Wednesday, January 26, 2022

let's get this tea party on the road

This is going to shock some of you: I have never been a coffee person.

Sure, I will have the odd cup every year or so with a well-made dessert, but I am certainly not one of those if-I-don't-have-my-morning-cup-of-coffee-I-am-useless people. Thinking about it right now, I cannot remember the last cup of coffee I drank. I think it may have been when I was in Colombia with my Colombian cousin in 2017 (sipping my coffee).

I was about to write that I am a tea person. But that would not be correct, either. At least, not in the same sense that coffee people are coffee people.

When I started intermittent fasting in 2018, I knew that I would need something other than water to tide me over with enough liquid to fight the inevitable hunger pangs. It turns out that the transition was very easy. That is, once I discovered the palliative benefits of tea.

When I lived in England in the mid-1970s, I never picked up the tea habit. I was not particularly fond of the bitterness inherent in English black teas. But I did like an occasional cup of Constant Comment -- the orange-flavored training wheel version of black tea. I even mistook it for an English tea. My English girlfriend delivered that news to me with the same disdainful tone an American would use if someone put stone-ground mustard on a hot dog.

Because I am easily bored consuming the same flavors on a regular schedule, I am constantly looking for new teas.

When Nancy, Roy, Sophie, and I visited Australia in the spring of 2019, I purchased a tea pot at Victoria's Basement. That is it in the middle of the pot lineup. Nothing fancy. A shiny stainless steel pot you might find in any mid-priced hotel. I wanted something in which to brew a pot of tea on our Australia to Singapore cruise to avoid the need to fill up cup after cup at the beverage station. 

While in the Queen Victoria Building, I stopped by the only tea vendor I could find -- the cleverly-named T2. I picked up a starter kit that had blends I had never tasted. Gorgeous Geisha. Melbourne Breakfast. China Jasmine. Buddhas Tears. Blue Sage Shoes.

Some were great. Others good. A few were downright disgusting. But they were new.

Since then, on each trip I have made to other countries (and on my frequent trips to exotic Oregon), I have purchased boxes of teas to bring home to Mexico to keep me full during my fasting periods. The greatest temptation (even when I am in my eating window) is to couple the tea with something sweet. I don't give into the temptation because that would defeat the whole purpose of my new eating regime.

After less than three years of service, my Australia-purchased teapot lost its head. Literally.

The finial simply fell off about a week ago. Even though it was spot welded to the lid in three places, the same forces that ravage plastic lids (warm-hearted; cold-blooded) decapitated the finial. Just a different type of corrosion.

But that is why God created Amazon. I saw something similar, ordered it, and a mere eight days, it is now sitting in my pantry (after a short sun-bath by the pool).

It is quite a big larger than my old one, but it will still fit in my luggage for trips. Like its predecessor, it was made in fascist China. Probably by some Muslim political prisoner.

If all goes well, I can use it on the five trips I just discovered I have already booked for myself in the coming months.

But I will save those destinations for another essay. By then, I may even add some stops in Mexico. Or, at least, I hope I will.

For now, I will initiate the new teapot into the ceremonial rites of the house with no name. The trips can wait. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

on the roof of the world

Every time I see them, I smile.

No. That is not quite correct.

I mean, I do smile, but there is something more that I feel when I encounter Mexican roof dogs. Something like contentment. As if the dogs in their elevated (do I dare say "exalted") stature are the very essence of a universe in balance.

Of course, roof dogs come in many varieties. And I am not talking breeds. After all, Mexico offers up all sorts of dogs with pedigrees as common as those of northern tourists. We like our world that way. Genes cooked up like a redolent pot of pozole.

But there is far greater variety in the behavior of the roof dogs. At the sound of any noise, almost all of them hurry to the edge of their domain to see if their services are required.

Some are alarm dogs. You can even hear them coming from wherever they have been before they arrive at the edge of the roof. A short yip. Started by a series of yaps rising in pitch at the edge of the roof where the bark crescendos into something that sounds like an exhausted mother chiding her children in a store. 

And, often, the dogs do not seem to be that interested in the person that made the noise that alarmed the dogs that live on the roof of the house that Jack built. Or something like that. They will often save most of their barks for the sake of barking. That is why some people consider them non-electronic burglar alarms.

I doubt they are very good in that role, though. Or, at least, they are not very consistent. In my experience, the same dogs that bark up a filibuster on the roof will not take a second look at a passerby when the dogs are on the ground in front of their house. Maybe there is something about the height that lets the dogs lord it over lowly passersby. That exalted state, you know.

Then, there are dogs like this quartet. Whenever I walk by, the sounds of my footsteps alert them. And they always come to the edge of the roof. But, they don't bark. And they seldom pay that much attention to me -- as you can see in the photograph. What they do seem to enjoy, though, is that they are on the roof and I am not. That seems well enough for them.

As for me, I have no idea what the dogs think they are doing. No one does. The world of dogs is as mysterious to us as our world is to them. They know they are good at manipulating us into getting what they want. But I am not certain there is much more than. As a serial dog owner, I learned early that the two worlds will never be bridged.

But I know that I enjoy that feeling of contentment when I see them on guard in their perches in Mexico.

And I do smile.   

Sunday, January 23, 2022

calling walter mitty

We have all done it.

We get into a heated discussion, and, as we walk away, we think of the perfect retort. And, too often, like Sideshow Bob, the moment has passed.

But that bit of Mittyism has a darker cousin. Instead of after-the-fact, we stew in our own bile over an inconsequential slight and conjure up the perfect bon mot -- something that will really hurt. Because real wit always has a victim. An intended victim.

As a result of my positive covid test last week, I ended up canceling a series of airline, hotel, and cruise reservations. Some places graciously accommodated my change in plans. Others did not, and I simply lost my money. Of course, it was already money spent.

