July 15, 2012--My breathing problems force us to move to a much lower altitude and Medicare; our decision to return to Phoenix after ten years in San Miguel; our moving sale will be this weekend, July 21-2, 10 am to 2 pm, at our casa in Col. San Rafael; our experiences finding a house and dealing with US workers; preparing for the worst at the border with a new car and no title or permanent license plates, and getting the best
I posted on the forums that we are going to have to move back to the US at a mile lower altitude because of the breathing problems I've been blogging about for many months. I'll put that info into this blog and also write about some of the incidents we experienced while in Phoenix house-hunting, for those of you have expressed some interest in what it is like to move back to the US.
We are having a big moving sale this weekend, July 21-22, 10 am to 2 pm, in Col. San Rafael, so please look out for another blog in a day or two with all the info about what is for sale, prices, and directions to our house.
Among the items are some great buys from Costco: a Freemotion professional quality treadmill, two dark brown leather recliners, and a large chest freezer. We'll have a satellite dish and receiver, med-large dog crate, chest of drawers, big and little tables, an office chair, canning jars, tall custom-made wooden pantry, file cabinets, two sets of flatware for eight and beautiful glasses and other kitchen items, some of my framed and unframed watercolors, and much more. Stay tuned!
First, for those of you who didn't catch the news on my forums or other lists, I have been having severe breathing problems at San Miguel's 6,400-ft altitude. Next step was to go on an oxygen concentrator machine that ties me to one room and use portable oxygen canisters to go out. At a mile less altitude, my breathing is almost normal. Go figure.
My pulse oximeter (measuring the percent of oxygen concentration in the blood reaching the brain and all the bodily organs) averages 88-91% in SMA and other high-altitude places. Doctors start talking about putting someone on oxygen at 92%, and at 88% Medicare and insurance companies will even pay for it.
My oxygenation is almost normal, 95-97%, in Phoenix, the city Norma and I last lived in, ten years ago. It's a familiar town with great medical facilities, the hot dry climate Norma's health needs, and Noma's daughter lives nearby. We leave SMA Aug. 1. (We're using Mario Ortiz, Golden Bear Moving, email@example.com, highly recommended.) We found a great three bedroom house in a nice community for a third of what it cost before the housing bubble burst. We've been back in Phoenix painting over all the beige walls to oranges, yellows and reds. (A Mexican delivery man walked in and said, "Hey, this is a happy house! It looks like Mexico!")
I'm still not sure what I am going to do about this website. I hate to just shut it down, but I can't exactly start changing the subject matter to falling in love with Phoenix. It's far too personal for someone else to just insert their blog here and pick up on the six-year readership I've built with all of you.
You can always email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll keep up on what's happening in Mexico and San Miguel de Allende, including regulations changes.
We may start a new website, www.carolschmidtandnormahair.com and include what can transfer from this website plus add promotions for our upcoming books and a new blog. We'll see. I still plan to do the second edition of The Best How-To Book on Moving to Mexico if the new visa regulations ever come out, and what was to be Ten Years in Love with San Miguel needs a new title. The material is all there, 440,000 words of blogging since my last book. The focus will have to be a wee bit different.
And then there's the memoir I've been procrastinating writing for decades, on a white girl growing up in Detroit as it resegregated in the '50s and '60s, and my work for CORE in the South and as the first white reporter on an African-American newspaper and then on a suburban daily, and what I learned and how I changed, and then comparing that experience to my decade in Mexico. Maybe no one will want to read it but I have to write it.
Norma and I still plan to do our memoir, Dog and Pony Show, about all the tales we tell at parties of our 33 years together. And we want to do some short travel books on Kindle, the 99-cent kind, of our personal travels. Plenty to do, not many years left.
I will desperately miss our friends in San Miguel. We know eight people from ten years ago when we last lived in Phoenix, but there is something very special about the free-spirited, open-minded, creative and adventurous people who move to San Miguel.
Obviously the decision to move has been heart-wrenching and I never wanted to write this post and postponed it as long as possible. This is the moment, I can't delay it any longer. I feel like it's a divorce, or a death in the family.
So let me tell you a little about what we went through when we were in Phoenix June 18-July 8, day by day:
We bought the 1,300 sq ft house on a 5,000 sq ft lot with a big walled back yard for the pets using a short sale--the 12-year-old house earlier sold for $218,000 and we got it for $85,000! A comparable house in a very safe neighborhood would still be at least $200,000 in San Miguel today. The housing mess hit Phoenix, Las Vegas and Florida particularly bad.
But short sales can take six months to a year while the bank decides among 20 or more bids and they are not easy to negotiate. We lucked out in finding one that had fallen out at the last moment and was about to go back into the system when we snatched it. It had been a rental and the carpets were so filthy they were hazardous, and there were many cosmetic repairs to be made.
We could do nothing until the short sale was finally complete and we had keys in hand. We paced and sat on our hands and did window shopping and got estimates for new flooring, blinds, paint, plants, new toilets, etc. Even after we signed papers we didn't get the keys for a few more days. All seemed too tenuous.
