Thursday, January 29, 2015

the pony needs some oats

The libertarian club (please note the lower case letters) contacted me on Monday to notify me my charter membership is in danger of being revoked.

You can guess why.  All of those nice things I said about government taxes and fees in Mexico (citizen steve), as well as glowing comments about Mexican administrative efficiency, was just too much for my more fundamentalist liberty colleagues.  Some even caught a sulfurous whiff of complaint about low taxes.  The ultimate heresy.

To regain my standing amongst the Friedmans, O'Rourkes, and Sowells, I must confess my dealings with one governmental institution has taken a bit of a hit. 

Anyone who has been hanging around these pages for very long knows I have a running love affair with the Mexican postal service.  I still do.  I would list the past essays, but they would simply cut into the flow of today's prose.

The system has amazed me.  Year after year, the mail I send to The States and the mail my friends in The States send to me usually takes about 10 to 14 days to be delivered.  Magazines take about a week.

That is, until last October.  Something odd happened.  Cards I sent north were taking six weeks to arrive.  And magazines simply stopped arriving.  When I talked with the local postmaster, he told me it was because of the Christmas rush.

I bought that explanation.  But, here we are, a full month after Christmas, and I am receiving some oddly-delayed mail.

  • In yesterday's (28 January) mail,  I received a very personal Christmas card from my mother (and a Merry Christmas to you, too, Mom) mailed on 9 December from Oregon; the December edition of my Oregon Bar Bulletin; and the 13 December edition of The Economist -- even though I have now received six subsequently-published issues.
  • On 24 January, a birthday card from a grade and high school friend in Washington (thanks, David and Pam) arrived -- mailed on 22 December.
  • On 22 January, a Christmas card arrived from Nevada -- mailed on 24 November.
  • On 20 January, a birthday card arrived from Oregon (thanks, Colette) -- mailed on 11 December.
  • On 31 December, a letter arrived from a friend in Hawaii -- mailed on 19 November.
Now, I am not bragging about the mail I receive (even though I truly relish receiving cards and letters from long-time friends).  But, the lawyer in me cannot get away from the requirement that assertions should be supported by facts.

The facts are that the local postal service has slowed down for some reason.  The good news is that the mail is making its way to me -- even though I have not received anything as oddly addressed as I did in post haste.  Each piece of my recent mail has been appropriately addressed.

So, libertarian haranguers, I am not certain this is going to keep me in god standing.  My side swipe at the Mexican postal service has actually turned into another paean of love.

Let's see.  I guess I could take another jab at the police.

But that will have to await another essay.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

closing the circle; opening another

Some essays do not have a final ending.

Take here's looking at you, kid.  You remember the tale of my neighbor Lupe.  Last April I accompanied Lupe and her son, Alex, to Mexico City to replace her artificial eye.  During the nine days we were there, we had a lot of interesting adventures.  But the primary purpose was Lupe's eye.

When we returned to Melaque, I declared "mission accomplished."  Of course, that was only the first part of the cycle.

When we last left Lupe, I told you she would need a follow-up to determine how the eye was doing in its new home.  That meant Lupe would have to make a trip back to Mexico City.  I was fully prepared to make the trip with her.  But, as you know, I have been hither and yon the past two months.

The people who raised the money asked her if she could make the trip on her own.  And she did.  The eye was working well.

Last night we celebrated Lupe.  And the people who made it all possible.

What better way to celebrate than with a good old-fashioned northern pot luck?  I almost felt as if I had taken a nostalgic turn into the church fellowship hall.  And I mean that in the most pleasant way possible.

Memories of our youth often show up at the oddest time.  Even though I was on a bungalow balcony on the Mexican Pacific coast, I felt as if I had stepped into the fellowship hall of the Powers Open Bible Church -- where everyone was either a relative or a close friend.  Not a stranger was to be found.

Of course, I had not met everyone at Lupe's celebration.  But I knew who they were.  They were the people who saw Lupe's need and generously met it.

