Archive 2008 2nd Quarter

Goodbye Chiapas

Chiapas has escaped. About month ago, the parrot Clint and I share was perched on the wrought iron railing of my terrace that overlooks the city. I had neglected to keep up with clipping his wing feathers. With a sudden squawk, he took wing like he'd been flying all of his life. He was out of sight within seconds.

I am devastated.


I find it hard to convey a sense of the powerful bond that can form between a parrot and his person. The Chop-man and I did everything together. He rode on my shoulder as I made my rounds around town. Once I was carrying him into Office Depot when the security guard stopped me. "Mascotas no se permitan en la tienda," (no pets allowed) he said. Chiapas and I just stared at him. The guard got the message and waved us in: Chiapas is no pet.

We took naps together. He perched on my knee, one four-taloned foot drawn up underneath, head tucked under his right wing. When it was time to get up, he would clamber down onto my chest and do a little dance to wake me up. When I was writing, he'd sit on my shoulder or on the edge of the computer screen. We ate meals together, he standing beside my plate, helping himself to my pasta and carrots. He liked to take showers with me. He'd perch on my shoulder, and when the spray hit him, he'd reel off his entire bilingual vocabulary, about 30 words.

He'd greet me in the morning by saying, "I love you."

I miss him so much.

After he flew the coop, I posted a reward on the local radio station. I went out and spread the word among all the local kids. I got no response whatever.


I'm spending a few days at the beach. Yesterday I ate breakfast at a palapa restaurant where I met another parrot; a yellow-head Amazon just like Chiapas.


I'm embarrassed I didn't learn his name. But he was a talker, and he repeated almost every word and noise I made in his presence. We had a lengthy conversation while I tried to develop a deeper, more physical relationship with him. He responded by trying to eat my shirt. A true parrot, indeed.


I held out my finger so he would step up. He bit it, hard enough to let me know he wasn't having any, but not so hard as to break the skin. He was saying, "Keep your distance, Bud."

Had he climbed onto my shoulder and rubbed his cheek against mine the way Chiapas did, I would have lost my resolve never to own another parrot. Having Chiapas in my life was a loving experience, but parrots need constant companionship. I used to curtail my travel urges just to accommodate him.

I can't be arranging my life around the needs of a parrot, can I?



Look what they've done to my car, Ma.

Scrapes, dents—this was a brand new car when I brought it to Mexico, resplendent in pearlescent white paint. Were I to bring it to a US body shop, it would cost at least half its value to make it like new. Given the condition it's in today, it would sell for a low fraction of low book.


See how the sidewall rubber has been ground off the left front tire? (Upper left picture.) That white ring around the tire is bad news. Our streets are so narrow that you have to park touching the curb to avoid scrapes from passing cars. Then you have to fold in your left mirror or it'll be sheared off. I've replaced three so far at $300 a pop.

Our streets were not designed for cars, especially trucks and SUVs. They were laid out during the days of horses and mules and pedestrians. They can't be widened because exterior walls are built on property lines, right out to the edge of the street. The left hand photo below shows a small pickup descending Calle Piedras Chinas. When I attempt it, my Explorer has no more than a couple of inches to spare on either side.


On the right we see a garbage truck squeaking by parked cars on Calle Jesús. I'm in awe of these hombres de la basura, and of anyone who drives a large vehicle in town. They get through places that I swear are narrower than their truck. They keep a beveled block of wood in the cab to use as a ramp so they can drive up onto the sidewalk if need be.

The turn from the Salida de Querétaro onto narrow De Loreto is a little tight. Some of the scrapes and scars on the wall of that building are quite deep. I put one of them there myself: check out the left front fender in the upper right photo at the top of this post.


Scratches and dings are one thing; mechanical deterioration is another. Our roads shake everything loose. My once nice tight car squeaks and rattles pitifully. The electronics controlling the four wheel drive controls have shorted out. The gas gauge has become misleadingly inaccurate. The cd changer eats cds—won't give 'em back. All too often the car has to go to the shop to get something tightened. Or to replace stuff that fell off.

Many of our streets are paved with cobblestones, like those pictured top left, below. Cobblestones set up vigorous vibration. You can just feel bolts working loose as you drive.

We like cobblestones because they add to the 17th-Century feel of the city. But they're hell on cars, they work loose leaving vicious potholes, and the paving only lasts three years. When the streets wear out, crews of about 20 guys come in. They dig out all the cobblestones, re-grade the dirt underneath, and re-set the cobbles. By hand.