It was 106-113 during our stay but it never felt bad--everything is air conditioned, and we had to change from our usual 2 am sleeping to 10 am wakeup--workers start anything physical and outdoors at 6 am to finish before the worst heat of the day. To save on electricity, everyone goes to bed earlier so as not to be using lights and electronics late into the night. Our friends pay about $125-$150 a month electricity on a year-round schedule, to compensate for high summer A/C costs. Our total monthly bundled charge for mortgage, property tax, home insurance and HOA fee is only $660 a month.
Everybody wears Bermuda shorts, except for young women who wear extremely short shorts. So we broke down and bought four pair at Dillard's. They're actually mid-knee so don't shudder at the image. The heat actually feels good for about a minute when you come out of an air-conditioned store or movie and head for your car.
We found a Honda Fit we love, so much more spacious and flexible inside--the back seats can either lie flat or fold up to reveal spacious lower sections for taller stuff. Very comfy. It gets up to 43 mpg on the highway, 35 in the city. Norma negotiated like mad and, with the stuff needed for Phoenix living like upgraded paint to withstand dust storms, she got the final absolute total down to a point where they seemed to be squirming at our final bottom line. But who knows with car dealerships? After hearing our story and seeing our photos, the salesman is ready to retire to SMA immediately. The AZ government may be anti-Mexico but we're finding everyone we talk to is intrigued, not hostile.
I noticed a lot of older men sitting alone in places like McDonald's as we do Internet (the place where we are staying keeps cutting in and out) seem really interested in each of us as we walk to the bathroom or something. I was feeling that AZ must be a pickup haven but Norma said to look at the women's smiles, too--we're fresh meat in their hangout, they're single older people who are lonely. And as I looked I think she's right. And then the car sales guy said that we both seemed like such happy, interesting people that we'd made his day. That made OUR day. Comments coming in to our announcement to our extended circle of friends are saying the same thing, we're such alive, curious people that we stand out. Very nice to hear such compliments.
Meanwhile we're sitting here feeling not at all interesting or alive, we're depressed to not be getting the keys to our house immediately so we can start getting the AC cleaned, the flooring ordered, drywall holes fixed, painting started, recliner sofa ordered, etc. The house is smaller than our present casa and the living room could not hold our big sofa and side chairs and the two big recliners. We're getting a small sofa with both side seats recliners and selling the big pieces in SMA.
The car is the color of a blue raspberry slushee and the color is called blue raspberry! We'd already done so much research on the five most highly rated small cars and the Fit was the highest ranking and we'd been sold by the demo of the interior storage and then they had one on the lot that was blue raspberry. Sold. Here's hoping our white Atos sells quickly when we get back to SMA.
The good thing is that at a mile lower altitude I feel fantastic! The oximeter jumps right upt to 95-98% all day and night! I may stop using the BiPap while I'm here! I can mostly keep up with Norma all the way across a mall or the gigantic supermarkets. What pleases me the most is knowing when I enter a public bathroom that all the stalls will have seats and toilet paper, the faucets will work, there will be hand soap and paper towels, and my slacks won't get soaked from wet floors.
I Googled Phoenix while we've been waiting. The Hohokum were here for 2,000 years and had an extensive system of irrigation canals that are the routes used again today. They traded with the Anasazi and MesoAmerica until they left the area, probably due to drought, around 1100 CE. They were the only ones on this hemisphere who wrote about the supernova of 1006 that kept the world lit for three months 24/7. Chronicling that event is one criterion historians use to determine what was a real civilization at that time.
The first election when Maricopa County formed in the late 1880s, for sheriff, went to a surprise late entry when the two leading contenders had a duel and one died and the "victor" skipped. Corruption, crime and lawlessness are Phoenix's stock in trade. Fascinating history. The centuries old problems of the Indian reservations and of the relationship with Mexico which owned the state until 1848 are as complex as any. My sphere of awareness keeps expanding.
Finally got the house and car keys
We were getting worried about both but we have them in hand and the blue raspberry slushee-colored Honda Fit is in the driveway of the park model where we are staying. Workmen have started their processions to and from our house.
We decided on a bright maple Pergo laminate flooring and the first of many Home Depot workers showed up on schedule this morning. He used an electronic gismo to take exact measurements and presented us with a detailed layout of our floor plan like an architectural rendering, all computerized.
Ripping up of old carpet begins next week--chaos and dust. We're also getting blinds from Home Depot but that measurement guy was a no-show this morning. A friend's nephew is a plumber and he showed up and took a deposit to buy two new toilets, a stainless steel kitchen sink, reverse osmosis systems for the refrigerator ice maker and main faucets, etc. We've been buying things like shower heads and kitchen sink faucets for him to install.
We bought two gallons of our paint for the kitchen, dining room, living room and hall, in a color called Phoenix at Noon, a little lighter than the orange we have in SMA, and then found that the kitchen and dining room are in gloss so it's back to Lowe's for more paint to start our work this weekend.
Norma has been scrubbing the tile and so far all dirt has come off easily, no damage below the dirt. We'll get the tile sections of the flooring power blasted later. We'll be painting in whatever room no workers are in, and we hope we will get a big chunk of the work done before we leave for SMA in July.
