Thursday, June 28, 2012

June 28

Hola, everyone!

 Barrel cactus flowers

Here in Mexico we are drawing to the end of the political campaign, which has several features that I as an American am envious of.  For one, the campaign is limited to the two months preceding the July 1 vote, this Sunday.  The campaigning is therefore more intense than in the US, but at least it doesn't drag on forever as ours seems to.  I also like the fact that here the president can legally serve only one six-year term:  no concern about being re-elected and with six years it should be possible to get something done.  The current president, Felipe Calderón, has focused on overcoming the drug trafficking and consequent violence, but he doesn't seem to have been very successful.  The simplest solution would be for Americans to stop buying drugs, but of course that won't happen.

This being Mexico, there are a couple of things different about political campaigns.  First is the noise.  There are many demonstrations, parades, and sound trucks blaring slogans and candidates' names, all very loud of course.  Because Mexico is such a communal place with people in the streets and socializing on front stoops, there is a lot of citizen participation in the campaigns.  Parades such as the one below, for a man running for governor of Guanajuato State, have been common.

I asked a man in the parade who was wearing a T-shirt of another candidate why he liked that candidate.  "Es lo mejór!" he answered enthusiastically.  "He's the best!"

The entire town is simply festooned with campaign signs on every available surface.   Because there are walls everywhere -- houses, remember, are built within walls, something I have come to love for the privacy -- the walls serve as perfect surfaces for campaign signs.  Some of them, like the next one, have letters that are big enough to be seen from outer space.

And as you'd expect with political feelings running high, sometimes people express their oppositional feelings pretty directly.

I suspect the candidates are far more motivated to paint all these walls at the beginning of the campaign than to restore them to their original state when it's over.  I guess everyone will have to look at these things until the next campaign.

Every single lamp post in town has at least one campaign poster attached to it.  By now, near the end of the campaign, a number of them have been torn or defaced by opponents' supporters.  And this gives the candidates an opportunity to use the destruction of their campaign materials as an argument for their own virtue and the lack of same among their opponents.  It's looking pretty ragged around here.

Yesterday three men were killed in Chiapas, a state in the south of Mexico next to Guatemala.  Drugs, I assumed.  But no:  they were three men who were having a political argument defending their candidates and opposing the candidates of the other two, and the argument got pretty heated.  A Mexican told me this happens every election, with people killing each other in political disagreements.  Can you imagine Americans caring that much about politics?  I can't.

Perhaps not by coincidence, the campaign materials of the sole woman running for president among four candidates are not nearly as ubiquitous as those of the others.  Josefina Vazquez Mota is trailing in the polls partly because she's from the same political party as Calderón, the PAN, and he's not very popular.

The word on the street is that Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the PRI party that ruled Mexico for over 70 years until 2000, will be elected president.  A handsome man + a beautiful wife + a lot of money = electability, but he represents a party that was known for its authoritarianism.  We will see.

I have been busy getting the casita ready for the first renter, who is arriving on Monday for a two-month stay.  I have bought furniture, pictures, an area rug, and kitchen supplies.  I have had two futons Rick left behind cleaned, and a bookcase built by the same carpenter who did all the gorgeous woodwork in both houses.  I have had the walls painted, so they are no longer white:  a buttery cream in the bedroom and bath, and a soft apricot in the kitchen and living room.  It is looking quite beautiful.  While she is here I will be looking for another renter, preferably long-term, to succeed her.  As you can imagine, it will take months and months for all these expenditures to be made up, but it is necessary and will eventually pay off.

I am sorry but I have not yet taken photos of Rick's new house.  I promise I will!  He has bought the house he had his heart set on, and has gotten a marvelous deal on it.  He has a much larger house now than he had here:  a living room, an eat-in kitchen, a small solarium, three bedrooms and three baths, as opposed to one and one in the casita.  His house has a shady front courtyard and a large, sunny, tiled upstairs patio.  He will be able to rent out a bedroom for additional income because there are stairs from the courtyard to the second floor, making it a private entrance.  The house is six or seven blocks from here in the same neighborhood, so he and I are back and forth all the time.  He moved there two weeks ago.  At first it felt sort of creepy being alone in this big place all by myself, but I am now completely used to it.  When the renter is here, will it feel crowded?

Rick has been writing quite a lot of poetry, and I like most of it very much.  I think he is pretty astonished to be finding this gift in himself at this point of his life, but he is loving it.  On most Tuesday evenings, he reads some of his poetry at an Open Mic night where people perform poetry, prose, music, and dance.  People have asked him where they can buy a copy of his poetry books!  Here is a poem he wrote:


As I was walking the streets of San Miguel
I saw a twisted old woman
Half sitting, half lying on the sidewalk
I stopped to drop a peso in her basket

As I bent down, she looked up
Eyes probing mine, pulling me
Into her very being

Did I see the mother she had once been,
Her children now scattered and lost to her?
Had she once been someone's bride?
Some young man's passion?

