Archive: 2007 4th Quarter

A Hospital Chapel

People aren't really old when they reach their sixties, are they? I'm 66, and I feel like I'm only a couple of years out of adolescence. I still have an eye for young ladies (as if I had anything to offer them). I think that surely Airplane is one of the funniest movies ever made (and stop calling me Shirley). I continue to wonder about what I want to do when I grow up.

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.


The Quinceañera Fiesta

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.

—Willie Dixon

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.


A Mass for Valeria

This achingly beautiful young woman is Valeria, a granddaughter of Rosario who runs my household.


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.


Minimum Wage

Here we have a gang of men digging a ditch. The line continues around the corner at the far left of the picture; there's probably 40 workers in all.

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.


Lunch with Anamaria

My friend Anamaria invited me to lunch the other day. Well, actually she invited me to install her new printer. The sweetener was that she would make something special for lunch.

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...


Watering the Lawn

My friend Bob employs a man we'll call José to clean up his yard, trim plants, cut grass, sweep patios—all kinds of general yard work. José is not one to unnecessarily exhibit initiative. I don't intend this observation to be pejorative; personally I would find it extremely difficult to get excited about raking leaves, especially for a lousy $700 pesos ($65 US) a week. José seems to be a good worker, responsible, trustworthy; Bob's trusted employee for several years now.

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.


Lagos de Moreno

This is the eleventh and last in the series of posts about visiting the Northern Jalisco city of Lagos de Moreno. Lagos is one of the many cities founded in the Bajío by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Captain General Hernán Gallegos led a group of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain, and settled in the region, calling the new town Villa de Santa Maria de los Lagos. I find the idea of a community of Jews living in Colonial Mexico extraordinary. I wonder: Is Patty's jewish brother-in-law related to these early settlers? She says not.

When Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued El Grito—the call to arms for independence from the Spanish Crown—many citizens of Central Mexico answered. One of them was 35-year-old Pedro Moreno, born near Lagos, who was to become a leader of the struggle for independence.


Pedro Moreno

Good thing, too, because Hidalgo and three other leaders of the insurgency were captured and executed less than a year later, their heads hung in iron cages hung from a granery in Guanajuato as an example. Others, like Moreno, took up leadership of the cause.

Pedro Moreno died in the fighting seven years later. Today he ranks as one of the fathers of independent Mexico. In recognition of his contribution, Villa de Santa Maria de los Lagos was renamed Lagos de Moreno. I bet the civil authorities had a hell of a fight with the ecclesiastics over dumping Santa Maria for an insurgent who fought against the interests of the Church; at the time firmly in the royalist camp.


Found in a Wickipedia article:

Lagos de Moreno is called by Mexicans, with some hyperbole, the "Athens of Jalisco" because of the numerous writers and poets who were born there.

Hyperbole, indeed. But this notion bears on our discussion.

Alfonso de Alba was a politician and one of those writers from Lagos. A much-loved work of his is El Alcalde de Lagos y Otras Consejas—The Mayor of Lagos and other fables.


The Mayor is clueless, ignorant of human nature, given to ill-thought out actions. One of De Alba's short stories deals with construction of a bridge over the river running beside the city, facilitating traffic on the highway from Guanajuato to Lagos during the rainy season, when the river is dangerous to cross. In an attempt to pay the bridge's cost, the Mayor imposes a toll.

Travelers along the road have long crossed the river without benefit of a bridge, because for most of the year, little rain falls and the riverbed is dry. And when the river is full, they just take their chances or they wait. It's been this way for decades. They're certainly not going to begin paying a toll to use the bridge when they can walk down into the riverbed alongside the spanking new bridge, its paving stones unmarked by the passage of feet, and cross the river in the time-honored and toll-free way.

The Mayor affixes a plaque to the bridge that says:


It says "This bridge was built in Lagos." Which settles the question of whether it was erected in place or if it was manufactured in, say, Guanajuato, and towed to its present location.

The second line, I would translate as "You cross it by going on top." Always nice to have instructions for those who can't figure things out for themselves. Or maybe, the Mayor hoped that people would take the hint and actually use the bridge instead of taking the riskier river crossing below. Fat chance.

The story doesn't say how the bridge was eventually paid for. But it still stands today, toll-free, a monument to the inflated egos of the alcaldes of Lagos.


El Puente de Lagos

El Alcalde de Lagos also takes aim at the city's rather elegant parish church, noting that it is larger and more ornate than some cathedrals, despite no bishop having his seat there.


La Parroquia de Lagos

Lagos is a crossroads between Zacatecas, Guanajuato and Guadalajara; long-haul truckers make their way through. It's an important agricultural center. It is important historically and has many monuments, making it an interesting town for tourists to visit.

But few do. No crowds. No tacky tourist shops. Just a genuine city full of regular people living productive lives; a comfortable town. A nice place to visit.


Small Businesses in Lagos

A visit to a new city enables me to pursue my interest in small entrepreneurs. Here are three in Lagos de Moreno.

First, we have La Alteña, an ice cream cart. A standard-issue three-wheel ice cream cart. You see them everywhere. This one is out in front of the
panteón. Can you imagine the ice cream man setting up for business at the entrance to a cemetery in the US?


Ice cream vendors often are little old men, working well past retirement age. There's virtually no Social Security retirement benefits here, so in old age, you depend on the support of your children, and maybe you go push an ice cream cart.

This old guy is neatly dressed in wool slacks, a long-sleeved shirt and a wool pullover sweater. It's only in the mid-70s, so it's best he wears a sweater to keep the chill off.


I love weird combination businesses: Dry Cleaning and Stereo Repair, Jewelry and Real Estate. Here we have a gymnasium and paint store.


"Where ya going Carlos?"

"I'm going to do my workout."

"Hey, as long as you're going, would ya pick up a couple of gallons of Navajo White for the dining room?"


Below, we have Tacos "Correr de los Caminos," (Roadrunner Tacos).


Doesn't look like it's been open for awhile, and with that flat tire, things don't seem all that promising. Maybe the graphics are discouraging potential customers. Are they offering actual roadrunner tacos? Roadrunner al pastor? Wouldn't they be kind of stringy? I don't know about you, but I'd try one.

These businesses are way more charming than anything you'll find in a mall north of the border.


El Panteón

Having nothing better going on after breakfast, one of Patty's sisters said, "Well, why don't you two go check out the cemetery?" Why not, indeed.

It's not something that would occur to me living in the USA. But things are different here. Graveyards often are within walking distance of the center of town. They're not abandoned, neglected places. You'll always see people visiting them.

