Thursday, March 22, 2018

Trumpophobia: Rare, medium or apoplectic?

Exile in Mexico has a number of advantages, chief among them that you could, theoretically, try to preserve some peace of mind by setting some distance from the jarring avalanche of political news coming from the U.S.

Erik Hagerman, was so upset at Donald Trump's election that he swore that he would avoid learning about anything that happened to America after Nov. 8, 2016.

"It was draconian and complete," Hagerman told the New York Times. "It's not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation. It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust."

Hagerman has stuck to what he calls "The Blockade" of all news, and claims he has lived happily ever after in a pig farm in Glouster, Ohio. Meanwhile millions of Americans, both pro- and anti-Trump, continue to marinate in angry debate, with other people and even in their own minds.

As some Texas friends would say of Hagerman, "Bless his heart!"

But personally I just don't have the discipline to wean myself from all news, no matter how beneficial it might be for my mental health.

Instead I've carved out an uneasy middle position between that rare bunch of people who've managed to ignore Trump—or rarer still, continue to support him—and those opponents who live in permanent apoplexy, cursing Trump every waking minute.
Such non-stop rage reminds me of my dad who would pray daily for Castro's eternal damnation to the depths of hell. My dad died about ten years before Castro, a very angry man.

Last week Stew and I met some friends at the Frontera restaurant for its weekly meatloaf special, and our friends pointed to a group gathered by themselves at the opposite corner of the place and whispered conspiratorially, "those are San Miguel Republicans!" Whew.

There are also persistent but unverified whispers that there are actually some Trumpistas lurking somewhere in the congregation of our small church! Wow.

Granted, Republicans in San Miguel are about as rare as openly gay Baptists in Alabama, but I couldn't understand why Republicans would automatically be assumed to be pro-Trump or treated with such scorn. Or even why they, in turn, would feel it necessary to hide their political preferences from those outside their tight circle of friends.

On the other hand, the anti-Trump hordes in San Miguel, both visitors and locals, are afflicted with their own form of derangement: More than a year after the election, they can't stop cursing and obsessing about that son-of-a-bitch.

Recently I watched two friends visiting from bluer-than-blue Chicago who damn near could not stop talking about Mr. T. There was no way to steer the conversation elsewhere, such was their anger and fixation on the topic.

"Get a life!" was one piece of advice I could have used but didn't.

I must confess to sharing part of their anger. But after so many months of news reports, revelations and accusations regarding Trump, my animus toward him has gradually tempered from unhinged to a mellower middle ground of quiet anger, occasionally relieved with with astonishment.

Why would Ivanka Trump, who has zero foreign policy experience, be involved in high-level negotiations with South Korea? I chose to shake my head and giggle rather than fume about that one.

Some would say my attitude may be the onset of resignation, despondency, or deep depression.

But no. I think instead it might more a combination of numbness and optimism. Maybe realism, too, since there is not much I can do right now but to make sure my absentee ballot reaches Chicago in time.

For one, I'm sick and tired of listening to the same black humor and apocalyptic political rantings of many of my friends.

For another, my experience after coming to the U.S. as a refugee from Cuba in 1962, when I was fourteen years old, has given me a nearly unshakeable faith that my adopted country and its political institutions are capable of emerging from the darkness that envelops them today.

Several months ago Stew and I stopped watching, almost completely, late-night talk shows with their litany of anti-Trump monologues and skits, or even Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher and CNN. There is so much whining, smirking and eye-rolling we can take.

How conservatives, no matter how angry, can stand to watch Fox News daily, with its gross official government mouthpiece bias, is beyond me.

                                     Rolling Stone. com
One exception is Saturday Night Live, which can still come up with too-good-to-miss material, such as John Goodman's impression of Rex Tillerson after Trump fired him. Alec Baldwin doing Trump? Again? Not so much.

But most of all, my heartfelt immigrant optimism keeps me from fearing the worst for the U.S.

A few months after I arrived, the U.S. and Russia nearly reached for their nuclear buttons and annihilated each other and the rest of the world. But they didn't.

