Saturday, April 18, 2015

request taxi for departure to shanghai

Some travel advisories are helpful.  Others are just irritating.

The latter category contains almost everything that comes out of the American Consulate in Guadalajara.  I have learned to ignore most of the Chicken-Little-hair-on-fire-drama-queen announcements that erupt periodically from the office.

Take this little gem.  It was purportedly issued by the consulate last Friday, following the ambush deaths of several policemen in the large state of Jalisco:  

Due to reported criminal activity in Jalisco, the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara recommends that all Americans stay in their homes until 10:00 am, Saturday, April, 11. Maintain a high level of vigilance, be aware of your surroundings and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.
That quotation appeared on our local message board -- a petri dish of unsubstantiated rumors and even more questionable information.  I suspect the original poster was the victim of a rather tasteless prank.

But, like all good parody (and what could be better than warning people to stay inside until a time certain?  Perhaps, to run from their homes cackling as chickens), it had the ring of veracity.  Good spoofs can only exist when the original material is one step from farce.

However, there are helpful travel announcements.  I just received one of those in my email.

I will be off to Red China in a matter of days.  I have my passport and visa.  And I thought that would be sufficient to visit the home of the ever-sleeping Mao.  It turns out I was wrong.

I will also need --.  Why don't I just let you see the relevant part of the message?

Please kindly note that all guests need to present one copy of their passport picture page for check-in. All copies must be on either 8 ½ x 11 or A4 paper with one copy of the document required for each page, per guest.
Now, that is something new.  I would never have thought that the crack troops of the Chinese immigration office would require something as mundane as copies of my passport.  It sounds almost -- Mexican.

But copy it I will.  Along with a copy of my visa -- good for 10 years I might add.

It was also a good reminder that I need to resurrect another of my traveling rituals.  For years, I would carry a copy of my passport along with copies of the front and back of each of the financial cards in my wallet. 

So far, I have not found it necessary to call my banks about lost documents -- or to contact the State Department.  Well, as long as we don't count living in Mexico.

But I am going to be prepared this time.  Just in case.  After all, losing documents in the wilds of Red China or Putin Russia is a bit more daunting than calling from Puerto Vallarta.

Having taken care of financial matters, I will now turn my attention to thinking about packing.  But I have plenty of time.  I do not depart until Tuesday morning.

Friday, April 17, 2015

uneasy lies the head

What do you call an odd concurrent meeting of two apparently-disparate events?

Some call it "coincidence."  Others bandy about that misused word "serendipity."

I call it life.

It happened to me today.

While I was eating lunch, I was watching the crowds come and go from the bank across the street.  I am easily amused by cars and buses veering here and there to avoid a trip to the body shop.

For some reason, a woman leaving the bank with what appeared to be a box of currency caught my attention.  She tossed it into the carrier on her ATV, and sped out of the parking lot. 

Only then did I notice the large flag fluttering on the back of the vehicle.  A PRI flag.

I rue the fact that I did not have my camera handy because the shot would have summed up what a lot of Mexican voters think of PRI.

PRI once monopolized all political power in Mexico.  But, as we learned yesterday, from the 1990s onward, opposition parties are now allowed to run -- and win -- elections.

It may be a very young democracy.  But it is a far better system than authoritarian power.

One of PRI's primary methods of winning votes was out and out bribery -- vote-buying or turning electoral officials.  And a lot of Mexicans still see the party as having dirty hands -- an impression reenforced by a rather unseemly deal where the current PRI president's wife ended up with a multi-million dollar house under a favorable loan from a big government contractor.

That is why I am sorry I did not get the shot for you.  The woman on the ATV may have been doing nothing out of the ordinary -- and I assume that she was as honest as daylight saving time.  But parody is not noted for its fairness.

Last night, I watched one of my favorite movies satirizing British politics and medicine -- The Madness of King George based on an Alan Bennett play.

When the king goes mad, his son, the Prince of Wales, plots to be named regent.  "King in all but name."

When the first vote narrowly fails, the prince, knowing very little of British politics, is confused.  The leader of the opposition, Charles Fox, consoles him:

Pitt and your father have done them very well ... pensions, places ... bribes.

Once it is plain that Pitt is finished and there is no more swill in the trough, Your Royal Highness will be made regent.
That was once true of PRI.  The voters put the party in exile for 12 years, and on probation for three.

This election will help determine if the party is to "be made regent" -- or whether a new pretender will emerge from the wings.

Note: When I was up north in February, I bought a DVD of the movie.  They are now relatively rare.  It has been a joy to carefully pick through the movie.  This is one of my favorite scenes.

