Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Roommates

A few posts ago I debated getting a roommate. You may recall that The Learning Center, a local NGO that helps poor students, had a young woman who desperately needed housing. And I had an empty "maids room" on the back porch. As a number of you pointed out, the idea of an 18-year-old Mexican female living with an old gringo could...would...raise eyebrows. It wouldn't be a problem for ME, but for her--in the eyes of family and friends--could be a serious problem.

Solution to the problem: she found a room with a female American expat friend of mine, who now has 2 female Mexican university students living with her. They've become friends. And for Janet, who lost her husband recently, she has some friendly young company in the house. There are now several of us in Oaxaca who are housing Mexican students, including my former landlady who houses a young high school girl.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. The director of The Learning Centerhttp://www.tolc.org.mx/ called me to tell me that they had a young MAN, a university student, who needed housing. Would I like to come over and meet him? I did, and after a couple of meetings, discussions with the staff at TLC, and a tour of my place, Jaime (that's not his real name) moved in. That was Monday, the same day I got back from Puerto Escondido. In fact, about 2 hours after I landed. That was a busy day. It's now been a week and all is good. He's clean..just as I am. He helps me with cooking and keeping the house tidy. I offer free room & board. I enjoy the company....watching stupid cartoons together on cable TV, discussing the day's news in Oaxaca. Plus, he's a live-in language tutor. I told him, "Please, please correct me when I make mistakes in Spanish." And he does, vigorously!

Jaime is enrolled as a first-year student at the state university here. I'll see very little of him with his busy schedule of studies, so this shouldn't be a problem having him here. It will be neat having a "local" around to explain to me how things work in Oaxaca. I'm looking forward to a relationship based on respect in which I can learn more about Mexican culture.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas



On this special day, I thought I'd post two photos from the picnic we had a couple of weeks ago. This the group from the Child & Family Welfare Office (state agency).
They have a program for street kids (the ones who sell candies, earrings, gum, souvenirs, etc. on the street). I hired a Santa Claus and we wrapped presents for each of the 35 kids. The little angel is Jesus, nicknamed "Chucho."
Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What To Do On a Rainy Day



It was overcast and cool with drizzle a couple of the days I spent in Puerto Escondido. What to do? Why, sketch, of course. I found this wonderful old rickety table with a view out over the gardens of the hotel, hammocks in the ready in the background. I felt like Gauguin in Tahiti or Hemingway in Cuba, in an artsy tropical kind of way. (Minus the talent, of course).

View From the Hotel Balconey

Footprints in the Sand



A Dash of Sea Salt

British Poet Laureate John Masefield had it right in his classic poem,
Sea-Fever. Sometimes you just need to stand at the water's edge. That's how I felt watching the sunsets in Puerto Escondido last weekend. I've posted some of my photos below. As a reminder, here's the poem:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

There's Something About a Beach at Sunset






Nothing to Beach About





Monday, December 21, 2009

A Vacation from the Vacation

Being retired and living in Mexico is like being on vacation every day. No meetings, no boss(the best part), no stress. I pretty much do what I damned well feel like doing. And I enjoy that.

So after months of wasted time and idle leisure, I decided I needed a break. So I went down to the coast, to Puerto Escondido, for a long weekend. It's a 40 minute hop up over the mountains in a tiny little plane.

I'll write more about Puerto in the next few days and post some of my photos.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Very Best Christmas Gift

Back when I was living in Phoenix, every Christmas I used to scout out one of those "Angel Trees" and pick a kid--or a family--to buy a present for. We had one each year at my college. And that was, for me, the very best Christmas gift--knowing that I could share what I had with someone who really needed....the bike...the shoes...the new pair of pants.

Now that I'm in Oaxaca, my charity of choice is Casa Hogar, Hijos de la Luna ("Children of the Moon" in English). This is the shelter for kids of prostitutes. I've posted photos of the kids in the next 4 posts. I volunteer there every Saturday, and I've come to love these kids. They're dirt poor, but full of inquisitiveness, energy, and love. Coco--the lady who founded the shelter--began by taking a few kids into her own home. It's still a seat-of-the-pants kind of place. Lots of "make-do." They can only afford meat twice a week for the kids' meals. But lots of rice & beans and vegetables. Coco's adult chilren and in-laws help her run the shelter.

I had an idea: if any of you kind readers feel so moved, a charitable contribution to the program would go a long, long way. We need to renovate the playground (it's dirt now) so that it can be used when it rains. We need to replace the beat up car which is transportation to and from school for a dozen kids. We need to improve the living quarters and the common room. There's a lot to do. I try to give a little each month since I can see EXACTLY where the money goes....it's very tangible, not a check mailed off to a charity I don't know much about. Our work is directed through the Oaxaca Lending Library. Go to the Web site at: http://www.oaxlibrary.com/ and follow the link on the left side of the page to "Ninos Adelante." If you want to do something really worthwhile this Christmas, this is it. It will be your Very Best Christmas Gift.

A Christmas Card





A Christmas Card





A Christmas Card





A Christmas Card





Sunday, December 6, 2009

In Consideration of Roommates

Dear Readers,
Thanks for all the thoughtful feedback on the last post. Very good points. Yes--there is a lot to consider here in deciding whether or not to welcome a college student into my home. Some of you suggested that I should NOT ask this roommate to help clean or cook....that I would probably NOT ask that of a young male student. Nope. I absolutely WOULD ask that of a male student. It has nothing to do with gender. If I--a 58-year-old male--can clean a toilet and make a pot of chili, then I would expect a 19-year old male OR female to help around the house. Also, I look at it as part of my tutoring or mentoring: It teaches responsibility. And work--any type or amount of work--gives one a sense of dignity and self-worth. I think of the Chiclets vendors down in the zocalo. They'll let you know quite clearly they ARE NOT beggars. They are vendors and they won't take donations...only your money in exchange for a candy. Why? Dignity. I don't think asking a kid to sweep the floor every day is onerous.

I met with Gary Titus, the founder of the Learning Center, this morning to get acquainted and talk about the specific case of this young woman from the Isthmus.

An important consideration has nothing to do with me, but rather the social impact how SHE would be perceived in her community. Gary suggested that he and his staff would have to do a lot or preparatory work talking to and explaining the living arrangement with the girl's family. After all, they are indigenous campesinos and very traditional. Her living with me wouldn't be a problem for me. For her, it may very well be so. And I have to be considerate of that. On the other hand, if not having housing means she must drop out of university (she's on full scholarship), I would hate to see that.

Gary recommended that the ideal arrangement for her would be to room with an American woman or a couple. It's not uncommon here in Oaxaca for expats to welcome a Mexican student into their homes. Gary will continue to look for that type of arrangement, since we have a month and a half to find something until the young woman must move from her present lodgings. Of course, one can measure the breach between "ideal arrangements" and Reality as exactly the distance between a future and desperation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Roommate?

Lately, I've been so aware of the great good fortune I enjoy and the severely constrained fortunes of many (most) Mexicans. It's hard to ignore simply walking down the street. Right now I'm sitting here watching Cirque du Soleil on A&E on cable TV and blogging on my high-speed WIFI connection. Right now thousands of Oaxacans are going without an evening meal.

So when I moved into my new apartment and noted the 3rd bedroom--a "maid's room" on the service patio, the thought occurred to me "hmmm...should it sit empty?" So I mentioned it to the ESL coordinator at the Learning Center (Centro de Aprendizage) here. http://www.tolc.org.mx/ That's the place where I volunteer-taught an English class this last summer. They do wonderful work with tutoring and academic help for poor kids who come in from the rural area of the mountains and the Isthmus. Mostly indigenous kids going to high school and university here in the capital.

So tonight, I received an email from the Center's director asking me if I'd offer room & board to a 19-year-old female student from south of Oaxaca. Her parents are poor campesinos and can't pay for her college (she's on scholarship) or housing. The place she's staying now is kicking her out at the end of January.

I'll talk to Gary, the Center's director tomorrow. Decisions, decisions. Roommate or no roommate? What do you think?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Confessions of a Money Launderer

Yep, I did it. I laundered money. A whole pocketful of bills. What's worse, I laundered my cell phone. If you've ever wondered, cell phones don't much like that.