We paid cash for the Fit just so we would be able to cross the border easily, no letter from financing to have to try to get giving approval of taking a newly-financed car to Mexico. Always trying to outwit Aduana. And then we discovered today we have only a temporary registration and license plates and we're not at all sure we'll have plates and title by July 4.
We may cross at Nogales, notoriously looser than Nuevo Laredo, and see if we can get a temporary vehicle importation permit on Norma's new FMM there. She turned in her FM2 so she could qualify to bring in a foreign-plated car (not possible on our FM2 residency visas as Assimilados).
Then she studied extremely hard for the AZ divers license written test and was getting 100% on all the sample tests online. Heaven forbid she should score less than perfect on her firsts drivers license test in some 55 years. But then she didn't have to take the written or road tests. AZ still had records of her old license ten years ago and just charged her $10 for a renewal: all is forgiven, you're just a wee bit late in renewing. Hope I get the same deal when I go for my license later this summer, assuming my erratic double vision doesn't make me fail the vision test.
I have to keep my FM2 visa until after the move because it's required to move all our furniture back into the states. Mexico and the US both have peculiar and convoluted laws about such things. Basically we have to prepare all the data for another menaje de casa, especially with serial and model numbers for all electronics. Golden Bear Moving will do all the translating into Spanish and hire a $900 customs broker to make sure the move goes smoothly. Our household goods will stay in the same truck from SMA to our Phoenix door, and Mario Ortiz will accompany it personally to avoid border hassles.
Let's see, what else might you be interested in. Oh, after all our electrical blackouts in SMA, we went for our 8th wedding anniversary dinner to The Cheesecake factory and there was a black out just as we were handed our menus. We studied them by candlelight and had just decided after about ten minutes in the dark that we would go someplace else in another part of town for dinner when the lights came back on. At least the power wasn't off 15 hours like the last time we had a blackout in SMA.
No title or license plates for as long as 45 days!
We won't get the title and license plates on our new car for 45 days! What havoc that could cause at the border!
We planned to drive our new car down to San Miguel around July 5 and drive it back to AJ, leaving SMA again around Aug. 3, when the moving van will have crossed the border. The movers need to have my FM2 still in force in order to negotiate their own set of MX rules regarding bringing a household of goods back across the border.
From the day we bought the car to Aug. 3 is 38 days. Will we possibly have the title and plates by then? And where will the plates and title be mailed to? You can add two weeks if they must go to Mexico via our mailing service.
As it looks now, we will have to fly down to San Miguel July 5, leaving the Honda in the garage of our new house. Then we will have to put the dog and cats into an SMA kennel Aug. 3, fly back up to Apache Junction, wait for the movers to arrive, and wait until we get the new title and license plates here before we can drive the new car back to San Miguel to get the pets and then drive them to Apache Junction.
We're talking at least $2,000 in plane fares, shuttles, and pet boarding. All because Arizona has some kind of waiting period before releasing titles and license plates, and Mexican border guards can be sticklers on a new car having plates and title to cross, even if only for a few days.
We keep thinking of any possible alternative, such as driving the Honda to McAllen, finding some garage where we can pay to store the car, taking the bus down to San Miguel, waiting until the title and license arrive, taking the bus back to McAllen, picking up the car and driving back to SMA, then finally driving back up to the border and back to AZ with us and the pets (two pet carriers and food and medium sized dog on leash). We still aren't sure how we can swing this all. What we do for our pets. We'll think of some thing, we always do.
US workmen are no better than the reputation of Mexican workmen at making promises to show up which they have no intention of keeping. Our SMA handyman would at least call if he was going to be late. Oh, I forgot, here they don't know what phone we have found that day. We got to the house at 7 am today and the plumber never showed so Norma finally called him at 9 am.
He said he'd been trying to call since 7 am to confirm, but somehow he had the number of a phone we lost days ago. He did come immediately and installed the new toilets but is coming back at SIX A.M. Monday to install a new sink, faucets--and automatic garage door opener. The last is not really a plumber's job but he took pity on us. No one has a handyman they can really recommend, it seems--they're all hesitant for some reason or another. Sure wish we could pack our SMA handyman Pedro Romero into our trunk for a few weeks.
The word is out on the SMA lists that we're moving
Now I'm getting all the personal emails from total strangers demanding to know why I don't stay in SMA and use natural remedies or something like they do for their COPD. Plus some very nice notes from people sorry we're leaving.
We went to the new house at 8 am for workmen who showed at 3 pm, just like Mexico, no calls. Our A/C now works and has been on since 3 pm. We're down from 98 degrees inside to 89. (It's been 110 or so outside but we've been okay with it.) By morning we should be able to really get into painting. The Home Depot crew never did show or call for new blinds measurements. We think the renters used the bedroom blinds for jungle gyms.
