Saturday, April 29, 2017

welcome to toontown

I missed semana santa in Mexico earlier this month.

And I mean that in both the temporal and emotional sense of the verb. I have always enjoyed the press of flesh locally when our villages transform into pleasure palaces for highlanders. Maybe because I am a roar of the greasepaint, smell of the crowd kind of guy.

This year I missed one of our prime holidays because I was in Colombia watching massive traffic jams as Bogotanos returned from their Easter outings. But it was not the same ritual as semana santa by the sea.

It turns out I am in luck. And so are you if you like being in the midst of crushing crowds.

Mexico is celebrating a four-day weekend federal holiday -- labor day. We will get to that in a moment.

Thanks to Mexican taxpayers, there is no longer any reason to confuse Melaque with Barra de Navidad. Town names are now on display in vivid technicolor.

I first saw the signs in Guadalajara on one of my tours with Mex-Eco. As befits the second largest city in Mexico, the sign was a bit more sophisticated, and far less garish, than our local signs.

But, after all, we have tropical weather here. Why not have tropical colors?

And -- we do. Here is Barra de Navidad's sign. Appropriately placed on the malecon on the way to the jetty. It is a perfect setting.

Melaque's sign is just as colorful, but not as appropriately situated in a rather stark plaza.

Poor Melaque has something of an identity problem. What we call Melaque is really three villages: Melaque, San Patricio, and Villa Obregon. But, collectively, they are Melaque. Ironically, this Melaque sign is in San Patricio's square -- a fact that a number of residents grumpily point out.

I am not grumpy. My post office box address is just as ambivalent "San Patricio, Melaque," it says. And it is nowhere near as colorful as the sign.

But the town signs are not the only new greeters to our occasional visitors. Several years ago, someone decided that visitors should be welcomed to Melaque with a gateway. It was quite the eyesore, painted a rather sickly brown.

No more. Someone recently painted it white and its decorations were accented in gray. Then someone added a welcome -- to someone named "Mel." You have already seen it at the top of this essay.

It turns out the message was truncated for viewers by a palm tree. Of course, it is a welcome to Melaque.

And, on the reverse side is an even more colorful and eccentric "adios."

The font for that sign and the colors of the town signs kept gnawing at me. I knew I had seen them before. Then, it occurred to me.

They look as if they came out of Toontown -- where all of the cartoon characters lived in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
But whatever the signs look like, they are welcoming our guests for Labor Day. Here, that is a four-day holiday because 1 May falls on a Monday.

Around the world, it is known as International Workers' Day. The day that the remaining cadre of socialists, communists, and anarchists break out their red and black flags to politicize work, when most other people are happy to see work as an Aristotelian moral virtue. The type of socialists P.J. O' Rourke describes as: "
Most Sanders supporters were still DNA molecules the last time a major nation tried to turn the clamorous words of Bernie into calamitous deeds." 

The Second International (that socialist gathering of know-better-than-you-dos) decided something had to be done to commemorate the Haymarket Riot of 1889 in the name of labor solidarity. (Recent studies have cast doubt on the founding myth. But myths have their own utility, despite the paucity of facts.) So, the International conducted a hostile takeover of the ancient church festival honor workers on 1 May. Thus was International Workers' Day born.

Other nations, such as Canada and the United States have decided to honor the virtue of work in September, and instead celebrate another philosophical virtue -- Law Day -- on 1 May.

Mexico has joined most of the world in celebrating labor on 1 May. It has its own Haymarket Riot myth. Mexican labor day honors the 23 Mexican workers who died in the Cananea Riot of 1908. Some historians mark the day as the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Non-Marxists tend to consider it a symbol of what was wrong with the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.

For those of us who are concerned that work has been politicized, I am here to tell you not to worry. Of the several young Mexicans I surveyed today, only one knew why we were celebrating a four-day holiday. And he had even heard of the Cananea Riot -- even though he thought it was an uprising against the Spanish.

And that is what happens in non-totalitarian societies. Politicians may attempt to abscond with our ideals, but we can live our lives as we choose.

That is why, while scruffy students (mainly without jobs) in Paris, Buenos Aires, and Beijing march around proclaiming the goodness of the proletariat, my Mexican neighbors will celebrate the virtue of work by frolicking in the surf and sun.

Happy holiday.   

Thursday, April 27, 2017

putting on the bite

Coming home is a task.