Had her body always been broken?
Or had she run with her friends
Laughing in the sun?
Had she ever been carefree, giggling,
Sharing her dreams and longings?

Had she held the hands of her brothers and sisters
As they skipped across the plaza?
In her long life, had she ever felt safe,
Sheltered, and wholly loved?

Then, I saw in those eyes
That she had been all those things.
Was all those things.
Is all those things.

And, as I finally released the coin
Into her basket — she smiled
The sweetest smile, said "Gracias"
And released me to my passing self.

Rick has been writing, and I have been editing.  A friend here, Richard Gordon, has written and self-published a book called Butterfly Zen.  It is a marvelous book, an allegory about two butterflies and other creatures who serve as the vehicle for Richard's hard-won life wisdom, while being three-dimensional characters in their own right.  I find Richard extraordinarily wise and thoughtful, and am so happy he's found a creative way — a way that works! — to express it.  When I ordered my copy and read it, I saw that he is a better thinker and writer than he is knowledgeable about punctuation and other picky but important things.  I offered to edit it, so he and I are spending hours every week going over the book word by word to improve it.  You understand that I wouldn't spend this kind of time if I didn't think the book was worth it.  I've done a lot of editing before but never with the author directly, so it's an interesting experience for me.  If you'd like to read Richard's book, let me know by email ( and I'll tell when the edited version is available for purchase online.

The deadline for applications from instructors to teach a course in my adult education program, which will be piloted for the month of October, is two days from now.  So far I have received two applications, both quite good:  a history of Mexico and an introduction to architecture.  I hope there will be more applications because I'd like to have a choice.  It's all a learning experience.

The rains have come, finally, putting an end to temperatures in the low- to mid-90s.  It's astonishing how immediately the temperatures come down 10 degrees (F.).  Now it's not too hot to go to the Tuesday Market, the main market that attracts vendors of foods and every sort of merchandise imaginable, from miles around.  I wanted to take pictures of many stalls — so many are so beautiful! — but here are just two of them for you, plastic shopping bags and roses.  A dozen roses, by the way, cost 25 pesos, or $1.85.  A big ripe sweet pineapple cost 13 pesos, or just under a dollar.

Hasta luego!


Friday, May 25, 2012

May 25, 2012

Hola, everyone

The last month has been a peculiar mixture of hassle, readjustment, and of course pleasure.

The most important thing is that Rick and I have managed to reach what is in effect a new normal.  Our divorce will be final on June 19, but we are better together than ever.  Not being married any more, we have no expectations or requirements of each other, don't push each other's buttons any more, and are free just to enjoy each other.  Which we are doing!  We spend part of every day together in comfort and ease -- no stress at all.  We are apparently becoming best friends, and I can't tell you how much I love this and value it.  I agree with Rick that once you love someone you never stop loving them, and that is surely true in this case.  Now that the bad stuff is cleared away, we are both free to love each other much more easily than before.  What could be bad about this?

It looks like he has found his new place to live.  It's a house he's wanted for the last six weeks but needed to wait until the owner was ready to sell it -- a domino problem, until she found the house she wanted to move to.  She has now found it, so Rick is in discussions with the real estate agent about what stays in the house and what goes.  He has had a terrific stroke of luck in this house -- it's a huge amount of house for the money he has to spend.  In the same neighborhood as I am (San Antonio), about 6 or 7 blocks away, his house has three bedrooms and three baths, is light and airy, and is really charming.  The bedroom on the second floor has a separate entrance, so he'll be able to rent that out if he wants.  In theory the down payment will happen next week and the closing as soon as possible thereafter.  No pictures yet, but that will come.  Once he moves of course he'll have the key to this place and will use the pool whenever he wants.  And I'll have the key to his.

Actually, there's been a lot of housing hassle lately.  The house on Camano Island not only has not sold, but there are few people looking at it -- only 3 or 4 in nearly 3 months that it's been on the market.  When it had an open house last weekend with NO people showing up, I decided enough is enough.  I'm hemorrhaging money supporting that vacant house, so it is now up for rent.  It will be on the for-sale market until it has a renter.  Even then I'll be losing money -- I owe about $850/month on the home equity line of credit (= type of mortgage) that I used to build this house.

Rick moved out of his casita (into the guest room for the meantime) so that I could put it up for rent.  As soon as I can rent the casita (as well as the Camano Island house) I will break even in this housing mess and if I'm lucky clear a hundred dollars or so a month.  I've been advertising it and there are several live possibilities.  In the next post I'll let you know how it's going.

Enough of that.

I had a good time with my ambassador, for the international friendship program in San Miguel I told you about last time.  I was disappointed the Moroccan ambassador cancelled at the last minute -- I wanted to resurrect my French!  Instead I was assigned the ambassador from Portugal.  He came with a young woman who is an attaché at the Portuguese embassy, and although they had two rooms in the hotel they seemed like an old married couple together.   Oh well, not my business.  They both spoke English and of course Spanish.  I was astonished to hear the Portuguese sounds like Russian!  Maybe because of all the "sh" sounds.  Here they are; the photo was taken on the tour bus of town the second and last day of their visit.