I went into the master bathroom and saw a dark blob in the toilet, so I flushed it. Suddenly the bowl was alive with furious back stroking--a five-inch black lizard was taking a swim or something. My first instinct was to stick my hand in and save it. My second instinct was, are you crazy? Lizards bite! And it's in old toilet water! It swirled away to lizard heaven. Two hawks circling in the desert field behind our house kept glaring at us for drowning their dinner.
We saw a Judi Densh/Maggie Smith movie called something like The Exquisite Marigold Hotel, about a dozen Brits who moved to India to a new hotel that was designed to outsource aging from England. But it was just one young man attempting to bring a dilapidated old hotel back to its former glory, far beyond any realistic goals, and the movie was on how each of the Brits coped and changed in the process--kind of like unprepared expats moving to Mexico to save money. Sweet, gentle, fun movie.
All five smoke detectors keep beeping, not in unison. Norma has been up on our new stepladder smashing them with a broom. One retaliated and hit her in the eye.
We splurged on a $10 Trac phone and $20 worth of minutes last trip, and we had something like three minutes left. Verizon announces a new pricing system Thursday so we were trying to hold out until then. But Norma lost some code or something to put more minutes on the $10 Trac phone, and two Walmarts were out of the $10 Trac phones, so she bought some brand that customers going by at Walmart said was wonderful.
One woman even told us how if we went down to the welfare office we could geta basic package of minutes for free, that allows people who can't afford a phone to have a basic one to call ambulances, to call in sick to work, etc. We thanked her politely.
Norma tried to get the clerk to explain the phone nd all she would say was, "It's a Droid." as if we should then understand it all. We didn't but bought it anyway and then Norma couldn't figure it out and returned it and bought a $15 Trac phone. Turns out that model allows texting--and we kept getting calls every ten minutes, 24/7, from strangers telling us what a wonderful day it was--and we had to pay for their calls.
The calls kept us up all night--and then Norma lost the phone. And then she found the $10 model and figured how to put minutes on it. So we're okay until Thursday. The workmen can't totally be blamed for not calling us--who knows what phone we'll lose or find each day?
It's July 4 and we just heard our first fireworks in 2 1/2 weeks
Our suburb doesn't have any restrictions on selling or buying fireworks but the lack of laws has not meant lawlessness. Tonight at 9 will be a modest show at the local high school football field, after a July 4 that started with all sorts of family contests at 7 am and free watermelon all day long. We used to watch the fireworks from the pool at the RV park ten years ago. Somehow fireworks have lost all their attraction for me over the past ten years.
We spent the day trying to finish the last trim on the interior house painting and cleaning up so the movers can find places to put our furniture when it arrives Aug. 8-10. Norma is putting another coat of yellow on the office as I write. The two guys who delivered our recliner sofa earlier were Mexicans who beamed when they walked in. "People who live in dull, dark houses are dull, depressed people," one said. "This is a happy house."
"Come see the bedroom," I answered, and the two guys looked at each other as if they get plenty of requests to come into other women's bedrooms on their job.
"Wait until you see the color there!" I added quickly, and he laughed out loud at the red. "Great colors!" he said. "It reminds me of Mexico."
"Which is not unusual since we've lived in Mexico the last ten years," I said, and the conversation was off and running. They were from DF. Our new handymen, father and son, are from Veracruz and the father speaks very little English after 12 years in Phoenix. We commiserated. It felt good to speak Spanish again.
We still haven't found the Mexican area of Phoenix for a few products we'll miss, like freshly dried guajillo chiles for Norma's cooked salsas. We found another small local chain of Mexican restaurants, Filiberto's-- the decor was orange walls, red and royal blue artificial leather booths, Saltillo tile floor, rustic pine chairs with plastic upholstered seats of purple, green and maroon, and stereotypical Mexican paintings on the wall. One large framed photograph looked familiar-- it was a view from Maricela's B & B rooftop of our Parroquia!
The food was great to me-- a base of beans, rice, chopped iceberg and pico de gallo topped with either two chile rellenos or a huge chimichanga and enchilada sauce, more grated cheese and crema on top, for $7.95, enough on each plate to split. There were four kinds of salsas in big bowls and another bowl of pickled jalapeños and carrots.
It was too mushy-mouth for Norma-- she prefers Serrano's which is more like California fresh Mexican cooking, lighter with more salad type toppings and less overflow of beans and rice. I'll take either. Admittedly Serrano's is more middle class California Mex while Filiberto's is more Mexican truck stop.
We've been looking for little out of the way Chinese and Thai places but so far they're like truckstop gringoized versions of popular US dishes or huge buffets with emphasis on quantity, cheap. At least there's always PF Chang's that began here.
Can't wait to get a new stove, even if it has to be electric, and to get our big refrigerator, dishwasher, and washer-dryer here so can start eating in again and doing our laundry in the privacy of our own home.
Norma's daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and greatgranddaughter (age 3 1/2) came up from Tucson today and stopped by on their way to the traditional BBQ at Norma's grandson's home in Globe 50 miles to the east. Leslie will have to meet the movers here if our car license plates and title don't reach us before July 30 or so. Leslie already has several pieces of our furniture promised to her; the two sons couldn't care less about stuff like furniture and art work. They're all interested in the Phoenix house, though.
