Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Definition of High Pressure Salesmanship 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. 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.

Strange Fruit

That funny picture that looks like a greenish-black baseball is actually a ROUND avocado. They grow here. One of my students that I'm tutoring brought it back for me from his family's village up in the mountains. I'd never seen one before. But cut into one, and the flesh looks and tastes exactly like the pear-shaped avocado we're most familiar with. A ROUND avocado, who knew?

The weird spiny-looking thing is a rambutan fruit. They call it a lychee here. Whichever you prefer, it's a fruit native to southeast asia
Evidently the trees are easy to grow, because the rambutan fruit are sold on the streets by dozens of vendors peddling them IN WHEELBARROWS! It takes a bit of getting used to, but you hail the street vendor like you would a cab. You pick out the individual pieces of fruit you want; he weighs it on a little scale and bags it for you. You pay and he's on his way again, wheelbarrow rolling down the sidewalk. The spiny shell isn't prickly--the "hairs" are quite soft. You just split the shell and remove the white flesh. It has a large seed in the center of the flesh. But the fruit is really quite tasty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Much Money Do I Need?

That's always the key question before moving to Mexico. "Will I have enough money?" What's the cost of living in Mexico? It was certainly a concern of mine, and I did a ton of research before deciding to make the leap into early retirement.

One consideration in the research was, "what does a middle-class Mexican worker live on?" I found a variety of sources. But today, there was a front-page article in El Imparcial, a local newspaper, about the salaries of employees at UABJO (the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez of Oaxaca....state-run). That caught my attention because I worked for years in higher education in the States. Here's a translation of the first few paragraphs from the article. I hope it helps put the money issue in context. I've used an exchange rate current today of 13 pesos to the dollar--

".....The University Chancellor, who earns the most, has a monthly salary of 60K pesos ($4,614 US/month, $55,368/year), while the general counsel (attorney), with a lesser salary, earns 30,511 pesos ($2,346 US/mo., $28,155/yr.)

"The bi-weekly salary of the mid-level and upper-level university administrators--including directors of colleges, schools, high schools, and institutes, as well as area heads, administrators, and coordinators, varies between 3,500 and 10,000 pesos every 2 weeks. [editorial note: that's 7-20K pesos per month or $538-$1,538 US/mo.)

"Wages also vary by current category of support personnel, such as gardeners, cleaning staff, night watchmen, service officials, typists, librarians, among others. Those salaries range from 3,300 -4,279 pesos bi-weekly. [6,600-8,558 pesos per month or $507-$658 US/mo.)"

So that, my friends, is how much some mid-level professional workers in Oaxaca are making. Note that salaries vary quite a bit from state to state here, just as--say--salaries would differ from New York to Idaho. Also understand that there is almost always more than one income in a Mexican household. The spouse works, maybe so do a few of the kids. There may be a little independent family business selling sandwiches or handicrafts. Note, as well, that these salaries above mark the middle and upper middle classes. There are hundreds of thousands who make far, far less. Most Oaxacan families, especially in the countryside, scrape by on pennies.

If you are thinking about moving to Mexico, the usual advice is good advice: don't move here just because it's cheaper than living in the U.S. You really need to LIKE Mexico. You need to make an attempt at understanding the people, the language, and customs. Every day is a learning experience for me. Some days more trying than others. But, yes, you CAN live here inexpensively (by American standards) and WELL.

It's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Apologies to Mister Rogers.

Today is one of those days that makes you happy to be in Mexico: I got up a 9 a.m. sharp. It's easy to be sharp when you wake up at 9. Had a cup of Oaxacan-grown coffee and a fresh mango with banana over oatmeal. Oh....and some fresh-squeezed OJ.

I went up to the library and had my two guys for a tutoring session. Their English is improving noticeably. It's a bit sad since this is our last week. Next week, UABJO (the local government university) starts up again, and Manuel will be back in class. He's a 5th-semester foreign language major. Miguel will go back to work at the primary school where he is an administrator. He's been studying in preparation for an English proficiency exam. I bet he'll pass it.

After our class, I stuck around to chat with a number of the expat regulars at the library. I still think of the library as the clubhouse of some wildly fun kids' summer camp.

Then I wandered over to my regular Wednesday massage place. "Beto" is my man. He's good. Really digs in for a deep sports massage. And at 200 pesos ($15 US), it's a little treat that I can indulge in every week. In fact I look forward to it. Gets the lymphatic fluid moving in your body.

I just got back to the apartment, and I had a Chinese stir-fry for lunch. Yesterday was cooking day. I do that. Buy a ton of fresh vegetables, a bit of meat (in this case beef) and just cook it all up. It's a tasty way to incorporate fresh veg into your diet. And it's all so gorgeous and fresh here! Tomatoes are actually RED and taste like....tomatoes! How novel! Eggplant, zucchini, garlic, onions, (yes, I DO make ratatouille), carrots, potatoes, green name it, it's here.