The Vietnam War, and the convulsive social protests and youthful disaffection—remember the trauma of Kent State?—should have irreparably torn apart the country, and if not them, certainly the Watergate scandal and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon. But they didn't. 

Though I have no secret sources at the White House, my strong hunch is that Trump will not serve a full term, much less get reelected for a second, and it won't be because of some dramatic remedy such as impeachment.

 Nate Beeler, Columbus Dispatch
Rather it will be the power of the vote of women, minorities and a majority of white men that will do Trump in, beginning with the upcoming congressional elections.

Meanwhile I plan to keep my wits about me and look for any moments or irony during these dark political times.

Ironic? How about Anderson Cooper, an openly gay newsman, interviewing a former Playboy centerfold on CNN tonight, and on 60 Minutes on Sunday, a woman with mountainous breasts and the delicious nom de porn of Stormy Daniels, and exploring their past sexual escapades with our Commander-in-Chief and his failed attempts at a cover-up?

I'll probably watch both programs, out of curiosity if nothing else. I hope the Ohio pig farmer makes an exception to his news Blockade and does also.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Spring arrives early at the ranch and succulents and cacti lead the festivities

The spring solstice won't arrive until Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. but at the ranch we've been enjoying a spring greening since late February, thanks to the succulents, cacti and other xeric plants already blooming even though not a drop of rain is expected for several months.

Longer days and warmer temperatures spur this spring hubbub. Shallow-rooted succulents and cacti tap the water stored in their fleshy leaves, while drought-hardy trees and bushes, such as huizaches and mesquites, their leaves tiny to stem loss of precious moisture, rely on long roots that search for water meters deep beneath the surface. 

Breaking news: The first magnolia flower.
Curiously, most of our earliest flowers, on trees as well as succulents, are bright yellow, the better to pop against the fifty shades of brown of the rest of the landscape. Waves of pinks, white, reds and oranges will come later, when the rainy season begins toward the end of June.

One exception I noticed yesterday is the magnolia tree at the foot of our back terrace, which already has a bloom that when completely open will be white, floppy and extravagant like an Easter hat.

Ever since we moved here over eight years ago I've been collecting succulents and cacti (cacti are a subgroup of the succulent family), but not according to any botanical or even aesthetic scheme.

Part of this disorderly, late-life passion was the search for something to do—an early concern of retirees quickly replaced by too much to do. I also became fascinated by how utterly weird succulents are, coming in every imaginable size, shape and texture.

Whatever succulent caught my eye—usually sitting forlornly in some dark corner of a local nursery behind the flashy-trashy geraniums and gazanias—would come home with us and be ceremonially transplanted to a proper clay or ceramic pot and placed here and there on any ledge or space available.

The selection criterion was as simple as, Do we have this one already?

The result—no surprise— was not a finely tuned choir of succulents but a shrill mob of all shapes and colors. Not even the pots matched, some being talavera knock-offs, others sleek modern designs and many, many clay pots.

This massive pachypodium looks like
Star Wars' Jabba the Hutt
Amid this cacophony you'd find a tall and ghostly white euphorbia lactea snootily peering down on a misshapen pachypodium succulentum that looks like a blob with a bad haircut, and surrounded by dozens of small, barrel cactus-like companions, each whistling their own tune, their thorns growing in all directions. 

The weirdest, or most interesting, would have to be a cephalocereus senilis, or "old man cactus" with a wild mop of white hairs reminiscent of Bernie Sanders in the middle of a stump speech.

[N.B. To any readers who might really know their succulents: Stop giggling at my attempts at proper botanical nomenclature. If I messed up some names, just make the corrections in the comments section at the end of this post. Be nice. I'll be grateful rather than offended.]

Last fall I developed a half-baked plan to alleviate the succulent crush in the house by transplanting some of them to the outside, to mingle with their native and much larger cousins. I didn't plan on a colder than usual winter, nor foresee what cold, drought and wind would do to some of the more sensitive succulents. A quick glance a few weeks ago allayed my worst fears; a few of these exiles perished but most, miraculously, are coming back.

Then a few weeks ago, I set out to try and establish some order in the rest of our collection. Shuffling the pots around didn't seem to do it, though it's always good to prune back scraggly plants and repot others.

