streets of The Fancy Part of Town frequently do a good impression of the canals of Venice. With about the same ratio of sewage and water. It saves a trip to Italy.

But that is the exception, not the rule.

For most of the summer and the entirety of the rest of the year, there is a quite adequate sewer system that pumps the daily deposits of the populace off into the outskirts of town. That is, if the pumps are doing what they should, and if the never-ending discussions between the Leaño family and the municipality of Cihuatlán do not break down into another service embargo concerning the sewer, water, and garbage systems.

I have never put my mind to exploring the terminus of the sewer system. I only knew two facts. The first was that the sewage dumps into a settling pond on the road past the old turtle-processing plant. The second was that I had seen what I took to be a bermed reservoir on that road across the street from Villas Coco Mango.

In an attempt to break my obsession with walking too much each day, this morning I decided to walk through my neighborhood on a shooting expedition. When I walk at my usual pace, I cannot spot photo opportunities, let alone take the time to set up the shot.

So, off I headed at my usual walking pace until I came to the parish church on the east end of town. The moment I started shooting, my walking pace dropped to a stroll.

While walking toward Villa Coco Mango, I was focusing on a group of turkey vultures, black vultures, and two caracaras that were finishing up the remains of some unfortunate creature. I noticed the bermed reservoir I had driven past so often. Today, I had the time to take a closer look.

At first, I thought it was a flooded sugar cane field. But it was not sugar cane, It was a large stand of cat-tails. And other aquatic plants. 

Then the proverbial penny dropped. I pulled out my logic calculator and added my two facts together. This was the fabled sewage settling pond. A quick look at the color of the water flowing into the pond answered that question.

The pond is ion two parts, and is quite large. Like all sewage settling ponds around the world, the effluent flows in at one end. Gravity and evaporation do their job (along with the flora and fauna) to settle the nutrients to the bottom of the pond and to provide an aquatic home for wildlife.

And wildlife there is. Plenty of birds. Red-winged blackbirds. Grackles. Scoters. Jacanas. Gallinules. Plovers. Anis.

If you have even the slightest interest in birds, grab a field guide and a pair of binoculars to spend a fruitful day of bird-watching. Maybe pack a lunch. The stench is far less than I had anticipated. Next time, I will remember my good camera.

I often have trouble telling the sheep from the goats in my neighborhood. So, I will let you be the judge what these are. The owner thought he had a good way to keep his mini-flock corralled by placing them on  an island in the settling pond.

That did not deter a mother and her sprog from swimming the short distance to where the grass was not obviously greener than on the other side.

A good deal of work has recently been completed on the berm. For good reason. During our heavy rains this year, the old levee failed, flooding the surrounding homes with unwelcome effluent. (Is there such a thing as welcome effluent?) The new berm looks far sturdier.

But, for me, the draw was the pond itself. It has an odd beauty. Most of the surface is covered with water cabbage, but the bare areas do what water does best -- reflects its surroundings.

The skeletons of dead trees drowned by the pond add their own eerie note. As if they were warnings in a Tolkien tale that the beauty that draws the eye contains the secret of the end we will all face.

I enjoy living near the beach, though I have not been on the sand in almost a decade. The beach's attraction for me is to sit near the ocean while enjoying a meal.

And that is exactly what I feel about the settling pond. I appreciate its utilitarian purpose. But I enjoy its eccentric beauty that hides its own secrets.

It will be worth a future visit.  

Friday, December 24, 2021

it's beginning to look a lot like christmas

It is a common plaint of Yankees who move to the American South -- or Arizona -- or southern California. The calendar rolls over to 25 December, and though it may look a lot like Christmas, it certainly does not feel that way.

Edward Kleban had the comparison correct in describing relationships that do not quite make it to love in "Next Best Thing to Love" -- "Something always missing/ Christmas in LA/ We could get to April/ Not to May."

Christmas in Mexico has that feel. Temperatures in the 80s. Humidity to match. 11 hours of daylight.

For all of that, there is no doubt The Look of Christmas is everywhere. I wandered around the local villages the last few days and gathered up some of those sights.

Mexico has its own Christmas culture. But the country has long been a cultural sponge. Whether by conquest, through immigrants, or appropriation from its neighbors, celebrations here are in constant flux.

The biggest change in Christmas customs arrived with Hernán Cortés and his Forced Assimilation Tribe in 1519. Obviously, there was no Christmas in Mexico prior to The Conquest, but the Catholic missionaries who accompanied him saw plenty of potential hostile takeovers, like turning the Aztec goddess Tonantzin into Our Lady of Guadalupe (who's your mama?).

But some of the current traditions were directly transplanted to Mexico from Catholic Europe. Such as, the crèche at the top of this essay -- awaiting the arrival of the Baby Jesus -- who will appear tomorrow.

What interested me more though was the odd combination of the tableau. The security cordon gives the impression that the anachronistic wise men, who have arrived two years too early, are lining up to use that chair to alleviate their anticipated break.

Both of the local squares have stylized Christmas trees. Here is San Patricio Melaque's.

This is Barra de Navidad's. Looking somewhat like an elf's cap.

What makes them interesting is that they are neither a Catholic or Mexican tradition.