The first part of the visit was of course the ceremonial part.  Held in the Angela Peralta, the main theater in town, we were subjected to innumerable speeches welcoming the guests and praising international friendship.  I learned that in these circumstances a speaker must first recognize and thank the various dignitaries seated on the stage, individually, at length, before going through the welcome rigamarole.  Surrounding the dignitaries were teenagers standing stiffly at attention as they held the flags of the nations represented.  At the end of all the speeches -- phew! -- they filed out while the dignitaries saluted the flag(s!) in a different way than we do:  the right arm is bent at a 90-degree angle and held horizontally over the chest.  To me it looked horrendously militaristic, but then maybe the US flag salute would look the same way to them.

Leaving the theater there was a dais set up for the Official Picture.  Note that the group was augmented by the local beauty queen, Señorita San Miguel, at left.

Following the Official Picture, all the ambassadors paraded through town behind a sign of their country and a flag, preceded by honored high school girls.  Catarina, the attaché, was wearing heels of suicidal height, and on the cobblestones that was more of a challenge than she had counted on.  I decided for the evening that I would be Portuguese, and walked with them.  The word for this kind of a parade in Spanish is una callejonada, a group stroll through the streets.  It's also commonly done after weddings and such, and is one of the wonderful ways in Mexico that the private is lived publicly.

At the end of the callejonada we arrived at the Church of San Francisco, to my mind the most beautiful church in San Miguel and the same one where Rick and I attended a wedding last summer.  Before arriving in the church we walked through an honor welcome guard of drummers and trumpet players.  Pretty loud!  Note the sex segregation in the roles, by the way, with the parade folks girls and the musicians boys.

In the church there was a concert performed in their honor, open to anyone who wanted to attend.

I had a good time and would do it again next year, although unlike the friends I made with the opera folks in February, these folks will not become friends.  It's okay:  the luck of the draw.

My other activities are also progressing.  At the Santa Julia orphanage, several young Mexican women have offered to talk to the girls as part of the role model program I cooked up for them.  They have been interviewed and scheduled; their presentations should start soon.

And my adult education program has just recently gone public, as I have started advertising for instructors to teach two or three courses in the pilot of the program in October.  I've had a good number of requests for information and have already received one complete application from a man who wants to teach a course on "The Conquest of Mexico [1521]: How 400 Spaniards Conquered the Aztec Empire."  Looks interesting!

However, I'm learning some disquieting things about the bureaucratic requirements for such a program.  I've learned that technically instructors, even volunteer instructors, even instructors who  teach a really short-term course, need to have official permission to work attached to their visas, which costs 2200 pesos per person, or almost $200 US dollars.  Obviously impossible.  So I'll have to spend some time finding out if a work-around is possible.  I'll ignore the requirement for the October pilot (are they going to throw me in jail?), but if I can't figure out a solution I don't see how the program will be viable in the future.  Well, one thing at a time.

Fortunately this summer has not been as hot as last summer, when it was in the mid- to high 90s every day for weeks on end.  It's been generally around 90, which is bearable, and this house has such a lovely breeze -- and of course the pool is such a blessing! -- that the heat hasn't been onerous at all.  As opposed to last summer, when I really suffered. 

Life is terrific.  I am reading, sewing, listening to music, seeing friends, attending lectures and movies -- all is good. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

April 26, 2012

Hello, everyone

I haven't written this blog for over four months because Rick and I are divorcing, never an easy time.  However, we have worked out our differences and are now changing our relationship from bad spouses to good friends.  Under the circumstances we've agreed it's better not to live as close to each other as we have been, so he is looking for another place to live.  In the meantime, we are fine here, and neither one of us would consider moving back to the United States.  You would not believe the number of people who have told me they are happier in San Miguel than they have ever been in their entire lives.  And for good reason.

But despite all the emotional upheaval, life has not stopped and San Miguel is wonderful as always.  I read a story recently that in one way captures a truth about Mexico that often puzzles Americans.


An American investment banker was on the beach of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman came ashore. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs.

The American then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would leave this village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15 - 20 years."

"But what then?", asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich.  You would make millions!"

"Millions - then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos." 

It is true that Mexicans seem to value family and friends over work and obligations, which I find lovely.  And it's also lovely that much of the time they spend with family and friends is spent in public, in the Jardin, on the stoop of the house, at the neighborhood taco stand.  The town pulses with life every evening.  

