What to do?
Well, Jean and I and Bill and Judy got on a plane and headed west to the wine country city of Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes.
At this point, I can't resist making a convoluted parenthetical remark before resuming my narrative. As they say nowadays, that's the way I roll.
Clearly, this kind of anal-retentive platting wasn't done near Mendoza. Full points to Argentina if you ask me.
Notice that the fields of grapevines as seen from the plane window are not laid out on a rectilinear compass grid, thus making the countryside look more like Europe than the USA. U. S. farmland looks orderly because during the early 19th Century, teams of surveyors were sent out from Washington to lay out townships and measure our new country. Since none of the land was occupied, they could place boundaries anywhere they wanted, so they set the standard township to be six miles square, or 23,040 acres. They aligned townships with the four compass points, and so divided the land into uniform squares as far as the eye could see. That's why the midwest looks so boring from the air.
The idea for our side trip was to hole up in a resort during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Our travel agent, Melissa Vertiz, arranged for us to stay at Club Tapiz, to be cosseted through the holiday blues.
Tapiz is a working winery. Here we have a vineyard making grapes, olive trees olivulating, and behind all that, the Andes, quietly glaciating in the summer sun.
Our bedrooms are in a separate villa that's bigger than my house. We have our own swimming pool and we have a couple of big, ratty dogs who have adopted us. It's so quiet that Bill thinks something must be wrong.
Club Tapiz has the best restaurant we've visited in Argentina. It's better than any in San Miguel de Allende for that matter. Dishes are imaginative: grilled Camembert with pine nuts and honey; exquisite lamb chops in "American mustard sauce" which turns out to be an artisanal mustard and basalmic vinegar reduction; apple pie with homemade ginger ice cream.
The kitchen is supplied from a fine vegetable garden. Sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans and squash are brought to the table minutes after picking. Some of our breakfast fruits come from peach, quince and pear trees growing alongside the vegetable plot.
The saint who is responsible for this lovely place has constructed a wonderful compost pile, the hallmark of the true organic gardener. On the right, a chef snips fresh herbs for tonight's Christmas Eve dinner.
I'm writing this in a comfortable living room, wallowing in the luxury of a WiFi hot spot. A nice lady brings me a double espresso. I sit in soft, overstuffed furniture and gaze at paintings on the walls. Straight ahead is one called: Eva leaves her hometown of Junín.
Eva again! What's with you people?
My eye wanders to a painting to my right. Hmmm. Now this is interesting.
What is the artist trying to say here? That life can be insecure? That an errant breeze can put one into an unforeseen situation? What do you think?
Bill, Judy and Jean are all getting massages and facials. I'm getting fat. For me, this is a very, very different way of passing the holidays.
To all of you, my best wishes for a wonderful Christmas. As we say in Argentina, Fröhliche Weihnachten.
The President of Argentina doesn't live there. Apparently the chief executive has some ten residences from which she can select on any given day, depending on her mood and, I guess, on who she's entertaining.
Some might consider ten presidential houses as a sign of an aristocratic elite enriching itself at the expense of the governed. Like in any other Latin American country. But this of course cannot be true, because Argentineans aren't Latins.
In front of Casa Rosada, we have a monument to Christopher Columbus. Veneration of the discoverer of the New World is less controversial in Argentina than elsewhere, given that Columbus began the chain of events that ultimately permitted all those Italians and Germans to migrate here.
Between Casa Rosada and Rio de la Plata lies Puerto Madero, the city's old dockyards. Displaced by modern shipping facilities located elsewhere, Puerto Madero fell into decay, until developers recognized an opportunity.
Puerto Madero has undergone urban renewal eerily similar to the renovation of San Francisco's SOMA. There, decaying factories have been transformed into the million dollar condominiums and office complexes that today house the center of the dot com universe. Here in Buenos Aires, old docks have been sandblasted, re-roofed and otherwise turned into prime retail and residential real estate.
The dockyards still retain the old cranes, repainted to look like modern sculpture. They appear to be in working condition, but I can't see any actual work for them to do. No matter. They're a visual delight.
A 21st-Century suspension bridge crosses one of the boat basins. Whoever designed this project has created an incredibly interesting space.
At street level, the old dock buildings house hundreds of retail businesses. Most are chains or franchises. I didn't see a Starbucks, but we all know they're there. It was the restaurant below that caught my eye.
Yes, brought direct to you from Mall of America, the pride of American culture.