Some streets are paved with dressed stone. They're a relative pleasure to drive on, but water softens the ground underneath and so you get more potholes, like the one the scooter driver is avoiding. Another source of potholes is neighbors "borrowing" a stone or two to repair their houses.


Sometimes you don't even get cobblestones: cobbled streets randomly peter out into dirt roads four a couple hundred meters, before paving resumes.

Had enough? It gets worse.

As in every country in the world, speeders are a problem. One hugely ineffective solution in Mexico is to post ridiculously low speed limits. This sign posted on Avenida Independencia, a major thoroughfare, sets a limit of about 6 mph.


Of course, nobody observes it. Nor can it be reasonably enforced. Not enough cops. To write you a ticket, they have to confiscate your driver's license, write out the citation, and appear at traffic court that day to testify against you. Takes a couple of hours to process just one speeder.

Too cumbersome. So Mexico uses passive speed controls called topes—industrial-strength speed bumps. The one below doesn't look all that vicious; in fact, I haven't been able to capture in photographs just how serious these things are. But if you hit one at anything over 5 mph, you're gonna go airborne.


Topes come in several varieties. The metal dome type will jar your fillings loose. Sometimes small boulders are sunk into the pavement instead.


Wide topes double as crosswalks. These are very effective: The Ancha de San Antonio, a four-lane arterial, can be crossed by small children in complete safety. More easily than automobiles can.


Groups handing out advertising flyers or soliciting for charitable organizations have discovered that topes make great places for conducting business. It's hard to resist these guys when you come to a near stop and they look you right in the eye.


Dirt roads, cobblestones, and potholes beat the hell out of cars. Here my friend Lee points to the collapsed suspension on her Blazer, a victim of one too many topes.


The bright side is that Mexican mechanics are ingenious and affordable. They can repair anything. Not with factory-approved parts, of course. Nobody can afford those, especially when you need them so often.

Paul (El Guapo) Latoures' Jeep is a case in point. He's got more bailing wire and duct tape under the hood than you'd think possible. Vital components are held in place with bungee cords. There's a pair of wires snaking out through the space between the hood and a fender, through the wing window and into the passenger compartment. God knows what for. His sled is a vision of what my Explorer will look like in another five years.

Which brings me back to my original problem: What to do about my poor beat-up car? Expats know there's only one way out: Drive it into the ground. If you're lucky, it'll still be running when it's ten years old at which time you can import the car without paying high duties. Then you can sell it in Mexico for a few thousand dollars more than it's worth in the States, use the proceeds to buy a new car, and start the process all over again.


Defeat of the Egrets

Guano-bespattered walks and walls discourage human visitors from lingering on the path between Parque Juárez and the Cultural Center at El Chorro. Here, two of the culprits loiter beside one such wall.


They're beautiful creatures, and they've nested in the area of Parque Juárez for ages. But humans have moved in. Many want the birds out. Recently the city triumphed in the years-long battle with the Parque Juárez birds. I posted about the cleanup effort two years ago.

Driven out of the park, the egrets moved to neighboring trees in the area of El Chorro, referred to by some as the Beverly Hills of San Miguel de Allende. The guano load in effect was transferred from the park to this exclusive neighborhood, a situation everyone knew would not be tolerated for long.

The other day, I noticed arborists topping trees, the same tactic that deprived egrets of nesting sites in the nearby park.


This solution to the guano problem seems rather extreme: no more bird poop, but it leaves the trees looking like amputees. Gone are the graceful forms and leafy shade, replaced by ugly, hacked-off stubs. The birds can't nest on stubs, so they move on. Less poop: more ugliness. Is the tradeoff worth it?

Nesting egrets ordinarily live aloft, rarely descending to the ground. But today they have no other place to perch. They stand around on piles of slash looking dazed, avian equivalents of Hiroshima survivors.


At least this year, the trees were cut before nesting had begun, unlike two years ago when the ground was littered with nests and nestlings. Then, neighborhood cats made quick work of the baby birds. Adults, though, are safe enough on the ground; felines wisely keep their distance from long-billed adults.



Mexicans and their Mesoamerican forebears have been working stone for centuries, and they're very good at it. Anywhere in the country where living conditions are inviting (water, arable soil) hundreds of archeological sites attest to the multiplicity and permanence of their works. The Conquistadors harnessed the skills of indigenous stoneworkers, at first for church-building.


