Sunday, March 26, 2017

facing the notes

Nezahualcoyotl can take five.

It is time to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican Constitution of 2012. And the 100 peso note does not require the image of the poet-philosopher warrior that has graced its face since 1996.

Since my return from The Antipodes, I have only needed the services of an ATM twice. I knew that the Bank of Mexico was issuing its 100 peso note to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Mexican Constitution, but I had not yet seen one.

Last week, my six thousand peso bounty included only two 100 peso notes. Both featured the noble features of Nezahualcoyotl. But, I hit pay dirt this morning. The two 100 peso notes were the new variety. There they were in all of their stiff paper glory. Spiffy as a new Buick.

Commemorative notes are not new in Mexico. Those of us who were here in 2009 remember the two banknotes printed to celebrate the bicentennial of independence with a rather fierce Miguel Hidalgo on the front of the 200 peso note, and, to celebrate the centennial of the Revolution, the locomotive that was instrumental in transporting insurgent troop to their ultimate victory, on the front of the 100 peso note. Occasionally, one shows up in my wallet.

But, it is now time for a new celebration. The Revolution may have started in 1910, but it did not get its governing document until 1917. (There are some historians who claim the Revolution did not come to an end until 1930 when the government came to terms with the Cristeros. I tend to agree with them.)

The constitution reflected what was to be Mexico's greatest political and social watershed (the Revolution) until the introduction of political democracy in the 1990s. Various Mexican factions (primarily the Liberals and the Conservatives) had been fighting since Independence -- often in open warfare -- to define what the Mexican nation would be. The Revolution answered that question. The Constitution of 1917 memorialized it.

The convention that drafted the constitution was remarkably bourgeois (made up primarily of middle class members of the Mexican Liberal Party) considering some of the radical assertions in the document. President Carranza (that is him with the Father Christmas beard on the front of the new note) was not a radical. He was soon to be assassinated by another faction of the Revolution. But he approved the constitution knowing the parts of which he disapproved could be rewritten or ignored. (Some provisions of the constitution still have no legislation to support their implementation.)

The Revolution was initially fought on the premise that elections should be fair and that no president should be reelected. The latter was immediately added to the constitution to prevent another Porfirio Diaz becoming dictator for life. As for fair elections, that would wait for another 80 years.

But the constitution changed far more.

  • The Liberals started the process of stripping the Catholic church of its property and political power in the 1850s. The 1917 Constitution made the split permanent.
  • The constitution gave positive liberties (as opposed to the American concept of negative liberties protecting the people from the government) such as, the rights to education, health, and housing, and freedom from discrimination.
  • Foreigners are prohibited from participating in the political process and from owning real property in the restricted zones -- a provision based on the perceived extent of foreign influence in the government of Porfirio Diaz.
  • Citizens are guaranteed the right to own firearms within their homes.
  • Some commentators note that the constitution contains the essence of socialism. "The property of all land and water within national territory is originally owned by the Nation." It is not a radical statement. It is quite conservative in its concept; a Spanish monarchist would say no less. The provision was cribbed from Spanish law.
  • The rights of workers to an 8-hour day, the right to strike, the right to a day of rest, and the right to indemnification for improper termination are all part of the constitution -- though supporting legislation has not been enacted to enforce all of those rights.
There are, of course, many more provisions. But they each attempt to uniformly answer the question who is a Mexican and what is her relationship with her nation and government.

It is, of course, appropriate for Venustiano Carranza and Luis Manuel Rojas to share top billing on the front of the note. The former was the president of Mexico in 1917, and the latter was the president of the congress that approved the constitution.

And, on the reverse, are the members of the congress who drafted the constitution -- caught in their Roman salute swearing allegiance to what they had just approved. Considering some unpleasant incidents in the 1930s and 1940s, that salute is a bit creepy.

Like most such commemorations, we will soon forget about the special banknote and what it stood for. But Mexicans will continue to operate their political affairs under its provisions. It is Mexico's longest-lasting constitution.

But there is a presidential election next year. And several of the current provisions will be at issue. Who knows? Maybe we will have a Constitution of 2019.

And a completely new set of bank notes in 2119.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

columbus, meet edison

Sometimes, a little knowledge can be an embarrassing thing.

Darrel and I started working our way through our handyman chore list this week (the joys of home ownership) -- with some help.

Antonio and Lupe (the pool guys) repaired the float in my pool's overflow tank on Monday. That remedied the well pump's refusal to shut off.

Darrel and I fashioned a new handle for the tank's cover using bicycle lock cable, two clamps, and a fashionably yellow piece of hose.

I already told you how I resolved the Netflix problem. Apparently, whenever we have a power surge, the voltage regulator does something that keeps Netflix from loading movies. (I know that does not sound logical, but there you are.) Unplugging everything from the regulator, then unplugging the regulator from the wall, and waiting for about 30 seconds re-sets whatever needs to be re-set.

We still have not bought a piece of glass to replace the cracked shelf. We have been too busy amusing ourselves with relenting games of Mexican train. But I can find glass at quite a few shops. It is just a matter of doing it.

That left us with one open item -- the power failure in the bodega and the pool bathroom. It turns out the problem was more wide-spread. The stair lights to the terrace and the sconces on the terrace wall would not light.

We also thought there was an additional power outage. Three of the copper star lights would not illumine. I took a gamble that the bulbs were burnt out. They were. So, another task was completed.

But there was still that pesky outage in the two rooms. After checking all of the circuit breakers, we bought a circuit tester to determine if any of the breakers had failed. They had not.

We then called in the big guns. On Tuesday night, I had met a woman who works at Rooster's. She told me her husband, Efrain, was a handyman and could help us. Through my friend Oswaldo, we arranged for Efrian to show up at the house.

He did. As we walked him through the house explaining the problem, we became more confused. There was absolutely no power getting to the light switches in the bodgea. The pool pump is in that room, and it worked fine. As did the bulb that lights up the pump area.

I got down on my knees to throw that switch. When I looked around the corner I saw what you have seen at the top of this post -- another circuit box. Darrel and I had looked through the house for something similar (including in every closet and cabinet), and had found nothing.

But, there it was. Almost in plain sight.

Of course, one of the switches (the one on the far left) had been thrown. Probably in the same power surge that had tripped the television's voltage regulator.