The place is jammed. In a sophisticated, European city, everyone wants to eat at Hooters. Go figure.
One travel writer dismisses Puerto Madero as a yuppie wasteland. There's some truth to his observations, but these old dockyards are a pleasant place for strolling, for hanging out in a café. I spent several hours here, feeling sleepy and content, just like I do among San Francisco's über-yuppies inhabiting the renewed waterfront, down by the new Giant Stadium.
Argentineans don't think so. Argentineans don't think of themselves as Latins. When you ask, they'll tell you that Peruvians are Incas, Mexicans are Aztecs, and Guatemalans are nobodies. An Argentinean is, well, a kind of European. Or something.
Argentina escaped the iron grip of Sixteenth-century Spanish aristocracy because the place turned out not to be worth much, at least compared with Peru and Mexico with their precious metals. Like we did in the U. S. and Canada, Argentineans did a bang-up job of exterminating the indigenous population, opening up lots of temperate, fertile land for settlement and thus permitting Continental Europeans to participate in their own version of Manifest Destiny.
This means lots of white skin and a fair number of real blondes. Brown faces occur infrequently; the olive complexion of Italian descendants, of which there are many, is the closest you'll come to seeing people of color.
European influence is everywhere. Like in house design. There's nothing Latin about this... what... chalet? It looks like something out of the Black Forest.
I've seen trains like this one in Amsterdam. It's neat and clean and runs quietly and precisely, tootling sweetly when it comes to crossings. We're looking at German precision, here. No broken down rust bucket being pushed down the track by a gang of campesinos.
These public telephone call boxes are lifted straight out of England. You won't find them anymore in the U. K., but they're a fixture in Buenos Aires, along with public clocks with Roman numerals on their faces.
Does this woman look Mexican or Brazilian or Chilean to you? Probably not.
I'd guess French, although her sunglasses and red wristwatch band point to Italy. French women of a certain age have a propensity for adopting revealing, hyper-stylish appearances. No over-50 Mexican woman would wear an extreme push-up bra like hers, would she? Wouldn't want to be branded a puta by the neighbors. And I don't think many would go for a nose job either.
How about this old guy? I can hear the mandolins tinkling. If ever there were direct descendants of Romulus, this guy is one of them.
His Spanish has an Italian accent. That's no Mexican sombrero on his head. Few Mexicans of his generation would unbutton their shirts two buttons . It's immodest. Unless they had handfuls of gold chains to show off. No, this guy would be perfectly at home sitting on a piazza in Palermo, sipping grappa.
Latin Americans these days have begun looking at their national identities as informed by their indigenous roots. In contrast with Argentineans, few Mexicans have pure European blood. There's a little Indio in all of them. Sometimes a lot. Mexico, after the revolution, turned away from Europe and began to explore what it was to be Mexican. An explosion in Mexican art and writing followed. Mexico has an identity.
Argentineans lack an native character to draw on, so they have to turn to Europe to find their cultural roots. How, then, do they visualize themselves? Are they descendants of Spanish conquistadors? How do you account for the half of the population whose ancestors come from Italy? Also, there's all those ethnic Germans whose grandparents were too low in the Nazi hierarchy to warrant prosecution but too high to escape the wrath of their neighbors. Argentina was, for them, a bolt hole. British? French? They're here. The French are growing fine wines in Mendoza. Recently the Japanese have been arriving, lured by low real estate prices.
We talked with our friend Fabian about his heritage. He's trilingual: Spanish from his father and his native country, Italian from his mother, and English from school so he could get ahead in the world. But even his English is European. His accent is like every Belgian or Norwegian I've ever spoken to, with that unmistakable British public school accent. You'll never hear "Ay, no es my chob, man" in Argentina.
Fabian says to define an Argentinean is complicated, but in one way it's simple: "We are not Latins."
I think he's right.
What do you do when you move into a new neighborhood? You go visit the neighbors.
Cementerio de La Recoleta is the final resting place for many of Argentina's rich, famous and powerful: presidents, authors, military officers and plutocrats among them.
The place is interesting because it is laid out like a small city—passages lined with mausoleums—small buildings, really. Like any city, it has its high-end neighborhoods...
...and it has its slums. Like all real estate, it's about location.
Some mausoleums are little more than ruins. This one contains coffins that have been broken open and is used to store garden tools. Rest in peace, indeed.
Apparently, there's a recent trend for urban renewal; a ladder signals that renovation is underway.
Restoring an angel's wings requires the services of experts.