Leslie knows just where all of "her" furniture will look best and luckily that coincides with where we want it to go, so she won't tell the movers to leave us any surprises if she has to be the one to meet the movers Aug. 8-10.
A friend from our old RV park will check our mailbox every couple of days and will FedEx the license and title as soon as they arrive here. It will cost about $95 for the FedEx to La Conexion in SMA!
We decided to go with Cricket for our cell phone plan, half as much as the new and "improved" Verison pricing announced this week. And a Hauwee something such smart phone was much less than an IPhone and does all the same things. I just looked at the phone choices and instruction booklets in the Cricket store and went into a panic attack. The hulking young guy trying to explain it all to me was so bored at having to dumb it down for two old ladies that I felt angry--and stupid and old.
Norma's granddaughter today showed Norma how to use the phone. Norma will find a quiet time to try to teach me, very slowly. We weren't going to get the unlimited $10 a month music down loads until Norma down loaded "Trespassing," the new Adam Lambert album, for me, and "Call Me Maybe." So I am hooked at $10 a month for all the music I want to download, legally--I'm tantalized!
The mild fireworks seem to have ended almost before they began. Time to finish cleanup and get all the trash, somewhat separated for recycling as best we remember, over to the appropriate dumpsters at the RV park.
Our internet installer tries to sell us a wired modem
We went to Mediacom to sign up for Internet--how does 15 megabites or whatever per second sound to you in SMA, compared to the 2-5 whatevers that passed for high speed Internet in SMA? For $29 a month?
They promised to send out an installer way too early the next morning--for some reason all kinds of workmen like to do their jobs starting at 6 am in the summer. It might have something to do with trying to finish their work before it hits 110.
So we get to the house way too early in the morning for us and the installer has brought a wired modem. Norma is aghast--people still used wired Internet around here? He says, you didn't specify wireless.
Wired is still a choice? What kind of backwoods have we moved to? So we have to go to Best Buy to buy our own wireless modem and the guy promises to come back that afternoon after he finishes a big job.
We wait. No show.
The next morning Norma goes back to Mediacom and wants to speak to the same guy. She swears he is hiding out in the back room. He was peeking out to see when she left. Someone, not him, will come by later.
Norma comes back home, where the plumber suggested I use the time painting the bathroom walls behind where the new toilets will go while the space is clear, and she sits down in a corner and figures out how to do the wireless modem installation out herself.
So we have Internet in our house, and it's fast enough to actually see YouTube videos at real speed instead of waiting for them to crawl and stop and crawl and stop. Norma may "forget" to tell Mediacom not to send the installer out again.
We got a much cheaper bid for laminate wood flooring from a local company, someone recommended to us by the air conditioning specialist another friend recommended. The A/C guy had seen the square holes cut into our drywall in a couple of places and had explained to us that the drywall holes were common places for people to hide their drug stashes.
I asked him if he knew this from personal experience and he shrugged and smiled. Hey, my exhusband dealt drugs in the '70s in LA. This guy got our A/C running and recommended Red Mountain Carpets and Tiles.
We were thrilled to be saving a thousand dollars for our flooring from Red Mountain--they come at SEVEN A.M. Friday to install--and for good measure the measurer also took the measurements for new blinds. He said that it wouldn't be that much more to get beautiful honeycomb style blinds in colors that went with the new paint in each room. I think the name of the color we selected was Passion Sunset. All we'd had in mind was simple faux wood blinds as are in the house now.
So he emailed us a bid of $2,107!
We now think most of the current blinds can be saved. The jungle gym ones in the bedrooms will have to go.
I've painted our master bedroom and bath a brick red similar to the one we used in SMA, and the other two bedrooms and other bathroom are a cool yellow. I never imagined yellow could be a cool shade but it has some green in it. At dusk with no lights in those rooms it looks like a gold sand khaki. Nice shade.
And I painted the dining room the light orange color called "Phoenix at noon," similar to the shade we used in our living room in SMA. Norma is using the same color in the living room, kitchen and hall. So our current hair and skin colors are red, yellow and orange, with polka dot painting clothes to match. My manicure and pedicure are very interesting Jackson Pollack takeoffs.
We live at Home Depot, Lowe's and McDonald's (free Internet, bottomless $1 diet cokes), more than at the new house and at the park model rental where we are staying. We are so exhausted we actually go to sleep early enough that we can make these 6-7 A.M. appointments. When they show.
Back in SMA again with no problemas!
After all our worrying and contingency planning, we got through the border smoothly.
We chose the far less-traveled Colombia bridge at Laredo early Sunday morning. The young woman at Banjercito thought long and hard and made us show the sales receipt, probably the easiest to forge document we had, but finally she let us through with no hassles! Rolly Brook was right, the laws state only the registration is needed, not the official title, though we've had to show the title ourselves in the past. Every border agent can differ and he or she is always right.
Norma drove the entire 600+ miles from Laredo to SMA in one day, after surviving the boring AZ/NM/West Texas stretch before that, thanks to audio books from the Phoenix library. Our pets did remember us, though they are very fond of our housekeeper-pet sitter.
