Friday, December 19, 2014

moving to mexico -- doing good

"What do you do in Mexico?"

I have been asked that question by a bewildering variety of people.  The second "do" is always blurted out as if it were accompanied by a battalion of exclamation points.  Imagine Tallulah Bankhead delivering it.

It is one of those questions fueled by its subtext.  Usually, with the assumption that there could not possibly be anything of interest in Mexico once you have spent a week at the beach eating Mexican food.

My usual answer is far more sardonic than accurate.  "What you would do in your hometown -- only with a lot more freedom."

I should give more thought to answering the question seriously.  After all, if this week is any indication, what a person can do in Mexico is "good."  As in, doing good.

On Wednesday evening, the local Rotary held its Christmas dinner-dance on the tennis court of a fancy hotel.  I suspect the irony of that French Revolution echo was not foremost in anyone's mind.  Nor should it have been.

In addition to offering an opportunity for the Mexican and northern middle classes to mix for an evening of dining and dancing, the annual event is one of the primary fund-raisers for the local Rotarians.

Even though I am no longer a Rotarian (and have never been one here), I have monitored several of their projects.  The club has wisely focused its attempts at development in a single area -- education.  Classrooms and facilities have been built in areas with limited financial resources.

But the desire to do good is not limited to children.  When I first visited Mexico, I was shocked at the number of starving and injured dogs.  They seemed to be everywhere.  That was in the 1970s. 

Melaque was no exception when I arrived here in 2007.  Seven years later, stray and injured dogs are an oddity.  And a lot of that improvement goes to two organizations that have sponsored recurring neuter and spay clinics.

Yesterday one of those groups, ProAnimal Melaque, held a fundraiser complete with bingo, raffles, and a silent auction.  I suspect some people were there to get a good deal on a prize.

But most were supporters and volunteers in making this area a more pleasant place for both animals and people.  After all, it is a bit jarring to encounter suffering animals while trying to enjoy a lovely sunset.

After the animal fundraiser, I was invited to meet with a group of expatriates and tourists who get together regularly to give a hand up to Mexicans who are suffering setbacks.  There are many groups similar to this.  Individuals who combine resources to do what an individual could not do alone.

Wrapping up Thursday afternoon was another do good moment.  Our church sponsors a Christmas sing-along each year.  The idea is for our neighbors to come together to sing Christmas songs -- as if we were gathered around a spinet in grandmother's parlor.  Complete with Christmas cookies.

There is a line in Robert Altman's Nashville that has stuck with me over the past 40 years.  "Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?"  Like Howard K. Smith in the film, my answer is: "As a matter of fact, Christmas has always smelled like oranges to me."  At least, metaphorically.

Oranges evoke the type of nostalgia that can transport us to a different place and time.  A time when we were young and the world offered nothing but limitless possibilities.  When we were surrounded by our families -- secure in their love in our grandmother's living room.

Music has that same power.  At least, it did for the people gathered under the church palapa yesterday afternoon.  We came as the faithful.  Laughed at a snowman in a top hat and roasting chestnuts.  Chortled at the thought of letting it snow in the heat of Melaque.

As I sat amongst these neighbors, most whom I have never met, I felt as if I were sitting with my cousins in a brightly-lit room that we knew as a second home.  And it made me happy -- realizing it was plenty good for me to rest in.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


I have a special relationship with Cuba.

If you have been reading these essays for very long, you will know I seriously considered retiring to Cuba to work with the Salvation Army (lawyer, doctor, indian chief).  Once in Mexico, I periodically considered making mission trips to the island (a cuba sugar).  All of that was initiated by a 2001 trip to Havana with my law school alumni association (spies in the cupboard).

There are plenty of reasons I should have some reaction to President Obama's announcement of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.  I suppose my reaction is similar to Clarice Starling's in Silence of the Lambs when her boss tells her that a man who had just assaulted her has been murdered.

Clarice:  I'm here, sir.  I just -- I don't know how to feel about it.

Crawford:  You don't have to feel any way about it.  Lecter did it to amuse himself.
I have strong feelings about the Castro boys.  They run a brutal fascist police state sadly disguised as a worker's communist paradise.  The Cubans themselves deserve far better than what has been their lot since The Bearded One took power from a kindred tin-pot dictator.

When I went to Cuba in 2001, I was agnostic about the American sanctions that had been imposed on the island for 40 years.  After talking with several dissidents that were working for a democratic Cuba, I signed back on to the attempts to squeeze the Castros out.

Somewhere along the line, I changed my mind.  The sanctions against Cuba were no more effective than the war on drugs.  A prime conservative principle (one that I have retained as a libertarian) is that if a governmental program is not meeting its stated goals, it should be jettisoned.

