Thursday, May 25, 2017

The elephant in the room stirs again

Security in Mexico worries expats but 
we don't even want to talk about it. 

On March 13 a woman friend was kidnapped in broad daylight in downtown San Miguel. She's still missing. The event was confirmed by the U.S. Consular Agent here, who passed on the news to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. 

But for several days afterward local law enforcement officials maintained they didn't know about any kidnapping or have any "credible information." Call later, we're out to lunch. 

Stew and I heard of the kidnapping of our friend on Monday.

In fact someone on the Civil List, an expat internet bulletin board, had reported the kidnapping early on. Dozens of postings with theories, conjectures and opinions flooded the site and eventually the moderator cut off the conversation thread. Shut up already.

Crime and personal safety in Mexico are the topic of endless questioning by people back in the U.S. and a puzzle to us living here too. We just don't know.

Lack of reliable information is at the heart of the problem. Most Mexicans I have spoken with have little use for the police, which they consider corrupt and useless. So most crimes are not reported and there's a dearth of basic forensic information, such as DUI arrests, assaults and even home invasions. 

A year or so ago, an American couple who lives about ten miles from us, was robbed and pistol-whipped. The husband suffered serious injuries to one eye. The couple duly filed complaints and other requisite paperwork with the police and the Ministerio Público, the local version of the State Attorney's Office. I don't recall that a word of this incident appeared in the local newspaper. 

And although the identity of the assailants was known by everyone in this small community, the police did nothing to nab them. The culprits, who are also suspect of a burglary of another American's home nearby, remain at large. Forget about it and move on. 

Police generally don't respond to requests for information—assuming they have any—on grounds that any disclosures might upset delicate investigative machinations in progress. Don't ask because they won't tell.

A more informal code of silence, most often called denial, operates among expats too. 

Several years ago, a woman who has since left left town—but who long reigned as an oracle on all things San Miguel—vehemently insisted to me the death of an elderly man had been caused by a stroke rather than foul play, even though the poor guy had been stabbed several times and his place ransacked. Hell of a stroke that was.  

Worse still, some expats try to reassure themselves by inventing alternative motives and scenarios. In the case of our friend, someone told me he had met her and "she looked like a bitch," a remark both cruel and offensive. Blame the victim. 

"So she deserved to be kidnapped?" I asked.

In all fairness, the local police does respond to traffic accidents with two or three patrol cars, flashing lights and uniformed personnel who fill out all the forms, summon an ambulance or a tow truck and usually tie up traffic for hours. On some holidays the Mexican army also will deploy trucks with helmeted, masked soldiers caressing heavy weaponry, as if a Sandinista invasion were imminent. 

I doubt the local police is actively working on solving the kidnapping of our friend or I expect the kidnappers will eventually be arrested and punished. Far more likely my friend's family will work out some ransom deal and she will be released unharmed. We fervently hope so. 

But wait. Someone just told me the kidnapping was a case of mistaken identity, and that the real target was a very wealthy woman who has since left for the U.S. What happens now?

Meanwhile, last night four taxi drivers were murdered and two more wounded on the outskirts of San Miguel, in a bizarre execution-style shootout. Will we know who's responsible? Not holding my breath. 



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

When the Succulents come out to play

Despite their often gruff appearance,
succulents have a tender, flowery heart

Succulents are split-personality plants, scornful and hostile one day, inviting and flirtatious the next. Cacti, a member of the succulent family, in particular sport razor thorns that warn strangers not to come near, but then, maybe the next day, or month or year, will set seductive flowers that whisper, "Come closer and look at me, baby."

This most common succulent is
a "mother in law's tongue" or "snake
plant." Most common until this
morning, when it sprouted
a beautiful plume of flowers. 
Ever since we moved to the ranch about seven years ago, we've collected a motley and growing group of succulents, some of which we keep in pots, others outside in the ground. At first, our attraction to succulents was a response to the semi-arid terrain around us which stifles all but the hardiest vegetation. We get a fair amount of annual precipitation, between twenty and twenty-five inches, but it comes in one three- to four-month drench.