The moment we started rising in altitude my oxygen levels started dropping and the tiredness and fog started to take over for me again. At the Continental Divide's 4,500 feet altitude in New Mexico, my oxygen concentration was down to 93% and falling. We've made the right decision.
June 3, 2012--Waking up to another power failure and no bipap machine makes me think I'm dying; report on Cristobal Franyutti's presentation to La Lejona residents on ecology issues and the brick-making ovens; a trip back to Phoenix for medical reasons
Our two blocks in Colonia San Rafael seem to have power failures even when street lights show the rest of the colonia, and San Miguel, are still getting electricity. Saturday night we'd just gone to bed, early for us, and I was drifting into sleep when suddenly everything went totally black and I couldn't breathe. I actually thought briefly: I'd always thought I would die by heart attack and here it was my breathing that finally failed me.
And then I realized my bipap breathing assistance machine wasn't working, and I could breathe once I yanked the face mask off. I reached for Norma and she confirmed it was a power failure--no clock light, no little electronic gizmos blinking across the room, no street lights out the window in our area.
I was so shook up I couldn't lie back down to sleep or get enough air and had to go into the office to relax in the recliner. Norma accompanied me with the light from her cell phone so I wouldn't fall down the stairwell on the way. I realized I was in full panic attack mode, heart racing, shallow breathing, and Norma insisted I take a Xanax. Dr. Alvarez gave me a prescription for 30 pills for just such cases and I've only used three tablets. Guess I'm not a Xanax junkie. Eventually I could sleep and we followed the cell phone light back to the bedroom.
In the morning we realized we'd have to postpone the pizza party for that night we'd planned for our handyman, Pedro Romero, and his extended family, totalling 12.
The refrigerator warmed up during the 15 hours of no electricity to the point we had to throw away the base for a gallon of homemade Mexican chocolate ice cream, pizzas dough that was crawling out the door when we opened it, a 12-tomato batch of my homemade pico de gallo, mayo, sour cream, milk, coffee cream, fruit salad fixings, Greek and Middle Eastern dips and salad dressings, and so much more.
Not enough time to replicate all the dinner specialties, and Norma's pizza dough tastes better when it sits in the fridge overnight--at least if the fridge is working. So we get to do it all again next Saturday and Sunday. CFE knows very well that our streets have these blackouts frequently but no one will do the intensive digging to find the root of the problem, we just get temporary fixes. Wonder what a new transformer would cost them?
Oh well, we don't have it anywhere near as bad as friends living in La Lejona 2 where brickmakers were burning old computers, plastics, and tires at least Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights in the ovens where the poorest of the poor in San Miguel have been supporting themselves making bricks for 10 or maybe as much as 40 or more years.
It should be noted that my friends say that there has been no burning the past week, possibly in response to all the community concerns. Organizers of the meeting say that two Mexican residents of the area have filed denuncias with the Ministerio Publico against current PRI Mayor Lucy Nunez and her Director of Ecology, demanding enforcement of anti-pollution laws on the books.
My friends have been investigating the burning and say they have seen trucks dump off the computers and other pollutants. They say computers and plastics that were supposed to be recycled have ended up in the ovens. The tires in particular are burned only on dark nights so that the black smoke won't be seen.
My friends have had to sleep with windows closed even on the hottest nights M-W-F to keep out the smells and smoke. The odor can be smelled in other parts of the city, and I have heard that brick-making ovens in other parts of the city and close surroundings also use pollutants instead of the more costly propane they can't afford, or the wood that is getting more and more scarce as families scour the area for wood they can use to cook their meals and keep themselves warm in the winter. Wood gives off smoke that increases many people's allergies as well.
It is not just expats who are bothered by this burning, of course--it is primarily the Mexican residents near the ovens who are trying to get something done about it. And the brick-making families themselves are aware that many of their children have breathing problems or other health problems, and pregnant and nursing mothers are aware of the potential damage they are passing on to their children.
But they see no alternative, they have to eat, they have to make even the meager amounts they can make selling the bricks from trucks parked along the libramiento and other streets.
It does not help that the economic slowdown has all but shut down much new construction that would otherwise use the bricks. The men stand alongside their loaded trucks day after day, hoping for a customer. At night the women make the bricks. Sometimes they have let their cows, horses, burros and dogs loose because they cannot afford to feed them, and starving cows can be seen sometimes wandering through the developed areas of La Lejona.
My friends and other expats and Mexican families affected by the burning have been coming together to try to find solutions. They have appealed to the candidates running for SMA mayor for the July 1 elections.
One of the candidates, Cristobal Franyutti, addressed a meeting of the concerned citizens last Tuesday in the club house of El Secreto housing complex in La Lejona 2, behind Mega and near Alma and the IMSS health clinic. I'll summarize his statements here.
The El Secreto clubhouse holds about 75 folding chairs and all were taken, with a dozen people standing. One of the organizers of the meeting was Jan Friedman, email@example.com, for more information.
