Friday, July 31, 2015

our scarlet letter

Last winter, I was enjoying coffee with my friend Lee, from Whidbey Island, at La Taza Negra.

Well, he was having coffee.  I was most likely drinking tea.  That "c" food thing again.

He asked me if I had ever seen a poinciana tree in the local area.  He had first seen one when he was in the military on Bermuda.

Do you ever hear words that you know you have stored in your head, but you just cannot access them?  That is what happened to me when Lee mentioned "poinciana."

My file search system went into overdrive.  Up came "poinsettia" and "needlepoint."  Neither was helpful.  But I knew there was some memory connection between "poinsettia" and "poinciana."

Applying my best trial technique, I stalled.  "I know the name.  What does it look like?"  (Almost every sentence with that construction contains a lie.  Politicians are masters of the form.)

Lee's answer provided a memory jackpot.  "It has beautiful red flowers."

I immediately knew the tree.  In fact, I had written previous essays about the tree (better than a box of keeblers -- where I compared the tree to Tolkien's Lothlórien -- and a tree as lovely as a poem -- which features a photograph of the tree Lee was searching for, a tree that stood at the gate of the place he rents).

The tree, as many of you already know, is popularly called a Flamboyant tree (or Flamboyan in Spanish).  Its fancier name is Royal Poinciana.*  That is why the name sounded familiar to me.

It is one of my favorite trees in Mexico.  I knew about it before I headed south because former blogger Isla Gringo often wrote about the tree, its exquisite flowers, and the sabre-like seed pods that are a favorite of hungry squirrels.

In this part of Mexico, they put on quite a show in the late spring and early summer.  We have plenty of local trees that produce tropical-colored flowers.  The bright yellow canopy of the primavera is probably the most obvious.

But there are not many trees that have the distinctive red of the Flamboyant.  In May, you can drive from Barra de Navidad to Manzanillo and repeatedly see slashes of scarlet in the jungle canopy.

Those wild trees are the exception.  Usually, the Flamboyant appears in gardens and yards because it is a non-native specimen tree.  And by "non-native," I mean it is not even from another area in the Americas.

Its home is Madagascar.  Ironically, even though the tree is grown throughout the tropical world, it is quite rare in the wilds of its native island.

Lee is usually here for the winter months -- when the Flamboyants are not flamboyant.  The only way to definitively identify them during the winter is by those seed pods.

Or, Lee can always ask a friend to track down the elusive prey.  And I did.

* -- For you classically trained scholars, the tree's scientific name is Delonix regia.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

palming the photos

While digging through my July photographs, I ran across this beauty.

I had planned to use it in one of my yard cleanup posts, but the prose never seemed to match the photograph.  So, it has languished unpublished.

Until now.

There is something about the shapes and colors that fascinates me.  Consider it my gift to you.

A lot more interesting than another essay about politics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

float like a butterfly, sting like a caterpillar

When bloggers have little to say, they often troop out inside procedural statistics that are meaningful only to those of us who have the write-and-post obsession.

Today, I do have something to say.  But I am still going to trot a few numbers by you.

The year was 2008.  The month was September.  It would be another seven months before my sainted brother; the decrepit, but loyal, Professor Jiggs, and I would board the Escape for our trip to Mexico.

A fellow blogger, who resides in Morelia, had just sent me an email recounting an encounter with a stinging caterpillar in her garden.  As a fan of National Geographic, I, of course, knew that many insects have self-defense mechanisms that rival those of an infantry brigade.  But I never thought of them living in my new home.

Thus was born a little essay (sting like a butterfly, float like a caterpillar) that has continually topped the most-accessed list on my blog .  The title has always been a bit misleading.  After all, it was the caterpillar that did the stinging.  Seven years later, I may have set the title straight.  (And I will still get Google hits with my side car attached to Muhammed Ali's famous phrase.)

But why am I disinterring a tale of a caterpillar who long ago pupated?  Because I found this in my garden as I was cleaning up the debris from our recent wind storm.

I have no idea what this guy's destiny is.  I tried researching on my favorite butterfly and moth identification site, but I could not find anything similar.

