Tuesday, January 17, 2017

going bananas


What do you do while pondering how to remove a flat tire?

Last Wednesday, a rock in the road gave me the opportunity to
consider such philosophical questions. (moving to mexico -- driving the demons). When I tried to change the resulting flat tire, I discovered that local tire shops using wrong-sized wrenches to remove my lug nuts had deformed the soft metal caps on some of my nuts. No matter how I tried, my wrench would not fit on two of them.

While considering my options, I decided to do something I have long wanted to do. During the eight years I have lived here, I have driven past acres of banana plantations wondering what it would be like to wander through the seemingly-endless rows.

It is easy to pick up information about bananas around here. Some of it is even accurate.


Bananas do not grow on trees. They grow on plants. The difference is important because only one stalk of bananas grows on each plant. When the stalk is cut, there is no more need for the plant. It has served its duty and will receive the Marie Antoinette treatment right at the ground.

Commercial bananas do not reproduce sexually. They are all clones of one another. Once a banana plant is in the ground, it will propagate through shoots from the sister plant.

One of the weaknesses of cloned plants is their susceptibility to disease. Once a disease starts in one banana plant, the entire stock of that variety will eventually die. That is currently occuring to the most common commercial variety, the Cavendish. No one is certain when the variety will die out. But it will be soon. Fortunately, other varieties are waiting in the wings.

And, if you need bar bet material, this one should put pesos in your pants. Bananas are part of the berry family. That is, if you speak Botanese.


But none of that was going through my mind as I started my little trek through the bananas. When you are wandering through what appears to be a magical place, the science simply does not matter.

The banana body bags hanging over each stalk look even more eerie than they do when I am zooming past on the road. Up close, they appear to be right out of The Pod People.

Of course, they are not. Or, at least, I escaped without being subsumed into an alien form.

The first question visitors ask me is the purpose for the bags. Depending on who you ask, there appear to be at least three purposes.

The first has always struck me as a bit odd -- to provide a micro-climate to enhance the ripening of the bananas. That seems odd because our tropical climate would appear to offer the perfect macro-climate to ripen bananas. But I heard it from a grower. So, credit it how you will.

The second is the most frequent response -- to protect the fruit from the various pests that find bananas enticing. And they are legion. The covers are either impregnated with insecticides or a chemical strip is inserted into the bag to cut down on the loss to caterpillars, beetles, and a host of insects.

The third is quite intuitive. The bag acts as protection against fruit damage from the stem and leaves when the wind catches the banana bunch. The wind here is frequently strong enough to fling my paintings on the ground. Bananas are a bit more fragile.

But there I go again with the science. You don't need to know any of that to spend a short strioll through the bananas.

Like most aesthetic experiences, it is often better to not even know that there is such a thing as the scientific method.




Monday, January 16, 2017

even zorro wore one


"The Mexican, whether young or old, crillo  or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile."

Now and then, I pick up my copy of Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (a book I would highly recommend to anyone who takes living in Mexico seriously) to renew my attempts to better understand my Mexican neighbors. I am constantly perplexed at the contradictions I see daily. Neighbors who are friendly on the surface, but who are still obviously distant -- even in personal conversations.

I do not expect to ever crack the enigma. I doubt I ever could as an outsider. Certain attitudes simply become culturally hardwired for those who grow up here. I didn't grow up here. And I do not anticipate being able to do anything more than see Mexico through the eyes of people who see the contradictions -- even if they may not be able to fully describe them.

For me, Octavio Paz is one of those guides. Along with Jorge Castañeda. The fact that both of them were men of the left helps to explain their fondness for Hegelian contradictions. Or, at least, seeing the world through the prism of Hegelian contradictions.

Most of us northerners are usually happy to settle for seeing our Mexican neighbors through eyes that are forgiving of contradiction -- and, at best, vaguely patronizing; at worst, imperialistic lite. And, viewed only on the surface, Mexico appears to be made up of people who accept fate with a certain elan -- if not fatalism. People who are always open and helpful to those around them. People who are always willing to lend a hand.