The rest of the year, when there's practically no rain, and even a few nights below freezing, it's a game of survival. There's no time for showing off, and succulents turn inward, living off the rain they've stored in their fleshy leaves or wherever. Many succulents, even some bowling ball-size barrel cacti, don't make it.

Right now, after a couple of decent rains, the survivors are coming alive and celebrating by popping flowers, but you need to pay attention because many of these enchanting displays are but one-night affairs.

Yesterday afternoon a potted cactus sitting by the dining room door sent off an amazing white flower, that this morning awakened modestly folded up.

It might reopen tonight or be gone forever. I've even read of succulents whose flowers open up only at night, when they mount their own private show under the moonlight.

This elusive flower, atop a nasty-looking cactus,
opened last night, folded this morning but now
it's open again. Who knows. 
Before you conclude I'm a seasoned succulent-ologist, let me make it clear that my cactus collection is a most unscientific and garbled affair. I don't know the names of ninety percent of my succulents. The botanical names are too weird to remember, even when I manage to pin them down.

For example, the Euphorbia gang, like the sparrow family, seems to have a hundred different members, sometimes very similar to one another, other times not at all alike.
Too much for an old brain. If anyone reads this and wants to submit corrections to my botanical Latin, please go for it. I won't be offended.

Félix and I call this a "brain cactus." That's all we
know, other than it's beautiful. 
I troll the local nurseries looking for any succulent I like and don't have. I've found some samples while traveling in Michoacán, Guerrero or Mexico City. Succulents and cacti are tough to find because they are slow-growing and the profit margins are thin, and apparently not many people are interested in them.

That's too bad. Succulents are hardy plants, require little water or attention and can sit on a window sill minding their own business when the weather is miserable outside.

They'll keep their distance but one day, when you least expect it, present you with the most beautiful bouquet.

I believe this guy belongs to the
"mammilaria" family. Right now it's
setting tiny purple flowers.

This cactus, about the size of a baseball, looks like a miniature barrel cactus. It's about to set flowers, probably bright purple, that will cover its head. 

The cascading number is a common
"donkey's tail" or 'Sedum
Morganianum", probably after someone
last-named Morgan.  I don't know
the names of the other ones. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Looking at an alder, early in the morning

Early in the day is not the time to make plans
but rather to contemplate what's around you

It may sound odd, particularly to those still employed, but the freedom to do nothing when one retires brings a certain guilt, not to mention boredom. What should we do to justify our consumption of the earth's oxygen and sunlight during the next twenty-four hours?

Most retirees in San Miguel seem to embrace hobbies, volunteering and socializing with a fury, as if any blank space in their calendars were a mortal sin.

During her late eighties, her physical faculties failing, my mom counseled me that "you've just got to do something to pass the time." So she knitted, went on trips with other old people, attended classes. It's a simplistic-sounding regimen that sure beats depression, drinking or other fake ways to replace what used to be the nine-to-five grind.

Even after eleven years, occasionally I find that retirement—having the freedom to do whatever I want, including nothing—can be stressful in its own right.

Following Stew's lead, a few months ago I began jotting down daily "to-do" lists in a small red notebook. The lists became a mixture of what really didn't really need doing, with a few urgent items that called for more time that was available during my waking hours.

A couple of years ago my friend Fred was visiting and he said "I bet you come out here on the terrace and have a cup of coffee every morning." In fact, I never did, in no small measure because I was dealing with my to-do lists.

Anyone who's visited our house marvels at the views from our back terrace: A sloping valley below, covered with black soil awaiting sowing, or later on in the season, stalks of corn swaying in the breeze; small herds of sheep and cattle lumbering around, going one way in the morning and returning at sunset; a man-made lake behind that; and still farther away, partially hidden behind a bluish haze, a small mountain range.

It's an amazing grace to have that spectacle right beyond our terrace,  a shame we don't take more time to enjoy it.

So, following Fred's advice, this week I've been crawled out of bed before my second cup of coffee and sat in an old patio chair for a half-hour, forty-five minutes, to contemplate the landscape to my left, and to my right, the rays of sunlight flickering  through the alder abutting our terrace, the leaves always shaking nervously at the slightest breeze.