Mexican people do cemeteries much better than those of us who are descended from Northern European stock, what with our Calvinistic avoidance of ostentation in spiritual matters. Mexican
panteónes can be almost joyful places, especially right after Day of the Dead, when graves have been primped and decorated. A walk through one can be relaxing, peaceful, even rewarding.


You know you're nearing a Mexican cemetery when you run across a stand selling jalapeño cans, the preferred vase for graveyard flowers.


Only this one stand was operating two days after Day of the Dead, but it's more or less permanent. Someone is always coming by to visit a departed loved one, and these ladies fill a need for visitors who come during the rest of the year.

Above the entrance to the panteón, a poster urges neighbors to reduce the spread of dengue by eliminating standing water where mosquitos can breed. It's an interesting choice of places to hang it.


(I see public health notices everywhere, addressing cholera, dysentery, pre-natal care, nutrition. I guess neither the education system or the press fills the need for health information well enough.)

The flowers will fade soon enough, but they can be enjoyed today. Images of Guadalupe, angels and suffering Christs will last longer. I used to think Mexican cemeteries looked garish. Today I think those in the US look drab.


On the right you can make out an open bottle of Coke—the gift of a favorite drink for the spirit lingering nearby.

You plan ahead for a space in the panteón. Buy now, use later. Señora Luz Maria Baltazar has posted her claim to the site on the right, with a sign warning others against sneaking in and burying someone else there.


Many graves are quite large. They have faux marble vases and bible-like books on which are inscribed religious sayings or the names of the dead interred there. Cast aluminum crucifixes and plaques grace the stonework, along with odd rings bearing bas-relief images of Christ's face.


The rings flip up, becoming handles to facilitate removing the capstone when another person joins her forebears in the crypt.


The panteón is at once happy, peaceful, pragmatic. I got a warm feeling as Patty and I walked through it on this sunny day. We came to a wall of small graves that I assumed were for cremated remains.


But they don't cremate people here. At least not often. I read the inscriptions on a few plaques. The small graves are not for ashes; they are for infants. So many of them.

The upper grave is for Baby Miguel Angel Olmeda, who lived for six days after his birth in August 1978. The lower is for Valerio Ramos, who was stillborn.


I can accept the end of a long life well lived, and I find comfort in visiting the resting place of one who lived that way. I can sort of handle the death of a young adult victim of a fatal accident, someone who at least got to enjoy growing up. But it was all I could do not to lose it when I realized I was looking at the graves of scores of babies who never got their chance.

Comforting, though, is the thought that these kids are remembered, even thirty years after passing, by their parents, by their siblings; still loved as eternal members of their families.


Breakfast at Unión

Patty was born in Unión de San Antonio, her father's home town, located a half-hour or so from Lagos de Moreno. Unión has its main plaza, a sunny, open square, although it wasn't intended to be that way. I recent years, four huge, ancient Laurel trees died from assorted causes: disease, drought, a lightning strike.

Loss of the trees and the shade they cast appears to be the signal event in Unión during the last decade. On walks across the plaza, my companions and even strangers would stop to tell me about the tragedy. You gotta love a place where big trouble means a few dead trees.

A column graces the plaza, so visitors will know that Unión is a serious town. Nobody I talked to knew what it commemorated, nor is there a plaque to explain. But it is handsome.


The main church, with its elegant arches, towers and tiled dome, dominates the skyline. On Sunday, when we were visiting Unión, an overflow crowd was attending services.


The bell towers look like a mashup of Moorish and Russian Orthodox architecture.

A mansion on the edge of town incorporates onion domes into its architecture.


The story goes that the owner visited Russia and returned to Unión with a vision. I love it.

Patty's relatives on her father's side, all 283 of them, live here. There must be only two degrees of separation between people here: they're either related to Patty, or they're friends with someone who is. Every third person we encountered stopped to talk.

Our main purpose in coming was for breakfast at her Uncle Jesús's carnitas place. He used to call it Carnitas Lupita, a wonderful name, but he may have renamed it since. It was here, in this unassuming storefront, that I abandoned all my misgivings about Mexican cuisine.


Carnitas Lupita redefines the meaning of casual dining. No tables, no chairs, but not exactly takeout either. Many people buy their food and eat it standing there. At one doorway, you can order carnitas tacos and other ready-to-eat meals. The near counter is intended for people buying carnitas by the kilo.

Customers so inclined are allowed to pick through trays of cooked pork, selecting morsels that take their fancy. This man spent a half hour, picking up every piece on the counter, examining each one from different angles. Some he put in his plastic bag. A few, he ate right away. The rest he threw back.


A van load of us approached Jesús's. Patty's mom and sisters immediately thrust their hands into the pans of carnitas, fishing out the more delectable pieces to hand to me.

Everyone should try eating chunks of greasy pork while taking photographs. Or maybe not. I spent about an hour the next day, cleaning fat out of tiny buttons and dials.

Uncle Jesús has been selling carnitas for many years. He raises his own pigs: his is a vertically integrated enterprise. Here he is holding a length of braided intestines. I've posted photographs of uncooked ones hanging in carnicerias a couple of times now, for the gross-out value and on account of the morbid fascination they evoke. This is the first time I've seen them in their cooked state, ready to eat.


Patty broke off a short length of gut and said, "Try them. They're delicious." I did, and they were. They were probably the tastiest pieces of carnitas I've ever eaten. Except for costillas (ribs). As long as I didn't let myself think about what I was eating, I was OK.

Once I got the intestines down, I was off to the races. Stomach (below, left)? No problem. Bladder? I hesitated; then I went for it. Chewy.


Now, enthusiastically rooting through trays of pork, there was no stopping me. Not, that is, until I picked up a pig's nose (above, right). Then I almost lost it. Guts, urinary systems, organs, ears—all that was manageable. But that cute little nose. It broke my heart, that pathetic little thing sitting there.

I'm closing in on having consumed all parts of a pig. I think it would be in poor taste for me to list the items I have to eat to complete my quest. Oh the hell with it: eyeballs, pancreas, lungs, testes, and the hardest of all, a cute little nose. A few more months should get it.

Jesús cooks carnitas in large copper (or stainless steel) pots set into a purpose-built gas ring. The process renders a lot of lard which he cools and sells. You ever wonder why those empanadas taste so good? The cook bought his shortening from places like Carnitas Lupita.


If you're worried about cleanliness, check out the stainless tubs in the background. At closing time, the whole kitchen looked the way they do—sparkling.

In all the posts where I mentioned carnitas, I've never put up a photo of someone eating it. Making up for that lapse, here we have sister Porfi enjoying a leg.


So that was breakfast: deep-fried pork. We had a package of tortillas fresh from the tortilleria, but they were as much for wiping grease off our fingers as for food. Somebody bought cokes at a tiendita. There was a five-gallon plastic bucket full of homemade salsa on the floor that you could dip your pork into before eating. No chairs or tables or plates, glasses or tableware.

