We arrived at the prison with hundreds of bolillos, two huge cans of sliced jalapeños, gallons of Sprite, cookies, cups, paper plates, napkins and maybe a thousand cigarettes. Oh, and two five-gallon plastic buckets containing twenty kilos of carnitas. (The carnitas guy was so pleased with our large order that he threw in a kilo of liver for free. Where else would you ever get that?)
At the second of many checkpoints, we were told that someone had forgotten to put the names of us Norteamericanos on the list of approved visitors. The Mexican visitors would be allowed in. The Americans, no.
While I hadn't anticipated this snag, I wasn't surprised by it. Mexico has been teaching me to take delays and obstacles in stride with patience and good humor. Of course we wouldn't be allowed in with our cooling buckets of carnitas. Never mind that this event had been planned for months. No matter that we had obtained approvals from every third government official in the state. Not to worry that hundreds of inmates and scores of guards were standing around waiting for the party to begin.
No, someone somewhere had forgotten to enter our names on a list. Being New Year's weekend, no one with authority to approve our visit was at the prison. There was nothing that could be done. Lo siento. We would have to go home. Perhaps another time...
My friend Sergio, who had set our visit in motion, began negotiations with Luz, the gatekeeper who was not allowed to admit us to the prison on her own authority. Señora, these gringos spent $5,500 pesos for this food. It is not reasonable that they be prevented from bringing it to the inmates. Surely there is a way to get them inside.
Luz, a good-hearted woman, went off to seek someone's approval. We were to wait. We found seats on a retaining wall and stared into the entryway where guards in black fatigues stood behind a counter.
Soon, a couple hundred women and children emerged from the prison. Visiting hours were over. The families carried paintings and wooden models and a variety of hand crafts. Some appeared to be presents made in the prison shops by their husbands. Others—stacks of identical paintings—obviously were merchandise for the wives to sell. The posture and demeanor of the families created a sense of normalcy, as if everyone were getting off work from a shift at the light bulb factory.
At last, a Social Services coordinator approached and informed us our appeal had been denied. We would not be allowed to enter. My two buddies and I were walking out the front gate when someone ran after us and announced the good news that just one of us would be admitted after all. Apparently the gatekeepers had talked the situation over and had decided to break a rule. A little bit. One person's worth.
Great. I was going to be an unauthorized visitor at a Mexican jail. I was going to be smuggled into the place. And smuggled out—hopefully.
At the counter inside, I was asked to show identification and to hand over my watch, wallet, coins and belt. (Anticipating I would be relieved of my belt, I had worn pants that would stay up without one.) Luz, peering at my Mexico driver's license, carefully transcribed my name onto the bottom of the official visitors' list, which she kept on a piece of lined paper that she had roughly torn from a spiral bound notebook: Hubb Ard Wood John. Then she asked me, "Señor Hoob, ¿que significa 'Hoob' en español?"
Now there was much cross-checking of identifications and lists. I passed the time contemplating a display of the various types of high heels that would not permitted inside the prison. Finally we passed through the first of many airlock-type gates and checkpoints where we were frisked and our IDs were repeatedly taken away and given back. Negotiating dark, gray corridors of metal mesh walls, we ascended a narrow circular iron stairway—an easily defended choke point—and found ourselves in a chaotic crowd of maybe 150 khaki-clad inmates.
This was one of those moments where one realizes that life is more fragile than tissue. I later discovered that these men all were doing sentences of 20-30 years for crimes of aggravated assault, rape and murder. If they had been men of evil intent, if they had been resentful or angry, if maybe they had just not liked us, our safety might have been at risk. The room we were in contained a couple of unarmed guards. They didn't even carry nightsticks (a sensible precaution when you think about it, given that if there were any trouble, their weapons would instantly be in the hands of the inmates). In no way could the guards have provided us any protection. We found ourselves completely dependent on the goodwill of these violent criminals and other (no doubt resentful) people who had been railroaded through the Mexican court system without benefit of counsel.
My apprehension was immediately dispelled by smiling faces, proffered handshakes, a boisterous welcome. Whatever their motivation, these men were glad to see us. Maybe it was the carnitas or the cigarettes. Maybe they were looking for contacts on the outside. Maybe they were hoping for someone with influence to lighten their sentences. But I got the impression that these men were simply greeting welcome guests.
The agenda was: Speeches first, food second. I had been invited to speak, and knowing I would have difficulty keeping my wits about me at a podium while trying to think in my third language, I wrote out what I was going to say ahead of time. I deliberately did not vet my speech with Erika, my Spanish teacher, because I wanted these men to see me exactly as I was—execrable Spanish and all. I spoke for ten minutes. I finished to cheers of appreciation, a truly heartwarming moment.
I spent an hour working the room, handing out cigarettes (which are used as currency). Many of the prisoners had lived in the USA and wanted to show off their English. Others I spoke with in my crummy Spanish. They told me how long they were in for, and for what crimes. They described their work in the prison shops and how they were studying law (naturally) at the university extension. They told me how prisons were better in Mexico than in the US because they could see their families a lot of the time and they got weekly conjugal visits. Many ten-year veterans had two-year-old kids.
Later, their band played favorite songs. Four guitars, a bass and two accordions sounded better than most of the professionals I hear in town, and everyone sang enthusiastically. Finally a guard came over and told me it was time to leave. Then the most amazing thing happened. The inmates all crowded around me, touching me, shaking my hand, hugging me. Their need for contact was extraordinary.
What was that all about? All I can think of is that they are mostly forgotten people. Most are in their twenties and will be middle-aged when they get out of prison. Maybe touching me brought them a taste of the outside. Maybe they didn't want to be forgotten again; maybe they didn't want me to forget them.
The other day I ran across an image of a KRCA billboard in Gustavo Arellano's excellent column, ¡Ask a Mexican! That's KRCA TV, Channel 62, Los Angeles. Note that it is not in English. No need for it to be. Think about that, Minutemen.
Gustavo points out that this image will tell you more about Mexican culture than his column ever could. Here we have jolly Don Cheto, along with an idiot in a Pancho Villa getup, another idiot in ridiculous plaid pants and a midget. Boy, this is gonna be good, ¿No? These men are the show's stars, and they engage in an hour or so of incredibly lame comedy of a type loved by Mexicans. Their shtick makes Caddy Shack look sophisticated.
I love the complete absence of political correctness in this billboard.
Along with the fat guy and the midget, there's five women sporting impressive gazongas and showing a lot of skin. Red bras as outerwear! That'll stop you from clicking the remote.
Note that the outer four women each have an arm raised, framing the other actors. Ta-Daa! How about all that cleavage and tummy on the dolly in black? Probably an anthropology postdoc supplementing her income.
A Mexican entertainment show without a sprinkling of bimbos is no show at all. Hell, even the cooking shows have a covey of undulating, hyper-enthusiastic chicas, squealing and laughing and shaking their tushes.
Women on Mexican TV are nobodies. They serve only to enhance the presence of men, exactly as God intended them to. The show's producers no doubt would approve of Borat's remark when introducing his 12-year-old daughter-in-law: "She no have name. She girl."
You may not like this stuff. Tough. Mexicans are coming and bringing their culture with them. They're coming to do the jobs our children are too rich or too proud or too lazy to do. They're got more energy and initiative than most of us. And they're leaving their mark on good old American values. So we'd better get used to it. And understand it. And get to like it.
For my money, it's the best thing to happen to the USA since the Irish flooded into Ellis Island.
Some people refer to these benches as "God's waiting room." Some call it "death row."
When they look up from their seats, the quiescent retirees see that a funeral is in progress. (That is a Jimmy hearse conversion parked in front of the Parroquoia. I'm particularly impressed by the vinyl camper top with fake landau irons, paired incongruously with mag wheels.)
The fresh flowers and the flags on the fenders tell you the hearse is actively working. It's backed up to the front steps of the church, tailgate open, so pallbearers can slide the casket inside with minimal effort. (Mexicans are nothing if not experts on loading heavy stuff in pickup trucks.)
Pull back, though, and the somber mood evaporates. No longer is our view confined to the near-dead contemplating the actually dead.
The municipal Christmas tree—a cone of brilliant poinsettias—sparkles cheerfully in the sun. An old vendor carrying a huge cloud of balloons pulls a whirligig across the pavement. A small girl runs across the plaza, attracted by the spinning toy.
The death row inmates fade into irrelavancy. The hearse becomes just another pickup truck parked in the warm sun. The little girl and the old man, actively living their lives, that's what matters.
Way back when, someone could tell me about their chopped and channeled '49 Merc' with frenched taillights and a roll-and-tuck job and I knew exactly what they were talking about. Today, I'm not sure what bling is.
When Jean and I were in Santa Barbara last September, sitting in a cafe on State Street, I watched a line of lowriders go by. Like this:
Photo courtesy of Lowrider Magazine.
As I watched them bouncing along, I thought "How retro. Only in Santa Barbara." I figured lowriders were a fad that had dried up in the '80s. The War song was off the top 40. The dotcom boom was starting. Auto mods were passé.
So when two guys whizzed past me on Avenida Vallarta in Guadalajara on these...
... I was blown away. I thought, "These bikes look just like lowriders!" Welded chain steering wheels, hyper-spoked wheels—I used to see this stuff on cars. Subsequent investigation has confirmed: They are lowriders. They're a big deal. There's magazines devoted to lowrider bikes. Specialized shops sell parts for them. Where was I when all this happened?
I'm probably wrong, but this looks like a quintessentially Mexican idea. Up north, pochos (wiki) can afford to pour thousands of dollars into pimping cars: lowering them, adding powerful hydraulics so they'll jump. In Guadalajara, most people can't even afford to own a '72 Toyota. But they maybe can put a couple thousand pesos into a bicicleta.
These machines are wonderful: bizarre front suspensions, four rearview mirrors, dual exhausts, spare tire, bulb-operated dual-tone horns, whitewall tires, a raccoon and a Chivas flag. All they lack is hydraulics.
Why the hell anybody would want to do this is beyond me. But then again, I did apply several pounds of Bondo and gray primer to my '41 Plymouth when I was 17. Frenching its headlights and taillights. At the time it seemed like the thing to do.
A final note: These bikes are sitting right out on a busy thoroughfare with their owners nowhere in sight. They are not locked. In Sunnyvale, they would have been gone two minutes after they were parked.
When I was a kid, I learned to split a leaf and blow into it, producing a tone. That's what this man is doing. Except he's the Yehudi Menuhin of leaf-blowers. The ingenuity of these people is bottomless.
Bok choy is unknown here. The new Comerciál Méxicana Mega supermarket offers mung bean sprouts: shriveled, brown, slimy. Forget fresh water chestnuts. Forget canned ones.
Japanese food is even worse. A Mexican-owned and -operated chain offers sushi in its Querétaro restaurant. At least they serve actual sushi fish imported from Japan. But as I reported earlier, offerings like tekka maki with chipotle sauce nuke any nuances the raw tuna may have once offered. For that matter, the Mexican affinity for lots of vinegar ensures diners' mouths will pucker as they chew their hamachi nigiri.
I was only mildly surprised to see sushi offered in the restaurant section of the Guadalajara Mercado Libre. There must be a hundred restaurants there, and with half of them offering carnitas, product differentiation is a competitive must for the rest.
This place is called Mariscos Fujiyama. I seriously doubt that a Japanese person has ever been within a mile of the place. I doubt that the proprietor has ever tasted real sushi prepared by a trained sushi chef. I doubt he even knows what Fujiyama is.
OK. That last was unfair. But I bet he's never been to Mt. Fuji. Given how sushi is interpreted in Mexico, I think he'd have done well to name the place Mariscos Popocatepetl. If he wanted to stick with the volcano theme, that is.
His sign illustrates three varieties of maki: green, red and gold; colors that evoke the Mexican flag. Also depicted are a pair of chopsticks, an egregious example of false advertising since there are no chopsticks in the place.
Not for a moment was I tempted to eat there. But out of curiosity, I approached the cold case to check out their fish.
Yep. That it. There ain't no more. There's cucumber (for teppa maki), Mexican octopus (tako), Mexican shrimp (ebi), avocado, surimi artificial crab and some unidentified substance wrapped in aluminum foil. I like the plastic bowl thrown on top of everything. Probably has chipotle salsa in it.
Sushi just isn't treated with the reverence it gets in the USA, much less in Japan. For a Mexican, what's the big deal? It's just fish and rice. Here, throw a little more vinegar on that rice—I can still taste the fish.
In San Miguel we have a touristy restaurant that sells tacos, paella, pizza and sushi. Do you think they do any one of them well? Another entrepreneur invested a couple of weeks trying to sell prepared sushi from a card table next to the street taco stand beside Espino's Market. No takers. Even the people who line up next door for lengua tacos have their limits.
We have a new Korean restaurant in town. It's OK: The noodle salad and the Korean barbecued ribs are great, but the kimchee lacks fire and garlic. For some reason, given that they are a Korean restaurant, they offer Japanese sushi. Basically California rolls with cream cheese added. The taste of the cheese and the vinegared rice swamps any other flavors, and the texture is like spackle.
I found a street vendor offering sushi near our Guadalajara hotel, Villa Ganz.
I include this photo to illustrate another aspect of Mexican culture: They don't avoid racial stereotypes. Here we have Sushi, Inc.'s mascot, a squinting, buck-toothed, round-eyglass-wearing, pajama-clad figure. Try to get away with that in Sausalito.
Among Mexicans, the word chino has many different connotations. Besides referring to Chinese persons, it's often used to denote anyone from Asia. I'm sure Japanese people would find the term as offensive as Mexicans find the word chicano, but hey, that's there, this is here.
Mexican culture allows for terms that would not be acceptable elsewhere. They'll call perfect strangers nicknames like calvo (baldy) or gordo (fatty).
The adjective chino is used to refer to curly hair (pelo chino) and to chaotic situations (cuento chino)—what today's politically incorrect American would call, "a Chinese fire drill." Somehow, Mexico's relaxed attitude toward stereotyping and nicknames seems kinder, gentler than our harsh condemnation of those who fail to avoid any whiff of possibly insulting one group or another.
This post contains images captured in carnicerias (butchers' stalls) in Guadalajara's Mercado Libre. They illustrate how meat looks as purchased by a majority of Mexican families. But to Norteamericano eyes, some of these pictures may be disturbing. I myself find them to be fascinating illustrations of cultural differences between rich people who buy beautifully marbled steaks wrapped in transparent plastic and poor people for whom tripe is a Sunday-only treat.
If you become queasy when viewing internal organs or detached animal heads, you may want to skip this post. On the other hand, you could suck it up and broaden your horizons.
Who does not like prime rib?
Does that look good or what? Makes my mouth water. Viewing well-cooked meat whets most appetites. When they can afford it, most people would pick prime rib over pasta primivera any day.
It's the preparation that makes this roast so appetizing. The meat is ready-to-eat. When we see it, we quickly become ready-to-eat-it.
Our appetites can be stimulated by unprepared food as well. Check out this display from Bailey's General Store on Sanibel Island.
Sirloin, New York, rib-eye, t-bone steaks, a rolled rib roast. I'm getting hungry just writing about it.
[I have to make an aside here. Looking for this photo, I searched Google Images for "meat case." Among the returns, I got a picture of O. J. Simpson. Really.]
Pictured here is raw meat: inedible now, but we're not put off by it. In fact, we're attracted to it. We know what to expect when it's been grilled or roasted.
This meat has been artfully trimmed. You'll need either a good imagination or a journeyman's understanding of steer anatomy to visualize the animal it came from. We're a long way from our roots here. These abstract shapes have nothing to do with actual animals.
I'm quite sure Mexican people would be attracted to this meat as well. But I'm guessing that more than half of all Mexicans have raised, slaughtered and trimmed their own meat at least once in their lives. Some of these people begin salivating when they see a feathered chicken run across the yard. They see meat differently than Norteamericanos.
Here's a display that just wouldn't work in the Twin Cities. But my Mexicana friend Patty told me, "When we see that, our mouths start to water."
So, what's for dinner tonight? Well, I didn't ask what species that hanging carcass was, but the long, limp things are intestines. Braided intestines.
Let's pause here and imagine a conversation. Anilu says to her butcher husband Lupe, "You know, our stall looks a little drab."
Lupe asks, "Well, what do you think I should do?"
Anilu answers, "Well, we need a little sizzle, a little cachet. It wants to look fancier, I think. I know! Why don't you braid the guts? They'll look real nice that way."
Now, I know you're all disgusted at this point. How could those Mexicans be such savages? I mean, are those things clean? I bet they taste just awful! God! Eating pig guts!
Well, what the hell do you think chitterlings are? Yep. Good old American southern cooking. Personally, I like my chitterlings and hog maws fried. But they are fattening. Easy to eat too many...
What a wonderful place the Mercado Libre is. A few minutes of wandering the aisles, and I became so aware of how limited our U. S. diets are: McDonalds and Arby's and T. G. I. Fridays. On the weekends, throw a steak or some burgers on the grill. On a health kick? Then make it salmon steaks. Farmed salmon. The line-caught stuff is too expensive, and besides, it's going extinct.
I recall being served kidneys and beef tongue as a child. Didn't like 'em, but hey, I was a kid: I didn't like most foods. But as a young adult, I grew to like calves' liver—with lots of bacon and fried onions, of course. My Swiss friend Sylvia Reusser served me sweetbreads, once. They were very good and at the same time, revolting. Thymus gland? I don't think so.
But Mexicans eat the whole animal, and I truly mean the whole animal. Nothing goes to waste. Muscle meat is expensive. Tripe is cheap. And menudo is delicious. Hence: there's a market for stomach lining.
Manteca is the name of a town in California's San Joaquin Valley. It's a bustling, growing community. Housing developments are springing up on the outskirts, and young engineers and programmers, priced out of Silicon Valley's overheated housing market, are van pooling for two hours each way every day.
Manteca is a nice place to live. Its name means "lard."
On the lower left of the photo above, priced to sell at only $14 pesos per kilo, is a bucket of 100% pork lard. Not like that stuff in the stall down the way, where they cut it with goat lard.
On the right we have calves tongues. Tongue is big in Mexico. Even in Santa Rosa, CA, taco stands offer tacos de lengua. As my son John says, "Mmmm. Tacos de lengua. The taco that tastes back."
And in the middle, we have... we have... unh... steer penises. I think you make a sort of ox tail soup with them, except you substitute... you know... for the tail.
Well, people do eat penises, you know. There's a restaurant in Seoul, Korea that specializes in them.
People eat feet, too. Especially pigs' feet. You can get pickled pigs' feet in your local supermarket. Probably. Especially if Germans live nearby.
I once ate in a restaurant in Paris called Le Pied de Cochon. It wasn't until I was seated that I realized the the name translated to "The Pig's Foot." Not relishing a bony foot for dinner, I searched through the menu looking for an alternative. An expensive dinner caught my eye: "The Feast of Saint Sebastian."
That was the ticket. No pigs' feet for me. I was hungry. A feast sounded about right. I called the waiter over and ordered it. He gave me a concerned look and talked to me for several minutes in rapid-fire French, none of which I understood. I said something like, "Yes, yes my good man. Now run along and bring me my dinner."
Some time later, a plate arrived with a variety of meats on it. A nice slice of ham. A fried pig's ear. A breaded and roasted pig's foot (damn). A piece of cheek. And something else in the middle of the plate... what was it?
I cut a bite and put it in my mouth. Bony. Chewy. Gristly. I looked closer. Hmmm... a pig's penis.
For the rest of the meal, I couldn't get over how good the pig's foot tasted.
Ever eat head cheese? C'mon, it's just lunch meat. Nowadays, we buy it at the deli counter, but it's possible that your grandmother actually made it. There's a great recipe in the old edition of Becker and Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking. Unfortunately, the recipe has been dropped from the modern version. The old one had some unforgettable lines about, for example, scrubbing the teeth well with a stiff brush. Cooks.com has a whole bunch of recipes with instructions like "Cook ears until well done." You just won't find sentences like that in Gourmet Magazine.
They don't make head cheese in Mexico as far as I can tell, but they do use cabezas in tacos and other treats. First you go to your local carniceria and select a nice head.
This one looks pretty good. She has a sweet, gentle expression combined with a hint of mystery—kind of like Veronica Lake.
So you buy it and bring it home. Now what? You could do worse than to follow the advice at Cooks.com:
"Clean hog head by removing eyes, ears and brains. Saw into 4 pieces. Put in large pot and boil until tender. Remove meat from broth. Pick out bones..."
If you are of the Moslem or Jewish faiths, you'll of course want to avoid the pigs' heads. Not to worry. The Mercado Libre offers goat, sheep and cow heads as well.
Take your pick.
Now we're gonna get kind of gross. Check out this sign:
Those of you with classical educations, having studied Latin, and those of you in the healing arts, have a pretty good idea of what's on offer here.
When I lived in California, I was always tempted when I saw Mexican chorizo in the market. But this raw sausage always seemed to have an unwholesome liquid-y texture when I palpitated it, and one look at the ingredient list was enough to cross chorizo off my list: "Beef lips, beef salivary glands..."
But labios (lips) are a treat here. Just look at the price. $34.99 pesos per kilo. Almost double the price of the calves' tongues mentioned previously.
But Oh!, do these look disgusting. They may make Patty's mouth water, but never mine. Sort of look like sea anemones, don't they?
Let's get through a few more quickly. Here we have steer trachea, a most unlikely category. "Mom! We're out of steer trachea!"
Then, there's bofe de res—steer lungs. At $2 pesos per kilo (eight cents a pound), lungs are not highly valued. Mostly used as pet food, I think. When I looked up bofe in my Spanish dictionary, I saw a sample usage: "Al perro le dan de comer bofe con arroz." (They fed the dog lungs with rice.)
Let's move on now to prepared meats. Just as the photo of rib roast slices was more appealing than the picture of uncooked beef, I find myself more apt to consume foods that are already prepared, where I don't have to consider the "before" picture.
How about some roast goat? Or is it sheep? Something with horns.
Or maybe some ready-to-eat locally made cesina.
$120 pesos per kilo. Beef jerky is expensive wherever you go.
Now, what's this? Looks like scallop ceviche. Seafood in the meat department?
They look a little too long to be scallops. The sign says botana viril. A first pass at translation might be "virile snack." Sorry. That's not enough information to get me to try it.
Viril has other translations. It can mean "back" or "tail" or it can refer to the tip of the penis. I asked Patty what they were. She said "nerves." Spinal column nerves. "Chewy. Like pulpo." (Octopus.) "You eat them for the texture."
One time Jean and I were driving through a tiny village in Yucatan; a place where most of the houses were lozenges of poles supporting a palm thatch roof, with dirt floors and three rocks in the center of the single room for a stove. There, we passed by a carniceria whose entire stock of meat was displayed on a wooden table out in front—a heap of ropy beef baking in the tropical sun. It looked as if the steer had been butchered with a grenade. The guy in this stall appears to subscribe to the same meat-cutting methods.
For me, the Mercado Libre is the real Mexico. I won't be posting many pictures of cathedrals because 1) it's been done to death, and 2) like Ronald Reagan said about Redwood trees, "You seen one [cathedral], you seen 'em all."
I'm far more interested in how people live—especially the common people. Knowing what their houses are like, how they dress, how they play and what they eat provides real cultural insights that you'll never get on the tourist routes.
The way of life depicted in these posts is fast disappearing, and thank God. Everyone deserves a chance at the good life. But the good life isn't here yet, and the way Mexican people live today will shape how they think and how they relate to Norteamericanos for generations to come.
The Guadalajara team is nicknamed Chivas. Yep. The mighty goats. A modern franchise might pick a more punchy name, but the team was founded 100 years ago, and goats must have had a stronger image in those simpler times.
When the game started, everything in the city ground to a halt. People clustered in front of stores and bars to watch TV.
Walking down the great pedestrian mall in the city center, I suddenly heard an enormous cry: "AAYYY." It was as if all of Guadalajara had spoken in one great, swelling tide. The Toluca Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) had scored.
The Chivas had not won a national championship in 19 years. Tapatios (Guadalajara residents) were hungry for an overdue championship. In fact, all of Mexico was rooting for the Chivas, Mexico's favorite team, which boasts 80 million fans. And now at last, Guadalajara was in the finals, one game away from capturing the title.
The Diablos Rojos were not going to be pushovers, though. They were the defending champions and had been the top team in five out of the last ten years. The tension in the city was palpable.
When in Rome...
I joined a group of tough-looking juvenile delinquents who were peering past the Barbies at a television that had been set up in a toy stall. Suddenly a gigantic shout blew my heart out through my mouth. The Chivas scored! Immediately I found myself being hugged and patted on the back by guys I would have called the cops on if I'd ever seen them hanging out near my house. They grinned and laughed with joy, which I found irresistably contagious.
Instantly I became a sworn Chivas fan. Trading shoulder punches and those curious Mexican handshakes with my new-found brothers, I settled in to watch the rest of the game.
A few minutes later, Guadalajara scored again. Four million people shouted:
The city-wide roar shook the buildings. In an area of a hundred square miles, only one sound was heard: ¡GOOOOOOOOOOOAL! I've never heard anything like it in my life. Not even when we lived two miles from Stanford Stadium, listening to the roar of the crowd as the San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl there.
The game ended, the Chivas won their eleventh national championship, and in the city of Guadalajara all hell broke loose.
Traffic around the zocalo (the main square) ground to a halt as people filled the streets. Cars and trucks sped up and down the main east-west arteries, people leaning out of windows waving huge flags, clinging to bumpers, lying on the hoods of cars oblivious to their fates should the driver apply the brakes.
Every time I pointed my camera at passing fans, they turned to face me and cheered and waved. By photographing their moment of victory, I was doing incalculable improvement to Mexican-American relations.
As I walked away from the center, I got high-fives from passing fans.
And everywhere I went, I heard horns honking in an odd, syncopated rhythm.
The honking literally went on all night long:
Fortunately, as an old Mexico hand (well, as an old Mexico hand wannabe, anyway), I was able to sleep through the noisy night. In my dreams, my mind chewed on the possible meaning of this rhythm, which by now was etched into my brain:
The honking was still reverberating in my ears at breakfast when the answer finally came:
Of course! How obvious! Fans were tapping out the syllables of the name of their city. Gua—da—lahara! Guadalajara!
How sweet. How playful. How innocent, these high-spirited Mexicans.
Inordinately proud of myself for having deduced all this, I told the story to my Mexicana friend Patty. She gave me a look like I was some kind of idiot, grinned and shook her head.
"That's not what they're saying."
"No they're not, John"
"Well, then what are they saying?"
OK. That's a cheap shot.
But hey. What's going on up north? We got bad green onions at Taco Bell. We got bad spinach in California. I checked the FDA web site: I counted 29 food recalls in the last 60 days!
There's a clear lesson to be learned from this: When traveling in the U. S., Don't Eat the Food! I fully expect to see a Mexican government official travel advisory anytime now.
Thank God we residents of Mexico don't have to worry about any of that stuff. The other day, in the Mercado Libertad of Guadalajara, I sat down at a lunch counter and ordered a huarache al pastor.
There's always a problem translating food names. I mean, a hot dog has nothing to do with puppies and spotted dick isn't a disease. Huarache al pastor translates as "shepherd's sandal." Of course, it's not. Wouldn't sell if it was.
Culinarily speaking, a huarache is a variant of a tostada or a taco, but thicker like a gordo, and oval shaped, vaguely like a sandal. Flattened cornmeal dough is cooked on a griddle and when done, topped with meat and vegetables.
Huarache al Pastor
Looks kind of like a tostada, doesn't it?
Meat, usually cerdo (pork), is called al pastor when slices are marinated in spices and piled onto a vertical spit for cooking. As the meat cooks, the outer layers of the pile are sliced off. Maybe two ounces of this was sprinkled onto my huarache and topped with lettuce, onions and cilantro. I squeezed on a little lime juice and added some nopales (prickly pear cactus leaves) as garnish. It was delicious.
Cerdo al Pastor
Eating in the Mercado is violating every rule given to tourists: street food, raw, unpeeled vegetables, you name it. But I doubt that it's any riskier eating in Mexico than up north. Just read the papers.
Here at least, the food is fresher, healthier and tastier than, say, the dull corporate excretions of the Olive Garden or Taco Bell. 250 people sick! Gimme a break. That's what factory farming and institutional cooking does to you.
It is a breathtakingly ugly building erected in 1958. The second-largest covered (albeit leaky) market in Mexico, it houses hundreds of vendors of every imaginable commodity.
Many people have set up shop just outside, making it difficult to determine exactly when you have entered the official market itself. Here, squatting sidewalk shopkeepers sell kitchen utensils, cheesy toy guitars and equipale chairs, the latter a regional specialty.
This man is selling huge copper cooking pots, good for cooking carnitas, and cast aluminum orange juicers—essential in the kitchen because everybody in Mexico drinks fresh-squeezed orange juice all the time. His juicers cost $180 pesos—about $17 U. S. Y'all up north can buy a somewhat sexier one online for $129.99 plus tax, shipping and handling. Pricey, but hey, so are U. S. oranges.
The Mercado Libertad is vast inside. Not too slick-looking, not too well-lit, not too clean; but it's big—225,000 square feet—as big as a hundred typical American suburban houses. It's three stories house maybe a thousand tiny stalls.
Narrow aisles teem with shoppers. Mind-numbing displays disorient visitors. Vendors hawk their wares. Still photos don't even begin to convey the chaos. Check out this video clip.
In the mercados, I'm always drawn to food sellers' stalls. The variety of edible stuff in Mexico is vast compared with U. S. or European supermarkets. Here's a sampling of the non-meat vendors.
[The butchers deserve their own post. But their story is so gross I'm gonna have to precede it with a warning for the squeamish.]
Here we have an herb seller. Natural remedies are far more widely used than over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. I know woefully little about medical herbs, although Rosario routinely uses them. Next time I get la gripe (the flu), I''ll ask her to treat me instead of calling Dr. Gorgeous.
I normally think of dried skate as an Asian delicacy, but here it's known as raya, and this sample is hanging in a stall selling folk medicines, so maybe it has some kind of curative or restorative powers.
Buckets and bins of dried legumes and chiles, most of which are unfamiliar to me, line the aisles. The brown, cone-shaped objects in the left image are piloncillos—Mexico's flavorful raw sugar. Unrefined, it's full of micro-nutrients and subtle flavors, and has not been treated with any chemicals. If you're gonna eat sugar, this is the sugar to eat.
While we're on the subject, got a sweet tooth? C'mon, I know you all secretly nosh KitKats and Gummy Bears. Why not try a sweet that might actually be good for you?
The pink and white bars are alfajor de coco, a confection of coconut boiled in sweetened milk. The two types of brownish sweets are calabeza en tacha (candied pumpkin) and camote en tacha (candied sweet potatoes), made with raw sugar grated from piloncillos.
In the image below, the white balls are greñudas de coco—grated coconut balls. The burned-looking yellow cylinders are also greñudas de coco. Pretty special at three pesos apiece.
Note the yellow jackets crawling on the greñudas. Mexican people don't make a big fuss about insects in or near their food. In fact, they even eat insects, but that's a subject for another time.
Pelliscos means "pinches." The little brown tamarind balls will pinch you for sure; they're spiced with chiles.
Now we're gonna get into some truly unusual foods. Coyol is the name of both a kind of palm tree and its nuts. I didn't ask the vendor what they were used for, figuring that someone in San Miguel would know. Bad guess. A Wikipedia entry leads me to believe I'm not missing anything.
Cocuixtle, also known as piñuela, is the fruit of a bromiliad. I had no idea that any part of a bromiliad was edible. Cocuixtle is used to make a sugared drink with medicinal properties.
I've just got to try some of these things. But I must say the appearance of this vendor's stall was not confidence-inspiring.
People in Mexico make delicious drinks out of almost anything. These big jars contain aguas frescas: water and sugar flavored with fruits or grains or God knows what. The vendor is serving me a styrofoam cup of tamarindo—sweetened water flavored with pulp scraped from the insides of tamarind pods.
Sugarcane is a favorite. You can buy little disks of peeled cane, or a container of fresh juice, which this man is extracting with this non-OSHA-approved machine.
Cups with sliced pepino (cucumber), jicama, sandia (watermelon), papaya—whatever, are universally available snacks. They're served with lime juice, salt and chile, which tastes way better than it sounds.
The white roots in the foreground, some of which have been cut up and placed in styrofoam dishes with hot sauce drizzled on top, are called camotes de la tierra. The name translates to something like "earth yams," but they're not related to sweet potatoes. My friend Patty says they grow everywhere, like chayote. I guess you just go out in the jungle, dig some up, and bring them to market.
(One of the little adventures of living in Mexico is sampling foods gathered in the wild.)
Camotes de la tierra are mealy and kind of tasteless. They appear to be good primarily as a medium for transporting salt, lime and capsaicinoids to your mouth. If you've eaten them once, you've eaten them enough.
Along the top row, we have clear plastic cups of pomegranate seeds (yummy) and a green berry-like fruit called (I think) arrañes verdes. (I'm not entirely clear here, because the young lady who told me what they were may not have spelled the name correctly, and I'm unable to find any references to them.)
A few years ago, I may have eaten a fruit like this that might have been called something like arrañes rojos. Same berry-like fruit, but ripe and extremely sweet with a most exotic flavor. Arrañes verdes on the other hand were sour and nasty, and adding salt, lime and chiles only made things worse. Here Jean, wearing green nail polish just for the occasion, is holding a serving of arrañes verdes. I threw it away after a taste.
To end on a positive note, here's one of my favorite treats: mango-on-a-stick. Way better than candied apples.
Vegetables occupy only a tiny corner of the Mercado Libertad. Even if I make ten posts (which I won't) I couldn't cover the whole place. But there's a few subjects I can't resist writing about, so stay tuned for more.
This was brought home to me as I looked into the window of a hardware store in Guadalajara.
Most prominent are the hunting rifles. Mexico's countryside is relatively untamed. Much land is still unfenced. Within a half-hour drive of the center of Guadalajara, you can be in a near-wilderness. People live closer to the land. Their rifles are not for sport; they are for providing food.
Displayed in the upper right corner are three sickles. Weed Whackers and lawn mowers are too expensive for most people. I see crews along the verges of highways cutting weeds with hand tools. The economic principle in Mexico is that machines are expensive; people are cheap.
On the lower right, we have the single most important plant-taming tools in Mexico: machetes. They're used for clearing brush and for cutting small firewood for cooking. They're also used for pruning and shaping plants, which gives Mexican gardens a somewhat rough-hewn look. Only the hedgerows of the English countryside, trimmed as they are with whirling chain flails, are more brutally kept in check.
Finally, the black shears at the lower left are for shearing sheep. There's no electricity out in the campo, you see.
While you probably can find all this stuff in an American Tru-Value Hardware Store, you won't find it featured in any displays. You'll likely have to ask where the machetes are, and your selection will be limited to a single model kept in the back somewhere.
It has nice, modern stations, complete with the prerequisite graffiti.
Much of Guadalajara lies inside the Anillo Periférico—the peripheral ring highway. The subway consists of two lines. Line One runs through the center of the city, connecting to the periférico in the north and the south. Line Two begins at Line One in the center and runs east almost all of the way to the periférico. So the whole system looks like a "T" laid on its side.
It really doesn't go anyplace gringo tourists would like to go: neither Zapopan nor Tonolá nor Tlaquepaque. But it gets heavy use, so it must go where lots of tapatios (Guadalajara residents) want to go.
System access is by tokens.
About the size of a nickel, they have three deep grooves stamped into each side. The token slot on the turnstiles have teeth that match the grooves, making use of slugs virtually impossible.
It's a typically inventive Mexican solution for dealing with typically inventive Mexicans who circumvent regulations. They know their own.
The subway was always crowded when I used it.
Although trains ran frequently, crowds quickly formed along the platforms. The crush getting off and on would be familiar to any New Yorker or Tokyo-ite.
Tokens, not magnetic stripe tickets. Old-fashioned trains. Bolted rails, not welded. So it's not up there with BART or the Paris Metro.
But a token costs four pesos—36 cents. I'll take the Guadalajara deal anytime, thanks.
It's pricey, but our money buys us respite from the tumult of the semi-riot that is Mexico's second-largest city. Villa Ganz belongs to an association of small hotels: Hoteles Botique de México. The group has 45 hotels throughout Mexico, and includes La Puertecita, where Jean and I first stayed in San Miguel, taking Spanish lessons (four hours per day!) from the gracious Adela Sanchez.
Mornings are especially pleasant. We're early risers in a country where people go to bed at two and get up around ten. So we have the place to ourselves for breakfast.
There's something terribly elegant about a carpet on a lawn, if you ask me.
(That's a poinsettia behind the table.)
Yesterday, Jean and I went our separate ways; she to Tlaquepaque for some serious shopping, and I to the city center to try to capture some Mexican flavor with my camera. We arrived back at Villa Ganz with sore feet and backs, and sat in the lounge drinking agua de jamaica (iced tea made from hibiscus blossoms), listening to Guadalajara's excellent classical music FM station.
This morning, the sky is a startling blue. It'll get up to 80°.
I wonder what it's like in Madison, WI?
In San Miguel, policemen in quasi-military dress and body armor guard the old presidencia, even though the county government has moved to a new building on the eastern edge of town. I don't know why they're still guarding it. Probably a couple of secretaries still in their offices.
Their battle-ready appearance weighs heavily on the fiesta atmosphere of the Jardín. Well, it would until you look at the expressions on their faces. See? They're just a couple of guys.
Here in Guadalajara, the Jalisco state office building is similarly guarded, except that there's more policemen standing in the doorway.
But they're still sharing a joke. Happy cops. They aren't wearing body armor either, so they make a kinder, gentler presence.
While wandering around Guadalajara this morning, I took this image of soldiers in front of another building.
You may have noticed that four of the five soldiers are staring in my direction. One is gesturing. Another is beginning to raise his hand.
They're telling me I shouldn't be photographing them. I went up to the soldier on the right and asked him if in fact I was not to take pictures. He assured me that I shouldn't. Well, OK.
Then I asked him what building they were guarding.
He said in all seriousness: "I can't tell you. It's a secret."
Making three-bean salad.
Here, a denizen of a non-coastal state demonstrates how to create a "salad" entirely out of canned goods.
In the psychedelic 70s I came to terms with garbanzos in the form of hummus...
Hummus with pita.
... the dip made of mashed garbanzos, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, lemon, tahini (ground sesame seeds), and a little cayenne. Yummy.
I was introduced to hummus in an Armenian restaurant in Alviso; one that employed an aggressive, overweight belly dancer. We liked to bring asian visitors there to embarrass them. "No, Mr. Kim. You put the dollar bill in her girdle."
These days a few thousand cigars and countless cigarettes have permanently stunted my taste buds. I find almost any food palatable. I've even come to like a few garbanzos sprinkled on my green salad.
The garbanzos we eat in El Norte are reconstituted dried beans.
They require soaking and long cooking to become edible.
In Mexico, we do it other.
In Mexico, we eat garbanzos verdes—green garbanzos. The difference between these and their dried cousins is exactly the same as between green and dried peas. The difference in taste and texture is very similar.
Garbanzo verde vendor.
They're eaten mostly as a walk-around snack. For a a buck (10 pesos) you get a plastic sack with steamed green garbanzos. They're served in their pods.
You can think of them as a kind of Mexican edamame.
A serving of garbanzos verdes.
Usually, you get them salted and doused with lime juice and chili powder. You eat them out of hand, spitting the empty pods out onto the street. Hey, we're still a third-world country.
Low calorie, full of vitamins, and quite tasty. Look for 'em in your local barrio.
But west of the Centro Historico, upscale shops and university buildings front the tree-lined expressway, calling passers-through to stop and rest awhile. Every time we've driven through, I've promised myself that one day, I'd visit Guadalajara. Now we're doing it for the first time.
Villa Ganz is an elegant ten-room hotel in the heart of Colonia Lafayette, that inviting tree-lined district, a couple of miles from the touristy madness of the Centro Historico and the tacky high-rise "five-star" hotels down by the airport.
On entering our room, we found a lovely hospitality tray.
Aah. This is the way life should be. Yes, the wine is a screw-top, and it's from a winery in Baja California, but it is a Cab. Jean says it's delicious, and she should know.
And what's that on the plate? A little cheese treat? A couple of mints?
No, it's a pair of earplugs.
How thoughtful. After all, we are in Mexico. And Mexico is always noisy.
Last night the Guadalajara futbol team was playing Toluca in the semifinals for the first time ever. We could hear cheering from the stadium. Two big yells: when Guadalajara scored its early goal, and when Toluca scored its last-minute equalizer.
After several years of living in San Miguel, we're no longer bothered by noise. I just tune it out. Last night I went to bed around ten, the sound of exploding rockets lulling me to sleep.
They're complete restaurants on wheels. You want pancakes? Eggs over easy? A BLT? A chocolate shake? You got it.
They're efficient and effecive. Quilted stainless steel surfaces are easy to keep clean. Packaged foods are displayed on shelves positioned for self-service. Prices are low. What's not to like?
Somewhere along the line, lunch trucks acquired the sobriquet "Roach Coach." Food vendors went along with the joke; hence, the song played by their horns. Much of their business is in servicing construction sites and industrial parks, where restaurants are scarce.
A similar market demand exists in San Miguel; one which is satisfied in the same way—with food served from motor vehicles. Somewhat more modest motor vehicles.
In their most common form, San Miguel's roach coaches are '70s-vintage beater automobiles carrying a trunk full of various hot and cold foods. So your capital investment is more like $700, not $70,000. Good thing too, considering the kind of sales volume a Mexican food vendor can expect.