It all started when my long-awaited furniture arrived yesterday (at least part of it did). I was thrilled not to have to eat and sleep on the floor any longer. I helped the delivery guy carry it upstairs. Unfortunately, the pieces were stained and waxed in a reddish finish. Which led to reddish-finished jeans, shirt, and hands. I had the bright idea, "just strip out of the clothes and throw them in some soapy water in the wash sink out back." (see...I'm full of brilliant ideas). So I did.

About half an hour later, I decided to go out and threw on some pants. I began looking for my money clip. Hmmm, not on the dresser. Hmmm, not on the kitchen counter. Hmmm, must be.....in my soaking blue jeans! Right there along with the cell phone (now deceased). Crap!

I think we call these "senior moments."

I went to Chedraui (like a Super Walmart), where I was able to buy the same model phone. They switched out the old (damp) Sim card into the new unit, and I was able to go on my merry way with the same telephone number. I did lose my list of contacts, though. They're all underwater.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Doggie Drama Ends

At least for now. The downstairs neighbor has returned with a whirlwind of hugs and kisses for the dog. And more important--with a cleaning of the urine and poop off the service patio underneath my bedroom window. The dog has calmed down. Evidently it's been fed.

She went over and talked to the landlord and then came up to apologize. I thanked her for that. She offered to pay for my hotel last night. The landlord told her she had to have the dog gone by tomorrow at 6, but she said that was impossible. The dog still needs to go...or her with the dog. It's fine when she's in the house, but it screams when she's gone. Obviously, she won't be able to spend 24/7 with the critter. We know what it does when it's left alone, and that's not going to change. I'm not going to either. I'm old; I like my sleep (uninterrupted).

Once More, With Feeling

And last night, Sunday, we had the FOURTH night of the Wailing Schnauzer. At 10 p.m., I left and checked into a hotel.

A number of my readers have, naturally, expressed concern about the animal. Obviously, it's lonely and suffering from separation anxiety. Dogs are pack animals and shouldn't be left alone. I've had several dogs over the years, and I was always concerned to leave the animal alone more than the 8 hours I was at work. If I went away on a trip, the dog checked into the doggie hotel at the vet's.

I should say that this owner downstairs HAS made 5-minute quick visits the last two days. So that means she's feeding and watering it. I can hear her come in downstairs, "How has my baby been? Have you been a good doggie?" In my mind, it NOT your 'baby' if you go away and leave your dog alone for 4 days. That's not how you show love.

But here we get to cultural attitudes. Americans treat their animals differently than Mexicans do. I went over this morning and had a long talk with the landlord (who lives next door). He has left a big note on her front door since Friday. Even with her quick visits, she has ignored his note.

Friends at the American library here have recommended that I try to rescue the dog...with ideas like dropping a rope down the light well and trying to lasso it and drag it up. Bad idea. First of all, my windows all have iron bars at the window. Second, not too comfy for Yo-Yo. So...at this point, we wait and hope the landlord can do something. The dog isn't without water or food (I think). Just alone. And that's not good for man nor beast.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shaggy Dog Story

We're now on day number 3 with no downstairs neighbor in sight. Tonight, Sunday, will be the fourth night that she's been away, leaving the dog all alone on the patio. I consider it cruel and unusual punishment---both for the dogs and the neighbors who have to listen to the animal's piteous howls and cries. Especially all night long.

Mexicans have a completely different relationship with their animals. In the U.S., they're babied like favored members of the family. Here--in what would bring the Animal Cruelty Police knocking at your door back home--you leave them unattended for days.

On my walks over to the library each morning, I've noticed another raggedy dog tied up with a rope around his neck lying on the sidewalk, boney and dejected. It's sad.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Taking the Bad with the Good

Between now and my last post, in which I was near eupohoric, I had last night.

They say, "into each life a little rain must fall." If that's true, it was a bloody hurricane last night. Not in the meteorological sense, but the the schnauzer sense. My downstairs neighbor has one. She was gone all night, the dog wasn't. It has separation anxiety and went NUTS, scratching on something metallic, rattling the door, and howling. A piercing, ear-splitting screech that approximates the sound of a female human voice. So imagine hearing that wail at 1 a.m., and 2 a.m., and 3 a.m., and 4 a.m....you get the idea. Around 4 I was thinking a little rat poison would be nice. Not for the dog. For the absent owner.

Let me explain the architecture of our building--there are 4 apartments, 2 on each side. I'm up on the second floor with a large light well that opens down onto Cruela DeVillle's first floor enclosed patio. There are tile floors and cement walls all around. So sound bounces around, echos a bit, and is amplified. It was like having the dog screaming in my right ear.

I've got some bad history with schnauzers. The woman I lived with in Phoenix (my oldest and best friend) had THREE of the critters, who barked at passing garbage trucks, visitors, passing boats on the lake, falling leaves, air.... When people came to the front door, they jumped all over them and set up a high-pitched, high-decibel cacophany. That's why I affectionately refer to schnauzers as "little devil dogs from hell." And, now, that's what I've got downstairs. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mil Gracias

"A thousand thanks." That's pretty much the way I like to wake up every morning, with that on my mind. There's nothing like living in the middle of one of the poorest states of a developing country to help one realize how fortunate he is. It puts the good fortune of early retirement in sharp focus. Thanksgiving becomes a tangible act.

Don't get me wrong--sometimes I start out the day cranky and it goes downhill from there. But most days I feel very, very lucky. This Thanksgiving, I've been meditating on the gift of people. Having just returned from a trip to Phoenix and Chicago, I realize that although dear friends and family are distant, we are connected by bonds of the heart which transcend place. There is that unique joy in seeing a loved one you haven't seen for a long time. A hug,and then it's like you've never been away.

This morning I spent the morning volunteering at Estancia Infantil, the program for street kids. I've gotten to know most of the kids for over 6 months, and I've grown attached to them. This morning, I came dragging in and was mobbed with hugs and one little girl who jumped on my back. Ugh! I think I know what Santa Claus must feel like. Our project today was to teach the kids how to play chess. Good idea....and bad idea. The old ones did just fine (and a few already know how). But the younger ones (6-8 years)....that was like teaching trained monkeys. Actually, a monkey would do better. I saw a study that said kids who learn chess do better academically and learn thinking and strategy skills. So we'll continue trying. I'm learning, too: patience.

This afternoon, I joined the Australian lady I volunteer with and 2 other friends for a Thanksgiving dinner at a local restaurant downtown. It was quite the fancy thing with platters of all the traditional favorites served family style. Turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce, oh my! As I looked around the room, I realized that I knew probably 20 or so other expats at the gathering. I felt grateful for the connections with these interesting folks.

And tonight, I'm walking straight down Avenue Independencia to the Teatro Macedonia Alcala for a performance of the State Symphony Orchestra.

A day doesn't really get any better than this. I'll share some of my good fortune with a donation to the Casa Hogar this weekend. That's the shelter for kids of prostitutes.
Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Connected

Today, the cable guy came. I'm thrilled.
Now I've got high-speed Internet and cable TV in the apartment. All the comforts of home. Not that I minded living in an empty apartment....reading books and magazines, sketching, studying Spanish.....with not even a radio to listen to. However it makes me realize how addicted I--or all of us--have become to modern technology.

Now I can watch The CBS Evening News live on The American Network. I can listen to the BBC World News on the Internet. I can watch old reruns of Seinfeld (with weird Spanish subtitles), HOUSE, and American movies. I can post to my blog. This is fun!

All for about $32/month. That's about a third of what I was paying in Phoenix for a TV/cable package from Cox. Of course, having the cable service meant I had to go out (late last night) and buy a TV. I went to 4 stores and wound up buying a TV at Chedraui's, a chain store that's a Super Wal-Mart knock-off. I spent $135 for a 21 inch screen....NOT flat screen. Back in the State, we can hardly find a unit that's NOT flat screen. My logic was this: a big clunky, boxy, heavy TV set is a TV set that's harder to rob. A burglar would have a hernia lugging this thing out of the house.

