Friday, November 28, 2014

thanks and giving

Talk about synchronicity.

For the past two weeks our Bible study at church has centered around re-thinking our place in our community.  Specifically, we have been discussing whether our charitable activities match up with the needs of our neighbors.

Earlier in the year, some of us read When Helping Hurts: Alleviating the Poverty Without Hurting The Poor ... And Yourself  by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors, who have worked in Christian charitable organizations, point out that the church has an obligation to help the poor -- no matter where they are located.

But they also discuss how a large portion of charity not only fails to help the poor.  In some instances, it leaves the poor in a worse position.  Rather than have churches abandon a core part of its mission, the authors provide
strategies that have succeeded in different parts of the world -- strategies the church can use to assist the poor in empowering themselves.

OK.  I know that sounds like something out of a United Nations brochure.  That is because I am trying to reduce some very complex ideas to a few sentences.  I have really been impressed with how our study group has taken the strategies to heart.

But I am not surprised.  Like most people involved in charity, their hearts are almost always in the right place -- wanting to share God's love with others.  But, we are not quite certain what our role should be.

What we do know is that relationships are far more important than handing out material goods.  And that is what we are going to be discussing in the next two weeks.

I thought about relationships in the community as I left the church yesterday evening.  As you know, I was scheduled to have dinner in a local restaurant -- Rooster's.  That turns out not to be exactly true. 

The owners of Rooster's -- Gary and Joyce Pittman -- took an incredibly brave step.  They opened a new place on the beach (just yards from their current place that will keep its current format).  And they opened it on Thanksgiving evening.

They gambled wisely.  Even though some of the details of the opening came together only on late Wednesday night, they have a hit.

The tables were sold out.  The turkey dinner was as good as any turkey dinner can be.  (Please remember I am not a turkey fan.  Lamb and prime rib are my preferred Thanksgiving meals.)

The new place is Papa Gallo's.  The idea was to have a menu a bit different than Rooster's tried and true menu.  The idea intrigues me.  I am always up for new concepts in food and dining.

One of the best aspects of the arrival of the northern tourists is a proliferation of new restaurants.  Places that are closed in the summer months start opening in transitional steps.  By December, almost everything is in full swing.

For their small size, Melaque and Barra de Navidad (as well as La Manzanilla) offer up an amazing variety of cuisine.  And Papa Gallo's, with its French chef, will undoubtedly offer up some great treats.

I told you yesterday that I am not big on making lists of thanks.  But this was certainly a day where I felt thankful.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

snacking on thanks

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year.

It is a time to get together with family without any of the artificiality of mandatory gift-giving fouling the day.  Just family.  Food.  Witty conversation.  And the occasional post-feast game of Balderdash.

What I will be missing this year is the family portion of that equation.  And the Balderdash.  While I celebrate here in Mexico, my family be keeping the tradition alive in Oregon.

But I have managed to pull together an appetizer of what could have been.  My lunch will be three-year extra sharp white Cheddar cheese.  From Tillamook.  With a dab of Beaver sweet hot mustard (also from Oregon).  And a rationed pile of Boar's Head pepperoni (purchased during my last trip in Bend).

These paeans to Thanksgiving usually contain a list of what the author is thankful for.  Here is my take on that.  If you are not aware of the things that cause me to give thanks, either you have not been reading my essays closely -- or I am simply not a good writer.

But I will not be limiting myself to a few cheese and cracker snacks for my Thanksgiving dinner.  At 7, I am heading over to Rooster's, where I will share a meal with a restaurant full of people -- most of whom I know.  It may not be as good as sharing the day with my family, but it will suffice.

And I guess that, in itself, is plenty enough for giving thanks.

I hope your day is every bit as pleasant. 

policing ourselves

There's a new sheriff in town.

Well, not actually a sheriff, but a new police chief for our "county."  And yesterday he came to Rotary to let us know he has the backs of the expatriate community.

Alejandro Bravo Roldan arrived in town five months ago from the Guadalajara area, and he has already left his mark on the local police.  When a large group of the current officers could not pass a psychological test on honesty, they were fired.  He has brought in some of his own people.