Christmas trees are distinctly a Northern European pagan symbol adopted quite recently by German Protestants and more recently by the British through Prince Albert. The jump to America and the subsequent jump across the Rio Bravo was another example of cultural appropriation. And why not?

With the Christmas Tree came an American Christmas invention. Gene Autry's Frosty the Snowman, who holds court from the balcony of Barra's city hall.

Several years ago, Christmas parades were organized both in Melaque and Barra. The last two years, they have been cancelled out of fear that The Virus might find all the Christmas cheer far too enticing as a target.

But that has not stopped floats from spontaneously showing up on the streets of Barra de Navidad.

This multitude of Santas was a vehicle to toss rubber balls to children (and a few older citizens) on the sidewalks.

A few days earlier, what looked like a fellowship of Disney character refugees were tossing their own largesse around.

And Christmas would not be complete without Christmas wares spilling out onto the sidewalk from local shops.

A couple of years ago, the owners of sailboats that anchor at the marina across the laguna from Barra de Navidad banded together to transplant a tradition dear to the hearts of northern mariners -- a Christmas boat parade. I wrote about it last year in 'tis the season to be silly.

This year's parade brought the same chuckles. Anything that can be as witty to elicit smiles and laughter is something to be praised. Unfortunately, I forgot my SDLR. But the shoddy quality of the photographs does not lessen the joy the boats brought to us landlubbers.

But some Mexican Christmas traditions did not need Northern European or American contributions. Like these piñatas. Whacking a Martin Luther-inspired Christmas tree piñata would undoubtedly bring a smile to the pope. And Mexico likes making popes happy.

Piñatas, though, are not just for Christmas. Posadas are. Though posadas are conducted throughout Latin America, Mexico has made the tradition its own.

From 16 to 24 December, groups of the devout re-enact Joseph and Mary's attempt to find room in any inn to give birth to the Baby Jesus. There is singing and joy when the young couple are finally admitted -- admittedly to a stable. But they find some comfort.

Several nights ago, I drove past a group of youngsters out on their posada. The young man playing Joseph had added a rather startling accessory to his outfit. He was carrying the Baby Jesus prior to the manger scene.

But why not? If the posada can honor the pregnant Mary and the unborn Baby Jesus, why not the born Baby Jesus? After all, it is well-accepted that the gospels attributed to Luke and Matthew are fact-short and truth-full. Why not tell that truth with another twist?

It made me smile. But so did the floats, the wise men waiting room, the shoppers, the Protestant Christmas paraphernalia, the festive-lit sailboats, and the piñatas.

I am not a big fan of Christmas, but if anything can cause me to smile and laugh out loud as these last few days have done cannot be all that bad.

Even if it feels we should all be spending our afternoons at the beach.

Note -- Like the young man who improvised his Joseph role, I would like to share a Christmas song that means something to me.


Friday, December 17, 2021

a cotton family christmas

We are not a traditional lot.

Sure, the Cotton family celebrates Christmas. But, during the past four decades, our small clan has had schedules that have prevented all of us from getting together for holidays. Christmas, in particular. Once my brother's children had reached adulthood, the holiday imperative was less an imperative than an if-we-can.

The result is that Christmas has ended up being celebrated by the Cottons on any convenient month or day of the year. And the best of those Christmases have been gift-free. Several years ago, we decked the halls and hung our stockings with care in the middle of July. This year, it was today.

We initially had aimed for gathering in Prineville at my brother's house on the-day-other-Oregonians-celebrate-Christmas. But flights from Manzanillo turned out to be problematic. Actually, the problem was not with flights from Manzanillo. It was the return flight from Prineville to Manzanillo that stuck a fire cracker in Santa's gift bag. Vacant seats were as rare as Christmas greetings from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Joe Manchin.

Christy, my sister-in-law, then upped the ante. She told me that my sainted niece Kaitlyn would be in Oregon for a job the week before Christmas. Could I arrange to fly up? The reservation fairy smiled on me.

So, today, the part of our family that was in one place at the same time (Kaitlyn, Christie, Darrel, Mom, and me), sat down to a Christmas dinner Christy and Kaitlyn had prepared.

Our clan was not always this small -- as you can see in the photograph at the top of this essay. I am not certain of the year, but it was in the mid-1950s. My mother's full extended family was assembled at my grandparents' house in Powers.

They were all there. Mom's siblings: Wayne, Naomi, and Berniece. The two married-into-the-family uncles. And the cousins. All seven of us.

My mother mistook us cousins as budding Trapp Family Singers. She would accompany us on her accordion while my grandmother played the piano.

The songs were the same songs we sang each Christmas. Even then, I had tired of singing the same piece of music over and over. So, Darrel and I improvised. "Away in the Manager" took on a certain sinister tone with revised lyrics: "Stan Wray was a stranger/Not right in the head." I will spare you the rest. But you can guess.

Or the more mundane lyric switch for "Emmanuel:" "I'm Manuel. I am a burro."

That glance I am shooting at my cousin Dennis was probably the result of a misplaced remonstrance.

As the years went by, our sibling pranks took a far more competitive streak. Jigsaw puzzles have long been a family diversion. We quickly learned there was cheap glory to be won by putting in the last piece. So, we resulted in that greatest of American virtues -- cheating.

Who knows who started it, but I suspect it was me. When no one was looking, I would slip one piece of puzzle into my lap. It would miraculously appear at just the right moment.

