Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The burden of the might-have-beens

Might-have-beens are a bitch. They make you wonder about and sometimes regret many of the decisions you've made.

Might-have-beens can be constructive, yes, but less so later in life. Earlier on, and assuming one has an active learning curve, might-have-beens can remind you of the bumps on the road so you don't drive over them again.

Later in life, though, might-have-beens can feel fruitless and even disheartening, hindering rather than aiding one's ability to deal with present challenges. They can be a distraction as well as an opportunity.

After a ten-year lapse, I recently started attending A.A. meetings once a week. In a strangely counterintuitive way, going back to meetings is akin to rekindling one's toxic love affair with booze. I don't know precisely why I decided to go to meetings again, but I did bring a certain smugness into the room, feeling as if I were repeating high school English composition or some other subject I thought I'd mastered years ago.

Yep, this the a fork in the road. 
Instead, attending meetings again has been a whack to the side of the head, a reminder of how little I have changed even though I haven't touched alcohol or cigarettes for over thirty years. Listening to others talk about their daily struggles to stay sober—while reciting the all-too-familiar A.A. slogans, jingles and bumper stickers—took me back to my first meeting, immediately after I quit drinking.

I don't drink anymore but I'm still burdened by some of the circular patterns that led me to alcohol in the first place. Might I be in a different place today had I stuck to meetings all along and paid more attention, instead of abandoning that project earlier on because I "didn't need meetings" any more? Maybe, even probably. All I can say is that at least I don't drink or smoke today and that much must qualify as progress. And I'm still open to suggestions I hear from other recovering alcoholics.

An unexpected visit recently from a friend I'd met in my first job right out of graduate school in 1972, a year after Stew and I got together, led me to more second-guessing, mostly about my zig-zaggy career in journalism.

I actually didn't start working in magazines and newspapers until 1978, after I'd quit a cozy but stultifying stint deep in the federal bureaucracy—at the long-gone U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, of all places—and enrolled at Northwestern University.

Along with leaving Cuba and coming to the U.S. alone at age fourteen, quitting the feds was one of the most drastic decisions in my life. It wasn't just thinking outside the box, but going at the box with a chainsaw and starting over, with no job security or even job prospects in sight.

Even in the best of circumstances writing is a precarious way to make a living and yet the only way to get ahead is to keep taking chances. If your last novel bombs, you have to write another one, and if the best newspaper job you can land is in Carthage, Miss., or a relatively obscure publication in a big city, you go there and hope in a couple of years you discover a better gig or someone discovers you. It's the opposite of a job at the post office.

I'd always dreamed of joining the foreign service or getting a gig as a foreign reporter: There's a certain buzz I still get from landing in strange places and trying to figure out how people there live and work, and how they've developed their own versions if not of happiness, at least of reconciliation or resignation with their circumstances. Even today for me traveling is equal parts mindless sightseeing and a chance for a first-hand, albeit fleeting immersion in the politics, history and culture that has brought a country to where it is.

I was offered several opportunities to move to foreign places for various jobs and actually have travelled to numerous countries. Haiti was the one that intrigued me the most because of its intoxicating and unique brew of African and Western cultures, even its peculiar patois. Haiti was as fascinating and inexplicable as voodoo itself.

But every time an opportunity to pursue my foreign dreams arose, fear and endless what-ifs got in the way. My occasional foreign ventures ended up only whetting an appetite never quite fulfilled.

None of this says that by any means my career in journalism was failure. On the contrary, I have quite a collection of awards for my work that used to hang on a wall of my office until I got tired of looking at them: They reminded me of both my successes and my might-have-beens.

But the biggest of my might-have-beens—one I don't recall explicitly discussing with Stew—
is what it would have been like for us to raise a couple of kids. I'm quite certain they would have received as much love and attention as any child raised by a "normal" straight couple, perhaps too much so. I probably would have spent endless night trying to avoid the mistakes my parents made with me. The most attentive, insomniac parent in the world; that would have been me.

It's another might-have-been, which as all the rest cannot be relived. Life is video with no rewind button that allows you go back and edit—or redo—the scenes that didn't quite work out. All you can do is try to plan your next shoot a little better.