It was delicious and satisfying. After we pigged out (sorry), Porfi took us around the corner to a paleteria, a place that sells frozen fruit pulp on a stick. These are not the usual boring strawberry or orange popsicles of our childhoods: Michoacán Paleteria offered maybe fifty varieties, all made locally, many exotic. You buy little ones so you can try several different kinds. I tasted several, including mamey, sapote and mango with chile.

In sixty years of living in the north, I became fastidious about food. As a kid, I helped my mother pluck and clean chickens. By the time we decided to move to Mexico, I was buying free-range boneless, skinless chicken breasts in styrofoam trays imprinted with warnings about proper food handling. I guess we're all safer that way, but chewing on a bone at Jesús's, I couldn't help thinking we've lost our connection with our food, that some of the heart has gone out of eating.


Movie Night

Saturday night at Grandma's house in Lagos de Moreno: several daughters, a son, a couple of sons-in-law and numerous grandchildren are hanging out. Another family drops in. Papá exchanges a thick wad of pesos for the title to Patty's car; a transaction that involves more socializing than business. The atmosphere is celebratory: buyer and seller happy, everyone friends.

They get up to leave with their new car. Mamá kisses me goodbye.
Their ten-year-old daughter kisses me goodbye. They don't know who the hell I am; just that I'm friends with Patty. So I get kissed goodbye.

Patty's daughter Cristy has a terrible cold. This afternoon, her Aunt Maru took her to see the doctor, who ordered the usual array of palliatives. Now it's evening. Cristy wants to go out dancing with her cousins.


Cristy tries to run a number on her caretakers

She's a gutsy kid, and she can hold her own in a family altercation. Here she's facing down her mother (right) and Aunt Maru (left). Cristy's cause is doomed and she knows it, but that doesn't stop her from putting a full court press on her elders.

Cristy is taking point. Safely behind her, Cousin JJ nervously scratches his head while just visible between Cristy and Maru, two other cousins wait for a verdict.

"WHAT? Are you CRAZY? You're sick! You're NOT going ANYWHERE."

(I'm reconstructing the gist of what Maru is telling Cristy. Note that Patty is relaxing while Maru leads the defense. Sometimes big sisters come in handy.)

Voices are raised. Behind Maru, a half-dozen people are watching futbol. Someone scores a goal. The TV roars. Cristy shouts an emotional counteroffer. Everything is chaos.

Everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be.


When you're grounded, how do you fill the hours between 9 PM and your bedtime at, say, 3 AM? One possibility is to watch some DVDs. Somebody went out and got a half dozen new ones.


$8 worth of movies

They weren't rented from Blockbuster. Blockbuster movies, at $3 per rental, are too darn expensive. Besides, you have to return them. Also, Blockbuster doesn't have the latest films—ones that haven't yet been released to DVD.

Blockbuster is a bad deal.

Kids know they're better off to buy their movies from a street stalls. Those vendors have got films that aren't even in theaters yet. $15 pesos each, no más.

Of course, sometimes the image is blurry, a little out-of-focus. The audio sounds like it was funneled through the microphone of a small camcorder. Occasionally the silhouette of someone's head drifts across the screen—a theater patron taking a bathroom break. No matter. If you're watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, you're not gonna notice these things.


Spanish as a Second Language

The problem with learning a new language, besides losing that formidable childhood ability to effortlessly soak up words and grammar, is that what is taught in language classes isn't what people really speak.

I've been studying Spanish for five years. I can read Spanish language literature and newspapers. I have reasonably good comprehension when I listen to political speeches, somewhat less for newscasts, way less for telenovas (soap operas). I struggle to keep up in social situations. Snatches of conversation overheard in the streets sometimes sound like Turkic.

On my visit with Patty's family in Lagos de Moreno, I met Maria Torres, a realtor who helps Patty's mom with her real estate interests. She may be the best real estate agent in Union de San Diego Antonio, the nearby pueblo where Patty was born. But to me, she's a Spanish teacher.


Maria Torres, Spanish Teacher

Maria is one of the common people, with modest circumstances and a big heart. She effects masculine dress and crude mannerisms. During our conversation, she spit over her shoulder and adjusted her crotch like a major league batter. Her Spanish is earthy and genuine.

For example, if I were to ask someone to stop lying to me, I might say something like: "No me mientas." (Don't lie to me.) In the same situation, Maria would probably say "No me jales." It transliterates to "Don't pull me", but that's not what it means. A closer translation might be "Don't jerk me around." But neither translation conveys the real sense: "Don't pull my (here insert slang word for penis).

You can't get this stuff at Berlitz.

I'll share just one more, and it's a honey. "Nos van a dar una torcida de la riata." (Literally: We're going to give another twist to the lariat.) It might be used in a discussion between a team selling real estate, in reference to negotiating strategy. And consistent with Mexican propensity for circumlocution, it indeed really means what you think it does (see example above).

Erika is another Spanish teacher, my principal teacher. I have been studying with her for several years.


Erika Corral, Profesora de Español

Intellectual, cultured and artistic, Erika couldn't be more different from Maria. I have clumsy conversations with her about Mexican poets and listen to her recount her latest trek in Tibet.

Erika pushed me through conjugations—all fourteen tenses—and drove me through again. She led me through the trackless wilderness of pronouns. She had me write out translations of Juan Rulfo and compose essays.

But she isn't limited to academy Spanish. I share with her expressions I hear on the street. She fine tunes my understanding of what I pick up and adds a few juicy ones of her own. For example, an alternative to "No me jales," might be "No mames." (Mamar—to suck). Patty tells me this expression used to be common with uneducated people, but that today's teenagers have picked it up and use it a lot.

Worse, there's "No jodas," which is absolutely vulgar. I'm not going to explain further here except to say the translations of mamar and joder rhyme.

Not all the expressions I'm learning are coarse. Nor are they particularly entertaining, at least to my twisted mind. But they're the essence of any language. No me jales is proper Spanish, even though you won't understand it by consulting the official dictionary of the Royal Academy.

I'm grateful that Erika, Patty, Maria and so many others are in my life and are willing to put up with my questions. They are helping me make the transition from a student of Spanish to a speaker of it, and I love them for it.


In a Cheese Shop

I was ... [reading] Walpole, and I suddenly came over all peckish ... I thought to myself, 'a little fermented curd will do the trick'. So I curtailed my Walpoling activities, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles.

John Cleese, Monty Python's Flying Circus


Calle Pedro Moreno runs through the centro historico of Lagos de Moreno, both street and town named for an insurgent general who fought the Spanish for Mexican Independence. We were strolling in the neighborhood nearby when Patty pointed out a nondescript building. She told me that if I wanted really good cheese, this was the place to go.


