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.