Thursday, January 21, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Universal Truth: All Cable Companies Suck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 15, 2010

Teaching Chess in Oaxaca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


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

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

5,000 Pairs of Pants

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Wonderful Way to Start the Year

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

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

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Weather

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Those Rebellious Irish. Is This the Real Zorro?

You may be surprised to learn that the Irish have had an important role in the history of Mexico and Latin America.

When I lived in Chile, I learned that their "George Washington," the founding father of their country, was Bernardo O'Higgins. Somehow, you don't think of "O'Higgins" as being someone you'd find in South America.

Similarly, in Mexico, there was the Irish rebel leader William Lamport, after getting in trouble with the English overlords in his native Ireland, escaped to Spain and changed his name to Guillén Lombardo de Guzmán. He was a pirate for while in the early 1600's (a fun diversion). And then, in the 1630's, became a loyal and favored partisan of the Spanish court. He then sailed to New Spain (Mexico) in the 1640's, where he spied for the Spanish Court. Later, he changed sides and became a leader of the early independence movement, supporting the indigenous peoples, slaves,and creoles. His dream was to declare himself King of Mexico.

As you can imagine, that didn't set well with the Spanish authorities. He got himself arrested and hauled before the Inquisition. You can read his story here: As one of the earliest advocates for a Mexico independent of Spain (180 years before that came to pass), today, his marble statue has a place of honor at the Independence Column in Mexico City. And many think he is the role model for the fictional ZORRO stories, given his larger-than-life exploits.

The Difference Between Mexicans and Americans

I found this in reading a special edition of Processo Magazine entitled, "Bi-Centenario, Que Celebramos?" (The Bicentennial, What are We Celebrating?) issue No. 1 from April 2009. In the publication, writer Fabrizio Mejia Madrid writes:
....(The image of Pancho)Villa is all that separates us from the gringos: the sentimental and the complex, the evasiveness, (our)taste for the ambiguous, the constant certainty of that which we hope for, the lie, defeat and death which are the same. Different from The American Dream....The Mexican Dream is a dream that ends when the movie credits say "THE END." When the Lottery numbers have been announced and you've crumbled up your ticket with a sigh.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I'm Not Old, I'm Ancient

I've learned that using the term "viejo" (old) to describe someone is rude. Back in the States, it isn't so. Old is old.

But more polite here is the term, "anciano," which sounds all the hell like "ancient." However, its correct translation is "elderly."

If one wanted to say "ancient," it would be "antiguo," which also translates: "antique." Personally, I think I'd rather be considered an antique. At least people pay good money to collect those.

What I Discovered on the Way to Buy Earplugs

As I've written before, Mexico is a noisy country. Much noisier than most Americans are used to. Especially OLD Americans. I've noticed that as I get older, the more sensitive I am to sound.

So the other day I went in search of earplugs. I recommend to any of you traveling to Mexico, definitely bring earplugs. Even if you'll be staying in the best of hotels, you're going to need earplugs.

Thinking of Walgreen's back home, I went to the local drugstore. Nope, no earplugs. And to another pharmacy. Not their, either. After visits to about 4 drugstores, one kind clerk took pity on me and told me that earplugs are not sold in drugstores. You have to go to the medical equipment store. Ummm, that makes sense....sort of. I suppose Mexicans are accustomed to their noisy environment and, thus, don't buy these things.

So off I went to the medical equipment store. While waiting in line (you wait in lines for everything here), I noticed two items for sale. One, an eye chart like you'd find in your optometrist's office. Except this one didn't have the usual tiny letters E,F,P,T,O,Z, etc. Instead, this one had only symbols. Why? A lot of Mexicans don't read, or don't know the alphabet. Plus, speakers of indigenous languages, they use a different alphabet entirely.

Another weird thing, one which I've seen in the Yucatan, as well: nose straighteners. These are little plastic springy devices the indigenous people can place inside their nostrils in order to straighten them and given them a more "beautiful" European profile. Isn't hatred of one's own self-image sad?

Electric Bill

For all of you up north paying HEFTY winter heating bills......sorry!

I just got our hand-delivered electric bill. The bill for TWO MONTHS (for two people during the last three weeks)is....drum roll, please....69 pesos. At today's exchange rate, that's $5.30 U.S. Read it again. $5.30 for two months. I can get used to this.

Victoria's Secreto

Thinking of other linguistic oddities, I came across a new favorite word while reading a Mexican magazine: "zozobra." It translates as "uneasiness, anxiety."