Thanks for the reminder, Fred.

It's not all quiet, though. The five dogs have quickly caught on to my routine and now come discreetly, one by one by one, and lick my right elbow and demand a scratch on the chin or a pat on the head, followed by a few kind words they will not understand but enjoy thoroughly anyway. From there, they go on with the rest of their days, which include mostly nothing interrupted by eating and few barks now and again.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Stop spreading the news

In today's toxic political climate, 
not knowing what's going on may be 
the best way to retain your sanity.

By all rights those of us who have retired in Mexico behind the Tortilla Curtain should be spared the political chatter and acrimony that permeates even conversations at strip bars back home.

But even here, seven hundred miles south of the border, every cheer and groan by both liberals and conservatives continues to disturb our retirement calm, thanks to the internet, social websites and satellite TV. 

Internet news sites in particular, popping up on our tablets first thing in the morning, get our guts churning even before we get out of bed.

Good morning! has been replaced by For God's sakes, what now?

Once upon a time the internet promised a limitless horizon of information, including current events, that would help broaden our intellectual and political perspectives. 

Instead it has created a myriad "confirmation loops" that people tap into to essentially hear what they want to hear. You've got your Breitbart News and I have our Huffington Post (though the latter tends to concentrate a bit more on facts than delusional conspiracies).

Today we can presume to be informed without having opposing voices rattle our intellectual cages. 

Can't read a damn thing? That's perfect. Go read
a book instead. You'll feel better. 
During the presidential campaign, and especially after Donald Trump was elected, Facebook turned into a hysterical—and bipartisan—playpen, though most people, of course, modulated whose posts they wanted to read and respond to, and so safely kept noodling their own biases.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a medical doctor who  during the past twenty years has written a raft of books about new age lifestyles and diets, has proposed the notion of a "news fast."

He argues that news from whatever source is so anxiety-inducing that for the sake of your mental health it's best, once in a while, to tune it all out for a week or longer. 

It's not just abstaining from politics, but news of any kind, about political assassinations in far away countries or families weeping because their mobile home was blown over by a tornado.  

That made sense to me, even at the risk of sounding like a disconnected zombie at my next social engagement.

However, kicking the "newsbite" habit can be as hard as quitting smoking. I can't follow through for more than two or three days. 

An article last month in The Guardian—which naturally came to me via the paper's e-mail daily news summary—argued that "news is bad for you, and giving up reading it will make you happier." 

The author's arguments are persuasive and extensive: News misleads, has no explanatory power, inhibits thinking and may even be harmful to your body, among other deleterious effects. 

For me, the biggest frustration with news is the feeling of powerlessness—horrible things are happening and there's nothing I can do about them, except maybe write another check to Doctors Without Borders, so it can attend to the next natural disaster at a Third World nation I've never heard of. 

Still, I intend to launch my indefinite news fast, soon. I've started by listening to nothing but Classic FM Nederland, an internet station that plays soothing  classical music and whose newscasts, in Dutch, I can't understand.

That should free up considerable time to finish "Red Notice," by Bill Browder, a real page-turner of a book, unfortunately with a news hook—the rampant corruption in Russia, America's new amigo. 

Stew, who may have started his own news diet without telling me, finished it and immediately slid into a story about the kings of Norway and Denmark during World War II. Bliss.

I encourage you to suppress your daily news intake and do some breathing meditation. It'll make feel better.

But just don't do it before you read David Brooks column today in the The New York Times. It's wickedly funny. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An early symphony of rain

The rainy season began last night. Maybe. 

The sis-bam-boom of thunder and lightning, and the crescendo of fat raindrops pounding the skylights, was a welcome spectacle last night, assuming it was the overture to this year's rainy season.

The all-night rain ranged from furious to gentle and back again but it never seemed to quit. Our cheapo rain gauge went missing, but judging by the amount of rain that collected in the dog water dish outside the kitchen door and the bird bath by one of the bedroom windows, we must have received at least one inch of precipitation.