Is it you, Bernie?
My friend Lydia, the tireless leading light of Succulent Lovers of San Miguel de Allende, suggested that I try to do combinations of different succulents using wide and shallow pots. That reminded me of three books I had in my gardening collection about that very topic by Debra Lee Baldwin, and also led to about a day's worth of surfing the internet for ideas.

It's a good idea to try to match the color of the pot
with the succulent that lives in it. Plant name
 unknown (to me).
Lee Baldwin, at least according to pictures on the dust jacket, looks like a Martha Stewart-like doyenne, in her case of succulent plants.  She lives amid a jungle of perfectly designed and displayed succulents and at least one neatly groomed Yorkie-type dog.

One of her ideas I found useful was to choose carefully the color of the pot so that it coordinates with the succulent on top. Duh.

There are dozens of sites, ranging from artful to junky. I particularly dislike stupid add-ons or constructions like using old sewing machines or antique chairs. Yecch.

So for three days last week Félix and I upended pots with old or overgrown tenants, and other lone specimens that we decided should join and play with the rest of the succulents. A few fancier succulents we took out and relocated into fancier pots, as Lydia had suggested.

One thing you notice when repotting succulents is that they generally have very shallow roots, so there's no point, and it might actually be counterproductive, to put them in deep pots.

Better off using shallower containers with a layer of gravel at the bottom. For soil we used a mixture of black soil; tezontle (a porous red volcanic rock in lieu of vermiculite or gravel to keep the soil light and well draining); and some compost. This mixture isn't much look at but succulents like their growing medium light and airy, almost desert-like. Muddy soil or too much water are killers. 

It's amazing how well Félix caught on to selecting compatible plants—and giving me thumbs down to many of my ideas. We still have another day to finish up with a couple of other pots waiting for customers.

Then we'll have to stand back and enjoy our work. I labeled as many of the succulents as I could identify in books or in the World of Succulents site. But I am afraid most of them will have to remain, for the time being, in that vast family of "Succulentus mysteriosums" or "Agave idunnos."

Below, other shots of my succulent collection:

Out on the yard.

The Pachypodium Corner

One arrangement. The one on back is a
Kalanchoe; the others I don't know.

Side table with succulents

Head of Medusa look a little bedraggled because
they've been just transplanted. 

Seating area with various succulents (and a dead tree on back).

Group of succulents on the front yard, under a trellis.

Good place to have coffee in the morning.

The recently erected Temple of Succulents.

Cuttings go into a small greenhouse for rooting.

Green is the theme here.

A blue grouping.

On the upper left is a kalanchoe,
the rest I don't know.

Entrance to the front patio.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Farewell to recycling

When we moved to the ranch about seven years ago we took to recycling with the fervor of tree-huggers from Portland, San Francisco or Vancouver.

Of course, we set up a three-bin compost pile. And we also began to separate aluminum, cardboard, plastic, regular metal cans, and glass, which we took to a recycling center on the way to San Miguel. We even packed the segregated materials in used twenty-five-kilo bags of dog food to give that plastic an extra go-around.

Sit on my couch and let's talk about it. 
But hold your admiring ahhs and applause: Other than composting, which we use in our vegetable garden, we've giving up on recycling. Adiós.

Truth is that it hardly generated any cash for Félix, who used to take the stuff to recycling center. Last trip to the recycling center with a car full recyclables barely paid three dollars. Glass and cardboard in particular are nearly worthless.

Most of all, recycling in this corner of Mexico is a dispiriting Sisyphean boondoggle. Rather than making us feel like honorary Vancouverites or Californians, it left us feeling like a pair of old fools.

To appreciate the futility of it all you only need to drive on the Carretera a Jalpa, about a kilometer away from our place.

It could well be renamed El Boulevard de la Basura, bordered as it is on both sides not with just an occasional empty beer can or plastic soda bottle, but with an ever growing allée of all sorts of debris, including bags of household garbage, construction rubble, discarded televisions sets, tires, a decommissioned toilet, and even an abandoned couch, in case someone wants to sit and take in the view. Making the optics more depressing is that the road has been freshly paved and striped and equipped with shiny new traffic signs.