Statuary abounds. On the left, we see Christ descended from the cross; on the right, Father Time checks his hourglass.
Former presidents and authors often get represented by statues of themselves. A frequent pose is one of enlightening the masses; amazing when you consider that most of these guys were robber barons or tyrants. Nice guys don't often make it into Recoleta.
Below we have the grave of General Juan Lavalle, a national hero and a direct descendant of Hernán Cortés. He is honored with a life-sized cast bronze statue. His sword is drawn but broken, not because of vandals, but because the statue was made that way, to indicate that he died in battle.
Most of Lavalle's body is not interred here. Dying in the northern wilds, his body decomposed. Finally, his soldiers boiled what was left of his remains, returning only his bones to Buenos Aires.
A plaque beside the door of his mausoleum reads:
My eye was drawn to rotating vents atop some of the mausoleums. Why vent them,? I mean, it's not like the inhabitants are uncomfortable. The vents look to me like they were fabricated from old tin cans. Like they might be in Mexico. Surely I'm mistaken.
Grenadier! Sail among your dreams, and if you awaken, note that your native country admires you.
There were plenty of visitors. Most intently studied maps of the cemetery, maps that locate the graves of particularly famous people.
After much note taking and discussion, the crowds set out looking—for the grave of Eva Perón. Nobody else. They ask each other, "Where is Evita's grave?"
What is with people anyway? A third-rate actress presides over the final ruin of what was once the 14th richest country in the world, and she becomes a cult figure, an object of adoration.
We all had a shot at allowing her to sink into obscurity, and then that damn musical came out, and now a whole generation thinks she was some kind of Mother Teresa, caring for poor, downtrodden Argentineans, fighting for the welfare of the poor.
Andrew Lloyd Webber as history professor. Great.
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
—Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
Nights in Buenos Aires are balmy. Young couples walk along streets strung with festive ropes of lights. The girls are so pretty; they make my teeth ache.
I'm remembering when I was a teenager in New Jersey, strolling hand-in hand down the midway at Lake Hopatcong Amusement Park with Alix Acheson. Alix with her long, long hair and pullover sweaters. It was a warm, humid night, filled with the mystery of new love.
I lived in a trouble-free world then. Well, except for my frustrations with Alix's coy reticence. Here in BsAs, evenings in my Recoleta neighborhood revive the old sense of mystery, of possibility.
Cafés, theaters, and bookstores line broad sidewalks. People sit outside eating pizza and drinking coffee. Everything is in motion.
Even the street performers are pretty good. This man is playing from his own hand-written arrangements—a serious musician. Neighborhoods feel safe and wholesome. Young women wear diaphanous dresses. They are catered to by intense young men. The night is for pairing up, for romance.
We're gonna come around at twelve
With some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin' to meet you.
—Rolling Stones, Miss You
A ten-minute taxi ride across town, a different kind of love awaits.
She doesn't look like she's actually hoping for a date, does she? She's tired and bored—just going through the motions. Whatever might come from your encounter with her, it'll bear little resemblance to those early dates at Lake Hopatcong. You and she are long past the days of young love. Honestly, you'll experience more intimacy with your barber.
Can you sink any lower? You can. A row of public telephones stretches along pedestrianized Florida Street. Each has a half-dozen business cards stuck to it.
The cards bear the address and phone number of Rocio, who describes herself as a rubia infernal—a blonde hellcat. She doesn't specify the services she's offering, but lest you misunderstand, she includes her photograph, posed on hands and knees in her underwear, her butt facing the camera. Not her best side.
She devotes precious space on her card announcing that her facilities are air conditioned. "Air conditioned! Hey, that does it for me. What are we waiting for?"
I think maybe Rocio could use a marketing consultant.
It's 2 AM. Dinner is over. We're walking through a mall where a surprising number of businesses are still open, mostly fast food places.
We encounter an old guy with a huge bushy beard. He has hundreds of pieces of silver jewelry spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk. Jean and Judy walk over. Bill and I look at each other. The night's not over yet.
Twenty minutes later, out two girls have made the jeweler's night for him. Those two can shop anywhere, anytime.
It's a sign of how priorities shift with age, that Bill and I patiently stand by while the ladies add to their burgeoning jewelry boxes. Long gone are thoughts of Rocio and the bar lady and the sweet little butterflies that inhabit the Recoleta cafes.