But, by being satisfied with the surface, we miss the interesting truth under the surface.

And it is not just Mexicans who wear masks. I suspect the fact that Octavio Paz's chapter on "Mexican Masks" has made the mask theory so prevalent in the context of Mexican culture. But we all wear them. And for the same reason -- to protect ourselves. From one another. But also from reality.

Any dinner party is a testing ground for masks. You can almost see the woman to your right slipping hers on during the soup course. And there is very likelihood anyone will be able to slip past its Lone Ranger ambiguity.

During my stay in pilot school in Laredo, I attended more than my share of receptions. Almost the first question out of the wives of senior officers was: "And what does your father do for a living?"

Of course, it translated into: "Are you someone worth spending my time on -- or should I go talk to that young officer over there?" I usually made the choice easy by responding with something whimsical. "He runs guns to Bolivia." And, for all I knew, that was true. But it usually sent my interlocutor scurrying away. My mask remained firmly in place.

Several of my old friends and family members have told me they read my blog for only one reason -- they want to hear what I had been doing between my 20s and 60s. Apparently, I have a reputation for not being very forthcoming with my life. At least, not until stories ferment for several decades.

Maybe that is why I am so fascinated with Paz's observations. Mexicans use their face and smile to mask themselves, but so do I.

And I will put $50,000 (Mx) on the barrel head that you do, as well. 


Sunday, January 15, 2017

caught in charlotte's web


When people tell me to slow down to smell the roses, they usually do not have this photograph in mind.

Darrel and Christy have made my life a lot more enjoyable this past month. Starting with my morning walk.

When I walk, I walk for time and distance. I am almost unconscious of the people and scenery I pass. I think it was Charles Emerson Winchester III who said: "I do one thing at a time. I do it well. Then, I move on." He was my kind of character.

Darrel and Christy have a different walking style. They are what I call diversity walkers. They cover a good deal of territory, but they also pay attention to what is going on around them.

The other morning, we took a stroll on the old road heading out of town through country so bucolic you would almost expect to see Aunt Bee and Opie wandering around.

Unlike our summers, the winter months are cool enough that dew forms on almost everything. If I leave my exercise shirt to air in the courtyard, in the morning it is almost as damp as when I took it off.

It also lights up nature. The dew, that is. Not my sweaty shirt.

Without the dewy highlights, we would have walked past this large patch of overgrowth.

Instead, we stopped and waited for the next performance on those obvious fairy rings. Even someone with chronic arachnophobia would have been entranced.

I have only one fear, and it is not of spiders. So, our little discovery was a double treat for me.

And thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, I actually slowed down to witness one of the treats this area of Mexico offers.



Saturday, January 14, 2017

happy birthday to me


I have been living a lie. At least, telling one.

For well over a decade, whenever anyone would ask my age, I would respond "68." Early on, it was fun because the response was: "My goodness, you don't look that old." But it soon lost its edge when my little prevarication occasioned no response.

Well, it is time  to pump some more gas into the misdirection tank. I rather like the sound of "79."

I have not celebrated my birthday in the company of others for some time. Two years ago, I celebrated my birthday in Campeche, on the Yucat
án peninsula, with my cousins Dan and Patty (¡yo quiero campeche!). But this year, I had a crowd of five (plus two dogs) to help me fill out my lap around the sun.

My neighbor, Jaime is a local fisherman. He has been trying to get me into his fishing launch since I moved into my house. I had politely declined.

I have no particular dislike of being out on the water. It is just not one of those activities I wake up thinking I absolutely must do that day.

My brother and sister-in-law, however, are boat people. Power boat people. If you can propel anything that floats through the water at high speeds, they will be delighted.

I saw Jaime in his yard when Christy and I returned from our morning walk, and asked him if his boat would be available today. It was. So, all six of us loaded into his boat to take a spin around our bay.


Initially, I thought they would enjoy a tour of our lagoon. There are plenty of birds and boats to see. But, when I saw that one of the options was a trip into the Pacific to see the Los Llanitos.