More scandalous is the overflow from the burgeoning municipal garbage dump encroaching on the highway that welcomes tourists to San Miguel from Querétaro and Mexico City. Why won't these fly-dumpers (as they used to be called in Chicago) drive a few extra meters and deposit the garbage in the dump, where there is a giant hole waiting for it? And why does the city allow this, the Municipal Office Building being located within clear sight of the dump? It's all a mystery.

Welcome to San Miguel (Municipal Building in the background)
Several years ago, shortly after our arrival and still innocent about the waste-disposal traditions of Mexico, we actually hired a couple of guys and gave them plastic bags to collect the trash on the five kilometers of Jalpa Road between our house and the main highway to San Miguel. We figured that unemployed guys who needed money and trash lying around were a good match.

But when I announced our intentions, their facial expressions hinted at the true nature of the problem: They thought we were nuts to worry about, much less hire someone, to pick up the trash along the road. Why would anyone worry about that except gringos with too much money and not enough sense? Doubts  aside, they went out and did it.

But the accumulation of roadside trash, if anything, resumed with renewed vigor. The obvious truth is that folks around here are not bothered by the sight of their villages—where they live—being surrounded by trash.

Being neither a sociologist nor a garbologist I have no definitive explanation for this indifference, but I'll take a stab at it.

Pit stop. 
Buckets of ink have been spent rhapsodizing about Mexicans' love of their homes and families. Indeed if you walk around San Miguel early in the morning you will see women armed with brooms and buckets of water meticulously scrubbing the sidewalks and curbs immediately outside their homes—but not an inch farther on either side.

There could be overturned bins of garbage just on the other side of the property line and no one will bother to pick it up. A community clean-up campaign would be considered as bizarre as a parade of people dressed  up in lederhosen.

That daily vignette, in addition to the continuing rain of garbage that falls on the land and roads around our ranch, suggests a lack of civic concern for the larger space outside their immediate homes and families.

It may be directly related to poverty and hardly unique to Mexico. I've seen the same thing in Latin American countries I've visited and in inner city neighborhoods in the U.S.

Maybe when you're poor clean streets are the last thing you worry about. Or perhaps it's a function of the sense of alienation rural Mexicans feel from the larger project called the country of Mexico.

Compared that to the new fitness craze Swedes have developed called "plogging". Who said Scandinavians don't have a sense of humor?

Hear this: Swedish joggers have taken to carrying plastic bags and picking up bits of debris along their routes. They are said to be concerned about "saving the planet" or some such loony behavior.

Maybe the Swedes indeed have too much money and don't know what to do with their time. Whatever it is, don't wait for that fad to catch on in Mexico.

Without realizing it, Stew and I were plogging around before the Swedes. We've taken garbage bags along our walks on the countryside around our house to collect empty plastic soda bottles. Our job is that much easier because we tend to walk or amble along rather than jog, never mind attempt anything as accelerated as a hundred-yard dash.

But our clean-ups only seem to make room for more trash and empty bottles, so we've abandoned them. Our frustration was compounded by the occasional passerby looking at us quizzically as if we were Martians collecting flying saucer fuel for the trip home.

Just outside our gate, we've set up a little test for Félix, which he has failed. One of those ubiquitous  two-liter plastic Coke bottles lies on the road beyond, waiting to be collected. We've waited for a few weeks and I'm sure it hasn't even occurred to him to bend down, pick it up and put in one of our trash cans.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Trump: Populist, fascist or opportunist? Pick one.

In America's inflamed political environment today, and arguably in much of the world, complex problems have been reduced to generic political labels, and Donald Trump has become the leading exponent of something called "populism". In Britain one has Nigel Farage, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi and in France, Marine Le Pen, each offering their own version of populism.

Among hyperventilating American liberals, of course, Trump is also called a "fascist," a Hitler-in-the-making and a number of other things not suitable for a PG-rated blog like this. 

So for my own enlightenment I set out to look into the meaning of populism, which at its most basic turns out to be a political strategy to rally segments of society that feel screwed over by oppressive elites, be they snooty academics, Hollywood actors, Wall Street billionaires or bureaucratic leeches inhabiting Washington's political swamp.