Or, at least, tasks that have been patiently waiting while you are gone are always waiting on the front porch like a sad step-child.

The day I left Bogota, I made a list of telephone calls I needed to place on my first day home. One of those calls was to my dentist. It was time to finish the installation of my dental implant.

But, it turned out that a telephone call would not do. And that is the conceit of this tale.

To avoid another surprise like the gargantuan bill I received from my mobile telephone carrier when I returned home from my Australia trip (plugging pesos into telcel), I decided to buy a SIM chip in Colombia for my travels there. It worked perfectly. I consumed data like Teddy Kennedy knocked back cocktails. And I spent no more than I would have for two weeks of service in Mexico.

But even the best of relationships must end. As we were nearing the Mexico City airport, I decided to retire the Colombia chip to the envelope I carry for telephone service outside of Mexico. I carefully opened the tray on my telephone and slipped the Colombia chip in with the remainder of the inventory. I then placed my Telcel chip in the tray.

I would like to say a bit of air turbulence unexpectedly bounced me or the flight attendant jostled me while handing out drinks. But none of that would be true. What happened was the chip was in the tray, then it was gone. My aging fingers must have caused it to flip out of the tray.

So what?, you may ask. After all, even though I was sitting in the equivalent of a Barcalounger hurtling through the atmosphere at 80% of the speed of sound, I was not sitting on the wing. It was an enclosed space, and that little rectangle of plastic could not have strayed far.

But after a half hour of diligently searching, I resigned myself to the fact that the chip had gone to that mysterious place where lonely socks from the dryer wander around like Diogenes.

If I wanted to use my telephone, that meant I had to make a quick trip to Manzanillo to see if Telcel would replace the chip -- or if I would be telling everyone my new cellular number. It was the former.

A very helpful young woman patiently listened to my tale of woe in very broken Spanish (think of Andy Kauffman playing Desi Arnaz). Within minutes, Telcel had $116 (Mx) of my money, and I had a new chip.

Now, the purpose of that tale was to tell you I did not need to call my dentist for an appointment. I simply stopped by his office. And received an appointment for the next day. Today.

Mexico is great that way. No long waits for medical attention.

When we left off our tale of my dental implant (mind the gap), I told you I had finished the process of getting a new molar. It all started in 2013 with an abscess. My molar went, and I started the steps of getting an implant to replace it.

Last August, I thought I was done. But the crown kept loosening. After several re-adjustments, my dentist decided the screw hole in the crown was too large. So, out came the crown.

Due to a combination of events -- my trips to Australia and Colombia, and my dentist's trip to Argentina -- my crown and I were strangers to one another as much as an exiled monarch. That ended today.

With a few twists of the screwdriver, some modifications of the crown surface with a drill, and a bit of permanent filling, I was fit to take on a prime rib dinner. Even though I am sticking to vegetables for a bit (as you will discover when I finish my Colombian food essay).

You can see the final product at the top of the essay. On the big screen.

I have  been very happy with the process, though I doubt I will get another implant for some time. The cost was certainly a lot better than I would have paid up north. And, I suspect, my dentist was far more patient with me.

But those were only two of the tasks that faced me on my return. I am not certain how many I will accomplish in the next week. Saturday next, I will be on another airplane.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

walking to bogota

Some people hate airports.

Not me. I  cannot say I love them, but I do find them interesting. Probably in the same way Bill Buckley meant when he said 99 out of a hundred people are interesting -- and the other is interesting because he is different.

Dan, Patty, and I arrived at the Bogota airport this morning in time for their 8 AM flight. Because I was not flying until the late afternoon, we breakfasted together and I saw them off on their flight to Florida. These days that means watching them disappear into the maw of security.

That left me with six hours to spend wisely. Did I read? A little. The Oregonian. A couple of articles in The Economist on the US-China Pacific power struggle. And articles in National Review on health care legislation and the science of climate change.

But my feet started itching. Even though the Bogota airport is not as large as Mexico City’s, it provides a perfect arced track for some serious walking. And walk I did.

It is also far better organized and less crowded than Mexico City’s. So, getting in my multi-mile steps was a pleasure. I was having enough fun that I almost missed my check-in time.

AeroMexico has so few flights to and from Bogota, its presence is very subtle. The company does not have permanent counter space.  A couple of monitors transform one airline’s check-in into another’s. The staff was about to close up shop when I showed up.