The stone of choice is called cantera, a Spanish word that means quarry but in Mexico refers to an easily-worked stone formed of volcanic ash. Cantera is relatively light stone and can be carved into architectural elements and sculptures.


To me the word brings up images of colonial ornaments, but today the stone finds application in modern architecture, even something as pedestrian as the surround of this garage door.


A major source of cantera is the little town of Escolástica, about a half hour south of Querétaro. The name of the town has a religious connotation: It refers to the Middle Age doctrine of organizing Church dogma based on the works of Aristotole, a concept invented by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Heady stuff for a community where people bang rocks with hammers.

Looks to me like there are a couple dozen talleres de cantera (workshops) in Escolástica. Most line the two-lane highway that winds through town. All are small operations, the largest employing maybe twenty stone carvers and laborers.

The stone is so malleable that it can easily be formed into almost any shape. Here, heaped beside the road, are fountains and ornate window frames. The cylindrical objects at the bottom of the image are waste—cores bored out of the center of columns to admit steel reinforcing.


In Escolástica, cores and other scrap are used as construction materials. Free to stoneworkers, it's cheaper than bricks. Stacked in front of this house are hundreds of cantera pavers. Finely dressed ones are used to floor interior rooms in expensive homes.


Stone carvers sometimes enjoy pleasant work conditions. In our year-round pleasant climate, the shade of a huizache (Acacia shaffneri) makes an open-air workshop.


Much stone carving is done with hand tools. The man on the left is hollowing out a fountain with a tool that combines the functions of a chisel and hammer, made from a tiny lozenge of tool steel welded to a heavy bar of mild steel. The artisan on the right uses a conventional hammer and chisel for producing fine fluting on a pink cantera column.


Electric grinders and saws permit quick removal of large amounts of stone. They also make a lot of dust. Workers protect their lungs with bandannas. On the right we see an illustration of Mexico's relaxed attitudes toward work. These three men remained gathered in companionable conversation for the half-hour I was in their shop taking photos.

Pavers are cut using large water-lubricated saws. All of the workers I met had all their fingers, unlike the mesquite furniture-makers of Adjuntos del Rio. But the stone is wet and perhaps a little slippery. And what about flying chunks of rock? I don't think this rig would meet OSHA regulations.


Credit for this excellent image: Paul (El Guapo) Latoures.
Now you know why he gets paid the big bucks.

Sculptors produce myriad works; some conventional, some not. Bas-relief carvings depicting Guadalupe are common. On the right, the naked, intertwined threesome might fire some imaginations. You can't see it in the photo, bout somehow, the female figure's left breast got lopped off and has been glued back in place. I don't think this one's gonna sell.


The cutaway man seems unique to me, perhaps inspired by a high school anatomy book. (Notice how the tibia articulates with the femur...) On the right, Paul and the sculptor discuss the symbolism of a hole in a statue's stomach. When I raised my camera, they broke off their conversation to pose, ruining a candid image. Paul should know better.

Escolástica is situated in the countryside where life remains simple and close to the land. Here a couple carry a load of machete-cut leña (firewood) back to their house. They'll use it for cooking, unable to afford gas. The husband asked me for a regalo (gift) for taking his picture. Cash must be hard to come by. Stone carvers are paid salaries. Campesinos are not.


The stone workers of Escolástica create beauty out of common stone with skill and artistry. Competition keeps prices (and wages) low, so Norteamericanos are often surprised how cheaply they can incorporate hand-carved stonework into their homes. The artisans seem content in their work and adequately compensated. Their lives appear to be pleasant and devoid of the pressures I experienced in Silicon Valley. But as Mexico inexorably moves into the first world, how will these people fare? Will they be able to maintain their small-scale businesses and the pleasure of shaping stone with their hands?


Renovating the San Francisco Church

Mexico's 1917 constitution curtails Catholic Church ownership of property. Today, the State owns essentially all ecclesiastical lands and buildings. A consequence of Mexico's long struggle between Church and State is that the city of San Miguel de Allende today bears responsibility for maintenance of its 29 Catholic churches. Many have picturesque exteriors and some are important historically, such as the San Francisco Church, originally founded by Father Juan de San Miguel in 1542.

I particularly like the simplicity, the Mexicanness of the bell tower.


In many places historical buildings are preserved in a state of arrested decay. Here, erosion of plaster enhances our appreciation of the San Francisco Church's age and gives us a glimpse of how it was constructed: walls built of uncut stone—rubble, really— suspended between pink cantera columns. Broken cornices add to the sense of antiquity.

