Thursday, January 21, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

That's my all-time favorite line from Monty Python.

My something different is a BOOK.
Yep, a book. Instead of posting to this blog, I'm going to be busy gathering material for my book. I know....I'll miss you, too.

I was sort of inspired by being invited to do a book presentation a few weeks ago at the Oaxaca Lending Library for a couple of local author friends (Jim Duggins's The Power: A Story of Voodoo; and Bruce Stores's The Isthmus). It was fun doing the research and talking with the authors about the writing process.

And I thought, "I can do this!" In fact, I already have. I've had two travel books published in my past, along with numerous articles in newspapers and magazines around the U.S. Only thing lacking was the inspiration. Now, I've got it!

The subject for the book came from one of my local expat friends who's been in town for years: "Why not do a book on the eccentricities of an American expat community?" she asked. God knows, there's a SOAP OPERA worth of material. I've fictionalized the book a little. I'm setting it in Guatemala instead of Mexico.

I suppose, however, the character of an American expat community is about the same anywhere in the world. It's like the title of one of Dan Brown's books: "ANGELS & DEMONS." In an expat community, you have the "ANGELS" who right away throw themselves selflessly into volunteer work, social justice causes, missionary work and helping the local people. And then, you have the "DEMONS" who are negative, hateful, unhappy, often alcoholic folk who've re-invented for themselves a new life in a foreign country. Instead of trying to support the local community, they tear it down. Any expat community is, by its nature, insular and small--sort of like an adult version of "Lord of Flies." Most everyone knows everyone else. And if they don't, then they gossip about what they don't know and slander old friends.

My book, which has the working title of "Expat on the Back," is well underway. Helping me with my research, I'm grateful to have a number of friends here--longtime Oaxaca expats--who know the local scene. With family support, I've hired a local person who specializes in this kind of research to help me. And we've already identified a few of the main characters.

I'll post more details on the book as we come along. Perhaps monthly or so. Until then....Remember the Alamo!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Universal Truth: All Cable Companies Suck

I thought it was just me.
Or maybe just American cable companies.
The truth is I've never known one that wasn't a pain in the butt to deal with. It must have something to do with their near-monopoly status--If you want cable TV/Internet, you have to take us or leave us.

Here's my Mexican cable company story:
I signed up with Cablemas, the primary cable TV and Internet provider in Oaxaca (the other option is through the national phone company). To do so, I had to go in person to their offices in a northern suburb. And stand in line (always lines in Mexico). The customer service lady was pleasant enough, and we muddled through the contract--in Spanish. I signed up for one year with the 459 peso/month plan with high-speed Internet and a good number of cable TV channels. Except for the fact she wanted a copy of my passport. Passport? For cable TV service? Huh? Need my shoe size, too, perhaps? I didn't bring it with me, so she arranged to come pick it up from my apt. the next day. That was November. So far, so good.

So the first of December rolls around. I went to a nearby Cablemas outlet to pay my December bill. Except it wasn't 459. It was 469. I didn't protest. Maybe taxes or something, I thought. Then came the first of January. Again I went to pay the cable bill. This time, 480 pesos. "Hmmm," I thought, "perhaps they don't understand the notion of A CONTRACT." And then a statement came in the mail showing I owed 100 pesos. I confess, at that point I completely lost it.

So, I got on a bus and went back up to the Cablemas head office in the northern suburb. And what to my wondering eyes did appear? A line out the door and down the block! "Crap!" says I. I cut the line. No....not because I'm a gringo. Because the line was for those paying their bills. A DIFFERENT line for customer service. I got behind a big guy who had to go over his bill V-E-R-Y-S-L-O-W-L-Y line by line by line with the clerk. And then...surprise, surprise! His cell phone rang. And he sat there and took the call and had a nice chat while those of use behind him got angrier and angrier.

Finally, I got to the head of the line. I explained my mysterious levitating bill to the clerk. "Well, sir," he said, "the December increase was because we raised the connection speed on the Internet to 1.5GB." "I don't WANT an increased connection speed," as testily as I could in Spanish. "I was perfectly happy withe the 1GB that I signed the contract for." "But EVERYONE got bumped up to 1.5G. So the price increase was to pay for that across the board." "Yeah, well what about January?" I asked. "Sir," he says to me as though I am a slow child, "January is the beginning of the new year. Rates go up at the beginning of the year." Somehow the idea of CONTRACT is lost on these people. "At least tell me why I got a bill showing I owe a balance of 100 pesos." He had to get up, leave, and go check with a supervisor. This is always a delaying tactic used when the clerk wants to get away from the customer.

" boss says that was a computer error. I should come off on your next statement. If not, you can come back up here and talk to us in Customer Service next month." And wait in line, again. Oh, joy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Teaching Chess in Oaxaca

First, a disclaimer: I'm no chess expert. In fact, I haven't played in over 30 years. Even then, I was mediocre to lousy. But I do understand how to play it, sort of.

Call me crazy, but I've decided to TRY to teach chess to the kids at the Estancia Infantil. You may recall this is the State government-run agency (DIF) program for street kids. This semester, we have a younger group--from about 6 or 7 to about 14. A couple of the older kids already know who to play and are pretty good. We've tried to enlist them in helping to teach the younger kids.

This idea got started when I read a study somewhere...don't remember where....that kids who learn chess do better in school. They develop forward thinking skills and planning (what's the next move going to be?). And they do better in math.

So the coordinator of our program, Janet, kindly went out and bought 2 hand-made wooden chess sets. And Eva, Martha, Bridget, and I boldly waded onto the field of battle, chess sets in hand, with the idea of teaching the kids chess. What was I thinking?