Lacteos Thomsen

The building gave no clue that it housed a business. No signs, no displays, no open door. It didn't look any too promising.

Mexico isn't known for its artesanal cheeses anyway. Arguably, Manchego is the most common variety available, and much of it is made in huge factories. If they ask you, "You want cheese on that?", you're probably going to get Manchego, a bland semi-soft cheese that's definitely better than that "cheese food product" called American, but not by much.

Imports of European varieties are on the increase, as are knockoffs. You can find passable Brie, Roquefort (well, blue at least), Gouda, Feta (not Greek), Parmesan, Mozzarella, and a couple of others.

But like John Cleese's character, Mr. Mousebender, you'll be frustrated if you're looking for: Red Leicester, Tilsit, Caerphilly, Bel Paese, Red Windsor, Stilton, Emmental, Gruyère, Norwegian Jarlsberg, Liptauer, Lancashire, White Stilton, Danish Blue, Double Gloucester, Cheshire, Dorset Blue Vinney, Pont l'Evêque, Port Salut, Savoyard, Saint-Paulin, Carré de l'Est, Bresse-Bleu, Boursin, Camembert, Edam, Caithness, Smoked Austrian, Sage Derby, Wensleydale, Gorgonzola, Pipo Crème, Danish Fynbo, Czech sheep's milk, Cheddar, Ilchester, or Limburger.

So it was without high expectations that I walked with Patty up to the door and knocked. After a wait it opened, and a young woman wearing a snood admitted us to... a garage. We sidled around a Nissan parked there and sighted a table supporting a commercial scale.

The placed seemed "uncontaminated by cheese," though. I felt like I was in a British television comedy bit.

The woman asked us what we wanted.

Picture this. I'm leaning against an automobile fender. A couple of bicycles are parked against a wall. There's a worn tire, a couple of corrugated cardboard boxes containing household items. Someone is asking what I want. And I'm going to have to answer, "Well, I'd like some cheese..."


Thomsen's retail outlet, in its entirety

Our clerk seemed a little surprised at our request. "You want cheese?" Recovering quickly, she scuttled through a doorway and returned with samples. Thomsen, a fixture in Lagos for generations, makes four types of cheeses. Two are called by European names: Tilsit and Gouda. The samples did indeed taste vaguely like their European models.

More interesting, though, are two other varieties, unique to Mexico. A young cheese, Adobera, has a fresh taste and slightly crumbly texture. An aged semi-soft cheese, named Lagos, is pale yellow and buttery smooth. Both have robust fermented scents and flavor. Real cheeses.


Two kilos of cheese: Adobera and Lagos

I bought the two local varieties to bring home to Jean. Four-and-a-half pounds is an awful lot of cheese for a couple, one member of which is struggling to keep weight and cholesterol levels under control. But Thomsen sells whole cheeses, not cut ones. It's all or nothing. I'm going to have to throw a couple of parties to use it all up.

I spent $180 pesos, which works out to around $3.60 US per pound. I think that's a little expensive for Mexico, but then, these aren't Manchego cheese food product. Artisanal cheeses cost more, and few are available elsewhere for less.

I was tempted to ask the attendant if she had any "Venezuelan Beaver Cheese," but I'm finding my attempts at humor tend to fall flat on Mexican ears, and besides, at that moment, I didn't know the Spanish word for "beaver". (It's el castor.)

Lacteos Thomsen is a hidden treasure, one of those delightful discoveries encountered when least expected, and which make the bother and expense of traveling so rewarding.


Medicinal Teas

Whenever I don't feel well, Rosario, our ama de casa (housekeeper and cook), inquires as to my symptoms and provides me with a medicinal tea to make me feel better.

Mexican people use plants and other materials found in nature to treat illnesses much more than do Norteamericanos. We tend to place our trust in western medicine; most Mexican people can't afford it. They rely instead on folk remedies developed and handed down through generations.

For a sore throat or a cough, Rosario gives me
té de yerba buena, made from dried leaves she buys in the mercado. Yerba buena is the name for any number of local mint species. In the States, over-the-counter cold palliatives have contained menthol compounds for generations.

Limón Grass is always somewhere in our kitchen. Rosario gives me limón grass tea when I have a mild stomach upset.


Limón grass from the herbolario

I usually feel better after drinking one of her concoctions. But I'm enough of a skeptic to question whether these plants actually have medicinal properties, or if I'm just responding to the mothering and the hot drink.

In Lagos de Morena, Patty and I ran across a woman selling piojos del burro, shown below.


Piojos del burro

Piojos del burro. Means donkey lice. They're seed pods, burrs that hook onto cloth or fur and won't let go. An annoying plant.

We asked what it was used for. The woman told us it was for curing kidney stones. You boil three pods in a couple quarts of water and drink the resulting tea for nine days. Voilà. No more kidney stones.

Years ago, I passed two kidney stones. I have two more I'm saving for a rainy day. They're huge, the size of my thumb, so they're never going to descend. They're not growing and they're not causing any problems, so my urologist recommends just leaving them in place. OK, but at my weigh-ins with my internist, I've been asking for an allowance for the stones.

I think I'm going to pass on the piojos del burro. I can't imagine any mechanism by which they would help. And somehow, I don't think a poor country woman sitting in a doorway in Lagos de Moreno is a good source of medical advice. Most importantly, Dra Rosario isn't buying it.


Kid Stuff

Grocery stores in New Jersey occasionally sold sugar cane as a novelty. My mom once bought me a foot-long hunk. It was disappointing: not very sweet compared to the gold standard—a Snickers bar. The outer layer was tough. Eating it was like chewing a corn stalk.

Here in Lagos de Moreno and other Mexican cities, I frequently see vendors selling the stuff. They know how to prepare it for eating out of hand: Peel it and cut it into one-inch chunks.

I ran across this little girl clutching one of those ubiquitous Mexican take-out containers: a plastic bag, full of peeled sugar cane chunks.


Judging from the pile of chewed detritus by her feet, she had been standing there for a while.

She has a red sweater tied around her waist. At that moment, the temperature was in the 80s, but I imagine that when she left the house, it was only in the 70s. Much too cold to be running around in a blouse, so Mamá made sure she wore her sweater. (We northerners have no idea how to manage temperature.)


Patty, sister Sandy and I strolled around some civic buildings in the city center, Geraldo in tow.


He seems dwarfed by the architecture, even awed by it. But don't let that fool you. He gave the building the one glance before he was off, checking something else out—a four-year-old dynamo.


Go by any major church on a Saturday, and there's sure to be a wedding. I've been an informal guest at several.