But in another way the story is absolutely untrue.  Mexicans are the hardest-working people I know.  I saw it among the workers who built my house, and often I see people doing astonishing hard physical work for many hours on end.  One of the reasons many streets here are cobblestoned, aside from the fact that San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore can't pave over the old colonial cobblestoned streets, is that paving a street with cobblestones provides more employment than paving it with asphalt.  (Too bad for the cars and the walkers!)  I once saw workers building an overpass over a road, and they hauled up a huge boulder with a pulley system.  It took many men to do that.  At times like these I am reminded that Mexico, while gaining more and more of a middle class, is in part a third-world country.

I have been busy with various projects in the last few months, partly for mental health purposes but partly for the pleasure of it all.  One of the best things is that I have been volunteering with Pro Musica, the classical music organization in San Miguel that brings often superb chamber musicians to town for concerts in a church.  I edit the program notes for them.  In February Pro Musica put on San Miguel's first staged opera in our small theater, a real production challenge.  They chose to do Tosca.  It was entirely a Mexican production, singers and production staff, all professionals, and my role was to find housing for them in local homes.  As a result, I corresponded with them all so that by the time they got here it felt like I was welcoming friends.  Several of them stayed in my guest room at various times, and during the week leading up to the performances in February three of the singers had breakfast here every morning.  I had dinner with them one night and went to a terrific party with them another night, where they took turns singing for fun.  The opera itself turned out to be a pretty lousy production, actually, but the music was good and I have made marvelous new friends.  La Bohème will be presented next February, and meetings for that have already started.

One new friend is the basso profundo, Charlie Oppenheim, who is bilingual and also publishes Mexico's version of Opera News, Pro Opera.  You can hear him sing on YouTube, including a marvelous "Old Man River" (  I spent a day with him in February in Mexico City, where I was privileged to hear him sing in a stripped-down hour-long children's version of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute, in part of the National Auditorium Building.  It was absolutely brilliant.  It was held in an enormous room, tiered like a regular auditorium, but the tiers were 10 or 12 feet wide.  At the front of the tiers were small cocktail-size tables with four chairs, and in back of the tables and chairs was where people walked.  There must have been a thousand people, and I didn't see one empty chair.  Food was available so parents went to the snack bar and brought back food and drink for the kids.  No one minded the constant low hum of children's talking and laughing.  Papageno and Papagena were played by life-size puppets (with the singers standing next to them), and the woods were shown in animation projected from behind on a screen.  It was sung by professional Mexican opera singers in German, with super-titles in Spanish that parents read to small kids.  This was only one of half a dozen children's operas presented each year, and tickets are cheap -- 250 pesos for adults, about $21, and 150 pesos for kids.  Now if we could do this in the US, we'd be able to stop moaning about the lack of a next generation that loves classical music.

Another project is that I helped the director of the girls' orphanage here cook up a role model program for the girls.  There are about 35 girls who live in Hogar Santa Julia (Santa Julia Home); many of them are not in fact orphans but are kids whose homes were so toxic that they were brought to the orphanage.  A big problem is that as girls reach the age of 18 they often don't want to live in a "little kids'" home and they do want to live in a real family.  When they choose to return to their families of origin the result is usually a disaster, with the same dysfunctions as before and now still another mouth to feed.  The girls all go to school while they are in the orphanage, but early educational deficits are often hard to make up and they don't have many examples of people like them who have managed to overcome tough early lives.  So I suggested a low effort-level role model program:  young women ages 16-25 who have indeed overcome tough early lives and have managed to make something good of their lives.  Young women will come in for an hour or so hopefully each week to speak to the girls, and will receive a small honorarium, and will in this way broaden the girls' horizons with more possibilities for their lives.  After all, you can't become something you never heard of.  I figured it would be easier to get more young women to commit to one hour than to a continuing "Big Sister" mentorship type of thing.  This program should be starting in the next month or so.

My adult education program, which you might remember from last year, has been resurrected.  I will pilot it in October in a classroom at Café Contento -- those of you who have been to San Miguel might remember it as the café across Hernandez Macias from Bellas Artes.  That will be a good place for a pilot but not a good permanent place, because I will need, besides a classroom or two, administrative support and a web page that permits visitors to pre-register.  Publicity will start in June, when I will be looking for instructors to teach two or three courses in October. 

And my last little project is getting involved next month with a program which every year hosts  ambassadors to Mexico from 15 or 20 countries for a week in San Miguel, some sort of brotherhood thing or for all I know just a junket.  Funding comes from the state and national governments.  I vaguely remember reading about it last year in the paper.  I saw an announcement that they were looking for local sponsors, and I thought that would be fun.  I managed to get the only French-speaking ambassador, a man from Morocco of all places, which Rick and I visited three years ago in a great home exchange, so my French will get a booster shot.  Apparently as a sponsor I get to accompany them to all sorts of classy events for a weekend, maybe more, and show them around town.  What could be bad?

My final offering is a lesson in how to make churros, those delicious and horrendously fattening things you can get for a dollar each at Costco:  a fried strip of dough covered with cinnamon and sugar.  Near the place where several buses stop near the Biblioteca there is often a  stand where a couple makes and sells churros.  I was fascinated by the process.