The basic offering is some kind of meat mixed with vegetables in a spicy sauce, rice and beans. Maybe some nopalitos (cactus leaves). Chopped onions and cilantro for garnish. You get lots of corn tortillas in the bargain. And jalapeños and salsa. A plastic cooler contains refrescos—soft drinks.
My friend Bob once referred to the food served to his construction workers as "chicken neck tacos." A shameful thing to say. They eat better than that. It was chicken wing tacos.
The roach coach pictured is a cut above the usual rust-eaten heap. Well-preserved, I'd say. Even though the front and rear sections appear to be of two different vintages.
But—what's that cone-shaped thing on the roof?
Ah. A public address speaker. You might think it is used to announce the arrival of the roach coach in your neighborhood. Probably not.
Actually, this vehicle supports not one, but two businesses: it's a rolling restaurant and a mobile advertising service.
I remember as a child watching black and white movies set in Latin America where a '49 Chevy with public address horns on top rolls slowly through the pueblo, haranguing the voters. Well, we still got 'em.
Circus in town? Some guy with a four-testicle voice booms out of an over-amped mobile PA system. Election time? The town is full of blaring trucks. Dueling speakers.
It's intrusive and annoying. It's part of life in Mexico. I love it.
The gas pump remains today.
No longer functional, it is preserved as a reminder of slower, more comfortable times, when oil companies weren't owned by the state and nobody minded waiting once or twice a day when someone blocked traffic on the narrow street while refueling.
Like many of us, San Miguel artist Mary Breneman loves this old pump, in her case so much so that she painted it.
The minute I saw the painting, I bought it. Others may have paintings of pudgy bullfighters or elongated cats or views of the Parroquoia hanging on their walls. But none of them have a gas pump.
The pueblo itself consists of a line of poor houses strung along an old road, and a humble, decaying church that appears to be abandoned. The inhabitants have no apparent means of livelihood.
On a recent Sunday drive, Jean and I encountered an interesting gate along the road to La Cieneguita.
The left door bears a toothy face and the right depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe. An arch over the gate contains an image resembling a foreshortened Jabba the Hut. A steer skull tops each gatepost.
Someone interesting lives here.
Peering through the gates, a pleasant garden of mesquites and native plants frames a view of distant farmland.
This is a peaceful, quiet place. Until you see the house.
A free spirit built this place. Rampant creativity. Style run amok. Unconstrained by convention, this is a home built solely to satisfy the whims and urges of one person. Nobody was considering "resale value" when designing it.
And a good thing, too. It's more art than house, and we spent a pleasant hour inspecting it from the outside. (No one was home, and I'm not sure we would have overcome our reluctance to disturb the occupants if they had been.)
The place is jammed with wonderful details. A wall with faces...
... a colorful fountain...
... an arabesque tower...
... and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe adorned with wine bottles.
I admire the person who made this. He built a little spot that hums with good vibrations. As an old, linear-thinking engineer, standing there looking, I was oddly comforted by all that creativity.
I know y'all get yours in cardboard cartons from the supermarket. Some of you avoid consuming hormone- and pesticide-laden factory-farmed milk by buying organic factory-farmed milk at $2.99 a half gallon. Younger, hipper Mexicans buy their milk in cartons, too, but so far they can't get organic milk that way.
For organic milk, they need to see this man:
Eugenio here is walking down the street, none too swiftly, with his unrefrigerated milk can slung on his back, his government-approved half-liter measure in his right hand, ready to sell you some fresh-off-the-farm milk.
Bring your own container.
A fair amount of the milk consumed in San Miguel is sold this way, but milk sellers on foot are the exception. Usually, cooks listen for the sound of a unique-sounding horn, signaling them to go outside with their pots and buckets to meet the man in the pickup truck.
The milk they buy is unhomogenized and probably (I'm guessing) unpasteurized. Raw milk. Members of the '70s Back-to-the-Land Movement would approve.
Juanita, the cook at the Umaran house we rented, bought a pot of milk every few days. Sometimes she'd let it sit on the counter with a towel over it, to let the cream rise. Other times, she'd boil it to concentrate it for soups or flan. I would get a little nervous when I saw milk sitting out, but everybody in the house looked healthy, so I just shut up and ate what was put in front of me.
Mostly it's the older folks that buy milk from the itinerant milk sellers. When they were girls, that was the only way milk came, and what was good enough then is good enough now.
Plus, they don't have to carry it home from the grocery store—a real issue as most of them don't own cars.
But times are changing. The new Comerciál Méxicana Mega Store out at the Pílipa glorieta (traffic circle) opened last weekend. It makes Wal-Mart look like the old Boonton A&P grocery store. There must be a hundred linear feet of cold cases full of milk in cartons, not to mention pallets of unrefrigerated ultrapasteurized milk in the middle of the aisle.
Mexican yuppies aren't home when the milkmen come. Anyway, they're too busy managing banks or designing houses to buy food from more than one source. Just one stop at the supermarket—that's all they have time for. Load up the cart with, among other things, milk cartons, and get home in time to watch the Mexican equivalent of Wheel of Fortune.
Many of the streets are as yet unpaved, but Olimpo definitely is urban. Lots of raw brick exteriors, but a few nice buildings: a church, a couple of remodels. The dome belongs to CASA, an NGO working to reduce domestic violence.
The photo above was taken from the Fraccionmiento Los Mezquites. Turn around and walk a few steps, and this is what you see:
Farms in Berkeley? We got 'em right here in San Miguel. This one is surrounded by housing tracts.
It's a bucolic scene: a watermelon hanging from a vine, a dog lying by a dirt road, a cow chewing its cud. You won't see anything like this in Sunnyvale.
See how the low morning light shines through the cow's translucent ears. Let's see if we can get a close-up of that...
THAT's not a cow. LOOK at those HORNS!
It stands right up, alarmed, when I approach. On guard. Watching me suspiciously. Ready, if need be, for action.
I don't know how long or strong that rope is, and I'm not about to find out. I'm outta here RIGHT NOW!
[Got a nice shot of his ears, though.]
Over the years, I've bought countless numbers of these living Christmas decorations. They add spectacular color and a festive air wherever you see them.
Sometimes after New Year's Eve, I've tried to keep one or two alive for the next holiday season, but they always died. Maybe I gave them too much water. Or kept them too warm. Or too cold. Maybe they're just florists' plants propagated for brief display, unable to sustain longer lives.
Maybe they don't like living in gringo-land.
Poinsettias originated in Mexico, where they are called Flor de Nochebuena—the Christmas Eve flower. This time of year, you see them all over, wearing their winter colors.
No tender hothouse plants, these: they grow in the toughest of conditions, becoming as much as ten feet tall.
Finding the beauty of Mexico requires seeing past decay and litter. As I look toward this trashy yard, what catches my eye is not heaps of junk or carcasses of old cars, but brilliant layers of red, elegantly shimmering, somehow enhanced by the drab surroundings.
Our town has maybe a dozen soccer fields. None of them have any grass, but that doesn't discourage anyone. We have many youth teams, but unlike in the U. S., high school and college teams thrive here as well.
I saw this team forming up in Juarez Park the other day.
They are the Tecos, short for tecolotes which means "owls." Their name has been lifted directly from the professional soccer team associated with the Universidad Autónomo de Guadalajara, That's why it says "UAG" on the owl logos on their jerseys.
(Copyrights? We don' need no steenking copyrights.)
The professional team seems to be undistinguished. The UAG fight song suggests unrealized ambitions. Sounds funny to me. You can listen to it here.
The UAG team also has a website, but anyone who visits there is denied access. As Borat says, "Niiice.
But the kids don't care about any of that. They're at that wonderful, innocent age when all they want to do is play ball.
I think they're cute.
Large developments have sprung up at the periphery of the city; smaller ones are being built in more central areas where enough land can be found. The houses pictured above probably are priced in the neighborhood of $100,000 U. S.—ideal for an expatriate with modest resources or a Mexican middle manager.
But for the vast majority of Mexicans, these houses might as well be on the Moon. Never, in their lifetimes nor in their children's, will they accumulate enough to buy one.
Competition from the well-heeled makes things worse. My friend, Guadalupe Cano, built his four-bedroom house in the little pueblo of Capilla de Milpillas, near Guadalajara, for $25,000. He'd have to spend ten times that much to build it here. What Bill Clinton called "ordinary people" have been frozen out of the market.
What to do?
The government has thrown itself into the breach.
The Fondo Nacional de Apoyo Económico a la Vivenda (the Mexican penchant for unpronounceable acronyms renders this FONAEVI) provides a much-needed path to home ownership for the poor.
The name means something like the National Fund for Economic Support of Housing. The medallion reeks of typical governmental paternalism: tu casa, not the respectful su casa. And the inclusion of every Mexican politician's smarmy catchphrase: Contigo es posible—With you, it's possible.
But the program is a good one. How it works is, you begin by depositing at least $50 pesos in a bank account. When interest and contributions amount to $12,000 pesos, you can purchase a government-built house for $120,000 with your savings, taking back a $108,000 low-cost mortgage.
That's an entire house for $11,000, in real money. Only $1,100 down. About the price of a beater car.
Here's what you get for your money:
OK. These are never gonna make the cover of Architectural Digest. But while they might not appeal to you and me, for many Mexican families, they are the impossible dream.
Look. They have water and electricity and sewers and four walls and a roof and a front door that can be locked. No phone or gas, but you add those later, when you can afford them.
Rosario, our cook, lives in a similarly subsidized house. Illiterate, a mother at 13 years old, employed as a maid all her life, she and her cab driver husbad could never have owned their home without help.
There's a long waiting list for these houses. Plus, I think there's a lottery involved. Until your turn comes up, you just have to do the best you can. Often, that's not very well.
"Pablito! You're driving me crazy. Go outside and watch TV!"
Well, one option would be to stop right in the middle of the narrow cobblestone street, turn on the emergency flashers, and take the tire for repair. No need to worry about blocking traffic. Everyone expects traffic jams and delays. It's a natural part of life in Mexico, land of mañana.
So, block the rear tire with the "parking brake" carried in the truck bed (on account of the factory-installed one hasn't worked in years). Remove the right front wheel. And just leave the whole thing sitting there while finding a place that patches tires.
What we're looking for is a sign like the one pictured below; one that says vulcanizadora. Means "guy that fixes flats."
These signs are commonly written on old tires, to make their meaning clear to the illiterate and the Spanish-impaired. You see them everywhere. Good thing, too, because Mexican roads are tough on tires. Cobblestones, potholes, rocks left on the pavement, pointy junk falling off trucks and thin tires; people are always getting flats.
This sign tells us to look across the street.
Oooh-Kay. Vulcanizadora "Casaneda." This time vulcanizadora is spelled right. Things are looking up.
We Norteamericanos are accustomed to businesses that look a little more... well... businesslike. But in my experience, this place looks typical for a vulcanizadora. Not to worry. Go knock on the door.
Nobody home. What's that sign say?
Ah. "We are now changed to our new address..." It's about a mile away. Keep rolling that tire, Juanito.
Meanwhile traffic piles up behind the blinking truck. Horns honk. Maybe the traficantes will tow it away. ¿Quién sabe?
Drives us gringos nuts.
On a frosty morning walk I noticed this sign.
It's the No Name Fish and Shellfish Restaurant.
The sign caught my attention because the lettering was neat and colorful, although I think it could lose the droopy serifs on the P and the M. What particularly intrigued me, though, was yet another example of using a living creature's happy image to whet appetites.
Here we have a jowly octopus (or strictly speaking, a pentapus) representing a meal. Actually, octopus, called pulpo in Spanish, is widely consumed here, and is, en mí opinión, delicious. But then, I eat tako sushi.
But I digress.
The sailor hat is a nice touch. The octopus's expression could use a little punching up; I can't decide if he's smiling or gritting his teeth. Good orthodontia, though.
Bottle of beer? Must be party time.
A truly individualistic icon. Disney never reached this level of hominess.
Ciruela amarilla (Spondias mombin L.)
The name translates as "yellow plum," but this one's neither yellow nor a plum.
I think they may be gathered in the wild rather than cultivated, because they tend to come with blemishes, galls and scaly spots. They have a thick, waxy skin that tastes a little bitter, and a huge, woody pit. The flesh is only an eighth of an inch thick, so there's no point in peeling it, 'cause there'll be nothing left to eat if you do.
How you eat one is, you throw the whole thing in your mouth, grind off the tough skin with your teeth (which you chew up and swallow) and gnaw the pit awhile to get the flesh. One fruit produces maybe a teaspoon of nutrition.
They don't keep well, either.
Three ciruelas amarillas and one pit.
So why bother? Clearly ciruelas amarillas are never gonna compete with, say, a juicy, ripe peach.
Well, the reason you bother is because the flesh is intensely aromatic, exotically flavored and is the sweetest fruit you've ever tasted.
One of the benefits of living in Mexico is access to foods you've never eaten before. For every fruit available in the U. S., there are two or more here. I've not even begun to work my way through them all.
One other note of warning with this fruit is in order: Don't put the pits into the garbage disposal. I did. I had to replace it. The pits are incredibly hard. Tore the guts right out of the machine. Throwing in a handful of ¼—20 steel nuts would not have been harder on it.
...except here, they are called the Caballeros de Colón.
God, what a great name—redolent of mustachioed men in capes and flat hats, galloping through fields of cacti.
But whenever I see this sign, the romantic image quickly dissipates as I recall the old song I learned in college:
I am a gay caballero,
Traveling to Rio de Janeiro.
And I carry with me,
And both of my bom-bom-baderos...
Sad, isn't it, that some people never grow up.
Boy it's a bitch getting old.
I guess I'll just rest my bony ass here. Jeez, do my feet ever hurt.
So what the hell is the problem here? I knew I should have worn socks.
Maybe there's something in my shoe.
Well Hellooo little schoolgirls. You want a Walnetto?
Hmmm. No takers. I guess they're wise to me.
Well, no point in hanging around here. This wall is hard. Now it's my butt that hurts.
Boy it's a bitch getting old.
Not so in Mexico. Mexicans are hard-working, practical folks. They don't have time for this stuff. Oh sure, there's a little Catholic mysticism; a dabbling in Mayan ritual. But no Mexican really takes any of this stuff seriously. There seems to be an absence of the truly weird.
Or is there?
I came upon the Instituto Gnostica de Antropologica on my daily walk. I tried to decipher the sign. No luck. Too many words not in my vocabulary. So I snapped this photo and took it home to evaluate at my desk.
What we have here is the Occult Institute of Anthropology. The name, of course, doesn't make sense. Maybe they meant to say, "The Institute of Occult Anthropology." No, that doesn't work either.
No matter. Neither translation tells us anything. Checking the rest of the sign, we are able to discern without referring to a dictionary that the Institute offers lectures (conferencias) on philosophy, art, science and mysticism. Well, that pretty much covers the University of California curriculum and then some.
Specific subjects include meditation, archeology, and "dream yoga", whatever the hell that is.
For the rest of it, I had to hit the books.
Fenomeno OVNI is an acronym for objeto volador no indentificado. It means UFO—unidentified flying object. "UFO phenomina." Already I can hear Theremin music starting to play.
For Culturas Serpentinas (snake cultures?) I found a reference on a web site that calls itself Metareligion.
A page on the web site states, "The authentic Aztec and Mayan cultures, the Egyptian and Chaldean, etc. are Serpentine Cultures that cannot be understood without Sexual Magic and the Kundalini." Huh?
(For a sojourn in the weird, check out Metareligion. Kinky sex here.)
The most obscure topic, La Masería, appears to have something to do with calendar medallions from Pompeii. That figures.
From all this, I conclude that Mexicans can be just as fruity as Norteamericanos. Paul Latour, who has lived in Mexico forever isn't so sure. He thinks the Instituto Gnostica probably is something created by expatriates. From Marin.
Maybe one of you knows something about this stuff. Until I hear from you, I'll remain a-gnostic.
No, they are not.
They are waiting to pay their electric bills.
Hard to imagine, isn't it? Up north, the first time something like this ever happened, there'd be outraged editorials, lawsuits, and recall elections.
In the U. S., electric companies may be monopolies, but it's commonly understood that they exist to serve people. Utilities are expected to cater to their customers. When consumers are inconvenienced by monopolies, hordes of bureaucrats descend on them, and the situation usually gets corrected fast.
So what's going on, here?
First of all, many years ago, the electric companies were nationalized. So, power is supplied by a government monopoly: La Comisión Federal de Electricidad, or CFE.
Think of it as getting your power from the US Postal Service.
Next, Mexico's economy operates on a cash basis, by which I mean, most people don't have bank accounts. So they pay CFE in person—with cash.
It may not even be possible to pay by mailing a check drawn on a Mexican bank. I don't know anybody who has even bothered to try. Nobody in their right mind mails anything important because Sepomex, the Mexican postal service, is broken.
All electric bills fall due on a single day every two months. Mexicans are frugal electric power users; even so, they struggle to come up with the cash for that bimonthly bill.
So they pay it on the last day. They wait in line for hours while CFE's disinterested clerks process the incredible amount of paperwork associated with any government-related transaction.
They wait patiently, because they have always been made to wait, and they don't realize that in many parts of the world, citizens would find waiting intolerable.
Real power continues to elude ordinary Mexicans. Of the many reasons why this is so, one is that a national attitude of passively accepting bureaucratic abuse dissipates pressure for change.
Would you wait in line to pay your bills?
I have to pay an electric bill. But I don't wait in line. I send the bill via our cook, Rosario, to Lloyds (think Schwab) with the bill and they transfer money out of my account to CFE's. I have to pay my bill a week early, and Lloyds charges me 65 cents to make the transfer, and Rosario has to do all the work.
Sometimes I hate myself for this rich gringo stuff.
Then the bill comes. No way I'm gonna wait in line. So I give it to Rosario.
All Mexicans need Rosarios. Or a better electric company. Getting the former is more likely.
But in Mexico, there's another option: Doctors make house calls.
Yes. Just like when I was a kid, the doctor will come to your house if you want him to. You pay a small premium for him to come over, but it means you don't have to travel when you don't feel up to par, and you don't have to read last year's New Yorkers in a waiting room while the doctor struggles to catch up with his schedule, and you don't have to breathe aerosol bugs sprayed by the sneezing guy sitting next to you.
It's worth the ten bucks.
So Jean called Dr. Jorge Martinez and asked him to visit. Here he is with Jean, taking her complaints.
Now, doesn't that look pleasant? Instead of a soulless clinic, Jean and the doctor sit on loveseats in our outdoor sala, enjoying a sunny, warm day, breathing the scent of blooming vines.
Dr. Martinez is an excellent physician. Like many Mexican doctors, he is a superb diagnostician. (Lab work is a heavy financial burden for many Mexican patients, so it's important to reach a diagnosis as directly as possible.) He has an comforting bedside manner, and he carries a supply of commonly needed medications in his little black bag, often saving you a trip to the pharmacy.
Also, Rose likes him.
(Rose is our Boston Terrier, seated beside Jean.)
Dr. Martinez has a substantial following among the gringa (female Norteamericanas) population of San Miguel, because of his elegant manner, his friendly demeanor, and because he is very handsome.
The gringas call him, "Dr. Gorgeous."
You can't go to Safeway and get animal heads wrapped in plastic film. Tough, if you've got a hankering for tacos de cabeza.
Most supermarket meat departments never see whole carcasses, and they never get heads to sell. In fact, the spoilsports over at the USDA have banned them as too risky to eat.
Norteamericano meat is processed in some huge plant in e. g. Wisconsin and is shipped broken down into neat packages that local workers, with minimal effort, convert into steaks, roasts and hamburger. Less desirable parts become pet food or something. I hope.
In San Miguel, we get the whole animal. In the carnicerias (butcher shops) you see more of your meat than you really want to. For that matter, you see parts of animals you'd just as soon not have seen.
The carnicerias, in turn, receive their meat from the local matadero (slaughterhouse), which is conveniently located not far from the central bus station. Mexicanos don't hide their meat processing away in some remote locale.
This building is ugly, which somehow seems fitting. What happens inside is ugly.
All the workers wear white plastic boots. I guess they need them. Eewww.
This guy is doing the meat-packing Hokey Pokey.
An ungrammatical sign has been painted on the front of the building. It is directed at farmers who bring animals to the slaughterhouse.
What initially struck me about it was the happy cow on the left, smiling from the truck that is bringing him to his doom.
Ah, yes. Happy chickens, smiling pigs, dancing shrimp—Mexicans don't seem to be put off by images of living animals intended for food. A photo of a feathered chicken apparently sets mouths to watering. I guess it's whatever you're used to.
The steer depicted on the right, the one being pushed down the ramp, looks unhappy. Hmmm. Something is wrong here. Animals are supposed to be happy about being eaten. This one doesn't fit the pattern.
Better read the sign.
It says, "The municipal authorities recommend that you cure and transport healthy livestock." (Italics mine.)
Well, I hope so.
I don't know about you, but do you want to chow down on beef from animals that have been cured?
Cured of what?
And how come the municipal authorities only recommend you don't bring sick animals to the slaughterhouse? Isn't there a law? Isn't there some kind of inspector that arrests and jails violators?
It gets worse. In smaller lettering, it says, "Transport (only) livestock that doesn't have lesions or maggots."
(Didn't need any italics there, did I?)
And just in case you're still missing the point, the painting of the steer (that we now know is being rejected) shows eight devilish little worms frolicking on its back. In a lesion.
Oh, ick! I'll never look at meat the same way again.
One other image is worth mentioning.
This appears to represent either a Mexican Air Force nuclear bomber or a radioactive fly.
I think the artist intended something like this, but he got carried away with circles.
Around 80,000 people eat the meat that comes through this place. There have been no reports of problems. The meat we get is fresher than any we got in the U. S. Today's lunch may have been on the hoof yesterday.
The sign gives the wrong impression. Agricultural inspection stations are located on the highways, and livestock cannot be sold to the slaughterhouse without certificates. But besides writing innumerable laws and hiring hordes of officials to oversee everything, Mexicans like to put up friendly advisory signs.
Somebody's nephew probably needed a job. The slaughterhouse owner probably asked him to paint a nice sign sign. Mexicans realize that it's just friendly advice. They know there's more teeth in the food safety system than just the sign.
But there's no getting around it. Slaughterhouses are nasty. Killing animals and cutting them up is vile and probably dirty. Anywhere in the world.
You think it's different up north? When did you last check? Your slaughterhouse is at least two states away and surrounded by a razor-wire-topped chain-link fence. We can't go in them. We really have no idea of what it's like inside those places.
Wait a minute. Actually we do. If you haven't read it yet, check out Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Then go to McDonalds and order a Big Mac. I guarantee it won't taste the same.
There's no excuse for scuffed shoes, because a shine costs only ten pesos—less than a dollar.
But I think the more important service these guys provide is a moment of rest on a warm day, and ten minutes of conversation. It's a way of pausing for breath, of chatting with friends, of indulging in a small luxury. You go on your way feeling a little better about yourself, knowing that you're looking good.
You won't find this at the shopping mall.
The pueblo of Adjuntos del Rio is a throwback to the last century—early last century. Plenty of automobiles roam the streets, but animals are still an important form of transport. Like if you're bringing alfalfa (or maybe those are weeds) in from the field.
(Note that the old woman appears to have suffered from rickets (wiki). You sometimes see such people, who grew up in Mexico when it was even poorer than it is now.)
A burro is good for drawing a little cart full of snacks to sell to schoolchildren. This guy probably doesn't make enough to afford gas, much less a car.
(Check out the motorcycle wheels.)
But the main business of Adjunto del Rio is making furniture and other items out of mesquite. Maybe a dozen workshops operate here. I'm told that no other place in Mexico harbors such a concentration of mesquite woodworkers.
I usually think of mesquite as a rangy shrub, but it grows into gnarled trees that yield beautifully grained, hard, dense wood.
It is so heavy that I could not lift one end of this piece.
Like most small workshops in Mexico, machinery is crude and decidedly unsafe.
The wiring on this horizontal saw is an OSHA nightmare.
This table saw looks like it's going to fall over, but it was built this way on purpose. The downhill slant of the table makes it easier to push heavy wood through the blade. The crack in the right leg is, however, not confidence-inspiring.
This worker is pushing a tiny piece of wood through a saw which has never seen a safety guard. He is not using the fence, so the fingers on both of his hands are about an inch from the blade. The blade is set way too high for the work he is doing.
Can you say "kickback?"
Several of the workers were missing fingers. Shaking hands with these guys is, let me say, an experience.
One old (retired) worker engaged me in conversation while my friend, Paul Latoures transacted business with the owner. My chat with the old man quickly turned into a Spanish lesson. Lack of fingers inhibited his writing. Lack of sobriety inhibited his spelling. I wondered, did he lose his fingers because he was drunk on the job, or was he drinking to forget his injury?
This portly man wandered around the premises carrying a framer's square.
I never figured out what his funciton was.
But I had no difficulty seeing what Julieta's job was. I watched her busily sanding, staining and finishing.
Developmentally disabled, Julieta was friendly, shy, and sweet. She would not let me photograph her unless she got to pose. One bright blue eye and one black one gave her an arresting appearance. She wanted to know if I was going to sell her photo.
This unlikely cast of characters, using their crude tools, makes beautiful furniture. We ate dinner tonight with some friends on their glowing mesquite dining table, sitting on their handmade chairs.
All that goes on in Adjunos del Rio is woodworking. There's no night life, no parks to walk in, only one paved street. All you can do is make furniture. Or tortillas.
The only excitement is the occasional lost finger. Maybe there's more to life in some other place.
Well, you can always dream.
You don't have to put up with disinterested employees like those robotically dishing out Starbucks coffee or Benetton sweaters. Here, you deal with the owner, and you know you're getting the absolute best he has to offer, from a man who is dedicating his life to his enterprise.
Here is an example: a blacksmith's shop.
The black oval sign hanging over the door announces that the shop is a herreria (smithy) and that the blacksmith makes rótulos (signs).
What caught my eye, though, was the A-frame sign on the street.
This is unrestrained ebullience, unfettered by convention.
You'll never find that font at Adobe. The owner wanted maximally decorative lettering and that's what he got. He didn't get readability, and he clearly wasn't looking for it.
An ad agency would have trimmed his sails. It would have stressed getting his message through to the customer. Easy-to-read lettering. A catchy slogan. A look designed with a future possibility of franchising.
This blacksmith answers to a higher call. What good is his smithy if it only focuses on sales? This guy wants more than just a place to make money. His soul yearns for self-expression. His business is his medium.
He has a dream, and he's following it. How many of us can say the same?
To many, the consequences of sticking with the current policies were clear, and they voted accordingly in 2004. But many others supported the President and his minions.
Last Tuesday, they changed their minds. Why? The situation hasn't changed. The same partisanship, corruption, militancy, mendacity, irresponsibility, and hubris ran rampant in Washington two years ago, right out there in broad daylight for anyone to see.
My theory: A bloc of voters too uninformed or stupid to make reasoned judgments blindly accepted the fear-mongering of the President two years ago. Their tiny little minds needed another two years to come to the realization that his policies were dumping the country into the toilet.
Plato said that democracy is the second worst form of government—little better than anarchy. Was he right?
The count goes on in Virginia, where the fate of the Senate will be decided. I saw this in the New York Times this morning,
In preparation for certifying the outcome, election workers in Virginia examined receipts from electronic voting machines on Wednesday.
Doesn't this photo and its caption bother anyone?
The question of who will control the Senate of the United States is going to be decided by an election worker checking vote counts using a calculator that has no printer. So the only evidence we will have for his decisions is his word.
"Seriously, guys. George Allen won. There was an 8,000 vote error in Jim Webb's totals. See? Right there on my calculator. Minus 8,256. Honest."
Adjuntas del Rio—which I'll loosely translate as "Riverside"— is a tiny pueblo near Delores Hidalgo. There can't be five hundred people living there. But even as few as five hundred need some essential services, and Adjuntas del Rio has the basic ones.
First and foremost, there's that Mexican sine qua non, a tortilleria. Seven pesos per kilo. So nobody goes hungry.
The other business that operates at the main intersection in the center of town is the more interesting one.
Yes, it's Computer World. Sales, service, shipping, candy and popcorn, they've got it all. I can't imagine that their sales volume is all that great. Then again, it doesn't take much hard cash to live in Adjuntas del Rio. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the bulk of their business is conducted by barter.
But what really makes this place sing to me is the image of Homer Simpson, studious in his reading glasses, emblazoned on the front of the building.
What exactly is the intended message here? I mean, why would you want to associate a doofus with your high-tech business?
I can only imagine that the owner is unfamiliar with Homer's character.
Just wait until he finds out.
(Thanks to Doug Lord for retrieving the name of the town, which I had forgotten to record.)
Groceries can be heavy, even if you only shop for one day's worth of food. And many people can't afford to own a car.
All this creates a niche for vendors to bring the grocery store to the neighborhoods. Usually these mobile mercados are small trucks with a tent pitched over the back to shade the produce. They service a set route, appearing on the same streets at the same times every day.
Yesterday, I ran across a more informal vendor.
Maybe this guy is a regular vendor for the modest section of Colonia San Antonio he is servicing. But I would guess he isn't. Some clues: the car is a low-visibility storefront, there can't be $10 worth of vegetables in his trunk, and the four guys in the picture are all members of the same family. There are no customers, nor did I see any when I checked back an hour later.
Most telling, though, was the apparent lack of concern for generating repeat business through satisfied customers. The guy on the right was rotating tomatoes in the plastic bag so that their rotten sides wouldn't show. From the tired appearance of his stock, I suspect they're selling spoiled produce discarded by a more reputable market.
Norteamericanos are amused by some Mexican brand names. Well, at least I am. For example, take the truck on the left.
Here's a brand name that would never fly in the U. S. It the kind of product name you'd expect to find on The Simpsons. Fud Beer, the lighter alternative to Duff!
Fud is a brand of deli meats. It could also be the sound a salami makes when it falls on the floor.
The sign on the truck hawks their Virginia Ham. (You know of course that this stuff has never been within a thousand miles of Virginia.) The tag line reads "great flavor for devouring."
Advertising slogans don't translate well.
The truck on the right distributes my all-time favorite Mexican brand.
Yes, Bimbo is Mexico's favorite bread. If you tried to market this up north, you'd have NOW on your butt before the ink was dry on your stationery.
Bimbo has "the power of wheat," whatever that means. It looks, tastes and feels exactly like Wonder Bread. If you ask for pan tostado (toast) with your breakfast, Bimbo is what you'll get. If you ask for pan integral tostado (whole wheat toast) you'll get Bimbo white bread colored with molasses, just like Wonder "whole wheat."
I'm glad it has the power of wheat, 'cause it sure doesn't have any flavor. Gotta rely on Fud for that.
One day, I'm gonna walk into a lunch bar and order a sandwich: "Gimme a Fud on Bimbo!" Just because I can.
And then I'm gonna devour it.
(All this is most amusing when you first come to Mexico. After you get your Spanish up and running, you realize that Bimbo is pronounced beam-bo, and Fud is pronounced food. Too bad.)
They're about the size of a very large egg, with a thin orange shell backed by a thicker, pithy white one. You open one by digging your fingernails into the hard shell and pulling the halves apart.
The edible part is a gelatinous gray mass full of crunchy little seeds. It's kind of like eating Rice Crispies Jello, except much sweeter.
I think the seed glob looks like brains. Sort of like a skull that has been broken open. To my adolescent mind, this is a positive feature. I love foods with high gross-out value.
You eat it by placing your open mouth over the open fruit, and sucking.
The demand is huge. Porters stream into the impromptu mercado, hauling great bundles of flowers.
Some stalls sell food. The saying is, "In Mexico, no one dies of hunger."
(The woman on the far left is saying either "Garçon!" or "Don't you dare take my picture!")
Other Day of the Dead essentials are on sale. These ladies are selling one-gallon jalapeño cans, to be used as vases. Five pesos. It's hard to imagine that even the entire population of San Miguel could eat that many hot peppers in a year.
The city laid on extra services to handle the celebration. Mounted policemen...
... garbage trucks to carry away trash and weeds...
...and a line of tankers carrying water for all those flowers.
In the mid-morning, the lines of people coming in and out of the cemetery are already thick. By mid-afternoon, it will take an hour or more to make it through the gate.
Everyone cleans and decorates graves. Some get into serious gardening. When my friend Erika saw this photo, she asked, "¿Excavan los huesos?" (Are they digging up the bones?)
Yeah. Right, Erika. They give 'em a good scrubbing every year.
The water trucks delivered water through a pump and a hose to this cistern (below, left). The stream from the faucet was splattering bystanders, so with typical Mexican make-do ingenuity, someone fashioned a deflector out of the commonest object available—a plastic Coke bottle (below, right).
(Coke bottles get used for everything: paint cans, pots for plant starts, protectors for exposed rebar ends, and urinals, to name a few.)
Young boys with plastic buckets dipped water out of the cistern and delivered it to those who needed it. They were learning young how to make a few pesos on Day of the Dead. The water ended up in those jalapeño cans, keeping the flowers fresh.
Some families held graveside memorial services.
Here, a departed loved one is treated to a favorite song.
Up north, we usually visit graves singly or in small groups. We're solemn, maybe a little sad. We don't do it very often, and we've all seen how neglected some cemeteries look. Up north the dead are soon forgotten. They're gone forever.
In Mexico, departed loved ones are never completely gone. They return every year to visit with with their families.
I saw no tears. I heard prayers and laughter and singing. I saw tamales and tequila being consumed. I sensed the presence of those who had died, sitting with their families, benign, happy, content on a lovely day for a picnic.
A Mexican graveyard is a place for happiness, a place of beauty.
On the following day, it's back to work. The crowds, the stalls, the singing have all gone away. The street outside the cemetery is empty except for a lone flower vendor, hoping to sell his leftover roses to a late visitor.
He's not trying very hard. he knows the main show is over, and nobody is in a buying mood. But in Mexico, you don't throw stuff away. Not knowing what else to do, he's gonna try selling them.
A city worker sweeps up yesterday's trash with her home made twig broom.
Dogs patrol between graves, looking for spilled food. Today, there's no one to chase them away.
The cemetery road is much quieter than normal. Everybody is partied out. In a few days, the traffic will pick up again.
But today, we've all had enough of the dead. Time to get back to living.
Well, of course, the Day of the Dead is not about tragedy or loss or moldering bones. But without actually being there, how could we gringos be expected to understand it?
So now we are here. What a privilege to reside in Mexico, and to join in celebrating this most wonderful and warm holiday.
On the Day of the Dead Mexican families go to the cemetery to commune with loved ones who have gone before. They honor the deceased by decorating their graves, and they share some hours with them, conversing, singing, picnicking. They believe that the spirits of their forebears return to join them in a comfortable, happy family reunion.
The Day of the Dead is the last of a series of three holidays, each after the other. October 31st. is of course, Halloween—somewhat toned down from the U. S. holiday. Then we have All Saints' Day—November 1st. I don't see a whole lot of saint honoring going on, but then I didn't go into any churches, so maybe I missed it. And finally, November 2nd. is the big event—El Dia de los Muertos. Here's a look at what's been happening.
October 31: Halloween.
Trick or treating, wandering around in costumes, jack-o-lanterns, witches and such don't figure much in Mexican life. But they're beginning to catch on.
Children with plastic bags or little plastic jack-o-lantern baskets come up to you and say, "Deme una favorita" (Gimme a treat). They'll accept candy or pesos.
This trick-or-treater is waiting for a handout from a costume and candy vendor, whose stall is one of the few I saw dedicated to Halloween (as opposed to Day of the Dead), with masks and a Spiderman cape on offer. The boy apparently comes from a poor home: His costume consists in its entirely of red makeup smeared on his face.
For more than a week leading up to the holidays, vendors in tents set up shop in the Plaza Civil and other locations around San Miguel. Most of them sell candy.
Here a muchacha, held by her mamá, stuffs her face with a candy lamb while her abuela (grandma) rummages in her handbag for a couple of pesos to pay for it.
(Note how mamá effortlessly holds her six-year-old one-handed. Mexican children are held and carried much more than their Norteamericano counterparts. Consequently, they rarely fuss and cry, and their mothers are really strong.)
Yes, kids don't munch on candy skulls exclusively. In fact, most of the figures, called alfeñique, are modeled on animals, fruits, and toys.
Part of the decoration of graves and altars includes candles, sold at dedicated stalls.
The prices are in pesos, so the small white candles on the left cost about 45 cents.
(I would ask my friend, Paul Latoures, photographer extraordinaire, to lighten up when he sees these images. They were taken in low light without flash using a hand-held camera—f2.8 was my widest aperture. So gimme a break, Paul. They're not that noisy. Or blurry. Or whatever, given the shooting conditions. Did I mention the crowds? The vendors shooing me away? Sheesh! Critics!)
All over town you can see signs of the approaching holidays.
Here in front of the Parroquoia, San Miguel's iconographic church, is an image of yet another Mexican icon, Katrina, fashioned after the famous drawing by José Guadalupe Posada.
What a beauty she is, with her high-style hat, her toothy smile and her bony décolletage.
November 1: All Saint's Day
Truckloads of flowers have come into town overnight. Impromptu flower stalls have been set up near the Tianguis Ignacio Ramirez, the Mercado de San Juan de Dios and other locations around town.
Orange marigolds are the traditional flower, found on most graves and altars.
This altar honors Lic. José Vasconcelos, a deceased prominent citizen whose family is connected with the Vasconcelos school, where I volunteered as an English teacher for the last three years. The altar contains his picture, flowers, candles, sugar skulls and candy lambs, and a few of his favorite foods: tamales, a yam, jicama and sweet rolls. Gifts for his returning spirit. Often you see cigarettes, or bottles of tequila on altars, always with a family member nearby to keep an eye on them.
Flower paintings appear on the pavement and papeles picados (elaborately cut tissues) fly overhead.
Flower paintings contain a lot of orange, owing to the availability of inexpensive marigolds.
After night falls on All Saints' Day, people crowd into the Jardin—the central plaza—to party. Mariachis play old favorites. (I swear, if I hear Cielito Lindo one more time...)
Ghouls come out to dance...
... or to see and be seen.
All of this has been the warm-up. Tomorrow is The Day of the Dead—the main event.
It gets heavy use by neighborhood kids, and parents bring their toddlers from remote colonias to play here. It's a major municipal asset, adding greatly to the quality of life of our citizens. We could use more places like this.
Other neighborhoods can't afford nice playgrounds. This one is in Fracciónmiento Bella Vista, a modest but pleasant neighborhood on the wrong side of the highway to Celaya.
It doesn't seem to get much use, and no wonder. You have to pick your way through the weeds, there's no shade, and no water.
And there's fire ants. Or as they say in Houston, far ants. While taking this photo I suddenly felt stinging all up and down my legs. I was standing on an anthill maybe four feet across, disturbing the wa of some formic little beasts. They retaliated by biting the hell out of me.
I found a dozen or more huge anthills in the playground—reason enough to keep the kids away.
It would be nice to fix up the Bella Vista playground. All it takes is money. And ant poison. You could probably make it useable for a few hundred dollars, and five thousand, given our typical low construction costs, could make it into a real jewel. But money is hard to come by in Mexico.
Unlike in, say, Santa Barbara.
I'm guessing this Alameda Park playground cost hundreds of thousands of dollars: on the order of San Miguel's total municipal budget for restoration and construction.
I find it difficult to get my head around just how lucky—and rich—we Americans are. I'm sure that in a typical U. S. town, fundraising to fix up a place like Bella Vista Park would be a reasonable undertaking.
Not so in Mexico. Contributing to charitable organizations is not part of the culture. The vast majority of San Miguel's NGOs are funded by Norteamericanos. Mexicans are much less likely to contribute.
Well, poor Mexicans—the majority—simply cannot afford to. And with respect to their communities, rich Mexicans, dare I say it, have more of a sense of entitlement rather than one of duty. I'm guessing this is an attitude held over from colonial times: the aristocracy live well and everyone else lives the best they can.
You can earn an income tax deduction for charitable giving. But for a deduction to be useful, you have declare income. Most people don't. No tax revenues, no charities.
So there's no money to fix up Bella Vista Park. Unless one of us extranjeros (foreigners) ponies up. Sigh.
A plethora of small, independent sales and service shops offset some of these disadvantages.
Owned by knowledgeable geeks, they'll fix your machine quickly and cheaply, although you may wind up with a Spanish-language version of Microsoft Word. Or, if you want a new machine, they'll build you one from scratch. That way your computadora will have newer hardware, and the duty penalties will be smaller.
This place caught my eye because its name is intriguing.
Mayan Digital Technology? Was Silicon Valley anticipated in the Yucatan? Did tech companies spring up along the Puuc Road?
Who knows how far their science went. After all, they did have the most sophisticated calendar in the world until modern times.
I have an old out-of-warranty laptop with a bad motherboard. Dell will replace the motherboard roughly for the cost of a new computer. Mayan Digital Technology says they will repair the motherboard for maybe 25 bucks. They think it's just a bad solder joint.
I'm developing a real appreciation for Mayan technology.
Mexicans pretty much buy their fish the same way. But in San Miguel, there is a third option.
One of the more engaging aspects of life in Mexico is that people still come into town to sell stuff they gather in the countryside. It's quaint. It brings us back to an earlier, simpler time. It connects us with our roots.
Now, before you get too sentimental, I must note that these fish probably were caught in the Presa Allende, an agricultural reservoir so polluted that you risk contracting diarrhea even just looking at these pictures.