Efrain and I thought it was funny that we had missed such an obvious solution. Darrel paid him some hush money for his time, and we all went on our merry way.

What I got out of the  episode was some additional knowledge about my house -- and a great story. That I now share with you.

Friday, March 24, 2017

dodging an agatha christie opening

I almost joined Jack Brock last night (remembering jack brock).

By poisoning myself. Accidentally, mind you.

Because of the quality of the water that comes out of my bathroom tap, I keep a couple of bottles filled with filtered water at hand. For brushing my teeth and taking pills. That sort of thing.

My doctor has prescribed some sort of natural medicine drops that I am supposed to take before each meal. I have no idea what it is supposed to do. I think I once knew, but that part of my brain has taken a permanent vacation. I simply call it "monkey piss." Whatever it is, it stains the cup I use to mix the drops with water.

Last night, I pulled out my pills, the drops, the toothpaste, and my toothbrush. I was ready for the full off-to-bed performance.

When I picked up the cup, I was surprised to find it filled with water. That was odd. I usually only fill it part way, and I had no memory of filling it at all. But, please recall, memory is not my forte these days.

So, I poured half back into the water bottle, added my drops to the water in the cup, tossed my pills in my mouth, and gulped down what I should have considered as a mystery solution. I had drunk almost all of it when my taste kicked in.

It was bleach. Or, at least, some bleach and water. Dora must have left it there to soak out the stains in the glass.

The solution must have not been very strong. I did not suffer the usual chlorine burns in my mouth or throat. But the solution was strong enough to immediately dry out my mouth.

Fortunately, a member of the medical community was at hand. Christy did a quick internet search. The next thing I knew, I was drinking a quart of milk.

The fact that I am writing this story lets you know I am still alive. But I burped chlorine gas for most of the night. I had become my own personal weapon of mass destruction.
There are probably all kinds of lessons to learn here. But the knowledge will most likely be useless. How often does something like this happen to one person? I am just glad the cup was not left on the bathroom counter in one of the guest rooms.

To celebrate my escape from the fields of Ypres, we are off to the beach at Chantli Mare (movie mogul migration). We need to introduce Lisa to this local gem.

remembering jack brock

It has been exactly one year.

On this day a year ago, Anne called me to tell me my friend Jack Brock had died on one of our highways while he was riding his bicycle (jack is dead).

We tend to react oddly when we hear such news. Mine was the common reaction. I could not believe it. Jack? The guy was too full of life to be dead.

But he was. Within three weeks, his friends put together a memorial get-together, and we all told the stories that made us appreciate Jack. Warts and all (putting jack to rest).

Last Monday, a group got together to once again remember him. I was unable to attend because of my travels. And that was too bad. There is barely a week that goes by that I do not run across one of Jack's outstanding photographs or one of his sardonic emails. Yesterday I opened a file to discover a Doonesbury cartoon he had sent me -- lampooning women.

Mexican highways are dotted with crosses and small shrines -- placed there by family and friends to remember someone killed near that spot. Our roads seem to require regular sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli. And there is one for Jack on the side of the bypass road where he died.

When people come into our lives, they change us. A part of them becomes a layer of who we are. In that way, Jack lives on.

But it is always appropriate to pause for a moment when we think of those who have had, as Anne Lamott would say, a major change in address.

That is what I am doing this morning. Thanks for the memories, Jack.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

he's called squawkamole*

Or, at least, that is what Christy calls him.

During the month I was away from the house, Mexpatriate gained an animal mascot. A yellow-winged cacique started showing up twice a day to squawk and dance on my solar water heater.

His arrivals are as regular as the performances at the Copcabana -- and every bit as showy. 7 in the morning and 7 at night. With an occasional 4 PM matinee thrown in for good measure.

He arrives alone and starts with a piercing call that sounds as if a grackle is being throttled. He then displays his wings in a mating posture and his top notch perks up. Then around and around he will dance to the sound of some unheard tune until he tires and bustles off to his day job.

There are as many theories as there are people at the house these days. Darrel thinks he sees his image in the chrome water tank and is courting himself.

That would be consistent with the now-politically-rejected strict Freudian diagnosis that homosexuality is an extreme form of narcissism -- falling in love with someone exactly like yourself. (A version of that theme, of course, was hilariously worked out in Being John Malcovich.)

Christy has opted for the warfare option. She theorizes Squawkamole sees his image in the tank and reacts violently by puffing himself up and threatening the intruder.

I think he is simply a born entertainer who likes to sing (which he does not do well) and dance (which he does do well). We have plenty of local entertainers who are no worse than this guy. And they all seem to be quite pleased with even their most discordant performances.

The truth is that none of us have enough knowledge to have an informed opinion. But, by golly, we are Americans and we are not going to let something as trivial as facts get in the way of us taking our conclusions to heart -- and to battle, if necessary.

Whatever the reason is for what the cacique is doing, it is nowhere near as important as his doing it. He has brought hours of amusement to our household.

As a rule, caciques are gregarious. If you spot one, others will be nearby. This guy seems to be as much a loner as MASH's Five O'Clock Charlie -- and just as punctual.

Yellow-winged caciques have a very narrow range. Along the Mexican Pacific lowlands from Sonora to Chiapas. Mexpatriate's headquarters is fortunate enough to be smack dab in the middle of the bird's territory. And, even though I have seen plenty of his colleagues over the past eight years, Squawkamole is the only cacique who has deigned to perform for us.

I should set out a tip jar for him.

* -- You have undoubtedly already figured out the name is a portmanteau of "squawk" and "guacamole." Christy gets extra points for its creation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

get out -- the mexican version

I miss Richard Lander.

He was the author of the late lamented Gangs of San Miguel de Allende -- a blog that sardonically skewed the social foibles of gringos (and primarily gringas) in one of Mexico's more popular cultural ghettos. Richard's wit was perfectly honed to cut through cant with a surgeon'e grace.

The last entry is now over two years old. Like the best of art, its limited scope inevitably led to its demise. You can only poke fun at the clothing choices of northern women so many times before it becomes cliché. And for someone like Richard, having his work reduced to cliché is simply to be old hat.

I thought of Richard while reading a review of what may be one of 2017's best films -- Get Out, Jordan Peele's directorial debut. The movie is one of the best horror suspense films I have seen.