Populism is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon either. Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader, for example, have run on us-versus-them platforms, though offering different solutions than did George Wallace or now Trump.

Today there are reasons for class resentments. Growing economic inequality caused by the near elimination of certain employment sectors, such as manufacturing and coal mining, has relegated millions of formerly economically secure Americans to the margins of the job market—Walmart-type gigs—or to shrinking or stagnating wages.

"The Thing is coming!" he said. "Honey, go make more coffee." 
Societal dislocations have compounded such anger. A week ago Stew and I saw a 1951 sci-fi movie called (yes!) "The Thing from Another World." Despite the title, it has nothing to do with Trump and is instead set at a scientific station in the Arctic, where a dozen or so scientists bump into Someone who apparently had arrived aboard a flying saucer and lain dormant in the ice for years.

Aside from the cheesy special effects—so bad they were fun to watch—the movie is an interesting snapshot of 1950s America. The principal cast members were all white males except for two women whose peripheral roles seemed to be to making coffee to keep the beleaguered male crew from freezing. 

If the movie were remade today it might feature a politically correct rainbow of white, black, Asian and Hispanics playing leading roles, and maybe a lesbian driving the snowplow, all working under a brilliant and fearless woman climatologist who wouldn't know how to plug a coffee pot.

And outside the igloo there would be a knot of angry white males, some of them wearing "Make the Arctic Great Again" baseball caps, cussing about "reverse discrimination"

The danger is that populist movements easily turn toxic as their leaders strive to keep their followers agitated by resorting to racism and xenophobia and other lower instincts.

Say what you may about Trump but, probably because of his experience in reality TV and 24/7 self-promotion, the guy is a genius at manipulating his "base" with just the right taunts—truth or logic notwithstanding. He's invented Twitter politics, which distills complex policy dilemmas down to 280-character rants.

Trump may seem distracted or impatient at policy meetings, but put him in front of an adoring crowd of people fed up with the banalities of establishment Republicans and pinko Democrats, and he'll have them climbing up the walls in no time at all.

He is also a master at diverting public attention away from personal or political scandals so much so that people anymore don't seem to be fazed by revelations, for example, that Trump—the President of the United States!—apparently paid $130,000 hush money to a porn star with unnaturally large breasts. Chaos has become the norm. Meh.

Except Trump's populism makes no sense at all. He's the ultimate false idol of the aggrieved working classes. He proclaims allegiance to the little guy who lost his manufacturing job to a dollar-an-hour Chinese widget-maker, following a free trade agreement that shortchanges American industry. Yet his top governing lieutenants are mostly a mafia of billionaires—including relatives— shameless grifters and shady operators with scant or no history of concern for what Leona Helmsley used to call "the little people."

How's, for example, a tax reform obscenely skewed in favor the wealthy going to help those left behind by the trade, economic and technological dislocations of the past thirty years? Warren Buffet has figured his conglomerate alone stands to save $27 billion dollars, which is surely more than what coal miners and other aggrieved workers combined and are going to receive.

Yet Trump's core minority constituency remains rock-loyal at around 36 percent, perhaps because they have no alternative. Democrats certainly have no banner-waivers at the moment and Republicans are squabbling among themselves. 

Not nice: Some unkind liberals crossed Mussolini and Trump and
came up with "Trumpolini." Others call one Il Duce and the other
Il Douche. That's not accurate or fair to either one.  
In their fury against Trump, some liberals conflate populism with fascism, which is another fallacy. Fascist-style leadership is all-powerful or nearly so—Putin, Mussolini, Franco and even Hugo Chávez—because opposing forces and institutions have been neutralized.

In the U.S. and Britain fortunately that's hardly the case. Opposition parties continue to function, along with civic organizations and aggressive media voices that have been energized, if nothing else to drive Trump nuts when he turns on the TV in the morning. Congress doesn't seem inclined either to eliminate presidential term limits, as China's congress has just done, and make him president for life. God help us. 