The Los Llanitos is a rather recent tour attraction. On 23 October 2015, those of us who had decided to ride out hurricane Patricia were hunkering down into our dens. But not the captain of the bulk carrier Los Llanitos. He decided he would try to outrun the storm along with his crew.

He lost. Even though the worst portion of the storm struck to our north, the seas simply pushed the full length of the 215 meter ship on the rocks just south of the entry to Navidad Bay. And that is where she rests to this day.

Mexico has more than its share of dramatic seascapes. Our mountains tend to cascade into the ocean in these parts. What is treacherous for ships is a cornucopia for those with a painter's eye.




As dramatic as the rocks are, they do not dwarf the size of the wreck. It is huge. If I did not know better, I would think it was a movie set. Perhaps, something out of Inception.




We did not dawdle long. The captain of the port has a boat on permanent patrol to ensure that interlopers do not violate a cordon sanitaire around the ship. And I understand why. All of us, basically being of pirate stock, wanted to board the wreck. Not for booty, but for adventure.

Having whetted our appetite for boating, I asked Jaime to extend the trip with a swing around the large lagoon that borders Barra de Navidad.

If the theme for the day was boats, it came in two very distinct varieties. The large, sleek yachts that populate the marina at the Grand Isla Navidad Resort.




And the not-so-sleek shrimp trawler that failed to withstand an earlier hurricane.




We returned to the dock just in time for lunch. Because everyone else has a certain preference for Mexican food, I suggested a local restaurant whose food tends to be consistent.


I am not particularly fond of  boats. I am less fond of Mexican food. But I am very fond of spending time with my family and friends. And this day was fun because of that.

Tonight, I am making oyster mushroom sandwiches -- marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, and onion, and topped with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, and feta. A Greek salad sounds like a great accompaniment. While enjoying our Mediterranean fare, we can swap tales of ship wrecks and ancient mariners.

And I can regale the young people with my days in the trenches of Gallipoli.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

moving to mexico -- driving the demons


It is not often that I return home and find a rig like this parked in friont of my house.

Because you are astute readers, you know that is not the sight I saw when I returned home from Manzanillo yesterday. The terrain does not scream Melaque.

But the rig was there. Just not in front of the house. It had already been detatched and parked in my garage when I made my tardy appearance.

I am obviously getting ahead of myself with my story. Let's back up a bit.

Let me introduce the guest members of the cast in our continuing situation comedy -- Laura; her huband, Josh; their eight-year-old son, Jeremiah; and their two dogs, Culprit and Eddie.

I have known Laura since she was born. Her parents and I were friends in the Air Force when we were all stationed in England. For various reasons, she became something of a surrogate daughter to me. When I heard that Josh and she had quit their jobs and sold their house in Portland to look for a new life, I invited them to stay at the house with no name on their journey.

And it has been quite a journey for them. Josh and Laura ride on the BMW motorcycle with Jeremiah in the side car and the dogs in the towed trailer. They have already covered thousands of miles -- many of them from Phoenix to my house.

I knew they were arriving from Puerto Vallarta around noon yesterday . That was something of a timing problem because I had a dental appointment in Manzanillo in the morning. With Darrel and Christy at the house, I had no concern. The fort was manned. And I knew I would return soon.

And all was going well. I was out of the dentist chair in time to grab a couple of items at Walmart and La Comer, and was on my way home well in time to meet my honored guests.

Of course, that is when the sabots get tossed into the machinery. Or, as I like to say, the clogs get tossed into the cogs.

I was within 15 miles of home when it happened. I had just passed two cars and was in the process of passing a very slow dump truck when it decided to dump one of its rocks right in the path of my car.

It was not a giant rock. With a bit of effort I could have lifted it, but I knew it was not a stranger to danger as far as the Escape was concerned.

I had a split second decision to make. Because of its size, I knew the rock would probably make only one bounce. I guessed it would head left. It didn't. It bounced right into my swerve.