Before anyone think I'm on the edge of despair, worry not. I'm quite conscious of my good fortune, most of all having a loving husband and companion for forty-four years even if we weren't allowed to formally marry until three years ago, when the powers that be decided it was alright for us to get married, and no longer live marginalized in some second-class limbo called "domestic partnership."

We're comfortable; we live in what people keep telling us is beautiful home, and for the moment we have no financial or health worries.

So why do might-have-beens keep coming up? Maybe they are just markers, some times upsetting, other times inspiring, to remind us of where we are, where we came from—and what we need to do to best use the time ahead.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Medical breakthrough in San Miguel!

It's tough to imagine an upside to the story of a friend from New York who while visiting San Miguel last week fell down in her room and broke her left humerus, the big bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. And it wasn't a hairline fracture you had squint at the X-Ray to notice, but a clear break a layperson could see even after three tequilas.

But indeed there was an upside: The accident led Stew and I to realize how much medical care in San Miguel has improved since our arrival ten years ago, during which we'd worried about all the what-ifs surrounding a sudden illness or other medical emergency here.

Here's looking at your humerus, sweetheart. *

Our friend's first recourse was the woman in charge of the bed-and-breakfast where she was staying, who in turn called a doctor who ordered an X-Ray of the arm. The X-Ray cost a whopping thirty-five dollars. After that, the doctor summoned an orthopedic surgeon from the nearby city of Queretaro.

The surgeon, a bearded, burly guy in his thirties whose first name was Zeus and who spoke enough English to ask all the pertinent questions, arrived later in the day and examined my friend. He put on a temporary cast and without further delay, loaded my friend into his own car and took her to the local private hospital and scheduled surgery at nine the next morning.

The hospital, now called H+ and completely refurbished, used to be called De la Fé or "Faith Hospital," an appropriate name for such an iffy operation.

Iwas a scary-miserable facility, lacking the most rudimentary modern equipment. I had an X-Ray with a machine that looked like surplus equipment from the Korean War. My friend Billie compared the ambiance in the waiting room of the doctors' office suite to a dingy bus depot. After an emergency landed him to De la Fé, the U.S. consul remarked to Stew and me that he wouldn't bring his cat there for treatment.

The most ballyhooed, and ridiculous, feature of the hospital was its hyperbaric chamber, a pressurized-oxygen machine used primarily to counteract decompression sickness resulting from scuba diving, an odd piece of equipment for a hospital several hundred miles from the ocean.

Except it must have been a money-maker: One of the hospital doctors suggested to Stew that he sign up for a series of hyperbaric "treatments."

"Would it help?," Stew asked the doctor, whose gloomy office looked more like a curio shop.

"Well, it couldn't hurt," the doctor replied.

A billboard on the approach to the hospital, since removed, advertised all manner of medical interventions for just about anything short of a brain transplant—plus the hyperbaric chamber, just in case.

Hmm. No thanks.

Despite its dilapidated interior, and refulgent exterior—the squat, two-story building was a shade of electric blue one would expect to find at a midnight paint liquidation at Home Depot—many expats never ceased to extol the miracles that unfolded daily at De la Fé. Given that for years it was the only game in town, perhaps such sanguine denials were the only way to imagine the possibility of one being taken there in an emergency.

But when Stew and I visited our friend following the surgery to install a metal rod to realign her humerus, the hospital we encountered was like a vision. Thanks to multi-million peso investment by an out of town chain, the old hospital had been completely gutted and refurbished. Brand-new equipment anywhere we looked. A hospital elevator installed to replace a steep ramp between the first and second floors that would have sent a patient on a wheelchair flying into the lobby if the attendant lost control.

Gone and best forgotten was a sad altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, located on the second floor hallway and decorated with flickering votive candles and wilted flowers, that was not reassuring to non-believers like me who'd rather bet on modern medical science.

My friend, who stayed for two days in a private, air-conditioned room, couldn't stop talking about the excellent, first-class care she received, from the surgical team to the nurses. She had been through some serious medical crises and said the care she received here was comparable—and in some respects better, particularly the personal attention—to what she experienced at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.