Our little beach community has had its shares of thefts, assaults, burglaries, and robberies.  Including two murders last year.  That, of course, is the expatriate and tourist community -- the thrust of the police chief's talk.

He assured us that he knows the needs of foreigners, and his job was to meet those needs, having served as police chief in a community near
Ajijic.  He has worked with foreigners and developed several programs that he will implement here.

The list is impressive -- and sounds like something out of Modern Policing 101.

  • One of the Rotary members has been working with the local dispatchers to teach them basic English for emergency calls from tourists.
  • By 30 January, 30 new police officers will be on the streets in Melaque and Barra de Navidad.  A new office has been opened in Melaque already.  A similar office will soon open in Barra de Navidad.
  • He will re-introduce the tourist police program much favored by the foreign community. 
  • The police have installed 6 outdoor security cameras that they monitor from their offices.  The system can monitor 80 cameras.  The police chief has requested anyone who has a security camera to attach it to the police system for free monitoring.
  • He believes in integrated police services.  He has a social services officer who provides psychological support to the officers and can direct offenders with addictions to the appropriate agencies.
His interpreter pointed out that at an earlier meeting with tourists, the police chief said: "You pay my salary; ask questions.  You pay for my telephone; call me."

Then came the sales pitch.  He had told us what he was doing for us.  Now, he had a request. 

Because his officers are not well-paid, their families often do not have much of a Christmas.  He would like to build up the morale of the force by providing a Christmas party for the children of his officers.

He has no government money for that party.  But, in the highlands, tourists have donated money to put on a party with food, entertainment, and at least one toy as a present for each child.

What he needs is money and volunteers.  Money to pay for the entire party.  And volunteers to help run it.

In turn, each volunteer will receive a free t-shirt identifying them as "staff."  He said it was an opportunity for the community to come together to support the police force.  I really liked the sound of "community."  Or, so I thought.

He then slipped in a very odd comment.  And here I am paraphrasing: "Some people may think this is all about buying police favors.  But I am certain no one in this room thinks that."

Well, it had only vaguely entered my mind.  Until he made the comment.  But, I reminded myself, he did say this was about bringing the community and the police together.  Not just the tourists and the police.

I talked with him after the meeting to clarify that my Mexican neighbors would also be approached for donations and to be volunteers at the party.  He told me I had misunderstood him if I thought that.  This is a party only for the tourists and the police force.

The relationship between people in Mexico and the police has long been problematic.  Yesterday we talked about corruption.  Well, the police are one of the most open examples of how authority can go bad.

You know the routine.  The stop based on pretense.  The threat of arrest.  The hand held out waiting for the little bribe.  It is almost a cliché.  No.  It is a cliché.  And too often a common experience.

If the Christmas party is about building better relationships between the police and the entire community, why are our Mexican neighbors not given the opportunity to be part of it?

If it is not to create a "special relationship" with the tourists and police, then, it does not make sense.  There are children in our communities who have far greater needs than the children of police officers with jobs.

But I am going to do my part.  After all, life is not always logical.  It can be rather messy at times.

And there is no doubt that the children will appreciate the attention.  Helping them does not mean that we cannot help the even needier children in the community.  Charity is not a zero sum game.

Who knows?  In the long run, maybe police services will improve.  And maybe Mexico will develop a court system that honors due process and justice.  And maybe a penal system will be developed to reflect the interests of the people.

But this is not that day.  This is merely a day for some people to start feeling secure.  I guess that is not a bad goal in itself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

corrupts absolutely

The story could have come out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Putin's Russia.  An act so terrible that facts cannot contain the boundaries of the myth.

No one knows for certain what the facts are.  That tends to be the way of these things.  What we do know is horrible.

Iguala, Guerrero is a sleepy city with a chip in the game of history.  It is where Agustín de Iturbide, leader of the Spanish forces, and Vicente Guerrero, leader of what remained of the independence forces, signed an agreement that would end Mexico's war of independence.  It now has quite a different chip in that same game.

Exactly two months ago, 43 male students from a teacher college came to town to protest some mild reforms promoted by the Mexican central government.  Either the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, or his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, ordered the police to arrest the students -- believing that they were there to disrupt a speech by the mayor's wife.  They probably were.  Student-teacher groups from teacher schools have a history of hijacking buses and trucks as part of their protests.