The odd business out was American Airlines. It did not reimburse the credit card I had used to purchase my flight to San Juan. Instead, like so many airlines these days, it issued a credit toward one of its future flights. On the condition that I use it before it expires on 19 October -- of this year. 

The credit, under normal circumstances, would be of very little use to me. Even though American is an alliance partner of Alaska, my go-to airline, I have flown American perhaps once in the last decade. Its reputation is nearly as bad as United's. And their flights do not go where I usually want to fly.

As luck would have it, I will be flying to Miami at the end of April. The credit reflects my round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to San Juan. I thought that I would have money left over from the credit because I am only flying to Miami. Not round-trip.

Somehow, the credit will not cover even one-way to Miami flying on the same class of ticket as the San Juan reservation. Pricing of airline tickets often baffles me.

Having seen that, I decided to not book online, as I could, but to call an American ticket agent to book the flight on the telephone.

Where would you like to fly?


What date?

23 April. This year.

I see that you have already chosen your seat. Let me take just a moment to give you the price on that ticket. -- That will be $2,135. Would you like to use a credit card?

No. I want to use coupons.

I see you have a credit with us. Is that what you mean?

No. I want to use coupons.


Yes. I have a stack of Safeway coupons worth $2,200. I don't need any change. They are all currently valid, but they do expire at the end of this year. Which is more time than your airline gave me to use my credit. Where can I send them?

Of course, none of that happened. And it is not going to happen.

The airline telephone customer representatives have suffered far too much stress and indignation for me to add to his. For all I know, the guy just lost his girlfriend and his dog -- and his wife has offered no sympathy. I do not need to add to his woes.

Besides, the customer representatives do not set refund policies. The executives that decide these questions are ensconced in a cone of silence far beyond the borders of our sardonic wrath. It would be far better theater at a shareholders meeting.

So, I will simply dream on -- and decide that grace is always the better part of wit. 

Friday, January 21, 2022

moving to mexico -- annual costs

I did not move to Mexico to save money.

And, that is good because there are a number of costs here that are more or about the same as when I lived in Salem.

But my annual payments to be a member of my Mexican community fall into the "can it be that inexpensive?" category.

Each January, I reach into my file cabinet and pull out the four folders that constitute my Rendering Unto Caesar payments -- post office box, car registration, property tax, and my combined water, sewer, and garbage. Because I need to go to three separate communities, I break them down into separate task days.

Mexico's economy has long provided the foundation for a strong, growing middle class. Like everywhere else in the world, upward mobility means more purchasing power for new products. The resulting increase in cost of living is not noticeable as long as wages kept pace with those upward pressures.

The negative economic effects of The Virus not only stopped the growth of the Mexican middle class; it caused a large portion of families to tumble back into poverty. What did not change, though, was the pressure of price increases. Mexico's official 5% rate of "inflation" makes the collapse worse.

For that reason, I was interested to see how my annual costs would increase.  

I already told you about my annual payment for water, sewage, and garbage in paying the piper -- at a discount. I pay that bill at the "city hall" in Barra de Navidad -- a new building this year. My bill for year was $1,916 (Mx) -- less than $93 (US). For a full year of services.

The increase from last year? 91 pesos. Less than $5 (US). A 5% increase.

I also told you that I had attempted to pay two bills in two different places on the same day by driving over to the post office in San Patricio Melaque to pay for my annual postal box rental. That was 7 January. I was not surprised when the postmaster told me the paperwork was not yet ready. I should come back next Tuesday -- the 11th.

Instead, I waited an extra day and returned on the morning of the day I took my ill-fated covid test. And you know how that went. But those events were still to come.

Of course, the paperwork was not yet ready. It had not even been started. But, because I was there, the clerks churned out the document in less than 5 minutes. I paid my money and was on my way to the testing lab.

Oh. yes. The cost was $300 (Mx). Less than $15 (US). And no increase. I have paid the same amount since I opened the box about ten or eleven years ago.

As you know, I have been otherwise occupied for the past week. My covid test said I was positive, but I had no symptoms. Even so, I stayed out of the way of others for a few days until I could get a clean bill of health.

That meant I could drive to Cihuatlán and pay for my last two governmental impositions.

The first stop was to pay for my automobile registration. Because there is a small discount for paying in January and everybody's registration expires on the first of the month, the small office is usually crammed with people. It seemed that even more people showed up last year during the height of The Virus.

When I walked into the office on Thursday, I was only one of four people. Unlike DMVs the world over, this particular office has always worked with the efficiency of a German private company.

I handed the new plastic circulation card I received last year to my favorite clerk. He tapatapa-tapped on his computer keyboard, asked for my payment, and I was on my way out the door with a receipt in hand having spent less than 45 seconds at the counter.

The cost for a year's vehicle registration? $700 (Mx). Less than $34 (US). I think that would be less than most northern states. There was an increase of 27 pesos or $1.31 (US) from last year. 4%.

My last stop was at the "county" office building to pay my property tax. When I lived in Oregon, this was one of my most expensive outlays, and politically most irritating.

Last year, I spent hours waiting in line to get my tax bill. I then waited hours in another line to pay it. 

This year, similar to the DMV office, both lines were short. You can see the hallway in front of the office in today's photograph. Last year, the lines went out the entry to the building.

I probably spent only 20 minutes paying the almost-embarrassingly low $2,369 (Mx) -- $115 (US) -- for a full year of property taxes. In Salem, that would be about two weeks of property tax. 10 years ago.

I was certain the increase was going to be much higher than the $79 (Mx) -- $3.86 (US) -- on my bill. Only a 3.4% increase.

I may not have moved to Mexico to save money (and, in truth, when all of my expenses are added together, I do not), but for these four taxes, I am living in the cost-of-living bargain basement.

So, for property taxes, car registration, and water, sewer, and garbage, what kind of increases have you encountered in this inflation-weary world?