Darrel quickly caught on. Before long we were storing up hidden caches of wayward puzzle pieces until the puzzle was only three-quarters done when the last piece of the puzzle on the table was put in place. That must have made us early adopters of Mutual Assured Destruction. Herman Kahn would have been proud of us.

But there were no fractured Christmas carols or purloined puzzle pieces today. Just a delicious dinner and familial camaraderie where we could, as Dimitri Weissman said, "Lie about ourselves a little."

And that was Christmas enough for me -- no matter what lies the calendar may tell.

For you more traditional sorts, I offer up my wishes that you will be content and blessed on Christmas.

May you have a celebration every bit as memorable as the one we had today -- even if "Round John Virgin" is not really a character in "Silent Night."  

Thursday, December 16, 2021

waiting for godot's cousin

I do not think I have ever encountered a similar sign in Mexico.

Yes. Yes. I know about those signs that require all employees to wash their hands before returning to work after using the bathroom. But that was not this sign.

A month before leaving Mexico, I managed to break the frames on both of my pairs of glasses. It was not the end of the world. Even though the State of Nevada once claimed that I needed corrective lenses to drive, I almost never wore them -- for any purpose. But it is never good to be without a functioning pair of glasses.

Getting a new pair in Oregon is a snap. I stopped at Walmart for a walk-in eye examination and then drove over to Eyemart Express to get two new pairs. All on the same day.

While I was waiting for the sales representative to gather up lenses for my new frames, I took a quick bathroom break. At least, I thought it was going to be quick.

I did what I entered to do and walked over to the sink. And there it was. That sign.

Now, I am not a very compliant citizen. Anyone who has ridden with me knows that I treat most speed limits as whispers of suggestion.

Usually, I would wash my own hands. But the sign was quite clear. I was not to wash my own hands, an employee must do that.

I might still be there. Thankfully, I am non-compliant.     

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

boosterism gone viral

The Mexi-Covid vaccination roller coaster continues its wild rodeo.

The Mexican government had taken the supportable position that it would be immoral for richer nations to offer booster jabs to its citizens as long as the rest of the world was unvaccinated. Most philosophers (whether followers of Aristotle, Kant, or Sartre) would have agreed -- especially the Utilitarians who would find moral self-interest in providing treatment to others that would ultimately benefit the donors.

And there certainly was self-interest at work in Mexico (if not the type that John Stuart Mills would recognize). Even though Mexico has plodded along on getting the vaccine into the arms of people inside its borders, it has attained limited vaccination rates: 52% full; 63% first. 

Despite those low numbers, the Mexican president begrudgingly surrendered to the advice of his health advisors and approved a booster vaccination program in Mexico. The program began earlier in the month just as I was flying north to Oregon for a few days.

Similar to the initial vaccination program, the booster program started in the major cities with people over 60. The clinic showed up in Manzanillo last weekend. That means that the elderly soon should receive their boosters.

I was somewhat agnostic about The Initial Jab. Not because I had been seduced by the early worry concerns that turned some very rational people I know into rather adamant Antivaxxers. My lack of fervor for The Shot was based on a healthy scientific skepticism that the early hype verged on being one of those home remedy commercials aired on late night cable television. "One spoonful of Mother's Favorite Tonic will cure any modern ailment."

I took my initial two AstraZenca shots in Mexico because the vaccine was a gift that offered some protection against a virus that was bound to transition from a pandemic to being endemic. And so it did. The combination of the vaccine and keeping myself in negative test territory would allow me to resume my travels.

At least, that is what I hoped. If much weight is going to be given to vaccination requirements for travelers in the future, I am the poster child for ruining an airline ticket clerk's day. For one simple reason. My Covid vaccination records are a shambles.

When I received both shots, the officials filled in a form by hand with the details of the vaccine. I thought that was my official record for travel. It wasn't.

If a destination country requires a passenger to be vaccinated, the airlines will determine if the document is adequate. My hand-written form does not meet that requirement. The form must contain a QR code to verify authenticity. Or so I have been told.

But not to worry. Mexico provides an online form with a QR code simply by filling in a few blocks of information. It took me about 5 minutes to get mine. Unfortunately, the dates on the form do not come close to reflecting my actual vaccination dates.

Because I was not certain when I was returning to Mexico when I flew north this month, I scheduled an appointment for a booster and a flu vaccine at a pharmacy in Prineville. (Several expatriate communities have set up mass trips north to get their boosters in The States.) I was a bit concerned if I could get the booster because The States have not authorized the AstraZeneca vaccine.

That was not a problem. Nor was my shoddy documentation. The pharmacist asked which vaccine I wanted as a booster. That question did not surprise me since mix-and-match vaccines are not only not disapproved, some sources highly recommend them -- though the scientific jury is still out on that. I chose Pfizer.

The pharmacist helpfully provided me with a CDC card that included all three of my vaccinations. It wasn't until I returned to my brother's house that I realized the dates she included on the form were different than the dates on my other two forms.

Now, I have three forms -- each with different dates for my jabs. They may not be factual, but they certainly are true. I have been fully-vaccinated -- with a booster chaser. I am just waiting to explain that to some Latvian immigration officer.