Actually. the guidebooks have it all wrong. Vegetarian food may not be easy to find in Buenos Aires, but it's here. We're in a cosmopolitan city with an international community. Good Italian restaurants are common. You can get a nice salad anywhere. Excellent (but fattening) desserts. Gelato. Exquisite crepes called panqueques. Better coffee than in Mexico. I found eight Japanese restaurants in the yellow pages. You don't have to pig out on rare beef.
But if you eat meat, you'll want to try the charcoal-grilled steaks. Judy took us to a parrilla restaurant she had discovered on a previous trip: El Establo.
El Establo is one of those places that gives travelers a smug, insider feeling. It's for regulars. It makes no effort to cater to foreigners. The decor is utilitarian.
It reminds me of Original Joe's Restaurant in San Jose, CA, an institution for over 50 years, where most of the waiters have worked for almost that long and none of whom are impressed with you. At El Establo, you get a table for as long as you want it. A waiter of supernatural competence remains at hand for your entire meal, taking orders, making recommendations and serving you flawlessly, without fuss or attitude.
Well, unless you get in his way to take a picture or something. Then he shoos you off to the side. El Establo is for good food, good conversation and good company. It's not a place to bring Tiffani for her 27th birthday, guests posing around the table flashing party picture smiles.
We arrived at dinnertime: 11 PM. Bill and his Mom, familiar with the local cuisine, ordered starters: Riñones and provoleta.
Riñones, the dish with the lemon wedges on top, are grilled kidneys. Now, I've never been a fan of them, owing to an unfortunate childhood incident involving my mother and a plate of kidneys she had failed to "boil the piss out of." But Judy ordered enthusiastically, and having myself consumed, not one month ago, a handful of deep-fried braided pig guts, I went along with the program. Of course, the kidneys were excellent: smoky, savory, lean.
Provoleta is a potato torta: layered potato slices with ham, cheese, roasted red bell peppers, fresh tomatoes and basil. I don't have to tell you how yummy that was.
Bill tried to place orders with the waiter for the entire meal when he ordered the riñones and provoleta. The waiter gently corrected him: No need for hurry here; the whole evening lies ahead; order when you're ready for it.
Argentineans have a refreshingly direct approach to preparing steak: Cow —> Fire —> Plate. No marinades. No sauces. No seasonings. You order it a punto—medium rare. Any other way marks you as a cretin.
It isn't Kobe beef. It isn't corn-fed Kansas City beef. A few days ago it was a half-wild, muddy, burr-encrusted steer somewhere out on the Pampas. An animal of no pedigree, it munched wild grasses and drank silty water until some gaucho caught it. Wouldn't surprise me if he shot it. Apparently, to the gaucho's practiced eye, it wasn't good enough for his own dinner, so he sent it on to Buenos Aires for undiscerning city slickers.
It tasted divine.
At an adjacent table, four friends shared dinner. They were in the restaurant when we arrived at 11. This photo was taken at 1 AM. Still going strong.
They were having a great time, telling jokes, arguing, enjoying the meal and each others' company. They ordered continuously and in no particular order whenever their appetites moved them: a little blood sausage, some arugula salad, a steak, maybe some ribs, coffee, crème caramel, a piece of grilled salmon, a plate of onion rings, some ice cream... where did they put it all? Only two bottles of wine for the four of them, but I've never seen a group enjoy themselves more.
We Americans are less prone to languid meal-taking. There's a school play to get to. We gotta get up at 6 to make it to the morning status meeting on time. Grab a tub of extra-crispy KFC on the way home and sit in front of the tube watching House.
Eat in a restaurant until 1 AM? On a Monday night? What, are you crazy?
Every year it's like this. There are days where the temperature barely breaks 70º. Mexican people, in particular, seem to be particularly affected by what they would call the bitter cold. You see them in down jackets, mufflers wrapped around their lower faces, hunched over against the icy wind.
I've been colder in San Francisco, but four years of living in Mexico has taken all of the starch out of me.
Jean and I look for some kind of relief around Christmastime. Usually we wind up at the beach: Akumal, Puerto Vallarta, small towns north of Banderas Bay. This year we decided to try something different.
We flew to Argentina.
As we touched down at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport, we passed over terrain that looked like the Texas Hill Country in summer: shimmering sun, a little haze, green grass, leafy trees.
The Little Drummer Boy played softly on the aircraft PA system. Surreal.
Early in the last century, Argentina was one of the dozen or so richest countries in the world. Frequent economic collapse has relegated the country to the pack of also-rans, but driving through the countryside, I can see echos of the old wealth, and the huge promise of the country. Roads are good. Everyone has a car. Houses are built to European standards, some with ornately-laid high-fired brick. You can drink the water. Really.