And Trumpism has no consistent ideology or political philosophy to bind it together as a movement, other than feeding his ego and net worth. During his lifetime he has been pro-choice and pro-life, a Democrat and a Republican, pro gun control and against. Anything to make a buck.
So what have we in Trump? Certainly a person so dishonest, about matters great and trivial, that one wonders if he knows where the truth lies.

I don't think ultimately there will be any proof of direct collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. But I strongly suspect that his personal record of bankruptcies, shady deals and financial brinkmanship, and compromising ties to Russian money, when uncovered, will be the key to his downfall. If Trump is anything it's an operator, a consummate con artist, a shameless opportunist who'll stop at nothing to protect his money and make more.

I don't see any logical reason, for example, why Trump would be railing against friendly countries, particularly in Europe, and so furiously avoiding laying a finger on Putin or Russia, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence that Russia tried to meddle in electoral system of the U.S. That is, of course, unless to do so would threaten his bottom line, not to mention his political future.

Assuming that Special Counsel Robert Mueller continues to "follow the money" before Trump tries to fire him, I remain confident the Trump presidency is not going to end well—for Trump—but OK for the U.S.

It's too bad the country, though, may have to go through a dark tunnel of months, perhaps a few years, of the circus known as the Trump administration. 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fed up with faux haute cuisine

And now a rant, of as the French might say, a cri de cœur, about all the pissiness that is swamping San Miguel, what with a boutique hôtel or some restaurant with haute cuisine delusions popping up practically on every corner.

Last week Stew, a friend and I went to a restaurant that had all the trappings of a haute cuisine restaurantmost notably the prices—but lacked the most important ingredient: memorable food.

Servers wore black uniforms, suggestive of a joint operated by the Viet Cong, and the small portions of "global cuisine" came decorated with dashes of unknown sauces that were served on plates the size of hubcaps. As Stew drolly observed, "The dishwashing bill must be killing them."

Bon appetit. 
The ingredients were suitably exotic, such as "furikake-crusted goat cheese," the soup was a potage, and the tablespoon-size dollop of caramelized flan posing as dessert came disguised as a crème brûlée with "smoke essence."

Out of respect for, or fear of, Mexico's notoriously promiscuous "defamation" laws I cannot reveal the name of the restaurant except it begins with one of the last letters of the alphabet and is located in a decidedly downscale arrondissement of San Miguel. Naturellement it was part of a boutique hôtel.

By San Miguel standards, the dinner tab for three was almost Parisian alright—four thousand pesos that included one glass of white house wine, two coffees, mineral water, and four non-alcoholic drinks. Plus an obligatory fifteen percent tip, an annoying add-on for service that was neither particularly attentive nor informative about the items on the dégustation menu. We didn't go for the wine pairings which would have added another eight hundred and fifty pesos per person to the bill.

Or as Mexicans would say: ¡Híjole!

I don't mind elegant settings or even pricey food as long as it is worth it. Three weeks ago Stew and I had dined at "Tentaciones," an outdoor restaurant overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay from behind a narrow infinity pool.

Food with a view at Tentaciones. 
At sunset, it was as a view to remember, and so was the tasting menu that began with small lobster turnovers and finished with a thermonuclear dessert, a "dulce de leche and chocolate tart with espresso foam and berries compote."

The price was fourteen hundred pesos per person, not including tips or drinks. It was pricey but worth every peso.

There are plenty of very good restaurants in San Miguel, but to bump a few of them up from B-plus into the A category, I would dispense with the hifalutin choreography and international culinary pretensions. 

To start with, stick with Mexican cookery, which with all its regional variations is every bit as complex and tasty as any of its "global" or "international" counterparts.

In San Miguel we have eaten several times at Nómada, a new restaurant run by a young Mexican couple that offers a tasting menu with mostly Mexican ingredients and tastes that go far beyond the old enchilada with the green stuff, the usual huevos rancheros with the red stuff, or the arrachera, medium, por favor.

Cafe Muro's owners also know far more about Mexican cuisine than they put on the menu, perhaps for fear tourists wouldn't be willing to try it.

On a weeklong trip to Mérida, with its broiler-like climate, Stew and I ate at four or five restaurants serving Yucatecan cuisine, each more terrific than the one the day before. One small, inexpensive eatery—El Manjar Blanco—was singled out by famed Chicago chef Rick Bayless as one of the best Mexican restaurants he'd ever visited.