The hostess asked Lupe how she liked our potluck dishes.  Mexicans know their courtesy -- having polished it for centuries.  But Lupe's smile was as genuine as always.  She declared it: "Very good."  And she was correct. 

Most of what I ate probably spiked my triglycerides, but I have long ago abandoned any notion of testing just how high it has gone.  Like Lupe, I declare my triglycerides: "Very good."

I should avoid the hubris of medical ignorance.  After all, my doctor was one of the guests.  The group invited her because of her work on what I call the Indian school.  They intended to donate the money to that project.

Instead, Dra. Rosa challenged the group to find a deserving family and help them in some meaningful way.  Donating money is fine.  But getting involved with a family's life is often more meaningful.

She had a family in mind.  A single dad raising three children a block from the Indian school project.

Several of the group volunteered to accompany me to Pinal Villa to look at the property.  We have had continual flooding around Pinal Villa this year -- so bad that most fields could not be cultivated this season.  The structure where the family lives sits right in the midst of that flooding.

So, as one story ends, another may be opening.

I will keep you posted on what we discover -- and what can be done.  One family at a time.

Monday, January 26, 2015

citizen steve

I may not yet be a citizen of Mexico, but I am starting to feel like one.

Yesterday was "Render unto Caesar Day."  As a property owner, I now need to slam shekels on the table -- just like the rest of my neighbors.  That is, the neighbors who do pay.  A large number do not.

My dad once told me: "It is an honor to pay taxes.  And, then, you need to watch those shifty politicians like a hawk to make certain they don't squander your money."  He was a realist.

First, let me get a libertarian burr from underneath my saddle.  Thomas Jefferson, when he was not refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants, took a more Manichean Enlightment view than did my dear old Pa: 

The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.
Jefferson would have pointed out that almost all services we deem as common needs could be better provided without any government intervention.

But I live In Mexico.  A land of many laws -- and scarcely any enforcement.  I suspect that is as close to a libertarian world as I am going to get.

In the meantime, I drive on streets paid for by taxes.  Water is delivered to my house by the city -- paid by taxes.  My sewage is gratefully sucked away to some unknown location, even though I can easily guess which laguna is its ultimate home -- paid by taxes.  My garbage is hauled away almost daily -- paid by taxes, and the occasional sizable tip during holidays.

And, because I want to be a good citizen (even of the permanent resident variety), yesterday was my day to contribute to the common kitty.  To pay my property taxes, my water/garbage/sewer fees, and to renew my automobile registration.

Because I do not yet have any of my paperwork from the house closing in October, I needed to stop by the realtor's office to get copies of the tax lot numbers.  No numbers.  No pay.

The receptionist, Olga, is a wonder.  Every organization has one.  The person who knows how everything operates and where everything is.  And they are usually in the lowest pay grade.

She called the tax office to determine what the bureaucrats would accept, and copied off a paper for me to present in lieu of my closing documents.  I was ready to go.  My friend Lou had just paid his taxes; I asked him to ride along as my mentor.

We pay our property taxes in Cihuatlán -- the equivalent of our county seat in this area.  But my water/garbage/sewer fee is paid right here in Barra de Navidad.

Before we drove the 10 miles east to Cihuatlán, we walked across the street from the realtor's office to our little city hall.  Because I had no prior receipt, the clerk opened a large ledger and found the entry using only the owner's first name.  One of the joys of living in a small town.

She then pulled out her manual typewriter, typed up a receipt, accepted my pesos, and I was good for the full year.  Water should flow.  Sewage should flush.  Garbage should continue to be toted off to a far better place.  All in less than 10 minutes.

One down.  Two to go.

The next stop was the equivalent of the county building in Cihuatlán.  Because there is a discount for paying property taxes during the month of January, I anticipated a large line.  That was certainly my experience in Oregon.

There were a few other property owners.  Not many.  Even though most of the payment records are recorded in large binders in the clerk's office, the full transaction took place on computer.