The cable guy came exactly on time as promised (that's an unusual big deal in Mexico). He spent almost 4 hours here pulling cable from the street, up on the roof, and opening outlets in the house. The same guy did all the "heavy lifting" as well as the computer/modem/password setup stuff. I tipped him for his hard work. That's always appreciated here, even though a cable company technician would be considered a solidly middle-class profession.

This morning, I joined the guys for our weekly breakfast. That was a welcome connection, too. And then I went for my weekly massage with Beto...low tech, hi touch. It was a day of getting connected.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Shopping

Yesterday, I went to Mercado Merced, my local fresh market. Every Sunday the vegetable/fruit vendors come out and the selection is astounding. Gorgeous, fresh stuff. I stocked up with green beans, potatoes, avocados, green peppers, pears, bananas, etc. Eating healthily is easy here. And tomorrow I'm going to make a stew or a soup or something--throw it all in a pot.

And this morning....drum roll....I went FURNITURE SHOPPING!!!
I'm so excited about not sleeping on the floor. Small things make you happy down here. At the "intercambio" (language exchange Spanish/English) on Saturday, I ran into my old student, Manuel. He's a English language major at the local university and is always fun to practice language with. I asked him if he'd go with my to the Central de Abastos. So this morning at 10, we met in Llano Park. He told me he'd gone down to the Abastos on Sunday to look around, and there was nothing I'd be interested in. Instead, he suggested we take the bus out to the colonia where he lives--about 30 minutes west of town--where he knew of some cheap furniture stores.

Sure enough, the place we went had some great pieces and even better prices. I ordered: an upholstered 6-foot sofa, and easy chair, a dining room table with 4 chairs, a wooden bed frame, a nightstand.......all for less than $600 U.S. They're staining it to my selection; and it'll be ready on Friday. Delivery is included. I can't wait!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Observations

I did a double take yesterday waiting for the bus. A young lady was getting onto the bus in front of me. She had on a teeshirt with an inscription in English on the front. Over her left breast was a large circle. Inside the circle, it read, "Rub this on your butt." I bet she had no idea what it meant. Something like that would never be worn in the U.S. except by someone VERY drunk. Here, though, if it's in English, it has to be cool, right? I was shocked. And I don't shock easily.
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I had another example of how small things make you happy in Mexico. For my new apartment, I needed an electrical extension cord to connect the microwave to the outlet a distance away (the microwave sits on top of the fridg). Originally, I bought a power strip, but the microwave pulls a lot of current and kept kicking off the power strip. So I thought I'd get a 3-prong grounded cord. Hah! Silly me. The first electrical store I went to said that these aren't even made in Mexico. The second said wanted to sell me a plug adapter (3-prong to 2-prong). "No, I want a grounded plug." The third store tried to sell me another power strip. The fourth store had the 3-prong cords, but only in 8 meters length. At that store I learned that I needed to be asking for a "uso rudo" type (heavy duty). And they're not called "cords" (cuerdas), but rather "extensiones electricas." I went to a total of EIGHT stores looking for a short, 3-pronged extension cord. I finally found one, a 4-meter cord, at at Tubos & Connexiones, which is another branch of the same store 2 blocks from my house. I was THRILLED. It's like finding a needle in a Mexican haystack.
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The Trashman Cometh:

I was a bit worried about how to get rid of my regular trash. The city garbage truck comes to my nearest intersection around 11:30 a.m.-noon. You have to go stand out and wait or listen very carefully for the truck's bell.....and go running out like made, trash bags in hand. This isn't really the most convenient system. In other neighborhoods, you can simply leave your bagged trash on the street corner, and the garbage truck picks it up in the middle of the night. But in our neighborhood, no. I was bummed out. However, there is another way. In Mexico, there's always another way.
The city street sweeper guy comes down my block around 6:30 p.m. every evening. He knows to ring my apartment buzzer to announce his presence. I come down with my bagged trash. He's waiting in front. I give him a tip. He has a nice little "side business" going on top of his city job. He's happy. I'm happy.
---------------------------------------------

Another positive experience: I went to set up a new account with the local cable company for Internet and cable TV serviced. I didn't know to take a form of ID with me (my passport). The customer service lady there said, "no problem, I'll come pick it up from you at your house tomorrow." And she did the next morning. On time, too.

My Suite of Furniture




That's it. All the furniture that I own now is one plastic chair and a mattress (on the floor). It feels kind of odd being THIS OLD and having these few possessions. But I've proven--to myself at least--that it's perfectly doable. Life simplification at its finest.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The First 24 Hours

My first act upon returning to my new apartment (see travel experience in previous post), was to unwrap my new mattress from its plastic cover, lay it on the floor, and put on the sheets. After a day flying, bed looked very fetching.

Then I changed clothes and headed down to the zocalo for my "re-entry" immersion session. Yep, it's still there and thronged with people enjoying a balmy Saturday night. On my way over, I fortuitously ran into a "calenda" celebrating some saint's day. Fifteen foot costumed characters led the parade, bobbing in every direction, with fireworks rockets set off every block or so, followed by musicians and a crowd following behind. I took it as a very happy "Welcome Home" sign.

Sunday morning, I reinstated a Oaxacan tradition of mine and headed two blocks south to buy homemade fresh tamales from the tamale lady who sets up shop at her ad hoc sidewalk stand every Saturday morning. At 8:30 a.m., there were already 15 people in line. That's because those of us in the know know she always sells out by 10 a.m.

Then I treated myself to my usually Sunday brunch at my favorite breakfast place, Cafeteria Don Tito's. Since I'm a Sunday regular, my waitress, Maria, gave me a big kiss on seeing me and asked about the trip to the States. That's very Mexican and very nice. Afterwards, I wandered through the displays in the zocalo for the International Book Fair. Dozens of book sellers lined up under the tented walkway.

At 11, I went to the American Anglican Church just west of the zocalo for services and social hour. I ran into several friends there. After that, I walked back to the zocalo for the every-Sunday concert of the Oaxaca State Band under the shady laurel tree. Hundreds of folks, families and kids encircled the performers. I found a seat at one of the shoeshine guys' stands and had a shine while I took in the music. Life is good, and I tipped well.

Next, I came back to the apartment to unpack. Then over to the Sunday vegetable market at Mercado Merced. Since the fridg was empty, I needed to stock up. In front of the market is a seafood restaurant, La Red, and I had lunch there. Which gave me just enough time to go home and change for a 6 p.m. concert at Teatro Macedonio Alcala. It was a multi-media music ensemble from the U.S. called TuxedoMoon. Very big on amplification. Not very big on music. Incomprehensible rear-projection graphic on the screen behind. Somewhat like a bad music video turned up really LOUD.
So I left early, realizing I'm more Music of the Baroque than Music of the Multimedia.

And I wandered down to the zocalo for a snack. Mr. Potato Face is a popular wagon that parks behind the cathedral. They serve pototoes...what a surprise. Freshly cut and freshly fried potato chips. It makes a tasty--but greasy--supper.

And that was my very full first day back. It feels like home.

The Journey Back

When people ask, "How was your flight?" I'm always grateful to be able to answer, "uneventful." That's the way we like them. I flew Continental Airlines from Phoenix to Houston, then direct to Oaxaca. It's worth something not to have to change planes in Mexico City. I think about 80% of all flights into and out of this country (except those to resort destinations) go through Mexico City. It's one of my least-favorite airports. Clearing customs and immigration there is sort of like doing that at New York's JFK: it's a zoo.

I traveled on this trip with two pieces of excess baggage for a total of four 50-pound bags. There's something to be said for checking in that heavy load at Phoenix, waving bye-bye, and seeing it all next at my destination, Oaxaca. It all went smoothly. Everything got here on time, on schedule, with nothing broken. I cleared immigration, picked up my bags, and cleared customs at Oaxaca's tiny airport in a record 15 minutes! I'm into easy travel. This was easy.

The flight from Houston arrived on schedule at 8 p.m. and I was back at my apartment after a speedy cab ride at 8:50 p.m. A record. Good suitcase karma, I think.