First, the man extrudes the dough by a hand crank from a metal container at the top of the stand, which is he doing in the photo above.  Next, he deep-fries the strips.

Last, he passes the hot strips of fried dough to his wife, who dunks them in a cinnamon-sugar mixture and places them on absorbent paper, below.  Then they are sold in a paper bag, hot and totally delicious, 10 for 10 pesos, about 80 cents for the bag.  Superb.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

December 17


If you've been following this blog you know that I haven't traveled much in Mexico since I moved here nearly a year ago.  I went to Mexico City for a couple of days, but that was it until I went with my friend Natalie to Mazatlan.  Mazatlan is on the Pacific Ocean north of Puerta Vallarta and nearly due east from Cabo San Lucas at the bottom of the Baja California peninsula.  It was a ten-hour drive by highway (expensive highway! about $100 in tolls one way!) from San Miguel.

On the way there we stopped in Tequila — yes, that's why it's called tequila — so that Natalie could buy her annual supply, which is much cheaper than in the stores.  The vendor gives you tastes of different types of tequila, all of which tasted like medicine to me, and then pours your choices into clean, empty, unmarked containers.  Vendors were lined up one after another in their open-air shops on the road into town.

Natalie has two weeks a year of a timeshare in a resort called Pueblo Bonito, 20 km. north of the city on the ocean.  Posh doesn't begin to describe it.  The apartments have crown molding, marble bathrooms, high ceilings, very large rooms, and a terrace overlooking the ocean.  Here is the view from our terrace.

It was fascinating to study the design of this place.  All of the walkways were curved:  some designer determined that straight lines don't go with luxury.  In and around the lobby were huge aviaries with brilliantly colored parrots, peacocks — white as well as the usual emerald, and other birds that provided lovely bird music.  The grass was apparently cut with manicure scissors, blade by blade.  On the grounds were swans and flamingos.  These flamingos were sleeping, the head tucked under a wing, one leg tucked under a body.  How come they don't fall over?

The beach was actually the only less-than-perfect part.  At low tide you could see all the rocks in the water, not very inviting for a dip.  The beach sloped down steeply (you can see that in the picture above with me and Natalie), and the lounge chairs were hard plastic that hurt my butt.  But the beach was more-than-perfect for looking at.

Pueblo Bonito had four or five restaurants, most very pricey, and a little store where you could buy groceries if you wanted to cook in the apartments (cooktop, microwave, coffee maker, blender for margaritas, toaster, pots, dishes, silverware).  The prices at the little store were breathtakingly expensive, and in fact if you weren't careful you could spend a wild fortune.  One night we went into the bar, oops, excuse me, the lounge, and made the mistake of having a glass of wine without asking the price.  135 pesos:  $10 at the best exchange rate.  Plus tip.  It was very good that we drove because we could bring kitchen supplies with us, which we used often.

Mazatlán has about half a million people, including about 10,000 Americans and Canadians.  Many of them leave in the summer, when the heat and humidity are brutal.  Because of the heat and the salty air, the buildings are in worse shape than in San Miguel, needing but not always getting new paint every other year.  The city is stretched out along a few miles of coastline, there is a wide promenade along the entire length, and there are many casual restaurants on the beach under palm-frond palapa roofs.  The beach there is perfect.  Tourist-related business is bad ever since the American cruise ship lines cancelled Mazatlan as a stop earlier this year after some violence there.  We saw a number of closed businesses, although Natalie, who has been visiting annually for eight years, says that closed businesses and turnover are standard.

Mazatlán is the shrimp capital of Mexico, and Natalie knew where the shrimp market was:  a dozen or so women who sell just-caught shellfish from large plastic tubs.

I gorged on shrimp all the time we were there:  the prices were wonderful.  Great big shrimp that in the US would cost $20 a pound, heads off, cost 110 pesos a kilo, less than $4 a pound.  Now that I'm back, I checked the prices of shrimp that size at Mega, the supermarket I shop at:  350 pesos a kilo.  Gives me a healthy appreciation for markup.  And we bought fresh scallops, too.  Natalie, who is a gourmet cook, had a way of serving them I didn't know, and loved.  This is fine for an appetizer or a main dish.

Natalie's Scallops

Raw scallops
Sprinkle to taste with fresh lime juice, hot sauce, freshly ground pepper, and chopped parlsey

And that's the recipe!  Superb.

We went into Mazatlan most days.  We had dinners out probably two-thirds of the time and went shopping.  We also went to two performances, a modern dance and a symphony orchestra (the 1812 Overture and Mahler's First Symphony —  wonderful noisy percussion in both), both of which were superb.  The classical music concerts I go to here in San Miguel, like the otherwise excellent violin and piano concert earlier this evening, are attended it seems exclusively by gringos.  An entirely expat audience feels to me like an artificial island set down in the middle of a living sea.  Being a minority in the Mexican audience in Mazatlan felt very good, as if somehow the music and the whole concert experience were more real that way.