The genre is my dirty little vice. I love horror films.

But I also know how predictable they have become. A good horror film is always based around a secret. The good ones reveal it layer by layer until, when it jumps off the screen, you are surprised -- even when you recognize that it was inevitable. Inevitable, but not predictable, is the formula for great horror.

This movie is entirely Peele's. Not only did he direct it, he also wrote and produced it. And he got all of the elements correct.

The story line is very simple. It opens with a young black man walking through a seemingly-peaceful white suburb. But he is nervous. For good cause. Within minutes, he is violently abducted.

The story then shifts to the relationship between Chris, a young talented photographer, and Rose, his girlfriend. She is taking him on the dreaded trip home to introduce him to her parents.

He is black. She is white. But, she informs him, her parents will have no problem with his race.

As it turns out, the rest of the film is all about race -- the tensions that exist when a black man is afloat in a sea of white liberalism. The weekend they arrive is the same weekend a group of the family's friends get together for a party.

As Chris is introduced, the tension level rises. Everyone is extremely polite, but polite in a way that seems overly unctuous. "If I could have, I would have voted for Obama a third time." "How long has this thang been going on?"

Chris dismisses it as people attempting to be polite, but, in the process, they all reduce him to being black. But there is something far more sinister than social awkwardness in the works.

Because the movie deals so openly with racial relations and is so tautly-written, it seems original. Of course, we have seen this setup before in Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, Scream, and countless other films. But the plot twists that Peele weaves are so imaginative, it feels that he has completely reinvented the conventions.

While watching the film, I thought of Richard Lander. A reviewer crafted a sentence that was veritably Landeresque: "As white partygoers comment on Chris's genetically-blessed gifts, the mind is racing as to exactly the greater purpose of this visit is for this young man, a minority in a sea of white people who seem to want to own him, which is itself a razor-sharp commentary on the way we often seek to possess cultural aspects other than our own."

"The way we often seek to possess cultural aspects other than our own." Anyone who has lived very long in Mexico has witnessed that behavior in northern visitors and expatriates. It takes many forms.

The women who don rebozos or the men who adopt a foppish wearing of a straw hat in the belief, similar to G-Man, they will be magically transformed into someone they are not. Or the lonely northerners who feel compelled to dance in religious processions when they do not share a gram of the religious sentiments on parade. (Of course, they may be far preferable to the people who insist on flying their own national flag in Mexico as if their Mexican homes are now part of their own national soil -- like an embassy. But that is for another essay.)

In Get Out, the partygoers are all Eastern wealthy, white liberals whose life focus at the party is to make Chris feel comfortable by patronizing him and using what they believe is black jargon to put him at ease. It does the opposite -- for Chris, and for the audience. And it makes the audience think: "How often have I done something similar?"

Get Out is one of those movies you need to see with a group of friends and acquaintances with mixed political views. And then spend some time talking about the real issues facing all people when race becomes a focus of life.

If the movie does nothing else, maybe it will get us talking to one another, rather than using a passel of code words to placate ourselves and others.

I bet Richard Lander would love it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

the joys of home ownership

"There are some problems at the house."

So said my sainted brother when he picked me up at the airport. His voice did not betray that anything major had happened -- such as Barco had come back to life. They were just -- "problems."

He then started his list:
  • The well pump keeps running and will not shut off.
  • A glass shelf in one of the guest bedrooms is broken.
  • The rope that lifts the cover to the pool's underground reservoir has snapped.
  • Netflix freezes.
  • The electricity in two of the rooms is not working.
Most of them happened just before I returned.

Any homeowner will immediately recognize the list. There must be a rule in The Creator's Big Book of Consequences that when one thing fails in a house, it will be joined by company to avoid any sense of not belonging.

And that is true with this lot. None of them are difficult to resolve. And, with the exception of one, I know exactly how to put them in working order.

The well pump was running because the toilet float in the pool's underground reservoir had corroded and snapped off -- again. This has happened three times since I bought the house, and readers have made several suggestions.

Lupe, the pool man, a disciple of Occam's Razor, had a far simpler and more elegant solution. The floats seem to last for just under a year. Instead of going into crisis mode when it fails, I could set up a schedule to replace it every six months -- when I change the well filters.

I was not surprised about the glass shelf. The original piece broke while Dora was cleaning it. (The screws holding it in place had not been adequately tightened.)

A local glass shop cut a new piece for us in December. When Darrel and I installed it, we discovered it was a bit too thick. With a bit of finagling, we managed to get it in place. Obviously, our work was not up to Mexican standards.

I will try to find a shop today that can cut an appropriate size of tempered glass. That may mean a trip to Manzanillo.

When the builder created a handle for the concrete cover for the pool reservoir, she used rope. That was not a good choice in this climate. It rotted and snapped when Darrel tried to lift the cover.

Lupe suggested replacing it with non-rusting wire with a segment of hose to create a handhold. Another elegant solution. I will be off to the hardware store to purchase both.

The Netflix problem was easy. This time.

About a year ago, I could not get Netflix to load any movies. It would get to 99% and hang up.

An internet search told me I was not alone. It is a common problem. But there were all sorts of solutions -- most of them involving some rather complicated steps involving addresses and default settings changes.

Rather than do that, I relied on the old technical support solution. I unplugged everything from the voltage protector, unplugged the protector from the wall, and waited a minute. Problem fixed. Just as it was this morning.

The last problem is a bit trickier. The power to the storage room and the pool bathroom (both lights and wall switches) is out.

Darrel, who is a former contractor, tried the obvious solution by throwing all of the circuit breakers. That did not work. When the electrician installed the two circuit breaker boxes, he labelled none of the breakers. So, we do not have a starting place to narrow down our search.

When I go to the hardware store to buy the wire and hose, I will also buy a circuit tester. I suspect one of the breakers may have failed. And, if we are going to spend all of that time testing circuits, we may as well figure out which circuit does what, and then label the boxes accordingly.

So, that is how I will be spending part of my homecoming week. Of course, had I been here when all of these things happened, I would be spending the same time. It is simply one of the periodic sacrifices we make as homeowners.

But, it is a constant reminder of why I decided to retire to Mexico rather than to live in the soft opulence of Salem. I wanted to wake up every morning and not have the slightest idea how I was going to get through the day.