Argentina is no banana republic.
Six months ago, along with some friends of ours, we reserved apartments in an upscale neighborhood. This is our building.
Boring, no? We chose to live in an apartment because we'll be staying for a month, and because I want to experience living here, as opposed to touring.
Here is Jean in our living room, settling details with Cecilia, our rental agent. Cecilia looks like she belongs in middle school. Note that she is perfectly attired for late December in a white tank top.
In addition to a living room, we have one bedroom, an office with a WiFi hot spot, a fully-equipped kitchen, and one and one-half baths, for around $65 per day. It's utilitarian, has little charm, is perfectly located, and very comfortable. It has a concierge.
Our neighborhood is called Recoleta, named after the cemetery where rich and powerful Argentineans are buried; among them, Evita Perón. She's somewhere out there in this view of the cemetery from our balcony.
I read an article: Argentina on Two Steaks a Day. The national diet isn't quite that limited. But beef fed on the grasses of the pampas and grilled over charcoal is the culinary crown jewel. These animals never saw a feedlot, were given neither growth hormones nor antibiotics. It's said to be the best beef in the world.
I'm tired and cranky from the 24-hour journey, and I'm hungry. I intend to put one of these steaks inside of me as soon as I get done with this post, followed by a good night's sleep.
But owing to a lapse in maintaining responsibility for the health of my (slightly) aging body, I forgot about getting a flu shot this year. All would have been well, except for that non-hygienic lumbering slob, Paul Latoures, (El Guapo). Paul's appearance screams,"Get away! Get away!" to the fastidious, or for that matter anyone else who washes his hands more than once a week.
A couple of weeks ago, I picked Paul up and drove him various places, during which time he continuously coughed, filling the car with aerosols, each micro-droplet containing animalcules in search of a new host. I remember thinking at the time that I should stop the car and say "Get out"! That, or stop breathing. It's a wonder what we do for love.
So I've been in bed with influenza for the last week, and now, chastened, I'm resolved to take better care of my health.
Another indication of aging is spending more time visiting sick friends. A few weeks ago, I visited one at Hospital Los Angeles, the gold standard hospital in these parts.
That building is one ugly sucker, isn't it? In a country with such a magnificent architectural heritage and so many fine architects, it's a crime to put up something that looks like this.
But in hospitals, it's what's inside that counts, and in Hospital Los Angeles, you'll get treatment from doctors as good as any you'll find at a north-of-the-border community hospital. Moreover, here you'll get bigger, better rooms, and nursing attention that'll make you think you're at a Four Seasons resort.
"What would you like for breakfast today, Señor?"
"I dunno. Whaddaya got?"
"Maybe you'd like a mesquite-grilled chicken breast sandwich on a roll with some cole slaw. And how about a sliced mango with ice cream for dessert?"
"Will you marry me?"
Everywhere in Mexico, faith and medicine are interwoven. Hospital Los Angeles recognizes this and provides a chapel for the use of visitors. Years ago, this chapel was a source of much comfort to Jean. I had had a heart attack and underwent angioplasty. Jean was alone in a strange country, one where she didn't understand the language. Although not a member of any organized religion, she spent several days in the chapel, communicating with Guadalupe.
The chapel is more than just a quiet place for contemplation and prayer. Transactions are made here; for instance, for thanksgiving. A figure of Christ occupies a niche, bedecked with rosaries and hospital id tags given in thanks for someone's recovery.
It's a place to ask for help. An image of the virgin bears scores of written requests for intervention.
Even the Pope receives petitions.
More often than not, patients get better. Their recoveries are frequently viewed as miracles, which are sometimes commemorated in homemade scenes painted onto pieces of tin or embroidered onto cloth.
These images are called milagros, and to contemplate one is itself a minor miracle. Milagros are windows into the hearts of people expressing humility and gratitude for someone's health or for their cure: a moving expression of simple faith.
We gonna pitch a ball,
Down to that union hall.
We gonna romp and tromp till midnight.
We gonna fuss and fight till daylight.
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle
All night long.
When Valeria's special quinceañera mass was over, it was time to boogie. We all went over to the party site—a warehouse co-opted for the purpose. It only being five o'clock, we uninformed gringos went in and sat down, unaware that we wouldn't be seeing any food until maybe seven, and the dancing wouldn't start till after nine.
