Friday, July 31, 2009

The "Gringo Tax"

During my travels, I'd heard about the Gringo Tax from many ex-pats all over Mexico. Yesterday, I got a taste of it. At least it was an example of it that I could document. Here's what happened:

I was looking for a fan (non-electric variety), something I could take to my summer classes. There is no airconditioning in the classrooms (or most anywhere else in Oaxaca, for that matter). The Casa de Cultura is a former convent, built around 2 open courtyards, two stories high, a balconies on the second level looking down onto the courtyards. On the balconies, it's cool. There is usually a nice breeze. The problem in the classrooms is that the instructors keep the doors and windows shut tight. The music teacher (downstairs), because she wants to keep out noise from the hallway. The art teacher upstairs, because we have a nude model. With a dozen or so student bodies inside, it keeps plenty warm.

So, walking down the street, I stuck my head into a little shop "Miscelena." Mexican towns are loaded with tiny little stores like this. Often they're just one room at the front of someone's house, a room that opens onto the sidewalk. The proprietor is behind the counter. I asked this lady, "Do you have fans?" "We sure do, let me show you what I've got." She opened the glass display case to bring out here stock. A note here: almost nowhere do you find self-service retail. I guess they assume shoplifters would go wild. So what you get is the old general-store technique: you have to ask the clerk for even the smallest item to be shown to you.

She had two types of fan. I could see on the exterior of the box, the price was marked, "9 pesos." I said, "That will work fine. What's the price?" She smiled broadly, "15 pesos." For those of you bad at math, that's a 6 peso difference. What I call the "Gringo Tax." Now, 6 pesos isn't very much at all (42 cents US). But it was close to double her stated price. Do they assume all Americas are "stupid gringos"? That we don't care about money? That we actually prefer to pay a higher price than locals do?

For whatever the reason, this goes on in most purchases, apart from those in big chain stores. In this case, I stared at the woman, right in the eye, and said, "I'll pay 10 pesos." She laughed and said, "Fine." As you can see, the Gringo Tax isn't fixed. It's a weird kind of attitude that says, "Let me see how much I can get away with. If I can cheat you a little, I will. But if not, that's OK, too. But I've got to try, or lose face."

Ni modo.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Never a Dull Moment

But that's my own damn fault. I need to sit down and have a little conversation with myself: "Rod, you're retired now. Chill." But I continue to make myself busy. For example:

Last night, 2 summer classes at Casa de la Cultura, from 5-8 p.m. This morning, got up early, skipped breakfast and went to the medical laboratory for some blood work ordered by my semiannual cholesterol screen. Understand I don't much like to have my blood drawn. I call the folks who do it "vampires." Maybe because I once fainted while having it done. But they were nice today. I only waited about 5 minutes. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes, and I was done. Then I stopped at a sandwich joint on the way home because I was ravenous, not having eaten before the cholesterol test.

I came back home, worked on the computer, and went back out at 10:45 to head up to the gringo library. Every morning at 11, I've got students I'm tutoring. Now it's 2. I've created a monster. If someone expresses the desire to learn English, I feel it's my duty as a former ESL instructor to teach them. Plus, it's fun. They help me with Spanish, I give them some practice in English. After our hour and a half, I spent some time chatting with my new buddies who hang out daily at the library. Two hundred years ago that would have been called a "salon." Interesting people; interesting, intelligent conversation.

Then I excused myself at 1 p.m. to dash around the corner to my massage guy. I do this every Wednesday. At $15 USD for an hour, it's a little treat I can afford weekly. Plus I'm getting to know "Beto," the massage therapist. He's a good guy. Afterwards, I wandered down to the town square (zocalo), where I ran into Luis, an American guy I know. He's a friend of a friend of mine from Chicago. Then I looked in at all the cafes ringing the zocalo, under the arches (portales), trying to decide which restaurant to have lunch at. At TerraNova, I ran into another new American friend and joined him at his table for lunch. Unfortunately for our fascinating political discussion, I had to rush off at 3:30 to go home and pick up materials for my class that I'm teaching at 4 p.m. I made it just in time. Today, we had 2 student teaching visitors who observed the class. That always means you have to prepare a bit more and be a bit more "on" if you're being evaluated. But we had a good class. It's only 3 students, but I'm thankful they are involved and participate fully in the class. That went on 'til 6p.m.