The police then turned the students over to a local drug cartel with close connections to the mayor, his wife, and the police.  According to a report issued by the Attorney General's office, the cartel murdered the students, burned their bodies, and dumped the remains in a river.

The mayor and his wife fled, and were arrested in Mexico City.  The governor of Guerrero resigned.  Over 70 suspects were arrested.  While searching for the missing 43, other mass graves were discovered. 

Instead of protests in Iguala over an education reform, there were protests and riots in various parts of the country.  The massive doors of the National Palace were set afire.

As horrible as the incident is, it has torn the mask off of one of the problems that has long hobbled Mexican society and government.

Every president since the end of the Revolution has pledged to fix the endemic corruption that permeates Mexico.  And nothing really gets done.

The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, proposed a modest reform bill to deal with one of the country's most corrupt institutions -- education.    Mexico's schools have been hobbled by a sinecure system brought to Mexico by the Spanish.

The reforms were designed to make public education more effective by focusing on the needs of students, rather than the jobs of teachers.  Higher standards and higher achievement were expected in the classroom.  And a competitive  process for the hiring, promotion, and tenure of teachers and administrators was to be instituted.  All three major parties supported it.

Students and teachers didn't.  Several areas of the country have been paralyzed by protesters who have blockaded streets with hijacked vehicles.

It was a small start for the president.  But reform of corruption has to start somewhere.

Mexico has struggled with becoming a liberal democracy.  The reaction of the students is a perfect example of how a truly democratic system should not operate. 

Protest, certainly.  Campaign for candidates, certainly.  Repeatedly disrupt the lives of your neighbors, who you are attempting to persuade?  It not only sounds counter-productive, it is simply a juvenile tantrum.

But you do not arrest, shoot, and burn anyone for protests.

How did Mexico get to this point?  Let's go back to 1968.  If you recall, several months ago, I told you the story of the student massacre in Mexico City during the Olympics (promises kept -- part i).  In reaction to a perceived revolutionary threat from students, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, set in motion plans that would end in the deaths of many young people at the hands of the police and military.

That event has so traumatized subsequent administrations that student protests are given a free hand.  No matter how disruptive.  That is until someone -- like the mayor of Iguala, overreacts.  No, "overreacts" is far too mild.  Acts murderously.

But that is the fruit of corruption.  When power can be exercised without a proper system of checks and balances, Lord Acton's dictum rules.

And where was the reforming president
Peña Nieto during all this?  He may as well have been playing golf on vacation.  Because he was nowhere to be seen.

When he could have been the conscience of the nation, he was a no show.  Of course, it would have been rather hypocritical for him to ride the moral high horse of good government.  During the crisis, another news story broke.  This one, about the president's own household.  Or, rather, house.
Peña Nieto lives in a house reportedly worth $7 million.  The story is that his wife, a star of Mexican soap operas, was buying the house from the owner of a Mexican construction company.

It just so happened that the construction company was part of a consortium, along with Chinese partners, that the Mexican government awarded a no-bid contract to build a
$3.75 billion high-speed rail link in central Mexico.  The contract was cancelled as soon as the presidential house question was disclosed.

You must be asking yourself: Certainly there must be an opposition ready to step in and take the high ground?  But this episode shows just how deep the cancer goes.

The obvious moral champions could have been the
leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).  It has campaigned in the past against human rights violations.

There is a major problem, though.  The mayor, his wife, and the governor of Guerrero were (and are) members of PRD.

But what about the self-appointed leader of the left? 
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Harold Stassen of Mexico.  Lopez Obrador's new party, Morena, also has close ties with the mayor.

I had high hopes for this president.  He came to office promising voters a set of reforms that would create a New Mexico.  The citizens who voted for him believed him when he said his party, PRI, had a new vision.  An honest vision.

Leaders often find their greatness in times of crisis.  This is
Peña Nieto's moment.  He can admit that he was wrong.  He must do that.  And then take the initiative to make substantive changes in the central government to root up the true sources of corruption.

Not just structural changes.  The very heart of the system needs to change.  And it needs to start with a brave man who is willing to lead his nation out of hundreds of years of twilight.