I hit it with the inside of my front left tire and knew either the tire was dead or the undercarriage was damaged -- or both. The impact was hard enough that I momentarily thought we might roll. When I pulled over, I discovered the tire was flat.

No problem. I have changed tires before. But I was wrong. There was a problem. Even though three of the nuts came off easily, the wrench would not fit over the other two.

To cut a very long story short, I started to walk to Cihuatlán to see if I could find a tire repairman who would return to where I had left my car. Due to the kindness of an army sergeant and a helpful electrician on his way to another job, I found a repair shop.

With the tire off of the car, the damage was obvious. The inner rim of the wheel had been peeled back about the length of my hand. Juan (the tire repairman) and I shuttled between his shop and a welder. With the wheel welded into the semblance of a circle, the only step was to put the tire back on.

And here is what it looked like:
 
 


Obviously, I cannot drive around like that.

I need to return to Manzanillo on Monday for scheduled maintenance on the car. While it is being serviced, I will walk further into town and order two new tires. Even though the damaged one is only a year old, that hernia will do none of us any good.

Until then, I am not going to drive out of town until Monday. I can shuttle my guests hither and yon without too much haste.

Who knows? Maybe Josh will let me drive the motorcycle.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

killing the dragon


Every good adventure tale requires an exotic destination.

El Dorado. The Celestial City. Mordor. Shangi-La. And if a few pieces of gold, a dragon, and trolls are thrown in along the way, a rollicking tale it shall be.

We took one of those journeys together in gold on the beach, where we discovered a deserted beach with its own eerie history. Alas, there were no dragons or trolls. But there was gold -- and lots of it.

Finding the destination was easy. There is a "Playa de Oro" sign on the main highway directing the acolyte conquistador to the promised "X."

I was not so lucky in Greece. From my house, I could see an odd peak on the horizon amongst the mountains that ringed Patras. Several times, I set off in its direction, with map on hand, to find it. No matter which way I approached it, it was always out of reach. Like a Greco-Brigadoon.

My experience is that most adventures are of the second variety. We can get close to them, but they always slip through our fingers. Like moonbeams.

For the past eight years, an adventure destination has haunted me -- buildings on top of a rock that juts into the ocean on the western end of Melaque. I could see it from several vantage points -- its straight lines giving away its existence on the edge of the serrated rock. From the beach. From the ocean. Above it on the mirador.

I decided this week it was the time for adventure. So, we loaded our fellowship of the bling into my Escape and drove up into the hills as far as we could.

I knew a path led across the rocks for a mile or two. But it was a route for horses or pedestrians, not my SUV. Having earlier girded our loins, we set off down the road.

This was one of those adventures where the journey was far more interesting than the destination -- in a way. I have posted numerous photographs over the years of this handsome country made up of crashing surf and boat-crushing rocks. But I had never seen it from this angle.

Our sweat equity rewarded us with this view of the Pacific Ocean just before its forms Navidad Bay.




Comparisons are a tourist's stock in trade. So, I can say without the slightest twinge of guilt that these rock formations remind me a lot of the Oregon coast.

Call me provincial, if you like.

Even the view on the other side of the path, looking across the bay to Melaque, was rewarding.




Reaching our destination was a bit anti-climactic. Here it is.




Yup. It looks a bit like one of those villages Islamic State has captured and killed everyone whose religion differs from theirs.

But the place is more interesting that that. All ruins have a certain charm. Otherwise who would bother with trekking to Delphi? Even the oracle has left town.

The main building is just a concrete rectangle divided into two simple rooms.




I have been told several stories about the purpose of these buildings. That it is a hideout for outlaws. That it was a romantic hideaway for attorneys from Guadalajara. That it was once a restaurant.

I tend to believe the most prosaic of those tales. That it was once a restaurant with an ill-conceived business plan. But the writer in me kept hoping to find some evidence that it was a pirate lair.

Whatever it once was, it is now a love shack. The scores of discarded condoms is evidence enough of that. Not to mention that graffiti on the building declaring it to be the "HOUSE OF LOVE."