I provided the document Olga gave me, and was directed to stand in line to pay my fee.  When the amount was associated with my property tax number, a document was passed through a hole between the offices, and a receipt was printed out. 

Admittedly, it was a dot matrix printer.  But the system seems to be efficiently automated.

My money passed to the clerk, and I wandered out the door with my receipt.  Total time?  No more than 20 minutes.

Stop number three was not new to me.  I had renewed my automobile registration last year at an office a few blocks from the county building. 

Car registrations are a state function.  Unlike property taxes that are a county function, and water/garbage/sewer that is a city function.  (No one who lives in a federal system should not find that specialization the least bit odd.)

What threw me off last year is that the car registration office does not have a numbering system.  But there are always quite a few people waiting.  Mexicans understand personal responsibility.  They do not need to have a system telling them who is next in line.

People walk into the office, look around to see who is in front of them, then they patiently await their turn.  Neither Lou nor I have ever seen anyone jump the line.  Until today. 

A hip guy dressed like an itinerant jazz musician came in, looked around, and went directly to the window.  The Mexican man, whose turn it was, waved him off.  But the jazzy guy stood his ground ("I am returning") for the next customer -- me.

It didn't matter.  When I got to the window, I handed over last year's documentation and my registration fee for 2015.  The clerk handed back my decal and registration card.  I could not have been at the window for more than 4 minutes.

In the past, the process was not that efficient.  Payment would be made and the customer had to return to the office to pick up the decals produced in Guadalajara and shipped to the local office. 

The process could take one or two months.  Everything is now accomplished by computer right in the office.

So, how how deep a financial hole did all of those official transactions dig into my bank account?  Or, stated differently, what is my cost for being a citizen of my community?

Property taxes -- $1,811

Water/garbage/sewer -- $1,367
Automobile registration -- $445

Now, before anyone starts asking what happened to the assertion that living in Mexico is less costly than living in Oregon, I will point out that each of those costs are in Mexican pesos.  Here they are stated in approximate US dollars.

Property taxes -- $124

Water/garbage/sewer -- $94
Automobile registration -- $30

Pretty sweet.  There is, of course, a price for living in a bargain community.  Infrastructure tends to be just enough to get by.  But get by we do.  I would not trade it for the bloated inefficient tax system of The States -- not to mention Canada or the European countries.

There you have it.  My usual rule in Mexico is to limit projects to one (no more than two) a day.

But I accomplished three major projects in less time than the drive to and from
Cihuatlán, and for less than a week's worth of restaurant meals on our latest road trip.

I am now done for another year.  One of these days, I will be paying as a voter card-carrying Mexican citizen.

I hope.


skipping to dessert

It's raining.

That is a bit of exaggeration.  It was just a few sprinkles in the morning and throughout the day yesterday. 

But this is January.  At the Mexican beach.  Not what we expect for our tourist visitors.

Of course, we all know why it rained.  Construction is in progress on my house.  Considering the circumstances, I am surprised we were not subjected to a tropical storm.

I am getting into my Sunday rhythm.  Off I went to church to hear a well-developed sermon about Jonah and grudges from Pastor Ron; I almost expected Noah and floods.  Then a breakfast-lunch with my pals Wynn and Lou at Rooster's to catch up on the goings-on during the past month -- and to discuss what I need to get done here before I head north to get my visa for Red China.

That list includes paying my property taxes, water/sewer/garbage fees, and renewing my automobile registration.  There is nothing like paying fees to the government to make you feel part of a community.  I will tell you a little more about that process tomorrow.

I then settled down next to the pool to read Richard Brookhiser while eating a bowl of raspberries.

The Brookhiser piece could not have been more appropriate -- for its mood.

If you live in the woods for a few winters you learn how beautiful that season is.  When the trees are leafless you can appreciate their bark and their bending.  Spring, summer, and fall are fashion shows; winter is a parade of nudes.  Creatures without roots are also worth studying.  Birds sing less but they are seen more; animals leave tracks like sociologists' flow charts.
I, of course, do not live in the woods.  Nor is it winter in Barra de Navidad.  At least, not in the same sense that it is winter in upper New York state.  But the scene Brookhiser set was exactly where my soul was yesterday.