Valeria arrived with her four attendants, all dressed all in black, looking sharp in neckties and perfect hair. They all took off in the beribboned car for more photos.
I think there were almost 200 guests. Most trickled in when the food was likely to be ready—experienced fiesta-goers all.
We were served barbacoa, which in the State of Guanajuato at least, consists of sheep cooked on top of maguey leaves in a pit full of charcoal and heated stones.
Feeding the crowd required five large sheep—whole sheep—all parts of the sheep. Beginning at the upper left of the photo, in front of our friend Aurora, there's a dish of roasted and steamed sheep (not lamb): mostly foreleg and ribs on that particular plate. In the bowl to the right, Patty is dipping her tortilla into consomme, a soup prepared from sheep drippings and juices.
Immediately in front of Patty is a plate of montalayo: sheep's stomach stuffed with various ovine organ meats, tongue, eyeballs (really) and spices, steamed. Think haggis, without the oatmeal.
And in front of the montalayo is moranga: sheep's blood sausage, cooked with onions and tomatoes. Lest you conclude that Mexicans are savages who will eat anything, I'll note that elegant British aristocrats eat black pudding, another sausage made from animal blood.
The plate above my bowl of consomme contains steamed rice and above that, a bowl of traditional garnish, chopped raw onion and cilantro.
All of it was delicious. Not only did I stuff myself with everything that was set in front of us, Jean did too. Even the montalayo and the moranga, while knowing full well what she was eating.
Valeria's extended family served all the guests, running back and forth for hours. Even though she was the guest of honor, Valeria chose not to sit regally at the head table as was her right. Instead she welcomed guests, served them drinks, and carried small children from place to place as needed—a perfect hostess.
It took about two hours to get everyone fed. For children it was a long wait. But an opportunistic balloon and ball vendor showed up, sneaking in past Cousin Edgar, who was guarding the door against party crashers. Soon, the dance floor was filled with small children playing soccer and tossing balloons.
At last, the main event got underway. It has become a custom that the quinceañera (the term applies to the young woman as well as the whole party) and her attendants do a sort of production number. Here we see Valeria trying to get all the participants lined up.
Hmmm. Who's missing? Carlos. Over here, Carlos!
Aahgghh! Won't anyone do anything right? Mom? Mom!
Ceremonies began with a slide show: pictures of Valeria growing up. Lots of cheers and applause. What I great idea. I'm going to do it for my 70th birthday. (Except I won't look as cute.)
Next, Valeria and her attendants, the four boys taking themselves very seriously, performed a well-rehearsed procession and dance.
Several times, they lifted her high into the air. This was a serious performance.
Electrically controlled Roman candles had been set out on the floor and ignited from time to time. I worried that one might go off under Valeria's billowing skirt, but that's just insecure, overprotective father instincts working overtime.
Following the production number was traditional ballroom dancing: Valeria two-stepping with the important men in her life. A score of males, including a couple of little boys, took turns cutting in, but she was the only woman dancing. This was clearly her night—hers alone.
She received some gifts. Here cousin Teresa is helping with a huge stuffed animal. Valeria may be entering womanhood, but she still takes great pleasure in the things of childhood, as do all young ladies her age.
Smoke from the Roman candles became intense. Nobody cared. This image was taken at the height of the smokiness. I'm darned if I can see what's going on here.
The hour was approaching ten o'clock. The party was well underway, but it had a long was to go. Jean and I usually fade around ten or eleven, so we said our goodbyes. It took us a half hour to leave because everyone come up to give us a small parting gift and a hug and a kiss.
This kind of love, this kind of friendship is the real magic of Mexico.
Tonight we need no rest,
We really gonna throw a mess.
We gonna to break out all of the windows.
We gonna kick down all the doors.
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle
All night long.
Last Saturday she celebrated her fifteenth birthday. In these parts, this is a significant milestone in a girl's life, and it's marked with a celebration called a quinceañera, signaling a girl's passage into womanhood. These days, most quinceañeras consist of a misa (mass) followed by a fiesta.
Valeria sent us an ornate invitation via her grandmother. Jean and I were touched and honored to be included.
The misa is arguably the most important part of the quinceañera, although you'd have to forgive foreign visitors for thinking the fiesta was the primary event, given the latter's cost, duration and attendance. I'll cover Valeria's fiesta in a subsequent post.
The thanksgiving mass is said with Valeria specially seated at the front of the church, flanked on her right by her parents and on her left by her godparents.