At the end of the Mahler concert on Saturday night — box seats for 250 pesos, about $19, the refurbished Machado Square on which the concert hall is located was brimming with people in restaurants, live music, vendors of about 5 million pairs of earrings and necklaces, and throngs of people having a wonderful time.

The modern dance concert in Mazatlan was free, and Natalie and I were astonished that a free concert would be of such high caliber.  As we were talking about this after the performance, a man in his 20s overheard us and explained with evident pride and in very good English that the Sinaloa state government sponsored performances like this to promote culture among the citizens.  I loved that he was so young and that he cared enough about something I'd imagine few of his counterparts in the US would care about to explain it to us.  And it was also good associating the name Sinaloa with cultural life instead of a drug cartel.

Both concerts we went to were held in a refurbished historic hall, El Teatro Angela Peralta.  This theater is as important to Mazatlan as Carnegie Hall is to New York, both of them resurrected from abandonment and transformed into something beautiful.  Angela Peralta was a Mexican soprano, 1845-1883, who had a stellar international career and died at age 38 in Mazatlan after a concert at the hall, then named something else. The story is that she married her lover on her deathbed, very romantic, but there remains a question about whether she was conscious when she did so.  More than one theater in Mexico is named after her, including ours here in San Miguel. 

We went to the Mazatlan aquarium, where I got to kiss a sea lion in the sea lion show and stroke a parrot in the bird show.  I also said hello to a crocodile, who was obviously saying hello back.

And on this trip I also got to meet an iguana up close!  It has dry warm skin like a snake.

The shell shop in town had an enormous pool on its second floor:  you can extrapolate from the shallow curve how big this pool is.  Koi were swimming happily in an environment I wouldn't have associated with them, a blue-tiled pool with water maybe 8" deep.  (Although how do I know?  Maybe the koi die every night and are replaced every morning.)  The outside of the pool was beautifully covered with an intricate mosaic made out of dozens of kinds of shells. 

One day we had lunch at a restaurant, La Puntilla, near the port.  We watched the fish in the harbor jumping joyously out of the water and back in again. Well, "joyously" is my interpretation.  Here is the view from our table.

All in all, a marvelous trip!

Back home in San Miguel, I saw the electric garage door opener that had been installed while I was away.  I had made a big point of insisting that there be no garage-door support structure overhead to block the view one gets of the jacaranda trees and the bougainvillea coming in the front door.  Gerardo, the contractor, had suggested that instead of the usual door that pulls up overhead which would require a big armature right smack in the way of the sight line, that we have two doors opening out from the middle.  Brilliant solution!

The people who came to install the opener said that a big overhead iron structure, parallel to the front wall and stretching from the casita to the casa walls, was necessary even for outward-opening doors.  Rick was here, thank goodness, and he and Gerardo called me.  I asked Gerardo to tell the installers that he had an impossible client who absolutely refused to do it that way and insisted that they find a better way to do it.  Blame me:  I have broad shoulders!

And the squeaky wheel got the oil!  Here is the structure that was installed, supported from above and not from side to side.  I took this picture leaning against the casa wall; Rick's casita is on the other side.  When you come in the front door you see the trees, not the structure.  The doors open smoothly, silently, and perfectly.  And every time I see the craftsmanship of the woodwork, I marvel anew.

The weather is definitely cooler at night now, so since I got back six days ago I've been sleeping in the bedroom and not on the sleeping porch.  The stone/cement houses are cool and the night-time temperatures are in the low 50s or upper 40s, so when you get up in the morning you put on warm clothes.  And then you go out in the afternoon and are hot because the sunshine is warm and the temperature is in the 70s.  Or you wear light clothes for outside and are cold when you come inside.  I am having a hard time remembering that when I go out at 4:30 while the sun is still shining and it's nice and warm out, and will come home two or three hours later, as I did tonight with the chamber music concert that started at 5:00, the temperature plunges a good 10 to 15 degrees as soon as the sun goes down.  Brrrr!

Mexican houses don't have central heating (or double-pane insulated windows or doors) but instead have gas heaters.  Poor houses have no heat source at all, and people bundle up.  It's a progression from heating the whole house to heating a room to heating the person.  In my house I have two original gas heaters about 18" by 30",  attached to the walls in the living room and the study.  I have no idea how old they are.  Here's one.