Content.  Nearly complete.

Especially, with the raspberries.  Patty bought them in Ajijic last week.  A large container in which the three of us had put a sizable dent.

They were incredibly good.  But, more importantly, they reminded me of the sweet joy of sharing time with Dan and Patty -- and the bitterness of seeing them go.  It also reminded me to thank Bonnie of Ajijic for her comments in our tour around Lake Chapala.

As I write this, I am listening to Peggy Lee sing jazz while I dine on duck while watching the lights that line our pretty little bay.

Brookhiser says it well: "Outside the stars see everything (or all that they care to see)."

Sunday, January 25, 2015

i got rhythm

After a month on the road, I had mixed feelings about returning to the house with no name.

For a month, I have awakened in a new place -- almost each morning.  And, each day, I really had no idea what I would see or where we would stop next.  It was the epitome of why I moved to Mexico.  To wake up each morning and not know how I was going to get through the day.

As I have said before: it was exhilarating.  Stephen Sondheim summed up the problem of living continually on the highs of moments.

Oh, if life were made of moments
Even now and then a bad one.
But if life were only moments
Then you'd never know you had one.
Having lived in moments for the full trip, all three of us returned to Barra de Navidad exhausted.  I had hoped that Dan and Patty would stay a couple of days to recuperate -- and for me to enjoy their company.  But they needed to get on the road; they want to spend a few days in Mazatlán.

When we started the trip I thought I knew Dan quite well.  After all, we are cousins.  But sharing grandparents does not automatically mean that we would be compatible traveling partners. 

Dan is a year older than yours truly.  Whenever we visited his family, Dan was my hero.  He knew so much more about life than I did.  I even picked a favorite music style because my Mom told me it was Dan's favorite.  It turns out it wasn't.

We had great fun reminiscing about his chess genius friend; stopping by Portland coffee houses populated with beatniks emerging from their
chrysalides as hippies; joining him on his Oregonian route while his bag full of newspapers cut into my Bandon sunburn from our day at the beach the day before; his brief stay at our house while we cousins (including cousin Dennis) attended college together; and, of course, our respective girlfriends.

But a shared past does not guarantee a peaceful trip.  In this case, though, it did.  After all, Dan is still something of a hero to me.

It turned out all three of us had a thirst for new people and places, and learning as much as we could about what made Mexico tick.  We enjoyed the trip together so much that we are now talking about a trip to Colombia, Patty's original home country.

I would have liked to sleep in yesterday.  But that was not to be.  While I was away, the house generated its periodic chores for me.  Just as the house cleaner arrived, I headed off to the laundress to drop off two weeks worth of soiled clothes; to the post office to pick up my accumulated mail (thanks for the birthday card, Colette); to Rooster's to pick up breakfast to go; to the bank to replenish my depleted wallet; and to the gas station to fill up that pesky slow leak in the rear left tire (the tire I need to get to my favorite tire mechanic before the month is out).

When I returned to the house, Dan and Patty were ready to leave.  When I saw them off, I returned to what passes for a daily routine.  Read the newspapers and my magazines.  Picked up the detritus from the landscaping.

But yesterday included something new for me to do.  While I was away, the former owner (and architect-contractor) of the house with no name had started repairs on my upper terrace.  To fix the leaks that showed up during the rainy season.
One trench was already dug on one side of the terrace; two on the other side.  Over the leaky portions.  The tile was removed and the concrete dug out in an attempt to seal cracks that have allowed water to go where it should not.

The trenches were sealed with a compound, covered by an impermeable membrane, and a second layer of the compound was added.
That is where the project remains.  On Monday, after the compound cures, the worker will return to complete the project.  My entryway currently looks like a tile bazaar.  I look forward to the final product.