When we went to pick her up, I was afraid what the bill would be. I figured for such major surgery, operating room charges alone would be several thousand dollars. But the itemized statement, for the entire stay at the hospital and all the tests, came to only three thousand dollars—a bargain at three times that.

Now, I'm not encouraging anyone to fall down and break their humerus or a leg. But if you plan to, San Miguel may be the best place to do it.


*BTW, what's that faint shadow between the skeleton's legs??

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A cure for Trumpinosis

Coming on the heels of our two recent encounters with serendipity mentioned in my last posting, I may have discovered how to tune out the constant din of "news" about the presidential election scheduled to take place exactly ninety-seven days, fourteen hours, five minutes and two seconds from this writing. In other words, not a second too soon.

Leading up to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia Stew and I had been diligently, almost obsessively, reading the New York Times and Washington Post and watching the PBS NewsHour. We supplemented such serious reporting with peeks at CNN, with its usual lineup of six or eight babbling bobbleheads, a format reminiscent of the Hollywood Squares but without the humor. Then we had been checking the online Huffington Post which is to news what potato chips are to a balanced diet—addictive but of little nutritional value.

Finally, for perversity's sake, we've occasionally tuned in to Fox News for a dose of magical realism, such as Bill O'Reilly's timely observation that, after all, the slaves who built the White House were well fed and received decent lodging from the government. He was responding to Michelle Obama's speech at the convention, in which she mentioned how awesome it was to wake up in a house built by slaves. I guess O'Reilly couldn't bring himself to say that it was a beautiful speech and just leave it at that.

But following the Democratic Convention, political news has become a hailstorm of bullshit largely thanks to Donald Trump. The worst of it is not that he blurts out something offensive, ridiculous or just plain false, but that news providers feel obligated to repeat it, massage it and hold it up to the light as informational nuggets that need to be pondered for several days.

You're fired.
So we listened, ad nauseam, to reports about Trump saying Putin would not go into Ukraine, even though Russian had already annexed Crimea, which used to be part of Ukraine, in 2014. And on and on, sliding from one idiotic statement to the next, adding nothing to our knowledge of what needs to be done to address the U.S.' real problems of racial inequality, wage stagnation, the financial squeeze on the middle class and such.

It was at this moment, when Stew and I had nearly overdosed on potato chips, that Providence intervened with an unexpected solution—heavy rains, road construction and new and excellent Internet service at our home.

The rains and road construction have increased driving time to town from twenty minutes or so to over an hour, as traffic has been rerouted onto a muddy, out of the way detour that has the feel of driving through some remote part of West Virginia. So we've cut down our visits with friends in town, during which politics and much moaning and groaning about Trump is the inevitable topic of conversation. Zot!

A flash wireless Internet connection also has enabled us to download movies, documentaries and dramas that have preempted the constant political yadda-yadda from our TV schedule. We still record the PBS News Hour but fast forward past Judy Woodruff, Gwen Ifill and all the political hubbub and go directly to Jeffrey Brown, who's usually reporting about global warming or unusual plant species from the Maldives, Tahiti or some place where no one talks about Donald Trump.

Reading the Times and the Post online will require more self-control to slip past the political bloviation that consumes much of the news and opinion pages and go straight to book and movie reviews, science, travel, recipes, fashion, theater and other topics not likely to get us riled up.

In our reading, it's fiction all the time. No more "Black Flags: The Rise of Isis," by Joby Warrick, a terrific but depressing book that unfortunately reminded us of the war without end in Iraq and Syria, and the biggest debacle in U.S. foreign policy since Vietnam.

Stew instead prowls Amazon for detective or crime stories while I have settled on "Miss Jane," by Brad Watson, a novel about a girl in Mississippi born with chronic incontinence.

"Whoa! That sounds depressing!" some of you may say. Let me assure you it's a beautifully written and inspiring work, certain to take your mind off the presidential election in ninety-seven days, twelve hours, thirty-four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Make that thirty-one minutes, four seconds.

Just don't forget to vote.  