And of course, Oaxaca, where despite constant teacher strikes and earth tremors, you can find  different moles for each day of the week, and all sorts of other extraordinary concoctions. "You can't have a bad meal in Oaxaca," Stew once said, and I agree.

In Morelia and Pátzcuaro too, we have had some very good and very Mexican meals.

So I'd say, forget the all-black getups for the waiters, the oversize china, and all the other pissiness, or as the French might say, prétensions, and stick with extraordinary Mexican food that might merit extraordinary prices.   

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Off leash and on a run

You may not agree, you may not care, but
if you are holding this book you should know
that of all the sights I love in this world—
and there are plenty—very near the top of
the list is this one: dogs without leashes. 

         "Dog Songs," Poems by Mary Oliver

Though our seven-and-a-half acres of rocks, trees and bramble—rife with rabbits, spiders, mice, an ornery rattler or several, birds of every color though mostly brown, plus wasps, bees and other bugs—should be more than enough to keep our five mutts amused, apparently it's not quite so.

The pack, front to back: Domino, Felisa, Lucy, Ellie and Roxie. 
Patrolling the very edge of our ranch, where their incessant back-and-forth has created a bare-dirt trail on the inside of the fence, our dogs often stick their noses through any available hole to catch a better view, smell or maybe a nip of another creature just beyond reach.

There are sheep and lambs, goats and kids, some fluffy, all dopey, listlessly munching on the bare scruff left on the ground this far into the dry season.

Felisa, our smallest—smaller than even a newborn lamb—yips and yips and yips, ever more annoyed about being ignored, disrespected even, by the sheep, goats and their young. Even the herder Mauricio, in his mid-twenties and mentally handicapped, seems to sneer at Felisa with an uncomprehending smile.

We've always obsessed about the dogs "getting away" and kept some leashes by the gate to tie the biggest ones when we drove in or out.  But now and then one would get away and send Stew or me looking for them.

Except one time we drove back to the house and it wasn't until about an hour later that we realized our most recent adoptee, Ellie, was not back. Stew walked to the gate and found her on the outside, whining softly, waiting to get back in. "Did you forget me?" she asked. Some escape artist.

A few other times Lucy, our oldest and largest—and the alpha of the pack—got away unnoticed only to return and sit and wait by the gate, her brown eyes sagging with either contrition, confusion or embarrassment.

When we started to go for morning walks, about three or four months ago, we tied all five dogs in an unmanageable, barking tangle. But during the first week, one by one, we let go of the leashes until we'd surrendered any pretense of physical control.

And to our surprise the dogs stayed in a pack, frequently looking back at us, making sure we were still there. No one was running away, and if someone did, just calling their name brought them back into formation.

Now that off-the-leash runs are part of the daily routine, the dogs will demand for us to get going,  barking by the kitchen door right after we finish breakfast. Out the main gate they stampede in a dust storm, like a small herd of cattle, barking and chasing anything on the way, and going in all directions until one of us calls the pack to order. They then continue right or left, wherever we lead. Malcolm, an orange dog who lives outside the gate joins our the walk, as an unofficial member of the gang.

After so much barking from behind the fence, Felisa finally gets the chance to chase Mauricio's sheep, sending them scampering. What fun! Felisa has also tried to spook cows, horses and burros—from a safe distance of ten feet or so, mind you—but they contemptuously ignore her.

Felisa working her way through freshly plowed soil.
There are other detours, oh boy. A fresh pile of horse apples, the canine equivalent of chocolate mousse but a recipe, they assure me, is far tastier and more fragrant.  Or they may all congregate to solemnly sniff a certain pile of something that may be dead, alive or in between. It must be inspected thoroughly. And there's always copious peeing and pooping along the way, left behind like random calling cards, and then kicking some dirt and bolting ahead as if each deposit were a proud achievement.

Returning home is no trick at all: Just one "Let's go home!" and everyone turns on their four heels for the walk back, followed at home by a long, sloppy drink of water and then a long nap and dreams of tomorrow's walk.

