Thursday, July 02, 2015

the monkey on my back

He is not much to look at.  At least, these days.

This little woven monkey (most likely purchased at a Dollar Shop) has followed me all around the world.  During that time, I have thrown away a lot of the encumbrances that were in the way of my next move.  But The Monkey has survived.

I still remember when he entered my life.  It was a farewell party from Castle Air Force Base in August 1973.  I had just received orders for my new assignment in Greece.  My former commander's wife, Joan Shinnick, brought a bag of gag gifts.

Joan was one of those personalities that come into our lives and forever change how we look at the world.  She was an incredible writer.  Witty.  Precise.  With a jeweler's eye for cant.  I think I once called her a cross between Mame Dennis and Erma Bombeck. 

I can still hear her describing each trinket as she pulled it out of her gift bag -- turning each into a small morality play.  And then came The Monkey.

He has no other name.  For some reason, slapping a moniker on him seemed restrictive.  As if the good charm he brought to my life would somehow be dissipated with something as common as a name.

My assignment in Greece was what the Air Force called "remote."  That meant I would be giving up the luxuries I would regularly find on an American base.  Like fresh milk.  And remote it was.

Joan, being an Air Force wife, understood what the term meant.  She gave me The Monkey with instructions that I was to hang it in my bachelor officers quarters.  And, whenever I encountered days that seemed unbearable, and I would encounter many (she predicted), I was to look at The Monkey and laugh.

It worked.  Numerous times.  No matter where The Monkey lived.  In Greece.  In England.  In law school.

When I moved down here, I found him in the bottom of a box.  I am almost positive I intended to toss him out when I left Salem.  But there he was.  Just like Chuckie.

He has now lived in three different houses in Mexico.  I had not yet found a good spot for him in the new house -- the house that shares the same aversion to an appellation.  Instead, I tossed him on one of the shelves in my bedroom.

When I returned from lunch yesterday, I noticed that Dora, the woman who assists me in keeping my house in order, had found an appropriate perch for him.  Hanging on the wall just over my computer desk.

Joan and I shared regular letters.  Not just during holidays.  But she would always send an amazing Christmas decoration made of paper.

Just after I moved down her, our correspondence stopped.  I called her for her birthday two years ago.  The voice was hers.  But I could tell she had no idea who I was. 

I seldom have to look at The Monkey for joy these days.  And you know why if you read these pages.  My life here is filled with joy.  When I glance up at him now, I can share the memory of Joan with him.

And isn't that what a good friendship is all about?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

dancing in the dark

Now and then, I wish I could create some of the paintings I like to collect.

Take last evening.  I was on the beach to watch the phenomenon we talked about a few days ago (lights in the distance) -- witnessing Venus pass Jupiter on their respective rotations around the sun.  There they were, closer than two thoroughbreds at a Kentucky Derby photo finish.

I snapped a couple of photographs.  Of course, without special equipment, they appeared to be two mismatched headlights coming at me on a drive to Puerto Vallarta.  Not really photo-essay quality.

Then, I turned around.  The true show was taking place on stage right.

I have been noticing the moon make its way through its phases during the past two weeks.  Reading in the pool at night has been a bit easier with the moon's assistance.

Last night, it was showing off what it could do when it is in its glory.  And our beautiful bay was eating up the moonlight like a diva consumes attention.

What could be more tropical than a full moon, a shimmering bay reflecting the light right back to its source, and a beach to top it off?  Even the weather was cooperating.  Hot and muggy, but with a constant breeze that could make us Costalegre denizens a bit jealous of islands with trade winds.

Evenings like this make up for Mexico's flaws.  At least, they make me forget about them. 

After all, I can do little about the flaws.  I can do a lot about just enjoying the fact that this moment is mine.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

target sighted

I swore I was not going to do this.  But, since I did not tell you I wasn't, I am going to do it any way.

Tracking someone else's package as it wends its way through the shipping channels of The States and Mexico does not make for interesting reading.  But it is keeping me entertained.

The last time, we talked, my DVDs and book from Amazon has wandered from San Bernadino to Ontario to Los Angeles.  From Los Angeles, I thought it would make the jump across the border.

Not so.  DHL whisked it off to its central processing hub in Cincinnati -- where it spent the weekend.  Doing what?  I am not certain. 

After all, there is plenty to do in Cincinnati on a free Saturday and Sunday.  But for a package?  Maybe Truman wanted to take in a play at the Playhouse in the Park.

Having been refreshed by its respite, the package took an express route on Monday.  It flew to Guadalajara in the morning.  Customs then did what customs needs to do in a matter of minutes.  By early afternoon, it was shipped out of the Guadalajara DHL processing center for delivery.

Now, I have been around the package delivery world long enough to know that we are only in the second act of a three-act play.  Undoubtedly, there will be stops in intermittent DHL processing centers.  Colima or Manzanilo.  Maybe both.