Seems to me that Mexican brides and wedding party members wear more traditional gowns than up north. At my daughter Samantha's wedding, ladies and girls had bright orange and green outfits—a reversal of the Mexican tendency toward more exuberant use of color. The—whatchacallum—train bearer (?) shown here was one of three identically dressed little girls.

[Note to bloggers: When you don't know what to post, you can always fall back on kid pictures.]


Restaurante Jaime

Mexicans often eat their meals later than we do in the United States. Breakfast—desayuno—is served around nine or ten. Comida, the main meal of the day, is taken between two and four, and cena, a light evening meal, at nine or ten. Very civilized, if you ask me.

On the day that Patty, Cristy and I arrived at Mom's house in Lagos de Moreno, it was pushing eleven, so if we wanted breakfast, we would have to hurry over to Jaime's Restaurante before they were sold out of everything.

Oh, we could find corn flakes and oranges at Grandma's house, but that's not breakfast. Cereal is a little something to tide you over in the early morning until it's time for
desayuno, and desayuno means real food.

We walked into Jaime's and sat down. Patty asked me what I wanted to eat: a tough question considering nearly everything on offer was foreign to me. There were no printed menus. Jaime's kitchen was outside, on the sidewalk. Customers crowded around the stove, looked to see what was cooking, and yelled their orders to the cooks. I was lost.


Left to right: Patty, Patricia (Mom), nephew JJ, and brother Harold.

I told Patty I wanted to try everything. She looked at me dubiously. I said, "Really. Everything."

Our waitress came over and initiated negotiations.

[In Mexico, we have meseras (waitresses), not servers. There's no word in Spanish for "server" as a gender-neutral noun meaning person who brings you food. None. So don't be getting on me about sexist language.]

[Sorry. A little confidence crisis there.]

Most of the discussion with the mesera was about "what was left." Apparently, the good stuff sells out early. Like maybe bufa (lung)? We had arrived a little late, so some entrees weren't available. Eventually the list of "what was left" was mastered, our orders were placed, and our food arrived.


John's breakfast.

Here's what was in my bowl:

Biftek (thin slices of chewy beef)
Chicharron (pieces of deep-fried pork skin in tomato sauce
Mitote (a spicy stew of heart, liver and kidney
Frijoles (beans)
Moronga (blood sausage)
Chilequiles (tortilla chips in sauce)
Juevo con chile (eggs)

Washed down with a couple cups of café de olla, this meal fortified me for the entire day.

Jaime's is a popular restaurant, usually jammed with people. During the late morning, the mesera was shouting out what foods were still available, in case anyone wanted more. Patrons talked loudly trying to reach one another. The waitress yelled. Kids ran around. Delightful bedlam.

By the time I took the picture below, many people had left.


Left foreground: Patty's daughter Cristy; with two of her cousins, Pati and Susan. Our mesera on the right.

Jaime's is a class act: clean, friendly, delicious. Many of the chairs are upholstered just like those in any fine Mexican dining room. Actually, the restaurant occupies part of a private home. It's hard to see where the restaurant leaves off and the house begins.

Like any good Mexican business, the Church gets a mention. Two posters, one of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, hang on the walls. At least Jaime spared us having to gaze at an agonized, bloody figure nailed to a cross—while we chewed our moronga.

If my meal were described to me the way I'm writing about it here, I would be revolted. Too much weird stuff. But in truth, the food was wonderful: savory, full of flavor and spice. It helped that I was never really sure what I was getting in each bite. Separating sensibility from sense of taste is difficult for me. But with food as delicious as Jaime's, relaxing and enjoying the meal was easy. And, they have the best made-to-order tortillas.


Jaime's Restaurant
Downtown Lagos de Moreno

Food: *****
Wine: *
Service: ***½
Ambience: ***
Price: $

Highly recommended. Reservations not required. No credit cards.

Check it out.


A Weekend of Love

We who are engineers often have difficulty with relationships. I know I always have. I preferred to interact with things, not people. Things don't argue with you. They're more predictable. Things don't break your heart.

My friend Carolyn had a psychotherapy practice in the heart of Silicon Valley where I lived and worked. Once I asked her about her business. She told me, "John, it's a gold mine. I'm surrounded by thousands of ingrown little engineers who wouldn't know a feeling if it hit them over the head." (Think about
that next time you wonder what your shrink says about you.)

My introverted techie life contrasts sharply with my experiences since I moved to Mexico. Take last weekend as an example.

Early Saturday morning I picked up Patty and her daughter Cristy (whose
quinceañera—fifteenth birthday celebration—I posted about last year) and drove to her mother's house in Lagos de Moreno, in the State of Jalisco. Patty and Cristy visit Mom frequently, and I came along this time to get to know her family better, and to experience a Mexican fin de semana.


Patty's mother, Patricia, is Irish and was studying at a convent in Detroit where she met Patty's father, José, a Mexican man who was studying for the priesthood.


From Dad's photo, you can tell that 1) He was not cut out to be a priest, and 2) Patty's mom didn't have a chance. Just look at his handsome face, that smoldering expression.

[Already my left brain is short-circuiting. Here are two people living ascetic lives, suddenly derailed by passion. I can barely restrain myself from trying to calculate the tradeoffs.]

Freed from vows of chastity, they managed to produce eight children, six of them girls who are shown here. Patty is being held by her dad.


Patty's father is deceased. Most of the rest of the family was at Mom's house. Not for any special reason, but because that's just what they do: gather. Coming together is so important to the family that Mom is building a huge house with eight bedrooms, each with its own bath: one for each child and his or her family.

I renewed my acquaintances with Patty's sisters and their husbands and children, and with her brother, Harold. I met scores of relatives. Every one of them greeted me warmly and welcomed me. I have never been hugged and kissed by so many people, even at a wedding. They swept me into their family as if I were a once-missing member of it.

I can hardly describe this warm experience. Probably because I wouldn't know a feeling if it hit me over the head. All I can do is relate a few events from my visit and hope to convey some idea of what it was like to be taken in by these giving people.


In this post, I'll introduce you to just a couple of them. Below, we have sister Maru's husband, Juan. He is a wrangler by trade, more at ease in a corral or a cantina than in his mother-in-law's living room. We were all standing around in the kitchen when Juan roared in, gave me one of those complicated Mexican handshakes and a great bear hug. "¡Ay Amigo! ¿Como estabas?"

I had never met the man before.


I thought, "Mexican people sure are friendly, right from the get-go."

Minutes later, Juan realized he had mistaken me for Patty's ex-husband. He was hugely embarrassed, even more so after I insisted on taking his picture. I wanted to share with you this apparition: the Charro outfit, the broad mustache, the infectious grin.

After his enthusiastic greeting, there was nothing for it but to become bosom buddies.