Friday, July 29, 2016

The beauty in serendipity

"Serendipity," with its musical ring, is a word that sounds like fun even before you know what it means. Literally it means "unexpected good luck" or stumbling into something terrific that you didn't imagine. Yet we often turn away from serendipity, our demand for certainty preempting many pleasant, even wondrous, surprises.

During a recent trip to Spain, and more recently during a walk through our garden at the ranch, I've come to appreciate the wisdom of serendipity—to simply to step back and allow plenty of open travel time and soil space for whatever. It turns out the fun and beauty of surprises more than make up for the initial trepidation of letting go.

When a rose bush ran into nasturtiums, a large rock and a prickly bear cactus,
an unexpectedly beautiful arrangement resulted. 
Before going on a two-week trip to Spain a couple of months ago, we ordered Rick Steves' travel book, plus a couple of almost scholarly explorations of the history, architecture and artistic significance of legendary landmarks like the Grand Mosque of Córdova and Granada's Alhambra. I even read Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra." I wanted to be fully prepared.

Then I put together what I thought was a airy day-to-day itinerary, a lot of it inspired by Steves' rather marathonic walking tours and estimated times of completion that alas, don't make allowances for the age of the person doing the walking.

He instead ought to provide sliding time estimates. For instance, the hike from Madrid's Plaza del Sol to the Prado Museum? Twenty- to thirty-year-olds, you should allow thirty minutes; folks over sixty, with ten to fifteen pounds of extra weight, grab a cab.

Even in Europe's giant museums there is only so much great art your exhausted tourist brain and feet can absorb. Our friend Gerard commented that after four or five hours meandering through Amsterdam's monumental Rijksmuseum, the endless collection of Rembrandts became a blur of pictures of "old Dutch guys with big black hats."

Rather, you should check out and admire some of the highlights that you studied in the obligatory college art appreciation class (Jason's "History of Art" anyone?) and then go out for a nice lunch. After that, try a museum with a collection of objects you know little or nothing about. The hell with Jason. Be surprised.  

In Spain, the Alhambra, Córdova's Mosque and Seville's cavernous cathedral are certainly worth every bit of their fame and then some.

Stew (l.) with a new old friend from the Moroccan town of Chefchaouen.
Yet the most memorable moments of our trip were unplanned, such as finding a tiny Moroccan restaurant in Granada, near the Alhambra, run by a short, bubbly guy who was born in Chefchaouen, a tiny psychedelic town in Morocco we had visited in 2007, where every house is painted the same shade of electric blue. The owner was thrilled someone recognized his hometown and we had terrific conversation and chicken tajine. 

For two days my itinerary provided for just "driving around the countryside," a splendid idea that took our us in our turbo-diesel VW Polo, with a manual transmission Stew wouldn't touch, to two towns we'd never heard of: Medina Sidonia with its tumbledown church and Grazalema, the ultimate "postcard-beautiful" village, one of dozens in the "white villages" region of Andalucía.

While looking at the valleys and mountains surrounding Grazalema, Stew proclaimed it to be one of the most beautiful places he'd ever seen. It was a truly serendipitous moment, or if you're religious, a moment of unmerited grace, as in how did we stumble into this place? 

The unexpected beauty of Grazalema, in Spain's Andalucía. 
Back home, daily rains have greened the landscape around the ranch, and despite much planning and seed-ordering from the States, serendipity has, once again, overtaken much of my landscaping schemes.

I planted our seeds too early and upwards of fifty percent of them died, victims of my impatience. Adding to the confusion is Félix's refusal to pull up and discard any plants, flowers or small trees no matter how out of place they may be. So flowers and vegetables have germinated in odd places after lurking in the compost pile for the past several months. Flowers and vegetable seeds have arrived air mail, wrapped in bird droppings. To boot, there were handfuls of seeds left from last year that Félix saved in envelopes with enigmatic labels like, "big zinnias?" No matter, into the ground they went; nothing must go to waste is his gardening mantra.

A lone zinnia deep in the ornamental grasses. 
The result is serendipitous and charming, a colorful joke at the expense of those gardening gurus who insist one must first make a scaled plan of the areas in the garden to be tamed, followed by careful selection of plantings according to color, textures and heights.