Certainly it was enough to rinse off the roof of the house. Now we can shut off the two overflow valves so the next rain goes into the cistern under the terrace.

The rain also revivified the tender growth on some trees that appeared a month ago, but later had second thoughts and began to shrivel for lack of moisture, to straighten up and look alive.

I don't know if it happened last night during the rain but our young guava tree, only about a meter and a half tall, was sporting three small white-and-lavender flowers this morning.

Going from flower to fruit sometimes is a slow and tricky leap, so I'm not having visions of guava paste and cream cheese yet. We have cherry, plum and apricot trees that have flowered for the past three years but it was all a tease with no fruit following.

On Friday, contractors also had just finished resurfacing our  access road with a fresh coat of tepitate, a local sand-like dirt used for paving, and a good rainfall will help pack it down.

The only miscue on our part was the installation of an irrigation system that we finished last week. It seems superfluous now that we have entered the rainy season.

But have we?

Shush. Better not get too excited. Mid-May seems a little early for the rains to begin. Maybe climate change is speeding up the seasons.

I'd just better quit right now before I jinx this happy turn of events.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Foraging through San Miguel's retail haystack

Americans may brag about their huge, brightly lit, centrally located markets, but in San Miguel we have something far more interesting and fun yet: An endless collection of hole-in-the-wall family enterprises, scattered mostly along cobweb streets that radiate from the two central markets, and where you typically transact business under a fifteen-watt bulb.

You need to find them first—there are no shopping guides or chamber of commerce maps—so you rely on word-of-mouth or the famously nebulous directions that Mexicans on the street will gladly provide even if they have no clue what you are saying or looking for. This preliminary reconnoitering might take as long as the shopping itself.

One of two steamers filled with tamales, about thirty total, half
stuffed with chicken and the rest with pork. Good stuff but
a lot of work. 
After eleven years in San Miguel, Stew and I have amassed a mental Rolodex of service and merchandise providers beyond the usual, such as roasted chicken vendors—there must be two hundred of them in San Miguel—or lumber yards or glass stores.

Here we are talking about micro-businesses such as that of an attractive middle-aged woman who shows up every working day, at around eight in the morning, to sell fresh empanadas out of a pickup truck under the shade of a patio umbrella.  Cochinita Pibil, a type of seasoned pork, is my favorite. Hawaiian empanadas, a creation involving pineapple chunks and jalapeños, not so much.

Or the chubby, one-legged and somewhat sketchy guy who hawks very good Oaxacan tamales wrapped in banana leaves, that he keeps stashed in the trunk of his car as if they were contraband. They may well be. Count your money and your tamales as you walk away.

On Monday Stew and I went looking for what we thought were two common ingredients for tamales that became a short tour of some of these tiny shops.

We have two large supermarkets but the most authentically Mexican grocery store, located near the town center, is the appropriately named Bonanza. It's a marvel of space management, its shelves reaching almost up to the ceiling like the bookshelves of an old library, the merchandise sometimes reachable only by step ladder or with a pole with a pincer at the end. Bonanza must cram almost as much merchandise as its larger competitors, but in only one-fourth the space.

But Bonanza is too large to qualify as a mom-and-pop operation.

We're talking about Plastimundo, which sells plastic and styrofoam containers, cups, plates and nothing but. A store nearby sells plastic bags by weight. A kilo will keep you going for a lifetime with enough bags left to line your coffin. Wrapping paper and ribbons are available at a closet-size shop whose colorful merchandise hangs overhead and spills onto the sidewalk. You must duck your head to get inside. Sheets of copper? We have that too. One vendor specializes in nuts and bolts, and another in rubber hoses. A off-brand drug store offers the services of an in-house psychologist, by the half hour, appointment required.

Hundreds of needles in a retail haystack, all waiting to be found.

My favorite is ominously called "The Volcano," on Canal Street. It specializes in insecticides and other chemical concoctions, a few of them no doubt banned in the U.S. twenty years ago. The sulfurous smells coming from El Volcán alone are enough to knock out some endangered bird across the street.
Our cleaning woman recommended a roach killer as the most effective. Betcha. It comes in a plastic jug with a long epistle of warnings about accidental intoxication of humans, pets, plants and most assuredly roaches.