After lots of research while I was in Phoenix, I discovered the cheapest way to get possessions down here is to bring them along as checked baggage. Continental charges $100 per 50-lb. bag. Compare that to the shipping cost through DHL, UPS, and the Mexican company Estafeta--all of whom charge about $260 for the same weight. So Continental's excess bag charge was a bargain. In fact, I'm impressed with Continental. From their Houston hub they have direct nonstop service to a number of Mexican cities that would normally require a connection through Mexico City. They fly to Aguascalientes, Villahermosa, Veracruz, Puebla, Queretaro, and others....all nonstop from Houston. Smart scheduling in my opinion.

Carless

It's been 30 years since I've been without a car. For most Americans, having a car is as second nature and unremarkable as having, say, a chin. Pretty much every one has one. Now, I don't.

During my 3 weeks back in the States, I sold my car. Since that was one of the objectives of the trip, I'm glad it worked out with minimal effort--a Craigslist posting before I returned and an Arizona Republic ad.

Years ago when I was living in Chicago, I made do for 10 years with the subway, the "El," buses, and the occasional taxi. Which brings me to life in Oaxaca. I walk everywhere. And the places I can't walk to--like the mall at the southern edge of the city--I take the bus. It's 30 cents for anywhere you want to go. I figure at that price, I can take about 670,293 bus rides for the cost of maintaining a car here.

It's funny--after three sedentary weeks back in the U.S., my skeletal system is complaining loudly about our sudden shift to the pedestrian life. But after a few weeks of regular exercise, a bit of massage and ibuprofen, all will feel "normal" once again. I hope.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Home Again

Wherever that is.....I'm not sure anymore.

I'm back now in Phoenix for about 2 weeks, my semi-annual visit. Catching up with old friends and family. Then I'll be in Chicago for a few days next week.

I'll return to Oaxaca around the middle of November. Oh, the life of a nomad.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Catholic Church and Marketing

Having worked in marketing in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds for a number of years, marketing is something I know a bit about.

A case study ready-made for a marketing text is the situation of the Catholic Church in Mexico. Understand that--even though various sources place the current percentage of Mexicans who are Catholic at around 80%--that number is shrinking faster than the membership in the Roman Polanski fan club.

Why? Growing affluence, the effect of active Protestant evangelization in the country, dissolution of traditional family structures, creeping American cultural influence.....many reasons. But all that isn't new. Over the decades there have been repeated attempts by various liberal governments--going back to the Mexican War of Independence from Spain--to crush the power of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits got expelled (So, join the club. Jesuits got kicked out of everywhere.) The government closed the convents. They expelled foreign priests. They expropriated church property for government use. Which brings us to today.

I have my own theory for why the Catholic Church is loosing popularity: firecrackers. Yes, things that go "boom" in the night. Thursday morning, AT FIVE O'CLOCK IN THE DAMNED MORNING....I checked the clock... I was rousted from a deep sleep by an enormous explosion. "The next Revolution has come to town?" I wondered. "Or is the army shooting protesters again (nasty habit)." No, of course not. My brain was addled by sleep. Just one of the many Catholic churches setting off fireworks to "honor"? a saint or a festival day. Not being a Biblical scholar myself, I'm a bit confused here. What chapter and verse says: "And thou shalt set off firecrackers in the midst of yon night"? One of the Commandments, perhaps: "Thou shalt anger thy neighbor, repeatedly."

Consider: Mexico is a poor country. The headlines are daily trumpeting the economic crisis. Folks are out of work. Businesses are closing. THERE SIMPLY ISN'T ENOUGH MONEY to make ends meet. But.......for some odd reason.....there's plenty of money--millions in the aggregate--to buy pyrotechnics for every church, every festival in Mexico. An economist would say, "take all that money, divert it to social welfare programs which benefit the people..." Aw shucks, that's just too common sense. This is Mexico!

And then goes another boom. These weren't like little sparklers, but rather more like blasting caps. The "reverb" lasted for many seconds after the explosion. And then another. And another. And it continued for 10 minutes (I checked the clock). And the end of the explosions, the church bells sounded: a cacophony. Imagine taking all your pots & pans outside and slamming them together. For 15 minutes. Okay, at this point the church has awakened all the parishoners (and heathens like me) for a mile around, announcing to them they need to wake up and come to the 6:00 mass.

Back to my marketing hat. Wouldn't you think that if your organization were loosing members apace, you'd do everything possible to gain their love? To earn their support? To get them back? Here's a suggestion: PISSING OFF EVERYONE IN A MILE RADIUS AT 5:00 IN THE BLOODY MORNING....that's a bad idea.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When a "Resorte" Isn't a Resort

Words from one language that sound like the same word in another language are called "cognates." Spanish and English have a ton of them. That's why it's relatively easy for the speaker of one of those languages to pick up the other. It's not like English and, say, Japanese. Not too many cognates there. When you hear "verificar," for example, you can usually noodle out that that's "verify."

But then come the "false cognates," words that sound alike in the two languages but DO NOT have the same meaning. The most famous of these, and the bain of every young lady traveler in Mexico, is "embarazada." Looks like "embarrassed," right? How many female travelers to Latin America have said "I'm embarazada" thinking they've just told their new friends they're embarrassed, only to find out later what translation of their remark was really, "I'm pregnant." Oops.

When you see a sign that says "Bufete," in Mexico, don't get in line for the $6 All-You-Can-Eat special. "Bufete" doesn't mean buffet, but rather "law office." I stumbled across one of these the other day. I was out shopping for a mattress for my new place. I'm too old to sleep on the floor, so a mattress is the very first purchase for a new apartment. The sales clerks kept talking about "resortes." OK, I figured the were touting a hotel-quality mattress used by fancy resorts. Only when I got back home to my trusty electronic translator/dictionary apparatus did I discover they were talking about springs (resortes=springs) all along. Bong bong bong. Silly me.

Tutus, Tights, and Pigtails

All that on a 60-year-old lady. You have to understand that entertainment in Mexico takes many forms, some just plain weird.

Oaxaca's Teatro Macedonia Alcala is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and has programmed a rich and diverse collection of artists throughout the year. So when I saw the sign advertising "The World's Best Crotalist" (La Mejor Crotalista del Mundo)...I had to go, if only to find out what a crotalist wass. To my mind "crotalist" sounds like some kind of Ukranian meatcutter. Or maybe someone who makes croutons for a living. Who knows?

So I went. And, honestly, until the curtain rose, I had no idea what I was going to see. The house lights dimmed in the gorgeous old theater. The announcer asked for cell phones to be silenced. And out on stage comes Sonia Amelio in a tutu and white ballet tights, piroutting en pointe...up on her little tiptoes...spinning around and clacking castanets for all they were worth. Yep, "crotalist" is a castanet player. Click, click, clack.

Now, I have nothing against castanets. I think they're fine on your typical gypsy flamenco dancer. But Sonia has taken it to a whole new art form, slapping her spoons together in time with works by Debussy, Liszt, Mozart, and Chopin. Over the years, I've seen a ton of widely different performances: all kinds of plays, readings, dance concerts, and music. This left me feeling....like I'd stepped into another dimension.

The Mexican audience seemed to know her well. She's apparently been in Mexican films and on TV. Plus, as her self-aggrandizing bio proclaimed, she's done it all: child prodigy on the piano, concert pianist at 6, ballerina at age 7, she's performed with the Boshoi Ballet in Moscow, done world tours, and earned the keys to the city of Manila.

Between numbers, for her backstage costume changes, they did an A/V presentation on a big screen showing Sonia performing in venues around the world and with clips from her film appearances. Sort of "Sonia the Magnificent." And with every round of applause, she gave us a deep theatrical ballet curtsy and sort of a Gloria Swanson thing with upswept hands. And with her Technicolor ear-to-ear smiles I was seriously worried she was going to bust loose some facelift stitches. That's catty. Sorry. Actually, she looked good. But the gauzy see-through dresses slit up to.....umm, just HERE....it's time to give those a long-overdue rest.