Then, I went back to the laboratory to pick up my test results. When was the last time you got same-day turnaround on lab tests in the U.S.? (answer=never). It was then about 6:30. I thought, "Wow, you can just make the baseball game at 7 p.m. over at Vacsoncelos Stadium." Then I realized I've been sick......and I'm tired. It was a full day, almost 11 hours. For an old fart, that's enough. I came home instead of going to the ballgame (even though it's a beautiful night to be outdoors). I stopped at a French pastry shop on the way home. A treat for being brave and having my blood drawn.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Naked Ladies and Other Things

First, the naked lady: As I mentioned earlier, I'm taking a Life Drawing class at the Casa de la Cultura. . .and enjoying it a lot. Last week, in our third week the instructor promised to bring in a live model, as the previous classes had been theory and anatomy lectures. Sure enough, last Thursday, we arrived to find a Naked Lady in the drawing class. Now, if you've never had a Life Drawing class, you can't quite picture how startling that is. Even if one was expecting it. What do you say to a Naked Lady model? Hi, how's it going? Mostly, we just kept our mouths shut (this is not a skill I've mastered) and sketched away like crazy. She was good (apart from being naked). The instructor gave us about 5 minutes per pose, then said, "Carla, change positions." And she did: armed draped over her back. Reclining. Seated on a stool. All de rigeur for art class, but a bit disarming for a 50-something traveling gringo in Mexico.

I had a fever that night (more about that later). It wasn't helped by the fact that--to protect the model's modesty--the instructor shut the door to the patio and all the windows. It was hotter 'n hell in there, with one Naked Lady and about a dozen aspiring artists. I was happy with my efforts. Surprised myself. My sketches don't look like assorted lumps; but more or less like a naked lady in various poses. At first, I felt bad for her having to do a job like that. But at the end, the students all chipped in to pay her fee, which was something like $14 USD/hour for 2 hours. Down here that's big money, and she didn't seem any too worse for the experience.

And now, the fever. Throughout last week, I felt progressively crumbier. Fever, headache, and what's fondly known as "Montezuma's Revenge." Except that down here in Oaxaca, the pre-Conquest Indians weren't too fond of the Aztecs, since the Aztecs had the nasty habit of capturing the local tribespeople and sacrificing them by ripping out their hearts. That always tends to piss people off. And so the Oaxacans fought Montezuma on numerous occasions. So we'll have to call my gut problem some other kind of revenge. I'll be polite and not go into details.

So I hooked up with a local doctor recommended to me by folks at the gringo library here. I'd had on my list of things to do to find a doctor and go in for an introduction so I'd have one to call "just in case." Well, the "just in case" came sooner than planned. He put me on a series of 4 horse-sized pills guaranteed to knock out a wide spectrum of buggies. Must be working, because I feel better today. Only that I'm still tired. But that's to be expected. . . no shit! (pun intended).

Coping skills:
If you come to Mexico without these, you'll be most unhappy. My own have been sharpened and exercised on a daily basis. Surprisingly, it makes me happy to know that I can manage life's daily challenges in a foreign country. It's different from being a vacationer or tourist. I'm not hopping a plane back north in a week. This is my home, so I really have no option other that to just "deal with it." For example, I recently tried to refill a different prescription I have from the States. I refilled it a month ago here, no problem. This month I went to the very same pharmacy and they told me, "Sorry we can't fill it. You'll need a doctor's written prescription." Understand that you can buy almost any meds over the counter here. I asked, "Well, I got it here LAST month without a script. Why do I need one now?" They couldn't really come up with a good answer except for that I needed one. So I went down the street to a different chain pharmacy. Nope, no prescription needed. They were happy to sell it to me over the counter. This is one of the many mysteries of Mexico. You just deal with it. When I saw my doc this morning about the stomach problems, he said, "No. Absolutely not. That med has never required a prescription." Go figure.