There is no better time.  Mexico has a brief window to move forward in becoming a liberal democracy. 

If it doesn't, there are plenty of demagogues waiting to carve up the turkey carcass.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

backing into eternity

Yesterday was supposed to be a day of jazz for me.  The second day of the Barra de Navidad Jazz and Blues Festival.  With two separate venues.

Unfortunately, my body decided it did not want to play any more.  More specifically, my back made the decision.

On Sunday, my friends Ed and Roxanne came over to complete installing fifteen of his paintings around my house.  He had the same first impression of the house that I did.  It would make a great gallery space for contemporary art.  Especially, the upper terrace.

When I lived on the beach, my lower terrace was plagued with barn swallows building nests.  The nests would not have been so bad if it had not been for the guano confettied across the patio.

I noticed a similar problem upstairs in the new house.  Swallows had been investigating my sconces for condominium space.  As a result, the walls were beginning to take on the look of a park statue.

So, I grabbed a pail filled with soapy water and trudged up the stairs with my brush and ladder.  I was about three-quarters of the way through my job, when I heard Ed and Roxanne pull up.  I bent over to pick up the pail -- and it happened.  A muscle in my lower left back decided I was done for the day.

At first, I could not bend forward or stand up.  I was stuck as if I had just asked the senior fraternity guys: "One more, please, sir."  And when I pulled myself together to get to the door, I looked like a Victor Hugo character on his way to rescue Esmeralda.

I will tell you about the art later, but I was feeling a bit recovered when I went to bed.  Whatever was cramped was still painful in the morning.  All I can say is that I thank the good folks at Bayer for Aleve. 

But I still was not feeling well enough to go jazzing.  Instead, I snagged a box of high quality Basamati rice and whipped up my famous chicken hoisin.  In exchange for jazz rifs, I sat down with the latest editions of The Economist, National Review, and the second season of Modern Family.  Who says Mexpatriate is not eclectic?
This is not the first time I have noticed new pains in aging body parts.  And that is what is.  There is no sense in trying to fool myself.  The chassis is beginning to show its wear and tear.

There is that numb spot under my right rib cage that has lingered for decades and now feels as if it much larger.  One of those signs I should mention to my doctor, but always forget when I am there.

Or my right ankle that just doesn't work the same way it did before my zipline accident four years ago.

Or my inability to remember the names of friends even though I used the name a few minutes before.

It isn't as if I can hear the reaper's whetstone on his scythe.  There are plenty of things that need a little Cotton touch in life.  But it is evident that the warranty on this vehicle has long ago expired.

That is why each jazz concert or religious procession or charity drive or dinner with friends is so special.  Or even a quiet dinner at home alone.  At some point, I will have experienced the last of each.

Maybe that is what makes each of these days so special.

Monday, November 24, 2014

kafka comes to barra

I had a Gregor Sampsa moment yesterday morning.  I awoke to discover that I was in San Miguel de Allende.

At least, that is what my social calendar reflected.  Sunday: Church.  Blog interview.  Install art.  Religious procession.  Jazz concert.  Final ceremony and more music for the Filipino expedition fiesta.

But, I was still in Barra de Navidad.  The cultural events, with the whiff of highlands culture, had come to me.

Let's start with that religious procession.  Usually, these church parades are nothing special.  Certain saints get their special day each year with a very predictable procession -- and sky rockets.

But this truly was a unique (in the real meaning of that word) event.  And I would have expected that.  After all, it is not every day you get to celebrate the 450th anniversary of -- well, anything.

Yesterday, it was the celebration of a homecoming.  A cross.  But not just any cross.  Here is the myth that accompanies this particular piece of wood.

The Spanish built a small chapel at the ship yard that launched vessels to carry a crown's fortune.  A cross blessed that chapel.

That cross was to have more misadventures than a Victorian school boy, including a couple of fires that cut it down to size.  Somehow, it ended up in a church in Autlan -- in the Jalisco mountains on the highway to Guadalajara.  On the same road that Chinese goods once made their way from Barra de Navidad to Vera Cruz.

But yesterday it came home to Barra de Navidad -- at least, for a short visit.  Any like any local chip that made it as a big block in the city, it was honored by a procession that only my new countrymen can provide.