As Monty Python famously said, "and now for something completely different." It really was. For $1.50 admission, it wasn't half bad.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Day in the Life

I got up around 8 this morning after 9 hours of sleep. Down with alarm clocks! I don't even own one now, and I sleep until I get ready to get up. Sweet.

Wednesday is the morning for our men's breakfast club. So I joined the guys for breakfast and catching up on the week's news. Afterward, a few of us walked over to the American Library, just a couple of blocks away. And there, I read the paper and chatted with friends.

Around noon I left for my every-Wednesday massage. Yes, I know that's a luxury. But I sure enjoy it. It keeps me loose and moving and helps counteract the encroaching impact of arthritis. Besides, I like it.

I came home and changed clothes in time to walk down to the zocalo and meet two women friends for lunch. One of them, Holly, is returning back to the U.S. to go to grad school, so I took them out for a goodbye lunch. All three of us work as volunteers at the Estancia Infantil. We lunched at a place called Terranova upstairs looking out over the town square from our table on the balcony.

After saying our goodbyes, I had a 4 o'clock meeting with Sears who were going to deliver my refrigerator and microwave for new apartment (more about that later). Since it's an UNfurnished apartment, I sat on the floor for 2 hours waiting for our friends from Sears. They never showed or called. Since I had received a call from the delivery driver earlier in the day, I had his number. So I called him at 5:30. He told me, "Oh, you have to talk to the Delivery Center" and then transferred my call to a line that no one answered. That pissed me off. And....of course....they never arrived (or called). Gee, that's just like Sears in the U.S., isn't it? What's so hard about understanding the 4 p.m. on Wednesday means 4 p.m. on Wednesday....not 9 a.m. on Thursday or Friday, or whenever....?

What Am I Reading?

you ask....
I'm in the middle of a history titled "Mexico: The Struggle for Modernity"(Oxford University Press) by Prof. Charles Cumberland. It's an old text, written in 1968. But that's the nice thing about history--it doesn't often change much. History is one of my favorite subjects, and since I'm spending time in Mexico, it makes sense to read Mexican history. I've probably read half a dozen or so. What makes Mexican history so interesting are all the surprising twists and turns. It's like a West Virginia dirt road up in the mountains, twisting and rutted, filled with bumps and turns. And it's hard to follow without a road map.

With their black humor, Mexicans joke that every 100 years they have a revolution. In 1810, it was the War of Independence from Spain. Then 100 years later, in 1910, it was the Revolution. For those of you chronologically challenged, next year is 2010, marking a BIG year-long party celebrating the bicentennial of independence (just as ours was in 1976) and the centennial of their revolution. We HOPE it doesn't mean another NEW revolution is just around the corner.

Interestingly enough, the movement for independence was led primarily by Catholic priests. Liberation theology before liberation theology began! You've probably heard the story about Father Hidalgo ringing his church bell to call all the residents of his town, Dolores, together to take up arms. His "grito" (scream) is commemorated each year on Sept. 15, the eve of the anniversary, when the the president of Mexico and the state governors replicate Father Hidalgo's grito, "Viva Mexico!" The War of Independence lasted 11 long years (compared to the American Revolution, which lasted 8).

Whether or not Mexico was ready for independence in 1810 is a matter of controversy. This from Professor Cumberland's book:
"During independent Mexico's first fifty hectic and catastrophic years, over THIRTY different individuals served as president, heading more that FIFTY governments. One persons occupied the presidential chair on NINE different occasions, and three others sat on that rickety pinnacle of power three times each. In one short span (1837-1851 inclusive) 16 different men served 22 governments as president. Cabinet ministers changed more often than presidents, and those 15 years saw 48 foreign ministers, 61 ministers of government, 57 secretaries of finance, and 41 secretaries of war. Frequently two groups claimed control of the government at the same time, sometimes three. The pendulum swung from empire to federal republic to centralistic government to dictatorship and back again.....no president occupied the chair (which exception of 3) for longer that two consecutive years, and some served only a few weeks. One year saw FIVE changes in government...."

Makes you dizzy, doesn't it? Compare that with the early history of American independence. Makes you grateful for the steady hand of someone like George Washington.

And then came Porfirio Diaz. Originally a military man (many of Mexico's past leaders have come from the military....they're the ones with the power to stay in office). Diaz became Mexico's longest serving dictator, ruling from 1876-1880 and again from 1884-1911, a total of 31 years. He was a ruthless totalitarian but a proponent of sound finance and industrial development. Sort of like an early version of Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Today, his reputation is mostly negative.

I like to try to understand WHY the United States developed as it did and our next-door neighbor developed in a different manner. In the earliest settlement phase of the continent, who came to Mexico? Conquistadors. Conquerors. Their focus was "smash & grab": take the gold, silver, and riches and go back to Spain to become a wealthy landowner. In what was to become the U.S., the English quickly realized that there was no "gold in them thar hills." Yes, there were economic interests in settling North America (tobacco farming, one), but in the northern colonies, there was the primary interest of fleeing religious persecution. They were SETTLERS who brought their women and children and intended to make a home. No so much so in Mexico.

Whole libraries full of books have been written on the theme. I'm no historian. But it sure is interesting to speculate how and why things came out the way they did.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ladies & ATMS

OK, women out there....what is it with ladies and ATM machines?

Here in Mexico, ATMs are critical to the gringo's economic survival. This is a cash economy. No checks. I rarely use a credit card, although I did bring one. Most merchants want cash. For the consumer, easier to budget that way. We expats get very, very familiar with the locations of all our affiliated bank ATM machines.

And I understand how they operate. The secret little password/pin thing you key in. Money comes spitting out of the slot. It's almost as much fun as Las Vegas slots. I've found as a man, taking money out of the ATM is one of the two things I do.....all by myself.

Not so for the fairer sex. It seems like every time I go to get cash there are women in line in front of me. And when a machine becomes available, they migrate in groups of 3 or so over to it. What's with that? I'm perfectly capable of taking money out all by my little lonesome. So why is it a group activity for women? Today, there were FOUR....count 'em...4 at the next machine, chattering away. A convention.

I guess it's analogous to the experience in a restaurant when one lady gets up to "powder her nose"...ALL the women at the table go along. A support mechanism, perhaps. I don't understand.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sounds of Oaxaca


If you wanted to, you could hear a musical performance every day of the week here.
I do.
This week was a case in point. On Monday, I went with my neighbors to the 19th anniversary concert of the Chorus of the City of Oaxaca. Accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra of Oaxaca, they performed Mozart's Coronation Mass, along with Handel's Water Music, a Bach prelude, and other tunes. The venue was the Teatro Juarez, a super modern theater with the latest and best in scenic technology. The theater was formerly home to the State Congress of the State of Oaxaca. Here a link with pictures: http://teatrojuarez.org/ Admission was 70 pesos, or about $5.

Last night, Saturday, I walked over to a free concert at Teatro Macedonio Alcala (that's the photo above). Opened during the Porfirio Diaz administration in 1909, the grand old wedding cake of a theater is celebrating its centennial with a series of performances. The group, Paulina and El Buscapie, performed traditional music with an emphasis on Son pieces. In the middle of the performance, they announced that a favorite local poet was in the audience and invited him to the stage. He declaimed extemporaneously for about 20 minutes.

Then today, Sunday, I headed down to the town square for breakfast. Afterwards, I noticed them setting up for the weekly free Sunday open air Oaxaca State Band concert "Under the Laurels," big shady bay laurel trees. I had about an hour to kill before they began at 12:30, so I sat and chatted with a visitor from Amsterdam and read the paper. The concert focused on works from opera: Verdi's Nabucco and Aida, Bizet's Carmen, as well as Tchaikovsky's March Slav and a Strauss waltz. It couldn't have been a more idyllic setting, sitting in the zocalo under an enormous shade tree, perfect temps in the 70's, a light breeze, and great music filling the air.

I came home and threw together a big pot of veg and chicken for a Caldo de Pollo (chicken stew). It cooks all afternoon, and the smell is making me hungry right now! It's 4:30 and I've got about an hour before I need to walk back up to the Teatro Juarez for another free concert tonight with the Symphony Orchestra of Oaxaca, this time celebrating the 45th anniversary of the founding of the local university radio station.