Welcome to Mexico.

Monday, March 20, 2017

the yucatan: what we did, what we learned

Last January I told you that my cousin Dan and his wife Patty were auditioning places in Mexico as potential retirement sites (moving to mexico -- best place in the world to retire). He thought of writing a blog to chronicle their experiences. Instead, he took the option of writing comprehensive emails to his family and friends to describe the experience of being an expatriate in Mexico.

I said I was going to publish one or two as a guest column on Mexpatriate. For various reasons, I did not get around to doing that -- until today.

Dan and Patty are now once again on the road. But his most recent essay tells us what they learned about living on the other coast of Mexico.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ 

Tomorrow we pack up and start our drive back to the States. That drive, from Chuburna Puerto to Lake Placid, Florida will cover approximately 3300 miles. Although this is almost identical mileage as the drive down, we are taking a very different route north within Mexico. We have added some interesting stops along the way and time willing, I will write about the drive. For starters we are heading east to Valladolid and will go south towards Belize before driving the southern Yucatan westward and towards the interior of this large country.

Until two days ago, we had been planning on going to Cozumel for a week before starting our return trip north. We had our eyes on a couple of houses we thought we should look at, as well as others a realtor would show us, and perhaps establish a home base on the island we like and know so well from the seven years of experience living there on a part-time basis. The ocean water there is outstanding and away from the cruise ship businesses the island is rather quiet and lives an old Mexico style.

I must say it was not an easy decision to withdraw our interest to buy there until we realized that it was only four months ago that we sold our Florida house of 16 years. Way too soon to drop anchor even if it would be “home” only part of the year. The rental market in Mexico is far too favorable to overlook along with the fact you can come and go at will. This Fall we plan on returning to Mexico but not certain where, as yet. The leading locations in order of current choice are Cozumel, Merida, and Mazatlan.

Visited the lovely city of Merida at least a dozen times, staying there over night twice and celebrating New Year’s there.

Visited the western Gulf coast towns of Sisal and Celestun enjoying their white sandy beaches and took a flamingo tour in Celestun where we also spent a night.

Toured a henequen plantation (Sotuta de Peon).

Swam in 16 cenotes.

Drove the entire north road of the Yucatan from Chuburna Puerto to El Cuyo.

Spent a night in the village of Las Coloradas famed for its beaches, salt manufacturing, and flamingos.

Visited beautiful Valladolid spending four nights there as we visited friends and took in some of the numerous attractions that city has to offer.

Visited the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, Ek Balem, and Izamna where we stayed a night.

Walked the long sandy beaches of Progreso and swam in the warm ocean there as well as several times behind our beach rental.

Saw the Mardis Gras parade in Progreso.

Drove nearly every road in the northern Yucatan where we stopped and enjoyed Mayan villages.

Swam in the four Ojos de Agua (eye of the water) east of Progreso.

Visited a dentist, doctors, a physical therapist, and purchased new eyewear.

Visited traditional clothing factories.

Drove 4,300 miles within the State of Yucatan .

We will never again live directly on the beach: way too much sand and wind.
Everyone we met in the Yucatan was friendly and polite.

Our neighborhood had few full time locals: most full-timers were from Canada and a few from the States.

The very best food we found in Mexico was here in the Yucatan.

Merida is even more special than we realized.

Yucatan roads are mostly in good condition.

Outside of Merida, there are few cities of 10,000 or more inhabitants.

Folks from Canada and the States that choose to retire or semi retire here have a difficult time integrating with Mayans since their language, customs, and life style are so different. On the other hand, they do involve themselves with many programs aimed at assisting the young, the old, and the impoverished, as well as dog and cat adoptions and care.

There is a large population of wading birds here including frigates, pelicans, egrets, herons, sea gulls, etc., as well as a healthy population of hummingbirds as Patty’s 3 bird feeders found.

You can find a meal on nearly any corner.

You can’t find a basic auto replacement part anywhere in the state nor anyone who knows where to find it.

Many locals do not know how to say “no” and will only let you know they can’t do something after they have proven so.

No arguing, fighting, bad looks.

No road rage. They don’t even know what that is.

Don’t know what the stick on the left side of steering column is for.

Motos (motorcycles) do not have lights that come on automatically, so it is common to see a moto in in a shaded oncoming lane at sunset with no lights.

Not uncommon to see a family of four on a moto, day or night.

None of the three largest grocery stores in Progreso have everything you need.

Shopping is possible from your front door with the bread man, ice cream vendor, fish vendor, etc. passing by. It is convenient and fun.

Although we thought we would do everything interesting in the Yucatan we realize we have just started to unwrap a huge package. A few expats have commented that we don’t sit still. That is not true of course, we very much enjoy days of doing nothing planned, nothing expected.

On the other hand, we do enjoy travel just as much. A young Jimmy Buffet summed up the reasons some of us want to experience a life different from the norm in a tune called “The stories we could tell.”

That’s why you do it. Here’s to the stories … And here’s to the mystical Yucatan.

Friday, March 17, 2017

flying into yesterday

Today is the day that will not end.

I woke up at 3:30 AM in Sydney. Nancy and I then spent 9 hours on a flight to Hong Kong. (Roy is flying tomorrow.) Then it was almost 12 hours to Los Angeles and another three hours to Portland.

Add in the waiting time of about 11 hours, and you end up with a long day. And it is still not over. It is still Friday.

You may suspect I have lost my rudimentary arithmetic skills. And there is plenty of daily proof to substantiate that charge. But not today. I managed to eke 33 hours out of the day.

Of course, you are well ahead of me. Because I flew west over the international dateline, when it was 3:30 AM on Friday in Sydney, it was 9:30 AM Thursday in Portland. Somewhere in the Pacific, I flew into yesterday.

They say that traveling is broadening. But they also say falling in love is wonderful, and we all know the flaws in that logic. Whoever "they" are, they do not always get things right.

I do not subscribe to the Rotarian belief that "all people the world over are just the same" or "we all want the same things." We aren't. And we don't.