What I do know is that I had no desire to touch him.  Considering my 8-year old love of things crawly, I am surprised I didn't pick him up and put him in a jar.

Instead, I let him make his way up the planter into the greenery.  And, yes, I know, he is now going to lunch on the leaves of my vine.  At least, that is a good possibility.  But there are plenty of leaves.  In the process, I may get a butterfly.

Or I may get stung.  I regularly dig through the vine to gather dead leaves before they fall to the courtyard floor.  Without gloves.

One of these days, I will undoubtedly fail to recognize his artful camouflage.  And, just like the stinging ants that surprised my fingers in the same planter, I will wonder why I did not take matters in hand when I had an opportunity.

I know why.  There is a bit of Harold Hill in me.  I always have hope there is a butterfly.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

drilling for political oil

The presidential election season is in full swing up north.

Well, almost full swing.  There will undoubtedly be a few more candidates who will modestly put themselves forward as being more beneficial than packaged salad mix.  But the tone is pretty much set.

Every four years, some political scientist, with a knack for writing college examination questions, puts together a series of questions to assist those of us, who believe we are rational, in choosing a candidate to support.  The results are mixed. 

During the last election, the test revealed I should support a candidate who held federal activist views I found less than desirable.  The second choice was far more to my liberty taste.

Well, my friend Ron sent the current version of the test to me the other day.  The test always takes me far more time than I think it will.  For good reason.  It is quite detailed.  And, for that reason, is should be a good decision-making tool.

This year's version is broken into eight issues sections: social, environmental, economic, domestic policy, health care, education, foreign policy, and immigration.  There are several questions under each heading -- with additional questions to refine choices.

The aspect I like best about this test is its ability to add weight to the questions in their importance to the test taker.  Not everything is equal in Steve's world.  And I suspect the same is true for you.

The complexity of the questions may lead to more accurate predictions, but they present a problem for me -- and that may be why it takes me so long to take the test.  On any given day (or hour), my opinions (and especially how I would weight the importance of that opinion) varies.  That may be why I ended up being tagged as a supporter of the 2012 candidate who I would not (and did not) support in the primaries.

I suspect the real reason I like these tests is that it is the only say I will have in the selection of presidential candidates -- during the primaries.  Nevada, my state of residence, does not have a primary.  The parties there pick their preferred candidates through a caucus system -- and I am not flying north to spend an evening huddled in a school cafeteria with fellow supporters of my candidate.

So, I took the test. 

As I knew it would, it took me over a half hour to thoughtfully answer the questions.  And, when I was done, what was the result?

This year, two candidates came up with a score of 96% each.  The choices seemed odd when paired together.  I would be surprised if the two of them would say they agree with one another 96% of the time.

The good news is that I would be happy to see either of them in the White House.  Of course, as an American, I will be just as happy to give the winner a few months to settle in, and I will then grumble about everything the new president is doing.

It is one of the joys of being an American.

Note:  If you missed the link, here it is again.


Monday, July 27, 2015

shipshape in manzanillo

Do you recall the scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence makes his way back to Cairo across the Sinai and encounters the Suez Canal?  We cannot see the canal -- only a ship sailing past as if plowing through the sand.

That is how I felt yesterday.  I drove down to Manzanillo for a new experience.  Manzanillo is primarily known as Mexico's busiest port.  That fact is hard to ignore while driving through town.  Its facilities have recently been upgraded and expanded.

But I never go to Manzanillo for its port experience.  Even though I did drive to the port area for five years in a row to renew my visa at the immigration office.  The permanent resident card in my wallet makes that a thing of the past.  That is, until the law changes again.

Most of my trips are for shopping -- and that leaves me in the suburbs.  The big box stores are in an area called Salahua or Salagua ("salt water").  I usually hit the big three when I am in town -- Comercial Mexicana, Walmart, and Soriana.

But not yesterday.  Manzanillo has long been known as a tourist destination.  For northerners, thoughts of Bo Derek running along the beach are forever linked with the place.  I was there to enjoy the beach scene.