I long ago announced my opposition to the war on drugs from a purely utilitarian position.  My position on Cuban sanctions was a bit more closeted.

Unfortunately, President Obama's announcement does not end the sanctions against Cuba.  The sanctions are established by statute, and the president wisely chose not to pretend that he had the power to change them through an executive order.

But he could do what the Constitution allows him to do -- to act as the representative of The States in dealing with foreign nations.  Establishing diplomatic relations falls within his delegated powers.

My only question is why did he act this week?  The Cuban government has been acting very badly recently with the arrest and mis-treatment of internal dissidents.  This action will not make life easier for them.

Of course, the timing has nothing to do with concerns over human rights -- at least, in the sort term.  The ability to obtain the release of an American official held in Cuba for the past five years was obviously a catalyst.  And another unnamed "intelligence agent."

The White House is undoubtedly hoping that it does not have another

Bowe Bergdahl incident brewing.  I suspect the chances of a reprise are small.

But the timing was all about politics.  This president (and his party) are free from punishment by voters for two long years.  An announcement before last month's elections would undoubtedly have cost the Democrats a greater drubbing.

And acting in the waning days of the Democrat-led Senate gives the President a bit of cover before power shifts next month.

The President's speech was filled with optimism about the future for America and Cuba.  "
Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future –- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world."

That, of course, is political eye wash.  The rest of the world has had full relations with Cuba during the American sanction regime.  And Cuba remained a fascist totalitarian state with its people under the full control of its government.

Even though I know Cuba is going to continue sputtering along until the Castros release their death grip on its throat, I am still interested in heading there.  I have little interest in politics.  But I would like to work with the Salvation Army in doing its part to make a small difference on that sad island.

That day may be arriving sooner than I thought.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

road to manzanillo

If you drive in Mexico the same way you drive in Salem, you are going to turn into a statistic.

On most days here, I do not bother looking at my calendar.  The days tend to blend into one another.  And that is fine with me.  After all, I did not retire to merely replace one busy calendar with another.

I woke up earlier than usual on Tuesday morning.  When that happens, my normal course is to roll over and try to get the cast in my dream to start that scene from Act II from the beginning.

Instead, for some odd reason, I looked at the calendar on my telephone.  The only entry I expected to see was Lupe taking caring of the pool.  But I was wrong.  Painfully wrong.

First thing in the morning, I was scheduled to be strapped into an interrogation chair with sharp objects jammed into my gums.  That is my version of what you would call "teeth cleaning."

The problem was that I could just make it to Manzanillo on time if I left at that minute.  Obviously, my morning ablutions would have to wait for another day.

I love driving in Mexico.  It appeals to my adrenalin rush style of driving.  Fighter pilots might call it a "target rich environment."

My favorite venue for letting my Stirling Moss run free is the Mexican toll way system.  For a fistful of pesos, I get to drive on a well-maintained road managed by the Red Chinese.  As bizarre as the combination sounds, those roads are some of the best I have encountered in the world.  And, when I am on the toll roads, I am usually passed by everyone.

Not so on our local highways.  When I was growing up in Oregon in the 1950s, we called two-lane roads "super highways."  I can still remember those pre-freeway days where we would drive from Powers to Portland on what seemed to be rather sophisticated roads.  Compared to our southern coastal roads, they were.

There are quite a few things that remind me of Oregon fifty years ago.  Highways being one.

The major highway that runs from Barra de Navidad to Manzanillo (part of Mexico 200) is a relatively new highway.  Portions of it were not built until the 1970s.  It is the sole highway for traffic along the Pacific coast of Mexico.  That is why its two-lane construction often presents problems.

Most of the surrounding area between Barra de Navidad and Manzanillo is rural.  Burro rural.  That means there are two types of traffic on the highway -- people in a hurry and people who are not (either because that is their choice or it is the result of an inherently slow or overloaded vehicle).

I am almost always in a sub-category of the first group.  In my case, I just like to drive fast.  But, on Tuesday morning, I was also in a hurry.

That, of course, is when all of the people in the second category decide it would be a great idea to go for a slow drive on the highway in the combine or field truck -- or some other lumbering equipment.  It appeared there must have been a slow driver convention on Tuesday because I encountered tortoise after sloth on the way to Manzanillo.

One of Mexico's greatest personal achievements is learning how to deal with limitations through creativity.  Take two-lane roads.  Wherever a two-lane road has adequate shoulders, the highway will morph into a three-and-a-half lane road.  Motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles, and assorted farm animals will often use the shoulders as transit routes.