If that were true, I would have wasted a lot of money over the years traveling to meet people different from me in places that are quite obviously not the same as the place I left. Otherwise, I would not live in Mexico -- and I would not have traveled from Mexico to Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

If I had not left my house, I would never have eaten the exotic meals I had on my return flight from Hong Kong. For dinner: pork, lotus root, and octopus soup; braised beef shin and marinated jellyfish; braised pork ribs in abalone sauce, pak choy, and steamed jasmine rice -- and, of course, more caviar. Or for breakfast: minced pork and spinach congee, and pan-fried turnip cake with preserved meat.

I had never tried any of them before today, and they were quite good. None of that is served on taco row. And, if you turned up your nose at any of them without actually trying them, well, then, maybe people the world over really are not the same.

But common sense tells me people are different. And so are places.

For instance, I like Sydney, but I was not overly impressed with the place. Melbourne struck me as a far more liveavble city.

Nancy and Roy were convinced the rain took away from their initial impression of the city. That may have been true. When the sun briefly broke through, the harbors certainly could show their colors.

And, even in the rain at sunset, the Anzac bridge created its own eye of Sauron impression. And, yes, I know I am mixing my national similes.

The Australians have a rather annoying habit of abbreviating nouns by adding an "ee" sound at the end -- very similar to the same Mexican use of "ito" to juvenilize everything. In Australia, breakfast turns into "brekkie," sunglasses into "sunnies," and, of course, the ever popular barbecue into "barbie."

That verbal affectation bubbles up from a very genuine sense of humor. Most Australians seem to enjoy life in a way Americans have forgotten. Where else but Australia could you encounter a sign like this?

The sign was at the entrance to Sydney Wildlife -- one of those tourist-orented zoos tucked in with Madame Tussaud's and the aquarium. I have learned not to expect too much from these attractions. But I had come all the way to Australia, and I had yet to see any major fauna.

Well, I did. And some minor fauna, as well.

I live in an area of Mexico where butterflies are abundant all through the year. But they never cease to fascinate me. Especially, when they are presented in their own butterfly house habitat.

Even the frogs were a bit different. The green tree frog is greener than any other Kermit I have seen.

This frilled-neck lizard looked as if it ciould have been the third cousin to the dilophosaurus. At least, the ones depicted in Jurrasic Park -- if not in reality.

And no visit to a zoo would be complete without snakes. Australia has plenty of them, including this beauty, a diamond python. Unlike most dappled pythons, this one has bright yellow spots to replkicated sunshine diffused through jungle leaves. She is quite beautiful.

Kaitlyn, my neice, is a snake collector. I suspect she would consider this job to be practically perfect in every way. The snake the guide is holding is another diamond python, but not quite as pretty as the other.

But, we all know why tourists flock to exhibits like this. It is not for the lizards, spiders , and snakes. People want to see kangaroos.

And kangaroos there were. I personally found this yellow-footed rock wallaby interesting. Probably because it was small. But the markings gave it a rather distinguished look. Well, maybe other than that raccoon tail.

Even more than kangaroos, though, people come to Australian zoos to see one animal. The koala.

Wildlife Sydney makes quite a bit of its revenue from the Koalas. People pay a sizable sum to enter an enclosure and have their photographs taken with the koalas -- who are far more interested in snacking on the eucalyptus leaves than thjey are about interacting with humans.

But my favorite was not the koalas. Nor the kangaroos. Not even the pythons.

It was the saltwater crocodile. The one on display is the size of van. And, even though the signs try to debunk the man-eater myth ("more humans are killed by hoirses each year"), the crocodile's enclosure is specifically designed to show off his size and his power.

Guests are invited to enter a plexiglass bubble where the crocodile rests. For the lucky ones, and we were lucky, you can go eye-to-eye with a creature that could easily crush a human skull in a fraction of a second. It was an adrenalin rush to do it.

I will try to put together another summary or two of photographs I could not share earlier due to technological or editorial limitations.

But for the next two days, I am going to be enjoying myself in the wilds of Portland, Oregon before returning to Barra de Navidad.

I suspect Portland may even have a few tales to relate. Or I may just keep them to myself. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

riding the manly ferry

"Australians love the beach. It is our favorite recreation -- taking the family to the beach."

That was the announcer on our ferry ride to Manly Beach this morning. And that is exactly what Roy, Nancy, and I did today. We went to the beach. We are not Australian; nor were there many of them going to the beach.

For good reason. It was a blustery day. And had been for two weeks. The
 only question was how much rain was going to fall. A drizzle or a monsoon cloudburst. The answer was -- "both."

Yesterday we planned a beach trip to Bondi beach -- one of Sydney's fabled beaches. But we did not get off of the bus. There were a few brave souls on the beach, but the water was far too rough even for the surfers.

Our trip to Manly was just as nonproductive. Instead of tanning hard bodies, we were surrounded by what looked like a bunch of sulky Eskimos. Everyone was bundled and umbrellaed.

Even though the beach was closed, a handful of hearty surfers braved the water. They seemed to be enjoying the challenge.

I have always chuckled when I have heard the name "Manly Beach." The subtext was rife with possible tales. I suspected the name must be from some knighted early explorer. Sir Winthrop Charles Wedgewood Manly. Or something like that.

It turns out the name is far simpler than that -- as are many Australian names. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales (in the late 1780s), was impressed with the warriors of the aboriginal Kay-ye-my clan. He thought they looked "manly." And the name stuck for the area.

That is not the only thing that stuck. Due to a misunderstanding, one of the Kay-ye-my warriors thrust a spear into Phillip's shoulder. Being a progressive, he ordered no retaliation. He was smart enough to know that a struggling colony could not afford to start a war with a warrior nation. Not if the colony wanted to exist.

Phillips survived the spear attack and lived to die in Bath in 1814. His adjective for the local 
Kay-ye-my men lives on to this day.

Being drenched by rain on the beach is not new to me. Remember, I am originally from Oregon. And then there were those visits to Blackpool and the Devil's Causeway. So, this rain was not off-putting.

It was to Roy and Nancy. They wanted to show me a beach that would convince me Sydney would be a great place to live.

Manly is pleasant enough, and I can imagine how attractive it is when the sun actually cooperates. But it looks like most little beach towns that have to tear money from the pockets of tourists to survive. I live in one of them in Mexico.

The rain merely adds a rather sad patina to the shopping lane that leads from the ferry terminal to the inevitable beach where a walkway gave way to the grit of the beach that gave to the agitated waves dashing up on the closed beach. Even the gulls appeared to be depressed.