In addition to the traditional elements of the mass, the priest directs particular remarks to Valeria. He reminds her to be thankful for her gifts as a young woman and warns her that, with the gift of adulthood comes responsibilities. I don't know about Valeria, but if it had been me sitting there, I'd be mentally urging him to get it over with. Priests, teachers, parents... all with that responsibility thing. Sheesh! I got a party to go to.
After the service, it's time for a gazillion photos. Here Valeria is graciously enduring posing with two old ladies.
Valeria's cousin, sweet little Teresa, is attending in her own gown. In six more years, it'll be time for her own quinceañera. She'll be a heart-stopping beauty just like Valeria. Grandma Rosario carries big-time sweetheart genes.
Today is the most important event in Valeria's young life. Surely she has been dreaming about this day for a long time.
I've heard gringo criticism of the quinceañera. Some say that these celebrations mean financial strain for families, that the quinceañera is a cause of, or a sign of Mexico's focus on the wrong priorities, that Mexico will never make it into the rich world so long as so many resources are diverted for what amounts to a party.
I don't know. Up north, we've been known to spend some serious bucks on parties. Prom night often costs more than $1,000. The average wedding in the US costs $20,000. Some moments in life are special. Many feel that the costs of these occasions is secondary.
Maybe you think this country would better off if the quinceañera were discontinued. Well, if you do, look back at the last photo, at the stars in little Teresa's eyes. Nobody is gonna deny that kid her moment in the sun.
The ditch is to accommodate conduit for underground power lines. In the US of A, this work would be done with four guys and a backhoe. Apparently the city likes to provide employment for as many of its citizens as possible, so they're doing the digging by hand. Besides, there's the possibility that the city's backhoe is being used for other purposes; say, digging irrigation ditches at someone's hacienda—someone with juice.
OK. That was cynical. We've made great strides fighting corruption. I'm confident that such abuses are almost a thing of the past.
So how much are these guys being paid? By law, the minimum wage is around $50 pesos per day ($4.50 US), but it's unlikely anybody works for that. You certainly couldn't live on so little, even if your family had several wage earners.
The workers in the photo are probably being paid $130-$150 pesos per day ($12-$14 US). You can't live on that either, but these are among the highest-paid laborers in Mexico. By contrast, the minimum wage in the US is almost $47 for an eight-hour day, more than ten times that of Mexico. Nobody works for that either; at least not in California, where the state-mandated eight-hour minimum wage is $60, and especially not in San Francisco, where it's $76.
I find it hard to imagine that any fence could deter migration to the north, given that huge pay differential.
If nobody in Mexico works at the minimum wage, why does the government legislate it? Well, certain taxes are based on the minimum wage, which is increased every year for inflation. That way, when the minimum wage goes up, the social security tax goes up automatically.
But of course, there's a loophole. For example, you may pay your laborer $150 pesos per day, but when you pay social security taxes, you'll claim you're paying him the minimum wage, $50 pesos. Unless you're really honest. Or really stupid. Everybody knows you're not paying minimum wage, but everybody goes along with the fiction that you are. So your actual social security tax payments are only a third of what the law says they should be.
It gets better. Policymakers know full well what's going on, so they set the social security tax rate to account for the cheating. That way, there's enough money to fund the social security system, keeping the administrators happy, and everybody else figures they're getting away with something, making them happy.
The minimum wage affects fines: for traffic violations, building code violations, urinating in public, whatever. Fines are figured in salarios minimos (minimum daily salaries). A friend was fined approximately six salarios minimos for failing to wear her seat belt. Another fine, for speeding, was a whopping 20 salarios minimos —$952 pesos.
You probably see that something something is seriously wrong here. How could even relatively high-paid workers afford to pay a speeding ticket?
The answer is they can't. Utterly can't. Not a chance. So they offer the cop a bribe. The cop doesn't solicit the bribe; he doesn't have to ask. The stupid fine system does the asking for him. So from time to time we are treated to the sight of a State cop standing beside his highyway cruiser emblazoned with the words "No más mordida" (no more bribery), pocketing a proffered $100 peso note. Solo dos salarios minimos.
I realize that in the chronicle of my impressions in Mexico, I haven't paid much attention to how the middle class lives. The rich live in haciendas and mansions and elegant high-rise penthouse apartments. The poor live in tumbledown neighborhoods or in huts roofed with thatch or blue plastic tarps. The middle class lives much the way the US middle class does. They prefer housing developments: detached homes, townhouses, condominiums. They look for new, clean, well-maintained communities.