For two reasons.  The first is to put an end to the concrete dust that has worked its way into everything in the house.  You can get an idea of its thickness in this photograph.
The second reason is far more personal.  I have the curiosity of an 8-year old boy when it comes to these projects.  I need to know every detail.  And, just like an 8-year old boy, I tend to get in the way.

And I did.  Somehow, I forgot that the first layer of compound had not yet cured.  This is the result of my negligence -- plus a trail of white goo across the terrace tiles.
The worker ran over to help me clean the prints off of the tile.  I told him: it was my error; it is my work.  Now and then, my Puritan side slips out.  I find redemption and rehabilitation in work.

And for dinner?  Papa Gallo's featured veal on its menu last night.  And that is what I had.  Enjoying a huge plate of thick veal while listening to Spanish, French, and English mingle together with a just a whiff of tobacco smoke in the air, and a heavy dose of waves slapping the sand.
I have experienced several magnificent vistas this past month, but nothing really trumped last night's food or ambiance.

It is good to be home. 

For a bit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

closing the loop

Yesterday was supposed to be a travel day.  But, like so many of our days over the past month, it did not quite turn out that way.  To our profit.

Instead of loading everything into the truck, we decided to take a walk through Ajijic village -- and on to the malecon along the lake.  As I mentioned yesterday in my essay and in the accompanying comments, I was pleasantly surprised with the physical layout of the villages along the lake.  Especially, Ajijic.

The village has a lot of what I would expect from my readings.

A village plaza -- with a certain flair that says "there be Gringos here."  That is it at the top of this essay.

Or this bit of sculptural charm added to the side of a lake-front building.  I am still a bit baffled by the presence of a manatee on a Lake Chapala frieze.

Or the short malecon itself that could just have easily been in San Diego -- and there is nothing wrong with that.

But the village had sights I would not have anticipated.  If the place is a Gringo Ghetto -- as some of its detractors claim -- why would there be a skateboard park in the midst of the lake walkway?

How would you otherwise account for the number of decaying buildings along the highway that stretches around the lake?  The place does not have the neurotic air that things are out of place and must be fixed that one associates with northern expatriates.

Instead, I found a place for which the word "charming" is particularly designed.  What I did not discover is how the social fabric of the community works.  My experience in Melaque and San Miguel de Allende is that whenever a group of expatriates gather together, some rather odd anthropological faults appear in the social structure.  But I cannot comment on what I have not experienced.

I once considered spending the winters in Melaque and summers in Ajijic (or Guadalajara).  That notion was spiked when I decided to buy a house in Barra de Navidad.  But Ajijic is certainly a place I would consider for a sojourn of one or two weeks.

When the three of us gathered ourselves together, we headed down the mountain through Jocotepec (worthy of another visit) to Colima for lunch, and on to Barra de Navidad to put another sun to bed.

There was something kinetically disorganized about the mixture of clouds and light last night.  It could have been a late Braque.  Or the current state of my mind.

I must confess I feel a bit let down to be back at the house.  Getting up each morning with very little idea of where we would be going has been exhilarating.  As well as a little exhausting.

Over the next few days I hope to add some additional thoughts and photographs about the trip. 

At some point (very soon), I will sadly say good-bye to Dan and Patty, who have proven to be boon traveling companions.  There are not many people who you can spend a month with in the tight cab of a pickup.  But we did.  And we are all the better for it.

Friday, January 23, 2015

this ain't scottsdale

Back during my years as an attorney (when the earth's crust had begun to cool), I would tell people at work I was thinking about retiring to Mexico.

The usual question was: "Oh!  Are you moving to Lake Chapala?  I understand that is where all the Americans go."

It was an interesting question because I never once thought about moving there.  Somewhere along the line in my reading, I had come to the conclusion that Chapala was merely Scottsdale re-located south of Guadalajara.

It was a prejudice.  One I had garnered from reading descriptions of the bountiful life led by retirees beside the lake.  A life filed with morning walks, lunches by the lake with fellow expatriates, ready shopping at big box stores, and the occasional community theater. 