Indeed I have noodled the idea of turning the garden over to chance, Mother Nature or Félix, given that any one of the three options probably will yield much the same results.

Quite often he comes up with ideas at first strange but that ultimately win you over. "Hmm, that's kind of clever!" or "I never thought of that!" Zinnias abutting the agaves? Roses surrounded by nasturtiums? A peach tree—where did it come from?—in the middle of a patch of English lavenders? A dahlia fighting its way through a succulent groundcover? Who would have imagined?

That and more, thanks to the gifts of serendipity.



Saturday, July 2, 2016

Feeling free and whole at Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade

Once upon a time, about forty years ago, Stew and I attended our first Gay Pride Parade in Chicago. We didn't really participate, join the marchers, wave any rainbow flags or make any noise. We stood discreetly on the sidelines, a safe distance from the drag queens and other scandalous participants: Were the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence—men irreverently dressed as nuns—or the leather-clad Dykes on Bikes, defiantly revving their Harleys, already part of the parade?

We don't remember. At that time Stew and I were so uncomfortable in our own gay skins that any public demonstration of solidarity with other gay people—out in the middle of Chicago, no less—would have given us a nervous rash even if all the marchers had been pin-striped accountants.

Neither one of us was "out" to our families, neighbors or coworkers, nor did we have many gay friends. Cloistered anonymity was our operating style. At the time I was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy, and part of the job application process had been a signed affirmation I was not a homosexual, alcoholic or any other sort of deviant human being.

We lived in a single-family house in the suburbs, thirty miles west of downtown Chicago, with a beagle, a dachshund and a cat named George, named after the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.

Last Sunday, Stew and I and two friends attended the Gay Pride Parade in Mexico City and we had a blast. I felt as if all the tens of thousands of strangers milling around the iconic Angel of Independence monument, waiting for the invariably delayed and chaotic parade to launch, were close friends. The warmth, the small talk in Spanish and English, the laughter, were infectious. I felt exhilarated and whole.

For a huge city, Mexico City's Gay Pride Parade is relatively small. Newspapers the day after estimated attendance at between eighty and two-hundred thousand, compared to Chicago's nearly one million. The event had a homey, block-party feel to it.

There were no public officials present and few signs of corporate sponsors—no floats representing large companies or banks—only a few American Express metallic balloons proclaiming solidarity, and vendors of Doritos in special-edition rainbow flag packages. The one, very significant exception this general official snub was Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, who mingled with the celebrants.

The vacuum left by the absence of official corporate or government sponsors was more than filled by an explosion of individual expression. Gym bunnies, after months of weight lifting finally got to show their tattooed physiques barely contained by minimalist Speedos, while couch bunnies, who had labored equally hard over their costumes, unveiled their interpretations of Aztec kings, Las Vegas showgirls, Scottish golfers in kilts, operatic characters, and even a bishop wearing a cardboard miter hat with a gold satin tablecloth for a cape.

An hour and a half late, the parade finally meandered down Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city's most majestic boulevards, past the U.S. embassy which flew a rainbow flag beneath the Stars and Stripes in honor of the occasion.

Leading the parade was a tangled, four-hundred-meter-long rainbow flag—about thirteen-hundred feet—that took forty-five minutes or so to unfurl, followed by a huge balloon in the shape of a condom. A little farther behind was a posse of vaqueros wearing the intricate, formal regalia Mexican cowboys, and who rode horses that seemed increasingly impatient with the going around in circles waiting for the crowd to move.

The final destination, probably after four or five hours of stop-and-go parading, would be Mexico City's huge main square, the Zócalo, for a rally and more music at the foot of the Metropolitan Cathedral and Mexico's National Palace.

We left after three hours or so of mingling, laughing and meeting people in the motley mob around the Angel of Independence. I wished we had met them forty years ago.