And now, dear readers, I'm writing you. After I finish, I'll do some sketching in preparation for my drawing class, which starts Sept. 1. And then the daily siesta. God, I love naps. It's truly one of the great pleasures of being retired. I always awake completely refreshed. They call it "beauty sleep," but in my case, it's not working. But I enjoy it, anyway.

When I get up, I'll have a glass of vino, a bite of supper, and head over to Teatro Juarez for a chamber music concert.

What's bad? It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I'm Getting Testy

As I was standing in the infernal, hellish, diabolical, idiot long line this morning (read story below), I was waiting behind a mother and her (about 13-year-old) daughter.

No problem so far, right?, except for the annoying wait. Well the frustrated sociologist in me proceeded to observe the mother/daughter interaction directly in front of me:

They stood, face to face, about 8 inches apart. Every 60 seconds or so (I counted, really!) the mom gave her girl a rapid series of little "kissies" on the forehead. The daughter and the mom had their hands on one another's shoulders. They would play with each other's hair, stroke each other's cheeks, play with each other's fingers.

Periodically, they would envelope each other in huge embraces. You know, the kind you'd give a spouse who'd been away in Antarctica for 10 years, dying of hypothermia.
They held hands, they played patty-cake. Mom had to fix the girl's hair at least 3 times. Lots of giggling. They even went to the "little girls' room" together (of course). This went on for over an hour.

At this point I was getting testy. OK, I'll admit it: I wanted TO PUKE. I was going to scream, "Have you ever heard of the term 'CO-DEPENDENT'?" "ENOUGH, ALREADY! Stop it NOW before you screw up this kid's head forever." There will surely be a therapist somewhere here in Oaxaca who will CASH IN big-time on the neuroses of this young lady in about 6 years. About the time she realizes that it's time to move out of mommy's house. "Ever heard of individuation, honey?"

Freud would have a field day. For me, too much sugar makes me sick to my stomach.


"Tramites" means "paperwork" or "procedures." And Mexico, like most developing nations, has a boatload of them. Everything is stamped, signed, and sealed in triplicate. Most American expats living in Mexico will tell you to avoid any type of bureaucracy at all costs. It's just too obnoxious.

Today, I had a bite of it. Really a stomach-ful. I've only got myself to blame. I knew I wanted to re-enroll for the Life Drawing class I've been taking this summer at the Casa de la Cultura. I've enjoyed it. It's fun, and I'm good at it. The instructor told us that the period for current student re-enrollment was this last week. I didn't get around to doing it until Thursday afternoon. And--of course--they had cut off early re-enrollment Thursday at 1 p.m. Why no one was working in the afternoon, who knows? Or why close enrollment all day Friday, who knows? Just a way to piss off the students is my guess.

So, since I missed the early period, I was told to come back for the general open enrollment period that began this morning (Saturday) at 10 a.m. Being ever so clever, I said to myself, "Rod, you need to get over there early to avoid the rush." So I went over at 20 before 10:00. Only to find that 66 other people had had the same idea.

I waited two hours....TWO BLOODY HOURS!!!...until my number got called. That permitted me to go upstairs for the OTHER 4 DAMNED LINES. OK, the next line was for the selection of the class. They verified that I wanted the Tuesday/Thursday Life Drawing Class. OK. They wrote out a little slip with the class section number. Then I had to go stand in another line. (understand that there is NO direction whatsoever as to where to go, which line to stand in) This line was one guy...just one guy..entering your data into the computer system. I got to the head of the line and...sorry, no such section number. He tried a couple of other numeric combinations and "sorry, no number exists." He had to leave his station, walk all around the second floor balcony over to the first guy and get the class number corrected. That done, he directed me to another line....this one to pay by credit card. I'm glad that I paid by credit card, because if you pay by CASH, you have to walk 5 blocks to the bank, STAND IN LINE over there, get up to the cashier window, pay for the class, get a bank receipt, walk back to the Casa de la Cultura, and present your receipt (in another line, of course).

I knew NOT to pay be cash, since I went through that idiocy last semester. So...I've paid by credit card, signed the credit card slip. Good to go, right? No, no, no!! I've got to stand in my FIFTH damned line of the morning for the "official receipt." I asked one of the workers if I couldn't just come back Monday for the official receipt. "No, you can't. You've already been charged on your charge receipt. But you won't be admitted into the class without the OFFICIAL RECEIPT." That new line was an HOUR LONG!!!! They had one half-witted idiot secretary handling the entire line. There were over 50 people in line. I was going nuts (OK, more nuts than usual). Kids running under feet and screaming. The line moving at glacier pace. I had to be somewhere else at 1 p.m.

I made it with 10 minutes to spare. Official receipt in hand, I ran from the building and grabbed a cab and made it to where I needed to be with only minutes left. Efficiency? Are you kidding? They wouldn't know it if it bit them in their asses. It think there is a worldwide order of countries in the rankings of organization and efficiency. Switzerland and Germany have to be up at the top for being obsessively organized. The U.S. is somewhere in the middle. Mexico, I've learned, is down there with Somalia and Zimbabwe.