And there are plenty of beaches to visit.  The six-week school summer vacation is in full swing, and families are there on vacation -- especially on weekends.  If there is sand, you will find a crowd of tourists at tables under umbrellas enjoying the heat and humidity of a beach visit.

I headed toward a pocket beach in the Las Brisas neighborhood -- a peninsula between the port and one of Manzanillo's stunning bays.  Not surprisingly, when I arrived, I was not alone.

That ship doing its Peter O'Toole impression is not something I would see in Melaque.  And, apparently, it was a new sight for a lot of my fellow beach broilers.  A majority of us started snapping away at the optical illusion.

Our weather here can be quite erratic.  Especially in the summer.  Yesterday was no exception.

Walking back to the car, I could see storm clouds moving in from the north.  And not mere rain clouds.  The front was accompanied by the mobile artillery of lightning and thunder.

Half way back to Barra de Navidad, I encountered one of those storms that seem to occur only in the tropics.  At least, regularly in the tropics.

The rain started with a few drops.  Then with more intensity.  Within a mile, I nearly pulled to the side of the road -- as wiser drivers had done.  Instead, I followed a van with its flashers aflash.  Of course, for all I could tell, he was driving me off into the ocean.

And, just as all tropical storms, in a matter of minutes, it was over.  The highway was filled with water, but visibility was restored.

When I returned home, my neighbors told me we had had very little rain in Barra de Navidad.  That was evident from the streets.  But we had apparently been visited by winds.

When I opened the garage door, it looked as if all the leaves and flowers I had been picking up for the past ten months had been unceremoniously dumped in the pool and scattered through the courtyard.  For some reason, I thought of the ant and the grasshopper.  Maybe the moral to that tale should be: "Planning gets you nowhere."

And now, after a great dinner of curried kumquat cabbage stir fry over Jasmine rice, I am ready for bed.  The nice thing about these intense rain storms is that we get at least one night of incredibly good sleep.

I am going to take advantage of it.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

does february really have 45 days?

Remember those story problems we had in fourth grade arithmetic?  Well, I have one for you.

Joyce wanted to take advantage of the high interest rates available for time deposit savings account at one of Mexico's bank.  Azteca to be exact. 

The terms were clear.  The money could be withdraw only on the anniversary of opening the account.  A withdrawal on any other day would forfeit all of the interest earned.

The date of deposit was 24 July 2013.

Joyce did not withdraw the money in 2014.  Instead, she wanted to withdraw the money on the second anniversary of opening the account.

When should Joyce have returned to Azteca to withdraw the principal and interest?
A. 24 July 2015 -- the anniversary date of the account
B. 23 July 2015 -- the date a full two years following the opening of the account

C. 8 July 2015

If you chose A or B, Azteca would deny you the payment of any interest on the account.  And that is exactly what happened to Joyce.

As you may have guessed, unlike most story problems ("If a train leaves New York City at 1:00 AM ..."), this one is factual.  Even though it sounds as if it could be the storyline for an André Breton novel.

When she attempted to withdraw her money, the young woman at the cashier window told her she had missed the authorized date.  I was prepared to hear that the withdrawal window was open only on the last day of the anniversary year. 

After all, that would be a full year.  I have encountered similar calculations before here in Mexico.  Such as, "two weeks" translating into 15 days.  Or "noon" being 2 PM.

But the story was better than that.  The anniversary date for a 24 July opening was 8 July.  The reason?  Some months have more days in them than others.  And sometimes February has 28 days, even though it usually has 29.

I would have concluded that Joyce misunderstood what she had been told in Spanish.  But she took one of her business managers with her.  He speaks perfect Spanish.  After all, he is Mexican.

He repeated the story exactly as she did.  He added the fact that three clerks were required to convey the information as they gazed intently at the computer screen that should have easily shown the deposit date.  Once again repeating the mysterious truth of February's missing day during a leap year.

Of course, there was no leap year in 2013, 2014, or 2015 -- as any schoolboy can recite.  The last one was 2012; the next one is 2016.  And all three of the banking geniuses could not come to the logical conclusion that 64 years would have had to pass to shave off the 16 day difference between 8 and 24 July.