In its prior life, it even had its own restrooms -- with toilets that allowed the waste to tumble down the cliff face into the sea.




The turkey vultures added an exotic touch. After all, what adventure is worth its sodium chloride without a few carrion-eaters?

After taking a look around, I could not imagine why anyone would cart all of the material to build this complex out on these rocks. Who did he expect to attract all the way out here? What was his dream?

The answer is there. And it surrounded us on our walk on the path. It would be worth making the trip here to dine on veal piccata or chicken marsala if this was the accompanying view.




Who knows? I might even eat a taco in such a place.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

the days of steak and roses


I have not written much about my revised food intake and walking schedule lately.

There is is a good reason. I do not have much to tell you. And what I have to tell is not very encouraging.

For a few months, I had been walking several miles a day. That was the easy part of my get-with-it regime. One big circumstance ate into my walking schedule -- blisters. Blisters and the ensuing infection.

Other than days off to let my feet recover, I was thoroughly enjoying getting out every morning. I cannot say I enjoyed my environment. When I am walking, I could be walking through the Forest of Lórinand or a toxic chemical dump in New Jersey. It wouldn't matter. I am too fixated on keeping cadence.

My new food intake had been working rather well. Lots of vegetables. Very few fruits. Bits of chicken chopped up in stir fry. Lots of salads and soups. And as few carbohydrates as I could manage.

That worked well when I was here alone. I tossed out, or gave away, anything that would not help me stay on the straight and narrow. When I went out to restaurants, I often took a Greek salad or a chicken stir fry with me. (Eating at restaurants was one of my health undoings. I restricted my outings to places where I could socialize without creating a scene with my take-in routine. That was the grand total of two restaurants.)


As a result of my new food intake and my walking, jiggly thighs were replaced with muscle, my heart rate was reduced by almost one-third, my stress measurement went down, my waist size dropped three inches, I lost almost 12% of my body weight, and I felt great.

The arrival of my mother, brother, and sister-in-law threw a spanner into my Cuisinart. On the way from the airport, we stopped for groceries. It may be more accurate to say we stopped for carbohydrates, candy, and fruit.

Even with those new items in the house, I managed to stay away from them. My undoing was cooking for my guests.

I am a good cook. A very good cook. And when I cook, I like to show off my ingenuity and originality.

For the first few meals, my family ate what I had been eating. Even then, as you can tell from the photograph at the top of this essay, I started cheating. I love pasta. Having guests was a great excuse to slip some under one of my experimental stir fry dishes.




Then, my guests began craving large hunks of meat. The solution was easy. I have a great grill system in the courtyard where I could prepare full meals -- if I chose to. But, because I am not fond of big meat, I had never used the grill in the two years I had lived here.

While Darrel manned the grill, I whipped up some accompanying dishes. In this case, mint peas with shallots, and an interesting experiment with gemelli in a lemon, tomato, pine nut, and garlic sauce. It was a smash hit.

And that is how the month has passed. Not every meal is that large. Our evening meal is often nothing more than a salad or a light graze through the refrigerators. But there is much that I would not be eating if I were here on my own.

I know. I know. That is the same excuse that alcoholics use. It was my choice to eat what I cooked.

The alcoholic analogy may not be that far off. Last night, I bought a baguette from The French Bakery -- and ate the whole thing in bed along with a very healthy portion of duck 
pâté. Here is the alcoholic clue: I am not fond of bread. I may as well have been eating it out of a plain paper bag on Skid Row.

Now, that I am regularly walking in the morning again (my last round of infection was fought back with another round of antibiotics), it is time to take control of my food intake.

And my family need not suffer. For stir fry, I can eat the topping without the pasta or the rice. When we have steak night, I can cut up a little in my vegetables. And some things, I will simply not touch.

This new-found multi-cuisinity may not survive the week. Three more guests are arriving on Wednesday. And, at least one is a strict vegetarian.

I may just eat whatever I prepare for her.