Anamaria lives in a condominium complex called Rincon del Cielo (Corner of Heaven). As a single woman living alone, she likes the security of a gated community, of 24-hour doorman services.
Considerable thought was put into features that add a touch of elegance to the community: an impressive gate, beautiful landscaping, a modern fountain and decorative pool in the entryway. For some reason, the fountain hasn't run for months. Whether it's part of a water conservation policy or simply a relaxed attitude toward maintenance, I can't tell.
Rincon del Cielo is a warm, comfortable, pristine community. Rows of townhouses are arranged beside wide lawns and a swimming pool. Individual residences all have front porches designed for living and entertaining. Children are welcome here and add a sense of energy and fun to the ambience.
All of the utilities are underground. Outdoor lighting makes the common areas welcome places to hang out after dark. Cable keeps residents hooked into the outside world; many have installed WiFi hotspots. Except for the palm trees, this could be St. Cloud, Minnesota. Well, except for the palms and the climate. The low in St. Cloud was 15º last night.
I don't want to encourage too many of you northerners to swell the population of San Miguel de Allende. Nevertheless I can't restrain myself from mentioning that even though real estate prices here have skyrocketed, you can buy a two-bedroom home in Rincon del Cielo for about $120,000 US. Besides being a painter, Anamaria is a real estate agent, and she'd be happy to sell you one. (That plug ought to be worth another lunch.)
She is also a superb cook. Here she is in her modern kitchen preparing lunch. Tile counters, drop-in range, blonde cabinets, a microwave and a fancy coffeemaker. Art hangs on the walls, pictures of her grandchildren are taped to the refrigerator. How is Anamaria any different from her sisters in Sunnyvale, California?
Lunch is a treat: machacado con huevo (dried beef with eggs). Similar to beef jerky, machacado is, according to Anamaria, a specialty of Monterrey, her home town. Elsewhere in Mexico, machacado is called machaca, but whatever it's called, she assures me the best comes from Monterrey. If Anamaria says it, it must be true. It's sometimes eaten out of hand, like we do with jerky, but most commonly, it's incorporated into other dishes.
The beef used in machacado is not cooked. The raw beef is cut along the grain into thin sheets and hung on lines to dry. The finished product is tough and chewy, so for use in dishes like machacado con huevo, it has been pounded while dry to soften it. You can buy it already pounded.
We sat down to eat at a table perfectly set for luncheon. Our meal consisted of machacado con huevo, frijoles negros, tortillas, aguacate, salsa verde, y uvas. It was delicious and utterly delightful.
In the United States, the middle class emerged after the Second World War and changed the country. Class distinctions were diminished, authorities were held accountable, sheeplike acceptance of corruption and privilege turned to skepticism, intolerance, and outrage.
Anamaria, her children and her friends, and millions of Mexicans like her are beginning a similar transformation of this country. Middle-class Mexicans are less willing to accept extortion. They value punctuality and competence. They demand respect from their leaders and service providers. They abhor corruption.
A few years ago, a Telmex manager, answering a reporter's question about why he didn't restore service to thousands of telephones that had failed due to flooding, responded that he hadn't noticed because, you know, people were always complaining. He was fired.
Now, if they'd only fix the fountain at Rincon del Cielo...
Bob has a number of other things he would like José to do, but José's day seems to be full. No time to wash the car or paint the ironwork. Given that Bob's yard isn't all that large, he wondered if perhaps by observing José at work, he might discover a few inefficiencies, which corrected, might free up time for applying Armor All to the interior of the Chevy Tahoe.
Those of you who have lived in Mexico for awhile know where this story is going.
Here in the Bahío, the soil is quite sandy in places, so those who cannot live without the green lawns they left up north find that water must be applied daily. Bob noted that José accomplished this task by standing for about an hour with a hose in his hand, his thumb pressed over the end coupling to create a crude spray, waving it about to reach all corners of the lawn.
Of course there's a better way to do this. Bob did the obvious. He bought a simple lawn sprinkler for José to attach to the end of the hose, so that he could place it on the lawn and let it run while training the bougainvillea to climb the bedroom wall.
A few days later, Bob walked out into the yard. There he found José holding the hose with the new sprinkler attached, waving it over the lawn. No amount of explanation, cajoling or pleading has convinced José to do it any other way.
Some good has come out of this situation: Type "A" Bob is learning acceptance.