Altar boys and incense led its passage.

The guest of honor was erected by the loving hands of priests in its procession home -- a cardboard boat pulled by a Massey-Ferguson.  And the cross's honor guard?  Pirates.  Monks.  Peons.  We do know our theatrics.

And what religious procession would be complete without a prepubescent Jesus on his way to be crucified, along with enough Josephs, Marys, angels, wise men, and assorted other characters to warm the hearts of grandmothers everywhere.

But there was more.  There always is.  Such as, the groups of mock Indian dancers, who would feel at home in a New Orleans krewe.

And they were followed by what seemed to be the remainder of the faithful of Barra who had not donned a distinctive costume.  Well, other than the costume of a faithful Mexican Catholic.

While the cross and its attendants headed to a climactic mass, I peeled off to attend the opening night of Barra de Navidad's Jazz and Blues Festival.

I have heard enough of our local Mexican and expatriate musicians to know there are a few truly outstanding performers.  So, why not jazz -- one of my favorite forms of music?

If last night was any indication of what the next four days will bring, we will have a hit on our hands.  The guest performer was Randy Singer, a jazz harmonicist, who had barely stepped off the airplane from Miami before he played for us.

It was an amazing show.  A very small venue -- just enough for a dozen tables.  And a crowd of people who knew and appreciated jazz.  Throw in the ocean view, and it was jazz with a tropical flair. 

My only complaint was including the overworked "Guantanamera" and "Girl from Ipanema."  The musicians were talented enough, though, to turn those two saws into something new.

Unfortunately, my social calendar is so San Miguel full this week, I may miss far too many of the jazz performances.

With an embarrassment of cultural references like this, we don't need no stinkin' highlands badges.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

soothing the savage breast

I came to Mexico to experience the rush of getting up each morning with very little idea how I was going to get through the day. 

Mexico has kept its side of that bargain.  But, in providing adventure, Mexico has also served up some stunning moments of beauty and comfort.

This is day two of our Barra-Filipino fiesta.  For me, it started early in the evening. 

I met my former landlady, Christine, at a restaurant that has recently re-opened under new ownership.  She told me that the food was very good.  The selling point was her announcement that they serve home-made tortillas.

I abandoned ordering beef dishes in Mexican restaurants about five years ago.  Even though pork and chicken here are far superior to their counterparts north of the Rio Bravo, beef in Mexico simply does not make the cut.

Because it is incredibly lean, it lacks flavor and is almost never tender.  There is an old cooking joke that even an old shoe would taste good if cooked piccata style.  Even the best piccata could not save most Mexican beef.

But the Hacienda Agave advertises itself as a steak house.  So, steak it was.  A rib eye.  Complete with a baked potato and grilled onions.  (Lest I forget, the starter was an incredibly delicate, yet robust, bean soup with a good selection of spicy salsas.)

Everything about the meal was great.  The beef was tender and tasty.  The baked potato looked like a variety of Yukon Gold.  And the onions complemented everything on the plate.

As good (and surprising) as the meal was, it paled in comparison to the ongoing fiesta.

The same orchestra that played last night was playing at the south end of the malecon.  I didn't mention the setting in yesterday's essay.

The laguna, on whose shores the Spanish built their ships that re-made the commercial world, is separated from the ocean by a narrow sand bar.  (The "barra" in Barra de Navidad's name.)

As I sat listening to the orchestra play its synchopated Mexican favorites, I could look across the laguna to the Grand Isla Navidad Resort looking as if Samuel Coleridge's words had materialized: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree."

Rather than sit and listen, I decided to stroll.  Where else could I listen to orchestra music blending with the beat of the ocean waves and let my eyes wander across the marvels of dark and light on the laguna -- all while greeting and chatting with neighbors and friends?

Mexico is currently undergoing an existential crisis -- one that has arrived just as the country is celebrating its revolutionary past.  But there is far more than that to this place.

Walking home through the dark, I started counting the ways in this single day that I have been blessed to be able to live long enough and to earn enough wherewithal to enjoy these very special moments.

It is great to be alive in a word where God's daily blessings surround us.