But, if the shoulders are open, good Mexican drivers will note a vehicle approaching from the rear and move to the shoulder to allow the category one drivers to roll on down the road.  I suspect that is a custom, rather than the law. 

There are oblivious drivers here just as there are in all countries.  That is when the graceful art of passing comes into play.

On my trip yesterday, I came upon two separate vehicles with plates from northern provinces.  Coming from a land where people are cautious, both drivers were maintaining speeds 10 kilometers below the limit.

But they chose not to pull to the shoulder to allow faster vehicles to pass.  I asked a northern friend once why he refused to pull over for faster traffic.  "Because it is not a safe driving practice, and I am going to teach the Mexican drivers how to drive properly."  Ouch!

One sign that northern tourists have arrived is the number of near-collisions at the few stop signs scattered through our villages.  Local drivers treat the signs as yield signs.  They watch to see that the intersection is clear, and then drive right on through.

Not so recently-arrived northern drivers.  They toss out their anchors at each stop sign. 

As I started my drive this morning, I watched as an Alberta-plated pickup drove up to one of those stop signs.  He put on his brakes.  The local driver behind him was watching for traffic on the highway.  There was none.  When he looked forward, there was a pickup stopped in front of him.  Fortunately, he veered.

One of the first rules my father taught me is to avoid being a defensive driver.  People who think they are driving defensively are often the cause of accidents.  His advice is certainly true around here.

So, I made it to Manzanillo with plenty of time to spare for my appointment.  Here in Mexico, that means the dentist opened her door to call me in just as I stepped into her office.

And because I had no reason to rush on the way home, I drove back to Barra de Navidad at speeds under the limit.  Being a category two driver has its place.  I even followed local custom and allowed the speed maniacs to pass me by pulling to the shoulder.

Given the choice, I far prefer driving here to Oregon.  Even when I allow an endocrine sabbatical.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

your days are numbered

My mind is frequently like a well-picked-over fabric store.

Occasionally, I dig through the remnants of odd lots and discontinued threads to find one of those memories that is concurrently musty and fresh.

That was true last Friday.  In o brave new world, that has such people in't, I shared one of those little gems.  I suspect it was the summer of 1966.  In fact, I am certain of the date.  We owned a motorcycle shop on the hill in Oregon City.

During my summer vacation from high school, I often hung out at the Clackamas County Court House watching how the local attorneys plied their craft.  In the process, a couple of the judges befriended this budding Atticus Finch.  That was what one of my favorite judges called me.

That particular day, I was lunching at the diner across from our shop.  A chili burger.  A cherry ice cream soda.  And a piece of lemon meringue pie.  My usual fare there.

I had just started reading Ayn Rand's door-stop of a novel -- Atlas Shrugged -- because that is what teenage boys do.  As I told you on Friday, I can still remember reading a passage on the second page of the novel (with only 1,186 pages more to read).

Eddie Willers looks up to see a calendar erected on the top of a building at the behest of the Mayor of New York City.

Eddie Willers looked away.  He had never liked the sight of that calendar.  It disturbed him, in a manner he could not explain nor define.  The feeling seemed to blend with his sense of uneasiness; it had the same quality.

He thought suddenly there was some phrase, a kind of quotation, that expressed what the calendar seemed to suggest.  But he could not recall it.  He walked, groping for that sentence that hung in his mind as an empty shape.  He could neither fill it nor dismiss it.  He glanced back.  The white rectangle stood above roofs, saying in immovable finality: September 2.
I felt one of those moments that were to litter the rest of my life.  The warm moisture of smugness snuffing out another ray of light in my soul. 

What Eddie Willers did not know, seventeen-year-old Steve Cotton did.  The quotation, for which he groped, was as clear to me as if it had been printed in the Reader's Digest "Humor in Clichés" at the bottom of the serialization of Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

It was, of course: "Your days are numbered."

Life's circles often draw tighter.  I had no more written about that shard of memory when it came roaring back onto center stage.

Earlier this year, I bought a transparent traveling pouch for the few liquids I take on board airplanes these days.  The dangerous items that TSA worries about -- perhaps, I will get angry and give the flight attendant a good shampooing.  Or, if I am really out of control, a fine reconditioning.

Included in the kit were ten little containers.  I assume they were to be used as pill containers.  At least, that is the utilitarian task I have assigned them.

When I am not traveling, they sit like red-headed Supreme Court justices in a very orderly line.  Each day I empty one -- and move it to the right.  The result is a continuing collage of my life.

In this particular case, a very graphic reminder that each empty vial is a day that I will never experience again.  The events of that day may now be part of who I am.  But they are over.  Never --ever -- to be re-enacted exactly as they occurred on that now-dead day.