Thursday, January 20, 2022

nuns on the run

Or maybe, nuns in the sun having fun.

Either way, as The Great American Philosopher said: "That's all I have to say about that."

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

the perfect servant

You know you belong in a place when you belong to it.

Helen Mirren, as the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson in Gosford Park, captured that spirit exactly.

What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others?

It's the gift of anticipation.  And I'm a good servant.

I'm better than good. I'm the best.

I'm the perfect servant.

I know when they'll be hungry and the food is ready.

I know when they'll be tired and the bed is turned down.

I know it before they know it themselves.

Now, I may not be the perfect servant. But there is no doubt that I am a servant to my Barraganesque house. To call me the owner would be hubris. I am a steward. A care-taker. To ensure this small architectural miracle passes on into other hands and generations who will have the opportunity to enjoy it as much as I do.

Wednesday is the day I feel as if I should be slipping on my servant togs because it is the day of the week when most chores are completed. The photograph should give you a few hints of how the morning goes.

Dora arrives around 9 AM to help me clean the place. But, before she arrives, I have several chores that Dora jokingly refers to as "el trabajo de Steve" -- the things owner Steve has delegated to servant Steve.

1. I combine the used toilet paper wastebasket in my bedroom with the contents of the office wastebasket, and put it in the patio with the bag of leaves and flowers that have fallen during the past few days.

2.  I clean the sink sieves and tie up the kitchen garbage bag, wash the garbage container, and put the bag with the other bags in the patio.

3. Because they need regular cleaning, the burner heads and pot supports go into the sink for a deep wash.

4. During the summer, I need to cut back the patio vines weekly. Sometimes, twice a week. In the winter, I can get by with every other week. But that is two to three hours teetering atop an ever-unsteady ladder. (In truth, it is this old guy that is unsteady, but I have yet to find anyone who can trim the vines without leaving them in dire condition.)

5. When the yardwork is complete, I shower, strip my bed, and gather up the rest of the week's laundry. If Omar remembers, he will leave his bags at the front door (with enough of Yoanna's clothes to cause the laundress to wonder if anything is amiss.)

6. The water we consume and use for cooking is bottled. They are about five gallons each. We go through one in about two days. That means that Wednesday will find at least one empty bottle at the front door. 

By that point, I don my chauffeur cap to drop the laundry at the laundress (for pickup on Thursday) and to exchange the empty water bottle for a full one at the neighborhood Oxxo.

What this little chore list leaves out is the unmistakable fact that Dora does the hard work around the house. I do not like washing windows. Partly because I have absolutely no skills for the task.

Without Dora, the house would be a streaky mess. At least 80% of the walls of the rooms that face the patio are glass. She also mops, sweeps, makes beds, tidies up Omar's room, and makes certain that all of that consolidated refuse gets to a secure place where the dogs will not be spreading in the street what we considered to be unusable inside the house.

So, there you have it. I am not the perfect servant, just a willing one. And a regular one

If Perfect Servant is to be worn by anyone in this household, it has to be Dora the Almost Indispensable.  


Monday, January 17, 2022

don't listen to the door; it thinks it is a pilot

Even my refrigerator mocks me about my frozen travel plans.

Yesterday, while I was still in covid jail, I opened the refrigerator door only to discover that the Coke bottles had arranged themselves to spell out a country where I could not go without flying. And in my then-condition, I could not get a clearance to fly there.

Of course, with the exception of Montgomery Burns, I may be the only person on the planet who thinks that is still the name of the country to the east of Cambodia.

It is a sign of these mixed-up days that I almost referred to the television program as "The Symptoms." That would be wrong for many reason. But, the most important, for me, is that I have had no symptoms during my self-imposed internal exile. None. Zippo. Cero.

And I am not complaining. Even the mild cold or flu symptoms described by my fellows amongst The Infected and Unclean were not how I wanted to spend the better part of a week. Instead, I started making travel plans for when I escaped the slammer.

And out I am. Early this morning I received a clean bill of health to return to the Land of the People Who Have Had The Virus and Those That are Yet to Get It.

But this is the sardonic twist of life. For all of that free time I had, I still did not conjure up my next trip. However, I have a clue.

I ran into a fellow-walker while I was out on my stroll this morning. He told me that he and his wife are signing up for The Island Walk on Prince Edward Island later this year. The entire walk is just over 400 miles and can easily be done in a month. Think of it as a secular Camino de Santiago with less incense and more rain.

My people (or, at least, part of them on my mother's side) entered Canada through Prince Edward Island following the tyrannical highland clearances (as my grandfather had it). I have long wanted to visit the island. I can now do it with a hiking twist.

My experience is that taking travel advice from a neighbor is usually far better for mental hygiene than taking it from kitchen appliances.

Usually. I now wish I had listened to the warnings my microwave gave me about Enron.    

Sunday, January 16, 2022

frozen dinner on a stick

Several years ago, fellow blogger Jennifer Rose posed an interesting question.

You have returned to your house after a late night flight. Because you have been away for a couple weeks, there is nothing fresh in your refrigerator. You are hungry. What are you going to eat?

My first thought was that the situation would never arise for me because all of my flights arrive in Manzanillo in the late afternoon. But, years of trial practice have taught me arguing with a hypothetical is a fool's mission. It always undermines your best case.

So, I put myself in the situation and came up with a simple answer. At least, a simple answer for me.

When I was a working single man, I discovered there was not sufficient time during the week to indulge in one of my favorite passions - - cooking. It is second only to my passion for eating what I cook. I solved the time problem by spending Sunday afternoons cooking up meals that I could freeze and then quickly thaw on my late evening arrivals at home. Around 8 or 9.

After three Sundays, I had built up quite a variety of meals. And each Sunday added more.