The first tamal ingredient we were searching for was pork lard. Not trans-free, vegetable or some other sissy shortening in a fancy wrapper, but the real stuff you need for the dough. The kind you can smear on your bicycle's gears if there's any left over.

None of the mainline stores carried pork lard, not even a fairly large butcher shop that referred us to a carnitas vendor on the curving, inclined street leading to the San Juan de Dios Market.

"How many kilos do you want?" the young man asked.

With some embarrassment I asked for only, hmm, two-hundred grams, which he went and fetched, bringing me a Ziploc bag holding a whitish, congealed substance. Real lard. Twenty pesos or a little more than a dollar. A deal.

Finding the corn husks required three or four inquiries and took us clear across to the other side of the market, near a bridge over what is euphemistically called an "arroyo," or creek, but whose real function is betrayed by the sewage smell.

We found a specialty store that could be called "Tamales 'r Us". It had mountains of husks, sold in packages of four bundles. Another twenty pesos down the hole, plus five more for a small bag of pumpkin seeds. This storefront, about fifteen by fifteen feet, and presided by an affable guy with his ten or eleven-year-old son, also had shelves with jars of exotic ingredients for your tamales.

Finally we needed to rent a long table and folding chairs, which Félix readily found in his village. He mentioned there were two rental places but a newer one, operating out of someone's garage, had lower prices. A table and ten chairs, with two table cloths, came to a whopping two-hundred pesos or about ten bucks, delivery not included.

"It used to be more, but competition is bringing down the prices," Félix observed gravely.

Ah, I thought, Uncle Miltie Friedman must be smiling in his grave.


Monday, May 8, 2017

How near is your End?

For several days in November, after he turned seventy, Stew grew glum and picked up the annoying habit of starting sentences with "I've been thinking..." without ever getting to the predicate.

Thinking about what exactly?

Apparently Stew was bothered by visions of a Piper Cub flying overhead pulling a banner that said "The End is Near. Do Something!"

Watch for this guy flying overhead
The End, as in a guy wearing a hoodie, carrying a scythe slung over his left shoulder—and hanging around outside the kitchen door.
A friend cleverly mapped out the three stages of The End: The "go-go years," the "slow-go years" and finally the "no-go years."

During the first period, roughly during your sixties, you pretend you're not aging even as wrinkles resolutely march across your face and your hair, if you have any left, turns gray.

Nevertheless, you stay in youth hostels and carry a backpack when you travel, as if you had graduated from college three weeks before.

After your seventieth, the clues are harder to ignore. Youngsters at the hostels grumble about your getting up to pee three times a night and holding up the foxtrot to Machu Picchu's Gate of the Sun, complaining your knees are killing you.

For their part, women at this stage might resort to age-inappropriate clothing that provokes more giggles than desire.

Other signs of the second stage are that friends do nothing but talk, talk, talk about their latest visit to the doctor. Exotic and sometimes ridiculous treatments come into play—ayurvedic herb potions, ozone shots, and acupuncture in odd parts of the body.
Anything to try shoo away the guy with the hoodie.

At this point, people who've never traveled beyond Guadalajara unexpectedly sign up for yak caravans along the Silk Route or month-long cruises in the Caspian Sea.

Others, known for obsessively counting their pennies and revising their wills, now say: "Screw my relatives! They're not getting my money!"

When the third stage arrives, maybe on your eightieth or eighty-fifth birthday if you're lucky, you keep track of Costco sales of bulk quantities of Depends. Travel is reduced to ordering new batteries for your scooter so you can cruise around Wal-Mart for hours, buying nothing in particular.

Here in San Miguel, people sign up for the Twenty Four Hour Association, a group that indeed will haul away your carcass within hours, cremate it and FedEx the ashes back home—as if anyone there cared.

Probably not. Remember, you cut everyone off your will before taking off on your yak adventure.

I'm not worried about any of this stuff.

I don't turn seventy until December 30. I still have two-hundred thirty-six days left before the second stage kicks in.