Despite the video quality, enjoy good actors performing a well-written script.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

on the street where i live

It is election time.  And I am not talking about the plucked and tweezed campaigns that will bedevil the American public for the next nineteen months. 

Yup.  Nineteen months of campaigning is what Americans have in front of them. Not so, we residents of Mexico.  We have two months.

Every three years, Mexicans go to the polls to elect local and national leaders -- almost everyone except the president (who has a six-year term).  And all the campaigning needs to be done in two months.

Spinmeisters often refer to campaigning in New Hampshire as "retail politics" because the big shots need to actually meet voters at the voters' level.  The politicians up north could take a lesson from our local campaigns.

There are four major parties here.
  • Institutional Revolutionary Party ((Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) 
  • National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN)
  • National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional, MORENA) 
  • Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD)
And, at least, five minor parties (not counting a multitude of socialist party splinters):
  • Citizens' Movement (Movimiento Ciudadano, MC)
  • Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (Partido Verde Ecologista de México, PVEM)
  • Humanist Party (Partido Humanista, PH)
  • Labor Party (Partido del Trabajo, PT)
  • New Alliance  (Nueva Alianza, PANAL)
  • Social Encounter Party (Partido Encuentro Social, PES)
The length of that list looks as if it could have come from Italy.  But Mexico does not have a parliamentary system as does Italy or Britain or Canada.  It is a presidential-congressional system.  Just like the good ol' USA.

Until the 1990s, the congressional portion of the Mexican elections was as monopolistic of political power as the presidency was.  There was only one victorious party -- PRI.

Due to a series of reforms, opposition parties actually started winning elections to congress.  Then, a true democratic miracle occurred -- an opposition party candidate for president won.  And, this is the miracle, power passed from party to party without a whimper.

PAN then held the presidency for 12 years, but PRI (promising that it had cleaned up its act) returned in 2012.  But the voters split the difference in that election.  PRI did not have enough votes in Congress to pass legislation.

A grand coalition of PRI, PAN, and PRD legislators was formed.  And a lot was done -- including some remarkable constitutional amendments.* 

But the coalition was too broad to last for long.  First, some PRD members deserted.  Then, PAN turned on the idea.

This election is going to be a referendum on PRI's stewardship of the presidency.  But it will also be about local issues.

Last month, in my inner mexican, I told you I had recently seen a poll taken in Mexico.  Because each of the four of major parties had negatives so high (up to 40%), the analyst predicted the minor parties may actually score a breakthrough in this election.

I, of course, am writing in an information vacuum.  I do receive regular polling information, but it is not very helpful in such a balkanized system.

Instead, I rely on the activity in our local streets.

Yesterday evening, our main street hosted a sizable group going door-to-door and shop-to-shop showing off their candidate for the presidency of our municipality.  PAN (the blue party), in this case.  Earlier in the week, it was PRI and MC.

That is them at the top of this essay.  Mainly women with children.

But there is also wholesale campaigning.  Such as this fellow on the motorcycle blasting out his party's message.  I have seen and heard at least two of these political sound machines each day this week -- from several parties.  Revolution by the decibil.

Walls and paint are another medium.  In this case, the Citizens' Movement (MC) is showing its colors.  Orange.

And that is an interesting aspect of local politics.  Even though MC designates itself as a social-democratic party, the young attorney who is running for president of the municipality is very conversant with the mechanism of privatization and appears to be receptive to it. 

Of course, all politicians, while campaigning, are receptive to the suggestions of voters.  I know.  Having tried it.  Once.

So far, I have been entertained by bands and canvassers in my neighborhood, signs posted in some of the oddest places, and even the occasional belly dancer.  The last, I assume, is pandering to the elusive gypsy vote.

While watching all the goings on, one of my favorite Carlos Fuentes passages drifted through my head.  It is from The Campaign.  The protagonist, Baltasar Bustos, is listening to one of Fuentes' eccentric generals.

Every time he told more unknown stories, of wars against the French and the Yankees, military coups, of torture and exile, an endless history of failure and unfulfilled dreams, with everything postponed and frustrated, of nothing more than hope where nothing ever ends, but maybe it was better that way, because, here, when anything ends, it ends badly. 
Fuentes often reminds me that what I see with my northern eyes is a Mexican story, not an American one.

* --
One of those amendments makes this election quite different.  For the first time since the Constitution of 1917 was enacted, every office holder (with the exception of the president) is allowed to seek re-election.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

in hot water

My new house is not only modern Mexican contemporary.  In general, it is about as modern as a place can be.

So modern that it is green.