The DHL tracking page claims the package will not arrive until 6 July.  Amazon is more optimistic with its prediction of 2 July.  But the Amazon page also contains a rather ominous warning: the dreaded "Delayed" notice.

Maybe someone finally noticed the package is to be delivered to a postal box.  Or it could mean almost anything -- or nothing.  I will simply wait patiently to see where the package seems to be tacking.

I may even head down to the post office once the DHL page indicates the package is out for delivery.  Even if it means spending the day at the post office, I really enjoy chatting with the clerks there.

And I won't bother promising this is the last post on this delivery.  I almost feel Magellan -- if it were not for the fact Nancy has been doing the same thing for years.


Monday, June 29, 2015

taking out the trash

Garbage collection fascinates me.

Of course, it is a necessity.  Modern civilizations could not exist without it.  Otherwise, our living areas would be buried in trash.

In Pátzcuaro, several times a week, the garbage truck arrives to the sound of a bell that any colonial town crier would have envied.  At the sound, residents run from their houses carrying bags of garbage -- along with a tip of pesos for the garbage guys.  Mexicans cannot stand garbage accumulating in their houses.

I suspect that is why our local garbage men show up early almost every morning to pick up the neighborhood trash.  That was one of the rhythms I needed to learn at the new house.  I usually put out my trash twice a week after Dora pays her visits tidying up my life.

In Villa Obregon, most houses have a very interesting apparatus on the sidewalk -- similar to this one in my new neighborhood.

It is a clever device.  It keeps the dogs and other scavengers from ripping through the garbage bags in search of scraps.  I do not have one at the new house.

Instead, I bought a garbage can to comply with the notice at the top of this piece.  It is painted on the wall of our local football pitch. 

The message is very clear.  I understand the residents of my neighborhood traditionally would gather up their garbage, put it in the type of plastic bags you would receive at a convenience store, and then deposit it on the street corner for the garbage men to collect on their regular rounds.

But custom is a hard thing to break.  Even though the garbage is supposed to be left in front of each house, my neighbors still drop their bags on the street corner.

And because no one on my street has one of those raised garbage containers, the dogs treat the bags as the equivalent of a Sirloin Stockade buffet.  The result is that the contents of the bags are strewn in the street.  The mornings do not paint a pretty street scene.

The garbage men will pick up any undisturbed bag on the corner, but any of the torn bags in the street are on their own.  That is why I bought a heavy garbage can.  I tote it to the curb twice a week.  The next morning the contents are gone, and I roll the can back into its resting place.

And what about the trash in the street?  It will sit there until the rains come and sweep most of it into the sewage system -- where it will damage the pumps.

Or it will sit there until either my neighbor, Mary, or I get tired of the eyesore.  It usually takes only about a half hour to gather everything up and prepare it for the next pickup day.

For some reason, it does not seem to bother the neighbors who put it out.  I have seen them watch me cleaning up the street.  Their looks are something between bemusement and comedy.

Mexicans are quite fastidious in the hygiene of their homes, their clothes, their vehicles, and themselves.  Getting the garbage outside of the house is just one example.  For some reason that attitude just does not square with the garbage issue.

A Mexican friend once told me, when we were discussing litter: "Once a piece of paper leaves a Mexican's hand, it s no longer his concern."  I do not know how valid that statement is, but the empirical evidence on my street would support the postulate.

Things are changing, though.  Local students regularly hold litter cleanups in the villages, as well as promoting more litter barrels in public places.

Maybe that is the answer.  Perhaps in another generation, when I am getting around with my walker, my Mexican neighbors will join me in cleaning up the street.

I had written an entirely different ending to this piece.  I decided I would play litter patrol on the street last evening.  As I worked my way to the corner, I noticed my neighbor, Israel, who I met when I first moved in, was also cleaning up the mess on the corner.

We re-introduced ourselves and chatted a bit.  He has a store in Melaque, where I have seen him numerous times.  Both of us laughed at how we had failed to make the connection that we are neighbors.

We commiserated over the dog problem and the number of times trash barrels have been stolen from the corner.  But, most of all, he undercut the entire premise of this piece.  Mexicans do care about trash.  At least, Israel does.

And, even if he is the exception, it is nice to put a neighborly face on a shop owner I see almost every day.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

the forbidden fruit

One of my failings as a traveler is when I am behind a steering wheel.

My idea of driving is to go from point A to point B.  There is nothing in between.  If I see something interesting along the road, I believe it will be there when I return.  When I do return I , of course, drive right by it.

I come by the affliction naturally.  My brother is the same way.  We blame it on the Y chromosome we inherited from our father.  My mother can (and will) tell stories about the absurd lengths he would take to avoid stopping on road trips.

On my drives to and from Puerto Vallarta, I have noticed some odd shrubs along Highway 200 south of the Tomatlán turnoff.  The plants are not that noticeable.  They are no more remarkable than creosote bushes -- which they resemble.  Lots of branches with no discernible trunk.