Most of the descriptions were written by real estate agents who made life on the lake sound about as interesting as waiting for death in a doctor's reception room.

So, the answer to the Chapala question was always:  "Not on your life."

Dan asked me yesterday if I was interested in driving to Lake Chapala.  I have done a lot of re-thinking about the place since I moved down.  "Sure," I responded.  But not until we had a chance to see Guadalajara in the daylight.

You may recall Thursday's post that included a photograph of Guadalajara's cathedral at night.  The photograph at the top of this essay is from the same angle in daylight.

Like many buildings, this one looks better at night.  Those steeples (that look disturbingly like a Lady Gaga bra) throw off the proportions of an otherwise architecturally-interesting building.  It should come as no surprise that even though the current cathedral was completed in 1618, the steeples were a later addition following an earthquake in 1849.  In a completely different style than the rest of the building.

The view is from Independence Plaza.  As you might expect from the name, the plaza is dominated by a large statute of one of the early martyrs of the independence movement -- Miguel Hidalgo.

In an attempt to portray Hidalgo as an advocate of independence, artists often leave him looking as if he had just crossed the line from passion into madness.  Or maybe it is his reaction to being reduced to a roost for pigeons.

But there was another reason I wanted Dan and Patty to see the statue.  There is a far more interesting portrayal of Hidalgo in town -- as the central figure of a mural painted in the main stairwell of the Jalisco Governmental Palace.

We have discussed this work before (on the road to guadalajara) -- when Kim and I visited Guadalajara's sights last August.

The painting is by José Clemente Orozco.  One of the giants of the Mexican muralist movement.

He captures Hidalgo as a righteous prophet meting out God's justice on a sinful world.  The portrayal has a nodding resemblance to Hidalgo's historical life and personality.

As interesting as the central Hidalgo figure is, I have always found Orozco's panel to the right of Hidalgo to be far more interesting.

Even though Orozco was a life-time supporter of social justice for workers and peasants, he was saddened by the violence of the Mexican Revolution.  His portrayal of Hidalgo's torch as a harbinger of freedom can just as easily be interpreted as Hidalgo's flame of violence offering succor to the forces of communism and fascism.

Orozco was one of the few artists who was brave enough to argue that fascism and communism are the same evil -- political structures that offer no better hope for the common man.  That is why I find the panel so powerful.  I have seldom seen that truth portrayed as well as it is in the government palace.  (That alone is an ironic layer.)

As interesting as Orozco is, we had other fish to fry -- at Lake Chapala.

Heading south from Guadalajara, the highway starts to climb over hills.  The road gets steeper until the the lake with its restraining mountains unfolds.  All in one view.

From a distance the lake is stunning.  On its shore, it looks a bit like an aging dowager whose makeup no longer covers certain short-comings.  In the case of the lake, its color gives away its less-than-thriving life.

But that is a quibble.  The walk along the lake in the town of Chabala is charming enough.  The big selling point is its claim of year-round spring weather.  It was certainly true during our visit.

From the realtors' propaganda, I expected to be inundated with "active seniors" enjoying the "next chapter of their lives."  We saw no such thing.  There were a few tourists at restaurants along the lake.  But not in the numbers I anticipated.

When Marc Olson and I met in San Miguel de Allende a couple of years ago, he mentioned that he was surprised to hear so little English there -- a town well known for its American "art colony."  I had the same fear in Chapala.

I thought we would be greeted in English in shops and restaurants.  I was wrong.  Everywhere we stopped, Spanish was the currency of commerce.  As well it should be.

The Lake Chapala area offers several things I do not have available in Melaque.  Immediate medical care being the most obvious.

What it does not have is an ocean.  The lake is not really an adequate substitute for me.  But for many, it does quite nicely.

For a number of reasons, we did not see much of our next stop: Ajijic -- where we are staying the night in the second most charming room (for me) of this trip.

We will see what treasures we find on our way down the Sierra Madres Sur later today.