For those of you who are not yet vaccinated, you are not going to hear the type of first-spouse name-calling that I suspect is designed to be counter-productive. Instead, as a fellow human being who shares the same dreams of what you most prize in life, I invite you to join me in the vaccination with a booster brigade. 

Think of it as an investment in causing the ultimate confusion amongst the bureaucracy in your future.

Travel with adventure. 

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

i guess that's why they call it the blues

They are not Elton John.

The Mexican musicians who provide the soundtrack for days at the beach.

And that is a good thing. Though they do delve into the unfortunate pop music genre now and then (after all, the crowd that knows what it likes and likes what it knows often need a nostalgic nudge to loosen up wallets), the local street musicians in Melaque and Barra primarily stick to a more traditional playlist. A Mexican traditional playlist.

I am no expert on traditional Mexican music. On a good day I can tell the difference between norteño and ranchera. And I will often even get that wrong.

The street musicians appear to do the best business on the sand. Making them beach, instead of street, musicians, I suppose. Either solo or in a group, they will approach a table of tourists on the beach and settle on a price. The musicians will then launch into the equivalent of a sandy Altamont (without the annoying presence of the Hells Angels).

To me, each tune is new. It is quite obvious that is not the case with the Mexican tourists that are being serenaded.

They raise their voices with the same spirit of Boy Scout campfire singing. Boisterous. Loud. In multiple keys.

But always joyous. If there is a better time to be had than burning a marshmallow over a fire in the Oregon high desert, it is singing a song on the beach about how your grandfather died fighting at the side of Pancho Villa during the Revolution.

And the guy in the photograph? He is part of a five or six-man band that regularly performs on the beach in Melaque. I saw him walking down the street with his bass the other day. My paparazzi spirit kicked in as I stalked him for several blocks. The incongruity was enticing. And I gave in.

He was commuting to work to share a bit of Mexican musical tradition with the beach trade.

To evoke a few bittersweet tears with lyrics that would find easy company with those of Muddy Waters.

Sharing the blues.

Monday, December 06, 2021

meeting your legal obligations

It is that time of year again.

None of us may live in Downton Abbey. But most of us northerners who live in Mexico have our own Carsons, Annas, and Thomases.

But, in our case, it is the Doras, Antonios, and Julios who tend our gardens, drive our cars, cook our meals, and clean our homes. Now that the calendar has rolled over to December, it is time to meet our legal obligations by paying the people who work for us their annual aguinaldo -- an amount that must be paid no later than 20 December.

There are several myths surrounding these payments. And I know, no matter what I say, people who believe something else will go on thinking what they want to think. There is, of course, a very high probability that I am perpetuating a whole set of other myths myself.
Even though I am a lawyer, I am not a labor lawyer, and I know nothing about Mexican law other than what I have researched, heard, and experienced.

So, this is my lay take on aguinaldos.  Do not rely on it as legal advice. Mexican attorneys and accountants exist for that purpose.  Consider this as a bit of entertainment from a fellow immigrant who might raise some questions that you need to ask your personal professional.

Let's get the big myth out of the way first. The aguinaldo is not a Christmas bonus.

I see that term used repeatedly by northerners. I suppose because it is intellectually more accessible than its real name -- aguinaldo. "Bonus" implies that the payment is a voluntary gift within the purview of the giver.

It is not. The aguinaldo is a required payment under Mexican law -- a law that is very pro-worker and will rightfully be construed in favor of the worker. The law clearly states the formula for calculating the required payment. It is not optional.

Second, the payment must be made in cash. Your home-made fudge and that cashmere sweater you bought on your last trip to The Bay will undoubtedly be received with great appreciation. But those are gifts. And they do not count toward your legal obligation.

Give the gifts out of love. Just be aware they have nothing to do with the required cash payment.

Third, just because something is a legal obligation does not mean it cannot be given in a spirit of joy. It should be. Because it certainly will be received in that spirit.

Mexican workers know what they should be receiving. Failure to pay the appropriate amount can lead to some rather nasty legal wrangling and tiring trips to Autlan -- with the usual mix of recrimination, lawyers, and the exchange of larger sums of money that accompany most labor disputes. Penalties for failure to pay are potentially very expensive.

So, what is your legal obligation?

The quick answer is that the aguinaldo is the cash equivalent of 15 days of the worker's daily pay. The formula is simple algebra. You may have been wrong in high school; there is some use in daily life for mathematics.

Multiply the number of days the worker worked per week by the number of weeks worked times the worker's daily pay times 15 days and divide all of that by 365 days. The product is the amount you pay as an aguinaldo to meet your legal obligation.

The formula will look something like this.  [Days worked] ÷ 365 X 15 X [daily salary]. It is simple to apply.

Every December, a quite uncivil war breaks out amongst expatriates who advocate just paying two weeks of wages and being done with it. Their opposite numbers, who demand strict compliance with the formula, call that cheating.* But, like most expatriate blood battles, it is distinction without a practical difference. Unless you are paying a huge sum of money, the difference between the two methods is minuscule.

I avoid the fight by using the two-week rule and then rounding up the amount. In other words, I top off the aguinaldo with a little Christmas cash gift. I know that offends some people. But that is what I do. For both Dora, the woman who helps me clean my house, and Antonio, the pool guy.