To make them work, you first turn the valve (bottom right) that opens the gas line.  Then you turn a knob (that you can't see on the top) to "pilot."  Then you hold this knob down to make the gas flow and press a button, hard, to create an ignition spark.  If all goes well you get a small pilot flame.  Then you turn the knob past pilot to low/medium/high heat, and the gas burns over less or more of the white grill space accordingly.  This is an open fire, in a house!  It looks so dangerous, but I guess I'll get used to it.  And of course it's like a fireplace with the heat from one localized source, not nice all-over heat from baseboards or multiple floor vents.  Oh well, nothing is perfect.  But what compensations, like the fireworks I hear outside right now.  People are enjoying themselves, and that happiness is contagious.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

November 26

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving!  Here in San Miguel restaurants were running ads in Atención, the weekly bilingual paper, for Thanksgiving dinner for three weeks in advance.  Depending on the restaurant, many owned by gringos, the cost ranged from 200 pesos to well upward of 1,000 pesos. (The exchange rate lately is terrific, about 13.75 pesos to the dollar.)

We had company this past week -- our friends from Seattle Marja, her partner Rob, and two of their kids, Anja and Peace.  The place is so roomy that we could have slept even more people than that!  Of course there was a parade, as there often is.  Here's Marja and Anja at the parade, camera in hand.

Our adventure of the week was to go horseback riding.  I hadn't been on a horse in 25 years, but no problem!  It was the very best way to see the countryside, which is pretty dry now that the rainy season is over, but very beautiful.  At one point we were way above San Miguel, maybe 1,000 or 1,500 feet higher, and the altitude of San Miguel is 6,500 feet.  We passed just a few feet from the nose of a fierce-looking bull, past lots of cows,  pigs, chickens, and at every house several barking dogs.  In each case our horses said "Ho hum, so what's new?"  The woman who owns the service -- get this, an escapee from corporate life in Hoboken, New Jersey --  called the saddles "Western" but they had handholds in back as well as in front:  is this a Western saddle?  Such an expert I am.  Here's rough-rider Jo!

Marja sure looked comfortable on her horse.

We passed several old chapels, naturally, this being Mexico.  One of them, more than 200 years old, was in ruins.  Several of us were led inside on horseback, to look at the paintings still on the walls.  Here is Anja.  The cowboys who accompanied us were thrilled to have such a good-looking girl on the trip with them:  she sure had a great opportunity to practice her Spanish!

It was close to a four-hour ride and let me tell you, horseback riding at age 68 isn't quite the same as at 43.  Stiff doesn't begin to describe it.  But I am glad I went:  it was such beautiful scenery, and the way the campo (countryside) smells at twilight is extraordinary.

And the palapa (paLOPa) on the roof is finished, except for the dumbwaiter.  Marja gave up trying to pronounce it and called it the papaya, which sounds fine to me.  I am absolutely thrilled at the color, a sea green/turquoise.

This is what it's like inside the palapa.  It has three sides and the fourth side is open to the view.

And this is what you see if you turn around, a 180-degree view of San Miguel and the hills beyond.  For those of you who know San Miguel, the pointy orangish thing in the top center is the Parroquia, and the round dome to its left is the church on Canal at the top of Zacateros.

The iron work around the entire roof was a bit pricey, but it was essential.  The "wall" was 8 inches high and this is after all the third floor.  Although I guess it would have been possible to dive off the wall you see in the picture and make a soft landing in the pool below.

Our Thanksgiving dinner was marvelous fun, although I have to say that without Marja who helped so much with cooking and cleaning up it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.  This being San Miguel we had friends and friends of friends.  It nearly was a disaster.  I picked up my turkey (fresh, 22 pounds, a gringo price of about 850 pesos, about $65, but hey, it's once a year) that morning:  the store has a bigger refrigerator than I do so I asked them to keep it until the last minute.  When I got there the store owner, a sweet Israeli guy from whom I get my Passover seder foods too, told me that the electrical circuit the refrigerator was on had died the day before, so he put the turkeys in the freezer.  No problem, he assured me:  it's not very frozen and it will thaw out in an hour.  Well, it was a lot more frozen than he thought.  We defrosted it in water in the sink for hours but it was so big that when we put it in the oven the insides were still colder than the outsides, so it didn't cook evenly.  Oh well, there was Marja's good gravy for the dry parts.

Natalie, the friend with whom I went to Mexico City for a few days last month, invited me to spend two weeks with her at a timeshare apartment she has in Mazatlan, a city to the northwest of here.  On the beach!  With shade!  And just when I think nothing could be better than this, she tells me that this place is at a five-star resort.  We leave tomorrow morning.  How many different pictures of the ocean and the sand and the sunshine can I take, do you think?  Happy November and December, y'all!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

November 13

It is very interesting living in a construction site!  Every weekday morning the workers come at 8 AM -- it used to be 9 AM before we lost Daylight Saving Time.  I wake up to the sounds of pounding, hammering, and the talk and laughter of the workers.  It it truly a happy environment.  They have done a phenomenal amount of work since my last construction report, and I am really thrilled with the workmanship. 