As I write this, I am looking out over Darling Harbor. The skies are the shade of gray that tickles designers. The rain has stopped.

But I am packing away the memories of this trip in my luggage. Nancy and I fly to Hong Kong and on to Los Angeles early tomorrow morning. Roy follows on Saturday.

It has taken me almost seven decades to get to Australia and New Zealand. I hope to return before another seven years pass. It has been worth every penny I spent.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

plates of spaghetti

Visiting Sydney without spending a night at the opera would be as unforgivable as passing up Verdi at La Scala while in Milan.

Well, almost. Italy is one of opera's natural homes. Not so much Australia.

Several years ago, I was seated next to the younger daughter of an earl at a London dinner party. She leaned over, with a conspiratorial glint in her eye, and asked: "Mr. Cotton, do you know why God invented Australians?" When I confessed my ignorance on the topic, she replied: "So Americans would have someone to look down on."

The tale, of course, says little about Americans or Australians, and quite a bit about a certain class of Brits.

But that may be why Australia is far better known for Crocodile Dundee than Dame Nellie Melba (she of the peach Melba and Melba toast fame), David Hobson, or Harold Blair.

Even though we are in Sydney for only three days, luckily the summer opera season is in full swing. And it was enough to part company with $306 (AUD) to sit dead center in the dress circle and spend two and a half hours with Giacomo Puccini, Rodolfo, Mimi, and Musetta. Of course, in La Boheme.

It also gave me an opportunity to see the interior of the opera house. Even though guided tours are provided, the best way to see any opera house is as a member of the audience.

The interior of Sydney's opera house is consistent with its modern shell. It has plenty of wood and plastic -- just as any respectable example of modern architecture would have. Sleek and clean.

But I was at the opera house to hear opera. Not as an architecture critic.

I am going to assume you already know the story of La Boheme. The piece has been around for well over a hundred years and has seen several incarnations. Rent, for example.

Let's be clear. Like a lot of opera, La Boheme is pure melodrama. True love on first sight. Mistaken intentions in relationships. And a tragic death from one of those diseases that lets divas continue to look pretty while singing high E.

There was an ironic moment in the opera tonight. In the first act, Rodolfo burns a copy of his play to stay warm. The stove produced theatrical smoke. Whatever the production used to evoke smoke caused several of the audience members to do their Mimi consumption impressions for three straight acts. I broke out in a coughing fit right in the middle of O soave fanciulla -- a bad omen of what was to come.

But the music is beautiful. I think it was H.L. Mencken that called Puccini's music "silver spaghetti." Whoever it was, he grabbed a perfect simile. The music is lush, and captures the tail end of the Romantic period just enough to give the tear ducts a good work out.

This production was refreshing. Well, the production and the audience. Opera was originally the music of the people. When the audience members heard something they enjoyed, they whooped for the singer or the orchestra. That was before the wealthy attempted to claim opera as their private domain.

The Sydney Opera House attracts all kinds of people to its performances. A lot of tourists. And a lot of people who arrive in the clothes they would normally wear on a Wednesday night. I found it refreshing that the people were taking back their music.

But not completely. Somewhere along the line, opera audiences became conformists on when to applaud, instead of expressing individual appreciation. Some of that comes from being chided by very stodgy rule imposers who berate people for being ignorant because they clap after a well-executed movement in a concerto.

There were many moments tonight when a smattering of applause would have been appreciated by the performers. But no one wants to be found out as not belonging in the concert hall.

Sydney is beginning to grow on me. If I have an opportunity over the next eek, I will share some Australian animal photographs with you.

But, for tonight, it is a time to appreciate the fact that Puccini left a healthy helping of silver spaghetti on my plate. And I licked it clean.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

sydney as london

I can hear the eyeballs rolling now.

Roy and Nancy have spent almost a month telling me I would fall in love with Sydney, just as they did on their first visit. It has not quite turned out that way. But I should explain.

We arrived in Sydney this morning -- following our 17-day cruise on the Radiance of the Seas. It would be more accurate to say we returned to Sydney because Sydney is where our stay in Australia began. Almost three weeks ago. But we then never ventured more than two blocks away from the airport before flying to Perth. That does not really count.

This morning, we sailed into Sydney in the dark -- with the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the opera house peeking through the gloom. It was gloom because the day was rainy and blustery. And it remained that way until evening.

That did not stop us. We dropped off our luggage in the apartment we will call home for three days and hopped on a hop-on hop-off bus. Because Sydney's traffic is so congested, it was more like a hop-on stay-parked bus.

Even that was not enough to interfere with us seeing some of Sydney's more interesting sights. We braved the rain to get off of the bus to take a closer look at the opera house.

I had my own agenda for the stop. I wanted to reconnoiter the complex because I will be coming back tomorrow night for a performance. But I will leave the details for tomorrow's piece.

Travelers often try to make more sense of new experiences by comparing them to things they know. "That Mona Lisa certainly looks like your Great Aunt Elsie, doesn't she?" That sort of thing.

I am not fond of experiencing life through the gauze of metaphor. But I do it myself. A lot.

Roy and Nancy loved Sydney on its own terms. It reminded me of London. A city I like, but it is certainly not a place I would extol for its beauty.

Sydney has some stunning architecture and engineering. The opera house and the harbor bridge are the most obvious examples. But Sydney wears its modernity with a heavy nod to the past. For every mammoth waterside construction site, there are reminders of Sydney's past. Just like London.

The rain, of course, helped the comparison. I have stacks of underexposed London photographs. Because of today's rain, I have similar underexposed Sydney photographs. For instance, of a British monarch adding his own bit of humor to the wet day.

Nancy was quick to defend Sydney's beauty. "But it looks marvelous in the sunlight." The problem with that argument is that a truly beautiful city looks splendid in both sun and rain. Venice, for instance.

I tried looking past the rain and the overcrowded streets to find some of the city's soul. And, I think I found an example. A well-dressed young woman swishing along with her matching umbrella.

I see the potential for a short story in that shot.

Let me point out, this is my first day here. I very well may fall in love with the place.

But being compared to London is no bad thing. After all, there is opera to be appreciated. Whether or not it rains.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

on the road with duolingo

She was an attractive latina. About my age. Maybe a bit younger.