Speaking of AeroMexico, I finally resolved my flight change from Mexico City to Manzanillo tomorrow. I thought my request was simple -- changing only the date by one day.

I was wrong. I spent over two hours on three evenings to complete the transaction. Even though I had a first class ticket that was reduced to a coach ticket to get on the plane, I was charged $137 for the flight.

The experience has left me with a rather bad feeling about AeroMexico’s customer service. None of the representatives I talked with could explain what the extra charges were for -- nor why it took so much telephone time to change the date. All I was told was the fees existed, and I would be sitting in Mexico City with only my dreams of flying if I did not pay up.

The company could resolve this by doing as other airlines do. The ability to change flights should be part of the airline’s web site. And, if there are any associated charges, they should appear with itemized explanations. Alaska does it perfectly. (I suspect the United web site causes electrical shocks whenever a customer tries to change anything.)

I do not mind paying additional fees. I do mind paying fees that neither I nor the person charging them can explain.

But that is now in the past. I trust I will have a seat when I arrive at the AeroMexico desk on Wednesday morning.

If not, my friends Lou and Wynn Moody will have made a trip to the Manzanillo airport for naught.

Monday, April 24, 2017

a tale of two cities

While Dan and I were walking around Bogota today, he stopped and watched a group of men on the corner of one of the city's busy streets.

"Have you noticed something interesting about the streets in Bogiota? Here we are in a city with a population almost the same as New York City, but everyone is so calm. No one is in a hurry. Look at those men standing over there. They are enjoying their day in conversaion."

He was correct. Almost everywhere we traveled during the past two weeks in Colombia could be characterized as calm. That is doubly ironic when you think of the reputation Colombia has throughout much of the world. A reputation it does not deserve.

Bogota is tranquil, but it is also a big city. A big city with a lot of similarities to New York City, but far more differences.

All big cities have their own version of street art. Bogota is no exception. Many of the buildings near our apartment are adorned with graffiti art.

This one is not the best, but it is representative of the genre. I know some of you consider this form of art to be vandalism. I don't. As long as the property owner has acquiesced.

But that is not Bogota's only claim to art. The city is filled with first-class art collections in its museums. We re-visited the Botero Museum again today.

It contains a large collection of the works of Fernando Botero, probably Colombia's most famous artist. Certainly, the most popular.

 A second wing houses a portion of his personal art collection. From the impressionists to modern art. Such as this Chagall.

I will write at least one more essay about the museum. It deserves treatment of its own. Suffice it to say, Bogota holds its own with art.

There are a couple of areas in town with skyscrapers. But this building is special. It is the BD Bacata. And, when completed, it will be the second tallest building in Latin America.

New York may have Tiffany's. Bogota has emeralds. Lots of emeralds. And lots of shops selling unset and set emeralds.

I had a front seat in emerald buying today. Patty is an old hand. She has bought unset gems and then sold them to other buyers. On this trip, she was looking for emerald earrings.

While I was waiting, I looked in some of the stores. We are not talking about shoddy stones. Most of the stores featured major pieces -- usually, necklaces.

This was my favorite. It was created by a Japanese artist -- all of whose works bore the same balance of luxury and simplicity. Before you bother: if you have to ask the price, you do not have enough Colombian pesos in your pocket. I didn't ask.

Bogota is in the process of upgrading its mass transit system. Where New York may have its subways, Bogota has dedicated streets for its articulated buses.

It is possible other cities have these three-car articulated buses. If they do, I have never noticed them.

While Dan and I were standing in front of a grocery store, seven of these mammoths drove by in just a few minutes. All of them almost filled to capacity.

But Bogota has sights you could not possibly see in New York. Well, unless you visited Anthony Weiner's apartment.

This man and his burro had collected left-over food from local restaurants. They toted their treasure to this spot to feed a flock of pigeons feverishly waiting for the feast to begin. Feed the birds, tuppence a bag, indeed.

Trying to compare places is a fool's game. One inevitably ends up with the silly question of which place is best.

They both are -- in their own ways.

But I found the tranquility of Bogota to be one of its most charming qualities. That, and its pigeon-feeding donkeys. And that is good enough for me.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

climbing the greasy pole

Every major city has its swankier part of town.

New York has its Park Avenue. London has Belgravia. Mexico City has Polanco.