Well, part of it is green.  The part that sends hot water coursing through the house's veins.

The green label, as you have already figured out, is appropriate because my hot water tank uses the power of the sun, as opposed to propane, to heat my water.  (And, yes, I know.  The solar cells contain toxic metals -- mostly from oppressive African nations -- and the whole shebang is probably made in Red China.)

About that little aside.  "Probably made in Red China?"  Most of the solar tubes in Mexico come from its former trade enemy.  So, I assume mine do, as well.

I could answer that question by placing a ladder against the structure housing the water tank, and then reading the labels.  The problem is: I have no ladder that tall.  And for security reasons, I have put off purchasing one until I get back from the Orient.

Maybe I can then get a better idea how to control some of the idiosyncrasies of the heating system.

As you would expect, when the sun is out all day long, I have an adequate supply of warmish to hot water.  But when the clouds block out the sun, as they did during our recent rainstorms, I have merely a hint of warmth in the water.  "Tepid" is the word.

When I buy a ladder and look over the mechanism, I hope to have a better idea if something can be adjusted.  Increasing the water temperature overall would not be a bad idea.  I recall when I first walked through the house with the realtor, the hot water was almost scalding.

I know there are others out there with solar water heaters.  Felipe, for instance.  For a couple of days, I thought Felipe and I shared the same brand of heater.  But mine is manufactured under a different.  Mine is "Sunnergy;" his is "Solemex."  Probably the same equipment with a different decal.

Whoever put mine together, I rather like its look -- a look you can see from almost every vantage in the courtyard or on the terraces.  It fits right in with the lines of the house and adds its own bit of modern accessorizing.  Sleek.  Shiny.  And a bit retro in a Jules Verne locomotive sort of way.

You can also see why a tinaco would not be a good roommate.  A fat, squat tank would have The Odd Couple written all over it.

For now, I will let the hot water situation stand unmonitored.  The irony of solar heat is that it works best when you least need it.

We will undoubtedly visit this topic again.  Perhaps in a month or so.

And in a week I will be on my way to visit the solar system's maternity ward.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

water sports

I am one blessed fellow.

Here I sit in my pool seeking a bit of refreshment from a practically perfect 90 degree day.  And this my view.

The new house (When can I drop the adjective?) is turning out to be a pleasure. Through the wonders of electronics, Jorge Castañeda is filling in the blanks of my knowledge about the left in Latin America (Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War).

Somewhere between the Sandinistas and the FARC, I looked up for a moment.  That is when I thought: "I am one blessed fellow." 

The words "lucky" and "fortunate" took up temporary residence in that sentence.  But neither of them are accurate terms.  The concepts of "luck" and "fortune" are far too superstitious for my view of the world.

But I do not need a view of the world when I have this view.  Flowers in bloom.  A refreshing breeze putting a bit of Sally Rand action into the palm fronds.  One of Ed's paintings.  And that slash of red that provides me with shade when I retreat from the pool.

The mind tends to delinquincy during moments like this.  At least, mine does.  I started wondering whether a suite like this could be built on the fantail of a cruise ship -- or centrally high on one of the upper decks.  Of course, even with room for four families, it would probably cost as much as much whole house.

Instead, I will enjoy this place as a landlubber.

Now, all I need is for some of my friends up north to put down their shovels and pens and show up here for a visit.  The enjoyment lamp is lit.

Yesterday I talked about water filters.  The pool is filled with the water that courses through its sparkly white membranes. 

And tomorrow?  At least, one more installment of Steve's water adventures.

Monday, April 13, 2015

tuning the filter

I knew -- academically -- that owning a large house is a bit like owning a farm.  I now know it up close and personal.

Even though village water is hooked up to my house, that water is not hooked into my water system.  My water comes exclusively from a well.  Just like on Eddy Albert's farm -- with no Eva Gabor to spice up the scenery.

Like most water systems around here, I have a filter near my pump.  The water passes through the filter -- and the extraneous flotsam that shows up in wells is trapped before it has an opportunity to liven up my soup or to bash me after being launched through my shower head.

All of this is new to me.  But the basics were easy enough to deduce on my own.

There is a large plastic "O" with a handle attached stored near the filter.  That is obviously the wrench used for releasing the filter container.  And the reason to release the container?  To clean out all of the dirt and debris trapped by the filter since its last change.  Similar to a car's air filter.  But with water.

I had no idea when the filter had last been cleaned.  I knew it was, at least, last October when I took possession of the house.  So, I was curious how dirty it would be.  I had not noticed any extraneous mud in the toilets.  But inquiring minds wanted to know.