I had tried buying Stouffer's dinners -- and the like. But they were never as good as my own cooking. No. That is not accurate. They were terrible. Far worse than anyone's cooking.

Of course, the frozen version of my dinners were never as good as when they were first cooked. The result was efficient, but I developed an evidence-based disdain for frozen food.

I have plenty of time to cook for myself now that I am retired in Mexico -- and the ingredients on offer are almost limitless. Maybe both time and food are too abundant because I end up cooking too many portions almost every time I do battle with the stove. That means that leftovers are frozen before they need to be tossed out.

It turns out that is a good thing. At least, for this week. I now have fewer temptations to venture out my front door while I am self-isolating with covid. 

No one plans for covid isolation. I certainly didn't. When I went to ground on Wednesday, there were only a few fresh vegetables in my crisper and no fresh meat in the meat tray. But I was still prepared. My frozen leftovers would hold me over.

To my surprise, I had not accumulated very many in my freezer. My freezer in Salem had dinners that were frozen when Joe Biden was a young man.

My haul this week was quite different. There were two bags of bean and ham soup, one of chicken biryani, and of lamb kheema pulao. All no older than last September. I thought I had some Nigerian beef stew, but I must have eaten all of it.

Fortunately, I re-discovered two treasures that were waiting for their time to shine: four lamb steaks and a leg of duck.

The leftover bags are gone. Tonight I am going to tackle two of the lamb steaks as a stir-fry with some fresh grape tomatoes, onion, garlic, and whatever else I can find in the refrigerator that is not closer to its pull date than I am to mine. Probably served over basmati rice -- or maybe some orecchiette pasta. I will see which mood hits me when I get around to cooking.

So, Jennifer, I guess the answer to your hypothetical is whatever I have had the foresight to freeze for the future.

And as you have already noticed, it will probably be something Urvashi Pitre-inspired.     

Saturday, January 15, 2022

hiding in plain sight

I always mistake them for something else.

My cup-of-gold vines are fecund growers. And like any plant that quickly grows and flowers, they produce an endless shower of dried flowers and leaves.

Each morning I pick up the nightly detritus. That is when I make my mistake.

Butterflies find the vines the perfect place to rest or hide from predators -- or both. When I press through the vines looking for dried leaves, like Stanley in search of Livingston, it is an early wakeup call for the butterflies that are not yet about their daily business. With one exception.

This haa now happened several times, as it did this morning. I reached for a sere leaf, and it magically comes to life in my fingers. 

The dried-leaf butterflies are as appropriately named as Tony Blair. They look like dried leaves. Even though they come in several forms, they all retain that same camouflage quality. 

By now, I should recognize them before I disturb their slumber. You might very well think that. But, recall I am the guy who was stung by a scorpion because he thought it was a stinging caterpillar -- and still touched it (a hair of the dog).

I will wager you have already guessed where I am taking you next. Back to high school biology where we learned about the color change of peppered moths in the English midlands. 

Up until the industrial revolution, the peppered moth was gray and slept during the day on gray tree trunks. Then came the revolution and sooted the trees black. Within a couple of decades, black peppered moths appeared in the dirty cities. The gray moths proliferated in the countryside. When pollution was cut back in the 1960s and the tree trunks reverted to their natural gray, the gray moths returned.

This was long used as evidence of evolutionary natural selection. Birds ate the gray moths when the trees were sooty and the black ones when they were clean.

That set off a scientific debate as to whether there was a causal relation between the pollution and the color change. Recent studies indicate there may have been. The black wing mutation did not appear until 1810 -- just as the revolution was churning up the smoke. Or it may have all been an odd coincidence.

Whatever the truth is, circumstances had an environmental impact on which moths survived and where. As we undergo cyclical climate change, we will undoubtedly be witness to other adaptations. Snowy plovers will find new places to live. Giant sequoias may not be so lucky.

I doubt I will live that long -- to see how the brave new world evolves. Instead, I will have to content myself with the wonders of creation that show up in my garden.

Just as they are.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

losing my mind

I should have known that the day would bring unexpected news.

The omens were certainly there.

Not that I believe in omens other than as story devices. That would give circumstances far too much control over our lives. But, perhaps I am a bit too hasty to consign portents to the outer limits of The Enlightenment.

Several months ago, I bought a Fitbit. I had lost all patience with my Samsung health tracker. Its design flaws were a constant irritant -- the worst being the wristband's penchant for falling off of my arm at inopportune times.

One of the features of the Fitbit that I particularly like is the sleep monitor. I can wear the Fitbit to bed and it will gather information on how long I slept, the stages of sleep, and any period where I experienced breathing irregularities. Of course, I can do nothing with the information -- other than to compete with myself on how few hours of sleep I get each night without degrading my sleep score.

Yesterday morning I woke up early thinking about how I had to time my covid test for my flights to San Juan. The Fitbit is also a watch. I took a quick glance at it to see the time. I have no idea what time it was because the Fitbit was not on my wrist.

Being a rational person, I assumed I had taken it off before taking my shower. It was not on the bathroom counter. It was not on my night stand. It was not on the computer table. And, after tearing my bed apart, it was not there.

Then, my writer's mind took over. It was quite evident what had happened. While I was asleep, someone had crept into my room and had managed to undo the clasp on the Fitbit without waking me up. It made perfect sense.

Well, it made perfect sense if I was living in another reality. The thought had no more presented itself than my rational side responded (perhaps, a bit too brusquely): "That's nuts."

I have been thinking about these delinquencies of the mind recently. Literature and movies are filled with characters who can say, like George III: "Yes, I've always been myself, even when I was ill. 
Only now I seem myself. And that's the important thing. I have remembered how to seem."

Anyone who has seen a parent or aunt or close friend deal with the vagaries of the wide ranges of of dementia knows too well the change that takes place in conversation and actions when that border between the odd hypothesis and the reality in which the rest of us live is erased. What we consider as "nuts," the patient experiences as absolutely logical.