What caught my attention were the grapefruit-sized fruit that appeared to grow from each of the individual trunks.  Almost as if someone had taped green Christmas ornaments to them.

I cannot count how many times my curiosity has been tweaked -- and I would keep on driving.  When I drove my friend Jack to the Puerto Vallata airport, I pointed them out to him.  And I am glad I did.

He told me the tree and the fruit have the same name -- cuastecomate.  Interestingly, that is the name of a beach village just over the hill from Melaque.  And for good reason, the trees grow there.  Until recently, there was a giant version right in the village.  Before it was cut down.

On the return trip, I stopped to look closer at the fruit.  They look like a type of gourd.  A very hard exterior with an almost hollow interior.

Most trees around here have been imported.  The cuastecomate is a Mexican native.

When the gourds are dried, the local Indians found them very useful for carrying and storing water, as drinking and eating utensils, and the foundation for decorative pottery.  The Huichol make beaded maracas from the gourd.

I am told a local naturopath creates a medicine from the gourds inside the pulp.  When the gourd turns brown and falls from the tree, the top is removed, and the interior (including the pulp) is filled with alcohol.  After a curing period that sounds as if it might rival that of kimchi, the fermented liquid is used to control respiratory conditions -- including asthma.

I have never tried it.  But, then, I do not have respiratory troubles.

What I do have is a bit of new information about a naive Mexican plant.  And in an area filled with mango, tamarind, coconut, and other foreign plans, that is rare enough for me. 

I need to stop and enjoy those moments more often.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

the amazon flows

I told you I would keep you posted on the progress of my recent purchases from Amazon.  And so I am.

Just to refresh your memory, I ordered a book and some DVDs from Amazon last Sunday (floating down the amazon).  The amount was over $150 (US).  I was told that orders over that amount were shipped free.

But I was misinformed -- o partially misinformed.  Free shipping is for just some items.  And I do not know whether the DVDs or the book kicked me out of the ship-for-free club or not.  But I learned something.  Watch the shipping costs tab when adding items to the cart.

Yesterday morning, I received an email from Amazon chirpily informing me: "It's on the way!" -- as if I were a 12 year old girl.  But it was exciting news.

The package is not coming from the touted warehouse in Mexico City.  It is slipping across the border from San Bernadino, California.  I guess the warehouse is not ready for my requests. 

But the notice did contain an interesting piece of intelligence.  The carrier is DHL.  That is important because it will test the one flaw that make exist in the address I chose.

My friend Nancy has had Amazon ship books to her through the post office we both use.  Felipe commented that his experience is that when the express carriers receive a package with an ADPO Postal number, they will return the package to Amazon.

I asked the postal clerk this morning (in my terribly broken Spanish) what would happen if DHL delivered the package to him.  He said he would accept the package and put a notice in my box.

I hope that is how it works.  The only cockroach in the soup is the possibility that duty or taxes may be owed.  I am certain the clerks will not front those costs.  They have trouble making change for a twenty peso note when I buy postage.

But this is all performance art in the works.  The delivery date is slated for 2 July.  We should soon have an answer.

And the answer will be pertinent only to this shipment and to me.  Just one more thing to love about Mexico -- and to provide essay fodder.

Friday, June 26, 2015

look for small pleasures

Yesterday, fellow blogger Joanna left the following comment: "I have always thought that the sky is like a huge ever-changing canvas. Sometimes the cloud formations, the light, the alignments of stars and planets are so beautiful they seem unreal."

That is exactly how I felt on Wednesday evening after enjoying a plate of chicken Marsala.  Not your usual Mexican fare -- even in La Manzanilla.

This is what greeted me when I stepped out of the restaurant.

Now, I know I have posted a lot of sunset photographs.  But not very many pre-sunset shots.  This one struck me as being rather unusual.

The color played a big part, obviously.  Our sunsets around here tend to run toward shades of mango or apricot.  The tints that enliven the umbrellaed drinks of the cocktail set.

But it is far more than just the color.  Everything that evening conspired to say: This is one special tropical place.  The sea.  The palm trees.
  The fishing boats at rest for the night.

I live for these moments in Mexico.  Where a group of circumstances come together for one, brief magic moment.  Only to quickly fade.

The number of amazing sunsets I have seen here must number in the hundreds -- if not the thousands.  But each one of them has been special.

But no more special than watching the children on my street just being kids.  Or the older woman with leathery skin I saw walking along the street the day before yesterday, whose eyes belied the fact that she had captured some beautiful secret of the cosmos.  Or the waiter who had just had one of the best days of his life and wanted to share it with me.

Why do I live here?  Because I am thankful that each morning I will arise to some conflict that must be subdued -- and that will be outweighed by a little miracle.  A place that keeps me stimulated -- and content.  Every day.

I'm certainly not trading in this "ever-changing canvas" anytime soon.