This guy could audition for the part of Jack Twist in the
Mexican version of "Brokeback Mountain."
One of about two-dozen members of the contingent
of Vaqueros Mexiquenses (Cowboys from
 the State of Mexico), who came fully accessorized,
 including a beautifully saddled horse. 
A pair of cowboys in matching shirts. 
Lest anyone miss their presence, the gay vaqueros wore matching shirts and name patches and
brought along a large and horribly
cacophonous Mexican brass bass.
Even the horses got tarted up for the parade.
This one reminded me of Bo Derek in "10"
The tee-shirts said "Yes, we're lesbian moms with
twins. Get over it!" Any questions? 
"Is she gay too?" I asked. "I don't know,
she doesn't talk."
Our friend Ron Anderson, socializing with two cowboys
 who came to the parade on their own. 

News travel fast, even down to Mexico.
Just as Albin sang in "La Cage aux folles":
"Just another dab of mascara to my rather limp upper lash."
Are you Boy Scouts?, I inquired. "Nooo!" they replied, with mock
exasperation. "We're forest rangers, like Smokey Bear, can't you tell?"
An angel, maybe an archangel, fluttering about.
"Prudence," a brand of Mexican condoms, clearly believes in targeted advertising.
"These are just my boots. It was too hot for
my whole leather outfit."
Talk to me or else: A broadcast reporter walked around in a leather outfit,
holding a microphone in one hand and a cat o' nine tails on the other.
When a flowery Carmen Miranda came to Mexico
and brought her adorable daughter dressed as butterfly.

Do you think wearing pink tulle wings
makes me look like a gay pug?
Beefcake tacos anyone?
Is he primping his feathers or checking
emails from his Aztec ancestors?
A princess waiting for her horse-drawn carriage to arrive. 
The mercantile spirit: Vendors sold all sorts of custom paraphernalia,
from penis-shaped chocolates, pirated porno films and lace rainbow flags. 

Whatever it takes to survive in Mexico City.
Thanks Barack Obama: A rainbow flag flew along with the Stars and
Stripes at the U.S. Embassy. The American ambassador also walked
around in the  parade. Can't imagine those sights, or marriage equality,
if we'd had a Republican in the White House.

Pope Luis I, wearing a rather suggestive
miter hat and a table cloth for a cape. 

A lone representative from the Teuhantepec area of the state of
 wearing a typical native outfit. I forgot to ask about the flower pot.
Exhibits One and Two: Why people go to the gym.
Not sure about this get-up except
I wasn't about to make fun of it.
"Brunhilde, is that you?" I asked.
"Who's that?" Brunhilde replied. 
At 1:45 p.m. the parade seemed to be starting. 

Whatever. This couple broke away for lunch and a beer near the starting line.

Until next year. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mexit, meet Brexit

As we returned on the bus from Mexico City on Sunday, we approached the city of Querétaro and the sight was one of explosive economic growth.

Indeed this city of nearly one million is the fastest-growing in the country right now. There are brand-new expressways, shopping centers, residential and commercial construction everywhere you turn.

Behind this growth during the past several years are dozens of industrial parks with huge hangar-like steel structures housing some Mexican but mostly foreign companies such as the France's Airbus (helicopter assembly) and Canada's Bombardier (jet engine components).

Although I didn't do a headcount, the largest number of tenants seemed to be American companies, attracted to Mexico by its low labor and operating costs. Call it the upside of free-trade.

Industrial parks in Queretaro.
What would happen to this feverish economic activity if the U.S. embarked on a nasty, Brexit-like divorce from Mexico, particularly if the grounds were Donald Trump's xenophobia and demagoguery rather rational economic calculations?

I suspect the results might resemble the mounting crisis now shaking the United Kingdom. Brexit was sold as an nationalistic and economic elixir but in fact it was poisoned by immigrant bashing and intolerance. It may turn out to be a case of the normally cold-headed Brits cutting off their noses to spite their ears.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mexico's most annoying tradition

Much more dangerous than incendiary salsas, tainted water or marauding bandidos, Mexico's hundreds of thousands of speed bumps—in many sizes and shapes, sometimes marked but usually not, and lurking anywhere frequently for no apparent reason—stand at the ready to jolt motorists into fits of cursing.