Instead of realizing that forgetfulness has set in, an alternative universe of malicious girls, thieving staff, or high-spirited demons take the place of the world in which the rest of us are confined. And, we, like an audience, are left trying to figure out what that other world must look like. It is a major reason Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for best actor in The Father -- because it was art explaining what we cannot otherwise understand.

And, if we live long enough, a good portion of us are going to cross the senior version of the border of Toyland where "you can ne'er return again."

It turned out that yesterday was not that day for me. My venture into a far-too-clear reality right here was my positive covid test.

As for the Fitbit, I came to the conclusion that I must have dropped it into one of my packed bags or that it was somewhere in my bedroom. If it was the former, I would discover it on the Explorer of the Seas when the butler unpacked my suitcase. If the latter, Dora would rescue it.

If it was simply gone, I was fine with that, as well. I relied on it for its heart monitor, and the measurements always seemed a bit off to me. If the Fitbit had walked out on me, I did not need it.

As I was leaving my room to walk to Melaque for my covid test, I dropped a one-peso coin on the floor and bent over to pick it up. I caught a slight glint under the edge of my bed. Because it is black on a dark floor, I did not see it earlier. It was my Fitbit.

Like two spouses that had had a spat and were now reunited, I wrapped it around my wrist knowing full well that nothing would go wrong that day.

Then I got my test results (don't be so positive).

The moral? Omens are all about reading them properly.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

don't be so positive

This is what I should be eating while sitting in my usual 2D seat on this afternoon's Alaska flight to Los Angeles. I would be somewhere over Mazatlán right now.

Long before The Age of Covid, I would pack my own china, linen, cutlery, and food for my flight. The Age of Take This Plane to Havana stripped the cutlery from my kit. But the rest have been part of my flying regime for decades.

I have dropped several hints here that I was heading off on a cruise starting today with a flight to Los Angeles, a short stay there, and then off to San Juan for an early Friday arrival.

This trip was a little more complex logistically than most of my recent journeys. Two nights of hotels in Los Angeles. Flights with two different airlines. Two nights before the cruise and two nights after in San Juan.

Because Puerto Rico requires a covid test taken no more than 48 hours before entering the commonwealth, I decided to put off taking the test required for entering The States. If I timed it correctly, I could use one test for both entries. An additional test is required to board the ship.

I always use the lab of my friend Beny in San Patricio Melaque for my covid-free certifications. Her operation is always efficient and courteous. So, I stopped by for a test just after 11 this morning. She would send the results by email.

I had barely walked a half-mile toward home when I heard the distinctive "bing" of a message on my telephone. When I am walking, I ignore messages and telephone calls. But I was expecting to receive some information from my friends Roy and Nancy who I was meeting in San Juan.

It was not them. It was Beny. My test had come back positive.

I was not surprised. The test has only two outcomes -- positive or negative. And there is always a possibility it could go one way or the other. This time, the result was "Steve, you cannot fly today -- or probably any time within the next few days."

Trying to kill all of my options, I walked back to the lab to ask Beny if a second test would give a different result. Apparently, that is possible depending on the virus load. In my case, the test results were not even close. If it had been a pregnancy test (a kissing cousin to the antigen test), I would be really really pregnant.

Taking into account the time it took to set up this break from life in Barra de Navidad, I was shocked how quickly I was able to cancel everything. It was done within five minutes. (Now, I only need to hear back from my travel agent that the cruise is officially canceled.)

I was pleased to discover that almost all of the payments were either repaid to my credit card or banked away as future airline credits (that I hope to use soon). I lost only about a thousand dollars in hotel rooms that were non-refundable. We shall see how generous the cruise line is.

So, instead of regaling the flight attendants and my fellow passengers with my clever charcuterie, I am enjoying it alone in my library while watching another dreadful Netflix movie. At least, my dinner is a hit.

And, as for that positive covid test, I am going to take measures to limit exposing people to the little critters hiding in my nasal mist. I now know seventeen people (many of whom I have had contact with in the past week) who have The Virus. They are all mainly symptom-free. And the ones who have jobs continue to work because they have no option.

I do have an option. And I am going to use it -- even though I am as symptom-free today as I was last week. That, of course, is subject to change during the next five days. We shall see.

When I announced a couple of days ago that I was Caribbean-bound for a cruise, my fellow Oregon lawyer, Bill Bloom, commented: "Steve, good luck on the floating petri dish! Enjoy your quarantine!" It turns out that the petri dish was not in the Caribbean; it was right here all along.

So, I will finish up my meat and cheese and lean back with the newspaper for the rest of the evening. I am certainly not going anywhere tonight.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

romancing the stone

"Have you ever seen anything like that?"

It sounded like the opening gambit of an Indiana Jones adventure where the camera slowly pans and then zooms in on some object so exotic it could only be the film's MacGuffin.

But the line was not Sydney Greenstreet's. It was my friend Gary. He slowly shoved a rock about the size of a salad plate across the table. 

It looked like -- well, a rock. The only thing that elevated it from that pedestrian description was the "design" that covered it on all sides. A design that seemed repetitive while each section seemed unique. Almost like elven runes telling a tale of legends long lost.

I had to admit I had never seen anything exactly like it. But the "design," if that is what it was, piqued my interest as a low-grade hobbyist geologist and archaeologist, as well as a world-class busybody.

My first impression was that it was simply a garden-variety igneous rock that had been mixed with minerals or some other pollutants in the cooling process. Under that hypothesis, there would have been nothing remarkable about the "design."

The "designs" would have not been designs at all. Merely chemical reactions in a natural cooling process. (Of course, the same could be said of diamonds, I suppose.)