It looked to me as if the attendees were half expats and half Mexicans, though many of the expats were fluent and so Cris spoke mainly in Spanish, with intermittent translations into English. I can't understand rapidly spoken Spanish and so I missed much of the Q&A content, mostly by Mexicans, so this is not a complete report of the meeting.
He was Director of Foreign Relations, Tourism and Economic Development under PAN Mayor Luis Villarreal, 2003-6, and City Secretary under PAN Mayor Jesus Correa, 2006-09. From my observations on the city's Security Committee 2005-6 during the serial rapist period, Cris was the most involved in winning SMA's designation as UNESCO World Heritage site, working on the proposals and presenting SMA's case to the UNESCO committee meeting in Paris.
He was very clear in saying that his first priority if elected would be helping to bridge the big gaps in lack of opportunity for all San Miguel residents. The steps needed to be taken to stop the polluting ovens are, according to Franyutti:
1) Build the infrastructure for more efficient and competitive brickmaking with ovens that use propane.
2) Educate the brickmakers about the effects of their current methods on the environment and health, and show them that the new methods will be more efficient and competitive for them, as well as healthier.
3) Provide financial assistance to help them change to the new ovens and methods.
4) Demonstrate that the government will assist them throughout the transition.
The city already owns land on the road to Guanajuato about 10-15 minutes away that can be used for the new ovens, Franyutti said. "The toughest part will be to change their minds so that they can see changing will give them a better life. Otherwise they will just keep trying to make a living the only way they know, no matter how many times the police are sent in."
Part of making these poorest families more competitive and economically viable is to provide more money for schools and scholarships, Franyutti added. "We need long-range planning and vision, so that these families can see a potential for better lives, rather than seeing only the short range.
He said that Don Patterson, the Director of Ecology under the Villarreal and Correa administrations, had investigated solutions to the same problem as faced by other cities and communities, since this is a Mexico-wide problem that has been going on for many years. Federal, state and city funding would be necessary to bring about the change. "And we have to have markets for their products. The process is cultural, social and economic. Some 8,000 people depend on making bricks for their livelihood. Just shutting down the ovens won't work."
Asked how many gas ovens would be required, he said perhaps 10-12 would be sufficient to start the process. "If we have to build 100, we will."
Asked how long the process would take, he noted that the new administration won't be installed for about six months. "In another six months after that, you'll begin to see the changes," he said.
Several in the audience said that they were getting sick now. "It's not primarily the older expats who are suffering the most from this pollution," an attendee said. "Mexico's future is its young people, and it is the children who are being hurt the most, from pregnant and nursing women to children in school and those young people working at the ovens when they get old enough. This kind of toxic burning causes not just breathing problems but brain damage and birth defects."
Franyutti offered understanding and sympathy to those in attendance. "It will be up to the next administration to address these problems and no progress will be seen for about six months after that.
"These are good people who are making these bricks," Franyutti said. "I know these people. They know their kids are being damaged by this pollution. But this is all they know how to do to support their families. We can show them that there is a better way."
Another meeting attendee charged that city trucks are bringing old computers and electronics and plastics to the ejidos for burning. Franyutti said he was unaware of this happening and asked for photos for documentation.
"The main problem in San Miguel de Allende is not security, it is the economy," he said. "We have to work on many fronts to bridge the gap between those with very low incomes and the rest of the population. Helping them will help all of us."
He said that there is a long range Master Plan for San Miguel done in 2002, and there are 20 different zoning districts in the city that require reevaluation and updates and consistent application. "We do not have the culture of following a long range Master Plan. But if new businesses and investors don't trust that their economic future will be secure, they won't come. If tourists and foreigners interested in living in San Miguel don't see this kind of security, they won't come."
He noted that the proposed 8,000 low income home development for Atotonilco has been turned down after initial approval. "We need more low income housing but that kind of crowded, isolated development would have created a ghetto, with all the accompanying problems. We have to have an integrated community, not stick poor people over there someplace.
"It would be best if we could work together, and the expat population has much to contribute in helping to bring about these improvements."
Other economic developments that would help San Miguel's future include a new convention center near the Presidencia (city hall), and an executive airport to make it easier to get to San Miguel more quickly. He said he hoped to persuade an automative facility to locate near San Miguel.
He concluded with the many related ecological issues facing San Miguel. The water treatment plant has not worked for several years, he said. "We need to work on recovering automotive and cooking oil so that it does not get back into the presa. We need more trees, more green areas. We need to finally work on the Rio Lada" (the small smelly river flowing through parts of San Miguel). We need to build many small water treatment facilities throughout San Miguel."
For the SMA residents, both Mexicans and foreigners, who wanted immediate solutions to the burning, the meeting did not satisfy them. "What can we do if another administration is elected that does not want to work on these issues?" one expat asked. The question went unanswered.
I do not at all like getting old. I'm actually not yet 70, that's a few months away, though I've felt 70 for some time now. We had to go to Phoenix for Norma to see the neurologist who best treated her myasthenia gravis when we lived there 1995-2002, and the auto-immune disease is indeed out of remission. Lab tests proved the return of the antibodies that prevent the clear transmission of nerve messages to muscles, which marks myasthenia gravis.