This morning's New York Times carried a brief piece by reporter Damien Cave about the curse of Mexican speed bumps. Damien, you don't know the half of it.

At their most basic, speed bumps or topes (toe-pays) are a cheap and nasty Mexican solution to the very real problem of speeding cars.

On the way to the nearby town of Celaya, in the middle of nowhere and with little warning, you run into a string of five or six topes—and five wooden crosses huddled on one side of the road that tell the reason why they were installed: Apparently five people lost their lives trying to cross the road.

Topes near schools, busy pedestrian crossings or construction zones make sense. But the vast majority just pop up overnight, unexplained and at apparently illogical locations.

On the Richter Scale of topes, the ones on San Miguel's Calzada de la
Luz are relatively benign, except there are more than a dozen
on a piece of street less than a mile long. 
Several years ago San Miguel drivers celebrated the opening of a marvelous silk-smooth highway that shaved ten or fifteen minutes from the drive to nearby León airport. Within a week or five, however, a series of ten or fifteen topes appeared. They seemed to be of the homemade, asphalt variety which suggested neighbors had taken matters into their own hands.

The screeching of brakes and teeth-gnashing all but eliminated the time savings and convenience of the new road. But just as quickly, someone—the government? irate drivers? the Almighty?—went by and scraped up most of the offending speed bumps. Some survived and others were replaced, and at the end of this brief but intense speed bump war we are left with five or six of them.

A double string of little turtles looks innocent but it can
bring out every rattle in your car. 
There are no engineering standards governing the height or width of topes. The most innocuous ones are simply a length of thick rope across the road, usually to signal a military or police checkpoint ahead.

Most colorful are the tortuguitas ("little turtles"), or metal half-spheres, yellow when new and imbedded in the pavement. They can deliver enough of a jolt to spill your coffee but at least you can see them coming.

The most lethal tope is the combination speed bump and crosswalk, up to nine or ten inches high and with a flat top four to five feet wide. Unless you approach them almost dead slow, your car's front end will be on one side and your rear wheels still on the other—while your muffler and undercarriage scrape bottom. The deep gouges on many of the topes around San Miguel tell that story.

Our first car in Mexico was a VW Passat stationwagon that suffered innumerable scrapes. The low-slung profile made it a great road car with handling so sure its wide tires seemed glued to the pavement. But in San Miguel—Mexico's national obstacle course with a combination of cobblestones, potholes, narrow streets, cyclists and topes around every corner—the Passat didn't stand a chance.

Many other low-riding car models are similarly vulnerable. Toyota Priuses are hopeless and even most of the menacing Dodge Chargers of the Policía Federal seem to have had the bottom of their fiberglass noses chewed off by topes. 

A little-used road leading to a subdivision on the edge of town.
Why is a speed bump needed here? Because, why not?
A fun aspect of this tope mania, though, is to watch visiting chilangos—a not too endearing moniker for blowhard Mexico City visitors—in town for the weekend and trying to wow their girlfriends with their Mercedeses, BMWs and the occasional Ferrari, and instead losing parts of their mufflers in our little jungle of pinche speedbumps.

Topes, annoying and destructive as they are, survive because they are cheap and effective. They save the cost of installing traffic lights (San Miguel has none, and its many Stop signs are mostly decorative) and certainly of having a trained police force to prosecute speeders.

So the problem feeds on itself—drivers ignore speed limits because they know the police is not going to do anything. Even when they spring into action, cops often are out to collect bribes rather than enforce speed limits or other traffic regulations.

On the approach to the U.S. border, near Laredo, there is a stretch of road notorious as a shameless speed trap. There are curves, exits, lane changes, loopy loops and other traffic features—each stretch with its own speed limit—and an endless stream of clueless gringo drivers who neglect to speed up or slow down accordingly. Like shooting fish in a barrel, many get stopped by the police though usually a cash contribution to the officer makes the problem go away.

And to the New York Times reporter, here's a free piece of advice on clearing topes without wrecking your car. First, slow down almost to a crawl. Then tackle them at a sharp angle, so at least one of your tires remains on the tope and you don't bottom out.

If that doesn't work, I dunno, have you considered buying an SUV?