But for me, the features that most evoke the feeling of Old Mexico are cacti and grasses growing atop the walls.


For the last few years, San Miguel has been renovating its historic buildings. New colors and gilding make spectacular the dome of the Templo de las Monjas. Renewed stonework and salmon-colored plaster vastly improve the appearance of our signature building, the Parroquoia de San Miguel Arcangel.

But while much can be gained in doing renovations, sometimes something is lost. Today, the bell tower of the San Francisco Church looks like this:


It's clearly a building in good repair—no mistaking that. But gone is the exposed stonework; gone are the cacti; gone is the sense of great age. Even the patina on the brass bell has been removed.

You'd never guess this building is more than 450 years old.

By and large, I appreciate the renovations that have spruced up our town. But the San Francisco bell tower no longer draws my gaze. For me, its soul has been plastered and painted over. Today it looks like something atop a Santa Barbara condo complex.


Rainy Season

When is the best time to visit San Miguel de Allende? Many visitors come just after New Year's day. They're escaping snow and ice, unaware that staying in one of our magnificent colonial homes between December and February is like living in a wine cellar. Daytimes then are sunny and moderate, but nights are cold and houses rarely have central heating. Those thick stone walls are chilly. I love hearing visitors from Toronto complain about the cold!

So for my money, winter is not a good time to come. Nor are April and May comfortable months. They're hot, dry, and dusty. Some tourist-related businesses give up and close during the spring for lack of customers.

No, the sweet spot is during the months of June through October, our rainy season. Scattered clouds fill the sky, moderating the intense sun and lowering temperatures.


Many afternoons feature a thunderstorm or two. They're often intense, but rarely last more than an hour, after which the sun breaks through, the streets are fresh and washed, and the climate is ideal. In these months we get three quarters of our annual 23" of rainfall.

We also get nice sunsets.


Some are put off by the idea of vacationing during the "rainy season." The term, though, is relative: the eastern half of the the US from the great plains to the atlantic seaboard and all of the Pacific Northwest receives roughly double the precipitation we do. Nobody's vacation is going to be ruined by visiting San Miguel during the summer.

We welcome many Norteamericano visitors in July and August. In June, September and October we smugly enjoy uncrowded restaurants and Mexico's best climate as we anticipate the arrival of next winter's crowd of shivering Canadians.

Of course, we Sanmigulenenses will be tanning on the beach at Yelapa by then.


Shoeshine Man

Business was slow the other day for a shoeshine man on a plaza in Mexico City's Roma district.


So to keep busy, he shined his own shoes. He spent about an hour on the one. I didn't wait around for him to get to the other.


An Art Installation

One of San Miguel's quiet oases is a former convent, now referred to by locals as Bellas Artes, as in "You can buy chamber music festival tickets at Bellas Artes." It's also known as Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez or El Nigromante. I lived here a year before I realized that all three names belonged to the same place. It's a branch of the Palacio de Bellas Artes of Mexico City, and provides gallery space, classrooms for art students, a concert hall, and a small cafe, and it features a mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros.


The other day, an installation by Japanese artiest Sae Otomo caught my eye. She titled it Es Necesario lo Innecesario (Necessary or Unnecessary?). It makes a statement about how our consumption affects the environment; in particular, what we do with stuff after we've used it.

The panel below contains items she found while walking along the highway to Querétaro. The objects she found must have taken her all of five minutes to collect. The amount of trash thrown along highways is shocking to visitors from rich countries.


Consisting mostly of discarded containers, the panel contains one that is disturbing:


This bottle once held highly corrosive muriatic acid. Anyone coming in contact with small amounts of residue might suffer severe burns.

Protest art needs to have more impact, in my view, than a collection of common litter glued to a square or muslin. In the panel below, Sae Otomo delivers, in a work called Afterwards, Where Do They Go?


Where do what go? This work consists of used disposable diapers and sanitary napkins, again found along the highway. Repulsive, shocking—who wants to walk into a gallery to be confronted by something like this? But for me, it succeeds in sharply bringing home the message: Collectively we humans are slobs, throwing disgusting wastes anywhere without regard for the health of the planet or for our fellows.

Art with a strong message. I wouldn't hang it in my living room, though.



Do you become a little nervous when you book an unknown hotel or tour online. What if it's less than what you'd hoped it would be?


We're well past the days where we share buses with campesinos toting chickens. I think. But travel in a country where preventative maintenance is often overlooked can lead to unpleasant surprises.

Like the door falling off your bus.