And you know the result.  Joyce left without her money.  There was nothing more to be done.  Azteca had taken refuge across the border in Surrealandia.  No matter of blustering would change the fact that the computer had the final say.

I played with the idea that Joyce had deposited in a 360 day account.  But that would still leave 6 days unaccounted for.  Well, except for February's regular 29 days.  I am surprised Joyce's eyes did not roll back so far on that factual monstrosity that she was mistaken for Little Orphan Annie.

This reminder of customer service comes at the same time I am considering shifting from my current banking arrangement to a Mexican bank.

Azteca is certainly off of the list.  But I should think about that.  Maybe I could be credited additional interest for those chimeric extra days each February.

My Dad had a little poem for circumstances like this:

Thirty days has September
All the rest I can't remember

But if you must know them all,
There's a  calendar on the wall.
As good-natured as he was, he would most likely have joined Joyce in walking away from the bank shaking his head, talking about the possibility that the next anniversary date will inevitably move to a mysterious day in mid-May.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

you can bank on it

ATMs are the financial lifeblood of tourists and expatriates.

The cash-dispensing machines are often the sole means people have to put folding money into their wallets -- whether they are visiting for a short stay or living here permanently.  And often the source of those funds is in a bank far to the north.  If something goes wrong, getting money is -- well -- as close to impossible as I like to get.

For that reason, ATMs are our friends, just as television is to Homer Simpson.  That is why, when I hear news in the vein of today's topic, my stomach tends to twist.

When I walk into my local bank, I see two ATMs -- one is pictured.  There is nothing unusual in their appearance.  We have all slipped our cards into similar readers around the world in the hope that the machine will fork over money from our distant accounts.

But, if you had recently used a specific ATM in Puerto Vallarta, there would have been a lot more going on.  I suspect, though, you probably would not have noticed anything unusual.  Here it is.

I doubt you can see it, but someone has installed a camera just above the keypad to record PIN numbers as they are entered.  The covering is camouflaged as well as any iguana in the jungle.  I had to look very closely before I could see the small gap between the ATM and its unauthorized accessory.

Here is the camera after it had been removed.

Of course, PIN numbers were not the only information being captured.  An additional card reader was installed in front of the ATM's reader.  Every time a customer would swipe the card through the reader, the ATM would capture the information -- but so would the other reader.

The result is that anyone who used the machine ran the risk of the handing over the information on his card.  The scheme is covered well in a post entitled "Spike in ATM Skimming in Mexico?"  What that question mark is doing there, I don't know.

We all realize that most credit card companies will not assess fraudulent charges against a cardholder unless the cardholder is a party to the fraud.  But that piece of information is not at all consoling when the credit card company takes the inevitable next step -- cancelling the card.

If you live in Mexico and have a bank up north, the chances are very good that after your bank cancels the card, it will not mail the replacement card to you in Mexico.  It has to go to an address up north.  The trick is how to then get the card to Mexico.

Well, that is one trick.  The other trick is how to survive when money no longer flows from the ATM like water from the rocks at Kadesh.  I have been stuck in that situation twice.  If it were not for the kindness of friends, I would have been begging for coins in front of the bank.

That is why these ATM stories matter.  Having a card skimmed can easily result in being turned into an extra in Oliver Twist.

Whoever has been attaching the skimming devices (and it does not take a genius to figure it out), they are quite good at their work.  Even though this particular installation resulted in an arrest.  I doubt I would have ever recognized the ATM had been modified.

So, what to do?

The first is the most obvious.  Use your free hand to cover the keypad while entering your PIN.  I have been doing that for years.  The ATMs in San Patricio have a privacy shield over the keys.  I suspect those particular machines are well-protected from PIN theft.

The second is to take a good look at the ATM to see if anything looks out of place.  If it does, use another machine.  Our options here are rather limited.  But, if there is a problem, our sole bank (Banamex) is right there.

I have seriously considered completely abandoning my banks up north and using nothing but financial institutions in Mexico.  (For several reasons, Banamex is not a contender.)

This story may be the impetus I need to cut my ties with northern banks -- and Banamex.