We were seated across from one another at yesterday's thank you lunch for frequent cruisers. She was speaking English to a woman at the other end of the table. I thought I heard her say: "Brazil."

When we were called to the buffet line, she was behind me. I started in English -- a language in which she very uncomfortable. So, I told her, I knew a bit of Spanish and very little Portuguese.

What ensued was a linguistic version of Mr. Toad's wild ride. She indeed was from Brazil. As was her thirtysomething son -- an international attorney from the state of Espirito Santo, who spoke no English, very little Spanish, and found my Spanish to be baffling. But the three of us talked and talked.

Both of them stuck to me through the line. It reminded me of just how desperate we can become when deprived of our native tongue. We humans are a communicative bunch.

When I moved to Mexico, I wasted a lot of time avoiding Spanish. There are a lot of reasons for that. But all of them are silly.

I knew that speaking Spanish would make living in Mexico simpler -- and far more enriching. It is possible to live there without knowing the daily language, as long as you are satisfied to sequester yourself with other English speakers as if you were spending gin and tonic afternoons at the officers' club in the Raj.

But it was not until I bought the house in Barra de Navidad that I sat aside time each day to tackle the language. It has been difficult. But I can see and hear the progress I have made in my daily contacts with Dora (the woman who helps clean my house), Antonio (the pool guy), and my neighbors. Barco, of course, was a great conversation tool with my neighbors. We still talk about him.

My routine at home is to open Duolingo on my telephone before I get out of bed. I usually spend about a half hour on five lessons.

To run the application, I require either a cellular or internet connection. I knew that once I left Mexico, I would be without cellular coverage. The ship's internet connection has been my linguistic lifeline. Another good reason to shell out the dollars I did for internet service.

After I complete my daily Duolingo lessons, later in the day, I willo spend time on my workbooks -- trying to learn some new arcane twist in Spanish.

But the most effective learning tool is trying the patience of waiters, neighbors, and shopkeepers with my new-found knowledge. Bit by bit, my ability has grown -- as my experience with the Brazilian couple shows. At least, I have more confidence.

When I started cruising, Spanish was a quite common language amongst the staff. No more. The most common languages are Indonesian and Tagalog. Filipinos, who once spoke Spanish as their second language, now speak English, instead.

So, my opportunities to learn more Spanish by speaking it are rare. Annga, my cabin steward from Indonesia, has been trying to learn a few Spanish phrases to humor me. But it is hardly the same.

Not all is lost. Cristina, the young woman at guest relations who helped remedy my initial internet problems, is from Mexico. A good portion of our transactions have been in Spanish -- as have my discussions with two latinas on the tour excision desk: one from Colombia, the other from Ecuador. And, on the way to my cabin to publish this piece, I ran into a latina from Mexico City.

Because I have not had much opportunity to speak Spanish, I have been pinging away on Duolingo. At least, it keeps my ear attuned to the language -- and it does help expand my vocabulary.

I look forward to returning to Mexico and putting my new knowledge to use by inquiring about the health of Julio's sick bear who eats penguins.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

two sea days to sydney

Few experiences in life are as delightful as my mornings in Mexico.

But sea days on a cruise ship are a close second.

Most cruisers like port days. Cruise ships have a great advantage. You unpack once and your hotel moves from city to city -- the next more exotic than the first.

Obviously, I like that aspect of cruising. I have been extolling it for the past two weeks.

But there is something a bit too frenetic about port days for me. The long lines getting on and off the ship that expose the fault lines in human nature. The time lost just getting to tour destinations just too far from the port where the ship is docked. And the limited stay in each port that is a constant prod to see more with less retention.

Given my choice, I would choose a cruise where port days are an afterthought. That is the primary reason I like repositioning cruises, such as the Copenhagen to Miami cruise I will be on in October.

Today is one of those blessed sea days. As will be tomorrow.

As I write this, I am sitting in the Diamond lounge, an area, reserved for frequent cruisers, perched high above the ship. And it is a day to remain perched.

The seas are a bit rough today. But far from the worst I have seen. We all look like Betty Ford graduates gone bad. The all-too-familiar sickness bags posted throughout the ship underline our weaknesses.

I have never suffered from sea sickness. But my fellow travelers who have a touch of motion sickness are well-advised to reacquaint themselves with better living through chemistry.

Usually, sea days are my days to sit quietly and read. That is when I travel alone. But I am not traveling alone on this cruise.

And, as luck would have it, the activities that one or two of us find enticing are all crammed together.

  • 10:00 am The Backstage Event: Meet your Entertainment Team
  • 10:15 am Progressive Quiz #7
  • 11:15 am Theater Tour
  • 12:00 pm Galley Lunch Buffet
Of course, I would have done the theater events on my own, but not the trivia -- that I am finding rather tedious on this cruise. And the "thank you" buffet was so boring it would have been better to have avoided.

If you haven't figured this out already, I am very fond of live entertainment -- and live entertainers. I learn something new about ship-board stage productions at each of these events. Today it was a very comprehensive description of the complications surrounding injury and illnesses amongst cast members.

So, it is a day of education, a tad of reading, and a lot of auditions for my stint with the Wallendas.

One more day at sea before Sydney. 

hiking with queen charlotte

"You would love New Zealand; it is just like Oregon."

So have said several of my Oregonian friends upon returning from this part of the world. The sentiment confused me. Why would I want to travel to the other side of the world to experience Oregon?

Well, after this trip, I can agree with them. Partly. New Zealand is like Oregon -- but on steroids.

My former home state is well known for its outdoor lifestyle. Mountains. Rivers. Seashore. Plenty of space to hike or bike -- sometimes, simultaneously. And, as far as population and size are concerned, New Zealand is slightly larger than Oregon in both categories.

Oregon was once dependent on a natural resource extractive economy. New Zealand still is. When we moored at Picton, the dock with its native timber destined for India, China, and Malaya looked as familiar as the Douglas fir that once lined the docks in Coos Bay on its way to Japan.

But I was not in Picton to lead a seminar in comparative geography. I had come to hike.

This morning we were back in one of the south island's sounds -- a complex known as Marlborough Sounds. Unlike the sounds further souith, these are not glacial. They are the result of earthquakes lowering and lifting mountains from under the sea -- with subsequent rising sea levels. Comparisons to the San Juans in Puget Sound are inevitable.