There's no way in hell I would ever eat one.
But someone does. I caught this fisherman on two different days. Presumably he manages to sell his fish 'cause he keeps coming back.
I guess I'm just a prissy Norteamericano. A wuss.
Up north, everything is franchised. Professionals create the look and feel of small businesses and stamp out hundreds of identical copies. But the price we pay for slick conformity is the loss of the lemonade-stand look.
Not so in Mexico.
A tapicería is an upholstery shop. The fish tells us that the owner is born-again and not afraid to let us know it.
But the name of the business is a mystery. Neither the owner's English nor my Spanish is good enough to convey its meaning. It transliterates as "Jehova Spin." ("Jhire" has the same latinate root as our "gyrate.")
But what does it really mean? Maybe one of you can tell me.
(By the way, I love the artwork and lettering in his sign. You won't find originality like this in Franklin IN.)
Here are some young Mexican students at the Plaza Civil sketching the heroic statue of General Ignacio Allende on his charger. They want careers as artists, to support themselves as artists.
Norteamericanas fly down from LA or Greenwitch, CT for art study tours.
They have better gear. Their easels cost more than a Mexican student's budget for an entire semester at the Instituto Allende. Their tours cost more than the annual income of an average Mexican. In a week they'll go back to LA or Greenwitch, CT and resume their shopping careers.
One of the Mexican students may become a prominent artist. Neither of these women will. But at least they'll show us more leg.
Ho. Ho. Ho. Chuckle. Aren't we slightly ashamed of ourselves.
(Golden Girls was pretty lame, if you ask me.)
Mexicans generally are a modest people. Okay, I realize that variety show hostesses flash a lot of skin, but your ordinary citizen covers up. In decades of observing Mexicanos, I have never caught a glimpse of a butt crack. It would be unthinkable.
This bricklayer is the exception that proves the rule.
It's hard to imagine how he could have let this happen. There are no women about, so he's not being coy. I can only conclude that he is careless about his dress and person.
This photo makes another point: the Golden Girls are wrong. This man is not wearing a tool belt.
No. The reason we men accidentally reveal our butt cracks is because we don't have any hips. So our pants slide down.
(The writers for the show either must have been all women or men who remained seated all of their lives.)
One could argue that trousers are, for men, a poor solution for covering behinds. Dresses would work much better, suspended from broad, manly shoulders. It's women, with their protuberant hip bones, who are ideally adapted for wearing pants.
Who wears them in your family?
The constant repetition as they practice grinds grooves into my brain. I find myself helplessly humming along with the inane tunes. After listening to them for three years, I probably know the music better than they do.
The buglers only are able to achieve four notes on their instruments, so all of their numbers have to be played in the same key. Since the available permutations of those four notes are few, the tunes blur into tedium. Like Bluegrass, a little goes a long way.
All this would be bad enough if they actually were good musicians. But they're not, as the clip below reveals:
Puts a real cramp on my afternoons.
How are these young people selected to join the band? What are their qualifications? Take this drummer:
His appears not to be a demanding position. Bang on the drum, simply, repetitively.
I guess anyone can apply. You certainly don't have to demonstrate actual musicianship.
I can tell you one thing: This guy sure as hell will never qualify as a bugler. Air leakage, you know.
There's gotta be dozens of drum and bugle corps in San Miguel. They show up for civic events and parades and fiestas. They have spiffy uniforms. They take themselves very seriously. They stand at rigid attention. They march with precision. Some goose step, like little Latin American storm troopers.
They appear to provide the sole source of music instruction for a vast majority of young Mexicans. Once I attended a concert of the new San Luis Potosi Symphony Orchestra. The city had hired a Russian maestro who came to Mexico with a group of young violinists, cellists, flautists and the like from a conservatory in St. Petersburg. Mexicans were represented in the orchestra as well. They played—you guessed it—trumpets and drums.
Mexicans are militaristic. They love uniforms. They love marching. When marching in their uniforms, they salute each other a lot. For a race that loves children and fiestas and music, they sure are warlike. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Mexican national anthem. One verse translates as:
War, war without truce to any who dare,
To tarnish the country's coat of arms!
War, war! Take the national pennants,
And soak them in waves of blood.
War, war! In the mountain, in the valley,
The cannons thunder in horrid unison.
And the resonant echoes
Cry out—Union! Liberty!
Makes you wanna stay out of their way. Until you consider that they lost every war they've ever fought.
(Not counting revolutions where they fought each other, of course. Those they both won and lost.)
The anthem was written shortly after they were defeated in the Mexican American War (1846-48). To make them feel better about themselves, I suppose.
When Jean and I first moved here, we'd set our clock radio to the University of Guanajuato FM station. If we set the alarm for anything earlier than seven, we'd catch the sign-on when they played the national anthem.
To call it stirring would fail to do it justice. All I can say is you didn't want to stay in bed when it was playing.
I really can't describe this song adequately. You have to hear it for yourself. You can find a a great if somewhat startling clip here (You Tube).
But I haven't written much about the beauty of this country. And it truly is beautiful. This morning I was at the Mirador (lookout) on the Salida de Querétaro and snapped these photos.
San Miguel is situated on the west-facing side of a bluff, yielding views of the presa (reservoir) and the lovely Guanajuato Mountains in the distance. The city is full of trees; laws discourage cutting them down. Sometimes it feels like living in a park.
The historic center is marked by several large churches. The gothic-looking structure is the Parroquoia, a San Miguel icon. The stonecutters who built it lived in my house while they worked here. Full scale drawings of the columns and ornaments were painted on the front of my house for use as patterns. Sadly, they have faded and when my neighbors paint the front of their house in a few days, the last vestages of these images will disappear for good.
My house is located (approximately) in the lower left corner of this picture.
I walk the streets of San Miguel every day as part of my exercise regimen. The beauty that surrounds me never fails to inspire, whether it is a fantasy mansion in Ojo de Agua...
... or wildflowers blanketing a slum hillside in Colonia Olimpo.
For lunch today, Jean and I went to an excellent seafood restaurant out by the Pilipa glorieta: Don de Nacho.
This place embodies many of the things about Mexico that I love. The tables are outdoors, mostly under a roof. The atmosphere is very informal. It's cheap. The food is excellent and unique.
There's only one problem: It doesn't offer much seafood. For a seafood restaurant.
Apparently, the original concept was to recreate the beach here in the Mexican Midwest. The restaurant originally was called Señor Playa—Mr. Beach.
Yep. Shrimp, tacos and volleyball.
Out front was a sandy area with a volleyball net—a pathetic beach simulation. The menu primarily offered seafood, but you could get arrachera (steak) tacos and carnitas as well—sort of as an afterthought.
People came in for the seafood. I mean, where else can you get ostiones (oysters) on the half shell?
After tasting the carnitas and arrachera, nobody bothered with the seafood. Especially the ostiones. And nobody played volleyball, either. Somehow, a stomach full of pork boiled in fat isn't conducive to vigorous net sports.
"Hey! How about some volleyball?"
"Oh God. I think I'm gonna spew..."
Señor Playa is an example of a typical Mexican business founded more on inspiration than on market research. But the owner is nothing if not adaptable. The menu changed. Out came half the seafood, the carnitas got top billing and the name of the place changed.
One might, if one was a gringo, think that nachos would be on the menu. One would be wrong.
The word Nacho is also a nickname—probably a diminutive of the name Ignacio. Don, besides being an honorific, is a word that means "gift" or "talent."
So "Don de Nacho" means something like "Ignacio's forte" or "Ignacio's offering."
Consistent with Mexican tastes, Nacho's sign displays anthropomorphic food images: a happy shrimp complete with head and antennae, and a resigned-looking pig, both wearing bow ties.
The carnitas are excellent. I once saw them being prepared here. Into a huge copper pot of boiling oil went large hunks of pig, bones and all. Several good-sized pieces of limp white skin also went into the pot. Sounds gross, but skin mixed with the well-done pork helps with the dryness you get in the loin. For flavor, oranges and onions and herbs were added, and the whole thing boiled for hours.
Don de Nacho makes fresh corn tortillas to order. A woman puts balls of masa (cornmeal dough) into a tortilla press and then cooks them on a griddle. You have no idea what a tortilla tastes like until you've had them like this: delicate, flavorful, tender. They're infinitely better than the cello-wrapped kind. It's just like the difference between a fresh loaf straight from mom's oven and wonder bread.
Carnitas are sold by weight. You get a foil-covered plate with your half-kilo order.
Chopped onions and cilantro and a selection of salsas accompany your meal. You take a fresh, warm tortilla, put some pork on it making sure you include a little skin, salt it and season it and off you go.
There were six tables of four when we were there. The only food on any table was carnitas. I'm betting it won't be long before the shrimp come off the menu.
Rosita the Boston Terrier is particularly fond of tortillas and of carnitas.
Here she is lobbying Jean for a bite.
That's another plus for Don de Nacho; they allow dogs.
I got Montezuma's Revenge anyway. But then again, I've gotten Hirihoto's Revenge, and Napoleon's Revenge, and today, when I travel in the U. S., I get Bush's Revenge. Seems like all those emperors have their own particular supply of bugs to punish foreigners for crossing their borders.
Of course, we all know know that a bout of Travelers' Diarrhea is sometimes the price you pay for the rewards of seeing new and exotic places. Local gut bacteria mount an attack on your benign intestinal flora, and until the issue is decided, you suffer collateral damage.
But in developing countries, the water supply really can carry nasty disease organisms. So we have to be careful.
San Miguel de Allende treats its water—chlorinates it. So the water supply should be as safe as it is in, say, Santa Barbara. In fact, there are drinking fountains in San Miguel's parks and schools, unapologetically connected to the municipal water system. The city takes the position that it's safe for our children to drink the water.
Underscoring the presumption of safety, the San Miguel Garden Club installed these drinking fountains four years ago, and you know they wouldn't want to harm children.
So long as they stay on the paths. And don't pick the flowers.
However, almost no one ever uses the fountains in the schools and parks. Almost no one drinks tap water. Why?
Well, one reason is, our tap water tastes bad. It's well water with lots of minerals and strongly tasting of chlorine.
More importantly though, people still believe you can get sick from it. Some of this may be bad memories from the days when the water wasn't treated. But the real threat is from sporadic but very real failures to maintain water purity. In Mexico, stuff works most of the time. But nothing works all of the time. Things break. There are few standards of maintenance, workmanship, and quality control, so accidents do happen.
That's why you don't drink the water.
San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542. (That's only 50 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.) One reason why it was founded at this particular location was because there were springs here.
This one is called Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water). People still draw water from it with plastic buckets. Doesn't look very wholesome, does it?
Other springs were brought into service as the community grew.
This one is at the foot of Colonia Atascadero, in an area called Los Arcos.
Today these springs surely are polluted, surrounded as they are by marginal sewage systems. The city now gets water from deep wells.
A couple of hundred years later, water was being piped into the city and distributed via public fountains.
This one is photogenic , but it's no longer functional. On the other hand, the one below works and is still used occasionally. Some time ago I watched a campesino dip his pail into it to water his string of burros.
The burros drank gratefully. But I noticed that the campesino didn't. He must have read the same advice I did. Don't drink the water.
Today, the water supply is not always reliable. It's sometimes inexplicably interrupted, cut off, and in any event, is supplied at low pressure. So every home stores water against supply failures. To solve both the supply problem, as well as the pressure problem, storage tanks, called tinacos, are placed on rooftops.
This photo is of the old-fashioned variety. In his excellent if somewhat dated book, Live Well in Mexico, Ken Luboff tells of climbing through the access port on top of his tinaco to clean it, only to get stuck at the waist when trying to emerge. The access port had been sized for more diminutive Mexican men. His description of the impromptu fiesta that spontaneously formed around his house while people tried to extricate him is hilarious.
Newer tinacos are made of plastic. With bigger access ports. (Mexicans are getting bigger, too.)
If you can't afford a manufactured tinaco, you improvise. This guy used a couple of 55-gallon plastic drums.
Tinacos are ubiquitous. But recently, some gringos, intolerant of trickling low-pressure domestic water, began installing cisterns underneath their houses, with submersible pumps feeding pressure tanks.
Aaahh. At last—a real shower.
Of course, we still don't trust the water purity. The other day, I watched as a backhoe dug through a water main and a sewer line. Fluids from both pipes quickly mixed with one another, filling the hole and running into the downstream end of the water main. Anybody drinking water from taps in that neighborhood was certain to get a surprise. Moreover, any tinacos downstream would be storing diluted sewage for the indefinite future.
Knowing this, some of us have installed water purifiers.
Here's ours. The big blue object is a pressure tank. To its right are two blue sand and silt filters. Above them, two horizontal stainless steel tubes contain intense ultraviolet lights which are suppose to kill bacteria. In addition, we put colloidal silver pellets in our cistern to kill any bacteria harbored there.
Belt and suspenders.
So with all that, our water is safe to drink. I think. But we still don't do it.
Instead the nice Santorini man comes by the house every day or so and brings us a five-gallon bottle of "pure spring water." Restaurants too provide only bottled water. Adults carry water bottles or drink Coke. In fact, Mexicans drink more Coke per capita than any nation on earth.
Schoolkids don't drink from those convenient drinking fountains. They carry water bottles in their backpacks. Or they drink from the Santorini bottles provided in every classroom.
Nobody drinks the water.
These are pictures you just wish would get lost.
Oh God! It's Dad and his stupid blog again. Now what the hell?
So, young man. Exactly what kind of job do you have?
Humph. I've seen some good weddings. This sure ain't one of 'em.
Oh man! Would you get a load of her dress!
Lockwoods and Woods react to Jean's singing.
Douche with Listerine and you'll never offend!!!
Yes he's cute. And he's all mine.
Why yes, I'd like a gumdrop.
My God! A perfect high "C."
Mommy! Make them all go away.
Why yes. I am related to a dentist. How did you know?
Two dentists flank the perfect smile, dismayed at the potential loss of fees.
What was I thinking? Dad! Get me out of this!
Take this sign, posted in Alice Keck Park in Santa Barbara. It deals with the environment.
Why do we need this sign? Would you avoid Alice Keck Park if it was missing?
"Gee, Honey. I don't know. Do you think they use pesticides here?"
Immediately across the street we have Alameda Park. This park sure as hell isn't pesticide-free. Earl here, running the world's largest lawn mower, don't have no truck with them eco-freaks. Got cinch bugs? Sod webworms? Hose 'em down with Diazanon. We'll pick up the dead robins later.
If you think Alice Keck Park is pesticide-free, you don't understand the word, "overspray."
So why the misleading and useless sign? Well, Santa Barbara is a tree-hugger hotspot, a center of the Sierra Club wing of the Democratic Party. Any politician who wants to advance in city government is gonna make sure his constituency knows he's on the side of the ladybugs.
(Now, before you get the wrong impression, you should know that I think we should never cut another old-growth tree, all dams should be demolished and all motor vehicles should be banned from National and State Parks. So get off my ass.)
The environment isn't an issue in Houston. But liability is.
Yep. Everybody's freaking out about one health risk or another. Here we have an expensive baked-enamel-on-steel sign informing the public that they found a rabid bat.
What a surprise! Let's see now. Rabies is endemic to the wild animal population. Bats are wild animals that have wide foraging ranges. Ergo, some bats are rabid.
We need a sign to tell us that?
We are asked to leave the area if we see bats. Eek! A bat! Run away! Run away!
If one of us comes into contact with a bat, we're instructed to call the City of Houston Health Department, to get assistance from the government, I suppose. Think about that.
The Houston Parks and Recreation Department erected this sign so that teenagers, while smoking cigarettes and enjoying sex without the inconvenience of condoms, will be vigilant about the miniscule threat to their health from rabid animals. They put up the sign because their lawyers told them to.
The only thing worse than a kid getting rabies is getting sued by the kid's parents for failing to warn him.
The other community issue in Houston is the intelligence level of George Bush-admiring Texans. Ya gotta tell 'em everything. For example, it's not uncommon to see signs that say, "Don't bring your gun into this restaurant."
Here's another HP&R gem, specially placed to inform the mouth-breathers:
"Whut's thet over there, Buford?"
"Wull, hail, them's wildflars, RayAnn. Cain't you see thet sign?"
I like the two exclamation points. Underscores the excitement, don't it?
Every evening he returns and picks up the carts. His vehicle is a familiar sight around town. It's not pretty, but it's a paragon of extreme repairs.
What you do in Mexico when something breaks is you fix it. You don't throw it away.
When your pickup truck breaks, and you want to repair it, you don't take it to the dealer. If you get a dent in your door, you don't have the body shop replace it with a new one. It costs too much and besides, nobody has insurance. Instead, you improvise.
Mexico is the Bondo and bailing wire capital of the Western Hemisphere. This pickup truck has seen a lot of it.
Consider the driver's side of the cab. You got the old serape serving as a seat cover. You got the rear view mirror that, years ago, was welded back on. You got the wudge of duct tape reinforcing the upper hinge on the wing window.
And then there's the windshield.
Here, lots of windshields are cracked. If a California Highway Patrol Officer sees you with a cracked windshield, he'll give you a fix-it ticket. In Mexico, the Federales won't even notice cracks in your windshield, they're so common. (They won't notice, that is, unless they're looking for a pretext to extort a little mordida.)
This windshield is way beyond cracked. It has a hole in it.
The only sensible thing to do when you get an actual hole in your windshield is to replace it. This guy doesn't think that way. Two pieces of plexiglas, a couple of machine screws, a glob of clear silicone caulk, and, why, it's almost good as new. Stops the wind from blowing in your face, doesn't leak much and you can see through it—sort of. Probably cost less than five bucks.
Waste not, want not.
Our driver, Manuel, picked us up at the airport and drove the camino sinuoso to San Miguel.
As he left the airport parking lot, the smell of burning electrical insulation wafted through his cab. He surreptitiously reached under the dashboard and wiggled something. The smell went away.
Manuel is a warm, friendly guy, and a skillful driver. I never experience anxiety when he drives us: not while passing trucks, not while dodging animals on the road, not even when his cab is on fire.
While we were away, Patti, our contractor, began construction of our asador (barbecue).
In planning this project, we must have taken leave of our senses, because we thought that by being gone for five and a half weeks, that the asador would have been completed when we got back. As a courtly gentleman once told a rude gringa who was staying with us, "Señora. You forget in whose country you are."
Yeah. We forgot. The asador will get done when it gets done. No point in asking for a status or a schedule. Patti will undoubtedly give us one tomorrow when we meet, but it'll simply be out of courtesy, and our actual results, as they say, will vary.
Wildflowers are at their peak in October. The rainy season is nearly over. Walls of girasoles (sunflowers) line the highways, towering overhead. Tomorrow morning, I'm taking Rose out into the countryside to photograph them. Here she is at Parque Landeta a couple of years ago.
This is what the campo looks like now—like something out of Arizona Highways Magazine.
Below, a steer munches mirasoles (cosmos). They grow here as weeds.
Santa Barbara is very beautiful—and very manicured. Mexico, too, is very beautiful. But it looks like the rural U. S. a century ago. Fields and fields of wildflowers, and lots of unfenced land to walk in.
After three years of living here, visiting the U. S. has become foreign travel. Mexico is now home. It's good to be back.
And surely it was The Great Occasion of Sam's and Kip's lives.
The park was beautiful. The guests were beautiful. The wedding party was particularly beautiful. The bride and groom were almost too beautiful to look at.
The ceremony was moving. I didn't get to see the procession because it started, by design, while I was driving Samantha to the foot of the aisle in a convertible. I somehow managed to remember to walk around to the passenger side and open the door for her. Then I walked her up the aisle, feeling the joyful grin that was splitting my face.
The ceremony was written by Samantha's friend Karen, who officiated. Kip and Sam didn't know what Karen was going to say until she said it. The result was a ceremony that transcended that Hallmark moment that so often passes for weddings these days.
Karen talked about a marriage as part of a community, of the indispensability of support from friends and family, about the reality of marriage, even in times of trouble. She made them promise to stick it out when things got rough. She reminded them that their vows were being witnessed, the unspoken predicate being that they would be accountable not only to each other, but to everyone else present at the wedding as well.
It was way more than five minutes in front of a preacher. When it was over, it was clear that Karen had torqued down the head bolts, that this marriage was off to a solid start.
The flower girls nearly stole the show.
Part of the ceremony involved acknowledging Cassie as part of their union. Samantha gave her a heart pin as a symbol of their love. As Karen talked about bringing Cassie into our family, my granddaughter Kiely spontaneously put her arms around her, a total aawww moment.
Kip was the first to cry, standing there in front of everyone with Sam. This put him at the absolute top of my list of truly fine men.
In the photo below, Jean is directing her husband, a task for which she is well-practiced, thank God.
Jean's dress was perfect; elegant, but not overdressing the mothers of the bride and groom. I am wearing a tuxedo for the first time since I was a Junior in High School.
Besides walking my daughter down the aisle, I got to make the first toast to the new couple and to have the second dance with Mrs. Lockwood.
I know this is the dream of a lifetime for Kip and especially for Sam.
It was for her father, too.
I found this object in the Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens. What is it?
I've never seen a sundial like this one—a very clever design that surely must have been known in Isaac Newton's time and probably much earlier. But it's not the kind of thing we science students got to study in the 20th Century. It's all new to me.
The dial itself is about 15" in diameter. It's made of brass. The gnomon (the fishtail shaped hook) can be rotated, moving the two arrows that point to the time.
To tell the time, you rotate the gnomon until the shadow falls on the figure eight-shaped curve engraved on the curved plate—the one that has the names of months alongside. You make the notch in the shadow line up with the section of the curve that corresponds to the current month, in this case, October.
This alignment causes the arrows to point to the correct position on the time dial. Here I have aligned the notch to fall precisely on the winter side of the curve.
Note that there are two arrows, one for Daylight Saving Time, revealing that despite its patina, this is a modern sundial.
The figure eight shape is called an analemma and is a curve generated by the tilt of the earth's axis and the fact that its orbit is elliptical, not circular. Here's the analemma for London, England.
By incorporating the analemma into a precisely crafted and sufficiently large sundial, it's possible to read the correct time to better than one second on any sunny day of the year.
An analemma is not just some abstract mathematical curve. It's an actual pattern made by the sun in the sky, and it has been photographed by opening the shutter on a fixed camera at the same time of day once a week or so for an entire year.
This pattern was known to the ancients, but to this modern-day semiconductor engineer, it was a mystery until today.
A century ago, kids were taught stuff that gets skipped over today. Can you multiply two large numbers by casting out nines? Can you extract a cube root by hand?
This couple is dining alfresco. A breakfast picnic. Nothing like a cup of coffee under the morning sky. Or a cup of whatever it was they found in those trash cans. Life is good.
The families of the bride and groom—at least four families, ('cause we're Californians)—will meet tomorrow morning for breakfast. Then we'll do the ritual last-minute frantic running around, doing all those things left undone, that ought not to be left undone. Rehearsal and the rehearsal dinner will be tomorrow night.
Saturday morning will be spent practicing mild hysteria. That afternoon, we'll hold a minor 20-minute ceremony followed by five hours consuming vast amounts of mind-altering fluids and a couple of soft drinks.
As the official FOB, I won't be taking any photographs. It would be unseemly. But at gatherings like this, you can't keep Jean away from a camera, so we'll have all the embarrassing moments to share on Monday.
Wish us all luck.
They are one of the city's defining characteristics, and they create a pleasant ambience. Seems like every other street has its tall trees.
Ancient roots crawl over curbs, making Santa Barbara look much older than it is.
While the huge old Magnolia below is not a street tree, the city owns the park it's in. Makes Jean look like a Hobbit.
Trees like this don't happen by accident. They are the result of decades of careful pruning. The tree pictured below is one that has been recently pruned—and, I might add, by experts.
All this work is performed by a full-time crew that wanders up and down the streets, year after year, shaping and thinning. They have all the cool gear: a chipper, a big truck for the chips, razor-sharp chain saws and a humongous cherry picker. I'm guessing this one reaches 40'-50', and it can be positioned rapidly and delicately. What a tool!
A city needs money to create this kind of beauty. With the average homeowner kicking in $5,000-$10,000 in property taxes, Santa Barbara can afford it.
Mission revival in style, the building fulfills a function never imagined by mission-building padres.
The theater shows movies and presents live shows.
Look at that ticket window. Arches beckon within.
I'd like to post a photo of the interior, but we didn't go inside. I recall from a previous visit, the remarkable ceiling inside. Around the periphery, silhouettes of the Santa Barbara skyline are backlit. The ceiling itself is indigo, with pinpoint lights set into it in the exact pattern of the night sky. You can make out all the familiar constellations.
Only a few of the old '20s theaters remain, but fortunately, they're being saved and restored.
Little known fact: The Arlington also serves as Santa Barbara's missile defense system.
OK. I made that up.
Actually, this is a sculpture of a hypodermic syringe.
Mexicans are among the most well-groomed people on earth. From the time they're babies, they're primped and dressed to look their best.
Beauty parlors, called esteticas, are everywhere, and most are small and informal businesses. No Supercuts in San Miguel. Thank God.
This one, Carol's, opens at 3 PM. At least that's what's painted on the wall.
(I like the s-shaped figures surrounding the lettering. Mexicans have used design elements like those for centuries. I think it's in their blood: Got a wall? Put a little squiggly design on it.)
Carol's offers cuts, tints, streaking and something called bases. Near as I can tell, bases have something to do with roots. Maybe one of you knows.
On the edge of town, you find more primitive places.
At least with Carol's, you know where the entrance is. Getting into this salon requires exploration.
The "No Name Beauty Parlor" uses its valuable signage not to list services provided, but to make sure everyone understands the hours of operation. Probably because you can't make appointments. Probably because there's no telephone.
Like Carol's, it opens at 3 PM. Looks like a trend. I'm guessing the salon operators' day jobs last until three, and the clients' jobs last until then too—so there's no point in opening earlier.
This much more upscale place discloses its Mexican heritage by the amateurishly hand-painted sign. Every letter is in upper case except the "h" in mechones. Looks like a typo.
What are mechones, anyway?
But Julie's is in Santa Barbara! The other day I was missing San Miguel so I routed my walk down the south end of Milpas Street, where the inmigrantes live.
Mexican women learn early about makeup, hair care and dressing attractively. Their appearances get high priority. Just ask seven-year-old Teresa.
Look at those eyelashes! In 2015, teenaged boys are gonna be toast.
Kip is taking the written test.
Here, Sam is displaying the Marriage Instruction Manual. Being her father's daughter, she of course won't read it.
The Department of homeland Security requires the swearing of an oath that the parties are not members of a mosque, do not know the whereabouts of Osama Bin Ladin, and in fact don't even like Moslems.
Aawww. Aren't they cute. Sam is checking to see if Kip's heart is actually beating, not wanting inadvertently to marry a non-living person.
The Brown Pelican could not be built today. Various special interest groups would hang it up in legal challenges for decades. The California Coastline Commission would never allow it.
But many years ago, someone bought a little beachfront lot just above the high tide line, in a declivity in the near-continuous line of coastal bluffs. They built a restaurant when regulations were few, and today, the place is grandfathered.
The lot is worth tens of millions of dollars, but only its original use is permitted, so no hotel, no condos, no mansion.
Tables are scattered under umbrellas on a pleasant patio. Palm fronds rattle in the gentle, warm breezes specified by the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce.
Jean and I went there for lunch. A surfer dude came over and said, "Hi. My name is Chad. I'll be your server today."
I wanted to smack him.
On the menu were all kinds of fresh fish, so naturally, Jean ordered a salad and I had the clam chowder, enabling us to get out of there for $25 instead of $50.
I photographed Jean, fork in hand, sitting beside a gorgeous ocean view.
Perhaps more gorgeous than Jean realized. The view beside our table was, for me, very distracting.
There's no place like Southern California. Sunny, warm, laid back. Nobody works after 2 PM. All out working on their tans.
Lupita here (who could cut back on the tortillas if you ask me) is walking away from a couple of washing machines. They look like the ones my mother used in the '40s, except they don't have wringers (the proverbial ones that tits get caught in). These are portable washers, that hook up to your sink. The controls are pure simplicity: Wash hard, wash gentle. Rinse. Drain. Start, stop. That's it.
They cost less than a hundred bucks.
Being portable, they have wheels, but the manufacturer cheaped out. Given that typical floors are unevenly tiled, the dinky wheels on these babies won't roll more than a couple of feet before someone is gonna have to lift the washer. Fortunately, it doesn't weigh much. They skimped on the steel, too.
An important incentive to buy a portable washer is to avoid installation costs. Stone, concrete and brick walls make running utility lines difficult. How it's done is a laborer spends a week with a hammer and chisel, gouging out channels for pipes, drains and wiring. Plumbers and electricians then do their thing, after which someone plasters over the mess and repaints the wall.
All of this costs much less here than in the U. S. But again, money is tight. And just buying the damn washer is asking a lot. After all, hasn't your wife been doing just fine with that galvanized washtub? Maybe she'd settle for a new washboard...
You didn't see any dryers in the photo. That's 'cause there aren't any. Nobody can afford the gas or electricity to run one, and besides, drying clothes is what the roof is for. My neighbors, the Rodriguez sisters, live in a million-dollar house. They hang their laundry on the roof. No sense wasting money.
Meanwhile, Ana Maria uses our dryer all day long. Pure luxury. It's hard to get her out of the laundry room.
Somehow I managed to publish these pictures without writing commentary. So I'm reposting them with some explanation of what they're all about.
A Senior Moment. Some of you will understand.
All day long people walk through San Miguel de Allende selling stuff. Theirs are not lucrative careers. This woman makes and sells dolls. Her entire enterprise—manufacturing, distribution, advertising, selling and finance—operates right here on the street.
She is a fixture; I see her almost every day. She's not happy that I am taking her picture. Her right hand is descending, at the tail end of a "go away" gesture. Beat it, jack.
She is not wearing shoes because she doesn't have any.
This next woman is selling nopales (prickly pear cactus pads) and chamomile. Or begging. Hard to tell which. She has perfected the pitiful look that tears at the hearts of tourists, particularly gringos, who have no actual need for nopales. And so they give her a few pesos and she returns home at the end of the day with most of her inventory intact.
This man is selling raw, warm-from-the-cow milk, door-to-door. The cup in his right hand is a standard measure used by all the milk vendors in town. Some sellers make their rounds in pickup trucks carrying several large cans of milk. This guy doesn't have a truck, but at least he has shoes.
Next we have the peanut vendor—one of my favorite street characters. His two heavy pails are suspended from a wonderfully worn and curved shoulder pole. As he walks, he cries out in a penetrating voice, "¡Elotes! ¡Cacahuates!" (Corn! Peanuts!)
The corn is the doughy, starchy stuff that Mexicans prefer, mixed with mayonnaise, lime juice and chile powder. The peanuts have been boiled in their shells and are mushy: They're what we call "goobers" in the South. He also sells boiled green garbanzo beans in their spiny pods. Think Mexican edamame.
He passes by my house regular as clockwork every afternoon. When I hear him calling "Caca-WAAAAH-tes," I know it is time to get up from my siesta. Or not.
The man below sells drinks: water mixed with flavored syrup. No carbonation. No ice. I suppose its main attraction is its low price.
The vehicle he is using is a heavy-duty tricycle, but one built sort of in reverse: two wheels in front and one in back. It's a common transport in Mexico. I saw them used to unload cargo from the Cozumel ferry. The men riding them wore shirts proclaiming their membership in the Union of "Tricicladeros" (tree-see-clah-DARE-ohs).
In a small Yucatan town, tricicladeros drove machines fitted with a bench seat over the two front tires and an awning overhead. Three-wheeled surreys. Taxis. They were taking chiildren to school: two or three well-scrubbed kids and their stout grandma wearing her spotless huipil (a kind of dress).
The ice cream vendor's expression is reminiscent of old Soviet propaganda: The proletariat resolutely facing the future.
Except he's an entrepreneur. The march of the bourgeoisie?
Would you eat anything out of that grimy cart? What's the Bacardi box for? What's the bottle of water tied to the side for? Is it clean? Are his hands clean?
Maintenance is not a priority in this shop. Check out the nose wheel on his landing gear. Check out the grubby hat.
The man with the bicycle (¿bicicladero?) is another San Miguel fixture—he makes and sells hand-woven reed mats. (Sorry, I don't know the spanish name for them).
These people know that gringos are fascinated by them and often want to take their pictures to take home and show their First World friends how backward things are in Mexico. In other words, their images have value, and they're not afraid to ask for money if they see you pointing your camera at them. This man is saying "¡Pague!" (Pay!).
You can't really blame them. They're all dirt poor. Still, I find it annoying when they ask.
We bought mats from this man a couple of times in the past. So I figured I was his buddy. His demand for money kind of hurt me. Which shows that when it comes to relations with my Mexican neighbors, I am totally clueless.
This woman with her wise, serene face, sets up shop in Colonia Guadalupe (one of the neighborhoods outside of the Colonial Center). She's got a pile of aguacates (avocados) to sell, but her main business is selling tortas (sandwiches). The turquoise bucket contains some of her ingredients—chopped onions and peppers.
Some vendors come in from the campo (countryside) on occasion to earn some needed cash. This woman is selling huitlacoche (corn smut) and nopales. She's so obviously destitute that I gave her $10 pesos. She replied that her picture was worth $50 pesos. I refused. Her daughter, sensing that her mother was unhappy with me, glared accusingly.
The huitlacoche trade attracts the bottom of the street merchant pecking order. These children, who should be in school (since it was Monday when I encountered them), are also selling fungus-infected corn kernels. Do they look happy to you?
Tragic. Their futures are being mortgaged. If they belonged to a family temporarily down on its luck, you could almost accept the need for them to work. But these kids proved to be street-wise. When I snapped their photos, the boy marched up to me and said, "¡Dinos algo!" (Give us something!)
Street vendors add color and interest to our town. Tourists are fascinated by them. But they exist only because of grinding poverty.
I get a topic for a post. They get a life of want.
It's not right.
The beach offers salt air breezes and recreation possibilities.
There is, however, the problem of privacy. All kinds of riffraff are allowed anywhere, in the water and on the land up to the mean high tide line.
One way to avoid the trespasser problem is to buy a house on a bluff. You want this one? Bring lots of cash. I'm guessing at least $15 million.
Scratch the beach. It's for the nouveau riche anyway. The mountains on the other hand, have a more exclusive cachet. As Matt says, they have the feel of old Pasadena.
The built-up hillside behind the large buildings is called The Riviera.
You'll still need pots of money to live here. Here's a relatively modest Riviera home that shouldn't run too much more than $7 million. What's mind-bending is that there are lots and lots of houses like this one. It's not like it's all that special—for Santa Barbara, that is.
OK. We can't afford the ocean and we can't afford the mountains. Let's look in a lower-priced neighborhood.
Now we be in the ghet-to. This place is a tear-down, and still, it'll go for more than a million when its owner finally decides to cash out.
Meanwhile it's a rental, like most houses in this neighborhood. Illegal immigrants (Oops. Undocumented aliens.), restaurant workers and such live in these places, four people to a room.
This house has maybe three bedrooms and a living room, $300 per month per person, grossing maybe $4,800 per month. Probably not quite enough to carry its present value, but selling it will be complicated by the need to build, say, four condo units on the site, each nice enough to go for $750,000 or so, so it may be awhile before a deal can be set up.
I can't afford even this dump.
So. Not the beach. Not the mountains. Not the barrio. Can you say "Lompoc?"
The adobe brickmaking project at the Santa Barbara Presidio is proceeding nicely. (See September 16th.)
The bricks have been tipped up onto their sides to present more surface area to the air. They're much dryer and harder. There's many more of them, too.
They look big. I think maybe 1' X 2' X 4". I wonder if I could lift one. Or if even the Parks Department guys could.
Naah. They'll probably use a forklift. Or a Mexican.
Mercados usually consist of food sellers, although clothing, DVDs, toys, and other things are also sold. Most of the goods on display are typical of what you and I might find in U. S. supermarkets: bananas, tomatoes, eggplant, jicama, chayote, piñatas...
OK. Not all of it is familiar to Norteamericanos. We who have lived in places like California where lots of Mexicans live, too, are accustomed to seeing several varieties of dried chiles in the produce section, along with tomatillos, the little sour green husk tomatoes used in salsa verde.
But we don't get to see handmade chorizo.
The meat that goes into these sausages is way more wholesome than what is listed in the table of ingredients in packaged American-made chorizo. Like beef lips and salivary glands.
Nor does Safeway carry tunas. The fruit of the prickly pear cactus. The texture and taste are similar to watermelon, but tunas contain many small seeds. A good breakfast fruit. Just peel and eat.
Eew. Ick. What's this? Smoked pancreas?
No. These are roasted yams. Very sweet, very good.
Any mercado is gonna have stands where you can get something to eat or drink. Like this juice bar where you can get agua de guayaba with quail eggs.
Alas, the old ways are dying. This woman is relaxing with a coke. Note the returnable bottle. When is the last time you saw one of those?
Distribution is often direct from the farm. Here's a pickup load o' beef. The brown tub contains tripe. There's also something there that's gray and granular-looking. (Shudder.) What is it? Ambergris? Probably best avoided.
You get used to seeing meat in a more natural state. In a Yucatan village I once saw ropy-looking beef heaped on a table in the sun. Looked like a cow butchered with a grenade.
Smaller vendors set up just outside the mercado, their wares laid out on tarps. I like this woman's artfully arranged pyramids of avocados.
Just outside the mercado in Guanajuato, I saw one of these marginal sellers with a galvanized tub full of intestines. I can't imagine anyone buying them, but someone must or he wouldn't bother.
Unappetizing. The original tub o' guts. Put you right off the taco stand next door.
Beachgoers are bent on relaxing, playing, having a good time. So what better place than the beach to remind us that there is a war being fought, one in which American teenagers are dying—teenagers who should be sailing these little boats instead.
A group of Gulf War Vets have built more than 2,000 crosses, each carefully lettered with the name of an American soldier killed in Iraq. They have painstakingly erected the crosses in the sand with names arranged by date of death. A series of signs down one side of the "cemetery" indicate the timeline of the war—a timeline calibrated in deaths.
The first three signs read:
The fall of Baghdad—April 9, 2003
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."—May 4, 2003
"Bring 'em on."—July 2, 2003
It all seems so long ago. By the time of "Bring 'em on," fewer than 10% of our casualties had died. We've been at war now for more than three years.
This is a profoundly moving demonstration. The image of all those crosses, of that sandy graveyard, gives the lie to the TV news impression that this is a war of Iraqis bombing one another. We've already lost as many young people as half the freshman class at Stanford University.
You cannot count the number of crosses by scanning them. Too many to easily enumerate. Rows and rows of crosses lead your eye toward infinity.
And to something else. What is that out there?
Aah. Not everyone is mourning the dead. Life does go on. Some are still bent on relaxing, playing, having a good time.
Presumably, the soldiers that these crosses represent, died to make this possible.
God help us if they didn't.
Matt and I stayed up until midnight, monopolizing the conversation and paying shamefully little attention to Margaret and Jean. The next morning, we walked over to the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
This utterly gorgeous building was built in the 1920s in the Mission Revival Style—a hallmark of Santa Barbara.
The courthouse surrounds a grassy courtyard that appears to be a favorate locale for weddings. Two ceremonies were simultaneously in progress while we were there. Dueling weddings.
A tile mural decorated an entry passageway. Here we have the noble Ortega discovering San Francisco Bay, surrounded by some goofy-looking Indians. (Oops. Indigeneros.)
Actually, it looks to me like the Native American is showing Ortega the Bay, rather than Ortega discovering it.
"Hey! What are you looking at? Over here, dummy! The Bay is over here! (White jerk. Stupid Wetback.)"
This is one of those embarrassing memorials that presents modern officials with a dilemma. The mural has historical value. But the subect is grossly patronizing toward the natives. What to do? Keep it or scrap it? Fortunately, this requires a decision on the part of government officials. They'll never manage to arrive at one. So perforce the mural will survive for the edification of future generations.
The courthouse interior is stunning. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.
Looking for the men's room, I ran across the bottom of the stairway that leads up the bell tower.
The device on the floor behind the columns is not a hexagram (Jewish) and not a pentagram (Satanic). It's an octagram, no doubt a symbol of some Southern California sun-worshipping cult. The eight points represent rays of sunlight, as in "Hey Dude. Let's catch some rays."
The courthouse is way too elegant to be wasted on trying scumbags and lowlifes. I say set up a tent in Goleta in front of Albertsons for trials. Use the courthouse building as a museum or a helluva B&B.
Here's three great people in front of the courthouse entrance.
I dunno about that shirt, Matt.
The Park Service appears to be making a concerted effort to provide facilities for the handicapped. At Sequoia National Park, several parking lots once available to all are now reserved for handicapped persons only. Here's a photo of the lot near the General Sherman Tree. It's huge.
Non-handicapped persons use a new lot a mile farther up the road and have to walk back on a trail that has a 200-step climb to get to the tree, so you have to be in fairly good shape to even get there. Definitely not for the handicapped. Sorry, bud. Take a hike. (Oops.)
The lot has maybe 10-12 parking spots. Seems like a lot to me. But who knows, maybe 10-12 handicapped persons, their attendants and families, sometimes arrive simultaneously, and God forbid they should have to wait a little until a spot opens up.
Leading from the parking lot is a paved, wide trail, so people in wheelchairs or PMDs (personal mobility devices—don't get me started) can get over to the tree.
It's easy to be critical, but all you can do is comment on the scale of the facility. You may think there should be more. Or less. But basically, this arrangement permits access to great scenic and natural places that might otherwise be denied to some people.