That is your legal obligation. But, as I have said above, meeting your legal obligation does not preclude you from showing your seasonal appreciation to the people who make our lives easier. Give that banana bread or book or bracelet. And keep in mind that extra cash is appropriate and greatly appreciated.

Here endeth the lesson on the law. But we are daily surrounded by people who make our lives easier who are not our employees.

Anna who weighs my produce. The guys who pick up my garbage. The hotel maids who clean my room when I travel. Fernando from DHL who delivers packages to my house. Julio who puts up my mail at the post office. Gus at Rooster's who always remembers I like lime juice in my mineral water.

None of them are beneficiaries of the aguinaldo because they are not my employees. But they certainly do make my life better for living here.

I suspect most people tip these services throughout the year. But December is a good time to indulge in a bit of largesse with some physical manifestation of your appreciation.  

And, in that spirit, I wish all of you a very Happy Christmas. May you find contentment and peace at the center.


* -- Part of the confusion is failing to take into account that in Mexico, as is true for a large portion of the world, "two weeks" are 15, and not 14, days. But, the law specifically states "15 days." Not "two weeks." So, that fascinating argument is simply academic.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

crocodile rock

I miss the crocodiles.

As much as I like living in Barra de Navidad, it has nothing to rival being able to step out your back door to discover a crocodile. That was one of the best aspects of living on the laguna in Villa Obregón. The laguna provided a great refuge for birds, turtles, fish, coatimundis, opossum, and racoons. Not to mention the lurking feral cats.

But the top-of-the-heap in the food chain were the crocodiles. A kinship they share with the tigers of the Indian jungle, the lions of the African veldt, and the grizzlies of the Far North.

Over the six years I lived on the laguna, I invested my time in learning their ways. Reading? Sure. But most of what I discovered was simply watching them (mama rose in leather). Day and night. Wet season and dry season. And they were just steps away from my house. Often, not where I anticipated them (moving to mexico -- wildlife).

I recently shared correspondence with two visitors to the area. Both wanted to see crocodiles and had been told that the place to go is the crocodile sanctuary in La Manzanilla. I suggested that they might like to see the American Crocodile in his natural setting rather than in the quasi-zoo at La Manzanilla. The Villa Obregón laguna is the perfect spot -- and, for the next week or so, viewing them will be easy.

Now and then, the water-deciding powers determine the water level in the laguna creates a flooding danger for the homes built on its banks. On most occasions, someone in authority* will open a small breach in the dune that dams up the laguna's water from reaching the Pacific.

The rest is left to the hydraulic power of the dammed water as it gushes out of its confines. When the water and the sea meet an equilibrium, the banks along the laguna are exposed. That is when the crocodiles can best be seen. Sunning. Mingling amongst the roseate spoonbills and great blues. Snapping up unwary turtles.

At its northern edge, the laguna is fed by a stream. When the laguna is full, the stream is simply part of the reservoir. When the level is down, it reverts to what could easily pass for a brook in the Black Hills of South Dakota. With one exception. Where the water once hid the crocodiles, it is now low enough to see them.

On Tuesday, while walking back from Melaque, I paused on the highway bridges over the laguna. And there they were. Mostly juveniles. Swimming upstream or sunning themselves.

But there was one large fellow doing his best impression of the product of a British Columbia logging camp.

To do the scene justice, I needed my good Sony DSLR. All I had was my telephone camera. The results, unfortunately, are filled with digital noise. But you get the idea.

What photographs can never reveal is the excitement of seeing these prehistoric creatures. I get the same feeling when I see crocodiles in the wild as I do when seeing tigers, lions, or grizzlies in the wild. The very sight of them induces an adrenalin rush.

Nature has a way of healing her own wounds. In a short time, the gap at the ocean mouth of the laguna will fill with sand, and the reservoir will once again rise. Once more, the crocodiles will slip beneath the hyacinth-shrouded dark water.

If you are in the area and want to see what has to be one of the most fascinating of our local fauna, get thee to the laguna. Nature, like time and tide, waits for no one.

* -- Usually, the authorities open the laguna during a heavy rain or in anticipation of a storm. We have had no large rains for weeks, and none are forecasted. Now and then, the local surfer boys open the laguna on their own armed only with sticks and persistence. The resulting flood creates a current and waves that, when they collide with the incoming tide, is a challenge for the guys. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

flocking together

Every cliché will come to life.

If you just wait long enough.

I have led horses to water, but I have never tried to persuade them to drink. And perhaps it is because I never get to bed early that I have ended up low on the healthy, wealthy, and wise toteboard. Even though I do rise early, I have yet to catch that proverbial worm.

One of the other bird 
clichés has turned out to be untrue. At least, for a moment.

This morning I was reading beside the pool. If you have stopped by these pages in the past, you already know there is a large communication tower near my house that is home to a flock of black vultures. They wait for the sun to rise just long enough to start warming them, and then they drop off of the tower and swoop off on their daily commute to look for that 
cliché worm -- or road kill -- or to kill a calf.

Unlike their turkey vulture cousins, black vultures will kill the young of large animals. I see them occasionally eyeing the local cats and dogs.

The larger part of the flock waits for the sun to start creating thermals before they take off as a group. They will then use the uplift of the radiated heat to soar in lazy circles higher and higher with only minimal wing movement until they climb so high, their details cannot be seen. They are the envy of all humans who have the imagination to fly.