Walking the dogs in the morning—or are they walking us?—has been a surprise blessing for everyone, human and canine. For them it's a chance to briefly revert to a previous more animal-like nature,  before they became pets, and for us to stand back and joyfully watch the spectacle.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Front seats at a rare whale show

It was, as Stew put it, "a National Geographic moment," when nature puts on a live show rarely witnessed outside the pages of a glossy magazine or a nature documentary.

Late Thursday afternoon, with the surf quieting down, we heard loud and sharp plop-plop-plop sounds, like thunderclaps, that we soon identified as coming from a humpback whale swimming about a half-mile out from the porch of our waterfront bungalow.

This huge customer was doing a tail-slapping routine in addition to other pirouettes.  The sound-and-splash show went on for a good half hour: Was the whale angry, playing, hurt, doing a mating routine or warning competitors to stay away from its territory? One could only guess.

Plop, plop, fizz,, fizz.
Stew and I had had encounters with whales before, some at quite close range, but none as lively as this one. During a cruise around Antarctica we saw a whale in the distance, barely more than a spot, probably a blue whale, we were told, the largest species of all. 

In Baja California Sur, we went on an early morning whale-watching expedition several years ago. It was foggy the whole time but gray whales were out in force, gently circling our small boat, occasionally turning an inquisitive eye toward us once and then diving, their huge tails, maybe fifteen feet wide, exposed briefly as they gracefully disappeared into the water, barely making a ripple.

I only saw it once or twice, but being the target of a whale's gaze, however briefly, can be disconcerting. Who's looking at whom? Or as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle  insistently asked in "Taxi Driver," "You looking at me?"

But whatever they thought of us--probably nothing but curiosity--these huge animals--up to sixty feet long and weighing forty tons--were anything but threatening, except for the danger of one of them flipping the boat with a playful whack of its tails.

Another surprise was their rough skin, covered with barnacles and other parasites, in addition to scars and bruises. It was nothing like the vinyl-smooth skin of the orcas at Sea World.

Whales migrate from Alaska during the winter to give birth in the warmer waters of California and Mexico. During a boat ride here on Wednesday we didn't seen any whales, only one dolphin, and a school of tuna-like fish, about two feet long, that Mexicans call "barrilete".

But our young guide said that last year a female humpback had stayed around all winter and given birth, with mother and calf then heading back north, presumably to enjoy the Alaskan summer. 

During a trip to Iceland last August we also encountered another pod of whales--can't remember exactly which kind--that were equally non-threatening but kept a safe distance away from us, perhaps because the larger boat we were on might have signaled caution.

We sailed from the small village of Hjalteyri, on the northern coast of Iceland, with a ebullient and typically blond young guide. In Iceland even the dogs and cats seem to be blond. Sailing gear included vinyl insulated bib overalls, and we were served hot chocolate and cinnamon buns. Though not freezing cold, Icelandic summers are decidedly unMexico-like.

In Iceland as well as Norway, which we had visited three or four years before, whale meat appeared on the menus and at fish markets. Whale meat, in case you're curious, is a black, gelatinous and totally repulsive substance.

Grand finale. (Photo by Margaret River)
Back in Barra de Potosi, in front of our bungalow, the one humpback kept banging its tail on the water repeatedly and at one point--a real treat--it dove, disappeared for a a minute or so, and then shot up in the air until two-thirds of its body was out of the water, crashing noisily afterward. Imagine something the size of a school bus, if not larger, jumping out the water. We had never seen a "breach", a neat trick you see in nature shows but seldom witness in person.

What was this humpback so excited about? According to one internet site, a humpback slapping its tail or its considerable body fins (about fifteen feet long each), and technically called "lobtailing," can mean a number of things. The male humpback may be cruising for a mate, or trying to scare off competitors. Or it could be trying to shake off barnacles and other incrustations from its skin. Or perhaps trying to corral a school of small fish the better for eating.

Someone else who was watching this show, after spotting another whale farther out in the distance, cast a vote for the whale shooing off competitors.

Stew and I instead picked another hypothesis to explain the lobtailing by this mammoth visitor: Just like us, this whale was just happy to be in Mexico, enjoying the wonderful weather.