A second possibility was that the dark circles were some form of primitive fossils -- sea shells, perhaps. But that was not likely. Fossilized plants and animals usually present themselves in obverse and reverse portraits. The circles were far too uniform. 

That left a third possibility -- that the circles were not geological. They were designed by human hands.

The stone was discovered in a river in the hills up toward La Huerta. There are other petroglyphs up there left by the nomadic tribes that crossed the highlands. The stone could be cousin to the others that have been discovered there. That would also explain why the entire surface -- even the edges -- is covered with designs.

Now, it is your opportunity to shine. I realize you are suffering a handicap. You have not held the stone in your hands. But I would really like to hear your opinion. 

Is the stone:

1) Just an igneous rock with mineral and chemical imperfections?

2) A rock with fossils of indeterminate origin?

3) An ancient Tom Thomson art project?

4) Some other far-more-rational explanation that has eluded me?

So, have it. I am packing my carryon for tomorrow's flight that will eventually dump me in Puerto Rico.

Rock on -- so to speak.

Monday, January 10, 2022

warm-hearted; cold-blooded

When I told my friends I was moving to Mexico, the response was nearly unanimous: "You hate the heat."

That is true. I seldom don a jacket until temperatures drop below the mid-30s, and I kept my house in Salem at a very-serviceable Carteresque 55-degrees in the winter. My friends Ken and Patti Latsch would always ask: "Should we wear a sweater -- or a sweater and coat?" I was not so much green as my guests were blue.

My first extended encounter with heat was when I was stationed in Laredo for my Air Force undergraduate pilot training. Even though I arrived in the midst of a Texas winter, my quarters were far too hot for me. In the first month, I burned up (or froze up) three air conditioners that I ran at maximum. All day.

One night a fellow student (and chum (Larry Gana) asked if I wanted to see what was playing at the base theater. It was some forgettable schlocky horror film dressed up in contemporary clothes to look "modern." Count Dracula goes to Marin County. That sort of thing.

Nothing in the film was memorable. But I do recall one scene. A neighbor comes to the count's house to invite him to a neighborhood welcome party. When he steps inside the house, he says: "This place is as cold as a morgue."

Larry turned to me and said: "I get it, now. You're a vampire."

Well, I wasn't. And I still am not. I suspect you either have to be European (or a Europhile) to be a genuine vampire. I am nether.

But there is a grain of truth embedded there. Cold seems to retard rot. Heat increases it. It is certainly true with meat and plants. I have now discovered that plastic should be added to the list.

I knew that plastic left outside would decay faster than an Englishman's teeth. Something about UV rays, I have been told. For the plastic, not the English enamel. Plastic chairs left out in the sun here quickly splinter and are a nuisance to dispose of.

Some other factor is at work in my kitchen, though, other than direct sunlight. I suspect it is both the heat and humidity. 

I have several sets of glass and pyrex bowls that were sold with plastic lids for ease of storing leftovers. Convenient. Efficient. But they are convenient and efficient only if the plastic lids are in working order. Every plastic lid I either brought with me from Oregon or bought here in Mexico is now unserviceable.

Like our own lives, the rot starts around the edges. A few nicks here. A crack there. A chip on what once was a smooth surface. Until the day the lethal crack inevitably occurs and the lid is reduced to another un-recyclable contribution to the local landfill. An end not dissimilar from our own appointed fates. Once again, proving Newton's First Law of Thermodynamics. Heat is energy.

I have seen some flexible silicone lids on Amazon that may resurrect the utility of my topless bowls. But something tells me that Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics will put paid to that hope. Entropy applies -- even to plastic lids.

But there is a simple answer. Saran Wrap and a dinner plate. I slip the plate between my wrapped bowls and, voilà: problem solved.

That is how we deal with Newton's observations on heat and entropy in the house with no name. We don't need no stinkin' European vampires for that. 

Saturday, January 08, 2022

may i help you with those bags, señor?

This morning I walked past the new hotel on Nueva España -- a block south of the house with no name.

I was not alone. A recently-arrived neighbor from the north wanted to chat with me as I headed off on my morning walk. So, I cut my pace to one-quarter as we sauntered along.

As we walked past the hotel, he stopped and said: " That's shocking." At first, I thought he was channeling Captain Renault from Casablanca in some sort of false indignation. I should have known better. Irony is not one of his conversational tools.

I stopped to see what had drawn his ire. He was staring at the hotel's handicapped entrance. "That would never be allowed in [pick your country or city or state]."

And he was correct. To better utilize the space in their boutique-size hotel, the owners had opened a little dress shop in the handicapped entrance. Two mannequins effectively transformed space dedicated to the handicapped into a Prada show window.

When I first moved here, I picked up on almost every variance from northern traffic, occupational safety, and food service standards. I would snap a photo and write an essay oozing with northern cultural superiority about how different life in Mexico was -- at least, from my bourgeois existence in Oregon. You only need to look at the Mexpatriate archives from 2007 to 2012 (or thereabouts).

After living here for thirteen years, I often do not see the very things that once caught my attention (like a family of four on one motorbike), let alone write about them. It is just the way life is here.

The mannequins in the handicapped lane were something I had actually noticed. But I had disregarded it.

After all, it certainly was doing me no harm. I was not going to stay at the hotel. I am not handicapped. And, even if I were, it is obvious that the mannequins could quickly be moved out of the way to allow easy access. To me, it was simply a bit of performance art. Decapitated beauty queens ready to help with the luggage.  

My neighbor wanted to talk with the hotel manager to set the matter right. I suggested that we should continue our walk. He came along, but I could tell the incident bothered him.

I am generally an advocate of reducing the number of barriers handicapped people encounter in public spaces. After all, I have suffered broken ribs, gashed knees, and lacerated chins (back when I had two or three of my own), over the past year. If I were restricted to a wheelchair, getting around Barra de Navidad would be a real problem.