It ain't workin' that way.
I caught this 50-something couple walking briskly form the tree site to their car. They have one of those blue handicapped cards hanging from their rearview mirror. They're in better shape than I am. So how come they have a handicapped parking pass?
The other two cars occupying some of the 10-12 spaces also had temporary cards. I saw the couple from one of them park and fairly leap from their car in their eagerness to jog up to the tree and snap a couple of photos. Frickin' gazelles.
So, what the hell is going on, here?
1) These people talk their doctors into giving them cards, when they get bunions or something.
2) These people borrow Grandma's card, who is in a nursing home with a feeding tube and will never in her life ride in a car again.
3) These people are scumbag doctors who authorize their own cards.
4) These people make color photocopies of other people's cards.
5) These people download handicapped symbols and photoshop phony cards.
Whatever it is, this is a good idea that has gone terribly wrong.
Incidentally, a dozen other cars also parked in the Handicapped Reserved parking lot. They parked on crosshatched "No Parking" areas so they would be in compliance with the law prohibiting unauthorized use of handicapped spaces.
Lower fine that way, you see.
You run into even fewer visitors during the shoulder seasons. Gone are the screaming little monsters running up and down the trail, scaring away wildlife and throwing Pepsi bottles everywhere. They're in school. Where they should be. W. C. Fields summed up my feelings exactly: "Go away, kid. Ya bother me."
This time of year, visitors consist of retired folks—old farts like yours truly—and Germans. The first sign of the latter is the row of rented El Monte Class C motorcoaches in the parking lot. Somehow, the word is out in Germany. Ya wanna see the USA? Rent an RV and for God's sake, go in May or September. You can't believe how ungemütlich things are during the summer. The second sign is that in the hotel everyone—guests and staff alike—speak with accents. Staying with these two groups—Germans and Geezers—is very pleasant. Everyone is here to enjoy and respect nature. They're quiet, serious and reverential.
Sequoia has got it all: granite peaks, waterfalls, alpine meadows, lakes, panoramic views. And humongous trees.
Sequoias are the other Redwood tree. Much less prolific than the Coast Redwoods, they have survived the onslaught of civilization in part because they are not as valuable commercially as the others: they tend to shatter across the grain when felled.
They are the biggest trees in the world by volume. Jean is standing here in front of the biggest of them all, named the General Sherman Tree.
In line with the theme of getting away from crowds, Jean and I hiked away from the General Sherman Tree, where maybe fifty people were gathered. In less than a mile we found ourselves in silent groves, encountering other hikers only occasionally.
Here, Jean is sharpening her tree-hugging skills. The tree appears to be unmoved.
Having implied that we did some serious back-country trekking, I have to 'fess up. The trails we walked all were paved. Even so, 99% of visitors never take them. It's so easy to get away from it all.
The Rangers are playful when they build trails. There's at least two tunnels through fallen trees along the way.
A huge wildfire is burning over near the coast, in the Los Padres National Forest near Ojai. In Santa Barbara, we awoke one morning to what looked like snowfall—ashes drifting down and blanketing cars and driveways. WIth a shift to onshore winds, smoke has been blown hundreds of miles inland, affecting views in Sequoia Park.
On the drive home, we took back roads through Tulare County, passing through the little town of Orange Cove. Nearly 100% Mexican, we felt right at home. The U. S. seems a little alien to us—in some ways at least. We went into a little tiendita, bought a coke for $0.65 (half the California normal price). Jean asked for directions to the restroom and made no headway until she switched to Spanish.
A highlight of our trip.
Somehow, I got it into my head that I also would be a central figure in planning and preparation for the wedding. The other day, at breakfast, I was thoroughly disabused of that notion.
I was the sole male at a table with, from left to right, my lovely wife Jean (the SMOB—Step Mother of the Bride), my lovely sister Suzie (the SOFOB—Sister of the Father of the Bride), and my lovely daughter Samantha (the DOFOB—Daughter of the Father of the Bride).
Now, I am not, as Ollie North's attorney complained at the Iran-Contra Hearings, a potted plant. I am accustomed to conversations revolving around me. Or at least to making key contributions, insightful observations, penetrating analyses.
But not this time.
Because they were talking about brassieres.
And try as I might, I couldn't think of a single thing to say. So I just shut up, ate my breakfast, and paid the bill.
I'm realizing that fathers have essentially nothing to contribute to planning weddings. We aren't equipped for it. We really don't understand them. Weddings, that is. Or, come to think about it, women either. Best to stay out of the way, wallet at the ready, and do pretty much whatever the women ask.
Doesn't look like much, does it? But wait a minute—the building doesn't the kind of All-American design you'd expect in this part of the country. Those hip roofs. Those sashed exterior panels. That roofed entry gate.
Yep. This building is Japanese.
We've reached the Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art which, this fall, is showing exquisite baskets made by the Tanabe Family of Sakai (near Osaka). We met them on our Japan Tour this spring (see blog archive 5/17/2006). The exhibition here contains more Tanabe baskets than we saw at the home of the artists themselves.
This small museum is remarkable. Objects are not kept behind glass, so you can get as close to the work as you want (but don't touch). Magnifying glasses are set out here and there, permitting viewing of details. The lighting has been carefully designed to bring out the texture and patterns of the baskets. Even the ventilation has been designed to prevent the deposit of dust.
I could have posted scores of photographs of baskets. I chose just one image of baskets made by Tanabe Chikuunsai I, the founder of the Tanabe family of bamboo artists.
I love the old traditional Chinese designs. The work is so fine, it's hard to imagine these baskets began as hunks of bamboo stalks.
You can collect them. A couple members of our tour group bought some direct from the Tanabes. They probably got good prices that way.
But they are expensive. This Tanabe Chikuunsai I basket is, as I write, available from Tai Gallery/Textile Arts of Santa Fe for "more than $10,000."
The collection consists mostly of baskets owned by Willard G. Clark, who made his money in the international bull semen market. (Hey, I'm just reporting the facts, here.) He and his wife, true Japanophiles, live next to the museum in their Japanese-style house. Hard to imagine dry, hot valley days permitting the growing of a Japanese garden, but the Clarks are doing it.
Not here. Apparently, what whets Mexican appetites is pictures of cheerful barnyard animals.
Pollo Feliz—the Happy Chicken—is a Mexican fast food chain, one of two permitted to operate in San Miguel. (The other is Domino's Pizza.) The smiling white hen with the feathery thumbs-up is as recognizable as the golden arches. This poster is announcing the opening of the new Mega-Pollo Feliz.
While a few corporate-style fast food chains operate in Mexico, their outlets are far outnumbered by independent restaurants. The food scene is much like that of 50 years ago in the States—a good thing if you ask me.
But this can lead to some unique experiences. In his helpful and informative book, Live Well in Mexico, Ken Luboff tells about ordering chicken in a small country restaurant, only to see, a few minutes later, a small boy out in the yard chasing a chicken. In the tech biz, we would call that vertical integration.
Not so at Pollo Feliz. Refrigerated trucks roll up daily and unload crates of prepared chickens, ready to throw on the grill.
Actually, their grilled chicken is quite tasty. The new restaurant is clean and well-lit, and seats at least a hundred—odd, given that most people order take-out. It's probably the biggest restaurant in town.
Funny how introducing fast food to third-world countries can do that. The biggest restaurant in Moscow is McDonalds, and even so, it was so crowded, I didn't wait around for a Big Mac.
They even have Pollo Felices in Los Angeles (just as there are McDonalds in Querétaro). Their signature promotion gimmick is guys standing outside in chicken suits, waving at passing motorists. I read somewhere that Tom Cruise got his acting start as a Pollo Feliz mascot.
Mexico is adopting American advertising methods. Showing the finished product instead of the raw materials. This poster shows an alleged family enjoying actual cooked chicken. Revolutionary.
Their ads are not very polished yet. This has got to be one of the cheesier advertising photographs of all time.
The models are all looking in different directions. Can you say "Photoshop?"
Dad may need a Heimlich maneuver.
Mom got screwed; she only got a wing. Part of the sad legacy of machismo culture. Under the circumstances, everyone is just too darn cheerful.
And there's something eerie about the scene, snapped just before a group chomp. The family that chews together...
Santa Barbara has such an enclave, which locals call The Riviera. Rich folks live here in magnificent homes.
The Riviera is situated on a hill. Steep winding streets without sidewalks deter strollers.
The neighborhood resembles Bel Air, where Jean and I once took an evening walk. As we passed house after house, motion detectors switched on security lights. Amused by the extreme security measures, I told Jean the story of the black guy getting arrested in Beverly Hills.
A security service truck zipped by. We speculated that perhaps a nervous resident had called when we triggered their lights.
A few minutes later, two cop cars came tearing up the hill. The lead car slowed and hit us with a searchlight. Seeing a middle-aged couple walking along holding hands, they sped on their way, looking for real intruders.
We cracked up, knowing that we had a good story to tell about paranoid rich people frightened by pedestrian passers-by. Then the helicopter came. Whapping away overhead, it pinned us with its million-candlepower light.
The Riviera shares a feature with Bel Air: Security service signs.
I can't imagine anyone dumb enough to try to enter one of these homes. Of course they all have alarms. The streets are narrow and winding: no fast getaway routes. The place is blanketed with cops.
All that the signs manage to accomplish is to lend a fearful, mean-spirited, hyper-protective feel to an otherwise beautiful neighborhood.
Part of what residents are protecting is their views.
They sit out on their decks and look down on the city below.
They can spot their yachts in the harbor. But letting riff-raff into the neighborhood would spoil the ambiance. Best to warn 'em off.
Surprisingly, most of these people are democrats. Lots of Toyotas in the driveways with John Kerry bumper stickers. So they're careful not to single out any one ethnic group for exclusion.
The National Guard isn't so concerned about political correctness. They want to make sure their message gets to the right people.
Adobe dissolves in rain, so adobe buildings are plastered inside and out and roofed with clay tiles. The resulting look—thick, lumpy white walls topped with red tiles—has carried down to today as the signature style of modern Santa Barbara: The Mission Revival.
California became American. The Spanish left. Over the decades, many buildings were lost as roof beams rotted and collapsed, and plaster cracked, allowing water in. Some, like the Presidio, survived.
Today, preserving California's Spanish heritage is a priority. Many buildings have been restored, and continue to undergo restoration work as needed. Traditional materials are used.
Fallen walls are rebuilt with adobe bricks. Cinder blocks would be cheaper and more durable, and would not be visible under plaster and tiles, but then everyone would know the building no longer was authentic. Bad for tourism.
To make adobe blocks, mud is forced into molds. The molds are removed and the bricks are allowed to dry in the sun. (The newly-formed bricks in the photos above have been covered with paper to protect them from an unseasonable rain.)
The original bricks were made by Chumash Indians. (Sorry. Chumash Native Americans. Or whatever.) Slave labor. Working for two meals a day. Beans and tortillas.
The new bricks are being made by State of California employees being paid, say, $50-$60,000 per year, with vacations, sick leave, major medical and retirement benefits. Given their superior compensation packages, you'd expect the State employees to put superior effort into their brick-making.
So I guess they better be changing into loincloths and digging adobe out of the yard and mixing it with water and straw or whatever. Getting their hands dirty. Hand packing that goop into molds carved with hand axes. For the authenticity, you know.
Looks like a load of highly refined adobe trucked in from the Santa Ynez Valley. And a diesel-powered cement mixer. Hmmm. The materials may be authentic, but the process sure isn't.
Man. They just don't make peons like they used to. I bet the guys making these bricks are blond surfer types with names like Derek or Justin, and are protected by OSHA regulations from carrying heavy loads or putting their hands in germy dirt. And I bet that the people mowing their lawns are descendants of those original Chumash builders.
You go into a store and ask. The clerk makes you feel like a bum and refuses. "Sorry. It's for employees only." Bitch.
Now you're desperate. You go into a café. A sign says restrooms are for customers only. So you buy an unwanted cup of coffee, dump it in the trash, and use the facilities.
It's better in Mexico. In Mexico they understand how it is when you gotta go. In Mexico, you often have a condition that makes bathroom access urgent. In Mexico there's lots and lots of children who need the bathroom at inconvenient times. So, there's lots of public bathrooms. And nobody refuses you when you ask for one. Because these people understand. These people have been there.
At the Santa Barbara Farmers' Markets, they get it too. In a corner of the parking lot where the market is held, there's a couple of porta-potties. They unfortunately are located upwind from the the food stands, but hey—at least they're there.
They're nice modern ones, and they're clean, if a little smelly.
But wait a minute. What's that thing Jean is standing at?
Why, it's a porta-vanity!
Jeez. All these years we survived wiping our hands on our pants. Now someone in the health department has decided you gotta be able to wash up afterwards, too.
We're all getting so scared of picking up a few germs. What a bunch of pansies we're becoming.
I recently read that the reason there's so much asthma and other respiratory ailments is because kids don't get to play in dirt, so their immune systems, having nothing better to do, attack their own otherwise healthy bodies.
When I was a kid, I used to run around in the chicken coop in my bare feet, chicken shit oozing between my toes. I have never had asthma. Q. E. D.
I'm waiting for porta-showers.
To my Mexican friends this September 16th., ¡Viva la revolución. Viva México!
Just put a table in your doorway with some food on it and watch the pesos come rolling in. This place is selling gelatina (jello) and carrot juice. Patti the plumber recalls, as a little girl, being sent out in the street to sell gelatinas. I doubt there's $20 pesos' worth of food on offer here—being sold from a house with a U. S. dollar value in the mid-six figures. Go figure.
This next place is more elaborate than the previous one. There's more food on display and there's signs to attract and guide customers. A young man ponders his selection...
... which includes fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice ($15 pesos—$1.36 U. S.) or carrot or beet juice $13 pesos—$1.16 U. S.)
Looks like he went for the OJ. Note the amount you get—about a quart! The proprietor is giving me the evil eye as I take the photo. Stupid gringos with their cameras.
I like this tamale vendor. The green chicken ones are very spicy. (The tamales are green, not the chicken.) Rounding out his corn-based product offering, he's selling atole, a soupy warm drink made from masa—dried corn flour. It's an acquired taste, and surprisingly popular. Surprisingly.
This stand sells carnitas sandwiches. The torpedo-shaped rolls are called bolillos. I like the happy pig sitting in the pot on the fire. That kind of promotion wouldn't work up north.
This woman is selling gordos—balls of masa smooshed around a filling such as chicken or nopales (cactus leaves), the whole assemblage then grilled on the kluge in the foreground. Actually, her gas-fired rig is fairly advanced. Another vender squats under a bridge and cooks her gordos on a hot metal plate over a charcoal fire.
Here's some guys at an open-air market boiling chunks of pig in lard—carnitas. You can just make out the handle of a wire skimmer in the galvanized pail at the bottom right. There's something in the basket. Better not ask what.
This señorita is making tortillas by hand—the best kind.
This tamale stand is set up next to a bus stop. Good location. Lots of vendors set up next to bus stops.
Those are agave leaves hanging out of the pot. Which means they're cooking barbacoa. A layer of leaves from the plant ordinarily used to make tequila lines the bottom of the pot. Chunks of old, tired sheep are placed on top. It's boiled for about a day. Pretty strong flavor, if you ask me.
Assorted foods are sold here in front of a high school. I think the wheelbarrow underscores the ephemeral sense of this stand.
The roach coach. This truck pulls up to construction sites—here in front of my friend Bob's house. He says that this vendor specializes in chicken neck tacos. He's just joking. I think.
Remodels require permits, subject to draconian restrictions, if your home is located in the historic center of town. As a general principle, this is good. Much of San Miguel's charm derives from the preservation of a quasi-colonial look. But as is the case in most things Mexican, the regulations are applied capriciously and unevenly.
Everything is subject to negotiation. Most homeowners hire an architect to handle obtaining the permits and inspection processes.
The job of the architect is not, as you might innocently expect, to keep your project within the regulations. He pretty much can't stay within the regulations because of spur-of-the-moment opinions on the part of the inspectors. No. his job is to finesse the inspectors.
How it works is, you decide what it is you want to do, say, add a second story. Since adding a second story will be highly visible from the street, you'll need an influential architect. He'll design what you want and then the games begin.
Permits are obtained which neglect to mention that the new bedrooms and baths will require addition of a second story. Sand, concrete and bricks are delivered on Saturday, when the inspectors don't work. Construction begins. Then one day, as you are coming home, you notice something stuck to your door.
If you've lived here for awhile, you think to yourself, "Oh, shit." You've been tagged with a stop work order.
Don't panic. Practically no job escapes getting slapped with a stop work order.
It's inconvenient. It's against the law for workers to continue with your job while the stop order is in force, so that means more sneaking around on Saturday, or only doing things inside where the inspectors can't see.
Meanwhile, your architect is supposed to go see the appropriate agency to do the negotiation, skid-greasing and outright bribery needed to get the inspectors to lighten up.
It's all so tiresome. If all these inspectors and regulations and red tape accomplished something, I suppose it would all be worth it. But check this out:
This building is right across the street from Irwin and Imelda's house. Look colonial to you? I thought not.
Well, maybe I'm being unfair. This example is, after all, a commercial building. Here's a private home just up the street:
Yup. This building is in compliance. Irwin and Imelda's is not.
As Will Rogers said, "Thank God we don't get all the government we pay for."
Yeah. It's not like the Mission District in San Francisco. The neighborhood that has grown up around the Santa Barbara Mission is where you want to live. If you can afford it.
There's a lot of houses for sale here. Most are listed by Southeby's, and you know what that means.
I checked out some listings. You can get started for around $6 million and trade your way up to $25 million. Sigh.
Last week we bought fruit at Ralph's supermarket. Mostly because it's within walking distance.
We got two perfect-looking and huge Fuji apples that apparently had been held in nitrogen or carbon dioxide or whatever for at least a year, because they were brown and mushy inside. We bought two big mangos that never ripened. (As mexican residents, we know our mangos.) We got four tasteless pluots. Two mealy peaches. A package of baby lettuce that turned slimy after one day in the fridge. A plastic container of tired, fermenting blueberries.
We wound up throwing most of this stuff away, not having a compost pile to recycle it in.
So, we've learned a lesson: Don't buy veggies at Ralph's.
Fortunately, we have two farmers' markets within walking distance of our rented townhouse; on Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings. There's a lot of stands there that sell olive oil, honey, pistachios, frozen steaks and flowers.
I finally found some vendors that sold actual vegetables and fruit. I was pleased to see that much of it was locally grown on the Central Coast—Arroyo Grande and like that.
We bought a few things for dinner: bicolor corn, delicate lettuces, heirloom tomatoes and peaches. Man, were they good. Almost as good as Mexican produce. And certainly less contaminated by pesticides and E. coli.
But if we were expecting lower prices than Ralph's, well, forget it. What you see here cost $11. Still, it was cheaper than Ralph's, considering that all we got out of the stuff we bought there was a cantaloupe, a few lonely blueberries and a contribution for the landfill.
He's followed by a small clump of chanting, drumming protesters.
It all seemed low-key and friendly until a guy wearing desert storm fatigues riding a chopper began tracking them, revving his unmuffled engine, shattering the quiet and warmth of the street.
Street musicians played for dollars at a nearby farmers' market. The accordion player's chords were disconnected from the melody; a perfect disconnect of left and right brain.
The blues player's great sound was interrupted by an enthusiast who wanted him to hear something on his iPod—a polka no doubt.
A substantial Mexican community made us feel right at home. Up at the mission, I caught a young girl on the way to her quinceañera.
Downtown a festival of some kind was forming up. A stage with scores of speakers was setting up. Some band members waited in their natty suits for things to start.
The ear-splitting music got to Samantha's mother, Sandy, who was staying in a nearby motel. She reported that her Australian Shepherd, Harry, was frightened by the noise and wouldn't get out of the car.
Along the West Beach Esplanade, the Sunday art walk was in full swing. Here, Jean considers some bad art while the artist looks on hopefully.
Nearby, kids play in the skateboard park. The money that goes into recreational facilities is huge. In San Miguel, I doubt that there's a single soccer field with grass. In Santa Barbara, there probably isn't one without.
State Street, a pleasant street lined with cafes and restaurants, fielded the usual panhandlers and homeless.
Meanwhile, a retired gent slumbers on a bench, oblivious to passing throngs of tourists and shoppers.
He obviously places little importance on his appearance. Comfort is paramount.
Actually, it's not near-perfect right now. But it's gonna be perfect. For now, mornings are overcast, afternoons are sunny. This is a view of the city, with the ocean beyond. You can almost make them out through the fog.
The rich and famous have homes here: Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan. It is a place for very privileged people. They don't tolerate weather that isn't near-perfect. Not at the kind of prices they pay to live here.
We have rented a place for the month before Sam's wedding. We found one on the Santa Barbara Craig's List that's a steal: An Alviso-style townhouse located on the edge of the Barrio for only $4,200 a month.
OK. I'm being unfair. The place is, after all, a vacation rental. It's three blocks from State Street and the heart of the downtown. It's maybe five blocks from the beach and the pier. Location, location, location. As for the nearby Barrio, we like being surrounded by Mexicans. And graffiti. And pickup trucks with decals of Calvin pissing on something.
Some books have been thoughtfully left for us in our rented townhouse. One in particular reflects Santa Barbara New Age mentality: Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, by one Karen Kingston. Chapter 18 is entitled "Clutter Clearing Your Body [sic]." The clutter referred to is that which is strewn about your colon. The chapter is full of nonsense about "impacted mucoid plaque" which Ms. Kingston, had she ever remained conscious through a colonoscopy, looking at the monitors, would have noted was not present. She might then have realized that it's her mind, not her colon, that is cluttered with impacted mucoid plaque.
I like the subsection entitled "The Ideal Bowel Movement," of which she lists six key properties. I won't clutter up this post with the list, leaving it instead to your well-formed imaginations.
In L. A. Story, Steve Martin's character meets a ditzy roller-skating blonde New-Ager who takes him to Santa Barbara to visit a Colon Institute for a "high colonic." As they are leaving, walking down the monumental front steps of the Institute, Steve delivers one of the better lines in cinema: "Thanks for the lunch, and... enema."
Not only are we in the nesting grounds of crystal wearers, this part of the country is the trend center of personalized license plates. Every other car sports one. None appear to be clever. Typical is the following:
The State of California has introduced several new symbols to the alphabet. The most popular appears to be the heart. This is a bad idea.
Cop: "So, did you get the license number?"
H&R Victim: "Uh... No... I think there was a heart in it. WJH-Heart. Or maybe WJH-Club. I don't see so good anymore."
Cop (into radio): "OK. We're looking for a silver Scion with a plate beginning 'WJH♥'."
Dispatcher: "Oh, how sweet..."
The illustrated plate is particularly pathetic. I mean, save your money and let the State figure out what to put on your plate. For example, BOL SÍ would be a good one. SWEE T Π would be good, too. Let's THINK about these things a little, people!
But your initials and your wife's initials separated with a heart? Is that the best you can do? You might as well have a bumper sticker that says, "I have the imagination of a liver fluke."
Here's a real shock for someone who has been out of the country for a while: Grocery prices. Jean and I went to Ralph's to stock up on basics. $200. Jeez!
Sam took me to a "better" independent grocery store. Prices there were stunning.
Looks lovely, doesn't it. The price on the left is for one bunch of celery.
Asparagus: $6 per pound. That's $13.20 per kilo—$145 pesos. We can buy the better part of a week's vegetables for $145 pesos.
Do you see some sort of crash coming?
Our driver, Manuel, arrived to pick us up at 5:50AM.
OK. I know what you're gonna say.
"They have a driver? First you tell us they have a cook and a maid and a gardener. Now you're telling me they have a driver too? Well, excu-use me!"
Would you believe that our driver is an economy measure? I thought not.
Some months ago, the former President of the San Miguel School of English, where I teach as a volunteer, told me he was going to visit the school's treasurer, who lives some miles outside of town. He said, "I'll just call my driver, and he'll take me there this morning."
I was very impressed. I said, "Bob! You have a driver! I didn't know you were a millionaire."
"I'm not," he said. "I just realized one day that having a driver was cheaper than owning and operating a car. Think about it. A taxi anywhere in town costs $15 pesos—$1.35 U. S. Rides to Costco in Querétaro cost proportionately. And if you pay a taxi driver to take you shopping there, he'll wait for you, since he's gonna make his whole day's income on that one trip. Now, if you figure depreciation and license fees and gas and the high maintenance costs that you pay, what with everything shaking loose on cobblestone roads, you can afford a whole lot of taxi rides for the cost of owning a car. Plus, if you make a deal with a driver to use him exclusively, he'll give you a deal on rates. So, I got rid of my car, and whenever I need to go someplace, I just call him on his cell. When I'm not using him, he just drives his taxi around town picking up tourists or whatever. So I save money, and he makes more than he would if I weren't in the picture."
Well, hell! The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a good idea that was. Jean and I began hailing taxis. Soon, Jean ran into Manuel, an affable 30-year-old man who speaks colloquial English that he learned while working in Missouri. He's an excellent driver, skillful and safe, and he understands gringo mentality, so there's not so much cultural confusion. Like when I order scrambled eggs and the waiter asks (in Spanish), "You want bacon with that?" and I say "Sure," and what I get is bacon crumbled into my eggs.
So, now we have a driver. And he picked us up this morning to take us to Benito Juaréz International Airport (BJX) in León.
An economy measure, you see.
Most flights out of BJX are via cramped little commuter planess. We're going to LA via Houston, 'cause that's the way it is. We go most everywhere via Houston.
It's a beautiful day for flying. The sky is full of thunderheads. The countryside is green and blooming from the rains.
The pilot sets the flaps of the Embrauer 145 to 9° and we take off. In the distance we see the mountain that overlooks the city of Guanajuato, the huge statue of El Pípila (the wanker) at its summit.
Jean complains that she wasn't allowed to bring water and chapstick into the cabin. Dehydration surely is immanent. Our flight attendant, beefy Donald Price, whose male pattern baldness shines pinkly through his gelled and spiked hair, saves her with the quickest drink service we've ever experienced. Jean lives to see another day.
We're served a breakfast that might have come out of one of those tienditas that specialize in orange styrofoam with chile sauce. Our meal consists of three cello-paks of corporate food that seems more like litter than nutrition. We got:
• New York Style Cinnamon Bagel Chips (New York Style? I don't think so. And what the hell is a bagel chip, anyway?)
• Quaker Breakfast Bars—Very Berry Muffin flavor. (Sssweeeeet! A fruit flavor not found in nature. Because Very Berries aren't found in nature. I could only manage one bite.)
• Prize brand Natural Raisins. (Probably strip-mined. They were the only thing I ate.)
Can airline food get any worse?
The two-hour ride out of Mexico was up to its usual standards: A small disintegrating aircraft bouncing around in turbulent air carrying 24 people jammed into tiny seats listening to a squalling baby.
Can air travel get any worse?
Here on the Houston-LA leg, we got upgraded to Business Class, so things are looking better. Waiting for takeoff, we're surrounded by businessmen yelling into cell phones. It's annoying, but unlike infants, they have to stop when the aircraft door closes.
Still in store for us is car rental and a drive up the PCH to Santa Barbara. I'm innocently anticipating that I'm gonna enjoy it. We'll see.
Now, as foreign residents of Mexico, we realize we ain't seen nothin' yet.
Pemex (pronounced "peh-mex") is the government-owned petroleum monopoly. We gringos disparagingly call it "Pee-Mex." Everybody buys their gas from Pee-Mex. You can't buy it anywhere else. Pee-Mex has no competitors.
The good news (presumably) is that the monopoly's revenues accrue to the benefit of the Mexican people, rather than a bunch of shareholders. This amount is not inconsiderable, given that petroleum is Mexico's largest source of income (followed by tourism and remittances).
One wonders, however—just what percentage of those revenues actually reach the people? (Hint: It's almost certainly not 100.)
The bad news is that some functionary in a Mexico City high-rise decides where to locate gas stations in, say, Chiapas (mostly where there's no actual traffic), how much to charge for gasoline (too much) and what the restroom cleaning policy is (pigsty). One would also expect that this functionary would set standards for the conduct of gas station attendants, and enforce them.
Buying gas in Mexico requires the skills of a champion Texas Hold-em player. Like in Oregon, you're not allowed to pump your own gas. No. Instead, the highly-trained, scrupulously honest employees of Pee-Mex must perform the demanding and dangerous task of pumping it. Providing all kinds of opportunities for hanky-panky.
For example, you buy $300 pesos worth of gas. You hand the guy a $500 peso note. More frequently than you would expect, he hands you a single $100 peso note in change. The wise customer immediately counts his change, notes the discrepancy and asks the attendant for the other $100 pesos, which he hands you with a sheepish grin.
"Oh gee. Silly me. I miscounted your change. Here you go. All's well that ends well. No hard feelings, huh?"
One defense, if you don't want to repeatedly demand the correct change, is to ask for an amount of gas for which you have exact change. You order $300 pesos' worth, holding three $100 peso notes in your hand.
This usually works, but the good ones have a countermove ready. He pumps $280 pesos worth and tells you the tank's full. Or the pump's broken. Or they ran out of gas. Whatever. It's amazing how unreliable Pemex stations are.
Now, it's customary to tip the attendant, especially if he washes your windshield. He gets just a few pesos. $20 pesos is too much.
You give him your $300 pesos. The attendant gives you a $20 peso bill in change. You're expected to tip him or else you are a cheap gringo bastard exploiting a poor Mexican. He's already turning away. You need to do something right now! But what?
You hand him back the $20 peso bill and say, "Keep the change." You feel like a jerk. You find yourself wondering, "What the hell just happened?"
The wise customer always has a $5 peso coin in his hand.
One of the most frequent scams is the balky pump. Here's how it works. The previous customer buys $127 pesos worth of gas. You pull up. The guy puts the nozzle in your car's filler pipe. You foolishly neglect to look at the pump to see that the meter reads $127 pesos. You might as well have a sign on your back that says, "I'm easy. Here's my wallet. Just go ahead and take what you think is right."
A few minutes later, the attendant asks for your attention. "Señor. We have a problem. The pesky pump shut off prematurely. To start it again, I must reset it. Here. I will write down $127 pesos on this notepad I happen to be carrying. Then I will reset the pump and complete your order, at which time I will add the $127 pesos to the total then registering on the pump. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience. But you know how it is. Pemex won't send a technico to fix the pump. What can one do?"
After filling your tank, he adds $127 pesos to the total on the meter, which, feeling really stupid, you pay. Then he tries to shortchange you. 'Cause you were so easy about the pump thing.
Of course, the wise customer always checks to see that the pump has been zeroed.
The relatively honest attendants in San Miguel de Allende will point this out to you in case you forget. "Mire. Ceros," they will say.
But in thoroughly corrupt cities like, say, Saltillo, you have to be on your toes. Once I pulled into a gas station there. Immediately three guys surrounded the car. One asked me what Rose's name was. Being an old Mexico hand, I was not taken in. "Rosita" I said over my shoulder as I walked over to check the pump.
Fresh from dodging that distraction, I approached the attendant who said something incomprehensible in rapid Spanish and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a rack of gasoline additives. I turned back to tell him I didn't want any. Meanwhile, one of his confederates edged in front of me to wash the side windows, cutting off my view of the pump. Then the guy looking at Rose asked, "Does she bite?" I told him, "No." I eyed him suspiciously as he reached his hand into the car to scratch her ears. Just in case he might try to hurt her. I mean, I was on total alert. No way was I gonna let anything go wrong. I didn't just fall off the potato truck, you know.
At that point, the attendant gestured apologetically toward the pump. Oh darn. It had already pumped $127 pesos' worth of gas and then, wouldn't you know it, it shut down.
Got me! The whole charade was brilliantly orchestrated. They'd obviously practiced this scam until it was seamless. I almost had to admire them.
Oh, I could have raised a stink. I could have threatened to call the police. But of course, it's well known that the police in Saltillo are more corrupt even than pump attendants. I'd probably wind up having to bribe them not to take me to jail for attempting to defraud a gas station.
So I paid the a**hole and got out of there, mindful that ten minutes in a cesspool like Saltillo is too long. The $127 pesos I wrote off to tuition in the school of living in Mexico.
The lesson? Don't ever let a Pee-Mex employee put a hose in your tank until you see "0000.00"
I walked up to his house today for a visit.
Paul is sort of a troglodyte who lives at the far end of a mysterious tunnel just off the Salida de Querétaro. Thousands of people winding down the old highway from Querétaro pass by Paul's tunnel every day, and many no doubt wonder where it leads. But it is narrow, very steep, and mysterious, so few have the courage to explore.
Paul's house hangs precipitously on the hillside. From his aerie, he follows his muse and engages in combat with his neighbors. Of all the people I have met in San Miguel, Paul had been in jail more often, has been involved in lawsuits the most frequently. I think he likes it that way.
From high above the town, Paul looks out on a spectacular western view (to which this photo does no justice). The town spreads out below him. In the distance the rugged Guanajuato Mountains rise. Seasonally, huge flocks of migrating birds string out against the sky. In the rainy season, spectacular lightning shows fill the wall of his living room. Views perfect for stimulating great art.
I found Paul lying in his bedroom, watching the U. S. Open on TV.
Homes with views like Paul's, if they are located a quarter mile to the north in Los Balcones, are worth millions. But situated on the gritty Salida de Querétaro, Paul's house ain't worth squat. Location, location, location. He wants to sell it, but despairs because it doesn't meet the profile prospective residents are looking for; i. e., an authentic colonial within two flat blocks of the Jardín (main square).
OK. Maybe I'm being a little harsh. His house is worth squat. But not much more than squat.
Last Wednesday, Paul arrived at our table at the Villa Santa Monica lugging a camera, tripod and a whole lot of film. As I sat contemplating my Chiles en Nogada, Paul pointed the camera in my direction and shot a couple hundred images, panning up and down, side to side, in a raster scan. Oooooh—Kayyy...
Today's visit was to view the product of his efforts.
Paul has named it "Miercoles a los dos." Wednesday at two.
I won't insult you all with my pathetic engineer's feeble attempts at criticism, except to say that it overwhelms me. Paul has made about fifty of these... what do you call them... photomontages? A wide varitey of subjects: A blind beggar in a colonial doorway, a sparkling new concrete truck, a triptych of Tomás Horn's new baby girl. I especially liked three works depicting El Gato Negro, The Black Cat, a bar unmatched for its grubbiness. They're part of a series Paul calls "Sacred San Miguel."
I include this picture of Paul standing next to his work to provide a sense of scale. It's about 5' X 4'.
Paul is the one on the left.
"Miercoles a los dos" is a perfect image of the lunches Paul and I share: disjoint, non-linear conversation that somehow coalesces into a vaguely coherent whole.
No one is as unabashedly patriotic as Mexicans. Nobody knows how to throw parties like Mexicans. And September is the month when Mexico celebrates the biggest holiday after Christmas: The Anniversary of the War of Independence.
We Norteamericanos sometimes confuse Cinco de Mayo (which commemorates the victory over the French Army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862) with events of the War of Independence (1810-21). Actually, Cinco de Mayo has become primarily a Chicano holiday in the U. S. It receives a lot of attention because it is so heavily commercialized. Sort of like the Super Bowl, which nobody gives a sh*t about it but everybody watches because of the hype, and because they, the American public, have been thoroughly trained to buy into whatever is pushed at them through the tube. Disagree? I have two words for you: JonBenet Ramsey.
Pardon me. I digress.
Cinco de Mayo receives much less notice here, deep in the Mexican interior. But ¡Viva la Independencia! It was on September 16, 1810 that Miguel Hidalgo issued El Grito, the Cry of Independence; the equivalent of our Declaration of Independence. This is the greatest day in Mexican history.
Late in August, street vendors pop up everywhere selling flags...
...and other patriotic items. I saw one guy selling red, white and green Viking helmets. That's one that completely baffles me.
Decorations are hung across intersections...
...and on the façades of historic buildings. This image is supposed to represent General Ignacio Allende.
I think it looks like a robot in a hard hat, but then, I'm an uncultured gringo. Sketchy as it is, this image would be recognized instantly by any Mexican schoolchild. As, for example, on this old $50 peso banknote.
Flag sales have been brisk. Already they're sprouting along Aldama Street, where I live. (Mine is the yellow house on the left.)
But this is only one of many celebrations in September. We got:
• Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de los Remedios
• Festividad de la Virgen de Loreto
• Homenaje a los Niños Héroes de Chapultepec
• El Aniversario de la Independencia
• La Sanmiguelada
• La feria del pueblo
• La Alborada
It seems like the fun never ends. I enjoy all of these colorful celebrations except La Sanmiguelada, our own version of Pamploma's running of the bulls, when thousands of young people come to get drunk, to get laid and to piss in the streets. Jean and I stock up on food, cokes and movies, shut our doors, and huddle in our house until everyone goes home.
September is a great time to visit, to view or better yet, to participate in all these celebrations. But visitors shouldn't come here expecting to sleep. Fireworks at 4 AM announce each day's festivities. Parties with mega-amplified music last far into the wee hours. Singing drunks roam the streets.
It's like living in a singles apartment complex. You might as well join the party, because there's no way you're gonna escape it. I sometimes complain to my Mexican friends about the uproar. They just don't understand my attitude. Why not just have a good time with everyone else? Here, have a strawberry tamale.
When September rolls around, many of us Norteamericano residents figure—been there, done that. For us, it's a great month to be someplace else. It's shoulder season, so vacationers no longer crowd Paris, Florence or San Francisco. The theater and arts season starts in London and New York. So, many of us leave the noise and throngs of visitors in San Miguel, returning to quieter times in October when everything has calmed down.
For more on San Miguel's September festivals, click here.
Some set up tables near the entrances to important buildings, such as this one which is alongside Bellas Artes. Others just find a wide place on a sidewalk.
There is no excuse for not buying some flowers on a whim. They're cheap and they're everywhere.
Most people regularly have fresh cut flowers in their homes. If the selection on the street doesn't include what you're looking for, there are larger outlets in the Mercado.
One flower lady specializes in long-stemmed roses, She is a fixture at the corner of Pila Seca and Aldama, near my home. I pass her every day on my way to do my errands.
Her price is right. A dozen roses cost $5. This is the inflated Centro Histórico price. A friend who lives over in Colonia San Antonio buys hers from a door-to-door vendor for $3.50. When we visited San Francisco in July, I saw a kiosk in the Embarcadero Center selling loose roses for $7. a stem! Flowers there are a luxury indeed.
Under an arcade in the main plaza, an old woman sells dried flower arrangements. Her timeless face and bottomless patience help maintain the ancient flavor of our city center.
What wouold we do without them? The flower ladies are part of what makes living here so magical.
There. I've said it. I know it's politically incorrect to have servants. I'm prepared for your approbrium.
In fact, I already have been a target of disapproval by some of my acquaintances. Among themselves, they have been saying that hiring people to prepare meals and clean house and do laundry and gardening is somehow morally wrong and exploitative.
I'm gonna reveal all about our domestic situation. It's open kimono time. If we are to be objects of disdain, so be it.
Our first experience with servants was like a ghetto kid's first hit of crack cocaine: immediate addiction. We rented a house on Úmaran through a friend. It came with a cook and a maid. We gave the cook money and she bought groceries and prepared all of our meals.
Five weeks into our stay at the Úmaran house, I suffered a heart attack. After five days in a Mexican hospital, we made preparations to go back to California. Juanita and Lupe wept when we left. We didn't realize until much later that they thought I was going home to die. Juanita, who was pregnant with her first child while we were there, named him after me—Juanito.
(Lupe, Juanita, and my namesake, Juanito.)
The mutual warmth and affection we had with Juanita and Lupe meant more to us than the clean sheets and chicken enchiladas. Our relationship was closer than employee-employer but not as close as peer friends. Class informs all relationships in Mexico. It's unfortunate, but there it is. But even so, wonderfully close relationships grow where there are cracks in the hierarchy.
After we bought our house, we met Arlene Swift Jones, who was leaving her long-time home in San Miguel de Allende. Rosario had worked in her house for many years. She would be out of a job when when Arlene left. We hired Rosario, and she began preparing our meals and doing general housekeeping.
Rosario is 51 years old. She has had very little schooling and is illiterate. Not many jobs are open to her. She became a mother when she was only 13 years old.
In all of the homes we rented before buying the one we live in now, the staff included a second housekeeper, to do heavy cleaning, run errands and wash and iron clothes. It makes you wonder how homemakers in the U. S. do it—especially women who work outside the home as well.
Rosario's 38-year-old daughter, Ana Maria, needed work. On those occasions when she came to the house to help her mother, a warm contentment settled over our household. Things ran more smoothly. Everyone seemed more happy. This alone made hiring Ana Maria worthwhile—so we did.
Ana Maria is a single mom with three children. Her ex-husband provides no support. She lives with her mother.
We also needed a part-time gardener. A series of self-professed gardeners briefly worked at our house. When they had killed enough plants that we could accurately calibrate their skills, we fired them and hired others. One day, I met Ana Maria's 19-year-old son, Edgar, an art student. An intelligent, affable young man, he began hanging around our house, helping his mom and generally making himself useful. I realized that after repeatedly failing to find a knowledgeable gardener among the "professionals," that perhaps I could train my own. So I began showing Edgar the ropes. Today he works here part time.
Sure enough, the garden has begun to thrive. Here Edgar is standing in front of a world-class pachypodium: Its robust health is largely his doing.