Another example is the other day I was sitting at the bus stop, minding my own business, waiting for a bus to go down to Sam's Club to pick up some stuff. I wasn't feeling too sharp that day. From out of nowhere, a young drunk guy plops down next to me: "You speak Spanish?" "No." (I lied. That works well in situations like this.) "You tourist?" "Yes." "I need money." "Sorry, I don't have any money today." He just sat there, getting right in my face, inches away. I thought he was going to get physical and hit me or grab me or something. But I stayed cool and 100% non-confrontational. It was just like "this is the way it is, buddy." I guess he thought better of it, and eventually stumbled off. I'm glad I didn't get mad. Coping skills stretched to the breaking point.
Tonight, I'm savoring the evening. I've got both doors open and it's pouring rain, a nice breeze flowing through the house. I'm writing this and having a bowl of fresh guacamole for supper. That's one of the great joys of living here. Fresh avocados that don't cost $1.50 each. Throw one of those bad boys in a bowl with some chopped ripe tomato, onion, garlic, and jalapenos. Umm, umm. As we say in Southern Missouri, "that's some GOOD eatin'." I've recently learned that even though avocados are loaded with fat, it's the good fat. One lady I know says her doctor recommends she eat an avocado a day. I'll take that as sufficient recommendation to do so. A guacamole a day beats "an apple a day" anytime in my book. Especially when paired with a nice jug red wine, as I have here. Cheers!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Today marks two full months I've been in Oaxaca. I arrived here on the evening of the 21st of May. It doesn't seem like two months have passed. They've slipped by effortlessly, and that's a good sign. The new "Mexico Me" is all about effortlessness. "Go with the flow," as the aging hippies say (yes, I know all about aging hippies). And these 60 days have just washed over me like warm ocean waves on a sandy beach.

This morning, I celebrated. With a mango. (see how wild & crazy I am?) Now, if you've never had a fresh mango, you just haven't lived. They are a spectacularly ugly fruit: kidney-shaped, mottled green and yellow, depending on ripeness, with black flecks on the skin.

The proper technique for eating a mango:
First, you carefully slice off the skin. The peel is quite thin. You'll want to keep the knife as close to the outer skin as possible so as not to remove much flesh. You can't use a potato peeler since the peel is quite tough. Once you've removed the peel, slice the flesh in vertical slices, cutting as close to the pit as possible. The pit doesn't have defined edges, so you just have to cut around it in a rectangular fashion. Then you take the pit, with some flesh still attached, lean over the sink and SUCK. Slurp up the juice. Slobber the stuff all over. Let it run down your chin. This is best performed with SHIRT OFF.

Yesterday, I bought a new toy. Boys like their toys. Even 58-year-old boys. I went and bought a piano keyboard. I shopped around a bit and found a 5-octave Casio keyboard for around $160 (with stand included). I had brought down a bunch of sheet music, so I've got something to fool around with. Plus, when I join the chorus, I'll need it to go over my music. Oh, did I tell you I found a chorus? I did. They're on summer break right now, but begin again in August. The director is a Frenchman and the singers are all Mexican, except for one American lady. By chance, I wound up going to the Guerreros baseball game with the director, Christophe, last Friday. That was different. It was his first game. Imagine explaining the finer points of American baseball to a Frenchman, watching the game for the first time in MEXICO. Talk about cross-cultural! I'm looking forward to weekly rehearsals with the group beginning next month.

Along the way I discovered a new rule about Mexico: If you need it and you find it, buy it. Right then and there. My quest was for a sustain pedal for the new keyboard. That's what holds the chords and sort of blends them together. No problem, right? Well the Wal-Mart-type store (Chedraui) where I bought the keyboard didn't stock the pedal. No surprise. So I went to the biggest music store in downtown Oaxaca. They've got everything under the sun dripping off the walls, stacked up to the ceiling: microphones, drum kits, cymbals, cords, tubas, stands....everything. Except--of course--sustain pedals. Now why would one expect a full-service music store to carry a basic item such as that? "Sorry," said the clerk, "we don't have it." "When will you get them in?" I replied. "Oh, maybe 2 weeks." For those of you who don't know, 2 weeks is the standard answer for just about anything. And it means: "maybe 15 days, maybe a month, maybe never." OK, so out of luck.