But having the twisted mind that I do, I imagined it to be some new type of Mexican lace-up bustier/lingerie thing. Just think of the marketing possibilities: "Naughty Tropical Señoritas, Wearing This Year's Sexiest, the Zo-zo BRA."

What's in a Name

I'm continually amused by Mexican names. For example, the street behind my apartment is named "Santos Degollado" which translates literally as: "Saints with Their Throats Cut." The street is actually named for a Mexican general (as are many... we ARE fond of blood-and-guts military leaders in Mexico), Gen. Jose Santos Degollado. Here's a link to his biography on Wikipedia:

But can't you imagine the conversation?: "Hey, Tony, where are you living these days?" "Oh, I've got a new place over on Saints With Their Throats Cut Street. I like the neighborhood."

This is diametrically opposed to the naming conventions for streets back in Phoenix, where the city fathers tended to the cutesy. As I recall, we had "Cheery Lynn," "Linger Lane," "Shangri La Road," "Here to There Drive."

And my other favorite Oaxaca street name is, of course--Jacobo Dalevuelta Street. Which translates as: "Jake, Turn Around" or "Jake, Turn the Corner" street.

There is a kindergarten named Elizabeth Vargas Sibaja School. "Sibaja" translates literally: Indeed Short. Well, I suppose if you're talking about kids, "indeed short" makes sense.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Twelfth Night

Or, as we say here in Mexico, "Feliz Dia de Reyes" (Kings Day, or Three Kings Day, or Los Reyes Magos).

Tonight's celebration eclipses Christmas in many households. Mexican children anxiously await the arrival of the Three Kings who bring PRESENTS. Although Santa Claus is running an increasingly close second in the race, due to the Americanization of the culture, Three Kings is still the big deal. Kids put a shoe out with a note delineating their preferred goodies. Smart, huh?

And how is it celebrated? With a Rosca de Reyes, of course. You couldn't get a foot in a bakery this last week. They're churning out this particular circular sweet bread by the thousands, each with it's little hidden surprise, a plastic baby figurine representing the Baby Jesus. But no one refers to it by that name, calling it instead the "monito." That's understandable since the plastic Jesus gets baked in an infernally hot commercial oven....much nicer to call him something else after he's been lightly toasted. The whole concept of roasting Baby Jesus seems a bit odd to me....but that's what they do....or at least cook the "monito." (the word "monito" comes from "monkey" which sounds pretty sacrilegious when you think about it. But it also refers to "cute," and "figurine." An odd locution.) This is pretty much the same thing they serve up in New Orleans and call the "King Cake" for the Feast of the Epiphany in the pre-Lenten season.

The Rosca is cut up and served to all the invitees at the party. The lucky person who gets the plastic figurine is automatically the godfather of the Baby Jesus in that house and gets to host the February 2 tamale fiesta for the same group on the Dia de la Candelaria. In Mexico, we like our fiestas.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Feliz Año Nuevo

A Happy New Year to all my readers, friends & family!

The start of a new year often brings out the worst in navel-gazing among pundits. I will try to avoid that. What I have been thinking about, though, as the calendar turns to 2010 is Happiness. A while ago I read the Dalai Lama's book, "The Art of Happiness." In it, he and co-author Howard Cutler posit four principles:

--The purpose of life is happiness.
--Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external
conditions, circumstances, or events—at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.
--Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds,
through reshaping our attitudes and outlook.
--The key to happiness is in our own hands.

In my own view, there is one more principle: It is each person's OBLIGATION --a social responsibility--to be happy. That's not easy, not simple. Certainly, I'm not always happy. Often, far from it. I get angry, pissed off (see a few of my previous posts), impatient, sad. But if I realize that happiness is my goal...indeed, a responsibility I have, it focuses my thinking and my behavior and gives me something to work towards. Looking at the universality of this, the more absolute quantity of Happiness afloat in the world, conversely, the less anger, hostility, rudeness. ThoughtFULness displaces ThoughtLESSness. A sort of philosophical Gresham's Law in reverse.

What I've noticed here in Mexico, informally, is that most people seem happy. Even those with very little in terms of material goods. Which brings me to the usual cultural comparisons I do a hundred times a day: the U.S. with abundant wealth, Mexico with an enormous swath of poverty. How do they manage to be happy? For those who want to read more, supported by hard statistics, check out this link to the World Values Survey A specific document included there is "Happiness Trends in 24 Countries, 1946-2006" which shows Mexico with a very steeply rising curve measuring levels of happiness between 1975 and 2006. What's their secret?