Bogota is no exception. It has Usaquen.

Once a separate settlement (founded in 1537), it went through some rough times. Depopulated. Repopulated. A battle site during Colombia's war to attain independence from Spain. The scene of the termination of one of Colombia's many civil wars.

It is now part of Bogota. And if you want to be seen, this is the place to live and work.

Because it has been around since the 1500s, it has some venerable colonial buildings. Like this church.

It also has what every Colombian town seems to have -- a flea market. The kind of place where you can buy plastic souvenirs, some handicrafts, and clothes.

But Usaquen is different. It has an artisan fair that is so tidy and organized, you quickly learn that Colombia is an unusual South American Country -- with uniform booths lined up like soldiers marching off to make the world safe for artisans.

You will find a lot of the same category of goods as are in the flea market. But the quality is not what one usually finds sold in the street.

Rugs. Jewelry. Boutique clothing. Woven goods. Coffee. Dried fruit and nuts. Specialty shoes. Leather goods. Paintings. Sculptures.

Anyone who has ever attended a craft fair in Sausalito would feel right at home. And, of course, there are the inevitable musicians. All of them quite good playing Colombian music.

But this was the booth that caught me in mid-step. Please remember I have lived in a small Mexican village for almost a decade, where books are somewhat rare. So, this booth was a pleasant surprise.

The book stall is indicative of the high percentage of educated Colombians. That is evidenced daily by the number of people -- young and old -- sitting at coffee shops or in the park reading books and newspapers.

When we had had our fill of batik and wool, we took a taxi to the zona rosa -- where small hotels and restaurants cluster. This park was our introduction to the area.

Being a Sunday, it was filled with parents watching their children play on the park's equipment while dog owners allowed their dogs to do what dogs do -- as long as the dogs remained leashed. The children roamed freely.

But we cut our Sunday in the park with dogs to sit down for a platter of blood sausage, chorizo, and criolla potatoes to watch Real Madrid defeat Barcelona in a Spanish league match.

That is, that was our intent. We did get our snack platter at La Hamburgueseria -- a sports bar on the park. Unfortunately, Barcelona proved to be too much for the combined strengths of Real Madrid. Even though the fans were split in their allegiance, we were in the vast majority with our support of Real Madrid.

The high point of the game for the local fans was in the second half. Real Madrid trailed Barcelona 1-2. Then, out of nowhere, Marcelo of Real Madrid put a simple cross into the box and James Rodriguez, unnoticed by the Barcelona players, directed it into the net to tie the game.

The goal was important on its own. But the fact that it had been made by James was even more important. He is a Colombian who has been pressured by the team management to move on to Manchester United.

The Colombians in the sports bar roared in approval -- without regard to their team loyalty. To my surprise, I spontaneously joined in the melee.

And what better way to see another area of Bogota? On top of the greasy pole I have never deigned to climb, but with people who were truly proud of their country and the accomplishment of its citizens.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

bolivar, we are here

We have returned to Bogota.

If I were a pessimist, I would say that means our trip was almost over. I am not, and it isn't. We still have two full days to explore the city.

Patty grew up in Bogota. So, we have a certain advantage in ferreting out the city's more interesting places. Not to mention its people.

When we flew in from Armenia (and how often can someone make a claim like that), a bonus welcomed us to Bogota.  Sunshine. During our two stays here, we have seen the sun only one other day

We set out with a couple of destinations in mind. The first was the Teatro Colon de Bogota -- Colombia’s national theater named in honor of the Great Admiral.

The exterior of the theater belies its provenance. Neoclassical architecture was the rage in the late 1800s when this building was built.

We intended to take a tour through the building -- a place prized by Colombians as much as New Yorkers do Radio City Music Hall. I was looking forward to it. My dramatic side always loves a new stage to admire. And I had heard it was quite a nice theater.

Unfortunately, only two tickets were available. So, we trekked off to our second destination. When we were taking our governmental center tour with Elgar (rhyming time), he pointed out a church with a very distinctive architure. He called it the Florentine church.

It is not Florentine, at all. It is El Carmen church. A neogothic style, honoring one of Colombia’s most popular manifestations of Mary -- as the Virgen of Carmen. (Not the opera. You would have better luck finding that at the Colon Theater.)