The amount we pay these people is pitifully small; so small that any Norteamericano living on a moderate income could easily afford their salaries. So I guess you could make a case that we are exploiting them. Here's our arrangement:
1) We pay them about 150% of the going rate for maids, cooks and gardeners. Most people in their job categories live in abject poverty. Ours don't.
2) We increase their wages every year, by at least the Mexican Government guidelines and usually more.
3) We give them two weeks' paid vacation every year, if they want to take one. If they don't, we pay them two weeks' additional pay at the end of the year. No Mexican employer of domestic help does this.
4) We regularly pay the aguinaldo, a Christmas bonus that is mandated by law, but rarely paid voluntarily by private employers. It is equivalent to two weeks' pay.
5) They receive time off with pay for medical and other problems.
6) We cover all of their medical and dental expenses for them and their children.
7) We pay for Edgar's tuition and books at the San Miguel School of English.
8) We pay for tuition, books, uniforms and school clothes for Ana Maria's seven-year-old daughter, Teresa.
Here Teresa is wearing a dress Ana Maria made for a folk dance performance on the last day of school this year. What a sweetie!
A huge influx of Norteamericanos has provided a real boost to the local economy. A great deal of employment derives from our presence. Some of the jobs are direct: cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, handymen, drivers, houseboys, nurses and companions.
Perhaps we are exploiting these people. Perhaps we should stop exploiting them. Maybe we need to encourage them to go out into the real Mexican economy and learn to live prosperously in it.
Of course, living in the local economy can be tough. Especially if you're illiterate. Especially if your first child was born while you were a young teenager. Especially if you are a woman trying to live independently from an abusive husband. Especially in a country where there's no welfare system, no workfare system to help you learn how to be a store clerk.
Maybe Rosario and Ana Maria and Edgar feel exploited. I'll never know, because if I ask them, they'll just say they aren't. Maybe they'd appreciate the ending of their exploitation. Maybe I should give them the option to leave for a more non-exploitative job.
Oh. I forgot. They already have that option.
Our critics already know all this. They persist in their criticism. Why?
I think they're envious. They lack the courage and imagination to live adventurous lives, one small benefit of which can be getting your socks washed by someone else. They try to escape the disappointment of their circumscribed, unrewarding lives by being judgmental, by dispensing huffy criticism of those who live interesting and exciting lives.
Such people should be careful of bad karma, or they may be reincarnated as creatures with even more circumscribed lives. Instead of picking away at the success of others, they may be consigned, in the next life, to picking noses.
Jazmín del Campo ranks up there with the most intensely perfumed flowers in the world, even more so than the Plumeria or Lehua blossoms used in Hawaiian leis. Hauntingly sweet, the odor becomes cloying, almost overwhelming in confined spaces. The other day, we brought some to a friend as a hostess gift. During the car ride, we all started seeing spots. At home, we usually place the flowers in one of our outdoor spaces.
The blooms last only for a couple of days, and the Jazmín season lasts only for a couple of weeks. Like many things that grow in Mexico, they're available only in season, unlike up north where we could buy many delicacies year round.
The seasonality of Jazmín del Campo makes it all the more enjoyable during the brief moment when it comes to San Miguel. It helps mark the time of year. Jazmín in bloom means summer's over. Time to go back to school.
Foreigners come to San Miguel to enjoy the colonial ambiance and to visit the vibrant art community. They come to get away from cold winters or hot summers. They come for the social seasons: January through March for Californians, New Yorkers, and Canadians; June through August for Texans.
In other words, Winter for Democrats, Summer for Republicans.
Mexicans come here to visit the Cradle of Mexican Independence. It was on September 16, 1810, in the nearby town of Delores Hidalgo that Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave El Grito (the cry) that heralded the beginning of the Revolution for independence from Spain. What are now the states of Querétaro and Guanajuato were once the scenes of much of the early fighting.
In 1926, San Miguel became a national monument, ensuring preservation of its colonial buildings. Among all of the Bajío cities, it is the best preserved. It attracts parents who want to show their children one of Mexico's important historical sites. Schoolchildren on field trips arrive in busloads to study their national heritage.
In general, San Miguel does a good job of balancing the needs of a working town with those of a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site. But occasionally some touristy operation intrudes that threatens to make a mockery of our historical city. For example:
This is our historically irrelevant cable car. Well, you can see it's not really a cable car. It's a cable-car-like construct on top of a Mercedes truck chassis.
The wretched thing is embarrassing.
San Francisco style cable cars never existed anywhere in Mexico. This horrible vehicle clearly is just a Disney-esque tourist ride designed to appeal to the mouth-breathers. I mean, why not go whole hog and have a proper carnival ride. I propose the following as an upgrade:
The cable car is the biggest passenger vehicle permitted to operate in the historical center of San Miguel. It cannot properly negotiate the narrow streets, and frequently causes traffic jams.
There's a corner by my house that is too tight for the cable car, so it has to back up to complete the turn. The back-up alarm would be bad enough if I had to listen to BEEP BEEP BEEP all day long. But this thing makes a sound like a donkey being beaten: HEE-HAW HEE-HAW HEE-HAW. Some months after it began operating, I stood close enough to hear the back-up sound more clearly. Through the distortion of the cheap sound system, it became apparent that the intended effect was that of a steam locomotive: CHUFF CHUFF CHUFF. What the hell the sound of a steam locomotive has to do with a cable car is beyond me.
The policy of our community is to preserve our colonial look and feel. This piece of crap clearly violates that policy. So there's only one possible explanation for the existence of this eyesore on our streets: somebody has a lot of juice. Either someone is related to the power elite, or money changed hands.
Here's another example of rampant idiocy:
Yes, sir! Getcha scuters here!
Scuter is not a word in the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, although the word scooter is. Maybe it's a word in Mexican street lingo, but I suspect it's just a stupid mistake, like the botched phone number at the bottom of the poster.
(Scuter however, is a slang English word, meaning "a person who is scum from the gutter.")
Yes, sir! Getcha scuters here!
It's an idiotic advertisement for a bad idea. Look at the scene on the left.
Here we have tourists despoiling a riparian site, plowing through a stream and no doubt fouling fish eggs with silt. Yeah. We all want to encourage that.
Now the other scene:
Here we have a scuter and two four-wheelers tooling down a cobblestone street. We residents have to put up with them passing at high speed in dangerous situations, violating one-way streets and adding to congestion. We occasionally see them piloted by 12-year-olds.
Licenses? We don' need no steenking licenses.
(Note that most of the people pictured are not wearing helmets. I find this to be the most encouraging aspect of this whole mess. Maybe we can get a little Darwinian thinning here.)
Incompetent, corrupt and just plain bad government is endemic here. This country has more laws and regulations on its books, it seems, than anyplace else on earth. But they are enforced unevenly. Local businessmen can buy or influence their way through the thickets of red tape.
But just let a homeowner paint his house a non-approved color, and the architectural cops swoop down with a citation.
Gee. Too bad.
Elaborate recipes, developed over centuries and handed down through generations make less desirable ingredients more palatable. Chitterlings, menudo and sushi all began as peasant dishes; some still are. In the U. S., much of what are referred to as "variety meats" wind up in pet food. Here, they wind up in people food; in Mexico, they use the whole animal.
Hooves and heads feature prominently in Mesoamerican food. I see lots of sheep shanks, pigs' feet and chicken feet for sale in the carnicerias (butcher shops) and pollorias (chicken stores). In Superama, a supposedly upscale supermarket in Querétaro, I saw an artfully arranged cello-wrapped pack of chicken necks, heads still attached, their little eyes closed in eternal repose, their sharp little beaks removed, I suppose for safety. I bought the package and fed the chicken to Rose, whose diet consists largely of raw, meaty bones.
She crunched right through their little skulls with gusto, the little carnivore.
Cabezas (heads), as an ingredient, have been showing up all over the place. The other day, I saw a man delivering a box containing four pigs' heads to a private home.
I've never seen food prepared from pigs' heads listed in restaurant menus, so I only can imagine how they're used.
Cows' heads are another matter. Rare is the taqueria that does not include tacos de cabeza on its menu, and those cabezas come from cattle.
This one was being delivered to a butcher shop in the mercado. As I photographed it, a campesino standing nearby made jokes about eating it and smacked his lips in mock appreciation, so I guess that some Mexicans are as grossed out by the prospect of eating cabeza as I am.
Where does all this squeamishness come from? When I was a kid, I'd eat worms on a dare. This probably explains a lot. The other day I broke down and ate barbacoa, prepared from whole mature sheep cooked on top of a pile of agave leaves. Intense.
The media doesn't help. We're subjected to a continuous barrage of articles about the "bad" food du jour. The government gets into the act with egregious overregulation. The only sensible option, IMHO, is to ignore all of it.
Tacos de Cabeza. A tasty dish of the common people. Undoubtedly delicious. So why do I still hesitate to try one? I truly am a wuss.
A frequent flyer had just managed to upgrade to first class when he heard that the Pope was on the same flight. He thought to himself, "I bet the Pope always flies first class. Maybe I'll get to see him." To his surprise, the Pope made his way down the aisle and sat right in the seat next to him. What to do? You don't say "Hi" to the Pope, do you? Flustered, the businessman buried his nose in the airline magazine without saying a word.
After take-off, the Pope started to work a crossword puzzle. A little while later, he turned to the businessman and said, "Pardon me. What's a four letter word, referring to a woman, that ends with the letters u-n-t?"
Yeek! Only one word leapt to mind... "Oh jeez," he thought. "I can't tell the Pope that. There must be another word."
Then it hit him. Turning to the Pope, the he said, "I think the word you're looking for is 'aunt.'"
"Of course," said the Pope. "Do you have an eraser?"
This kind of problem arises from time to time when you're dealing with different cultures speaking different languages. Consider this sign I saw today:
Yeah. Startled me, too. Do you think it says what I think it says?
Other signs on the storefront refer to "descuentos." Is this supposed to be the English version of the word, "discount." If so, it looks like they dropped an "o."
Here's what I think is going on: The proprietors of this interior design (diseño) company worked with a Mexican marketing consultant to come up with a sophisticated sounding name for their business. A graphic designer then worked the name into a logo using a carefree scribble, unaware that adolescent American minds would misinterpret the open "a." I think the word we're looking for is "Disant."
Of course. Do you have an eraser?
Subjects include religious figures, Aztecs or Mayans, or national heros. One of the latter is Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro—a heck of a name for a simple laborer in the mines. His contemporaries must have thought so too, because they gave him a nickname: Pípila.
Pípila's claim to fame came early in Mexico's fight for independence from Spain. In Guanajuato, insurgents attacked Spanish loyalists who were barricaded in the Alhóndigo de Granaditas—the public granary. Pípila, a strong man, lashed a large flagstone onto his back for protection from the defenders' bullets and rocks, and then walked up to the wooden door of the Alhóndigo, smeared it with pitch, and set it afire with a torch. When the door burned through, the rebels rushed in and captured the fort.
Pípila was born in San Miguel de Allende and therefore is a suitable subject for a monument. When the new glorieta (traffic circle) was built a few years back, his statue was erected in its center, greeting travelers from Celaya and Guanajuato. At the entrance to San Miguel, this is what they saw.
Yep. Pípila's butt. I'm not sure how long it took for the inevitable reaction to set in, but Atención, the English-language newspaper, was able to get out an edition decrying the placement of the statue before city officials had time to react. The statue stayed in the offending position long enough for San Miguel de Allende to become a butt of jokes throughout the state.
Corrective action was, by San Miguel standards, swift. No more than a couple of weeks went by before Pípila's statue was rotated 180º so that visitors no longer would be mooned as they entered the city.
Unfortunately the statue still fails to convey the intended sense of heroic patriotism. Pípila is portrayed carrying about 200 pounds of rock on his bare back. Now, Mexicans are a modest people, a sensible people. No respectable Mexican goes into battle without wearing his shirt. Especially if there's gonna be a lot of rough stone scraping his skin.
Further undermining Pípila's look of courage and determination, he's carrying what appears to be a dish mop. You have to read the fine print to realize it's supposed to be a torch—tough to do while dodging loco drivers in the glorieta.
What else? Well, his six pack abs look like they came out of a comic book. And then, as if saving the Mexican Revolution wasn't enough to prove his manhood, the artist thought it necessary to provide viewers with another blatant cue. Check it out.
"Pípila" must be one of those New World words, because I can't find a translation for it in a Spanish-English dictionary. Maybe you can guess what means.
Whatever you guess, well, you would be wrong.
"Pípila" is a word in the Mayan K'iche' language (called Quiché in Spanish). A K'iche'-English dictionary compiled by Allan J. Christenson of Brigham Young University gives the meaning of "pípila" as "to rub, to masturbate." I'll bet no city official or other person involved in placing commemorative plaques around town knows this.
Six weeks to go, and I've lost 14 of the 15 pounds Dr. Hoffman wants me to lose. Pants hang on me. I can tuck tee shirts into my shorts without looking silly. This morning I was looking at my shirtless reflection in the bathroom mirror and noticed I was developing a bit of chest definition. Cleavage. Found myself getting a little excited.
My mind began to wander. A pint's a pound the world around. To a first approximation, fat has the same density as water. So I must have lost a volume of fat on the order of 14 pints--1.5 gallons.
Imagine a gallon and a half of yellowish tissue. Bleah. Take a gallon jug of milk. Put a half-gallon jug next to it. That's how much fat I've lost. Where did it all come from? I don't think I look that much thinner.
My BMI calculates to be 27.3. The National Institutes of Health says 30 or more means you're obese, although I found one website that thinks 28 is a better number. I choose to ignore them. (If you can't trust the government, who can you trust?) NIH also says that a BMI of 25 or more is overweight. So I know that Dr. Hoffman is gonna ask me to lose another 15 pounds, dropping me to 170 pounds for a BMI of 25.1. Allowing for clothes, I'll be golden at that weight.
Four and a half months ago, what put the fear of God into me, and a no-more-nonsense look on Dr. Hoffman's face was that my blood sugar level was around 200. 200 what? Beats me. But 200 is bad. He called me pre-diabetic. He said that I didn't want to be diabetic, especially with my heart condition.
Recently I was talking to a friend. I told him all of the above. I said 200 was bad, bad, bad. He said, "No it isn't. 240 is bad. 200 is OK."
I figured this was just denial and justification, so I looked it up on the internet. Aha! 240 is the limit for a glucose tolerance test. 200 is the limit for fasting glucose levels. Mystery solved.
Wait a minute!
Fasting glucose level? FASTING? I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FASTING?
An hour before they drew blood, I'd eaten a muffin, scrambled eggs, sausage, orange juice and coffee with sugar. Oops.
So is this whole thing a mistake? A MISUNDERSTANDING? I've been doing all this exercise and diet modification because I didn't receive/read/understand/obey some stupid patient instructions?
Jeez. What if the numbers had indicated amputation? I mean, doesn't anybody ever check this stuff?
So now the question is, did I make a valid decision when I agreed to lose 15 pounds? It was based, after all, on a false assumption. I'm certain as I'm sitting at my computer that when they run my blood sample in October, my FASTING glucose is gonna be like 23 or something.
I feel sorta stupid going down to the gym and humping my butt with free weights when it's all based on a mistake.
After considerable thought, I've decided to stay with the program. I think I'm falling in love with my bathroom mirror image, and I'd like to see where it all leads.
Candles are no longer made from tallow, but people burn beeswax ones to provide romantic atmosphere and a vaguely Colonial feel.
We bought a couple of iron candelabras from someone who was moving back to the U. S. Now we needed some fat, cream-colored candles. Where to get them?
In the States, we would have gone to Stanford shopping center where there was sure to be a shop that sold fringed throw pillows, jars of potpourri and candles—undoubtedly for outrageous prices. But then, what price style? We had friends to impress, and if big candles cost $10-$20 a pop, then so be it.
But there's no equivalent to Stanford Shopping Center here. In the nearest big city, Querétaro, we have a Costco, a Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart, and for fine men's furnishings, Mexico's own world-class haberdasher—Sears. None of them have big fat candles. Nor are there any quaint little shops that sell fringed throw pillows, jars of potpourri and candles.
So we asked around. "Oh yeah. There's a place up on Mesones where we buy our candles. Everybody goes there." We walked up the hill peering into doorways. In one, we saw a case displaying a selection of candles. Eureka!
The place is like so many Mexican stores; it has an ad-hoc look. No signage, no street appeal. The candle display looks like an afterthought. What kind of business is it? We looked closer.
Yeek! Caskets. An undertaker.
I don't know about you, but if I were thumbing through the yellow pages, I would never have thought to look under "Caskets."
Feeling a little creepy, we selected our candles. The price was right. The three in our candelabra cost less than $5 for the bunch.
Multimillion-dollar homes are located along the Cañadita de los Aguacates, an area sometimes referred to as the Beverly Hills of San Miguel. More typical houses farther away from the Centro Historico can be found in the $200,000-$300,000 range; expensive enough that buyers are almost always retiring Norteamericanos. New condominium complexes on the edge of town sell units for more than $100,000. Often, well-off Mexico City residents buy these for weekend homes.
A great many citizens cannot afford any of these houses. Still, some find ways to live in town. This place is a fifteen-minute walk from the Cañadita.
The brick wall belongs to a neighboring house. The rusty corrugated steel shack houses a family of five who are squatting on the lot. There's no gas, electricity or running water. An adjacent arroyo serves as a latrine.
Politicians say that passion over the close Presidential election and tension over the gubernatorial election in Chiapas are all about irregularities in vote counting. This is only partly true. The real issue is chronic and massive disparity in wealth distribution. I've seen people who don't have shoes walking the streets. I've seen women in the countryside washing clothes in a muddy creek. Men find presumably remunerative employment herding small flocks of goats; a typical flock can't be worth even $100.
Modern media reaches everyone. People become aware that others live well at their expense. No longer can the poor be held in their places through ignorance, as they have been for the last several centuries.
Their outrage is building. Can another Mexican revolution be far behind?
These tales stayed with us into adulthood. As new arrivals in Mexico, we scrupulously avoided taco stands, opting instead for sit-down restaurants where hygiene standards presumably were better. On our first trip to Playa del Carmen we sat at a sidewalk table of a safe-looking restaurant (because it had signs in English). A note at the bottom of the menu, intended to be reassuring, read:
ORDER WITH CONFIDENCE!
ALL OF OUR VEGETABLES HAVE BEEN PROPERLY DISINFECTED
Hmmm. They serve vegetables that need disinfecting. I guess it's better than improperly disinfected vegetables.
After we moved to San Miguel, we remained reluctant to sample food from street vendors, although it often looked looked tempting: sliced fruit, jicama and cucumbers with lime and powdered chiles, carnitas tacos, strawberries and sour cream, churros, handmade tamales, tortas.
Around the Jardin, the central plaza, many vendors sell sweet corn, either on the cob or as freshly sliced kernels in a plastic cup.
What you get is an ear of corn with a squeeze of lime juice, some mayonnaise smeared on, and grated cheese and powdered chiles sprinkled on top. It's whole new corn eating experience, and can be very, very good—if you can get an ear of corn that's picked young. Most "sweet corn" served here is feed corn: starchy and chewy, but one develops a taste for it.
Some foods on offer are iffy. When we lived in California, we saw taquerias in Mexican neighborhoods that include tacos de lengua—tongue tacos. John D. calls them "the tacos that taste back." Rosario once made a nice plate o' lengua for comida. Tasted OK, but it was a little hard to get past our Norteamericano queasiness while eating it. We discouraged Rosario from serving it again.
Three years ago, I was walking down a street in Morelia. I was flabbergasted to see the following:
Yup. Tacos de Cabeza. Translates as "Head tacos." Can that be right?
What the hell are tacos de cabeza? OK. They're obviously made from heads. Probably cows' heads. But what parts of the heads? Maybe neck meat? Cheeks? Brains? Lips? Eyeballs?
Up north, I avoided buying chorizo—Mexican sausage—because often the first item on the ingredient list is "beef salivary glands." Do tacos de cabeza contain beef salivary glands?
Now, I can understand people eating cows' heads if they're desperately hungry. I'm sure it's better than eating grubs. But this here is a restaurant that specializes in head tacos.
"What do you feel like tonight, Honey? Chinese?"
"Naw. I'm sick of Chinese. Y'know, we haven't had head tacos in a while. Whyn't you run down to El Guero for some takeout?"
Kind of hard to get your mind around, ain't it?
On the corner of Calle Nuevo where it joins the Ancha de San Antonio, there's a couple of taco stands. I've walked by them countless times, tempted by the mouth-watering smells they emit. People crowd around, munching tortillas filled with various meats and vegetables. Cars park illegally, causing traffic snarls as people buy their lunches or dinners. These stands are big-time popular. People have been eating at them for years. If the food was in any way suspect, they wouldn't: These places rely on repeat business.
Mindful of this, I was getting up the nerve to eat there until one day, early in the morning, I walked by while the proprietor was setting up for the day's business. Sitting there on the counter was a huge, toothy cow's head! The cook was prying off slivers of roasted flesh with a screwdriver.
That did it! No way was I going to eat there. New rule: Never eat food prepared with hand tools.
Last winter, we spent a couple of weeks in the beach town of Rincon de Guayabitos. There we ate at a taco stand that had an extensive menu posted on the wall, including tacos de lengua, cabeza and pulpo (tongue, head and octopus). Also offered were tacos de pollo and res (chicken and beef). The latter were delicious. I can't attest to the former—yet.
As to health problems, I've had traveler's diarrhea any number of times, both up north and here in Mexico Usually happens just after arriving in either place, as the Mexican and U. S. intestinal flora battle it out for supremacy. I've also had food poisoning in both countries, and I've contracted amoebic dysentery and various bacterial infections while living here. Mexico has real problems with sanitation, and I've probably sampled more fecal matter in my food than I like to think about. It's a part of living in less-developed countries, and we all learn to cope.
The cumulative experience of me and my friends has established that there are restaurants in San Miguel de Allende that are bad bets. One in particular appears to employ Typhoid Mary's granddaughter. It's a pricey, sleek looking place, located in a prime location on the Jardin. It attracts few regular customers, catering almost exclusively to tourists. Several of us are convinced that we've gotten sick from eating there. They've probably contributed prolifically to the reputation Mexico has with American travelers for food-related illnesses.
On the other hand, I have never had any kind of stomach problems from eating street food.
Anamaria's contained vegetables not usually served in the U. S.: Nopal, Flor de Calabaza, and Huitlacoche.
Nopales are young, tender ears of prickly pear cactus. The spines are shaved off with a sharp knife, the remaining pads are diced and then sauteed with seasonings. They have a slightly grassy flavor and an almost slimy texture, similar to okra.
Nopal pads are usually sold fresh in Mexico. I've seen them in many supermarkets in California, but not elsewhere. They're also available canned.
For me, nopales make a nice change-of-pace vegetable, but they'll never replace fresh asparagus.
Flores de calabazas—squash blossoms—are one of my favorite vegetables. Our cook, Rosario, gets them from women who come by the house with baskets or five-gallon plastic paint buckets full of them.
Rosario makes soups and omelets with squash blossoms, and—my favorite—quesadillas de flor de calabaza.
I've eaten flor de calabaza and nopal without hesitation ever since we first came to Mexico. Huitlacoche, however, is another matter. In the U. S., huitlacoche is a disease called corn smut. It's a kind of fungus, although to me it looks like mold.
The fungus infects corn kernels, growing inside them and causing them to swell. The spores are black and huitlacoche, when cooked, makes an inky sauce. Farmers deliberately infect corn plants to produce the fungus, which is considered a delicacy.
After eating deep fried conger eel spine in Japan, I've become even less squeamish about unusual foods, so I spooned a little salsa verde onto my huitlacoche quesadilla and bit into it. Think of a sweet corn and mushroom sauté. That's what it tasted like. Delicious! I ate two of them.
In California, any one of these quesadillas would have been exotic. All three in the same meal would have been overwhelming. Living in a new culture, though, the unusual becomes commonplace.
We have such art in San Miguel de Allende.
Above, for example, we have Father San Miguel bringing light to a heathen Indian, offering the poor savage succor and comfort.
And here, we have General Ignacio Allende, the man who is credited with starting Mexico's fight for independence from Spain.
These two figures are the namesakes of our city: San Miguel de Allende.
In modern times, we've somehow lost our way. In San Francisco, we have the eyesore known as the Vaillancourt Fountain. How we managed to allow a mistake of this magnitude to happen is beyond me. But it's indicative of a disturbing trend.
In San Miguel, we don't have the money to create new civic art on the scale of the Vaillancourt Fountain. But that doesn't mean we don't get our share of the fevered delusions of alleged art experts scattered here and there.
I mean, what the hell is this? Give up? OK. Here's the plaque giving its name.
How this work represents oral fertilization is beyond me. It's certainly not the thought that came to my mind when I first looked at it.
In fact, I have to ask, "What is oral fertilization?"
It's really not something you want to think about too much.
Another statue in the series of which Oral Fertilization is a part would perhaps bear that name more appropriately.
This year, the lineup includes: the Turtle Island String Quartet, the Ying Quartet, the Vega Quartet, the St. Petersburg String Quartet, Olga Kern, Timothy Fain and Will Ransom. These are young musicians of significant international reputation and accomplishment. They are viewed by many as "risk takers," and I can attest to the excitement of their innovative performances.
My experience last night was typical. I ate an excellent dinner with my friend, Doug Lord, at fusion restaurant Nirvana. Two minutes before starting time, we walked across Mesones street to the Angela Peralta Theater and took our seats.
The program began promptly. The Vega Quartet played works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Shubert. Anyone who has been put off by "the anal-retentive sawing of a string quartet" would have been in for a surprise. The performance was lively and emphatic. No academic readings, these. The composers were young when they wrote them, and our performers captured the youthful exuberance in their music.
I was kept on the edge of my seat by a string quartet. Who woulda thought?
In San Francisco, our tickets would have cost three times as much, the crowds would have been annoying, we could not have purchased good seats, parking would have been impossible or expensive. Which is why we rarely attended concerts there. In our little town, we stroll downtown to the theater, no seat is more than thirty feet from the stage, and there are no crowds to deal with.
We are very fortunate.
Rain and hail poured down. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed.
The flat roofs of Mexican buildings are drained through canales—pipes or channels that reach out over the streets. In the picture, at least one is visible, spewing water like a fire hose. The first time you drive under one, you think the car roof is going to cave in.
The compact umbrella I carry in my backpack quickly collapsed under the downpour, so I joined a crowd sheltering under an arcade.
We don't have storm drains. Rain water is carried away in the cobblestone streets. So much water cascades down the mountainside on which San Miguel is built that soon the streets are flooded.
Plazas fill with water, pouring down pathways and steps.
To reach my house, I needed to cross the Jardin, our main square. But all of the streets surrounding the arcade ran with a foot of water, even after the thunderstorm had passed. So I waited some more, and watched other similarly stranded people.
The benefits of our rain pattern:
1) We experience sunshine every day.
2) Our rain comes in brief spurts. Swoosh, and it's over.
3) The lightning and thunder show is entertaining.
4) In late summer, the countryside is green and full of wildflowers.
5) Streets are swept clean of debris.
6) While waiting for storms to clear, we spend a pleasant half-hour visiting with our neighbors.
Last week, I somehow managed to tear a ligament in my left knee. Wow! A genuine sports injury! For the next couple of days, I walked up to the Carmina Posada to drink my morning coffee with my friends, wearing a knee brace just to let them know that I'm a serious athlete.
The fact is, though, the pain from the tear increases after I walk, and decreases when I take a day off, so it's interfering with my exercise program. Time to see the Doctor.
When Jean and I came here three years ago, our friend and first Spanish teacher, Adela Sanchez, recommended an orthopedist to help Jean with a similar knee injury that she got doing yoga. (I believe she was doing the Downward Facing Dog.) The treatment was successful, so today I went to see Dra. Conchita García Escobedo, in hopes of curing my knee as well.
Dr. García is one of those highly capable physicians whose practice consists primarily of Mexican Nationals. Her facilities are modest and her fees are low. But she diagnoses quickly and accurately and her treatments are practical and effective.
If you expect to be treated in a modern building in one of those clinic farms you go to in the States, you'll be disappointed here. I wandered down Mesones Street looking for #62. Walking past a pharmacy, a restaurant, a notions store, I came to the Doctor's doorway, in which sat an old campasina selling pomegranates and tunas (fruits of prickly pear cactus). I stepped over the old woman into a courtyard that looked like the hotel lobby in Apocalypse Now—tropical, decaying.
A mother and four small children sat on cheap, plastic-covered couches, waiting. I peered into a doorway to the right of an oval sign with the Doctor's name on it. Nobody home. Lights extinguished. No furniture. A couple of cardboard boxes on the floor, half filled with old files. Not promising.
I checked my watch. 2:00 PM. Yep. That was my appointment time. I called into the doorway, in case she was in one of the rooms beyond. "¡Hola!" No response.
I took a seat on one of the plastic couches and waited. It's what you do in Mexico. You wait. Everybody waits. Nobody seems to mind. In this poor, poor country, the one thing everyone has plenty of is time. Time for comida, time for siesta, time for amor, time for waiting.
Fifteen minutes later, a nicely dressed lady entered, and asked me why I was taking pictures. I reassuringly replied, "¿Dra. García? Yo soy John Wood. Tengo una cita." (I have an appointment.)
Which didn't explain why I was taking pictures, but nevertheless, she led me into a shabby examination room where she heard my complaint and poked at my knee. And then she asked me something that made my day. "¿Quiere hablar en ingles or español?" (Do you want to speak in English or Spanish?)
Bilingual Mexican people, whenever they hear my Spanish, invariably switch to English. I find this to be embarrassing, feeling as I do that the responsibility for communication falls on the visitor, not the resident. But today, a Mexican Professional thought my Spanish was fluent enough to continue speaking in it.
We take our small triumphs where we can.
After flexing my knee, she announced that I had a small ligament tear. How the hell did she know that? Where were the x-rays? Where were the MRIs? Where were the range-of-motion tests?
Dra. García doesn't have any of that stuff. All she has is 20-30 years of experience diagnosing torn ligaments, which must be common in Mexico, judging by the risks laborers take while building houses.
She told me, "We're gonna fix it. Five ultrasound therapy sessions, and everything's gonna be OK." She led me out of the examination room and back toward her physical therapy clinic.
Beyond a couple of arches, down a dark corridor, past a couple of outdated refrigerators, a fluorescent-lit semi-circular window beckoned: the clinic. Inside, Dra. García lowered herself onto a chair, and told an assistant what she wanted done to my knee. Meanwhile, I looked over at a woman washing towels in a sink. Dra. García left and the assistant took me back to a curtained treatment bay and had me lie on a cot. "¡Cabeza aquí!" (Head here!)
She wrapped my knee in some presumably recently cleaned towels and put a hot pack on it. Then she closed the curtains and left me to endure the heat. The treatment bay could not have been smaller and still have contained the bed. Not a place for claustrophobics.
Twenty minutes went by. The assistant returned, removed the hot pack and applied ultrasound for a while. Finally I got up, made an appointment for the next day, and paid my bill: $150 pesos ($13.50 USD).
I hope this works.
I walked out past the plastic couches. The mother and her four small children were still there. Waiting.
"A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client."
In my day, we didn't have a choice. The preacher told us what we were gonna promise each other, and we dutifully said all those things—whether we meant them or not.
I was thinking about all this when the issue of marriage vows in Mexico hit the news. In Mexico, a judge tells you what your vows are. And believe me, they are not something a modern, liberated bride wants to hear or say. Just check the expression on the Mexican bride's face below.
Not exactly radiating joy, is she? She has kind of a dull, vacant look. End of the good life. Nothing more to look forward to.
The groom, meanwhile, is practicing his stern, head-of-household look, gloves in hand, ready to whack his bride with if she gives him any lip.
Because they just exchanged the following vows:
The man, whose main endowments are valor and strength, should give and will give to the woman, protection, nourishment and direction, always treating her like the most delicate, sensitive, and finest part of himself, with the magnanimity and generous benevolence that the strong should give to the weak, especially when the weak one delivers herself up to him, and when society itself has confided her to his care.
The woman, whose main endowments are abnegation, beauty, compassion, perspicacity and tenderness, should give to her husband obedience; please him, assist him, advise and console him, always treating him with the veneration that should be given to the person who supports and defends one. That should be done with a delicacy to avoid awakening the most brusque, irritable and hard part of his character.
Allow me to interpret. Girls, the guy is the boss. Do whatever he tells you to and be nice to him, and he'll feed and house you. Don't piss him off, because he's naturally grouchy and can't be held responsible for his reactions if you do.
Incidentally, those vows were written by a lawyer. A male one. As if you couldn't tell.
Just something to think about, Sam and Kip, as you consider just what promises you want to make to each other.
Last year trash bins were installed through much of the city—a very good thing that has greatly reduced the amount of litter. As part of the project, however, the original Coca-Cola trash bins were removed. These must have been at least 60 years old and probably even older. They added elegance and color to the look of the downtown.
The gray plastic bins that replaced the old ones look like they belong in a Taco Bell.
This state of affairs can only be marked up to incompetence. Everybody in San miguel, I mean everybody, knows that this city is all about maintaining its 18th-century colonial look. In the unlikely event that someone might forget, property owners must submit plans for any reconstructions to architects in the employ of the city government, whose initial reaction to any proposed reconstruction is disapproval. Inspectors swoop down on any construction site and shut down any job they think might violate design guidelines.
Some days, it seems like I see OBRA SUSPENDIDA stickers slapped on the front of every building undergoing remodeling. One neighbor had his job suspended because he installed window bars that were not vertical. Another was fined for using latex paint instead of cal, the lime paint that washes off in the summer rains (but which is, indisputably, authentic).
And yet, the department that erects public facilities like benches, doesn't appear to be subject to review and regulation.
In fact, they seem to be totally unaware that the city values the old colonial look.
In general, the look of the city is improving. All that's needed now, is for those few who haven't woken up yet to get with the program.
NOTORIOUS TERRORIST CAUGHT AT SFO!
San Francisco, CA—
Alert security agents at San Francisco International Airport recognized and captured notorious terrorist suspect Jean Wood, long sought by the Department of Homeland Security for questioning in regard to possible connections she might have with Osama Bin Laden, shadowy leader of Al Qaeda. Here she is pictured in booking photos taken last year when arrested at the Franklin Indiana home of Mullah Wajih al-Shamit, alleged radical Muslim cleric.
Wood drew the attention of an agent while attempting to pass through an airport security checkpoint while apparently secreting what appeared to be an IED—an Improvised Explosive Device—in her jeans...
Jean and I presented ourselves for security screening for our flight from San Francisco to Houston. I went through my routine of emptying my pockets of wallet, passport, Mexico permanent resident visa, change, keys, pen, pencil, notebook and cell phone, removing my belt (a problem since my apple-like shape leaves me no hips to impede the descent of my pants), my shoes, hat, camera bag and carry-on luggage, placing all on the entrance to the x-ray machine, and then signaling to a security agent that I could not pass through the metal detector because my implanted defibrillator would set off the alarm, and would they kindly send someone over to pat me down.
Meanwhile, Jean confidently walked through. Unfortunately, she herself set off an alarm. A discussion with a security agent ensued. Was it her wristwatch? Did she have keys or change in her pocket?
Another agent took me over to a section of floor that had two footprint outlines on which I was to stand, and began to frisk me—rather thoroughly, I might add. Many of you have had to be taken aside and wanded, in order to localize whatever it was that set off the alarms when you walked through. We pacemaker and defibrillator people can't be wanded because the wands will (briefly) shut down our implanted gadgets. So for us, getting through security is an intimate experience.
How frisking works is a rubber-gloved person of the same gender as you runs his or her hands over your body—your entire body. Interestingly, when they get to your groin, they say, "back of the hands," and then rotate their palms downward before administering a less-than-memorable hand job.
Frisking completed, and having shyly said goodbye to my agent, I looked around for Jean. I saw her standing in the middle of the security zone, surrounded by agents urgently talking into walkie talkies and cell phones. Not good. I tried walking back into the security zone to ask her what was happening, but the same beefy guard who had frisked me, the man with whom I thought I had reached a sort of understanding, blocked my path. No, I wasn't allowed back in. Even to rescue my wife. Who at this point, appeared to be some sort of suspect, to be kept carefully isolated from other passengers and her husband.
I found a chair and sat down. I watched Jean negotiating with the agents. She didn't seem to be making any headway. Twenty minutes passed. Much negotiation. Much cell phoning. Much walkie talking. Much standing around.
Finally, a supervising agent broke away from the group and came over to brief me. She told me that Jean was wearing one of those elastic knee braces, and it was that that had set off the alarm. Must have had some wire in it or something.
An Improvised Explosive Device?
Her jeans were pegged, so she couldn't roll up her pant leg to show the brace to the agents or to remove it. The agent told me the things they could not do at this point:
• They could not just frisk her, confirming by touch that it was only a knee brace.
• They could not make a reasonable judgment that she was probably not a terrorist, and just wave her through.
• They could not allow her to go to the ladies room and remove the brace. In fact, they couldn't even ask her to do this. I have no idea why not.
• They could not alllow her to go back out the entrance of the security area, there to make any adjustments needed before trying again.
After bucking the problem up toward Michael Chertoff, here's what they were told they could do:
• They could call the police who would take her into custody. The officer would then escort her out of the security area, after which she would no longer be the agents' problem. He, the officer, would then use his own judgment as to whether she had committed a crime, or simply to allow her to go on her way.
In other words, the Federal Department of Homeland Security, unable to deal with a grandmother wearing a knee brace, passed the buck to an SF Cop.
After a short wait, a policewoman arrived. (What is it with the same gender thing?) She took Jean firmly by the arm, and escorted her to the ticketing area, where she was allowed to attempt to clear security again.
Fortunately, this time she made it.
Jean doesn't seem particularly concerned about the incident. Clearly she fails to realize that her brush with the law may be the beginning of a slide into a life of international conspiracy and crime. Even now, her name and other information is undoubtedly in some DHS database, soon to be scrutinized by a clandestine operative with an eye toward "turning" her and inserting her as a mole into a terrorist cell. Like maybe the Al-Badhr Mujahidin Quilters' Group.
This is a Dick Cheney thing, isn't it?
A reader writes:
"Hey, I love your web site. I've read a whole lot of your blog. I love the photos that accompany the topics -- indispensable. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed to see that you'd cleaned up some of your original writing. For example, the Japanese toilet discussion mentions "douche" whereas your original email to Suzy used the phrase "pussy washer". I mean, what has more color and flair, douche or pussy washer?? I REST MY CASE.
"In either event, I love the tone of your blog when the audience is one good friend (Suzy, for example) instead of a generic public. (See "pussy washer" example above.)"
He's right, of course. I replied to his email:
You have seen right through to the crux of my dilemma. When writing to Suzie and, say, you, I can be my profane, politically incorrect self. But when I write stuff that can be read by anybody, should I pull my punches?
Your criticism is most helpful. Lately I have not been enjoying posting to my blog, which has been sounding more and more like corporate-speak. Sort of like eating wheat gluten.
Well, I'm not gonna take it anymore! Toning things down for "sensitive" readers gets me comments like these:
From a reader:
"Boy, have you ever worked hard to put together this extensive report on Japan! Everything from religion to toilets. I enjoyed every word and will spend time going back over every word and trying to get a better sence [sic] of your experience. The report is detailed. Thanks."
From another reader:
"What a lot of work you have gone to; what energy you have put into this, and it shows. Wonderful commentary. Great pictures. We\'ll look at the site again. This was our first quick look-thru."
Reading between the lines, they're saying, "We glanced at your blog and see that you wrote a lot and put some pictures in it, but we really haven't read it yet, so don't ask us any embarrassing questions about the content."
Incidentally, you might be interested to know that the term "pussy washer" was itself a circumlocution for a term coined by Suzie when she was maybe five years old. She referred to women's crotches as "guddies." So my original draft used the expression, "guddy washer."
You see what self-censorship does. Tragic.
It'll probably be hard to find my voice. Tough to use terms like "greasers" without people thinking I'm racist. But Joe Bob Briggs got away with "Meskins" and "Babtists." And Gustavo Arellano, in his OCWeekly column, Ask a Mexican, dealt with the issue of gringa love for a Mexicano by writing:
"[N]othing eradicates ego and all of its clunky superficialities (race, class, culture), nothing says I love you, nothing says 'Welcome to America' like an old-school blowjob."
THAT wound up on news stands in Orange County. So I guess I can loosen up in my thinly-read blog. And I'm gonna begin by posting this email.
Here we have all of the attendees with the exception of Sam's fiance Kip, who was taking the picture. Here's who they are.
Lower row, left to right:
• Bride-to-be Samantha
• Grandma Jean
• Granddaughter-to-be Cassie
• Granddaughter Kiely, the birthday girl, showing us a bird call
• Grandpa Gary
• Grandma Sandy
• Kiely's sister Shayla
• Grandpa John, your faithful blogger
• Grandma Betty
• Papa John
• Mama Heather
Plus 1½ no-account dogs.
Kiely is large for her age and continues to grow apace. She's bright and athletic and a bottomless font of energy. Here she is, airing out her two new bottom teeth.
She and her new cousin Cassie met for the first time, which gave Kiely a new outlet for all her energy. Cassie, who is four, is not much smaller than Kiely. They spent a lot of time doing kid stuff and ignoring adults. Kiely repeatedly picked Cassie up. The camera caught Cassie waiting for some chocolate chip mint ice cream.