The youngest member of the family is Geraldo, sister Sandy's boy. He quickly latched onto me, giving me besos, and calling me Señor John. Geraldo insisted on having his picture taken. In my notebook, he drew a picture of a Mexican eagle standing on a cactus, a snake in its beak, as well as an anatomically correct Tyrannosaurus rex. Where do kids pick up these things?


Pretty soon, most everyone was calling me Señor John. It became a game. You know that when they start teasing you, you're being accepted.

We drove out to the nearby pueblo of Cuarenta, where sister Sandy Lola and her husband Isaac own a truck stop. By now, you should be getting getting a message: Irish mom, Israeli husband son-in-law. Exactly what is a typical Mexican family?


The truck stop is called Base Cuarenta, because it houses a CB radio base station. You can just make out the antenna to the right of the building.

It is everything you'd expect a truck stop to be, except for selling fuel. That's monopolized by Pemex, the government-owned petroleum company.


Base Cuarenta has everything else a trucker might need: food, wine and booze, repair shop for CB radios, magazines, CDs, bathrooms, showers...

Little Geraldo went inside, got himself a canvas shopping bag and began filling it from the mini-store shelves with shampoo, toothpaste, candy, toys and balloons, all under the indulgent eyes of his mother and aunts. I don't think anybody paid for any of it.

We pushed four tables together and sat in the restaurant. From time to time one sister or another got up and helped herself to some food or got a soft drink out of the cooler. Isaac drank something he called a digestif, except it was non-alcoholic and taken before his meal. I insisted on trying it: Incredibly bitter. It tasted so bad, it had to be good for me.

Dinner conversation was as easy as a warm day, picking up from wherever it left off the last time everyone was there a couple of weeks ago. I was included, my opinion sought, my jokes laughed at. Geraldo spilled his coke. An aunt said "No pasó nada" (No problem); another mopped up the liquid. Geraldo spilled his big bag of candy. We helped him pick it up while the conversation flowed on uninterrupted, everyone having a good time, nada mucho pasando.

Hours after the sun set, it was time to go back to Lagos and to bed. Harold negotiated his van along the dark, shoulderless highway while the sisters sang childhood songs for Geraldo—and for themselves.


Back at Mom's house, we all said good night. Lots of hugs and kisses all around. Patty showed me my room. I lay back and listened to a lively tuba playing in a band at the social center next door, safe in my own bed, a contented engineer at home with his family.


The Problem with Parrots

Clint has been traveling a lot lately, so Chiapas, the Yellow-Headed Amazon Parrot has been camping at my place.


He's very handsome and he knows it. Which does nothing for his attitude.

Apparently, parrots bond with just one person. At my house, that would be me. He's cuddly and affectionate. He smooshes his cheek against mine and talks to me in a cooing voice. He does something I call the Chiapas dance on my chest, where he hops from one foot to the other and pants. (Don't go there...)

The downside is that he gets jealous. When other people approach him (Oh say, Jean), he goes into full-bore attack mode: puffed up feathers, wings spread, beak open, low guttural growls. If I happen to be holding him at the time, he bites the hell out of me. This is tough on me and the furniture because I take anti-coagulants and blood thinners, so it takes awhile to stop the bleeding.

It's also a strain on my marriage to have a hostile creature with a strong, sharp beak between me and my soulmate.

Still, he's so darn cute. He's sitting on my lap as I write this, my companion and muse.

What passes for winter weather arrived in San Miguel de Allende around October 15. Our houses, uninsulated brick and stone without central heating, feel like wine cellars. Too cold for parrots. I put Chiapas's cage in my little office with a thermostat-controlled ceramic heater. Keeps him toasty warm. On cold mornings, Jean, Rosita the Boston Terrier and I join Chiapas in the only comfortable room in the house. Am I overdoing something here?

Parrots can be so sweet, I'm considering getting one of my own. Apparently if you raise one from a chick, and if everyone in the house handles him, he's less likely to be hostile toward others. (Jean's not buying it, though.)


Potential future Wood household member.

I read somewhere that parrots need to bathe. Sprinkling them with water on a warm day is one suggestion: simulates tropical rain. The obvious approach then is to take him into the shower with me.

He loves it. He flaps his wings and gets sort of wet, all the while talking furiously: "Buenos dias, it's OK Chiapas, (whistle), I love you, perico, (chucklechucklechuckle), hasta luego, (something about niños), hello, (insane laugh), oh baby oh baby oh baby..."

The "oh baby" phrase startled me. I hadn't heard that one before. I'd never said that around him, and the people who raised him speak no English. So where did he learn it? Under what circumstances? Hmmm?

The only other English speaker in his life is his owner. I'm going to have to ask him about this.

Chiapas is (please forgive the expression) a chick magnet. He rides on my shoulder as I walk around town. Few men give him a second look. But women! I get to meet so many. They come up and ask his name and whether he talks. If I had only known this in college...

Once Clint was carrying him when a gaggle of women called out from the other side of the street, "Oh look! There's the parrot. With that tall guy." Reduced just like that to a prop for a bird.

Chiapas is well known in San Miguel. Many people greet him by name. He's welcome in some restaurants, where the waiters bring him tortillas. He likes toast and coffee for breakfast.

He's not aggressive to others if he meets them outside of his tree (my house). He tolerates strangers unless they poke at him. Tourists ask if they can take his (and my) picture; I always let them.

Parrots like to be on top of things. I guess they feel safer, or at least more comfortable, from a high vantage point.



So they like to climb on your head. I have to wear an old ratty baseball cap while sitting at my desk because I don't have a whole lot of hair, and Chiapas likes to groom me aggressively, snipping off spots and moles. Better he grooms the hat.


You can't tell a parrot's gender just by looking. At least most of us can't. I once met a man who was a Chicken Sexer by trade. He would pick up baby chicks two at a time, one in each hand and look, tossing them into either chicken or rooster boxes. He was fast, sexing more than 1,000 in an hour.

Where is he when I need him? I've decided I have to find out about Chiapas. Especially with that Chiapas dance thing.

Apparently there's two ways of doing this: surgically (that's out) or by DNA testing. So I sent off for a DNA collection kit from a lab. I figured it would be easy. After all, they collect human DNA by wiping a Q-tip on the inside of the mouth.

The kit arrived. They need a sample of either blood or feathers. Blood you get by clipping a talon short enough so it bleeds. No way.

Feathers ought to be simple. Chiapas sheds lots of them. Mussy little guy. But of course it isn't going to be that easy. Molt feathers won't work Gotta be fresh ones. The instructions read:

Once you have gained control of your bird, pluck the appropriate amount of chest or breast feathers using your thumb and index fingers.