The architecture has very little resemblance to the Renaissance Florentine facades that give the adjective meaning. By “very little,” I mean none. At best, the red and white stripes are distinctive. a quite pleasant church. And it is a quite pleasant church.

Having bagged our two quarry, we headed down Carrera 7 -- the pedestrian mall that stretches from Bolivar Plaza through a majority of Bogota’s older commercial center.

We had multiple goals. I wanted to get in as many steps as I could. Patty was on a mission to buy a leather backpack. Dan was enjoying the sights.

And sights there were. This was a Saturday -- a day that draws locals and tourists downtown, as well as an eccentric collection of street performers.

This older couple opened my tipping pocket. I suspect they were dancing a variation of the traditional folk dance called cumbia.

Whatever it was, it was amusing. Of course, the man’s comic glasses, mustache, and very threatening anaconda are what caught my attention. He could have been a reincarnation of Groucho Marx.

Not all of the performers were that funny. This string quartet (minus the viola) must have been students putting their talents to lucrative pursuits playing some rather predictable Mozart and Vivaldi, and learning the lesson that familiarity pays in the music world.

They were not expert musicians. But they were good. And worthy of the coins and bills they collected. They reminded me I need to get my reservations for San Miguel de Allende’s chamber music festival this August.

The Michael Jackson impersonator was about as good as most Michael Jackson impersonators. Which means not very.

What made this performance unusual was the little boy from the audience who volunteered his services, and did a rather good impersonation himself.

Considering some of the allegations that haunted Michael Jackson, there was a rather creepy feel to the boy grabbing his own crotch.

And then there was my favorite. As we walked by this group, Dan said: “I think they are from Peru.”

Said I: “Of course, they are. They're the Inca Spots.”

Patty found a perfect leather backpack, and Dan and I found amusement amongst the street performers. I also managed to get over 26,000 steps. The only thing I missed today was a Bach concert at the cathedral.

Due to a sudden rain storm, I could not have made it to the church on time. Instead, the three of us filled ourselves with a plate of traditional Colombian appetizers-- which I forgot to photograph because I was too busy eating.

I cannot emphasize enough how much I have enjoyed most everything Colombia has offered us. I still have plenty of new places to visit in the world. But I intend to return to Colombia before too long.

Friday, April 21, 2017


Mexican corporate web pages are just like the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead.

When they are good, they are very good. But, when they are bad, they are horrid. AeroMexico (Or as I have re-dubbed it, ErrMexico) is in the latter category.

Through a scheduling mistake on my part, I needed to change the date of my flight from Mexico City to Manzanillo when I return from Colombia. Being a naive sort, I thought all I would have to do is open AeroMexico's website to change the date. After all, all I wanted to do was change the date.

Finding my reservation was easy. But the website would only allow me to change my seat on the same flight -- or to purchase an additional luggage allowance. To change a flight, I had to call the customer service desk.

I have talked with the customer service desk in the past. I would rather have three root canals.

But, there was no alternative. I called and went through the mandatory wait-for-the-next-representative routine.

What should have been an easy change of date, turned out to be a byzantine dance. I told the woman on the telephone all I wanted to do was to change my flight from one day to the next. Otherwise, everything else was perfect.

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she told me there would be a penalty of $34. I told her I understood.

She then put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she asked me for my email address. The company would send me a voucher for my cancelled flight.

"No," I said. "I don't want to cancel my flight. I just want to change the date. Can't I pay with my credit card right now?"

She put me on hold for several minutes.

When she returned, she said I needed to forward my request to an email address. She would give it to me if I had a pen.

"No," I said. "I want to pay for the change with my credit card right now."

She put me on hold for several minutes.

This time she returned with a chirpy response that she could honor my request. But the total penalty was now $96. We went through all of the usual credit card information -- with multiple repetitions of misunderstood numbers. (That is why it is far easier for someone to enter his own information online.)

With that information -- she put me on hold for several minutes. I assume she was checking with my bank.

When she came back online, she assured me my flight had been changed, and that I would receive a verification at the email address she had repeatedly misunderstood. The conversation took 47 minutes.

I am not the least bit surprised that the receipt has not shown up in my inbox.

Mexico is quite efficient in very many ways. AeroMexico is not one of them.

When I show up at the Mexico City airport on Wednesday morning, I am willing to lay odds my ticket will still be for the wrong date. I hope I am proven wrong.