I stood there looking at the shelf the other night.  We all know how many days we have killed in our lives.  For me, it is far more than I have left.  But, unlike the drug vials I have not yet emptied, we have no idea how many days we have remaining.

And that is probably good.  Too much knowledge is often a bad thing -- despite what the positivists that litter society say.  Science does not answer all of our questions.  In fact, it often raises far more questions than can ever be answered.

The best we can do is to live each of those days as if it could very well be our last.  To enjoy what circumstances bring our way.  And leave the worrying about tomorrow to those folks who really do not have many answers to any questions.

Each night when I empty another vial, I have taken to asking myself how well I did.  Did I enjoy the moment?  Or did I let another opportunity slip past me?  And did I put a bushel over that soul-sucking smugness that dims my light?

There are always days for us to improve.

That is, of course, until there is not.

Monday, December 15, 2014


We bloggers celebrate some of the craziest things.

For me, it is this post.  Two weeks ago, I published post number 2400. 

There is nothing magic about the number.  But it is certainly a lot of words.  Our blogger pal Calypso over at Viva Veracruz knows exactly how any words he has published. 

My software does not include that interesting statistic.  Though, I will confess, it is a number I would like to know.

What I do know is that during the eight years I have been writing Mexpatriate (and its predecessor), it has been an interesting experience.  And not always a pleasant one.  There have been several times I was tempted merely to pull the plug and enjoy Mexico like most of my fellow travelers.

But where could I get such joy about burying my verbal Easter eggs -- like that last sentence?  Sharing witticisms with you readers has offered me an opportunity to spar and parry with some partners I would never have known without this varied electronic community.

And I would not have experienced Mexico -- and other parts of the world -- in the same way if I had not been looking for The Shot or The Hook for that day's journal entry.  Some pieces, without doubt, would have been better left in my not-to-be-published file. 

But I have taken more pleasure than I should in re-reading some of my better pieces.  Humility is not my strong suit.  I have no qualms about saying some of them are quite good.

The rest?  Well, it is fortunate that blogs are such ethereal forms of communication.  True, my clunkers are there for everyone to see as long as the blog goes on ticking.  But who wants to look at old news?

The number 2414 got me to thinking.  Odd, that if it designated a year, it would be exactly 400 years from now.

If you Google the year, you will come up with all sorts of interesting images.  Take the one that accompanies this essay.  It is the map of a solar eclipse over the Pacific Ocean on 14 October 2414.

I know that solar eclipses are easy for scientists to predict.  What I find quaint is that the political boundaries show a world 400 years in the future that remains unchanged.

Yes.  Yes.  I know.  It is not really an anachronism.   It is a convenient reference for us the living to determine where the eclipse will be.

But there is something reassuring that some things may remain the same.  At least, the things that matter.

What I do know, is that the daily essays of Mexpatriate will not be posted in 2414.  I am happy enough to simply have crossed that line in posts today.

Thank you for coming along with me on the little trek that is my life.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

the envelope -- please

Yesterday I was puttering around the house doing my usual morning chores.

The telephone rang.  It was a close friend of mine.  He was curious if I still had my local Mexican bank account.  I told him I did.  I thought he might be interested in setting up some form of transfer for future business transactions.

I was wrong.  He asked if I had received a notice from Hacienda (the Mexican tax folks) for income taxes due in 2012 and 2013.  He had just received a mail notice of an assessment for those two years based on cash deposits he made to his Mexican bank account.

Most of my mail still goes to my post box in San Patricio.  (I have yet to receive a single piece of mail at the new house.  My neighbors tell me the postal clerk at the Barra de Navidad office is as inefficient as the lot in Melaque are efficient.)

I drove over to check the box. There was nothing in it.  But, when I talked to the postmaster, he showed me a stack of tax notices that was nearly as thick as the usual TelMex pile.  He said most were addressed to "foreigners."  Fortunately, my name was not amongst them.

Off I went to see what my friend had received.  There were two notices.  One for 2012; one for 2013.  There was a space for the name of each bank, and a column for each month of the year.  The amount deposited in any month was listed in the appropriate column.

The notice totaled the deposits, and then told the recipient how much tax was owed.  An explanation of the rate used appeared nowhere on the notice.  I assume the tax is based on the presumption that all cash deposits are income for which tax has not yet been paid.

I have written before of the current administration's attempt to broaden the tax base in Mexico and to increase the government's take from the current 11% of GDP to 17% (killing ivan's cow; pass the tax plate).  As part of that program, a new tax was imposed starting in 2012 to tax 3% of all cash deposits made to a bank account in excess of $15,000 (Mx) each month.  Once again, the presumption was that the cash reflected untaxed revenue from Mexico's omnipresent informal cash economy.