Then, I remembered a little hole-in-the-wall musical instrument store just outside downtown. I walked over there. Shazam! They had just the pedal I needed. At this point, old Mexico hands understand, I grabbed it and held it tightly. "I'll take it!!" And they even had the cable to connect the pedal to the keyboard. "I'll take that, too!!" I got them both home and the cord fit the keyboard and the pedal worked. For those of you NOT familiar with Mexico....those are very rare occurrences. Like a minor miracle, really. I was extraordinarily pleased. When something actually works the way it's supposed to here, one is overjoyed. And that's how you learn to be thankful for small things.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Small Things

Yesterday, I found a butcher shop.
That normally wouldn't be a big deal, but I'm choosy about buying meat. Every little farmers' market/mercado always has 2 or 3 vendors selling meat. And those cuts are usually hanging in the air, out on hooks, supper for the flies. Oftentimes, it doesn't look very fresh. Dried blood on the counters and cases (if there are cases).

So--being finicky--I've taken the easy way out and bought meat in the big supermarkets (I buy veg & fruit at the mercados). Well, yesterday I was talking about this to the lady who owns the lunch place I eat at almost every day. She serves "comida corrida" (blue plate special) for about $3, and it's always good. And her place is spotless. She said, "you've got to check out the place I buy my meat for the restaurant. They have the freshest meats, and they're really clean. Here's a receipt from my last purchase. They're just down the street....called RYC Meats."

I took her suggestion and went on an exploratory mission. RYC Meats is every bit as good as she said! Super clean; a big, big selection; good service with several butchers behind the counter. They cut meat to order if you want something special. All of it was fresh looking. And I splurged: $10US worth of meat. That bought a kilo of ground beef, two chicken leg & thighs, very thin-cut "milenesa" of beef, and a package of pre-made meatballs.

On the way home from the butcher shop, I stopped by another find from last week, the flower lady at the mercado. Back in the States, I NEVER bought flowers. Considered it an unnecessary expense. But here, they are so CHEAP! This older woman grows flowers for the market in her back garden and brings them in every day. I bought 2 branches of white stargazer lilies, because they smell incredible. Later, at the gringo library, I bought a dozen roses (for $2.50) from an Indian lady who comes in with her little cart filled with vegetables and flowers.

It's small things like that that make living in Oaxaca pleasant.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My New Address....And the Winner Is--


Yep, finally made up my mind. After eight months and 26+ cities, traveling all over Mexico, I've settled on Oaxaca.

That wasn't my intention. After the month of March in Queretaro, I thought I'd definitely go back there and get a place. As I've written further down in the blog (with photos), Queretaro is spectacular. But I've grown very comfortable with Oaxaca. It's a much poorer region of the country. The middle class isn't as evident here. For the last 2 months, the town square has been taken over by a protest led by the teachers' union. In conjunction with them, the casual street vendors staked out individual territories for their stands: pirated CD's, balloons, food, embroidered blouses, whatever. It looked a jumble, like an endless flea market. That was sad, because the zocalo is normally one of the prettiest in all of Mexico, with lovely big shade trees, fountains, and a bandstand. Ugly graffiti was painted all over the ancient building facades, folks were peeing in the flower beds, and there were political posters glued everywhere. At Santander Bank, which faces the Alameda plaza, the front door was broken off by protesters, and one of the ATM machines was battered with a blunt object, smashing the glass display. And for a variety of reasons, the police did nothing. I'm not going to argue the politics of the situation, since I really can't. But all I know is that there is a palpable sense of relief that the situation is over (for now), and the city has spruced up the historic center in preparation for the big annual folkloric dance festival, the Galeguetza. Everything is now, as the Mexicans say, "tranquilo" (tranquil). Everyone, including the locals, feel as though we can now breath the fresh air and enjoy the world cultural patrimony (UNESCO) of Oaxaca's Centro Historico. With the peak tourist season upon us, it's good that they put their best foot forward. Tourism employs a whole lot of folks here. My wish is that the economy recovers fully, and soon.