We started with taping off a chessboard on the cement floor of our classroom, with the thought of doing "human" chess. Each kid could be a chess piece, and thus learn the movements of the different pieces through kinesthetic learning (a terrific way to learn something, by the way). Awful idea! We had near fist-fights over who would be the knight, the bishop, the king, etc. And NO ONE wanted to be a pawn. Oh well, scratch that idea.

So yesterday, I brought along one of the chess sets and quietly placed it in the corner while we all (including the staff social worker) helped the kids with their homework. Poor Chucho! He's a little kid...I'd say about 6/7. He really can't or won't focus. His assignment was to write 10 words beginning with the letter "G." Martha & I tried to help. He simply wasn't interested. Or it could be he doesn't quite have a good grasp of his alphabet yet. But what he DID want to do was play chess! After a while, we gave up with the letter "G" assignment and decided to play chess, given that he had such a great interest in it.

What a surprise! He picked up the movements of each piece quickly. And most gratifying, you could actually "see" his thinking process. He'd say, "well, I COULD move the rook over to this square, but our opponent would take him on her next move." Wow! Thinking one move in advance. We used the phrases, "mala idea" (bad idea or bad move) and "en peligro" (in danger). Soon, Chucho was using those same phrases, "my bishop is 'en peligo' over there." With his rabid enthusiasm, we soon had a little group of onlookers. Who couldn't limited themselves to just watching, but often had to handle the pieces on the board in play....stack a pawn on top of a rook, etc. It makes for chaotic play, but what the heck....

A funny cultural note: in Mexico, they say instead of "capturing" the opponent's piece you "eat" the opponents piece. Makes for a juicier, video-game kind of action.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


When I flew over to Puerto Escondido, I noticed something strange waiting in the little airport departure lounge here. Big signs about the environment, ecology, being 'green.' Great, the government is really aware. And, sure enough, they had a very current trash container with separate bins labeled for metal cans, plastic, paper, and organic material. Travelers were being very meticulous in separating their trash and putting each category into its correct bin.

Then along came a custodial worker. She opened the lid of the trash container, and TOSSED EACH OF THE SEPARATED TYPES OF TRASH together into her one black plastic bag! Not quite the idea we had in mind. As the old Missouri saying goes: you can put lipstick on a pig, but ya' still got a pig.
One of the local propane gas companies, Gas de Oaxaca, advertises on loudspeakers as their trucks traverse the city: "Gas de Oaxaca....Kilos Exactos!!" (exact kilo weights). The first time I heard it, I thought "duh....Of course you get a kilo of gas when you pay for a kilo." Ah...but, not so. In Mexico there are some very curious notions of regulation, weights and measures.
My kingdom for a Home Depot (they exist in other parts of Mexico, but not here). I've been in three paint stores looking to buy a can of white paint to match my bathroom cabinets. "May I have a paint chip?" I ask politely. "Certainly not. We have a book right here on the counter with samples." "But how do I MATCH what's already there?" I haven't gotten a good answer on that yet. I guess producing and--worse--distributing free paint chips is considered a frivolous business expense.

5,000 Pairs of Pants

I've been reading through a series of special editions of Processo Magazine, honoring Mexico's Bicentennial. In one entitled "La Fiesta Interrumpida" (The Party Interrupted) (Sept. 2009), it talks about all the preparations for the country's 100th birthday party in 1910. The dictator Porfirio Diaz was in power, at the very end of his 30-year reign. Modern buildings were built, statues and memorials to the founding fathers were erected, cities were electrified, museums were opened, elaborate parades were held.

It was an enormous "best foot forward" for the young country. They invited the world to come to their party. Thousands of foreign dignitaries and guests arrived in Mexico City to honor 100 years of Mexican independence.

And what do President Diaz do? Why, he bought 5,000 pairs of pants and distributed to the indigenous folks in the capital who wore the traditional "calzon de manta," a kind of rough-woven fabric breeches or shorts. First, he imposed a law that all indigenous must wear pants in public or face a penalty. Then he passed out the pants--free--so that the "sensibilities of the 'civilized' illustrious guests [including the U.S. Secretary of State] wouldn't be offended." It struck me as a kind of Disney-fication of the historical celebration. Nice and tidy for the visitors...

And the a committee of rich ladies was formed to continue such acts of "benevolence" to buy "decent clothes" so that street children and beggars wouldn't give a bad impression to visitors. Entry into Mexico City was blocked by guards to those not wearing pants.

The article went on to contrast the idealization of the Historical Indian with the inconvenient reality of the modern-day Indian.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Wonderful Way to Start the Year

It's struck me how lucky I am to be living in Oaxaca, a place filled with beautiful colonial architecture and surrounded by mountains and forests. I'm enjoying my new friends here and the intellectual stimulation offered by the American library in town. We have history classes, book presentations, language intercambio exchanges each week, and regular social get-togethers.

I look forward to my volunteer work continuing this year. It has given me so much joy working with these Mexican young people. My goal this year is to learn more about Mexican and Oaxacan culture and the people here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Weather

It's been cold here in Oaxaca and all across Mexico thanks to "Frente Frio No.22" (Cold Front 22). It's cold in the U.S., too, I see on cable TV.

Up in the northern part of the country, it's even worse: Chihuahua 34F, Xalapa Veracruz 43F, Monterrey 36F, Puebla 43F, San Luis Potosi, 34F, Mexico City 46F. Even tropical Veracruz is only 59F.
Our local weather report today calls for a low of 37F degrees. Since none of the homes have heating, that means it's wear-your-warmest-coat-indoors weather. I've been wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa all morning.

It's really dangerously cold up in the Indian communities in the mountains outside of town. They're dirt poor and often don't even have blankets to keep warm.

Yesterday, it was overcast, cold, and rainy. Sort of like a November day in Chicago, as I remember.

But by Thursday, they're forecasting a high here of 87F degrees. I can't wait!