The 3% tax was repealed at the end of 2013 as part of a new tax scheme that went into effect in 2014.  My friend's bank statements indicate he paid the appropriate tax when the cash was deposited for those two years.  That leaves the question what this tax assessment reflects.

Of course, my speculation and rambling is just that.  Speculation and rambling.

I have absolutely no skin in the game.  Any money that went into my account was transferred there electronically from my late lamented Banamex USA account.  An early victim of the current White House's attempt to make banking more difficult for those of us who obey the law.

My fellow blogger Sparks provided me with a link to the Chapala message board.  Not surprisingly, Chapala would be a prime hunting spot for Hacienda to discover expatriates with unreported income.

The comment in the link was started because a social security recipient had received a similar tax dun notice, even though all of the cash deposited was from his governmental support check.  According to the thread, the fellow's accountant went to Hacienda, explained the situation, and the notice was withdrawn. 

At least, that is what the message board says.  And we know that they are the fount of all things reliable.

But there is a grain of good advice in the thread.  I know of no expatriates who are experts in Mexican tax law.  The assessments are so opaque, it is impossible to know the source for the obligation.

I do know one thing, though, in watching the enforcement efforts of Hacienda.  It is not an agency to be handled lightly.  Ignoring the notice may give the recipient an opportunity to learn a lot more than they want to about their adopted country.

Whether an accountant is necessary is a question not for me to answer.  However, there appear to be enough people crowding into this paddleless canoe that joining forces would seem to make sense.

Other than that, all I can do is wish you who have received the notices, buena suerte.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

chalk up another one

Yesterday was the Big One.  Mexico's Feasts of Feasts.  Honoring its national patron saint -- Our Lady of Guadalupe.

According to the legend, 12 December is the day Juan Diego, the Mexican peasant (or Aztec prince -- depending on which version you prefer to believe), opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga, expecting the rose petals he had gathered to fall to the foor.  They did.    

But, as they say on late night television: Wait!  There's more.  In this case, an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on his cloak.  That passion play was almost 500 years ago.  In 1531.

The Virgin became Our Lady of Guadalupe -- and that image has been present at several of Mexico's most important historical events.  Marching off to war in favor of independence from Spain is just one example.

The Mary cult is strong in Mexico.  Even though it is not a national holiday (after all, Mexico is constitutionally a secular republic), if you wanted to transact any governmental business yesterday, you would have been doing it on your own.

Some parts of the country go all out to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  And there were some religious celebrants yesterday.

But these school kids represent what most people were doing in town.  And it had little to do with Our Lady of the Painted Cape.  When I asked a Mexican friend why the students were drawing in the town square, he mumbled something about art and kids and a gallery.  I long ago learned the answer translated to: "I haven't the foggiest idea."

There they were, though.  Less interested in the Mexican caped hero than they were in American cartoon icons.

Yesterday was also a day to celebrate someone else's birthday.  This time, for Gary -- the owner of Rooster's and Papa Gallo in Melaque.  His staff surprised him with a cake.  They also surprised him with the Mexican tradition of pushing his face into the cake while he blew out the candle.

At least, he had the foresight to take off his glasses.

I then rounded the day out with dinner on the beach at Papa Gallo.  I had a superb lamb dinner there earlier in the week -- the best lamb I have tasted in the area.  But the draw last night was rabbit.

I love it.  And Cedric, the French chef, knew how to prepare it perfectly.  In a traditional red wine sauce with mushrooms.  What I would have called hunter style.

Unfortunately, I cleaned my plate before I thought of getting a shot.  What I did manage to capture, though, is JC, the restaurant manager, in the act of preparing a new offering -- Spanish coffee.  This is him doing his impression of Mrs. O' Leary's cow.

Somewhere Mexicans are celebrating their patron saint.  And, though it is tempting to say: not here, that is not entirely accurate.

I live in a community not overly-burdened by tradition.  But that is not the same as being ignorant of history.  And my neighbors will soon prove that when they celebrate their patron saint -- the British-Roman missionary who became the patron saint of Ireland (and the namesake of our largest village): San Patricio.  How is that for international inclusiveness?

As I drove home last night, the San Patricio square was filled with crowds watching what I thought would be a religious celebration.  Nope.  It was a group of flamenco dancers -- celebrating Mexico's defeated former imperial masters.  Our Festival of the Sea is in full swing.

And the theme through the day?  Life is simply too good here not to celebrate.