Yeah. Right.

You gain control of him. You yank feathers out of him. I gotta live with him.

Maybe I'll take him to the vet to get his sample.

Parrots are high-maintenance pets. They demand a lot of attention. They want to spend time with the human they're bonded to; the person that they groom. They poop on you when they're annoyed or frightened.

I just love them. So do many Mexican people: I've met lots of parrots in the homes of friends and acquaintances.

Parrots are also popular icons.


I've run into three Parrot Taco places so far. I've never once been concerned that the restaurant name might refer to a type of taco filling. Too expensive.

But there have been times, like when Chiapas snips a hole in a favorite shirt, that I've had fleeting thoughts about it.


Day of the Dead

When we travel, I often get a sense of not belonging, of being on the outside looking in. I realize that as a tourist, I won't ever integrate into the community we're visiting, although we try to make some connections with the locals by staying for a month or so, living in apartments or houses in residential neighborhoods, shopping in local markets, eating in cafés that cater to residents, not tourists.

Today, as expats living in a small Mexican city, we find ourselves becoming a part of Mexican society. Just living here isn't enough to gain acceptance with our neighbors. We have to put effort into learning Spanish so that we can participate in social gatherings. We have to leave the comfort of the expat community, to cultivate friendships with Mexicans.

All that said, I still divide my world into Mexican stuff and American stuff. The Day of the Dead activities are an example of Mexican stuff. Aren't they quaint, those Mexicans, with their primitive little graveside ceremonies?


Jose Guadalupe Posada. (1852-1913)

Last year I wrote a long post about Day of the Dead in San Miguel. My perspective was that of a commentator observing foreign customs. I'm afraid I was pushy and obnoxious, stomping around the cemetery, shoving my camera into peoples' faces, intruding on families' visits with their forebears. The disturbance I created was amplified by 50 other gringos all doing the same thing.

I was particularly proud of a film clip I made of a family playing guitars and singing favorite songs to the deceased. The patriarch saw me filming and solemnly waggled his finger at me: "No. Don't do this." I felt like a voyeur.

I made a decision not to interfere with the Mexicans' family reunions this year. Then, a month ago, my friend Michael died after a long illness. He was buried in the Panteón, San Miguel's main cemetery. This morning, on my way home from the gym, I saw many people walking toward the Panteón carrying bunches of flowers and vases and candles and tools for sprucing up graves. The thought came into my mind that I would really enjoy taking an hour to visit with Michael's spirit, and maybe spruce up his grave a little.

I walked down the street that runs to the Panteón, through the rows of vendors selling food, drink and flowers.


I bought some marigolds and an empty jalapeño can to put them in. Inside the Panteón I looked for his grave, but I couldn't remember where it was. Eventually Michael's friend Carlos saw me and we spent a few minutes talking beside Michael's resting place while I trimmed the flowers so they would fit into the can.

Michael's grave looked forlorn: loose dirt scattered, no headstone yet, a steel marker for a Mexican child's grave misplaced on his mound. Somehow, I'm sure that all of us who were his friends will sort all of that out in the not distant future.

Carlos left. I sat on somebody else's grave and silently held a conversation with Michael. The sunshine warmed my shoulders, and I felt the contentment of spending time with a good friend. Around me, others sat beside the graves of their dead. Some were enjoying picnics. Others were singing. One woman was reading a favorite novel out loud, so the spirit at her feet could hear it. We all sat there—me and my community—visiting our dead.


John's Guide to the Brothels of San Miguel

As a service to lonely travelers, I've been looking into places that offer companionship services in our area. Herewith, an exhaustive survey of the fleshpots of San Miguel de Allende, in case you're looking to spice up your vacation.

Out on the Salida de Celaya, north of Calle Canal, the most elaborate, best-maintained building is this blue monstrosity, encrusted with balconies, nichos and statuary. Nothing indicates what its purpose is, but nonetheless it exudes a disreputable air—a magnet for men with an itch.


You might think Christians live here because of the cross on one end of the structure, nestled between the dozens of green frogs perched along the roof line.


At the other end, a sybaritic figure strikes a vaguely obscene pose. He creates a sort of moral tension along the length of the building: an analog of the tension in Mexican men who are expected to be both steadfast husbands and dissolute rakes.


The name of the place is Las Ranas (The Frogs). The only visible clue as to what goes on here is the huge tequila bottle over the front door.


People in the know will tell you that Los Ranas is a disreputable house. Patrons are almost entirely males who drink at a bar where women get undressed.

The aged father of a friend suffers from mild senile dementia, so a couple of young men are employed to see to his needs and provide him with companionship. Eventually the boys discovered that Dad has an interest in the esthetics of the female form. To indulge him, they began bringing him to Las Ranas. Dad's bar bills mounted, and worse, he fell in love with one of the "hostesses".

Finally, my friend told her father that a disaster had occurred. A man had been shot at the bar, and the place had been shut down by the police. Everyone who knew Dad was asked to maintain this fiction, thus enabling him to rediscover the paths of righteousness, and to live once again within his income.

Who knew such temptations lurked in this most religious country?

Farther out on the Dolores Highway, there's this garishly-painted building, the Fiesta Charra.


A large poster visible through the front gate identifies it as a night club featuring scantily-clad women. Recently I met one of the principals of this enterprise. He described it as a "table dance" club.

Bilingual Mexicans use this expression, "table dance", to mean what is called in Spanish, a baile privado, an expression that transliterates to "private dance". When I asked my friend, what exactly did a baile privado consist of, he described the act known up north as a "lap dance".

This knowledge cleared up for me the reason for the rules posted by the door; namely, that people wearing shorts or sweatpants, or who are drunk will not be admitted. The management wants to avoid the consequences of loose clothing or loose inhibitions.

Aficionados of such places would consider the two I've described so far to be "classy". If you can grasp such a concept. For those with modest means, San Miguel has some downscale joints. Alter Ego is located on the periférico next to a flooring retailer, near the Red Cross building.


Looks like a warehouse. That's because it is a warehouse.

At least it's not right next to a school.

Then there's Eros, the only place with evidence of design talent in its logo. The red kissy lips forming the center of the letter O make a mildly clever touch. But beyond the sign, appearances are not high on the owners' priority list. Let's face it. Eros is not much more than a utility, offering a commodity. Like gasoline.

"Fill 'er up, Bud. And check the oil."


La Cabaña styles itself a night club. The silhouette of a pole dancer gives the game away. Note: More kissy lips on the right.


I'm told that La Cabaña is a full-service club. Hot snacks are offered from 4-8 PM. Some nights you can get two-for-one beers. So patrons can fortify themselves with food and drink before the action starts.