This morning, the gliding club's circular climbs almost mesmerized me. It was like one of those moments in a grade B movie from the 1940s where the hypnotist with nothing good on his mind sits the 
ingénue in front of one of those hypnotic swirls while a theremin plays in the background reminding us life is not always a bed of roses. Another cliché. And a rather thorny one to my mind.

And then something pushed me out of my avian trance. The attraction of the vulture Charybdis was broken when a flight of six wood storks flew across the sky on the oblique passing just under the vultures. With their graceful lankiness they looked like Tolkien elves ignoring the blocky dwarf vultures.  I went back to my reading. When I glanced up I saw one of the strangest sights I have seen in the bird world.

I am an amateur birder. My birding has taught me that the old adage of birds flocking together is true. That is, until it isn't. And this morning, the exception proved to be far more interesting than the rule.

The vultures had risen high enough that I could only make out their shapes. But amongst them was an odd shape. Another bird soaring with them. Lanky and elvin. While five of his comrades had flown on, one of the wood storks had joined the vultures in their thermal amusement. I watched this odd match until the whole group moved out of view of the patio.

Why would that happen? Why would one bird break off from his own group to spend time with another species of bird? One quite unrelated to him. The episode had the feel of a remake of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Maybe it was the wrong question. The true question is why that does not happen more often.

And here is the moral of this morning tale. You did, of course, know that was where this was all leading.

Over the years, I have sat in groups of people who indulged in what seems to be a human universal pursuit -- comparing one group with another. You know the drill. Someone will mention how certain work colleagues always sit together. And another person will inevitably jump the logic track with: "Well, you know them. They always stick together and don't mingle with the rest of us."

The "them" in that sentence is always some group that the speaker did not particularly like. Gypsies. Jews. Mexicans. Italians. Asians. Californians. Well, maybe not the latter. The irony is that the complainers are usually all of the same race, age group, and education -- sitting as a group away from the other groups. 

Unfortunately, the same thing happens here in Mexico. Too many Canadians bring their own civil war to our beaches. The English-speakers complain the French-speakers are 
cliquish. The French-speakers say the same about the English-speakers. And a similar divide between Americans and Canadians has raised its ugly head.

The irony is that most of my Mexican friends think the same about the northerners who visit or live here. That we hang out in groups and seldom form anything other than transactional relationships with Mexicans. A northern woman once told me that her maid was her best friend. When I asked if she invited her cleaning lady to her parties, she smiled broadly and responded: "Oh, yes. Who else would serve the food and drinks?"

Let's be real here. People tend to gravitate toward people with similar backgrounds and interests. I certainly do. But, now and then, it helps to lift my soul to create relationships that are beyond my comfort level. Like having a conversation about popular music.

If only to get past hanging out only with the rest of the wood storks and spend a bit of the day soaring with the vultures.  

Saturday, November 27, 2021

have you finished the hat?

The news came last night as news of this type always does. On my telephone.

Stephen Sondheim had died.

The man whose intricate lyrics and challenging music had breathed life back into the American Broadway Musical was dead.

And, like one of his characters, I read the headline, reacted with an ambiguous "mmm," and returned to my reading. If there is one lesson I learned from Sondheim's work, it is that emotions are simply another type of thought -- and all thoughts require discipline.

I have told you the tale of my misbegotten career as a Broadway musical hobbyist (being dan). I do not care for music unless it can withstand serious analysis. Most Broadway music cannot. It is as predictable as its cousin "popular music." It is that word (predictable) that dooms popular music (and a lot of other art forms) from being very interesting.

I had a bet with a friend that if he hummed me the first four bars of any popular tune I had never heard, I could guess the next four bars. I got five out of six. Not because I am some kind of music wizard, it is merely that scribblers of popular tunes write in predictable forms. That is what makes the music popular. The listener knows what to anticipate. They know what they like, and they like what they know.

Great composers -- great artists -- do not settle for predictability. They strive to make their work an individual statement that is inevitable, but not predictable. In Sondheim's words: 'If a composer's work is not inevitable, it will seem contrived and self-important." And Sondheim's work never fell into that trap. (Well, that is, if you ignore "Pretty Little Picture" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)

What drew me to Sondheim's music and lyrics was the sense of the inevitable. The music was so intricate that it lent itself to serious analysis. For years, I subscribed to The Sondheim Review. Despite the name, it was not a fanzine. Most of the articles would have felt at home in an academic journal.

But his works were meant to be shared with others, not merely to be analyzed. That is why he wrote for the theater. He wanted to see and hear people reacting to what he wrote.

In the Air Force, my friend George Keys, who is now a hot-shot lawyer in DC, and I would pore over the lyrics of A Little Night Music to ferret out the Bergman references. I joined my friends Ken and Patti Latsch at performances of Assassins, Pacific Overtures, and Follies after which we would stay up until the wee hours discussing what we had learned about ourselves and others. They were particularly fond of "It Takes Two" from Into the Woods during their quest for a child.

The point of all that is that Sondheim's works did what what an artist's works should do. It taught the world -- or, at least, the four of us -- something new. Do you know that feeling when you are trying to describe something and someone else comes up with just the correct word? That is what it is like listening to Sondheim pieces. We nod our heads in recognition when we recognize that relationships are "Every Day a Little Death."