What I find strange, though, is that while I was boiling over, blood pressure rising, the dozens of Mexicans in line (I was the only gringo I noticed) didn't say a word and didn't seem to care about the crappy customer service. I've since asked a number of Mexican friends. "We're used to it" is their answer. If that's the case, why, then, the marches and strikes and boycotts and government office take-overs and burning tires in the streets when it comes to the people vs. the government. But when it comes to the people vs. customer service....not a peep.

The Meaning of Words

For those of you who've read history, you'll know the name of this Spaniard who "discovered" (read CONQUERED) Mexico was named Hernando Cortés (sometimes spelled Cortez). As Conquistadores (conquerors) go, he shared the usual personality traits: bloodthirsty, violent, double-dealing, ruthless. Perhaps it comes as a surprise, then, that the exact translation of his family name "Cortés" is........"courteous" or "polite." Given that he and his armies killed hundreds of thousands of Indians...and introduced epidemic diseases that killed just as many.....I doubt many Mexican Indians would think of him as Mr. "Courteous."
Another word of note here in Mexico is the word for "handcuffs." In Spanish, the translation is "esposas." This shows both the macho spirit and the wry sense of humor in Latin America since "esposa" is also the word for "wife."
Many Latin American (non-Mexican) commentators have remarked on the use of the phrase "Mande?" here in Mexico. The phrase is only used in Mexico, not in any other Latin American country. And it's used to mean, "Pardon me? What did you say? Please repeat that." But the literal translation is "Order me."

It's used universally and to most non-Mexican ears, it's a bit jarring. Cultural linguistic scholars have written volumes on this strange usage. Some believe that it comes from 500 years of servitude (to the Spanish king, the viceroy, the big landowners, the political boss). It's certainly a self-effacing phrase. I'll leave it to the academic types to draw inferences from this use of "Order me" and what it reflects about the culture as a whole.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Settling Accounts

Today, I paid my first electric bill in Mexico.
They only bill you every TWO months, so I was a bit worried as to potential costs.
My landlady is always complaining about how expensive it is.

The bill came to 128 pesos, or $9.95 FOR TWO MONTHS!!!!!!

To put that in perspective, back in Phoenix, in July, at summer's peak, I would pay $300 or so per month for my little townhouse. Of course there everyone runs airconditioning 24/7. With temperatures around 110F degrees, you want to do that.

Here in Oaxaca, you not only do not run the A/C, you don't even HAVE airconditioning in your home. Or heating. Which saves a ton of money. Cooking is done with gas. So I'm using electric power only for lights, a little TV, and a bedroom fan. 5 bucks a month is a bill I can definitely get used to.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Coming Unglued

As the Great American Philosopher Ron White (OK, he's a comedian) once said: "You can't fix stupid."

Here's what I did this morning. It's all true--

Yesterday, I went out to the pest control shop to find something to kill the flying buggies I've got in the house. They aren't houseflies, aren't mosquitoes, but some sort of little winged gnat. The pest control people wanted to sell me... pesticides--duh. I told them I didn't want to do that because (A) they're bad for the environment (B) they're toxic and (C) I might die. The white powder stuff was labeled "mildly toxic," whatever that means. It's like "mildly pregnant," I think.

So I tried to explain in broken Spanish that I wanted the long sticky strips you hang up from the ceiling and flies, attracted to the smell, stick to it (flypaper). Try explaining that one in Spanish! Anyway, I finally got through to them what I wanted. "Oh, yes...we have exactly what you're looking for." Sure enough, it was flypaper. Four small cylinders. You break off the top and pull. Out comes a 3-foot long spiraled piece of the stickiest stuff since road tar. "Perfect!" I thought, "that should kill the little bastards!"

So I went home and immediately hung up a strip in the bathroom, as that's where I find most of the critters--in the shower. I cleverly wired up a coat hanger and hung it over the shower head. "Tomorrow morning," I said to myself, "I'll have dozens of 'em who've all met their buggie sweet hereafters."

So, cut to this morning. Early. Before coffee. I get out of bed, get undressed, and stumble naked into the bathroom for a shower. Oops! I forgot the flypaper. Hadn't trapped a one of 'em. Bummer. Of course needed to get rid of the flypaper before the shower. So I c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y removed the coat hanger dealie with the length of flypaper hanging off the end and proceeded cautiously to the plastic-lined wastebasket in the kitchen, holding the long strip in front of me with both hands.

The problem came in when I rounded the corner into the kitchen and....(yep, you're one step ahead of me here)...the flypaper swung back onto me, trapping my own unprotected Naughty Bits. At this point I said a bad word, and then started laughing hysterically.

Only I could do something so STUPID! I'm not going to tell you how I unstuck myself. Needless to say, it was painful. And embarrassing. I threw away the remaining tubes of flypaper. I can't be trusted.