But I am realist enough to know that northern legal standards do not translate well here. Even when there is a similar law here, most northerners are usually not in the best position to exercise their vigilante roles.

One of my pet peeves is garbage. I have been unable to shake my northern sensibility that plastic bags filled with garbage and torn up by dogs in front of my house is not an aesthetic way to live one's life. The bags would remain there for months if I did not pick them up myself. And so I do. Without bothering the neighbors who put the garbage out.

My method never reaches the underlying concern. But I find that being a good neighbor often means helping others rather than making demands on my neighbors. It is a far more peaceful existence.

As for the passage-blocking mannequins, I will leave them to their own party. After all, they are well-dressed and most likely will make way with a polite con permiso.  

Friday, January 07, 2022

paying the piper -- at a discount

I look forward to each new year.

Not because it is an opportunity to make resolutions I will break faster than Benjamin Franklin broke his "13 virtues." I  can fall short of my own expectations (let alone the expectations others have of me) without the artifice of New Year's Day.

What I look forward to when December blows off the calendar like some grade b movie is the opportunity to feel like a I am real part of my neighborhood. My home town. My state. My new country.

January is the month when I get to pull out my wallet to pay tribute to the government that provides services. Often minimal, but so are the payments.

The list is always the same.

  1. Pay for my water, sewer, and garbage for the full year.
  2. Renew my postal box rental
  3. Renew my annual car registration
  4. Pay my property taxes for the house with no name
  5. Pay the bank for another year of doing absolutely nothing on my trust deed

One of the challenges this year is trying to find breaks between my walking regime to perform my civic duty. The first two items were not a problem because I pay the first at city hall in Barra de Navidad and the second at the post office in San Patricio Melaque. Both are on my usual walk routes

So, off I set first thing this morning.

Barra's city hall sits on the town square in the central part of town. Or, at least, it once did. That is it at the top. Looking as if Frosty the Snowman is our new mayor.

When I started to climb the narrow stairs to the offices, I discovered the grill was padlocked. There was a sign indicating the office was closed. Underneath, it appeared as if someone had kindly provided directions to the new office. But someone just as unkindly had ripped off the bottom of the notice leaving me as uninformed as an American Airlines passenger.

One of the neighboring business owners took pity on me and directed me to the new office. I immediately indulged in a stereotype that I would never find the place.

But I did. It was exactly where she said it would be. On the corner of Av. Manzanillo and Calle Michoacan. For those of you who have not yet paid for your utilities, you will now know where you can leave your pesos.

And leaving pesos at city hall is always a simple process. I handed the clerk my bill from last year, and within seconds she had totaled the amount due.

Because I paid early, I got a small discount. About enough to buy three bottles of Coke.

But the discount only seems small because the amount due was small. For a year's worth of garbage (with almost daily pickup), water, and sewer, I left behind $1,915.63 (Mx) -- about $94 (US). Let me repeat one thing. That is for a full year of service. I am always astounded at what I get for such a paltry amount.

Mexico is currently suffering from its worst bout of consumer-price inflation in over 20 years. So, I have been anticipating price increases in my annual payments. But my water bill increased only by 4%.

Having successfully paid my local utilities, I hot-footed it over to the Post Office in in San Patricio Melaque. There is no discount for early payment for my postal box. The price is always the same. $300 (Mx). $14.72 (US).

Payment for the box is due on 1 January. As much as I like to say that Mexico has culturally reset a lot of my expectations, my American genes are hardwired to make timely payments. (We will not even deal with my Canadian genes that want to pay everything early.)

With the Post Office, I should know better. Like all post offices around the world, it has its own procedures. The clerks need to complete their paperwork before I can make my payment. And the documents had not yet been drafted.

That was fine, I needed to mail some birthday cards, so, the trip was not wasted. Tuesday, they promised, would be the day to return.

Last year, for the first time, I was required to bring a copy of my most-recent utility bill and something else to make my payment. I forgot to ask what I needed on Tuesday. I guess I will find out.

And Tuesday will be the last day I can play Citizen Steve for awhile. On Wednesday, I will start a series of flights that will eventually deliver me to the tropical shores of San Juan. And, if omicron does not go entirely crazy, I will then board a cruise through the Caribbean. When I return, I will drive to our county seat and take care of the last three items on my community do-good list.

One change was a little bittersweet this year. In the past, my receipt for water, sewer, and garbage was typed up on a typewriter.

It is still in the city hall office, but it has been retired. I always think that after Clark Kent used a typewriter at The Daily Planet, it would end up looking like this one.

As a fellow retiree, i can feel its well-deserved respite.      

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

coincidences are spiritual puns

Without coincidences, life would be rather drab.

We have all had it happen to us.

We are sitting at a coffee shop talking with a visiting stranger, only to discover that he works with your favorite first cousin in a small town a thousand miles away. And when we tell the story, it is easy to believe. Assuming that, in an attempt to spice up the tale, the narrator does not claim the stranger then devoured the barista in one gulp and sped off in his interstellar spaceship, we believe it.

Why? Because events like that pepper our personal experiences. We believe those seemingly-incredible events for a simple reason. We have to believe it because the proof is right there in front of us. Just like O.J. Simpson's ill-fitting glove.

But one of life's little ironies is that what we find interesting as coincidence in on our own lives often comes off sounding contrived and non-credible when it is reduced to writing. Especially in fiction. Unless it is done well.

And no one does it better than Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. In the first three pages, by sheer coincidence, three of the novel's main characters share a third-class railroad carriage not knowing how that chance meeting will affect the three of them. In Dosteoevsky's hands, the meeting seems natural and inevitable because it feels like the type of coincidence we face in our own lives.

I am still a bit surprised when similar things happen to me. Two of them occurred recently on my return flight to Mexico a couple of weeks ago. While waiting for my flight, I struck up a conversation with a couple about my age sitting across from me in the Alaska lounge. They were on their way to their house in Mazatlan. It turned out they had bought a house I knew well from my blogger chum Nancy Dardarian (countdown to mexico).