In "Finishing the Hat," Sondheim put his philosophy about relationships and creating art in the mouth of the painter George Seurat. He then developed those words in his two books that describe his process of writing lyrics: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat.

Sondheim's music is not about Mexico, but all of his music is. In the sense that the themes he has written about, the characters who populate his works are not cultural prisoners of Broadway, His work is as universal as that of Tolstoy, Dickinson, or Tamayo. We know them because we recognize ourselves in their struggles.

And, for that, we thank you, Stephen Sondheim. You made us a bit better because you have let us see what we can be by showing us who we are.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

feliz día de acción de gracias

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States.

I am not in the United States, but a pale imitation of the day has taken root in the foreign community here on the Costalegre. And I will be participating by attending a dinner served at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio.

Let me make a rather shocking confession first. I do not care for turkey. I never have. I know that some people consider The Big Bird to be the very apex of holiday cuisine. Not me. It is not that I dislike turkey; I simply find it to be rather boring. Like mashed potatoes.

But this day would not be Thanksgiving without slabs of turkey being slapped onto the china that gets an outing twice a year -- only to be hidden away until November and December arrive.

What makes turkey interesting to me is not its place on holiday plates, but its relationship with my new homeland. Mexico's relationship with turkeys is a circular one. 

A lot of our modern foods were first developed by the pre-Columbian tribes in Mexico. They were the first to develop the big three -- corn, tomatoes, and long chilies. Turkeys were also one of their accomplishments.

When the Spanish tribe arrived, they stole and took home a lot of silver and gold. But they also took boatloads of what they deemed to be exotic foods to Europe. It took time for corn and tomatoes to catch on, but turkeys were an immediate hit -- probably because the Europeans were already familiar with eating game birds.

From the early 1500s, the Spanish king decreed that a minimum number of turkeys would be required for import in each ship that sailed from Mexico to the Old World, and with the help of the imperial Portuguese, turkeys, chilies, and tomatoes soon became common on each of the world's continents.

Mexican tribes had been domesticating and eating the two species of wild turkeys indigenous to Mexico since at least 800 BC. Most consumed what is commonly known as the North American wild turkey. But the Maya domesticated the far more colorful ocellated turkey found only in the areas that were once part of their city-state "empire:" the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, and Guatemala.

Both the Aztec and the Maya prized turkeys, not only for their meat, but for their feathers. When the Spanish saw toms in full strut, they named the turkey for the only other bird that had a similar look: the peacock. Pavo is still the most common word used for the bird -- even though it is not uncommon to hear Mexicans refer to the birds as guajolote, the Spanish transliteration of the Nahuatl word used by the Aztec.

Those imported turkeys quickly made their way to England where they became common enough that a flock of them were thrown into the hold of the Mayflower in 1620 on its voyage to Massachusetts -- only 100 years after the first turkey set shank in Spain. Not only had the pilgrims ended up in a land where they had not intended to land, they also had not planned well on their choice of fowl provisions. 

In comparison with the flocks of hefty wild turkeys that were there for the shooting, the European breed was a rather weedy lot. But the domesticated turkeys were retained just in case things went south. And, as we know from the history of the colony, south things went. Quickly.

Some of the turkeys the Pilgrims brought from England were the forbearers of the domesticated turkeys that eventually became common as celebratory birds on American holiday tables in the 19th century.

The descendants of those domesticated turkeys that made the round-trip to and from Europe can also be seen in some Mexican farm yards. But they are not a common sight on Mexican dinner tables. That has always seemed to be odd to me because a large portion of the sandwich meat sold here is turkey ham.

Mexican friends have offered me several theories -- the most compelling being that turkeys are too expensive for most families. That is consistent with the other theory that Mexicans are not accustomed to eating large portions of poultry meat.

I have no idea if either of those theories are true. But I do know that the turkey I will eat tonight has a bit of DNA that once moved from Mexico to Europe and back to Mexico. Could there be a better symbol of successful globalism?

Well, for me, there would be. How about a plate of Thanksgiving prime beef or lamb? I suspect that is what my brother's family will be eating today.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

death on the terrace

It is not always necessary to leave the house to encounter natural wonders (happy trails to me).

My blogger pal Jennifer Rose says whenever I post an essay about bugs or flowers, she knows I am getting bored. Whether or not that is true, I do like my nature encounters. And one of the best spots to get up close and personal with the bug set is on my upper terrace at night.

I no longer head out to the streets on my nightly miles-long walks. Whenever I feel tempted to do that, my chin, ribs, and scarred knees remind me that avoiding tripping hazards in the dark is next to impossible for me.

Instead, I flip on the lights on the terrace. And I walk.

But I am never alone. I live in the tropics. Those lights attract every seasonal and nonseasonal flying insects in the vicinity. If I had kept that insect collection I started when I was in high school, I could easily fill it out with new candidates. Some nights I almost need an eye shield to navigate the cloud of flying bugs. It is not smoke getting in my eyes (as The Platters would have it), but gnats clogging my nose.

Last night I was in mid-walk, commiserating with my insect pals, when I heard the distinct whine of the vector control truck making its way down my street. There are two distinct national reactions to the sprayer. Some people run inside and close their doors and windows against the sprayed insecticide. Others fling open their doors and windows while their children play in the streets.