As for me, I've fallen into comfortable patterns. Life is pleasant and good. I'm incredibly grateful for that. I've met a number of people I enjoy spending time with. I like the American library. It's the perfect "hang-out" place for a cup of coffee and the local newspapers. It took a while to recognize, but I did a little personal inventory, and came up with the fact that I'm simply happy in this place. And what more can any of us ask for?

Oaxaca Observations

OK......a quick grammar lesson.

In Spanish, just like in English, the prefix "re-" before a word means "do again."
For example: re-type, re-think, re-live, etc.

So, walking down Pino Suarez Street here in Oaxaca, I see this sign on the street for a snack shop, lunch place, "Roy's." As the sign says, he serves tacos and RETACOS. What in the hell is that? A taco that's been served once before? Or worse, eaten once before? I have no idea.
More in the funny name department--
A main street here, north of downtown is Jakobo Dalevuelta Street. That's a man's name. But his name is Jake Turn-Around (or Turn-Over).

A pastry shop chain here is Quemen Pastelerias. "Quemen" is the third person subjunctive form of the verb "they burn it." Really! That's the name of the shop.
And in the culturally lost-in-translation department:
I signed up for 2 summer workshops at the Casa de la Cultura. One in choral singing, the other Life Drawing. I went to the information table, and they insisted that I have identification. Don't know why they need to know my identity, but, OK. I went home and got my passport. Brought the passport back to table #2 with computer, where staffer is entering data in computer. His first question was, "What's you blood type?"
Since my Spanish isn't perfect, I thought I'd misunderstood the question. Nope, "What's your blood type?" I said I had no idea...and why in the world would they need to know my blood type for an art class? He said, "because it's on the form." He said he absolutely HAD to enter something, so we went through the options: A postive, A negative, O, B, etc. He said to just pick one. I did. He was happy.

Mexicans are very big on bureaucracy and forms. My understanding is that it's a make-work deal and helps with greater employment. So, the NEXT step in registering for this 2 silly little classes (notice the attitude change?) is that THEY DO NOT ACCEPT CASH. The registrant has to take the slip of paper from the Blood Type Man over to Bank Norte 5 blocks away. I stood in line for 1/2 hour waiting to get to the cashier. At that point I was thinking, "to hell with it. I don't want it this bad." But just for grins and giggles, I got to the head of the line, paid my $30 to the cashier, and got two forms in triplicate. The reason for taking the registration money directly to the bank is that the managers of the school realize that their staff WOULD STEAL THE MONEY. Ergo, circumvent the staff, go directly to bank.

Then--of course--I had to walk the bank receipts back 5 blocks to the school. And there...lo and behold...another line for the school registrar. I finally got to the head of the line and got my 2 multi-part forms which actually allowed me to enter the classes. Oh, yeah. One last line, separate desk. For the class materials lists.

I was so proud of myself! I stuck it out. And, I've done a full week of both classes. Talk about stretching one's comfort zone! Obviously, the classes are in Spanish. My brain is working overtime to comprehend. And I'm not the world best artist or singer. But I AM learning and enjoying. And that's what its about.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July!

I spent the best Independence Day here in Oaxaca! If it weren't for the bougainvilleas blooming over every wall and the hand-painted Mexican tile, I'd have sworn it was a Missouri picnic. Eighty-some gringos on hand, baked beans, potato salad, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Some pretty fine apple crisp and chocolate cookies, too.

Here's Where I Spent My 4th of July

Photos from the 4th of July party held to benefit the Oaxaca Lending Library.
It was held in the gorgeous Mexican-style home of one of the members, out in a suburban town near Oaxaca.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thank You, Dear Readers

This little Mexico blog, which began last October with my early retirement and marked the beginning of my wanderings throughout Mexico, has reached another milestone.

There have been 5,000 visits! I'm amazed.

Thanks for following the tale of my journey, flavored with salsa and lime.

Thoughts on the Adventure of Travel

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as WE are." ---Anais Nin

"Live each season as it passes; breathe the air; drink the drink; taste the fruit; and resign yourself to the influence of each...Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons." --Henry David Thoreau

"The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes but of having new eyes." --Marcel Proust