The view was not the only familiar sight. So, was the weather. We have managed to avoid rain on this trip. But this morning was a perfect Steve Cotton day. Drizzle. Gray skies. 55 degrees. Ok, it was a balmy 58, but I was satisfied with short sleeve hiking weather.

Picton is a prime holiday destination for people from around the world. Some come to relax and to enjoy the scenery. Others come to hike their hearts out on the numerous tracks on the southern island.

We did both. To get to our trail head, we boarded one of the harbor tour boats to orient ourselves to the various bays.

Early European settlers cut back the bush to farm or raise sheep without realizing that the clay soil underneath is only a thin cover over sheets of rock. When the rains came, the soil sloughed off into the sound, and the farms failed.

Most were abandoned. In the ensuing 75 years, a young bush has reclaimed the hills. In 200 to 300 years, it will return to its natural state.

Our tour was entitled "A Taste of the Queen Charlotte Track." A tantalizing name filled with possibilities. The full Queen Charlotte Track is a four-day hike along the ridge of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Because we were in port for only five hours, the full track was not a possibility. Instead, we took a Whitman's sampler of what that hike must be.

Our hike was along Mistletoe peninsula, a small finger jutting out into the sound. Instead of four days, we ventured forth, many of us appropriately dressed as hobbits, for just over an hour covering a loop that took us along the waterfront, up across the ridge of the peninsula, and back to the harbor cruise boat.

The New Zealand bush is not quite what the name would imply. Most of us would call it a rain forest filled with silver and mamaku ferns (gigantic tree ferns), beech, flax, kauri, and manuka. Plus a lot of other plants whose names I cannot now recall.

The flora and the views were nice add-ons, but I was there for the walk. It was an easy gain of altitude. But the rain made the clay a welcome challenge to overcome.

Unfortunately, not everyone on the hike was physically prepared for the stroll nature of our walk. That is inevitable with a cruise where the average age drifts well past Medicare eligibility. As a result, we did a lot of waiting.

What it did for me is to whet my appetite for a return trip. Roy and I talked about some of the things we would like to do on when we come back.

Me? I would really like to try the four-day Queen Charlotte Track.

While I still can.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

wellington -- with several waterloos

If I am nothing else, I am consistent.

Today we visited Wellington, New Zealand's capital -- named for the war hero and politician, Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington. The name appears to be apt. The city has suffered one natural catastrophe after another -- and has survived.

The cause of catastophe, of course, is earthquakes. The European settlement that was supposed to be the capital of the English colony sat across the bay from the current city. An earthquake in the 1840s lifted the city several meters in the air causing its harbor to recede two kilometers.

The settlers moved the town to the current site with one odd result. They used the same street plan as the old site that was flat. The new site had hills that caused streets to stop at the bottom of cliffs and resume at the top of hills.

Even the new site, now called Wellington, suffered earthquakes that pushed the land higher. Uplift earthquakes are quite common in New Zealand. As if the earh was involved in its own urban renewal program.

This was the ship's first stop on the north island. As part of my plan to get as much exercise on land as I can, I decided to take a bike tour around Wellington's waterfront. The photograph at the top of this essay was taken at the furthest point south on our ride.

In the 1850s, the land to the left was an island. The land to the right is the mainland. During one of the earthquakes that lifted Wellington's harbor, the land immediately in the middle of the photograph lifted up from the sea to create an isthmus between the mainland and what was now a peninsula. Wellington's airport sits atop the isthmus.

The airport is noted for being one of the most dangerous in the world. Wellington is the world's second most windy city. Those winds usually arrive  at the airport in the form of wind shears and tricky crosswinds.

If you notice the surface of the water, there was almost no wind today. Our guide said he had never seen the bay this calm. Usually, the wind pushes the backs of his bike tourists on the trip out of the city. They then discover cycling against the wind back to Wellington is not easy.

At the airport end of the ride are three kinetic wind sculptures, including this pointer wittily entitled Zephyometer. It bends in the wind and is often vertical.

Not today. It did not budge in the gentle breeze. Once again, this trip has been blessed by avoiding usual local weather problems.

The bike trip was not very strenuous. Our guide took us along the urban waterfront, where we dodged pedestrians.

The waterfront consists of what most towns try to do with their old harbor areas. Lots of overpriced restaurants intermingled with curio shops, street performers, runners, and actual water sport participants.

We pedaled through the government center with its mixture of Edwardian and modern buildings. That beehive-shaped building is the government office building. Not even a small government advocate would be so brazen as to create such an obvious metaphor.

And then there is the post-modern New Zealand Te Papa Musuem. It sits on 150 shock absorbers. While the rest of the city falls down, the museum will survive to do -- who knows what? I don't even know what it does now because we rode on by.

One of the toniest beach side suburbs (where apartments sell for $3,000,000) is lined with some very impressive Norfolk pines. I don't think I have ever seen their cones. They start forming around Christmas and provide a seasonally appropriate red flower to go with the green foliage.

The city council, apparently, wants to chop them down because they are not native. The fact that these beauties took almost a hundred years to attain their current height does not seem to alleviate the anti-alien attitude.

Overall, it was a great day. I saw a bit of the city and got some exercise.

On the walk back to the ship, I ran across what was a rather jarring sight.

Kiwis enjoy hunting. A lot. Many home dining tables serve venison or game on a regular basis. But I also learned there are quite severe restrictions on gun ownership.

Mexpatriate is not the place to start a second amendment argument. For the record, I believe the Supreme Court's current interpretation is correct. But that photograph clearly shows that gun restrictions do not chill the enthusiasm of a gun culture.

Speaking of enthusiasm, I had one of the best meals I have had on this cruise in the Japanese specialty restaurant on board: Izumi.

Miso soup and two plates of sushi. Shrimp and vegetables -- and shrimp and eel. It was the best sushi I have had since Roy and I had lunch at the Tokyo Fish Market two years ago.

And my bottom line on Wellington? It was a pleasant place to visit under the best of circumstances. But nothing is really drawing me back. If I return to the South island (and I probably will), Wellington may make a good point for starting the trip.

Now we are on our way to Picton -- our last stop in New Zealand.