This may have been Kip's first opportunity to spend much time with his new in-laws. We're just a leetle worried that, now that he knows what he's getting into, he might change his mind. Heather can attest: It's not easy joining the Woods. The wedding will be on October 7th in Santa Barbara, and we'll all be there.
Man it was HOT! 106° We huddled inside the house with the air conditioning on full blast. With twelve of us plus four dogs, it was crowded. Grandma Sandy monopolized all the dogs' attention through the devious tactic of carrying a couple of pounds of treats in her pockets. If we'd had a ref, she might have been red-carded.
From left to right, the dogs are:
All are ratty mutts, beneath any consideration by Rose, our purebred Boston Terrier, with the exception of Harry, a champion Australian Shepherd, who, like her, is descended from aristocratic bloodlines. Here she is, befittingly ensconced on expensive upholstery with a toy Boston Terrier that she likes to bite and hump.
Note her exquisite pedicure. She's relieved that she didn't have to associate with those other dogs in Nevada City. Whew!
One last picture: The future bride and groom posing with John and Matty.
Matty is looking over at Sandy, hoping for more treats. A dog hooked on treats—a tragedy.
We chose our hotel, The Stanyan Park Hotel, because it is in walking distance from their house and from the lovely Ninth Avenue restaurants, and we can walk across the street into Golden Gate Park for our daily hour of exercise.
Here, Jean is performing isometrics against a large, ancient Cypress. Better look out, Mr. Tree!
The weather is so fine and the scenery so beautiful, it's hard to imagine why we moved away.
Of course, a week from now, this will all be shrouded in fog, and a nasty, cold wind will blow through the Golden Gate. People in thick jackets will scurry along, hunched against the cold. It'll look like Moscow in winter.
How do they keep the grounds looking so colorful and neat? Gazillions of gardeners is how. In my mind, this is a proper use of tax dollars.
We walked in the incredible park, admiring the specimens in the Botanical Gardens. We visited the Japanese Tea Garden, which made us long to return to Japan, despite the lurid Chinese Moon Bridge and other cultural anomalies.
We visited the DeYoung Museum, a pretty good place although replacing the old neoclassical structure with the present hypermodern pile was a crime. The inverted pyramid is especially egregious; just as out-of-place as is I. M. Pei's jarring glass pyramid in the Louvre. It's not that I dislike modern architecture—just stupid applications of it.
The DeYoung's special exhibition was The Quilts of Gee's Bend, which was serendipitous for Jean, being the quilter she is. The exhibited quilts, crudely sewn of material from old suits and dresses, reminded me of quilts my mother made; a far cry from modern quilts made from exquisitely patterned fine cottons, machine-pieced on $5,000 sewing machines. The quilts, and the photographs of the old black Alabaman women who made them, were interesting, even arresting. The purile gushing of Volvo-driving, hemp-wearing whale-huggers was revolting; ultimately drove me out of the show. I'd have enjoyed it more if they'd rounded up about 100 of the homeless living in the southeast corner of the park, and let them view the quilts. At least, they'd know why those ladies sewed: Not to express their anger at exploitation by the white Southern aristocracy—just to keep warm.
We ate lunch at The People's Cafe on Haight Street. A score or two of young, tapped-out people camped on the sidewalk, waiting for the return of The Summer of Love. Somebody should tell them, it ain't gonna happen. The street is lined with places they can't afford to shop in: in one I saw a pair of genuine blue suede shoes—$300.
And we shopped. And shopped. And shopped. After three years in Mexico, I'm shocked by how rich the U. S. is. The Apple Store blew me away, with it's high-style computers and gadgets. We bought a Bose dock for our iPod. There's nothing remotely like The Apple Store in Mexico. A flower kiosk in the Embarcadero Center was selling lilies for $5 per stem. In San Miguel, you can buy two dozen for that. I saw a Porsche SUV.
We brought a large empty suitcase to carry home purchases, and put a large number of dollars into it. A San Miguel friend says it costs less to fly to the U. S. than to drive, because the official shopper in his family can only get about $3,000 into suitcases, but easily puts $10,000 into the Suburban.
The highlight of our San Francisco stay was our visit with Jeff and Maria, a couple who seem to be living the kind of lives everyone else would like to live. I can't see how any visitor of theirs could fail to feel warm, such is the glow in their home. Jack works just enough to meet their income needs, and spends much of the rest of his time with the kids. Maria is a full-time supermom who has created the home I would have liked to have grown up in.
Their house was badly damaged by fire a couple of years ago, and they've only recently completed the restoration and moved back. Living in temporary quarters while dealing with a major construction project must have been very hard for them, although they seem to have taken it all in stride.
They've reworked the space in their home to exactly suit their family. The entry is into an open, sunny kitchen with counter and bar stools. What once was a dining room now is an art center, and it's open to the living room, so kids can work on projects in the same space the adults are using. The kids also have a large playroom. Jeff has a large office which doubles as a guest room (guests have to be out by 9 AM) and Maria has a nook for her office. Occasional accent walls are painted in brilliant colors; Mexico-inspired? Near the entry are four little cubbyholes with outlets for charging portable electronics—one for each ember of the family. They don't use land line phones anymore: (cable?) internet and cell phones provide all the bandwidth and connectivity they need.
Ruby is turning into a sweet little girl, thanks in part to her mom who notes that she's "raising a homemaker." Jack has an artistic bent and a fascination with machines, as well as a sharp and slightly scatological sense of humor. Sitting in the playroom, I had a miniature teacup and saucer in one hand and a bunch of Legos in the other. I could feel my right and left brain separating.
We took the kids to a friend's house and went to Kabuto Sushi, one of the best sushi restaurants I've visited either here or in Japan. Four grades of maguro! It was a mellow evening with good friends whom we hope will visit us soon in Mexico.
• Cobblestone streets and many, many potholes, shaking everything loose
• Corrupt police stopping and extorting
• Dead, bloated animal carcasses littering the road
• Live, dangerous cows, horses, burros, sheep, goats and dogs wandering in front of the car
• Double parking and illegal parking, blocking streets
• Inept drivers making dangerous maneuvers
• Rude drivers
• More corrupt cops...
You get the picture.
A friend of mine sold his car, after making arrangements with a taxi driver to become his personal driver. Whenever Bob needs a ride, he calls the taxi driver's cell and asks him to come over and pick him up. The guy drops off his fare if he has one and arrives at Bob's house almost immediately. Basically, Bob has his own personal driver. He tells me that even with occasionally hiring the driver for an entire day, it costs less than owning a car. No maintenance, no fuel, no insurance, no repairs, no depreciation. And no hassles.
• Hit a pothole? Driver's problem.
• Cop on the take? Driver's problem.
• Rude driver cut you off? Driver's problem.
Bob just sits in the back seat and reads the latest Lee Child novel.
When we got to SFO at about 2 AM (Thankyew Continental), we decided to test the No Car Hypothesis. Instead of renting a car, we'd use public transportation. What with the high cost of taxis, this might cost us a little more, but we could relax in the back seat and talk or read, or... you know... whatever.
We picked up our luggage and walked out to where the airport vans congregated. A man steered us to a van marked "Bay Shuttle." Two other travelers were sitting in it, waiting to be taken to their hotels. The driver loaded our luggage and then made us wait another 15 minutes just in case another fare came along.
Anyone who has traveled much in major cities knows that one of the most popular entry-level job opportunities for those new to our shores is driving a taxi or a shuttle. Which means that travelers often have to cope with communications and cultural problems, and erratic driving.
Our driver was Chinese. He spoke very little English. He didn't know anything about San Francisco. I think he learned to drive by playing video games.
He floored the van, shot out onto the freeway nearly sideswiping a car, turned on the dome light, handed us a clipboard and asked us to write down our destinations. We four captives... er... passengers... dutifully wrote down, "Stanyan Park Hotel," or some such and handed the clipboard back. The driver, now traveling at more than 80 mph, intently studied the clipboard, wandering back into his lane only when prompted by angry horns.
He asked, "Ess... tee... Yes?"
Jean replied, "Yes. That's the Stanyan Park Hotel."
"Yesss" he said, unconvincingly.
"It's near Kezar Stadium. You know Kezar Stadium?," Jean added, hopefully.
He took the Seventh Street off ramp, pulled into a no parking zone and dialed his cell phone. Rapid-fire Cantonese ensued, interspersed with street names. "Stanya Pok! Ess... tee..."
We passengers looked at each other. This was not looking good. The male passenger asked the driver to take the single female passenger to the Omni Hotel at 500 California Avenue, because it was the nearest destination. The driver said, "Hokay. Cee aeee..."
The male passenger, now in charge, said, "Just go straight ahead up Seventh..."
The driver floored it.
Giving the driver turn-by-turn directions, we came to the Omni, which happened to be on the left side of California Avenue. Accompanied by a blare of angry horns, our diver swung a sudden U-turn across four lanes of traffic and a double yellow line, to bring his passenger right up to the hotel front door.
The female passenger got out, paid him and thanked him. The male passenger got out, told the driver there was no way he was riding with him any farther, and that he wasn't going to pay him the full $16 fare, since he was going to have to pay for a taxi to his hotel. He paid the driver $5 and stomped away.
Our driver walked back to the van, slammed the passenger-side door, got into the driver's seat and said (No kidding!), "Gloddam no pay! Fok!"
Now it was just Jean and me and an angry, inept, lost driver who spoke almost no English—except for a fair amount of profanity, that is.
I told him, "Go straight up California for a long way."
He floored it. Every time he did that, an expensive, screeching noise issued from under the van. We bounced through a red light. The van had worn out its shock absorbers 100,000 miles ago. I clamped my teeth so I wouldn't bite my tongue when we hit a bump.
At the next intersection, the driver braked for a red light. The brakes made a metallic squealing accompanied by a rumbling, ringing sound like a machine lathe turning, cutting metal. The van slewed to the left. The driver pulled on the wheel, bringing the car back over to his side of the street.
The cross-street light turned yellow. The driver floored it. We shot through the intersection. Approaching the next one, he asked, "Turr hee?"
"No. Go straight."
Clearly, he had abandoned all responsibility for navigation. Now it was up to us. Fortunately, we were familiar with the streets of San Francisco. What if this had been Philadelphia? Baltimore? Cleveland? (OK. It could never have been Cleveland.)
"Sorry. Straight. Go straight."
Running two more red lights, we reached our hotel. We collected our bags and I paid him. He looked at me, shook my hand and said, "Sorry. New Drivah. Sorry."
The next day, we hailed another cab piloted by a recent Chinese immigrant. We gave him our destination address, and he promptly took off in the wrong direction. I thought to myself that maybe he knew some short cut, some way of beating congestion by going away from our objective. I was at the point of saying something to him when he said, "Sorry. Wrong direction. I make mistake. You no pay."
Turning around, he sped down Stockton, through the tunnel. I heard a siren behind us. Motorcycle cop. Our driver pulled over. The cop walked up to the window. "You were doing 45 through the tunnel."
The cop walked back to his motorcycle to get his ticket pad. Our driver put his face in his hands and said, "Oh God." We got out, paid the amount on the meter, and walked the rest of the way to Market Street.
Our friend Maria listened to our tale of woe and gave us the name of a driver she uses in San Francisco. Jean called Raymond. I said as she was calling, "If his name is Raymond, he's probably Chinese." (In my experience, Chinese-Americans are partial to the name Raymond.)
Listening to Jean's end of the conversation, I heard:
"Yes, Raymond? Is this Raymond? I want to speak to Raymond. Yes? Raymond?"
"Uh-huh. Are you a driver?"
"Could you repeat that?"
Most people would have hung up and written off drivers forever. But we trust our friend Maria, and if she vouched for Raymond, we weren't going to write him off. Not without trying him, anyway.
The next morning, exactly at eight as promised, Raymond picked us up in a spotless, new Town Car. He was friendly, courteous, trustworthy and brave. Well, I don't know about that last, but he had the first three down pat. We had a smooth ride direct to our destination, relaxing in the back seat, talking to each other. Exactly what we'd had in mind.
They tell you it's a bad idea to hail a cab. Better to hire a driver you know.
The second half of our journey, the Houston—San Francisco leg, devolved into slapstick comedy. Sitting in the President's Club, drinking my Presidential Diet Coke and eating my Presidential Peanuts, I looked out the window at a line of planes hooked up to jetways. Through the glass, I heard the penetrating whine of some machine. Occasionally the pitch of the whine dropped, and a thick cloud of black smoke squirted into the air from somewhere behind one of the planes.
That turned out to be our plane.
As the afternoon wore on, the President's Club emptied out as one flight after another took off. In the terminal corridors, the crowds thinned. On the status monitors, the projected departure time for our flight approached, and then receded. Each time we came within a half hour of takeoff, someone set our ETD back another couple of hours.
Unaccountably, we had planned on Continental feeding us dinner. Call us crazy. We somehow thought that having been treated to a first-class upgrade would provide us with actual food. Meanwhile, we sat in the President's Club, staving off hunger with tiny bags of Eagle Brand Honey Roasted Peanuts. There were some apples in a bowl, but they were hard and underripe. I had forgotten how bad fruit in the U. S. can be.
When hunger overcame our good sense, we wandered over to a cluster of food court restaurants: Popeye's, Pizza Hut, Harlan's BBQ... Just past the cafeteria-style places, I spied a place called Bubba's Seafood Grill. It had proper tables and waiters, and a darkened, sophisticated-looking atmosphere. Inside, the atmosphere turned out to simply be bad lighting, but we prepared to seat ourselves in a crowded row of small black formica tables. As I turned sideways to squeeze between two tables, my carry-on bag brushed against a large bottle of catsup on the table behind me. The bottle fell to the ceramic tile floor and shattered explosively.
Catsup and glass coated a large part of the entry aisle. Red glop adhered to one of my shoes. My pants were splattered.
I was embarassed, feeling like a clumsy oaf. That is, until a waiter said, "No problem. That happens all the time." Then I noticed that on every table, the same trap had been set: Large bottles of catsup and hot sauce perched at the very edges, waiting to be brushed onto the hard floor.
A surly woman in a plastic smock and shower cap arrived with a broom and dust pan. She swept up most of the broken glass and smeared the catsup around. Defeated by its viscosity, she quit trying to get it off the floor and instead just placed one of those folding yellow "wet floor" signs in the middle of the aisle. Then she turned her back on the mess and slouched back to her lair.
After we had completed our penance by waiting long enough, a waitress brought our menus, addressing both of us as "Honey." It was clearly time to leave, but we were by now too hungry to be sensible.
Jean opted for the Caesar salad—always a mistake in an airport restaurant—and I ordered a shrimp cocktail (six jumbo shrimp—$11) and the meat loaf—a daring contrarian move in a seafood restaurant. The Caesar salad turned out to be leathery outside leaves of romaine tossed with Wish-Bone dressing and sprinkled with some kind of grated cheese food product. The shrimp were tired and rubbery and were served with catsup-based cocktail sauce (retribution?). The meat loaf had been prepared during the Clinton Administration.
How can you screw up meat loaf? Bubba's found a way. It had sat for so long before I ordered it, it was actually crunchy. Kind of a meat loaf beef jerky food product.
We forced our dinners down and returned to the President's Cub for another hour when our flight was finally called.
They'd given up on our original aircraft, which still sat, smoldering, at its gate. It was replaced, praise be to Allah, by an international-class 757. Our first-class upgrade meant we were gonna sit in those huge fully reclining seats and watch our choice of any of 50 movies on demand on our individual fold-out LCD screens. And, we were gonna get a gourmet meal!
The plane took off. We stretched out in our seats. Jean started to watch Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. The flight attendant came by to take our dinner order. She said, "We've given up on the salmon. Six hours on the ground, and it's just not gonna make it. You have a choice of beef tips with rice or a salad and pizza from the back."
I went with the beef tips, which had also suffered from the six hours on the ground: stale and dry. Jean ordered the pizza. (She often makes the worst food choices.) Back came a tired, six-hour-old salad and a cello-wrapped "pizza-ette." She didn't even bother opening the package.
Disappointment and resentment derives from unrealistic expectations. Somehow, we were anticipating an improvement in our dining experiences just because we had started on our trip to SF. The truth is, there is no good food in transit between León and San Francisco. What were we thinking?
Tonight's going to be different. We're going to join my sister Suzie for dinner at a great sushi restaurant over on Ninth Avenue. Hopefully, this expectation is not unrealistic.
To get to San Francisco from San Miguel, your main option is through Houston. There used to be a direct flight to Oakland, on the other side of San Francisco Bay. Maybe there still is. But it's a redeye, sometimes it makes a stop in Zacatecas, and it terminates in... um... Oakland. I'd rather leave home at 9 AM, spend more time in transit, and wind up someplace I wanna be. Going to California is an all-day affair any way you approach it. Might as well do it in comfort.
Continental sent me an email, offering me the option to check in online. I bit, and clicked the link. Eight pages later, after making entries in several fields and clicking various buttons, I got a page that said I couldn't get my boarding passes online because the Guanajuato Airport doesn't allow online check-in. Boy, did I feel like a dummy! Trying to check in online from BJX! Duh!
Now, wait a minute. Didn't I just say that Continental sent me an email asking me to check in online? They want me to cooperate with them in this because it saves them money. But... somewhere in their system, they know that Guanajuato will not permit online check-in, because their computer served me a web page saying so. So why the hell don't they just implement a little program branch that says, "If the passenger is leaving from Guanajuato, don't bother sending him a check-in email, because it's just gonna piss him off."
Things have gone from bad to worse with luggage allowances. Some time ago, most airlines made a new rule restricting checked luggage to two pieces per passenger, neither weighing more than 50 lbs. (A far cry from the days when we carried 24 MacIntosh computers to Moscow as checked baggage, no questions asked.) You could get around the rule by paying $20 for an overweight bag. Sometimes, it was worth it.
But in the fine print, Continental warns you that at certain times of year, they won't accept overweight bags at any price, and we learned today that this restriction was now in effect. But in effect only in Guanajuato!
The check-in agents were strictly enforcing the new rule, causing in a huge back-up at the desk. Seems like everyone had overweight bags. Sometimes by ten or twelve pounds, sometimes by less than a pound. No matter. Overweight? You had to do something about it.
It was amazing. Ahead of me, a woman had her open bag on the scale. She'd managed to get six pounds of stuff transferred from her checked luggage to her carry-on. The gate agent said, "You've got another pound to go." She jammed some more stuff into her hand baggage. The agent said, "Whoah. Whoah! That's enough!"
I may have been witnessing the first regulation in Mexico ever precisely and honestly enforced. No mordida. No letting anyone slide for a few ounces.
Of course, the question is, Why? Why 50 lbs? Why only Guanajuato?
It's not like baggage handlers can't move heavy bags. They've been doing it for years. Does it have to do with some limitation of the aircraft? Maybe the runway is a little short in Guanajuato, and a full plane can't take off with too much baggage? But then why does everyone get to shuffle their stuff from bag to bag. The plane winds up taking off with the same weight on board.
I'll never understand airlines.
I visited the men's room next to Gate #3. The screen in the bottom of the urinal was advertising a deli. The slogan said, "Aaaaah. ¡Que Rico!"—"How Delicious!" What genius came up with that? Many years ago, I saw a urinal screen in a bowling alley in San Mateo, CA, that said, "Artistry in Plastics." Until today, that one was the record holder for stupidity.
Between most neighboring countries in the world, things look pretty much the same on either side of the border. This is definitely not so at the Mexican border, and you can readily see it from the air. In Tamaulipas just south of the Rio Grande, the land is sere, taupe-colored desert, a few scattered dusty towns, and narrow highways with no traffic. Just across the river in Texas, orderly green irrigated fields, prosperous communities and busy freeways define the landscape. It's startling the first time you see it. How is it possible that the same biosphere can look so different on either side of such a thin line?
Of course, what we're seeing is not so much an environmental difference as one of wealth. In 2004, the Mexican per capita income was $6,770. In the U. S., it was $41,400, six times as much. When you're poor, you can't afford to develop, to pave roads, to irrigate. You can see it at the border from the air: The color of money is green.
One of the disadvantages of living in a foreign country is that we don't get to see our families and friends enough. It's been a year since we last visited Northern California—too long. Also, we suffer from reverse culture shock. When we go north we get: frantic people, pothole-free roads, high costs, honest cops, lousy weather, sushi and "have a nice day." It's disorienting.
Today I'm acculturating myself. NetFlix has sent me Alien, one of Roger Ebert's Top 100 Movies of All Time. That Roger should include it almost makes up for his placing My Dinner with Andre on the same list. For me, what catapults Alien to greatness is the five minutes of footage of terrified Sigourney Weaver in her underpants. Pure art, if you ask me.
I'll be watching it in just a minute.
Also, I've loaded up my iPod with the oeuvre of Bo Diddley, possibly the inventor of, and certainly the greatest Rock 'n' Roller of all time, as well as a truly great American.
OK. So compared with Chuck Berry or Elvis, he was a minor figure. But I contend that this is because audiences simply could not comprehend his vision.
I first saw him on the stage of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater at an Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll show in 1956. Dressed in a red sequined zoot-suit-length sport coat, he entered from stage left to the opening chords of that anthem of Rock 'n' Roll, "Hey Bo Diddley" while duck walking and playing a guitar shaped like a lightning bolt.
It was the defining moment of my life.
Soon he was into "Who Do You Love?" I was swept away by the sheer poetry of his lyrics:
"Take it easy, Arlene / Don't give me no lip."
"You shoulda heard / Just what I seen."
"Arlene took me / By the hand,
She said,'Ooo-eee Bo / Y'know I understand."
Some of you may disagree with my assessment of the greatness of these lines, but they were, by God, good enough for George Thurgood whose pathetically derivative cover of "Who Do You Love?" probably made him more money than Bo made in his entire career. Oh, the unfairness!
Anyway, with the iPod all loaded up, I'm good for a couple of hours of '50s Rock 'n' Roll while we're in the air, and when we land at SFO, I can hit the ground running.
My vulnerability, however, doesn't stop me from gleefully pointing my finger at those who blow it in English. Japanese speakers writing in Engllish are particularly susceptible, and thus, to my sophomoric mind, an endless source of entertainment: this for example.
BTW, engrish.com is worth extensive browsing, particularly if your sense of humor runs to an adolescent's idea of double entendre.
Usually they want to know how to get out of town. "¿Donde está la salida de Celaya?" (Where is the road to Celaya?)
Exactly. I face this problem whenever I enter a Mexican city. How the hell do I get out of here? Getting into town is easy. Once there, however, it's like entering an alternate universe, where familiar rules of topology don't apply.
Some things that prevent people from finding their way:
1) Street names change from block to block. Calle de la Revolución in this block becomes Carretera de los Heros Niños in the next. Without notice. In San Miguel, our first home was on Garita. A block to the west, it becomes Hospicio, then Cuadrante, then Pila Seca, and finally, Prolongación Pila Seca. Most city maps aren't detailed enough (or accurate enough) to track all this.
2) Signage is poor or absent. There's often nothing to advise you that you now are on the Carretera de los... etc.
3) Most local residents have no idea how to get out of town. But they all are firendly and want to be helpful, so they give you directions anyway. Their helpfulness ensures that you will get lost if you weren't before.
I get lost almost every time I try to drive into the U. S. via Nuevo Laredo. Others seem to manage without difficulty. Not me. Maybe I take maps too literally. Having been advised that Bridge #2 is the best route, I carefully try to follow the route in my Guia Roji (the equivalent of a Rand-McNally road atlas). However, the bridge numbering in the atlas (#1, #2, #3) doesn't match the actual bridge numbering on the signs in Nuevo Laredo (#2, #3, #1). So I wind up wandering on local streets, stopping at Pemex gas stations and asking for directions.
(This is an act that takes some nerve in a city where the last Chief of Police lasted eight hours before he was shot dead by local gang members, and where the authorities have been unable to persuade anyone else to take the job.)
By the time I'm desperate enough to ask for instructions, I don't give a damn which bridge I take. Any one will do so long as it crosses the Rio Grande. I ask, "¿Donde está la puente de los Estados Unidos?"
I never get a straight answer. My putative informant turns to a companion and begins a discussion about where the bridge might be and what routes might possibly lead there. Soon, one or two otherwise unemployed men drift over and join the group, offering other possibilities. I've since come to realize that they, too, are hampered by a street-naming convention so arcane that even though they've lived with it all of their lives, it's as impenetrable to them as it is to me. And in any event, none of them have ever crossed the border, so they really aren't familiar with the route.
Unable to use street names (because they don't know them, and even if they did, there'd be no signs to guide me), they construct a set of directions using landmarks. They tell me to go straight down the street until I see the Pollo Felíz, turn left, continue on straight past the signal light until I reach McDonalds, and then turn right...
The intersection at McDonalds turns out to be six-way, so there's two possible right turns. And anyway, since the Spanish word for "right" is "derecha" and "straight ahead" is "derecho," my guides may not have been indicating any turn at all.
So it's always hard to get out of town.
Once, an an Angel of Mercy got into her car and led me out of Monterrey. Another time, a man got into my car and directed me to the road leading out of Ciudad Juárez, getting out at the city limits. In Gomez Palacio (a town to be avoided at all costs), I rolled through a stop sign while hopelessly lost and was pulled over by a policeman. I was so frustrated that when he came up to my window, I handed him my map and, almost in tears, asked him for directions. After showing me where to go, I asked about about my violación. He looked at me pathetically, laughed and waved me on my way.
All this is bad enough: inconsistent street names, poor signage, poor directions. But in San Miguel de Allende, over time, street names change. Not only do they change, but when the city finally got around to putting up (barely readable) street signs at corners, in addition to directing motorists, they were used to document the street name history of the intersection.
(This is another problem: Signs with too much information. When you slow down to try to comprehend all of the information, a traficante stops you and gives you and writes you a ticket.)
Here's some examples:
The signs on this street indicate that the street names changed somewhere along the way and one street became two. The sign on the left identifies Cañadita de los Aguacates. Cañadita translates as "little gully" or "little sheep track," so here we have a street named "Little Avocado Gully." Underneath the street name appears the notation, "Antes Cañada de los Aguacates." Previously Avocado Gully."
See what I mean? Too much information. Does anyone care that sometime back in history, the word "little" was added to the street name?
And that's not all the sign tells us. Under the Arms of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, underneath the street name and the previous street name, we read that our location is also known as block 37 of quarter 5 and that we are in zip code 37700. Finally, molded at the bottom of the frame, we see "City council 2003-2006." Credit where credit is due.
At the risk of being branded cynical, I'll confess that I can't help wondering if this is the kind of thing that happens when a scion of the local nobility, unable to find useful employment, is awarded a sinecure in the local government, such as Director of Street Signs. Does he sit at his desk, and with nothing better to do, change street names and design complicated signs to commemorate his contributions?
The second sign above illustrates more of this idea. Here we have Calle Nueva—New Street... Previously Avocado Gully.
I hope you're following this.
On the other hand, two street names can become one. My street was once known as Guadiana Street, when it wasn't known as Hospital Street. Both are now Aldama—an improvement, I guess. Although why this information is included on street signs is beyond me. Is it so old timers won't get confused? I don't think so. The name Hospital Street was used in the 18th Century. See? It says so right on the sign. I don't think anyone is having trouble keeping up with the dizzying pace of change.
Over the years, I've managed to learn the intricacies of our ancient streets. I know which streets are one-way, which ones are too narrow for my Explorer. Diligent and frequent scouting keeps me up-to-date on closures, when men bury new telephone lines or replace cobblestones. There's at least one Mexican town I don't get lost in.
So it's with a certain smugness that I turn to the harried-looking driver in the Lexus bearing Mexico City plates and tell him, "Váyase derecho en esta calle por dos cuadras, da una vuelta a la derecha, y entonces derecho todo por la glorieta. Allí está la salida de Celaya." (Go straight on this street for two blocks, turn to the right, and then go straight through the traffic circle. There's the exit to Celaya.)
You can take first class buses non-stop between major cities. They have bathrooms, aircraft-type reclining seats, movies (mostly B-movies that the driver starts at whatever point it left off when he entered the terminal), and some buses have attendants that offer sandwiches and drinks. Second class buses get you there cheaper, without all the amenities. Other buses ply the same routes, but stop along the road wherever people are waiting. Still others travel the back roads, providing transportation for campesinos. They're rustic, but forever gone is the experience of sharing a seat with a crate of chickens. Maybe in China, but no longer in Mexico.
In San Miguel, we have municipal buses: Worn out diesels belching black smoke roaring through their worn-out mufflers. The interiors smell like an auto mechanic's garage, reeking of motor oil spilled on the exhaust manifold. But they run frequently, and you can go anywhere in town for $4 pesos.
Fleets of charter buses park anywhere they can just outside of the centro. They bring Mexican tourists from the great cities: Mexico, Monterrey, Guadalajara. They bring schoolchildren from towns large and small to visit historic San Miguel de Allende, the birthplace independence from Spain.
Buses arguably are the most important form of transportation in Mexico. But are they safe? ¿Quién sabe? I don't think anybody compiles statistics. I don't think anybody cares.
They don't seem safe. Local buses have eroded almost to the limits of functionality. Cracked windshields, bald tires, squealing brakes are bad enough. What deeper faults lurk?
Bus drivers appear to be fearless risk-takers. At the Centro de Autobuses, they stop and pray at a convenient Guadalupe shrine before climbing into their seats and barreling down the shoulder-less highways, blowing through speed limits and passing on curves and hills. They drive with no concerns. After all, their lives, and those of their passengers now are in las manos de Dios.
A couple of months ago, the brakes failed on a busload of tourists traveling down a winding grade in the Sierra Gorda. Scores were killed. Only one little girl survived, her body shielded by her Grandmother as the bus skidded off the highway and plummeted into a steep ravine. It was the highest bus accident death toll ever. The owner of the bus went into hiding, to avoid certain imprisonment for criminal negligence.
High speed highway buses have one visible safety feature. When I first saw these gadgets, I couldn't figure out what they were...
What we've got here is a teardrop-shaped meachanism attached via a bearing to the hub, so it doesn't rotate with the wheel. A metal tube leads away into the darkened reaches of the undercarriage.
A closer look reveals another tube leading from the tire's valve stem to the teardrop-shaped object.
Now, it's function is obvious. It's an air pressure sensor that warns the driver if any tire starts losing air.
Sensors like this are not required on semis. A highly visible result of this oversight is the alarming number of overturned tractor-trailer rigs you see alongside the highways.
In the U. S., tire air pressure sensors are required on all buses and semis. But you don't see them, because these high-tech sensors are little widgets that mount inside each tire, and which send air pressure data to the driver via radio.
I noticed one bus that had brought a high school class to San Miguel, parked across from the new multimillion-peso parking garage, (recently completed on Calle Cardo, and which apparently was designed so that buses can't fit into it).
What is the meaning of all the maple leaves painted on its side? It looks like a World War II plane displaying the number of kills.
The first thing that came to my mind was, "Number of Canadians run over."
However, he is Mexican.
So when left to his own devices, he does things the Mexican Way.
Here is the example you knew was coming. There is a big, noisy fountain on our back patio. It has a drain that is sealed with one of those old-fashioned rubber stoppers we used to have in bathtubs, the kind that are attached to little chains. But the stopper in our fountain is a tiny bit too small for the pipe it fits into, probably because it has been eaten away by the Clorox we use to keep algae down. So the fountain leaks and empties itself in about a day and nobody refills it. I don't get to run it during my nap so I can sleep to the sound of falling water.
[Really! You see what I have to deal with here. I'm sure you can sympathize.]
So I asked Edgar, in my very best Spanish, to fix the fountain. Maybe he could find a new, bigger stopper? ¿Quizás un tapón nueve?
Within 20 minutes, the fountain was up and operating. While grateful for the quick response, I knew that the repair I had visualized was not the repair I got, given how little time it took.
I looked into the fountain. There was the old stopper, shoved deep into the drainpipe, with a nice new bead of silicone caulk around it.
Well, Edgar had stopped the leak. And he had done it without actually spending any money. He had acted fully in concert with good Mexican values: Do it cheaply, effectively and quickly.
Of course, if we ever want to change the water in the fountain, we'll have to bail it out with a bucket. Can't unplug the drain anymore. But then, in all the houses we rented prior to buying this one, that's exactly how the water was changed in all of those fountains. And it's not like I am going to have to change the water myself. Edgar is going to change it.
So what's my problem? I really have nothing to bitch about...
This is a big deal. People have been frightened and discouraged that this man was running around unchecked. We have all reviewed our home security situations and made improvements. There has been anger directed at the police, anger directed by Mexicans toward the vociferous expatriate community, and resentment by Nortamericanos directed at the perceived unsympathetic attitudes of some Mexican residents. We're troubled that these unfortunate attacks, besides inflicting injuries directly on the victims themselves, have also caused strife and unrest in our community.
On the other hand, some good things have come of this. Our police forces have been strengthened. Neighborhood watches have been set up. Some Mexican women have been encouraged by the example of the gringas who demanded action and justice. Too often, rape is not taken seriously in Mexico, and victims often are dissuaded from pressing their cases.
The rapes have been widely reported in the American press, because San Miguel de Allende is a major tourist attraction and retirement center, and many of its residents and visitors are prominent people in the U. S. Frequent articles in major publications such as the New York Times and Forbes, to name two, extol the virtues of our little town. It's often on "top ten" lists of places to retire or places to appreciate art. So press reports about a serial rapist tarnish our image. Local businesses are feeling the impact as people cancel visits. Decisions to buy homes or move here are being postponed.
The capture of Jose Luis Alvarez Gonzalez has brought much relief to everyone here: residents, visitors, business owners, the government and especially, to the victims. Governor Hicks and everyone connected with the justice system of the State of Guanajuato, know that the disposition of this case will be watched very closely by everyone concerned.
Cristy and her cousin, Patty (Coincidence? I think not.) are both turning 15 which is a big deal for a young lady. The quinceañera is a ceremony and party to celebrate her quinceaños, or 15th birthday. It marks her passage into womanhood.
Jean and I, and my friend Paul Gross, drove to Lagos de Moreno, about 2½ hours from San Miguel, where the party was to be held. We attended a mass held in the girls' honor, along with about 80 members of Cristy and Patty's family. Grandma cried throughout.
Afterward, we all piled into cars and went to Grandma's house for the secular part of the celebration—the fiesta. There, we ate carnitas that had been prepared by family members, and drank diet cokes. Jean drank her first shot of tequila, biting a lime and licking salt. She liked it. A band, also composed of family members, played loud music. Is there any other kind in Mexico? Cristy wanted a different band because the one she got played old people music. Too bad, kid. You can't have everything.
Cristy's brother, Jose, got leave from the Army to come to her quinceañera. Christy had an elegant dress, and Jose bought a new suit in San Antonio especially for the occasion.
For more pictures, click here.
For uptight gringos, the best part of it all was to participate with a large family of people who truly loved each other. Their affection for one another was patent, and their welcome for us was warm.
When we lived in Glen Ellen, Palo Alto or San Jose, we always drove to the store. There was no place to buy a loaf of bread within walking distance. So we'd fire up the SUV and make the ten-mile, half-hour round trip drive to Safeway for a two-dollar purchase.
The paucity of privately owned cars in Mexican towns creates an ecological niche for tiny little stores, called tienditas.
A typical tiendita
The common characteristics of tienditas are: a small amount of floor space almost entirely covered with racks, boxes and cases of merchandise, a very limited selection heavy on snack foods and soft drinks, and little or no lighting. Some are named: Aborretes Velasquez. Many are not. In these, only a few bakery or Coca-Cola logos announce their presence.
In the unlit interior of the typical tiendita pictured above, we see on offer: soft drinks, fruit juices, a few cans of Campbell's soup, bottles of salsa, five-gallon jugs of drinking water, Twinkie-like snacks and Kelloggs Corn Flakes. Other shops offer toiletries. Some sell dog kibble; an open 40-pound bag sits on the floor from which you scoop as much as you need.
On the right side of the pictured tiendita is a glassed-in case on a rickety wooden table. What does it contain?
Well, it contains deep-fried orange styrofoam snacks, a great favorite, especially with schoolchildren. For a peso, you get a narrow plastic bag full of hardened foam, with red salsa dumped on top. Sometimes you get chopped peppers and onions, providing a modicum of nutrition. Kids stick their grubby little hands in their bags and fish out spicy crispy gunk that they munch as they walk down the street. When they have eaten it all, what remains is a plastic bag with about an inch of red liquid at the bottom, which they throw on the street.
Once a fat kid walking with his fat, middle-class mother, threw his bag at my feet, splattering my shoes with goop. I said to the mom, "¡Que triste! tirar basura en la calle." (How sad, to throw garbage in the street!) The mother glared at me and steered her son away from the loco gringo.
Tienditas are always located in a spare room in the family home. Usually a door is put through an outside wall into a bedroom, but some new homes are built with space specially designed for little shops. Lupe Cano, who worked on our ranch in Glen Ellen for many years, built a four-bedroom home on a corner lot in his hometown of Capilla de Milpillas, in which he hopes to live when he retires. The ground floor corner room has a pair of roll-up steel doors, so he can set up his tiendita whenever he returns to Mexico.
Tienditas provide a small source of ready cash, difficult to come by in Mexico. Our next door neighbors, the Rodriguez sisters, once operated one. I would have thought they would have done well with it, since our location, adjacent to Juarez park should provide good foot traffic. But they closed it last week because it didn't make enough money to be worth the effort. Too many rich Nortamericanos live in the neighborhood, and they don't shop much in tienditas.
The closure causes a problem for us. We buy our five-gallon jugs of drinking water from them, since we only have to carry them a few feet to our own door. Fortunately, we can have water delivered. We'll just have to call the Santorini man and ask him to put us on his route. He'll probably wind up delivering the same amount of water to us as he did to the Rodriguez sisters; I think we were the only people who bought water from them.
By the way, the "Bimbo" sign is the trade name for a bread company. And it's pronounced "Beem-boe;" not the way you think it is.
The man carefully cases his victims. All are single women aged around 50-65 years. All are gringas. He enters their homes in the very early hours of the morning and holds the women at knifepoint. Women who fight back are brutally beaten. He calls them by name. He speaks perfect English, but probably is Mexican.
Catching serial rapists is difficult. When we lived in Palo Alto, another rapist who preyed on elderly women via home invasion assaulted nine victims before he was caught. A letter writer to the gringo newspaper, Atención, related a similar story that occurred in another American town.
To the American expatriate community, the police response has not been encouraging. A police artist sketch of the perpetrator exists, but the police refuse to publish it because they think it's "unreliable." A citizen's group that wants to offer a reward for information has been told they may not do so because "it could panic the community." The police have fingerprints and DNA samples, but no computerized database exists in Mexico to permit identification of the rapist. Indications exist that he has been incarcerated in the United States, so one resident arranged for the cooperation of the FBI. The police apparently have not sent samples to them yet, even though all this was set up in December.
To add to the general dismay, the police system is broken. Several different police organizations exist in our community: the traffic police, the "preventative" police, the Ministerio Publico, the State police. Jurisdictional boundaries prevent one kind of police officer from helping another, so in a town with maybe 200 policemen, only two are working the case, and they are on loan from Guanajuato.
Assistant Police Chief Bruno Galicia summed it up when he said, "The police department responds to activity in the street and to prevent crime. This crime occurred within a home, so it is out of our hands." (Italics mine.) He concluded with, "We must not let this affect other aspects of the city. San Miguel continues to be a safe place to live and visit." I for one am not reassured.
One of the vacation house rental agents knows that not everyone feels this way. A woman called her from the US and said she was canceling her visit. She demanded her deposit back, saying the agent had "failed to disclose the presence of a serial rapist." Exactly.
We are now in the middle of a quiet week. Campaigning ended last Sunday by law, giving everyone a chance to relax and think about their choices before voting. The end of campaigning was marked by noisy rallies, loud even by Mexican standards. A sound system with more than 80 huge speakers was set up in the Jardin. All day long, candidates yelled into microphones, haranguing the crowds. Of course, fireworks exploded continuously. No public function happens without fireworks.
Foreigners are prohibited by law from participating in politics, so while the election results are important for us gringos, our stake in the process is somewhat reduced. All of the hoopla is, for us, merely annoying.
Advertisements for candidates are painted on walls. Posters cover every available surface: buses, buildings, phone poles, ropes strung across streets, bridges... The place is a mess.
Some candidates might be better off with more flattering portraits on their posters.
Ar the risk of judging character by appearances, I must say that Martín Martínez, in this poster, is not trust-inspiring. The jowly face, the hooded eyes and the grudging smile evoke thoughts of past politicians whose interests were not necessarily those of the people they served, to be delicate about it. Martín might consider putting up a few more pesos for a better photographer next time.
On the other hand, Miguel Raya's photo makes him look like a technician, come to fix your satellite receiver. Neither of them is wearing a necktie, probably to enhance their images as men of the common people. They are, after all, candidates of the left-wing PRD. But in Miguel's case, casual dress just makes him look like a nebbish.
These may well be capable, honorable men. But their posters don't, in my mind, help convey that idea. Image. Always so important. And often elusive in local, low-budget politics.
One day, exploring, I climbed a narrow, rickety stairway to the flat rooftop. There, under the eaves, was a bench bearing a washtub and a washboard. A clothesline was stretched between two rooftop bodegas (storerooms) on which hung the sheets that had been on our bed the day before.
I had trouble registering the scene. I was standing on the roof of the elegant mansion of a rich woman, looking at a third-world laundry facility.
In 1944, when I was three, my impecunious parents bought a used wringer-style washing machine. Sixty years later, these poor women still didn't even have that.
Later, I discovered that they were lucky. At least their laundry facility was inside (well—on top of) the house.