Here, for example, are some of the gorgeous things the carpenter, Balthazar, has made.  All the doors and cabinets are hand-made of solid alder; you can see where he cut the wood on the left for the FOUR hinges, not two like usual doors.  I am surprised that this wood is available here, because it's from the Pacific Northwest.  Some of you might have seen the little table I made a couple of years ago in a woodworking class, also made of alder, so watching him work with this wood was more than usually special for me.

The cabinets in Rick's kitchen, with frosted glass. 

The garage door and the entrance door (my design), made out of oak; the iron structure can be seen from the inside.  Balthazar worked all weekend before our Monday housewarming party to finish these doors.  I love the deep rich red against the cream of the wall. 

And the pool is finished!  Gerardo, the contractor, proposed a ladder.  I refused because I am designing this place for when we are old, old, old:  old people can't do ladders out of a pool!  So Gerardo designed these  steps.  The steps and the columns supporting them are made of concrete and then covered with the small blue glass tiles.  Aren't they beautiful?

In the picture above and below you can see the bench.  Pedro, the maestro or foreman, sat me on a chair and measured up from the level of the chair to a comfortable place for the water to come up to, and that's how he set the height of the bench.  It fits me perfectly.  As it turns out, the floor of the pool fits Rick perfectly; I have to stand on my tippy-toes to reach the bottom.

Here you see the pool starting to be filled.  It took two large trucks of water — 28 cubic meters — to fill the pool.  We did not fill it with house water because the building department warned Gerardo not to do that.  Why?  Because, they said, the water department will know from the sudden huge water use that you're building a pool.  They'll make you get a permit for it and that's so much hassle!  An amazing country.

And here is the filled pool.  It has two beautiful underwater lights for nighttime swimming.  I tried to take a picture of that for you but it didn't work well.  As you can imagine, we went into it the first night it was filled.  Heaven!

It is starting to get cool now, with days in the 70s and nights usually in the 50s (perfect sleeping-porch weather!).  We have installed passive solar heaters for the pool water, four huge ones (4 meters by 2.5 meters) consisting of metal pipes the water is pumped through, set up on Rick's roof.  We had to cut away some of a jacaranda tree to give them enough sunlight, which hurt but was necessary.  I took this picture from the second floor of my house; you can see the first panel and will have to imagine the other three behind it.

You can see the smaller tinaco (water tank) at the left of the big one.  The smaller one holds the water that has been warmed in the pipes and sends it to the pool.  The four solar panels are connected together.

Another thing that is finished is your guest room.  I think you'll be very comfortable here!

The last major thing being built is the palapa.   This is a structure often found on houses in Mexico, essentially a space on a roof with its own roof for shade to enable you to enjoy the scenery.  The view from the roof of my house is spectacular, overlooking Centro San Miguel and the hills beyond.  Here you see the iron worker, Alfredo, beginning to assemble the structure of the palapa.  I designed it to be wide in front and narrow in back, to open to the view.


We decided to build partial walls partly for shade since the back of the palapa is to the south, and partly as a windbreak, because especially in the late afternoon it gets pretty breezy.  Gerardo insists that the roof tiles are Mexican tiles, not Spanish tiles!  You can see how the palapa is wider in front and some of the iron work in the front.  I have been happily planning the color for the walls.  

Still to come is a dumbwaiter for the palapa.  (And of course there's half a page of little details that need seeing to before everyone calls it quits on the construction.)  To reach the palapa one climbs up normal stairs to the second floor and then a spiral staircase (in Spanish escalera de caracol:  snail stairs!) to the roof.  I just know that the prospect of balancing drinks and snacks on a tray up a spiral staircase would discourage me from using the palapa entirely, so Gerardo and I have been designing an iron dumbwaiter from the patio in front of my house to the third floor in front of the palapa.  We also need to install a railing around the entire roof for safety — you can see in the picture above that there is a tiny "wall" now maybe 6 inches high.  I can't tell you how much fun I have had figuring out the dumbwaiter and the shape of the palapa and so many other things!

Half an hour after the pool was filled the first guests arrived for our housewarming party.  It was a challenge planning the food and drink:  I have discovered that "RSVP," even if translated, is a foreign concept for Mexicans.  We didn't know if we were going to have 20 people or 60.  As it happened, we had about 45 — about half friends and half workers and their families.  There was no way we wanted to show off this beautiful place to our friends without the workers there to take credit for it.  My only disappointment was that the Mexicans and the gringos pretty much stayed in separate groups.  With the language barrier it's hard to avoid, but it still wasn't comfortable to see.  However, I was completely thrilled at the appreciation of  the loveliness that has been created here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

October 31: A new me

This is just a quickie, but I have to share these pictures with you.  Now that there are major changes in my life I have decided to take advantage of the situation and make even more changes.

For many years I have not worn makeup, and my hair has been gray for years as well.  If I had worn makeup and dyed my hair, the change would have been to stop doing those things.  And I assure you, I would have done that.  But obviously all I could do was go in the other direction. So, here is a photo taken yesterday.

And here are two photos taken this afternoon.

Presto change-o!