The second occurred on the flight itself. For various reasons that say far more about my mood swings than about the circumstances of the flight, I had lost any interest in conversing with nearby passengers. I just wanted to be left alone.

The young woman sitting next to me noticed I was experimenting with my FitBit. (I was trying to figure out how to get enough steps to meet my daily goal on the flight.) That was opening enough. We chatted about a lot of topics. None of which were coincidental.

What was coincidental came a couple days later. I received a message from a reader in Manzanillo. She had just had Christmas dinner with a long-time friend and her daughter. Let me hand the keyboard over to her:

I was at a friend’s house for dinner and their daughter was regaling us with anecdotes about her flight down from LA and her fabulously entertaining row mate. His charcuterie board, his gifts of chocolate for the crew etc. 

She said he lived in Barra and his name is Steve….

Thank you for making both her trip and our evening enjoyable. 

All the best in the New Year 

What my row mate did not know was that it was her grace that took me out of a black dog mood and turned me into the raconteur I like to believe I am. But the double connection was almost a moment out of Dostoevsky -- without the bothersome murder.

As coincidental as both stories are, the third one has stuck most with me. Near the end of the year, in it's beginning to look a lot like christmas, I mentioned a line from Edward Kleban's "Next Best Thing to Love." It has stuck with me since I first heard it at least thirty years ago. Even though the line was memorable to me, I used it simply to set the tone for celebrating Christmas in Mexico.

I thought that was the end of the reference. I was wrong.

A couple days later, I received an email from a new correspondent -- Linda Kline. She informed me that one of my readers in San Miguel de Allende had forwarded my essay to her. 

Then, it hit me. Her name seemed familiar. And it was. She had co-written (along with Lonny Price) the book to "A Class Act" -- the musical remembrance of Ed Kleban's life that features "Next Best Thing to Love."

We have now exchanged several email reminiscing about the show. She even forwarded a draft version of the song sung by the composer.

I know there are people who believe that the internet is an impediment to relationships and maybe democracy. That if it is not the very the spawn of Satan it certainly has not lived up to the great expectations we had of it. (What in life has?)

But coincidences like my unexpected coincidental introduction to Linda probably never would have happened before the internet entered our lives. The chances of her seeing one of my essays before blogdom became a communication tool would have been almost zero. Well, maybe higher than that. We are talking about the power of coincidence, after all.

My three encounters reminded me of some lessons I learned from my mother and grandmother before entering school.

First, don't let circumstances get in your way of communicating with people you do not know. Bill Buckley was absolutely correct when he said: "99 out a hundred people are interesting. And the other one is interesting because he is different."

Second, allowing your worst side to run havoc because you think no one you know is watching you is a false hope. There will always be someone who will see you whenever the mask drops. And, if not, you will have to deal with the consequences on your own.

Third, life is full of coincidental encounters. Enjoy them for what they are. Anne Lamott has a label for them "Carbonated holiness." That is certainly something worth celebrating.

And I guess I have. 

May your coincidental encounters be accompanied by life's grace notes.   

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

emiliano zapata -- all change

Finally, it is at an end.

Over four years ago, the Bank of Mexico announced that it would be issuing new bank notes. For the first time in Mexico's history, the notes would be in chronological order, honoring the major periods of Mexican history.

The first out of the chute in May 2017 was the new 500-peso note featuring Benito Juarez (money makes the words go round). Because the 20-peso note then in circulation shared the same color (blue) and a similar portrait, some people easily confused the two bills -- often to their disadvantage. Four years later, it is still happening.

But, the Bank told us not to worry. The Juarez 20-peso notes would be withdrawn from circulation as they wore out. That reassurance was undermined a bit last year when the Bank issued a new 20-peso note to commemorate the bicentennial of Mexico's true day of independence (the ever-shrinking 20-peso note). To replace the note, the Bank has promised to mint more 20-peso coins.

And the Bank has done just that -- by issuing several coins commemorating important dates in Mexican history. The bicentennial of Mexico's Independence. The 500th anniversary of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The 700th anniversary of the lunar foundation of the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The foundation of the Villa Rica de Vera Cruz. Of those, I have seen only the Vera Cruz coin. And no others.

That is, until today. When Alex handed me my change this afternoon, a note and a coin stood out from the rest. The shiny new 20-peso coin honors General Emiliano Zapata Salazar, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution who was sacrificed on the altar of another president's ambition.

One of the things I admire about Mexico's coins and notes is that it is easy to follow the ebb and flow of opinion at the top by what shows up in our pockets. Ironically, the man that ordered Zapata's death can also be found in your wallet if you happen to have a 100-peso note commemorating the centennial of the 1917 Constitution.

Historically, it is an interesting coin. There is a lot of ideology packed on the reverse side along with Zapata's bronzed portrait. 

Zapata has often been portrayed as one of the few Revolutionary leaders who was fighting solely for the common man. That is why a plowing peasant farmer is in the background -- along with Zapata's political slogan: Tierra y Liberdad" (land and freedom).

I do not know about you, but I often confuse 1-peso coins with 2-peso coins. I will probably have the same problem with the 20-peso and 10-peso coins. As you can see, they are about the same size. The only real differentiation is the crenellated border on the 20.

Now that I am getting the new 50-peso note and the 20-peso coins in change, it feels as if the journey that started in 2017 is complete. But, that may not be the case. 

The Bank is hedging its own bets. If inflation in Mexico continues to worsen, the Bank is prepared to issue its pending 2000-peso note honoring contemporary Mexico with the visages of Octavio Paz and Rosario Castellanos. For historians and notaphilists, that will be an interesting event.

For people trying to feed their families, it will not be a good omen.