For those who have no laundry facilities in their houses, there's the public laundry—a row of square concrete tanks lined up against the wall of a pleasant little plaza. When I first saw it, no one was there. I figured it was a historical vestige preserved to enhance local color. Surely nobody still used it!
Once, while riding the bus through the countryside to Guanajuato, I saw a group of women squatting by a muddy stream, their laundry piled on rocks beside them. That image was less surprising than to see people in the city using the public laundry. City dwellers are supposed to be more affluent, more technologically hip. We got cable TV. We got Wi-Fi hot spots.
But we also got goatherds. We got burros pulling carts laden with scavenged cornstalks. Parts of Mexico remain firmly in the Third World.
The scene at the public laundry is a study in contrasts. People who don't have the resources to do their laundry at home are working, backs bowed, in the shadows of homes that are worth more than a million dollars.
For example, the letter "W" is used infrequently in Spanish, and then mostly in loanwords, such as "waffle" and "sandwich." The sound of the letter "W" is nearly identical to the sound of the Spanish "gu," as in "guacamole," pronounced wahk-ah-MOLE-lay.
The double O is even more rare. It sounds like the Spanish "U," but the word "Wood" sounds to Mexican ears like woo-id. John Woo-id. Difficult to process on the first try. When giving my name over the phone, I'm often asked to repeat it several times.
My first name is commonly heard in Mexico, but spelling it is another matter. No letter of the Spanish alphabet has a sound that corresponds to the English "J." The closest you can come is "ch." Moreover, except in "ch," the letter "H" is silent. It always appears at the beginning of a syllable and it always is followed by a vowel. So spelling my name "John" looks just plain wrong.
The result is that when checking into a hotel, it's not unusual to see that they're holding a room for "Jhon Guid." Chon Woo-id.
Update: Young Mexicans use the American loanword "Wow!" When they use it in emails or text messages, they spell it "¡Guau!"
People who are fortunate enough to have garages jealously protect their driveways. They paint lines on the street claiming the frontage that belongs to their entryways. They call the police to tow cars parked in them. And virtually every driveway has a No Parking sign.
When not angry or lustful, most Mexican people are polite, even courtly in their speech. But the rules go out the window when it comes to parking. This sign, for example, is decidedly hostile. The "E" with the circle through it means "No Parking." The rest of the text says, "Tires punched for free."
Punching tires, even those on a car blocking your driveway, surely is illegal. So what does the sign mean? Is it some sort of humor, kind of like the signs in New York that say "Don't Even THINK of Parking Here!" Or is the threat real? If, upon returning to your illegally parked car, you find you have four flat tires, would you call the police? Would you expect them to confront the homeowner who posted the threatening sign? Would they help you recover damages?
This would depend in the faith you have in the efficiency and integrity of the Mexican justice system ...
Here and there around town, you come across places like these. Some have running water, but many do not have electricity or telephone. Some don't have gas, so people laboriously walk to the outskirts of town to gather dead branches: Firewood for cooking dinner. There's no fireplace or stove; just three rocks on the ground and a hole in the roof.
A Ruin of a House.
The people who live here certainly do not own the lot. They probably are paying a nominal rent, or working for the owner, or squatting. But they have civic pride. The sign in black paint is their message to passers-by to keep the streets clean.
A Warning to Dog Walkers.
It reads: "Pick up your dog's poop. Or eat it. Don't be pigs. The streets of our city are not dog toilets. —The Neighbors."
By the way, the lot will sell for six figures—in dollars! Whoever buys it will tear down the house and replace it with something elegant. Their property values will no doubt be enhanced by the pristine surrounding streets.
Once, my combination radio and CD player stopped working. In San Francisco, I would have been charged $30 or more to have a repair shop diagnose the problem, with repair charges on top of that if it was repairable. Probably cheaper and certainly easier just to throw it away and buy a new one. It's the American Way.
When I proposed this course of action to Rosario, our ama de llaves (housekeeper) she was scandalized. Why would one ever throw something away? Maybe it will work again. Surely the técnico will know what to do.
Chastened, I consulted Juarde, the gringo phone book. Not a single radio and TV repairman was listed. Of course not. Why would any gringo have any interest in such people. We have all learned that broken things get thrown away, not repaired.
Then I remembered seeing a sign over a downtown store front advertising electronics repairs. Where was it? On Mesones? Insurgentes? I took my radio and walked through a couple of blocks until I found it. I gave the radio to the proprietor. He told me to come back in an hour. When I returned, he handed me the repaired radio and charged me 100 pesos—about $9—less than 10% of the new cost of the radio.
Gotta remember: Machines—expensive. Labor—cheap.
Nowhere is this principle more evident than in construction. Houses, roads and bridges are all built and repaired by hand.
Repaving Privada Pila Seca.
Here a crew is renewing the sidewalks and cobblestone surface of a short street. The curbstones have been set, but the sidewalk paving stones await placement after which the cobblestones, previously removed and placed in a pile (visible in the background) will be replaced on the newly hand-graded street surface. A hammer, chisel and a shovel are the only tools available to the workmen. Old paint buckets. Maybe a pickaxe. The new paving will last maybe three or four years, after which the guys will be back to tear up the street and fix it again. Macadam paving would last 15 years or more, but ... Materials—expensive. Labor—cheap.
The workmen don't even have a cement mixer, much less a truck full of ready-mix. Not even a wheelbarrow. They mix their mortar right on the ground, in the same way that their Mayan and Aztec forebears did. All over town you see piles of sand and cement, with water pooled in the dished-out centers. It's mixed by scooping with a shovel, and then put, with that same shovel, into five-gallon buckets and carried to where it's needed.
Carlos Slim, the world's third-richest man, is a Mexican. He owns much of TelMex and other high-tech communications operations. He can afford to own things. The guys repaving the street make six or eight dollars a day. That barely buys food. And you thought the growing gap between rich and poor in the States was bad!
Egrets nesting in Juarez Park.
These are the tallest trees for miles around, the forests once surrounding San Miguel de Allende having long ago been cut for beams, furniture and firewood. Many years ago, when the trees of Juarez Park were smaller, and some large trees remained in the countryside, egrets and grackles opted for the quiet of the campo. But now, the trees in the city are the only game in town, so it is here that they come.
The noise they make is incredible. Hundreds of birds all calling at once sounds like a late-stage cocktail party. Neither of the two species have pleasant songs. Egrets squawk and occasionally gargle. Grackles make lewd catcalls. Approach a tree where birds are gathered, and conversation becomes impossible until you're well past it.
I sort of like it.
The main complaint of park users is that the birds defecate where people want to congregate. A lot. Walks, walls and plants become encrusted with a nearly unbroken layer of guano. It smells. The whole park smells. Bird poop sticks to the soles of shoes, weighing down the feet of joggers. Staying in the park for an hour increases the probability of a direct hit to a near-certainty. People slip and fall. Plants die, suffocated under the alkaline mess.
Bespattered Wall and Plants.
The situation called for war. It was the birds or us.
The initial salvo was literally, a salvo. Attempts were made to shoot the birds, or at least to scare them away with gunfire. The birds, except for those few that were actually hit, were unmoved.
However, some citizens were outraged.
WHAT??? You're shooting NESTING egrets? Those beautiful, graceful white birds? And their CHICKS? Baby birds? You're BLASTING their nests out of the trees? What are you—barbarians?
(Our municipal government has a penchant for getting itself into these situations.)
Time for Plan B. Someone suggested that playing warbling electronic noises over loudspeakers situated throughout the park would cause the birds to stay away. Up went the speakers. A tape of genuine guaranteed-to-scare-birds noises was obtained. The sound system volume was turned to "10." Someone pushed "Play."
The entire neighborhood vibrated to car alarm sounds. We all grimaced and shut our doors. We inserted earplugs and burrowed under pillows.
The birds, unruffled, continued to breed and care for their young. Hmmm.
You would think someone could have figured this out beforehand. After all, the good residents of Valle de Maiz, which immediately overlooks the park, are constantly exploding fireworks. Rosie, our Boston Terrier spends every other night huddled against one of us shaking in terror. As I write this, it sounds like Baghdad outside my window. None of this ever disturbed the birds. Why would anyone think electronic whistles would?
Unwilling to admit defeat, the municipal authorities played the tapes for months. Some of our neighbors left to take extended vacations. The birds stayed. At the end of the season, having exhaustively proved that sounds would not discourage nesting, the city relented and turned off the noise. The birds left for their annual migration. The neighbors returned to their parkside homes. Birds: 2, City: 0.
Plan C involved "pruning" the trees in such a way as to make them unsuitable for nesting. As a first step in this process, the city went out and bought a huge cherry picker.
The Cherry Picker
This is the largest, the most sophisticated and the most expensive piece of equipment owned by the city. Streets are repaved, not with bulldozers, graders and backhoes. They are repaved by gangs of men with shovels and picks—and a wheelbarrow if they're lucky, or a five-gallon plastic bucket if they're not. But there's no way workers are getting up into the trees without some serious gear. Influential people live around Juarez Park. They will not tolerate the messy birds. So priorities were set, funds were reshuffled and the cherry picker was purchased.
The strategy for pruning the trees was to go as high as possible in the cherry picker, and lop off however much tree extended above that level. Short on esthetics, but effective insofar that birds didn't build nests in trees that had undergone amputation. No they didn't. Instead, they just moved over to trees that had not been "pruned."
Of course, once the egrets had built their nests in the trees that hadn't been modified yet, they were off-limits to our urban foresters until next year. Meanwhile, once-elegant trees now look astonishingly ugly, having had their upper thirds hacked off. (Look again at the photo of the cherry picker.)
The final insult was delivered this year to those who insisted on having the trees cut. Their elegant yards to the east of the park contain large old trees, too. Having been evicted from the park, some of the birds moved to the yards of these lovely villas.
Keeping Juarez Park clean is a constant battle. Not only do birds soil it, but dogs, too. During the dry season, dust from the countryside coats the leaves of plants. Untreated sewage flows into the creek that runs through the park. And people throw trash on the walkways and in the gardens: soda bottles, Cheetos bags, popsicle sicks, corncobs, used chewing gum and more.
Signs posted here and there remind the public to not litter. The signs are about as effective as the bird noises. This sign elegantly delivers the message as can only be done in Spanish: "To Throw Garbage [Is] Prohibited. The person who would be surprised [while littering] will be consigned to the corresponding authorities."
As one might expect, the sign is marked with graffiti and is spattered with bird sh*t. Apparently we now know what both humans and birds think of it.
As part of the ongoing effort to beautify our community, a series of carved wooden statues have been mounted on concrete plinths at intervals along the grassy strip. One such statue, titled "Sentidos Internos," (Inner Feelings) is pictured below.
"Sentidos Internos" (Inner Feelings)
I'm no student of art, so my opinion that these statues don't look like much doesn't carry any weight. In the art world, I'm probably a philistine.
I am concerned that the statues will wind up as graffiti magnets. The Plexiglas plaques identifying each work look unsubstantial; my guess is they'll last a year at best. And spotlights buried in the grass, intended to cast dramatic light on the statues at night, have already succumbed to vandalism. The lenses and bulbs have all been smashed with loose cobblestones (you can see a broken one to the right of the plinth). The fixtures fill with water from the summer thunderstorms, short-circuiting the wiring that runs along the half-mile of lamps, ensuring that nothing will be powered from that line.
It's a nice try, but in my opinion, an esthetic and durability failure.
However, none of this was what attracted my eye. Look more closely. Tell me. Exactly what is going on in the carved image?
I know. We're supposed to be seeing those speech balloons that appear in Mayan images and paintings. But I have to ask: Is that what it looks like to you?
Many of us expatriates prefer to immerse ourselves in the full Mexican experience, and one of the best ways to do this is by visiting a take-no-prisoners Mexican City. No gated communities. No cars without dents and body rot. No English spoken.
Nearby Delores Hidalgo fills the bill. And some of us Sanmiguelenses go there for the carnitas at Vicente's.
Carnitas is one of the most savory, flavorful dishes on earth. You should eat it in strict moderation if you're over 40, for the sake of your cardiovascular system. Because basically, carnitas is a pig boiled in fat.
Yes indeed. An entire pig is cut into chunks and placed in a huge copper pot with a large quantity of rendered lard. Sometimes oranges, onions and other aromatics are added for flavor. All this is is cooked for several hours until the pork is extremely well-done, falling apart and full of the flavor of browned fat. With carnitas, you get the whole thing—loin, ham, shoulder, ribs, along with skin and the ... er ... guts.
A Tub of Carnitas
This is one of those dishes like sausage. You don't want to watch it being made. It's the eating that's the good part.
At Vicente's, you can choose to sit out in front alongside a busy street full of smoking cars that need ring jobs, being entertained by passing vendors, musicians or people just asking for handouts. Or you can sit in the gloomy interior listening to deafening recorded music. You don't go there for the atmosphere. Or maybe you do.
Wherever you sit, before your behind hits your chair, a waiter—brisk, efficient, professional—takes your drink order. He instantly returns to your table with your drinks (don't expect glasses), three kinds of salsa, a bowl of jalapeño peppers, totopos (corn chips) with guacamole and a plate of tortas—cornmeal patties stuffed with bits of pork.
At this point, you can order your carnitas. You order by weight. Four people? About half a kilo, please. Maybe three-quarters. What parts of the pig do you want? Ribs and shoulder are best. Loin is too dry and bland. If you're feeling adventurous, you can try some of the more challenging parts.
Your waiter returns with a pound or so of savory pork wrapped in aluminum foil. (Presentation is not a priority at Vicente's.) You put some in a soft corn tortilla, squeeze lime juice over it, doctor it with salsa and jalapeños to taste, and enjoy one of the most tasty Mexican foods there is. You load up another tortilla. And another. It's so good, it's hard to stop.
Finally, you can eat no more. You wrap up what's left over in the handy aluminum foil the pork came in, and pay your bill—usually not more than $25 for four.
On Sundays, Vicente's offers a special treat—barbacoa. It's not what you think. It's stewed sheep. Not lamb. Sheep. Old ones. Tough ones. Strong-tasting ones.
Barbacoa, Early in the Preparation Process
I haven't had the courage to try barbacoa yet. A friend who has raves about the "consommé." Uh-huh.
Things have been running downhill since we got off the plane in Atlanta. Uncaring service providers, disintegrating facilities, litter and grime were most obvious, having just come from Japan where these problems are essentially nonexistent. Waiting for our flight to Houston, we ate an unbelievably fatty lunch at the only sit-down restaurant in our terminal. The menu said, "Turkey Sandwich." What we got was a salad consisting of the tough outer leaves from a head of romaine thoroughly wetted down with gloppy ranch dressing, about a half a pound of turkey and a similar amount of American cheese food product on a huge bun slathered with mayonnaise, and a quart of french fries. All of it tasted dull and unexciting. There must have been 1500-2000 calories in that meal--pretty much over my daily limit if I'm gonna pass inspection by Dr. Hoffman during my checkup in October.
As I nibbled about 15% of my lunch, I noticed a grossly obese man shoveling a large mass of greasy food into his maw. As it turns out, he was on our flight. I was concerned that he might be seated in our row. Jean and I had booked a "straddle;" where you reserve, say, seats 12A and 12C in the hopes that nobody is gonna want 12B, giving you poor man's first-class seats.
Fortunately, he took a window seat far back. A diminutive man took the aisle, and no one took the middle. This was a blessing as Mr. Large put the arm of his seat up before even trying to sit. His buttocks occupied about two-thirds of the middle seat as well as all of his own. His meaty arms were jammed against the window and the little man in the aisle seat. I wonder how he was going to handle reclining, given that the control for one of his seats was mounted on the arm he had folded back and was now located in the center of his back. And there was no way his pudgy arms were gonna reach behind his back. I felt sorry for the guys immediately in front of him because his belly was gonna severely restrict their reclining room, sort of like they had seats just in front of a rear bulkhead.
I know all this because I knelt in my seat facing backwards, so I could observe the whole circus. I was hoping someone would come along to claim the center seat, setting up an entertaining confrontation, but alas, there were a few open seats on the plane, and the one between him and the tiny man on the aisle, and the one between me and Jean remained untaken.
There was a story in the news recently about a large woman who sued a major airline because they made her buy two seats. She claimed racial discrimination, but thankfully, the judge didn't see it that way.
Before boarding, we sat in the Atlanta airport, listening to inane public service announcements blasting over speakers throughout the terminal: "This will be your final intermediate boarding call..." The announcers' voices had a hectoring quality, as if we cattle were too stupid to find our way to the gates and onto our flights. "Boarding is now closed for flight #1234 for ..." (Gee. I guess I shouldn't bother hurrying now.)
In Houston, we changed planes. For the run from Houston to either León or Querétaro, Continental Airlines flies the small Embraer 145 XR, which seats about 30 passengers in ten rows of three, one seat on the left of the aisle, two on the right. Since it ain't much of a plane, they don't provide much of a pilot. I think you need a high school diploma and about a hundred hours of multi-engine time to qualify for a job up front.
The callow youth piloting ours came on the intercom: "Welcome aboard Flight #1234 for ... uh, ah ... Kwer-uh-TAR-oh ... I think I pronounced it correctly." This caused considerable discussion among the passengers about whether he had any real idea where we were going, and where we were likely to land.
The plane took off, and an infant two rows ahead of us began squalling at the top of its lungs, which behavior it persisted in for most of the flight. At least there were no chickens aboard.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've reached our cruising altitude of 28,000 feet and I'm gonna turn off the seat belt ... Oh gee. The sign is off. Well, we're just about an hour into our flight to ... ah ... Mexico ... (blowing and puffing noises) ... er, ah ... Ker-RAH-ta-ro ..." The Mexican behind me mutters,"It's CaDET-ah-do, you idiot."
The infant's screeching makes a crescendo. It's mother stands up and executes a major diaper change right there in the tiny cabin. A rich barnyard redolence adulterates the limited air supply. The lone flight attendant walks by the scene and smiles indulgently at the smelly little tyke.
GOD I MISS JAPAN.
We land at the tiny and notoriously corrupt airport in Querétaro. We sail through immigration. We get a green light at customs. YES!
The shuttle van picks us up, along with a woman who is visiting San Miguel to see her daughter. The driver makes the quintessentially Mexican move of taking us to San Miguel via the winding back roads, so that he can pocket the money his boss gave him to pay the toll on the autopista. We enter San Miguel. Then he informs us he has never been to San Miguel. Did we know where San Francisco Street was?
Now, San Francisco Street was nowhere near anyplace either Jean and I or the other passenger wanted to go, but I figured he must have his reasons, so I directed him to a narrow, winding, steep road that enters town from the east, instead of the highway to the south that would have taken the three of us directly where we wanted to go. We immediately run into a huge traffic jam. Nothing is moving. No turnoffs are available that are wide enough for his van to negotiate.
Yes. We've run into the goddamn Fiesta de los Locos.
A half-hour of creeping along, and we come to a small side street that'll allow us to go around the jam. I advise him we're gonna abandon the quest for San Francisco Street. I ask him to turn onto the side street. Then, block by block, I tell him how to get to the visiting mother's place.
"Derecho," I say.
He asks, "Derecho?"
"Si," I say. "Por diez cuadras."
He comes to the next intersection.
He asks, "Derecho?"
"Si," I say. "Por nuevo cuadras."
He comes to the next intersection.
He asks, "Derecho?"
"Si," I say. "Por ocho cuadras."
He comes to ...
We finally drop the lady off and backtrack to my street, Aldama.
In front of La Conexión, an illegally parked pickup truck has narrowed the street too much for him to squeeze through. Now, any other driver in San Miguel would do the practical thing and put his right wheels on the sidewalk to get by. But this kid, who has been passing cars on blind curves and hills all night long, suddenly is too chicken to continue on. Cars are piling up behind us. He puts the van in reverse and yells out his window at the following traffic that the road is blocked and he's backing out.
A Chinese fire drill ensues. Some people are trying to back up. Others are honking impatiently. And all of them are making those illogical moves characteristic of Mexican drivers, none of whom have ever been to drivers' ed. Eventually he gets turned around. We go down Pila Seca another block and turn onto Jesús. More narrows. More illegally parked cars. But he makes it through. Up Tenerias and then it's a right turn onto Aldama.
I advise him that the turn is too tight for him to take in one go; that he's gonna have to make a K-turn to get around it. Ignoring my advice, he manages to hit the car-goring stone conveniently situated at the corner anyway. Crumple. He soldiers on. Damn the torpedoes! Finally we are home. We tip him $70 pesos. Into the house we go, where Rosie greets us. The ladies have left a few lights on, and left the house spic-and-span, the woodwork gleaming from a fresh application of aciete rojo.
We go to bed with Rose huddled between us, she shaking because of the noise of the fireworks.
Our room in Atlanta smells like disinfectant. The lone employee at the front desk was kind enough to switch us from the first non-smoking room he gave us, which had been previously occupied by a prolific smoker. We are ruefully aware that in the morning, instead of a breakfast buffet featuring smoked salmon, baby salad greens, custom-made omelets and croissants, we'll be getting cello-pak danish and bad coffee in styrofoam cups.
This was our first international arrival at Atlanta, and if it is the will of Allah, his name be praised, it will be our last. Something in the airport design makes it impossible to simply clear passport control, collect luggage and go through customs. I mean, you can do all that easily enough, but then you have to get from the international arrival terminal to the main terminal, and because of the airport topology, the shuttle and the other five terminals are all in a secure zone. This means you have to go through security twice. First, you have to give up your already-cleared checked baggage (but NOT your hand baggage) where it is x-rayed yet another time.
"Sir! SIR! Bring your bags over here. SIR! You'll have to claim your bags AGAIN when you get to Terminal 'T.' SIR!! NO!!! Take your carry-ons WITH you!!!!"
So you have to stand at a baggage carousel twice at the end of your international flight. Then you get in a line full of guys just off the KLM 747 wearing Tyrollean hats so you can take your hand baggage and your personal self through yet another security checkpoint.
Going through security is bad enough for most people, but for me, it's one step short of a cavity search because of my defibrillator. I'll set off the walk-through sensor every time, and when I tell them it's because of my defibrillator, they freak out and lecture me because the scanner's magnetic field briefly shuts down the implant. I mean, come on! Every time I see the doc, he waves a little magnet over it to shut it down while he checks this and that. It always starts back up. It's some liability thing, I guess.
Because of the magnet sensitivity, they can't wand me, either. Instead, they have to frisk me. To call what they do to me "frisking" fails to capture the intensity of the experience. It's more like shiatsu. They squeeze everything. They make me sit down and take off my shoes and they squeeze the bottoms of my feet. I asked the last guy if he'd do it for a while longer.
[In the God-fearing US of A, they always go looking for a male security officer/massage therapist to do the hand job. Frankly, this always feels a little gay to me. In Japan, it's often done by women. On our return flight, after I partially disrobed in front of about 2,000 travelers, a sloe-eyed Suzie Wong type came up to me and asked, semi-breathlessly, "May I touch you?"
"Oh Yes," I murmured.
Then she gave me a most thorough going-over, including a palm-up squeeze in the crotch that left me dazed with wild fantasies.]
In Atlanta, they do it other. In Atlanta, harpies screamed at me to get into the right line. When I reached the screener, I told a security officer that I needed hand screening. He glowered at me. "You're in the wrong line, Bud. Go around to this other line over here."
I walked around the end of the table where everyone was putting their pocket stuff in gray plastic boxes for the x-ray machine. A uniformed woman asked, "Where do you think YOU are going?"
I said, "I'm going over to the other line, where that man (indicating the glowering officer) told me to go."
She said, "Well, then you have to go out the door of the security area and go through the line again. This (indicating the passage I'd tried to take) doesn't look like an entrance, does it? Go around the outside!"
Hmm. Taxpayer as errant schoolchild. Nice.
I told her I would go around as she requested—if she would treat me like one of the good citizens who paid her salary and ask me politely. So she did and I did. Sometimes you just have to be assertive.
Skirting the harpies and pushing through the Tyrolleans, I made it over to an area fenced off for hand checks. Ahead of me was a severely developmentally disabled person in a wheelchair. (The caregivers' term of art for such people is "feebs.") (Oops.) Anyway, this semi-sentient being who, unlike me was devoid of bionics, could be wanded; or so I thought, except that he or she (we'll never know) could not get out of the wheelchair, being so completely disabled. The wheelchair, which was made of steel, caused a continuous alarm to sound in the wand whenever it came near.
Doesn't this happen, like, all the time? The agent with the wand scratched her head for awhile, before giving up. This one's too much for me, boss.
So the feeb got a hand job instead, while I waited, amused at the concept of terrorists smuggling weapons into the airport food court using a vegetative-state person as a mule. I particularly liked it where the guard removed the person's baseball cap and carefully felt the full circumference of the band, looking for small sharp objects.
Kind of makes you ask, which one was the smart one, don't it?
After the wheelchair and inspector left, I waited patiently for awhile, wondering if Jean was aware that I had taken my laptop out of my carry-on, and if she had recovered it after x-raying. Nobody seemed to realize I was there, so finally I called over to another uniformed woman to let her know I was waiting to be touched. She firmly told me to sit down and wait, and someone would get to me when they became available. So I obediently sat and waited and waited and finally, 300 pounds of black man came over, put on rubber gloves, and asked me to spread my arms and legs.
This was one of those defining moments in life, when everything seems to freeze. Something bad was about to happen, and I was powerless to stop it. I knew at that moment that I was Bubba's. To do with as he would.
Ok. It wasn't all that bad. Bubba was professional and sort of friendly but not too friendly if you know what I mean, and I got through it all and rejoined Jean and my laptop. We left the airport, me grumbling all the way to the hotel.
Jean tipped the shuttle driver three bucks for horsing our overweight bags onto and off the van. Good thing, 'cause she left her coat behind. A few hours later, she reported her loss to the lone employee at the front desk, fully aware that her coat was gone forever. The desk clerk called the shuttle driver, who reported that he had her coat, and hustled right on over with it. Another five bucks. And proof, once again, that there are good, honest, helpful people, even in the U. S.
However, I note with regret that in Japan, the shuttle driver would have been offended had we offered a tip. Sigh.
Being in the vicinity of the airport without a car, our dining options were limited. Jean found a take-out menu for what city dwellers call "Chinese." "How about Chinese tonight? You want some Chinese? Or Domino's?" She ordered egg rolls, Kung Pao Chicken and Hunan Smoked Pork.
I've had some fairly execrable Chinese before, and the stuff delivered tonight ranked right up there with the worst. The egg rolls were thick tubes of soggy, greasy dough with a few lonely vegetables inside. The two entrees began life as the same dish: Stir-fried onions, a couple of dried hot red peppers, green peppers, mushrooms, canned water chestnuts and canned bamboo shoots, all submerged in a pint of gummy, salty brown sauce. For kung pao chicken, they added chicken chunks and peanuts. For Hunan smoked pork, they added Amurcan unsmoked pork and black beans. We also got two cartons of steamed rice on which they had thoughtfully dumped soy sauce so we wouldn't have to. They included two plastic forks as well. Oh—and the mustard for the egg rolls consisted of little plastic packets of Heinz's. There you have it. 30 hours ago, we ate an exquisite shabu-shabu dinner. Tonight we ate swill.
It would be nice to take the best from each culture, leaving all the crap behind, thus making one really great country. There's an expression in Japan: A man wants an American house, a French mistress and a Japanese wife. Just so.
1) Don't ever go through ATL
2) Don't stay in airport hotels
3) Don't eat ethnic food in Georgia (except maybe chitterlings)
The temple contained a shrine, which we briefly viewed.
But the shrine was not the attraction. We spent nearly a half day looking at the garden, and could have spent even more time there.
As you might expect, a Strolling Garden also can function as a Viewing Garden.
This window and the garden beyond were created as part of a single design, so that the esthetic pleasure of the view would be optimized. But strolling gardens include paths, so people can get out into them and explore.
Gravel paths and stone stairs lead through maples and azaleas. Occasional benches facilitate stopping along the way, to rest or to spend time in viewing and contemplation.
Covered walkways permit visiting even on rainy days. The construction of this one is a masterful expression of the Japanese temple builders' art.
Nothing seems more natural than a Japanese garden. Yet nothing could be more contrived. Here a gardener is sweeping up those pesky azalea blossoms.
She wears an old-fashioned but practical bonnet with traditional top and not-so-traditional jeans. She holds her handmade whisk broom with her Yokohama Rubber Company, Ltd. gloves. Drat! Those flowers sure are messy!
This fence design is hundreds of years old. In modern Japan, with its high wages, to make them must be very expensive.
But it's oh so worth it.
Paths permit a close-up inspection of objects that can only be seen from a distance in a Viewing Garden.
This incredible place has so much more to show. For additional pictures and notes, check out this flickr photoset.
Well, it may have been renamed, but it's still all about boys. Families fly carp-shaped streamers (koinobori) on tall bamboo poles outside the house: one for each son. (The carp is a symbol of strength in Japan.) Boys decorate a warrior doll with armor. Rice cakes (kashiwamochi) filled with sweet red beans and wrapped in oak leaves are served. Somewhere along the way, I'm sure we were served these. They'll never replace Dove Dark Chocolate Squares.
Some days later, in Kyoto, we happened upon another festival for children. I never found out the purpose of the celebrations, but it seemed to be tied somehow to Shintoism, as groups of children and their parents carried portable shrines to a temple where everyone gathered, beating drums and having a good time.
The portable shrines appeared to be heavy, so only the adults carried them. But drum-beating was open to all.
The boy with the drumstick's head band has fallen down. He's ignoring it. Flaunting tradition.
Everyone was wearing Happi Coats (pronounced "hoppy"), even very small participants. His coat works well with the bunnies on his shirt and the Pooh figures on his pants.
Some kids dressed up in dragon suits. This one roared at me and bit me on the hand, but I wasn't really scared. Pretty much not scared, anyway. Big teeth, though.
This dragon had a wardrobe malfunction. The shoes don't help much, either.
Here, Jean posed with a bunch of girls. Cute, aren't they? Jean has no idea why she's holding her fingers like that.
For more kid pictures, check out this flickr photoset.
It came as a total surprise, and I must say, it was over the top. We saw hundreds of old costumes and antique objects.
The festival began during the reign of the Kinmei Emperor some 1400 years ago, during a ceremony to improve the grain harvest. Having been successful, the ceremony since has been continued to this day, becoming ever more elaborate over the centuries.
For most people, the most visible part of the festival is a parade through Kyoto, composed of people dressed in ancient costumes. Andy and Steve had arranged for a block of front-row seats along the parade route—ideal for photography.
For more images of the parade and of people in ancient clothing, check out this flickr photoset.
We began our visit by hearing a short explanation of how Chinese characters developed. Here we see how the character for "mountain" (shan), evolved from an individual pictogram that resembled actual mountains. (To see the evolutionary sequence, read the chart right to left).
(The character at the far left is a cursive form that is used primarily in calligraphy. The commonly-used modern character is second from left.)
(The old guy standing below the chart, drinking his stimulating cup of tea and therefore in a rare conscious state, apparently is amused by the illustration.)
I have always thought of calligraphy as a minor art involving careful and painstaking pen- or brushwork. For Shotei-sensei, the act of drawing a character involves concentration of his mind and spirit, and a convulsive movement of his whole body. Pausing before a blank sheet of paper, holding an ink-saturated brush in his hand, he would at first seem to go inside of himself, gathering his life force. I could almost sense an electric charge building between his eyes and the paper.
Suddenly, he would issue a grunt—HUNH!—like that made by a karate master before splitting a board with his fingertips. He would bring the brush down smartly, and with his whole body swaying, he would paint a character in a matter of seconds.
That's it. Done. No retracing. No correcting errant lines. One swift, convulsive movement, and the blank paper now contains a character, a work of art, complete and perfect.
In contrast with the seconds it took to create the character, he spent several minutes signing the work and carefully applying his chop.
Shotei-sensei uses large brushes, an innovation that he introduced. Here he is using a very large brush to execute the character for "cloud."
Japanese calligraphy brushes differ from western ones in that the hair is very long. Even the making of brushes is an art form practiced by masters. Among Shotei-sensei's brushes is the world's largest calligraphy brush, made from the tails of many horses.
Most of us know how difficult it is to draw a perfect circle freehand. Shotei-sensei is very good at it.
Also of interest to me was his musician daughter—a professional chembalist. The living room contained an electronic keyboard, a grand piano, a harpsichord and a zither. In front of the latter was a music stand bearing a copy of "Espaces de Priere No. 3 pour Cithare" by Jaques Berthier. I would have loved to have listened to her play that than watch her, the dutiful daughter, hold a bowl of ink for her old man.
(In the first photo you can see the zither on the left and the harpsichord behind it.)
You don't find wooded places with large gardens like this in Tokyo. Although much of Kyoto is just as urbanized as the rest of Japan, with the usual ugly jumble of clashing architectural styles and blighted utilitarian postwar concrete structures, it nonetheless contains many hidden corners like this—delightful little islands of beauty and tranquility.
Here, a portly member of the tour group poses at the inn's entry gate. It probably is the only remaining original wooden structure in the inn complex, given that in Japan, wood eventually yields to fire and water. If the damp climate doesn't rot it, frequent fires consume it.
We were greeted by two bowing women, who, it turns out, were to be our waitresses. They were nearly identical: Both of an age, same height, similar hairstyles, identical black kimono with red shoulder decorations, white under-kimono, beige obi (wide fabric sashes), white tabi (socks with toes) and wooden geta (clogs). Before you unwittingly accuse the Japanese of all being the same, note that these ladies have expressed their individuality in their choices of aprons.
It's so very nice to be bowed into a place.
The interior of the restaurant was simple, sleek and modern-looking—at least to my untutored eye. We were seated at long, low, red lacquer tables. The photograph reveals that none of us Westerners were capable of sitting on our heels, as would be proper at a traditional Japanese meal. Anticipating this, the management provided cushions with back supports, which we gratefully used. Note that the large plates on the table have a flat edge, which allows more of its contents to be nearer one's mouth—desirable when one eats with chopsticks. Keeps the sea cucumber out of your lap.
Shoji screens had been opened giving onto a view of—that's right; A viewing garden. No traditional inn would be complete without one.
Our waitresses knelt on the floor to serve us, without grunting and groaning, and without using their hands which were always carrying trays, anyway. I was impressed whenever one of them would rise, gracefully, smoothly and apparently effortlessly.
Even in restaurants with western-style furniture, I noticed that waiters and waitresses kneeled to take our orders.
Before lunch was served, a musician introduced us to the shakuhachi, a type of flute. A bamboo instrument configured for the Japaese five-note scale, it is capable of producing an amazing range of tones. Our musician played traditional and modern music that was evocative and haunting. He also played a Christmas song—Walking in the Winter Wonderland or some such—which I found to be offensive and condescending. However, it was interesting to see how could produce the non-natural pitches; in fact he was able to play an entire chromatic scale, even though the flute was bored with finger holes for the five-note scale. At one point, he demonstrated a continuous glissando through two octaves!
I can't find enough words to express how captivated I was by his performance.
We were told that at one time, Samurai were forced to give up their weapons. Some of them took up the shakuhachi and made their livings wandering from village to village, playing for handouts, which, I imagine, were readily forthcoming, given who was doing the asking. We were also told that they could use their flutes as weapons, not having any conventional ones. Having personally handled a large shakuhachi, I can attest to the weight and lethality of these... er... flutes.
Indigo is made from the leaves of plants. A large quantity of leaves—a barn full—is gathered in the summer. The leaves are composted (!) which permits the blue dye to develop and concentrate. None of the blue color is evident in the finished compost, which, to my untutored eye, looks just like the stuff I used to dig into my vegetable beds.
Here, the master dyer hold a sample of dried leaves. On the ground next to him we see some of the indigo compost.
To create the dye, the indigo compost is placed in vats sunk into the dirt floor. Water is added and the mixture is allowed to ferment. During the winter, the temperature falls too low to allow fermentation. In that season, slow wood fires are burned in the space just visible between the four vats in the photo.
Indigo dye becomes activated under highly alkaline conditions. So fibers to be dyed are first soaked in a solution of wood ashes. Part of the wood ash comes from the fires used to keep the vats warm.
Here, alkaline liquid has been drawn off from the wooden vat in the background into the blue plastic tub. (You can just make out the wood ashes floating on top of the wooden vat.) The dyer has just soaked a skein of silk thread in the lye solution and is wringing the liquid out.
The alkaline skeins are allowed to dry, after which, they are ready to be dyed.
Several skeins Are looped over a wooden pole, and lowed into a vat of fermented indigo solution.
Here are the same skeins after resting in the indigo vat for a few minutes and then being removed and wrung out.
Different shades of blue are obtained by repeated immersions in the dye vats.
Paper (washi) and woven fabrics are also dyed in this manner.
The workers usually wear gloves to protect their hands from the corrosive solutions.
We learned about how this art came to Japan from China centuries ago, how the early basket makers copied the Chinese style, and how Japanese basket-making evolved into a uniquely Japanese art form over time.
The last basket pictured, beside the old guy dozing on the floor, was made by a member of the fourth generation of the family. In the picture below, we see third and fourth generation artists. The first and second are no longer living.
Their baskets are exquisite, and exquisitely expensive. Two of our traveling companions are avid collectors, and bought baskets at the gallery. You need to have a deep appreciation of these objects to pay the kind prices they paid.
Tanabe Chikuunsai baskets will be on display at The Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art in Hanford, CA from June through December, 2006. We plan to drive over there during our five week visit to Santa Barbara in September.
Gardens are where I most like to be. When we lived on our 40-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, I created more than an acre of landscaping. I built stone walls and dug terraces. I cleared a half-acre of forest to plant a vegetable garden. For more than ten years, I composted and enriched the yellow clay soil until it became crumbly black loam. I planted an orchard and two hundred feet of assorted berry plants. Scores of cactus in pots littered one of our decks. Every week I went into the mixed oak and fir forest that surrounded our house and cleared underbrush and thinned trees. I built roads and forded streams. I mowed our meadows and killed poison oak.
In contrast, our city home in San Miguel de Allende contains maybe twelve square feet of open soil. Nearly the entire surface of our 2,500 square foot lot is covered with rooms or stone courtyards. In compensation, I have filled hundreds of pots with tropical plants, flowers and cactus. My flat roof is a forest. A bedroom patio is overrun with Plumeria and Jasmine. Bougainvillea climbs our walls and palms rattle their fronds in the breeze. A spiky-trunked Ceiba tree tries to grow out of its pot. A massive Pachypodium looks like something from Mars, although it only came from Madagascar.
I love gardens.
This, the first garden we will visit in Kyoto, is private. We were very fortunate to be invited; it is not otherwise open to the public. It is named The Moon Garden.
It is of the type called a Viewing Garden; one that is intended to be appreciated while sitting quietly. (The other major type of Japanese Garden is the Strolling Garden, about which more later.) Viewing Gardens are designed so that the doorways and windows of the house frame the garden, with view lines and focal points positioned so as to compose a pleasing and restful scene.
We began our viewing of the Moon Garden by sitting silently on tatami mats and looking through windows. This garden presents a highly sculpted foreground against that rarest of assets in urban Japan, a woodland vista. The designer made use here, of borrowed scenery to serve as a setting for this space. The blooming trees in the background do not belong to the garden, yet are part of it.
Moving onto an outside deck sheltered from the rain underneath curved eaves, we came into more intimate contact with the garden.
Water, rocks and plants come together to create a balanced, harmonious environment, drawing the eye from one place to the next, always with something new to contemplate. A large rock blocks the view; an arm of the water snakes around and behind it, giving the impression of a much larger space than actually exists. You want to know: What's back there? What's hidden? This garden has secrets, and since you can't walk in it, they'll remain secrets, always intriguing.
There is nothing natural about this garden. The stones have been brought here and sited just so. The pond is artificial. The plants have been placed and pruned and forced into shapes that do not exist in nature. Yet, no place could look more natural. It depicts an idealization of nature; nature as we would like to have it. It's a benign space, free of burrs and spines and stinging insects. It's the woodland of fairy tales.
As in a fairy tale, the Moon Garden is inhabited by an old crone. This rock, we were told, is one of the most famous in Japan.
Rising from the deck and walking its length, other features appear. Nearly all gardens have a fountain with water running through a bamboo pipe into basin, but always looking like an accident of nature. No spouting dolphins or pudgy cherubs inhabit Japanese fountains. This one has a dipper, set there as if for use by a thirsty traveler. Do strangers sometimes pass this way? Who? From where do they come and where do they go?
The temple was the real thing, but it looked like something out of a Japanese Disneyland. I didn't learn anything about it; I just enjoyed the view.
Somewhere along the way, we encountered a large group of small stone effigies wearing little aprons.
What were they? Andy or Steve may have given us an explanation, but exhausted from our travels, I couldn't recall anything they might have told us.
We also visited Sanjusagendo Temple, a repository of 12th-Century Buddhist statuary. The temple contains 1001 statues of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. We were asked not to photograph it, but the link will take you to images of this spectacular display.
We waited alongside the train while bustling attendants cleaned the cars. We carried only overnight bags, having sent our main luggage ahead the previous day because there isn't enough room on the Bullet Train to bring it all.
It seems like everything in Japan is undersized, and especially so for travelers. There wasn't enough drawer space in our hotel room, and it's incomprehensible to me that a train can't handle luggage.
On the train we settled into comfortable seats in our first-class car. Jean and I picked seats on the right in the hopes that we would catch a view of Mt. Fuji, but it was a rainy day, so no visibility.