I tend to be in the latter group (except for the children part) as a matter of practicality. I have no windows in my house to close and the sliding glass doors that open onto my patio are permanently open. And, as I told you, I was in mid-walk last night when the angel of death passed by. If I do not stop to chat while walking, I am not going to break stride for some insecticide.

I do not know what the chemical is that is frequently sprayed here to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito. That pesky mosquito that is most famous for spreading yellow fever in other parts of the world. Here, it principally spreads the viruses for zika, dengue, and chikungunya -- all of them quite nasty diseases. And periodically all are prevalent here.

Does it work? I am not certain. The 
Aedes aegypti clan does not visit my terrace often while I am walking. At least, I do not see them. They primarily bother me in the patio. But I do know the insecticide, whatever it is, is quite effective against a lot of my visitors.

The cloud barely settles in before the flyers start tumbling to the floor. Moths. Butterflies. True bugs. Oddly, the cockroaches and beetles do not seem to be affected.

One death last night struck me as a true loss. I do not see a lot of mantises here. I know they are around because I occasionally see one in the landscaping or flying past the lights of the terrace at night, looking like troopers for Galaxyquest's 
Roth'h'ar Sarris. They almost never land.

The one at the top of the essay did. To her cost. The struggle was short. No more than a minute. What had once been an animated killing machine quickly transformed into ant food.

And that is exactly what happened. In the morning, a trove of tiny ants had pulled her carcass to the drain where they had set up their home.

The carcass would not fit through the grate, so they methodically carved her up as efficiently as Kiowa dressing a bison. Within minutes, the last vestige of the mantis had disappeared. It was as if she had never been there.

Last week at dinner, Gary and I were discussing a recurring theme. Over the past decade, a series of what could only be called local characters have died. While alive, almost everyone knew who they were. Usually, by their message board handles: Dryhouse, Wichita. Sparks.

And now, they are like that poor benighted mantis. Pulled down by the vagaries of life. Even though ants did not dispose of their bodies, the memory of who they were has faded to the point that when we mention them to other people, it is as if they had never been amongst us.

That, of course, is the same theme my mother told me when we were discussing her health on a recent visit. "We are born. We live. We die." My Mom can out-philosophize Sartre. Of course, she has the advantage of still being alive.

At least, the death of the mantis has been remarked upon before she completely slips into oblivion.      

Monday, November 22, 2021

happy trails to me

Change is good. At least, 99.44% of the time.

Just like Ivory soap.

Due to two recent injury-inducing nighttime falls while walking the streets of Barra de Navidad, I have restricted my walking regime to the upper terrace in my house. It is a great walking track, but for all of its advantages, it means that I need to make 600 laps to fit in a daily 20-mile walk.

Some people may enjoy going around in circles. I don't -- even though there are certainly those who would argue otherwise concerning my opinions about music. On Saturday morning, I decided the circle needed to be squared. I would head off to an area of Barra I have not visited recently.

One of the early plans to develop Barra was to connect the two sides of the laguna with a causeway. It was never completed. But the portion that was is still there. It acts as a utility conduit to get water and electricity to the grand hotel on the other side of the water from Barra.

The peninsula has turned into a multi-use area -- when the gate is unlocked. Even though there was once a road wide enough for a car and a motorcycle to pass one another, years of restricting the road to pedestrians (and motorcycles) has reduced the road to a footpath. And that footpath is perfect for a peaceful walk.

When the pathway opens up, there are sweeping views of the laguna, the marina, and the big hotel. But its biggest attraction for me is its wildlife. There are always plenty of birds. And lizards. And, now and then, a commuting crocodile.

During October and November, the nature display shifts to feature wildflowers. Admittedly, they are nowhere near as showy as the fields of wildflowers in the highlands of Mexico. But, in their subtle way, they are just as interesting. And diverse.

In the past, readers have identified the names of the flowers. Unfortunately, I do not remember them. They have slipped away to visit the names of my grade school teachers. If you are so inclined, feel free to slap an appellation on each of these. Preferably, its scientific name.

Especially, this one. I always look forward to these orchid-like blooms coming on. They remind me of individual lupines.

I am not very fond of red flowers, but these tiny ones are little gems. Both in their intricate detail and color.

The brightest of the lot are the few yellow flowers that show up accessorizing the rest of the weeds. And weeds they are. That is the nature of wildflowers. Of course, someone will undoubtedly point out that one person's weed is another person's political hero.

For numbers, these purple flowers outnumber all of the others. At least, on the peninsula. They could easily serve as a groundcover. In fact, I think I have seen them used for that purpose. Along beaches. To root dunes in place.

I know that some gardeners do not share my fascination with wildflowers. They are more prone to find cultivated specimens (like the one below) far more to their taste. Those captured and pampered blooms strike me as being just a bit too prissy. Not that I dislike them. They simply are not as spontaneously attractive as their wild cousins.

For some reason A.E. Housman's poem came to mind while I was hiking the peninsula trail. You know the one. We all had to memorize it in grade school:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

By Housman's reckoning (and that of Psalm 90:10), I am operating on borrowed time -- now being almost three years past my pull date. Maybe that is why I take to heart the spirit of his writing.

No matter how much time I have to wander the woodlands, it is always good to know there are "things in bloom." And they are not on a circular track.