Around 9 PM, taxicabs from Léon arrive at La Cabaña, full of young women whose clothing achieves levels of seductiveness that can only be dreamed of by gringas. I mean, gringas who are so inclined, of course. The ladies strut into the joint, knowing all eyes are on them, that they are the reason everyone is there.

Officially, so far as the club and the police are concerned, these women are B-girls. Their job is to get the patrons to buy them drinks. They ask the patrons, "Want some company?" The men order: tequila for themselves, a small glass of soda for the B-girls. Small to reduce bathroom downtime.

Personally, I have only had one experience with B-girls, on a business trip to Bangkok. In an exotic southeast asian bar named the Silver Spur (think about it), small women in bathing suits crowded around, parroting "Buy me cola?" Probably the only English words they knew. "Cola" turned out to be a tiny glass containing three ounces of orange soda which they would gulp down and then repeat, "Buy me cola?" $5 a pop. The game got old very quickly.

The girls at La Cabaña are called ficheras, because for each drink bought for them, they earn a ficha (chip). They also dance with patrons, for a fee. Each dance earns them a ficha. At the end of the evening, they cash in their fichas, earning their income for the night's work.

All good clean fun. Except the B-girls aren't willing to settle for the chicken feed they earn from fichas. And their patrons want more than a turn around the dance floor.

Two parties, each of whom has something the other wants. A market is created!

Negotiations take place. Potential services are explored. Prices are discussed. An agreement is reached, but before the deal can be sealed, a third party must be satisfied. La Cabaña stands to lose the services of one of its girls, a girl who would otherwise be drinking cola or selling dances. The client must compensate the club for loss of revenue. In Bangkok, this is called "buying her contract". Twenty bucks to the bartender, and you're on your way.

There are other nuances worth knowing about. Customers often are hard-pressed to come up with the price of the services they want. Some hope to befuddle the girl with booze, to their advantage. So they insist that the girls drink tequila, not cola.

The girls are pros. They've seen this ploy hundreds of times. They agree to drink shots of tequila, but they insist on a glass of Sprite to use as a chaser. Their drinks arrive. They slam the shot. They raise the glass of chaser, carefully prepared with lots of headroom by the complicit bartender, to their lips. And they spit the tequila back into the glasses of Sprite.

The client buys more drinks, matching her shot for shot, certain he is gaining the upper hand. Soon he's ready. Ready for the girl extract all of his money with minimum effort on her part.

Most of these places make rooms available for clients who are too tired or woozy to go home, or otherwise need a little horizontal time. Apparently, though, La Cabaña generates enough overflow that the adjacent Autohotel has sprung up to fill a niche.


Weary travelers don't stay here. Believe me, it isn't a place you'd want to bring your kids. Or your wife. Or even your neighbor's wife. But the teibolaras (table dancers) at La Cabaña find it perfectly suits their purposes.

I think I've covered all of the clubs. I'd rank them for quality, but I haven't actually patronized them, so you'll have to go on appearances. But at least you'll know what to tell the taxi driver.

[Oh God. That last sentence reminds me of a joke. A businessman arriving in Boston for a convention found that his first evening was free, and he decided to go find a good seafood restaurant that served scrod, a Massachusetts specialty. Getting into a taxi, he asked the cab driver, "Do you know where I can get scrod around here?" "Sure," said the cabdriver. "I know a few places... but I can tell you it's not often I hear someone use the third-person pluperfect indicative anymore."]


Somos Católocos

We live in a Catholic country, a fact that won't escape the notice of the most obtuse visitor. In San Miguel de Allende, just in the city itself, we have at least 28 Catholic churches. Even those who don't practice the faith are heavily influenced by the Church. A fifteen-year-old girl's quinceañera, her coming-out party, may look like a big fiesta to you and me, but the centerpiece of her celebration is a mass.

Looking closely while walking through residential neighborhoods yields another sign of the pervasiveness of the Church: cards like this one posted in windows.


It says, "This home is Catholic. We don't accept protestant propaganda nor [that of] other sects."

Calls from door-to-door salesmen are annoying. No, I don't want your $500 vacuum cleaner. I don't want aluminum siding. My roof looks fine to me; I really think you're exaggerating the need for replacement. Gee, I was just thinking about the state of my soul when you rang my bell; come on in and talk to me about salvation.

Some Mexican families have found a solution. Put up a sign. Somos Católocos. We're Catholics. Don't bother calling here. Go away.

Such signs may offer some relief from unwanted visitors, but all kinds of people you haven't been introduced to ring your bell anyway: the Gas truck driver, the Santorini water guy, the lady selling figs or nopales, the woman carrying a sick child and a prescription for medicine she says she can't pay for.

I can't complain. Rosario answers our door, running interference. She buys flores de calabazas (squash blossoms) from the young mother toting a five-gallon paint bucket full of produce, trailed by two preschool kids. She sends missionaries away, instead increasing her chances of salvation by giving a few pesos to the man with the bandaged arm.



We have lots of nice, respectable restaurants in San Miguel de Allende; places that don't offend norteamericano sensibilities. Places with table linen, with Japanese-Spanish fusion cuisine, with fine wines in balloon stemware. Vacationers and unadventurous expats can eat comfortably and confidently in our better restaurants, unaware that the sous chef perhaps works weekends at the mystery-meat taco stand near the Central de Autobuses.

We shouldn't be too hard on such people. After all, up north, restaurants are either expensive or they're some kind of fast food franchise. In either case, the facilities are slick and the product predictable.

Not so in Mexico. Here it's a rare restaurant that has anything like a reassuring appearance. An inexpensive place might be housed in a converted auto lube bay, poorly lit by a few hanging light bulbs and furnished with a half-dozen dented sheet metal tables. Places like that scream to us ex-suburbanites: "Stay away! Stay away!"

Yesterday, my friend Patty took me to one of her favorite restaurants, out on the Dolores highway. The name is Parripollo, a play on
parrilla (grill) and pollo (chicken). So you don't have to ask what's on the menu.


Doesn't look like much, does it? I must have driven by it dozens of times and not given it a second look.

It appears to be a converted private home, it has simply awful graphics in its sign, nor does the standard-issue Corona sign help. And they really need to lose the orange and green fence.

Patty parks her red pickup truck out in front. We seat ourselves at the lone table under the front porch roof and order starters.

What we have on the left here is queso fundido. In places like New York where they're trying to regulate fats in restaurant food, queso fundido simply won't do. It's melted cheese. You scoop up a glob of it with the wooden paddle and smear it on a tortilla. Add some incandescent salsa and scarf it on down. Then listen to your heart laboring. But Oh! Is it good.


On the right, we have repollo con oregano (we'd call it cole slaw) and cebollas flamadas (onion dyed with mild red vinegar). Added to our chees