Here, our group sits naïvely in their seats, while Steve plays a mournful harmonica as we hurtle to our dooms.
We rode a long way past unbroken urban scenery through Tokyo and its suburbs. The ride was smoother and much more quiet than flying. We never had the feeling we were traveling at speeds up to 300 kilometers per hour.
As we began to encounter rural Japan, I was struck by how green everything was, and how small the farms were. Many farmers appeared to be working little more than an acre of rice paddy. These were the most carefully tended plots I had ever seen. No waste piles, no abandoned farm machinery blighted the landscape. Sensitive crops snuggled under impeccably neat row covers. No weeds intruded in the plots. Nor did I ever see farm animals. I know they have them, but proportionately, there are far fewer of them than in the States or Mexico. The farms were gorgeous, and no doubt the produce grown on them was perfect and healthy, but this kind of farming has to be very expensive.
Getting underway, Andy stood in the aisle and taught us how to read Chinese characters. Well, maybe one or two of them. We ate our box lunches and a couple of hours later, we arrived in Kyoto.
Arriving at the museum, we found ourselves a minority. Most of the visitors were uniformed schoolchildren. The girls were dressed similarly to Mexican schoolgirls: Ironed white blouses, pleated skirts, jackets, knee socks.
The boys, on the other hand, wore outfits reminiscent of Prussian military uniforms, a holdover from pre-war days when all things German were much admired in Japan.
They almost manage to bring off the stern, authoritarian look until you saw their white running shoes.
The garden at the entry to the museum grounds set the proper mindset with—a clock. Of course. No wasting time, kiddies. The university entrance exams aren't far off, and if your scores are low, they'll doom you to life as a salaryman.
For pictures of a few of the museum exhibits, check out this flickr photoset. It was impossible to take enough photographs, although even one was too many, because we couldn't keep track of the significance of each object. Looking at the photos now, I'm amazed at how little I know about the exhibits. For me, museums always provide far too little explanation, and the situation at the Tokyo National Museum was compounded because all of the information cards were, of course, in Japanese.
Afterwards, we walked through a park across the street from the museum entrance where we came across an evangelist speaking to a large group of people sitting on the ground. It was the first Christian artifact I'd seen since arriving.
The photo below is of the museum entrance, seen from the park. Of interest to me is the group of four gardeners sitting on the ground. They are hand-weeding this huge lawn. No broad-leaf herbicides used here! These men meticulously removed each weed, working across the grass in a totally organized way. The unworked lawn area forms a perfect rectangle.
Jean has an expression she uses to describes things that confuse or frustrate her. She says, "It drives me waka waka." So I was delighted to find a panel truck emblazoned with:
Speaking of trains, they're a central fact of life; the way to get around in Japan. Cars are expensive. Before you can buy a car in Tokyo
you have to prove you have a parking space for it, and they don't mean on the street. Given the cost of enough tsubo to park your car, we're talking about a major expense here, and you don't even own the car yet. Then, gas is expensive—maybe triple the cost in the U. S. or Mexico.
And you have to get your car inspected every three years. Big deal you say? Well, the inspection involves disassembling the car. Costs about $3,000. That's enough to affect the price of a used car as it approaches its inspection date. Sort of like the ex-dividend date for a common stock.
So most people take trains. You've all seen pictures of the uniformed guys straining to push people into trains so the doors will close. Trains are so crowded that most people don't get seats. Tough for a two-hour trip. But look at it this way. If you're tired, just relax your knees. The press of bodies will keep you upright. Need to sleep? Just lean on your neighbor. Nobody minds. It's expected.
What's not welcomed is groping. Apparently some Japanese men take advantage of the crush to fondle nearby women, who often cannot even identify who is doing it, mush less escape their unwanted attentions. The solution has been to reserve some cars for women during the peak of the rush hour. Hibaya Line. Three cars. Women only, 7:30-9:00 AM. Honestly!
Then there's the advertising in railway cars. For example, the Japanese are into the functioning and health of their alimentary canals, and aren't ashamed to share their intestinal fixations with with anyone. Their blasé attitudes result in ads like the following:
Here we have what appear to be smiling gophers assisting the movement of pink turds in their passage through the transverse and descending colon. One is applying water from a watering can to inflate them and get rid of a bunch of nasty little spikes. (Did you know that there was such a condition?) The other gopher seems to be giving the pink blobs a little extra push, like a colonic JATO, to get them launched. I don't know what the serious-looking third one is saying: probably a product warning. Stand clear after taking!
Honestly, this is an image you really don't want to stumble across in the early morning.
Why gophers? Why do they have little bags hanging from their shoulders? What's in the bags? If you grew up in Japan, this probably would be entirely clear.
In a drugstore, I saw a product called "Melty Cure." What do you think it might be? The packaging gave no clues. Maybe "Melty Cure" is the product that the gophers are pushing.
All this alimentary canal discussion reminds me of a few more food observations:
• I've now passed several restaurants offering "Salted fish guts" for two. Nope. Not for me. The other night, however, I did eat a mucus salad. Not a repeater.
• I saw a place called "Jazzy Coffee and Curry." Just the combo I was hankering for.
• And finally, the Japanese call Christmas fruitcake "25-year-old vrigin," because—you know—nobody ever eats one. (Sorry).
In violation of international copyright laws, I copied this blurb from a press release for a show she was doing in England.
"Reiko Sudo is world-renowned as one of the leading figures in contemporary innovative textile production. Her work is represented in major international museums. [Boston MFA, MOMA, for two.-Ed.]
Sudo’s quintessentially 21st century textiles unite traditional techniques, complex technologies and new finishing processes. She has created extraordinary visual effects that have revolutionised textiles within interiors, fashion and art. NUNO has been at the heart of the resurgence of Japanese textiles, producing fabrics of unparalleled sophistication and creativity."
Three of the fabrics she showed us caught my fancy.
1) A diaphanous fabric consisting entirely of 2" square pockets, into each of which was sealed a single feather.
2) A fabric woven from stainless steel microfibers treated with acid to create washes of blue and brown patterns. The bolt was so heavy, I almost couldn't lift it.
3) An extremely thin (and colorful) fabric that had been folded many times into a 3" square about ¼" thick, which, when picked up by a corner, falls open into a large shawl, and when dropped onto the table, re-folds itself into the 3" square again.
Jean bought a breathtakingly expensive blouse at the studio, made of a fabric that had been selectively shrunk, so that its surface undulated in soft billows.
This menu doesn't look particularly appetizing, but we ate many vegetarian dishes during our visit and all were delicious. All except the inescapable wheat gluten that is.
Not everyone will know what "lees" is, as in "Okara age: Fried bean curd lees." Lees is the sediment from fermentation. Waste not, want not.
Note also that the majority of the dishes involve soy in some way. You'd think eating all that soy would become tedious, but I found each preparation to be unique. You wouldn't know that all these dishes derived from the same homely vegetable from the tastes, textures or colors.
For dinner, our tour leaders took us to Hirakawa Sushi, for a sushi demonstration, which we found fairly pedestrian, since we have been sushi aficionados for many years, and this outing was designed as an introduction for the inexperienced. Before departing for dinner, our group divided in two; those who wanted to eat (or try) sushi, and those who didn't.
The chefs at Hirakawa Sushi made us a sampling of non-threatening sushi: Maguro, Hamachi, Sake and the like. Most of our fellow travelers were not able to bring themselves to try everything, but many did well for their first try.
The dinner was marred by a presentation by John Gauntner, a sake expert. John did present a lot of interesting and new information about sake, but his rapid-fire, shouted delivery intruded on and distracted me from my enjoyment of the meal. In the interest of disclosure of editorial bias, I don't drink alcoholic beverages, and so my interest in sake is undoubtedly less than that of my traveling companions, but several of them confided that they would have preferred to enjoy their dinners in peace, and heard John's presentation separately.
I learned two things about sushi that I didn't know.
1) At least in the better restaurants, the grated daikon (giant radish) commonly served as a garnish or an ingredient in some dishes is not in fact grated, but is instead cut in long, extremely thin shreds by hand with a thin, sharp knife. Our chef cut the long side of an 8" long cylinder of radish into a strip several feet long, carefully rotating the radish under the blade of the knife. From that strip, he would later cut hundreds of thin shreds.
2) The reconstituted dried wasabi ubiquitous in U. S. sushi bars isn't served in better restaurants in Japan. The fresh grated roots that we were served at Hirakawa Sushi were much more pungent with a complex, deep flavor. Our tour leaders, along with food expert Elizabeth Andoh, told us that fresh wasabi was unavailable in the U. S. because the roots won't keep during shipping and they cannot be grown in any American climate. I found this hard to believe, and since found that fresh wasabi is available, although probably scarce because of low demand. I see that one place that the roots are grown is in Oregon, which has a climate similar to Japan's.
Here, Elizabeth is holding forth on the role of finely-ground beef in Japanese cuisine.
In a butcher shop I saw some of the best-looking beef steaks I think I have ever seen in my life. Some even may have been the world-famous Kobe Beef.
But probably not. Doesn't cost enough. The New York Strip Steak on the lower left is priced at ¥1575 per 100 grams, which works out to about $62 per pound at the current Yen/Dollar exchange rate. The marbling in this meat looks gorgeous, but the Japanese don't age their beef, so it tastes sort of bland. Just as well. Forty years ago i could have eaten that stuff with impunity. Today, just looking at it makes my coronary arteries tense up.
This woman sells dried fruits, candies, rice crackers, nuts and other dry foods in cellophane bags. She really knows how to sell. Get the product into the customer's hands. Get it into his mouth. He'll buy.
She gave me a handful of dried blueberries. Boy were they good! I wound up buying a bag. When there were no customers, she would hide behind a stack of cardboard cartons in the back. Whenever anyone leaned in to look at her wares, she scuttled out with a bowl of samples in her hand. She closed most of her prospects.
For more pictures of exotic food, check out this flickr photoset.
The truck design is clever, but of course all Japanese design is clever—by law, I think. The engine and transmission are housed in the ventilated metal cylinder in the front, the single drive wheel is attached to the bottom of the cylinder and the steering wheel is attached to the top. To steer, you pull on the wheel and the whole cylinder rotates.
Most trucks carried styrofoam boxes, but some carried sections of tuna that had been held in liquid nitrogen, frost-covered and smoking.
Inside a cavernous building, we found all kinds of fish being sold both wholesale and retail. Here's a lovely fish head with a price sticker on it: About $18 per pound. That must be the price for the fish that once was attached to the head. While I had been warned that Japanese breakfasts consisted of fish heads and rice (they don't, really), I'm certain that not even Okanawans would eat them at that price.
This is a Shinto shrine that serves the Tsujiki Market. How do we know it's a Shinto shrine? It doesn't say "Shinto" on it. At least not in English. So we have to look deeper.
Look at the tapered rice straw ropes. Look at the white paper folded into lightning shapes. That's how we know it's a Shinto shrine.
For more pictures of the market, and of fish, check out this flickr photoset.
1) You walk. We did lots of that.
2) You take the subway. We'd leave the hotel in a group, Andy leading, talking us through the maze of streets on his headset, Steve bringing up the rear, making sure no one got left behind. We each had been assigned a number, and occasionally the group would coalesce and count off. Once we got into a subway station, Steve would run over to a ticket vending machine and start feeding it coins, handing us our tickets as the machine spat them out.
As on BART, you use your ticket at least twice, feeding it into a turnstile to record your point of entry into the system, and into another to mark your exit point. A computer somewhere makes sure you paid enough for the length of the trip you just took. If you haven't paid enough, they're very accommodating. You just go over to a uniformed man in a small glassed-in booth and hold out a handful of change. He takes what he needs and off you go. Apparently even Tokyo-ites have difficulty figuring out the fare system, so they just buy a minimum price ticket and settle up at the end of the trip.
Losing your ticket is another matter. I got the impression that you never wanted to lose your ticket. I visualize bamboo slivers under fingernails. Andy advised us to choose a "happy place" somewhere on our bodies and to always carry our tickets there. I'm relieved to report that neither Jean nor I lost ours. Thanks to our happy places.
3) You take taxis. A taxi will carry four people so that means that for each trip we needed... that's four into twenty-five, carry the one... uh... six or seven taxis whenever we did this.
One of our leaders would go out and line up the necessary number of cabs. We'd pile into them and Andy or Steve would tell the driver where to take us. One traveler in each cab would be handed a manila envelope with two or three thousand yen in it, and given instructions to put the change in the envelope and GET A RECEIPT!
Each cab driver would take off, and we'd all hold our breaths until we arrived at someplace where we could see other members of our tour group. Many of our drivers would greet us in English, but "Hello" and "Thank You" pretty much was the extent of it. To try and explain we were supposed to go to Hanabaku, not Fufufufu, was beyond our abilities. If we even knew the name of the place we were going. Much less where it was located.
Tokyo taxi drivers have to pass a test proving they know how to navigate through the city without getting lost. This is both essential and difficult, because addresses are not assigned logically--at least as I see it. A numbered street address won't cut it. You have to know what prefecture the place you're going is in. You have to know what neighborhood. Then the street it's on. Finally, you have to know what landmark your destination is near, because addresses are not always assigned in numerical order as you go down the street. Sometimes buildings are assigned numbers in the order in which they were built.
So cab drivers are highly skilled. And these days, many are supported by substantial technology. Some cabs bristle with antennas. There's the usual two-way radio. There's antennas feeding the GPS system, so you can see your location and progress on a screen with a map that rotates so that your direction is always indicated as up. Another set of antennas receives real-time traffic data, and plots congested areas on the same display. So if your intended route is displayed in blinking red, you know to pick an alternate.
Cab drivers wear uniforms, police-style hats and white gloves. Their vehicles are immaculate, with white antimacassars on the seats, washed, starched and ironed every day. Every surface inside and out has been cleaned and polished within the last couple of hours, and there is not a dent, scratch nor a single particle of rust on any of them.
In fact, there are no dents or scratches on any cars in Tokyo. I think it's a law. Sure looks different from San Miguel where one notorious truck has a piece of plexiglas siliconed over a hole in the windshield, and another has its gas tank bailing-wired to the roof.
Speaking of cars, Japanese ones have English model names in chrome letters on their trunks. You'd expect Chinese characters, but for some reason, model names are in an alphabet most Japanese people can't read. Moreover, the names are different than the ones we buy in the US and Mexico. In part, this is because the models themselves are different: both larger and smaller. The names are wonderful examples of the most charming form of Engrish—proper words used in vaguely inappropriate ways:
Some names are made-up words:
And the unfortunately named Toyota Emina.
Wealthier Japanese buy German imports: Mercedes, BMW. Always big ones. The vehicle with the most cachet, though, is a chopped Harley.
Below we see a jumble of styles, a visual cacophony.
(In this image, a crowd watches a mime posing as a "thinker.")
I was fascinated by this interior, with its complex girderwork, but I'm ashamed to say that I don't remember its name or location.
Note the information kiosk sign in English, the new international language of commerce. I think it means, "If you can't read English, you can't afford to shop here."
Jean snapped this shot of a Hummer stretch limousine, an example illustrating that the Japanese are as capable of gross excess as anyone.
The driver, no doubt partially Irish, copes with the boredom of waiting for his clients by practicing his jig.
If you look just behind the limo, you can see the roof line of what looks like an Airstream trailer, albeit a short one more in line with a Japanese sense of compactness. Unlike the Hummer.
The sketch of the pine tree is graffiti! Our gangbangers could learn a lot from their Japanese compatriots.
All of us were carrying tiny FM radios with earphones. Andy was carrying a transmitter and wearing a headset, which enabled him to talk to us in a normal tone of voice, while allowing us the freedom to wander off to see whatever interested us. Using this system while we walked into the Meiji Shrine, he gave us an overview of Shinto, once the state religion of Japan. An Animist religion, I found its precepts oddly comforting.
We entered the temple grounds through a Torii Gate, made from the trunks of two massive Cypress trunks supporting huge beams. The gentle twist of the grain in the trunks, and the exquisite curve of the topmost beam somehow managed to convey a sense of quiet and gentleness on the scene. Note that the lower beam is held in place with four large wedges. I've always been fascinated by Japanese woodworking, particularly the clever, hardware-free joinery.
On the path to the shrine stood a wall of saki casks which had been given to the priests. (They also gave the saki brewers good publicity.) The old guy on the left is calculating how long that much saki would last a person, and contemplating the tragic notion that nobody is actually going to drink it.
This here is not a musical instrument. It is a sort of hand washing station—a purification thing. I tried it and the head priest glared at me until I went away.
Here Andy is demonstrating how you purify yourself by pouring water on first one hand, then the other, then sipping some and spitting it out. As a little boy, I would have loved this ritual.
For ¥500, you can buy a little wooden board on which you can write a prayer or wish, and then leave on this rack. At the end of the year, the priests burn them. Most prayers were written in Chinese characters, but I saw many that were in European languages, too.
One artifact of Shinto is the shimenawa, or rice straw rope, which signifies a separation of the sacred and profane realms. This rope looks foreshortened in the photograph, but has actually been woven in a taper. It's about an inch in diameter where it is knotted around the tree. The near end is six inches thick! The white zig-zags hanging from the rope are paper folded to represent lightning. Wherever I saw them, I knew I was near some Shinto shrine or function.
Japanese temple architecture sometimes features intricate overlapping roofs, each with its gentle upward-sweeping curves. These are sheathed in copper and have wonderfully shaped ridgepoles. The design of the hanging lamps clearly have influenced designs used in the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The ends of the beams in this gate were painted to prevent decay or checking of the wood. White paint was used which gives the structure a checkered, festive look.
A young priest answered many questions for us, with Andy translating. Here he is describing how priests hold their skirts up. Not having asked that particular question, Andy is staring at him while a tour group member looks down in embarassment.
The priest's family have been priests for ten generations. I don't even know who my ancestors were ten generations back. As for professions, my father was an engineer, the first in our family. I'm the second, and it looks like I'm going to be the last, at least for the next two generations. Time, continuity and ancestry take on whole new meanings in Japan.
We were treated to a special performance of the Sacred Kagura Dance, a cleansing ritual, but were not permitted to photograph it. Nor can I find a link showing pictures of the dance as performed in Shinto shrines. [A similarly-named performing art, Kagura Dance (different from the Sacred Kagura Dance) has been extensively photographed, but not the religious ceremony.]
This is a ceremony which the average Japanese gets to see somewhere maybe six times in her life, and which the average Japanese never gets to do at the Meiji Shrine. We got:
• kneeling on tatami mats
• pounding of huge drum by guy wearing lacquer football on head
• nasal chanting by old guy in medieval hat with rooster tail and elegant kimono and wire rimmed glasses
• flute music and nasal singing consisting entirely of dissonances
• two temple maidens in fire-engine red pants doing really slow dance
• ritual cleansing of selves with large white feather duster
• welcoming of assorted spirits with bells
• bowing and clapping
Seriously, the ceremony actually was quite moving. The sense of being cleansed was strong, and I for one felt honored to have participated.
The bathrooms, in addition to heated toilet seats, have the best bathing facilities in the world. Stepping through a glass shower door, you find yourself in a small room that contains a small, very deep tub. The tub is too short to lie down in, but when you sit in it after it's full, the water comes up over your shoulders. The tub fills with hot water in about one minute! The shower, on a flexible hose, is outside the tub. A low plastic stool is on the floor under the shower head, along with a plastic bucket and a large, soft brush with a long wooden handle. What you do is fill the tub with water as hot as you can stand it and then some. Next, you throw a bar of soap in the bucket and fill it with hot water from the shower. You sit on the stool and scrub yourself all over with the soapy water using the brush. Then you rinse the soapy water off in the shower, and when you are sparkling clean, then you get into the tub. You soak until the heat makes you dizzy, and then dry off with a nice, big towel. At that moment, you realize you've never felt so relaxed (and clean) in your life. Plus the bath water is clean enough for the next person to use it.
Of course, meals are notoriously expensive in most hotels. Some friends ordered drinks in the bar downstairs. The waiter asked them if they wanted some rice crackers. They said, "Sure," figuring it was all part of the service, like a bowl of peanuts at a sports bar. The waiter brought them a small plate with maybe eight or ten crackers on it. When they got their bill, they were charged for the crackers: $18.
Jean and I, when we weren't eating lunch or dinner as guests of Smithsonian Journeys, beat the high costs of meals by going out into the city and finding restaurants where ordinary people ate. We found we could get utility-grade sushi for less than in California: about $20 per person compared with $30 in the States. Udon (noodles) were very inexpensive, filling and tasty and less than $10. Tempura was another matter. My special menu cost $70. For that, a waiter brought a basket filled with wiggling, live seafood for my approval before it was battered and deep fried. They served it piecemeal, so it wouldn't get cold on my plate. The centerpiece was Conger Eel, a rare and expensive delicacy, which I have to admit was very tasty. In making his presentation, the chef had removed the spine and tied it into a loose, looping knot after which he deep-fried it. I knew that it was not just a garnish. I was expected to eat it. You are expected to eat everything they put in front of you in Japan. So I did. Very flavorful. Crunchy.
Coffee was always expensive. Minimum $5. We managed to find a place that sold me a regular cup of coffee for $8 and a cappuccino for Jean for $9. Is this higher than Starbucks? Well, at least they don't serve it to you in a goddamn paper cup.
In never have eaten so much seafood in my life. And I've never eaten better. Well, except for Maine lobster and Dungeness crab and Pacific abalone. OK. And fresh grilled swordfish steak. Poached line-caught wild salmon. But aside from those, I've never eaten better seafood. Or more exotic seafood. Raw shrimp with the heads still on. Little tiny silver fish, bones and heads and all. Amorphous gelatinous globs (sea cucumber?) Baby squid-like things.
Of course, you get rice with every meal except udon. The Japanese truly have the best rice in the world. Delicately perfumed flavor, slightly sticky texture for eating with chopsticks. It's often served at the end of the meal. The idea is you eat the fussy, expensive goodies first: sashimi, gyoza, deep-fried fiddlehead ferns. Then they give you a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup to fill up on, so no matter how hungry you are, you leave the table satisfied.
Virtually every restaurant we visited either had plastic food models in a display window outside, or a menu with pictures. Otherwise, we would have been sunk. Most of the time we ordered by pointing at a picture.
Here we have a flyer for a fairly expensive menu: about $55. It looks good, but I defy any of my friends, except maybe Michele C., to name everything pictured. There's the black tray with sushi, and there's the lacquer bowl at the upper right with a clear soup, probably miso. But the rest of it is a mystery. Looks good, though, so if I was in the mood for a $55 dinner, I'd go ahead and order it. It's gotta be better than the English-language menu that featured "Seared cow's cheek in coffee with vegetable."
One last note: Pictured above are several cube-shaped food items. For certain, at least one of them is wheat gluten. It's served at every meal. It's often, but not always, sweet. And it's nasty. It's gooey and sticky and coats your teeth. Unfortunately, you don't know which one is the little cube of jellied fish or the block of flavored tofu or the cube of lemon custard or, like the unseen dog turd lurking in the back yard grass, the wheat gluten. The only way to find out is to bite into it, and that one bite commits you to a coating of the inside of your mouth that lasts until vigorously scrubbed away with a toothbrush. Personally, I'd rather try the Cow's cheek.
Steve Beimel (L) and Andy Bender (R).
Andy reminds me of the Belgian cartoonist Hergé's character, Tintin.
He's mild-mannered, polite and unobtrusive, but like Tintin, underneath his unruffled calm lies knowledge, competence and pluck. He managed to keep 25 disparate tourists organized, fed and transported, without any of us feeling the control he was exercising. He handled all of our logistics and dealt with innumerable individual problems:
• Well, Andy, you see... I'm allergic to fish, so do you think for dinner we could...
• We've changed our minds. We want to return to Tokyo by air, not by train, so could you...
• Can you fix my radio? I can't hear anything.
• Eewww! Raw fish!
He never once said, "For God's sake!, you're in JaPAN! What the hell do you think they eat here? Pizza? French fries? Don't you people read up on these places before you sign up?"
He dealt placidly with the problem tourists: Those who had trouble getting around, those who wanted to SHOP, the woman who needed a doctor, the self-appointed expert who constantly tried to upstage everyone with his unasked-for explanations of some obscure point. And while juggling all this, he gave us our first lessons in the Japanese language and told us a great deal about Japanese culture. Example: You see almost no trash bins on the streets of Tokyo. Why? Because no Japanese would "inconvenience" others by leaving trash for them to haul away. You won't read stuff like this in any guidebook.
Steve has been in Japan for many years and recently moved to Kyoto permanently. He is what we from Silicon Valley would call "wired" into the Japanese art and culture world. He knows a vast number of artists, craftsmen, priests and others, and introduced us to many of them. We were allowed to enter homes and studios of talented and accomplished people—an intimate look that would have been impossible any other way.
Steve taught us about architecture, theater, music, Shinto and Buddhism and an array of arts, historical and contemporary. His knowledge is encyclopedic: He taught us more than we ever thought we could absorb in so short a time. His affection and respect for the people to whom he introduced us is genuine and made us feel that they were our friends, too.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He speaks almost entirely in superlatives, and had us all doing it, too. And he, along with Andy, seems to genuinely care about the tour group members. When Jean and I decided to fly rather than take the bullet train back to Tokyo, Steve made a special trip with us to the train station to get a refund for our tickets—beyond the call of duty.
If I knew about the next group these two men would lead, I would make every effort to be in it. Sadly, this doesn't seem likely to happen. Andy talks about helping American companies deal with the cultural differences with their Japanese counterparts. Steve says he's retiring. We'll see. Maybe they'll do one more "farewell" tour. I hope so.
Update: Jean received an email from Andy indicating that he and Steve are supposed to do the same trip for Smithsonian again next year  and that he [Andy] will be leading some tours for museum groups like the Boston MFA.
He took my map and frowned at it. He turned it this way and that way. It became immediately apparent he was gonna be no help at all. But he wanted to help. So he studied the map intently. He said things like "Yes. Kimono."
He pointed back the way we'd come. I told him it wasn't there. He pointed around the corner. I told him we'd checked that out also. When he pointed a third direction, I smiled, bowed and thanked him, and set off in that direction even though I knew it was wrong, just to end the agony.
This is one of the problems of getting around in Tokyo. You can find the general location of your destination, but once there, you can't see it. It must be here somewhere... But exactly where? Or maybe it's way the hell and gone across town. You have no way of knowing.
We stepped into an authentic French bistro for two coffees—$10. I pored over our maps. I looked at the city guide where we'd learned about Hayashi Kimono. It said it was located at 2-1-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. In the International Arcade.
Wait a minute. I had seen a sign that said "International Arcade." But where?
We retraced our steps. Sure enough, under a railway bridge was a sign: "International Arcade." Right next to a drink vending machine and a soft ice cream place.
The International Arcade.
Now here's this place that's supposed to be a major tourist destination. I had looked along all the narrow streets lined with fancy retail stores. I'd looked in the high rises that lined the boulevards. But I'd walked right by the shabby storefront lurking in the gloom under the bridge.
The International Arcade contains two stores. One sells breathtakingly expensive pearls. The other is Hayashi Kimono. The pearl store staff took one look at us and ignored us. A helpful English-speaking woman scuttled out from behind a pile of happi coats and asked Jean if she could help her. Then it was off to the races. Piles of yakutas came out and were unfolded. Happi coats were tried on. Kimonos and obis were oohed and ahed over. Jean finally turned to me and said that she was "going to be a little while."
I needed to find a bathroom, so I told her I'd be back later and headed off for Mitsukoshi Department Store, the "Harrod's of Tokyo," where I knew there were public facilities. A half-hour later, I returned to discover that I was $480 poorer and Jean was $480 happi-er.
Jean at Hayashi Kimono.
Here, Jean is watching the helpful English-speaking proprietess totting up the damages.
The sweet was a sticky glob of soybeans stuck together with thick teryaki sauce. Kinda mealy. Jean didn't want hers, so I ate it.
Here, Jean stands in front of a 300-year-old pine propped up by a dozen large posts. She's thinking, "Why aren't I in a nice warm theater watching Brokeback Mountain?" I'm thinking, "It would be a really, really bad thing to ask her to take another step back."
Here's an annoying restaurant thing: As you survey the plates of plastic food, trying to find lunch for under $30, your eye falls of a nice plate of eel heads for only $12.50. So you go in and order. The waitress tells you the eel heads are a special, and they're selling only 20 orders of them today, and they just sold the last one. "So sorry. Only 20 order. You want fry chicken foot? Only $25."
I've only seen one squatter; they're on their way out. You know the kind I mean, consisting of a shallow sink in the floor with two raised islands for your feet and a hole. A ceramic version of the latrine you dug when you went camping in the Sierras. The one I saw was in a high-end department store. For some reason, department stores seem to be among the last to switch over to sitters.
Most places not only have sitters exclusively, they have toilets with heated seats. One of the little rubber bumpers under the seat is a control for a valve that allows hot water to circulate through the seat, providing instant warmth. Sit. Rubber bumper compresses. Valve opens. Butt warms. Why this is desirable is beyond me.
The heated seats have a couple of rubber hoses that lead off to the house plumbing. These hoses can cause the seat, when a man lifts it to pee, to snap down unexpectedly. Sounds to me like an opportunity for kaizen (the Japanese continuous improvement process).
Here we see our hotel room toilet seat with one of its hoses.
A high-tech toilet.
The complicated object to the left is the control panel.
Let's repeat that. The toilet seat has a control panel. Not only does it have a control panel, the toilet is sufficiently complicated that it needs to have operating instructions printed on it.
I bet that in a drawer somewhere in the hotel, there's even an instruction manual. Which, of course, nobody reads.
The switch to the far right is easy enough to understand. You don't wanna warm your ass? Turn it off. Curiously, turning it off is a temporary function. As you sit, you can turn the heat off for the ... um ... current session. Next time you use it, the darn thing's on again, so if you don't want a cozy butt, you have to turn it off every time. Too much trouble. I just leave it on, but I might consider changing my policy in hot weather.
The remaining four controls are for the buttwasher. Let's say you have excreted some ... solids, and are about to reach for the toilet paper. Well, just hold on now! Toilet paper, as we all know, doesn't really do a good job. I mean, would you besa mi culo right after I walk out of the bathroom? I thought not. Recognizing this, the ever inventive Japanese have come up with a solution: A bathroom-sized pressure washer.
Getting back to the moment of our dilemma, we reach not for the tissue. Instead we press the appropriately color coded brown button. A little tube snakes out from under the seat and somehow positions itself itself exactly where it's needed. Don't wanna think about that too much. A valve clicks, and suddenly a gentle stream of warm water hits you spang where it's needed. Woo hoo! If you're looking for really deep cleaning (sorry), you can hit the "hi" pressure toggle, but you'd better clench up before you do, 'cause on that setting, the jet is really effective.
In case you don't understand the color coding, the brown button has a little cartoon that represents a butt hanging down and a jet gently squirting up. Fair enough. Now look at the pink button. Says "front." But what does the cartoon mean? After lengthy study, I surmise that it is a representation of a woman in a skirt superimposed on a spray of water. So it's saying, "Hey guys. This one's for the girls." Pink and all. At one point, I thought the ideograms above the pink lozenge represented the tube snaking out from under the seat, but now I think they are kanji for "douche." I could have come up with better graphics than that. So could you. Think about it. Different images. Different color. See?
The stop button is so you can turn off the jets before rising, a desirable strategy. It keeps the bathroom drier.
Now. All this convenience and comfort comes at a price. The more complicated something is, the more likely something will go wrong. There could even be the possibility of injury. And so, this toilet seat is the first ever to bear a WARNING LABEL!
Looking at the second group of warnings first, we are cautioned not to sit (or stand) on the main unit, control panel or lid, to reduce the risk of electrocution.
Gee—I gotta worry about being ELECTROCUTED by a TOILET SEAT?
Don't sit on the lid? EVERYBODY sits on the lid. It's where you sit when you're putting on your socks or trimming your toenails. What are these guys thinking? People who fail to read the fine print—that's most of us—are gonna sit on the lid. But with this gadget, sitting means we're flirting with death!
Seems like an avoidable risk to me. You could accomplish the same thing, when needed, with a warm soapy washcloth and a little elbow grease.
Continuing to read upward, we're advised to turn the heated seat off if we're gonna sit there for a long time. To avoid burns. Come on! Half of Japan sits on toilets working today's Asahi Shimbun soduko puzzle. They're hard. Take a lot of time. There's gonna be a lot of singed butts. Or half-solved puzzles.
As a public service, the Asahi Shimbun is going to have to run easier problems.
Finally, there's the warning not to splash water (or urine) on the main unit, control panel or power box.
Picture this: It's 2 AM. You stumble groggily through the dark to the bathroom. If you're like me, you don't want to turn on the light because you'll just wake up more, and you're really trying to get this out of the way without actually waking up. You've been doing this for years. You can hit a dime in the dark. You start to let go, dead center in the bowl.
And the lid snaps down. Remember the hoses?
In the good old days, this just meant you would annoy the woman in your life when she unsuspectingly went to use the toilet in the morning. But now: You miss, and sheet lightning arcs back up the stream.
Let's face it. This is a bad idea. Like those little dog robots. Like canned whiskey in vending machines. Like tri-level driving ranges. It ought to be killed. But I understand these toilet seats have been around for at least seven years, so someone is heavily invested in the concept and it ain't gonna go away—at least not in Japan. All we can hope is that they'll eventually kaizen their way out of electrocuting their customers.
Update: I read in the English-language newspaper that the latest models will blow hot air on your butt, to dry it. They also have nozzles that move back and forth in a "massage" action. (Their word, not mine.) Just think about that for a while.
The crowds in Electronic Town are 90% male, 90% geeks. They made me feel right at home. I'd found my people.
Hawkers stood outside the larger establishments, calling out in amplified sing-song voices. This girl, in boots and miniskirt, is pitching video games. You see hawkers everywhere in Tokyo, even in toney districts like the Ginza. They pitch passers-by on PA systems or they hand out flyers. Everyone ignores them. So it's hard to imagine why shopkeepers continue to use them.
I found a wonderful, dingy building housing four floors of little shops, each one smaller than my hotel room, each one selling some subcategory of components. The men who operated them were buried among stacks of motherboards, switches, transformers, ceramic insulators, tubes, transistors, heat sinks, resistors, capacitors, used instruments and a hundred other things. Unstylishly-dressed men shuffled up to them with grubby lists in their hands, looking for components for their latest projects. They reminded me of people out of Blade Runner.
Forty years ago, a similar district was strung out along Canal Street in Manhattan. I used to take the train to the Lackawanna Terminal in Hoboken, NJ and hop the ferry across the Hudson River, where I'd spend hours drooling over gear I couldn't afford. I especially lusted after war surplus transmitters and receivers. After hours of walking and looking, I'd make a few well-considered purchases and hurry home to put them to use. All this is gone now; a sad loss.
In our home country, Mexico, we're lucky if the airport van has seat belts and brakes. In Japan, the bus driver bows us onto the neat and clean bus, where we read a sign that says, " It is not permitted to play the radio on the bus because it annoys the neighbors."
In Mexico, the highway from the airport is littered with plastic bottles and bloated animal carcasses. In Japan, the highway sound walls are festooned with blooming wisteria and lined with azaleas. Jean and I made a bet as to who would see the first piece of litter. We were unable to resolve it.
In Mexico, a watermelon costs $1. In a better grocery store in Japan, you can pay $80. Admittedly, the latter is a perfect, sublime watermelon intended to be given as a gift.
In Mexico, $5 will get us four tacos de cabeza, dripping with with grease, the meat for which was pried out of a roasted cow's head with a screwdriver. In Japan, $10 will get us ten pieces of sushi to go. In Japan, my arteries say "Thankyouthankyouthankyou."
In Mexico, I can buy a two-liter bottle of water for fifty cents. Jean bought a half-liter bottle in the hotel here for four bucks. 16:1. But... I went to a local supermarket in the Ginza last night where I found a two-liter bottle for a buck. Yes, Japan can be expensive, but regular citizens pay far less than tourists at neighborhood restaurants and stores.
I am writing from Tokyo, where it is 4:30 PM on a bright, sunny day, but it is 2:30 AM John Wood Internal Time. We're here for a Smithsonian art tour of Tokyo and Kyoto. We flew here from Atlanta 'cause the fare was good. Took 13 hours. Narita Airport is pretty ugly, architectually, but we whisked through immigration and customs in no time at all, and within minutes we were on the bus to our hotel.
The only delay was a ten-minute wait for our luggage. A plasma sign over the carousel alternated messages in Japanese and English. The English version read, "Wait a little while." I like that: "Calm down. Your luggage will be here soon enough. Just wait a little while." In the US, when the baggage carousel starts up, you are warned by a klaxon that cleans your teeth. In Japan, the carousel tinkles at you. Ding-ding. Ding-ding.
Nobody jammed me for redcap service or a cab ride. No customs official angled for a bribe. Nobody pawed through my bags.
The ride into Tokyo takes an hour and a half if there's no traffic. I walked toward a ground transportation counter with my bus chits in my hand. A young woman who spoke some English intercepted me, looked at my chits and sent me to the proper desk. A man gave me tickets in exchange for my chits and I walked out to station #17 where my bus was due to arrive in five minutes. I gave our luggage to a nice man at the curb, He gave me claim checks and instructed me to stand between two yellow lines painted on the pavement. The bus came, as promised, in exactly five minutes. (The last time I took the van home from Querétaro, the driver had us wait in the van for an hour while he tried to sort out the latest extortionate fees newly imposed by the airport authorities.)
The dispatcher bowed to the bus driver who bowed back. Then we were on our way into the city. I had forgotten how much bowing there is in Japan. The helpful lady at the transportation desk bowed me coming and going. The dispatcher bowed me. The bus driver bowed me. So did a young woman in the lobby of the high rise where our hotel is located. She escorted us to hotel lobby on the 24th floor and, bowing, handed us off to another young lady who made sure we knew how to stand in line at the check-in counter. When she was sure we were OK, she bowed and excused herself to help someone else. It's infectious. Already, I'm bowing all over the place, which only triggers even more bows in return. Plus, everyone smiles at us, as if our very presence in their lives brings them great joy. They do it so convincingly that we buy it, unlike the insincere, "have a nice day" that we get from the checker at Target.
Our hotel room is tiny--the smallest we've stayed in during the last ten years of traveling. It contains two twin beds, a desk and desk chair, a mini-bar, a stupid lounging chair, and a couple of night stands. No dresser. No dining table. No couch. No easy chair for reading. No table lamps. All this, and the rack rate is $240.
But... It has a combo flat-screen TV-game player-computer with broadband internet. It has the best-ever temperature-controlled shower. It has a short, neck-deep tub that fills in about two minutes. It has a heated toilet seat with little nozzles that, at the push of a button, snake out underneath and squirt our bottoms right where it's needed (there's a front and a back button). It has a sumptuous breakfast buffet that retails for $20 per person, included in the room rate. It has a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the Sumida River.
View from our hotel room.
We open our door with one of those radio-operated key cards that we just sort of wave at our lock. Then, as we go in, we put the card in a holder mounted on the door jamb. This activates the lights in our room. When you leave, we take your card with us, and after a few seconds, the lights turn off, automatically saving energy, Doesn't turn off the toilet seat heater, though.
There's always room for improvement.
Speaking of saving energy, there's imprinted plastic cards that we leave on our bed if we don't want our sheets changed. When we get back to our room, the beds have been made and the original cards have been replaced with ones that read, "You are so stylish. Thanks for helping save the earth." Stylish? This is an example of Engrish: Japanese English characterized by spelling and grammar errors, but which also contains weirdly worded "Hello Kitty"-type sentiments. I saw a woman with a shopping bag from a store called Flower with the legend: "May warm and sweet feelings linger / ower you densely on these / poety-like and pictures days."
Did I mention that the hotel has scores of bowers. They don't do anything for you. They just stand there and bow and say arigatou gozaimasu (thank you). OK. They do one thing. If they see you headed for the elevator, they run ahead of you and press the call button. When the door opens, they put their hand on it to hold it open, so the door won't accidentally close on you. Then, after you're inside, they bow, and maintain the bow until the doors close. Kind of unnerving, actually.
When I spent a week here 20 years ago, it was hard to find someone who spoke English. I learned that if I needed to ask directions, I was usually successful if I found a kid in a school uniform; they were all studying English. Today they're all grown up. Many are employed as waiters or hotel clerks or sales clerks or bowers. So it's much easier to get along here. Many road signs and other directional aids are written both in Chinese characters and in romanji, where Japanese syllables are spelled out in Roman letters. This is a huge help, to be able to pronounce the name of the street I am on.
English is the language of commerce, and just as in Mexico, people who want to get ahead learn it. There's some kind of test they can take which on passing, yields a certificate that gets them a better job. In a bookstore, I saw ten feet of shelves full of books with sample test questions. They take this English business seriously.
The airport is neat, clean and uncrowded. The building was recently erected, and brand-new informational signs have been put up to advise travelers.
Here, Jean is standing... well, actually she's waiting... in the Sala de Espera, the "Room of Waiting." (The sign in English—Boarding Gate—is not a translation of "Sala de Espera," even though the layout of the sign might lead one to believe so.) The yellow sign with the lozenge figure seated next to an unmoving clock illustrates the room's intended use for the illiterate.
How about that other icon?
Yep. No guns. No dynamite. Depicted on one of those circle-with-a-line-through-it signs for quick reading and comprehension. I guess it's something you just can't stress enough with travelers in Mexico.
I bet the U. S. Department of Homeland Security hasn't tackled the dynamite-in-the-briefcase problem yet.