Who said retirement would be boring?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You Know You're Mexican When...

when you hear a dog barking, and you immediately look UP to the nearest roof.

Roof dogs are a true Mexican phenomenon. They live up there, and their job is to bark at anyone approaching the building. Today, walking down the street, I found myself jerking my head up to see from which rooftop the dog was announcing his presence. It adds to the cacophony that is Mexico. Guess I'm getting used to it.

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One thing you see all the time in Mexico are "motorcycle families." It's not uncommon at all to see Papa driving, Momma sitting behind, and a couple of kids sitting between Papa's legs. Today I saw a motorcyclist tooling down the road with his son, about 6 or 7, standing up, between dad's legs. And helmets? Hah! I know helmet laws for motorcyclists have been hotly debated in many U.S. states. But here in Mexico, there's no debate: they just don't wear them (oftentimes). Now, I believe in any adult's absolute right to break his own stupid neck flying off his motorcycle after hitting one of the ubiquitous Mexican "topes" (speed bumps). But I vigorously disagree with his right to kill his passenger children.
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When was the last time you saw a gas station attendant? In the U.S., they're as scarce as the last passenger pidgeon. Here in Oaxca, the Pemex service station (the government-owned petroleum monopoly) has a uniformed attendant at each pump island who'll wash your windows, clean your wipers, check your oil, and air up your tires. How's that for a blast from the past?
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Another thing you never see in the U.S.: an "escritorio publico." I saw one of these guys today in the 20th of November Market. What he does is write correspondence....and read documents...for illiterate folk, or those who speak an indigenous language rather than Spanish.
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Foreign Intrigue:
It's curious how an object's "foreignness" adds to its sex appeal. And also curious how that foreign attribution gets all screwed up. Cases in point: In the U.S. we call those slatted window coverings "VENETIAN blinds" (as in from Venice). Here in Mexico, the same thing is a "Persiana" (or Persian blinds). In the U.S. and Germany, when we have a cut of meat pounded thin, breaded and fried, we call it "Weiner schnitzel" (as in Wein or Vienna). Here in Mexico, the same thing is called "Milanesa" (or from Milan). Go figure. They sound exotic either way.
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A Little Tart
One of my great delights here in Mexico is to make myself fresh-squeezed limeade every day. I never buy or drink soda pop. Why should you when the fruits here are plentiful, cheap, and wonderful? I buy a bag of fresh green limes each Sunday at the market. When I want a cool drink during the day, I cut a lime in half, squeeze it in a little hand press right into a glass of purified water, add a teaspoon of sugar and, voila! limeade. It's tasty and good for you, too.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Anniversary

One year.

It's been one year today since I retired from the college. And how does that feel?
Incredible! Marvelous. Wonderful. Fantastic. Better than a hot chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on top (and THAT'S hard to beat).

I wish I'd done it 20 years ago. But, of course, I couldn't have afforded to do it then. One of my favorite Bible verses is Ecclesiastes 3:1, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." When it's time to retire, you just know it. Things simply came to a point where it felt like it was time to leave work and start something new. So, I did.

I've fooled most of my friends back in the States who said, "You're going to be so bored! You're a Type A personality. You'll be crawling the walls looking for something to do." Wrong. What happens is you find new things to do. In my case, volunteer work, teaching, writing, and art. The difference is that YOU, not your company or boss, largely control the nature, content, and timing of your activities. And that's a delightful difference.

As human beings, we all fall naturally into patterns. Those grooves get deeper and harder to crawl out of as we get older. After many years in the same job, there is a creeping dulling of the senses. Retirement is always an act of courage (can I make it without a regular paycheck?) and a exploration into the unknown. My own early retirement and move to Mexico was even more leap of faith. But it's all worked out even better than I'd hoped for. It's a different culture, a different way of life. Because of that, I see things with new eyes every day. And--for me, at least--there is a great joy in that. Not only are the things around me different, the things inside are different, too. Every journey we take is also an interior journey. And sometimes the new things we find there are even more remarkable than the travel snapshots of our physical, external surroundings.

I've simplified my life. I truly like it better this way. No car (I'll be selling it when I return to Phoenix in a month). No home ownership down here (I'll always rent). No job. No meetings. No responsibilities. The contradiction inherent in the maxim "Less is More" is sweet. Surprisingly, it really works like that. I don't NEED a fancy stereo system or a jumbo-screen TV (don't even WANT them any more).
I don't NEED fancy clothing (no one here cares or notices). So you learn to be happy with what you have, even if that's not a lot. And to value time....free time, without the pressures of "I have to..." It's been a great year.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Niños de la Luna

I've mentioned before the shelter where I volunteer on Saturday afternoons. It's a home for young kids whose mothers are prostitutes, hence the name of the place which means "Chidren of the Moon." (moms work at night...)

Unlike the children at Estancia Infantil where I work during the week on Tuesdays and Thursdays...these kids don't really have much of a home. Many live at the shelter, having been abandoned by their moms. That's not the case at Estancia Infantil (which is a state agency) and whose kids have homes. The kids at Niños de la Luna have had tough lives. Their stories make you cry. Here are two:

Eight-year-old Carlos was abandoned by his mom and now lives at the shelter. He calls the lady who runs the place, Coco, "Mom." I've heard that occasionally a relative comes and spends an hour or so with him. He is a smart little boy and learns quickly. A sweet personality, too. A couple of weeks ago we were working on a craft project. First we made valentine hearts out of red construction paper. Carlos said, "what do we do with THAT?" Placing it on his shirt, I said "It shows someone loves you." He said, "Really? Who? Do you think someone loves ME?" There's a question a child should NEVER have to ask. Later we were all making masks out of paper plates....always popular. Carlos carefully cut out the eyes, nose, and ears. I said "Let's make the mouth." So he cut out a U-shaped mouth and was ready to paste it on. I laid it on smile side up. He turned it upside down. I asked, "What's that, Carlos? A mustache?" He told me, "No, the mask is sad because he doesn't have a mother."

Today, we had a new kid at the shelter, Luis. Luis is about 5 and autistic. We suppose autistic, although none of us is a professional to diagnose it. He is very timid and doesn't speak. He has trouble interacting with the other kids and spending much time on any one activity. At the end of the afternoon, I could see he was warming to me just a bit. I want to work with him some more in the coming weeks and see if his condition is only situational and not permanent. I asked Janet, one of the ladies I work with, what Luis's story was. "When he came to the shelter, he had spent most of his life tied to a chair while his mother 'worked,'" she told me.

They make our own problems look pretty insignificant, don't they?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cranky Me

Tonight I'm cranky as hell.

First, let me explain where I live. It is a Mexican family compound with an entry off the street. In front, opening onto the sidewalk is the family "tienda de abarrotes" or corner store. Think 7-11 with a limited line of merchandise. In fact, we used to have these in most major U.S. cities up until the 1960s. I know Chicago did.

I digress. There is an extended family living here. A rock solid, hard-assed matriarchy. Grandma lives in the front apartment....just a room and bath, really. She has 6 daughters, known as the "tias" (aunties). The eldest lives in the nice apartment behind the store. The other aunties live in varying units scattered around the courtyard. There are no men. Let me repeat that....THERE ARE NO MEN. Clearly, there HAVE BEEN men given the presence of children (that's how it works as I recall). But they ain't none now. Drove 'em off, in my opinion. Each Sunday afternoon, they all get together for a big family supper.

My problem is with Paulina, the teenaged daughter of one of the aunties. I would guess she's around 14...a difficult age. She has 2 tones of voice: screeching and whining. I'm so sick of hearing, "Mommmmmmmyyyyyyyyy!!!!" Do you still call your mother "Mommy" at 14? When she says (whines) it, the word lasts about 3 minutes. When she has some of her little girlfriends over, it's as though you took a chicken house full of hens and SHOOK IT....hard. Screech. Giggle. Scream. Screech. And a couple of annoying long whines, for good measure.