About two weeks ago, I bought two new filters for this project.  There was an extra filter near the pump that had been used and cleaned.  But it had also been stored where it acquired a healthy collection of bat guano.  I knew it would need to be refurbished before I could use it.

My initial idea was to simply throw out the old filter as a matter of routine.  Until I saw the cost of the new filters -- $508 (Mx); about $34 (US).  Now, that is not a lot of money.  But it is enough that I will clean the old filters until they cannot be used.

Now, where were we with this tale?  Right.  I was loosening the filter container with the O wrench.  Try as I may, I could not budge it.

It was time to call in a mentor.  In this case, my friend Lou Moodie.  Lou knows almost everything there is to know about -- well, a lot of things.  Including, water systems.

He tried pushing on the wrench.  Nothing.  We tried it together.  Nothing.

Lou found a concrete block I had been using to keep the garage door open, and tapped around the container's upper perimeter.  As if it were a recalcitrant jar of South African pickled peppers.  We even talked of getting some hot water.

But, with both of us pushing, off came the container.  Somehow, I had forgotten that gravity still applied.  And a two-foot tube of water is heavier than you might expect.

It crashed to the ground, pouring its contents onto the tile floor.  If I had had any doubts whether it was time to change the filter, the alluvial silt fans left on the floor gave me my answer.

The filter itself was not very dirty.  Mainly a few stains that are probably going to be permanent.

This week I will start cleaning the two old filters.  I am certain there will be essay material there somewhere.

For now, though, I have a new filter in place.  Next March, I will open up the container for another replacement.

I may make it, after all, in this season's Green Acres replacement.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

breaking the code

I do not like television.

Just over twenty years ago, I canceled my cable subscription in Salem, and I have not looked back since. 

It is a rather liberating feeling.  One of the first things I do when I check into a Mexican hotel is to return the television remote control that is almost always proffered with my room key.

Admittedly, with a rather smug look when I inform the desk clerk: "No es necesario."

Don't get me wrong.  I do own a television set.  Or, as I prefer to call it, a movie monitor.  In this case, function truly does follow form.

When I moved to Mexico, I brought a portion of my DVD collection with me.  Just over 400 discs.  Because I like watching movies. 

At my rental for the past five years, I did not get to watch many movies.  Living in a duplex creates informal sound level restrictions.  (I like my movies to have volume.)  Plus my computer monitor was not the best format for watching movies -- solo or in company.

Last year, during one of my brother's visits, we tried to rig up a better system.  It just did not work out.  But I ended up with a new Blu-ray player to put to service when I finally bought a -- movie monitor.

When I bought the DVD player, I asked the salesman if it was a universal player.  The powers that fight DVD piracy have divided the world into various regions.  For regular DVDs, The States are in one region (region one) and Mexico is in region 4.

I recently lent a DVD to Ed the Artist.  When he tried to play it, his DVD player warned him that the DVD region was not compatible with his player.  The DVD was from The States; he bought the player here.

The salesman assured me that the player I had in my cart would play all regions.  But I didn't get to test that theory for a full year when I finally assembled my mini-cinema.

During my last trip north, I purchased a dozen Woody Allen films.  What would be a better inauguration of my new system than a one-man Woody Allen Festival?

I slipped in the first disc.  There was a bit of whirring and churning.  Then up popped a notice: "Cannot play this disc.  Discs bought overseas may not be compatible with your machine."

I thought that was odd because I had just watched Lawrence of Arabia with no problem.  And I had bought it up north.

In went the next selection.  Same warning.

Another.  Same thing.

Thinking I might have been misled in the store, I checked the plate on the back of the player.  Indeed, I had been.  It was clearly marked region 4.

I started thinking about alternative ways to buy an American-programmed player when an idea struck me.  If telephones have lockout codes that can be cracked with a bit of internet research, I bet I could find a trick to break the DVD region restriction.

With about fifteen minutes of internet research (and after following a few interesting rabbit trails that had nothing to do with my question, but which help make researching on the internet a fascinating diversion), I found what I needed.  By merely pushing several buttons on my DVD remote control, I re-programmed it to play DVDs from all regions.

So, in a sense (about the same sense that Obi-Wan Kenobi claimed in making excuses for his Big Lie), the salesman told me the truth.  "From a certain point of view."

The good news is that I am now in a good position to start movie night at my house -- just as soon as I can purchase some furniture that will allow my guests to remain seated for more than ten minutes.

I almost feel like one of those clever chaps that broke the German communication codes in World War One -- and then manipulated the United States into entering a war where its national interests were never at stake.