Now I realize that I am a cranky old man (or at least well on my way to that esteemed categorization). Noise bothers me (the first sign of aging....badly). Key note to consider here: Mexico is a very noisy place. Unlike anything you might be accustomed to in the U.S. Kids, dogs, and fireworks almost every day (and an occasional brass band marching down your street). And I also appreciate the Mexican culture in which little girls are all PRINCESSES. They lavish money and material goods on the little darlings in a ceremony that all young ladies go through called "Quiceañera" or "Sweet 15." There are fancy gowns, even tiaras, etc. You get the idea. So our sweet little Paulina is fast approaching Quiceañera age. And she's spoiled. By everyone, mom and aunties alike.

The very last straw is that today she came home with a new toy....a musical recorder (like a plastic clarinet). And she has played it from 2 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. For those of you how don't know, that encompasses my NAP TIME. All of us in the courtyard have been entertained with the tune "New York, New York" over and over and over and over and over and over again. About 200 times by my reckoning. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Complete with lots of WRONG NOTES. I left for my drawing class (1.5 hours). Came home. Guess what? Darling Paulina is still playing the damned recorder in the courtyard.

I've become homicidal. I'm fantasizing about what a recorder would look like shoved down her throat and out the other end.... Hmmmm, that's an unusual mental picture, isn't it? But in self defense I think I'll go buy myself a cheap little recorder tomorrow and every time we are treated to a little concert by Paulina, I'll walk out onto my front step and BLOW my damned instrument for all its worth.....Every sour note I can muster.

Perhaps that will send a message? I doubt it. Mexican kids can do no wrong. Best I can do is talk with my landlady (another auntie). I'll politely put it like this: "your choice....daily concerts by Paulina or 5,000 pesos hard cash every month from me. You pick."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Craft Project for the Kids


This is the craft project I did with the kids this last week to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. It's paper weaving, which I discovered on the Internet. First, I cut down placemat sized pieces of white construction paper. Then, I sliced horizontal strips, leaving them attached on each side. Then, we cut out the vertical strips of red and green construction paper. The kids "wove" the red and green strips through the white base. Then they colored the circular "escudo" (national shield from the Mexican flag), cut it out and pasted it on top of the weaving. To finish, we enclosed the project in clear contact paper. Voila! Instant patriotic placemat. The kids were thrilled. We did it for 3 volunteer sites, the street kids program at DIF, at the American Library for their Saturday morning kids program, and at the shelter, Niños de la Luna. In total, some 60 units. That's a lot of slicing. I'm grateful for the help of my compañeras, Eva, and Holly.

Sartorial Cool



The second is my new Panama hat. It's not from Panama, but actually was made in Ecuador of very fine palm fibers. They make them here in Mexico, in the Yucatan....inside caves where it's cool and they can bend the fibers more easily. But mine is imported, completely first class. And...if I do say so myself...very cool.

The first is my Guadalajara Chivas soccer jersey. I bought it a couple of years ago when I was in Guad. I like it because of the name of the team sponsor emblazoned across the chest: BIMBO. I've always wanted to be a Bimbo, and now I am one. To the Mexicans, the shirt is perfectly common. To Americans, it causes double-takes. My Bimbo shirt is, sadly, NOT COOL.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Happy 199th


Today is Mexican Independence Day. Last night the governor gave the "grito" (Viva Mexico!) from the government palace in the zocalo. Huge crowds of revelers (think New Year's Eve) plus hundreds of federal, state, and municipal police along with military. I stayed home. I don't do crowds and all that law enforcement makes me nervous. But at our place 6 blocks away, we could here the amplified sound. Music loud enough to make you deaf.

It's now just one year until the Mexican Bicentennial. Electronic clock displays in every state capital show the time counting down to the big event. Folks around here are a bit nervous, though. They say every 100 years is a revolution here: 1810, Independence from Spain; 1910, Revolution (Poncho Villa, Zapata, et al). And in 2010? Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

History Lesson: The Significance of Sept. 13

I literally stumbled onto this bit of Mexican history. Of course, I knew about Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16. It's when the president of Mexico and all the state governors walk out onto the balconies of their government palaces and give the iconic "Grito" which is "Viva Mexico!" That commemorates Father Hidalgo's call for independence from Spain in 1810.

Here in Oaxaca, we have street vendors selling flags, banners, shields, drums, anything you can think of in the national colors of red, white, and green. Today, I noticed the huge Mexican flag in the zocalo flying at half staff. "Wonder why?" I thought. At the noon Oaxaca State Band concert, the announcer spoke of the honoring the Boy Heroes and of the North American invaders. Hmmm.

This evening, at another patriotic ceremony in the zocalo, a drum & bugle corps performed and there were a series of speeches by local dignitaries (in Mexico, there are ALWAYS speeches, and speeches, and speeches....) Listening carefully, I learned that Sept. 13 is the day commemorating the fall of Mexico City at the battle of Chapultapec Castle during the Mexican-American War (Mexicans call it the North American Intervention). That was the battle in which the
boy cadets of the national military academy were martyred. All over Mexico streets, plazas and public spaces are named "Ninos Heroes" (Boy Heroes) or "Martyrs of Chapultapec." It's very much part of the Mexican national identity.

Here's an explanation from
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chapultepec

During the battle, six Mexican military cadets refused to fall back when General Bravo finally ordered retreat and fought to the death against superior U.S. forces. Their names were: teniente (lieutenant) Juan de la Barrera, and cadets Agustin Melgar, Juan Escutia, Vicente Suarez, Francisco Marquez and Fernando Montes de Oca. One by one they fell; when one was left (Juan Escutia), and the U.S. forces were about to kill him, he grabbed the Mexican flag, wrapped it around himself and jumped off the castle point. It is said that the American commander saluted the body of Escutia wrapped in the Mexican flag.

This was the same war in which the U.S. took from Mexico the present states of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and part of Colorado...about half of their pre-war territory. Remember that Mexico had only been independent from Spain for about 25 years at that point and was a politically weak and financially struggling young nation.

So, today, listening to speeches about "the American invaders" and "those at whose hands the boys cadets were martyred" and about the U.S. taking so much Mexican territory, I wanted to be somewhere...anywhere...else. It was uncomfortable. But I'm glad I was there. It helped me understand why there is still a lingering ambivalence about the U.S. Yes,their economy is highly linked to our own. Most Mexican exports go to the States. And, of course, remittances from Mexican workers in the U.S. form the #4 or #5 greatest source of revenue in Mexico. But, at times, we've been less than a genial neighbor.

So, if Mexicans are still pissed off...I can understand why.

Male Dominated Mexico

"Machismo" is alive and well in Mexico. You can see one example of that in the language: the very trendy, very popular use to express when something is "cool" or "awesome" is "Que padre!," which translates exactly as "how FATHER."

So in other words, when something has positive attributes, it's FATHER. I, for one, try to avoid using the expression. Instead I used "Que genial!" which has the same idea of "how cool!"

To my American ears, saying that something is "very FATHER" sounds absurd. But, of course our saying that "it's raining cats & dogs" sounds ridiculous to just about everyone else in the world. The use of language is weird, isn't it?

Sign of the Times

Some day in the distant future, cultural anthropologists will dig around for announcement signs to learn about our society in 2009. I saw a sign in a shop yesterday that gave me pause. This was in a local quick-print computer shop (think Kinko's but mom & pop Mexican style). I went in to have some copies made off my portable USB memory stick. Pasted in big letters on the back of the cash register was this sign:

"If you didn't bring correct change with you, BEFORE you request any service, ask us if we have change to break your bill."

"Wow!" I thought. So now it's the CUSTOMER'S responsibility to A) always have correct change and if not, B) make sure the shop owner has sufficiently stocked his coin drawer to operate his business. Huh? When did it become the responsibility shift from the shop owner to the CUSTOMER to have the proper resources to do business?

It struck me as something that you'd never see in the States. But here...nobody minds. In fact, the lack of change is endemic here. If you give a shop owner a 200 peso note (about $15US), they roll their eyes and plead, "don't you have anything SMALLER?" A 500 peso note (about $35US) causes major alarm. The manager has to be called over. They hold the note up to the light to look for that watermark. They turn the note over and over as though desperately trying to find a reason to reject it. It's as if--in the States--you present the cashier with a $1,000 note. Same skepticism. But we're talking $35 here.

My own uninformed guess is that the Mexicans have never quite gotten comfortable with the idea of paper money. Give me that good old fashioned gold doubloon or a few solid silver pieces of eight. After all, for three centuries the mines of Latin American produced most of the world's two precious metals, silver and gold. A paper bill just doesn't have the same intrinsic "heft." And, of course, after numerous currency devaluations (most recent in 1994), why would they trust it?

Another indicator of Mexican's distrust of paper money is their reluctance to accept notes that are damaged in any way. Say for example you go to the vegetable market to buy some tomatoes. The lady who runs the stand gives you change by pulling a ragged, grayed, and sweaty 20 peso note out of her brassiere. If you then try to pass that note you're going to be S.O.L. A torn corner, a piece of Scotch tape, any raggedy-assed looking bill simply will not be accepted. Then it's a game of trying to find some shop to pass the nasty note onto. Try Burger King. For some reason, they take all bills without too much fuss.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Earthshaking News

The earth shook. Really. Last night we had an earthquake. I wasn't sure until one of the ladies I volunteer with mentioned it this morning. I had been sound asleep last night...around 12:30 a.m. I thought I was dreaming. I thought I felt the bed move. Beds don't usually move when you're in them ALONE. So I just rolled over. But sure enough, it was a tremor. In Mexico, depending on where you are, you have the option of either: earthquakes, hurricanes (on the coast), flooding (in Chiapas and Tabasco state), or organized crime violence (mostly in the north). Your choice.

My other earthshaking news is that I had an accident. Last night while slicing veggies for dinner, my finger ran into a carving knife. The carving knife won. Blood everywhere (NEVER a good ingredient in stir-fry). So: what do you do when you're all alone in the house, in a foreign country, no car, and have an emergency? I had the presence of mind to wrap the finger tightly and walk around the corner to the medical office. Since it was 8 p.m., no doc was in. The nice lady in the waiting room, though, asked if I had transportation. "No." She called the clinic about 6 blocks away and off we went in her car. I was thoughtful enough to refrain from bleeding all over her front seat. The doc there cleaned and bandaged the wound. Couldn't do stitches since it was though the nail. I went back today for her to change the dressing. It still hurts like hell. I go back again on Friday. But I was pleased with the medical attention.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I'm Living in the Navel of the Moon

The other day I stumbled across the meaning of the word "Mexico."
It comes from the Nahuatl language. The Nahuatl culture is also known as "Aztec." One of the foremost modern Nahuatl translators said that "Mexico" comes from 2 words in Nahuatl: "metatli" (moon) and "xictli" (navel). Put them together, and you get "navel of the moon."

There is a little disagreement over the first section of the word, and...instead of "moon" it may be "maguey plant" (from which tequila are mescal are made). So, depending on how you look at it I'm either living in the Navel of the Moon (nice and poetic) or the navel of the maguey cactus (sort of pre-alcoholic). I prefer the Moon.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chupacabra Found


This, from the news reports today, makes my day.

For those skeptics among you who poo-pooed its existence, hah! You probably don't believe in the Abdominal Snowman and the Tooth Fairy either....or even the Great Pumpkin. Bah! Humbug!

Here's a link to the news report from San Antonio:
http://www.koco.com/news/20661717/detail.html Supposedly this student at a Texas taxidermy school brought in the corpse of this unknown beastie. His story was that it was raising hell in his cousin's barn and they put out some poison. What they got themselves was a dead chupacabra.

The chupacabra was a formerly mythical beast who was making the rounds in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, sucking the blood of domestic animals, especially goats.

I'm holding my breath for the first Big Foot.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Definition of High Pressure Salesmanship

OK...so tonight I went down to the zocalo for my favorite treat, a cantaloupe popsicle. I buy them at a shop on the town square, "La Michoacana." It's all natural with big chunks of ripe cantaloupe in the bar. Yum.

I then took the popsicle and myself over to a park bench to watch the local folks milling about (this was around 9 p.m.). I'm deep in reverie (spaced out) when two cute little monkeys (kids) about 5 years old come over to try to sell me chiclets and cheap necklaces. Sadly, this is all too common. The smallest of children are walking around the town square trying to sell junk to tourists. Ever hear of child labor laws, anyone?

I politely say, "no." The one little kid...obviously trained in a used car showroom in New Jersey, maybe?....doesn't take "no" for an answer: He comes up and with a cheezy grin STANDS right on top of my sandaled bare foot. OW..OW...OW...Ouch!

His motto: If at first you don't make a sale, just step on the bastards.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What If Jesus Met Lenin and Socrates?

I'm forever running into Jesus down here. Not the biblical one, of course, but Jesus Gonzalez, Jesus Ortega, Jesus Martinez, Jesus Ruiz. It's as common a man's name as "Bill" and "Jack" are back home. Still, it's a bit unnerving when your waiter comes over to your table in a restaurant and says, "Hola, amigos! My name is Jesus, and I'll be your server tonight. Can I get you a cocktail to start?" My point: Jesus wouldn't say that. It's weird.

I was thinking of the old Walter Cronkite series "You Were There" back in the 60s and 70s. For those of you too young for such memories, it was a video series in which CBS News reporters went back and "interviewed" important personages from history. Maybe it was that series or maybe it was an essay I read somewhere, but I recall the fictional exercise of bringing together a number of figures from distinct historical time periods. Wouldn't it be fun to see what they'd have to say to one another?

In Mexico, it's common to name your kid after someone famous in history. For example, at the Casa Hogar, Niños de la Luna shelter where I volunteer (kids of prostitutes), one of the little kiddies, about 3 years old, is named "Lenin." Not like Beatles' John, but like the Russia kind (communism and socialism still have there adherents here). So the other day, Lenin was crying his head off and I asked the lady what was wrong with him. "Lenin has wet his pants," was her reply. Just try to comprehend that without giggling.

And then last Wednesday, I went to a chamber music concert at Teatro Juarez. Very nice. The principal violinist was Socrates Urbieta. His brother plays violin in the group, too. His name is Ulysses Urbieta. Their mom must have had a thing for Greek men. Anyway, just so you know.....Socrates plays a mean violin. Do you think he'll ever meet Jesus and Lenin?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Nipple, Nipple, Who's Got the Nipple?

We all have pretty much the same stuff--ears, toes, fingernails, chins....and nipples. Therefore, in English, we have a word for nipple: it's called "nipple."

But not in Spanish. Just to confuse Spanish language learners, they made up TWO completely different names: "tetilla" for a those found on a man; and "pezon" for those found on a woman. And to further complicate things--

You know that every noun in Spanish has a gender, unrelated to what it is. For example, "casa" (house) is a FEMININE noun ending in the letter "a." "Aeropuerto" (airport) is a MASCULINE noun ending in "o." With me so far? So the noun "tetilla" (MAN'S nipple) is a FEMININE noun, even though the little buggers appear on a man's chest. And...no surprise here..."pezon" (WOMAN'S nipple)is a MASCULINE noun. Go figure. Gender bending at it's most confusing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Coke: It's The Real Thing

At least in Mexico it is.
A recent report ranked Mexico as the #1 consumer of Coca-Cola products in the world on a per capita basis. The staggering statistic is:
650 eight-ounce bottles per person per year

That's a hell of a lot of Coca-Cola and Coke products (juice, bottled waters).
To be fair they are one of the major employers in Mexico (80,000 jobs) and just announced an investment of $200 million in a new juice bottling plant. This year, the company is planning investments of $700 million in Mexico and $5 billion over the next five years. In their bottled juice division, they are the second largest purchaser of fresh fruit in the country.

Critics have complained that in this era of economic crisis in Mexico, Mexican families would be better served to spend their scarce wages on something other than soda pop. And ecologists worry about the company's massive use of water in their production and bottling....while Mexico is suffering their worst drought in 30 years. In many areas of the country, the local government simply isn't delivering water to homes through the public water supply system--it isn't there to deliver.