No new miracle treatments have been discovered in the ten years since she last saw him. Mestinon remains the medicine of choice, and it causes Norma to have nausea, and she never feels quite bad enough to want to take the drug regularly. But the cramping muscles keep recurring. Another part of growing old.
And I found that at a mile lower altitude, my breathing was so much better, I felt ten years younger. Throughout the day I have to check my heart rate and the percentage of oxygenation in my blood with a little pulse and oxygen meter I stick on my index fingers, and in San Miguel at 6,400 feet I strive to reach the level of 89-91%. In Phoenix the meter jumped right up to 95-97%, and 99% is perfect. Below 92% many internet sites say it is time to start using oxygen at least part of the day. At 88% insurance companies in the US will even pay for it. I'm often at 85%.
The bipap breathing assistance machine I use with a mask every night helps a lot, but not enough. A lack of enough oxygen hurts every organ in the body. I could actually think, hear and see better while in Phoenix. I beat my online Scrabble rivals more frequently, Norma says I wasn't saying "Huh?" as much even with my hearing aids, and my double vision wasn't as bad. It was as if a fog lifted. Back at 6,400 feet, the fog has settled back over me.
I was at a party last week where a man carried a small oxygen cannister over his shoulder and the plastic tubes to his nose were fairly unobtrusive. He didn't seem to be making any concessions. It can be done. I'm just not looking forward to it. Using an oxygen concentrator while at home and with the bipap may be enough, or I may eventually need portable oxygen cannisters to carry with me at all times. I have enough problems trying to keep my purse light, I don't want something else heavy on my shoulder!
Otherwise, we enjoyed Phoenix, the 90-100 degree temps coinciding with a hot spell back in San Miguel that we missed. Of course Phoenix is just beginning its hot season and SMA is about over ours. We had access to a pool every night where we stayed, and everything is air conditioned, so we only felt the AZ heat when we ran from home to car to store or restaurant or movie and back again. We did that half the year for seven years when we lived there.
And you have to drive everywhere--the old US energy-wasteful lifestyle. Gasoline was about $3.73 a gallon, while this month it just reached the equivalent of $3 a gallon in Mexico. President Calderon did promise he'd keep lowering the governmental subsidies of gasoline throughout his six years, so gasoline prices would rise a few pesos each month, and who knows what the next president will do on energy policies or anything else.
I am so sick of the election season. Everywhere you look in SMA there's another political sign, and they won't all come down miraculously after the elections July 1. The candidates' posters at bus stops usually sport goatees and missing teeth by now. The ads continue in the US until the November election, and I just wish both countries were finished already. Mexico has the better idea, limiting the actual campaign season to just three months--though everyone knows campaigning for the next election begins the day of the last election, here and the US.
Arizona is the craziest state in the US right now, but at least we didn't encounter any of it personally.
Prices on so many things were just a little higher, though electronics were as always cheaper, and we could find shoes that fit our clodhopper US feet.
The first old fave restaurant we hit was Flancer's, basically a pizza joint and sandwich shop in Gilbert that had the best Philly cheesesteaks and Greek pizzas we've ever had. The place had gone only slightly upscale but a pizza and the sandwich and two soft drinks came to $60 with tip! I had added a bunch of extra pizza toppings, however.
For our 33rd anniversary of being together we celebrated at the Outback, and it was more than $80. For financial relief we went to The Feedbag, which is exactly what you're imagining, for Sunday breakfast, and the tab was still around $30. A Harry's weekend brunch feast is less than that, for much better food.
The Feedbag's green chile omelet that used to have a big slab of green chile and a chunky zesty sauce now had a few spoons of a pureed mild chile sauce that didn't do a thing for either of us. The soggy hash browns were out of a freezer, the rye bread might as well have been from Bimbo, the butter was margarine, the eggs were overcooked, and the decaf had sat on the burner too long. The line was out the door of churchgoers trying to get in after attending services. I definitely did not want to eavesdrop on any of those conversations. At least some of them would have gotten their weekly refresher course on how gays and lesbians are at the root of all evil.
For true food budget relief we found that the local Subway charges $10 for two 12-inch subs after 4 pm, and we divide them so that we each have dinner and a lunch for $10. The subs can be as healthy or unhealthy as you choose. So there were food bargains around even at restaurants.
And we did find that eight of our old friends were still around and they forgave us for having left and seemed glad to see us. Of the 400 original owners in our old RV seniors park, only 65 remain, including only four of those I still actively dislike.
So we avoided those four remnants of bad times and enjoyed the renewed friendships. With one renewed friend we drove out to Chompie's in Tempe, the best Jewish deli in Arizona, and had the best Reubens and pastrami we'd had in ten years. Never mind the price, it was worth it, moister and a more reasonable size than Carnegie Deli in Las Vegas where we had been overwhelmed by a foot-tall tower of dry pastrami that we'd split for $21. Chompies "only" charged $12 each.
One of our friends has always had intestinal problems and she went to the new Mountain Vista Medical Center a few miles from the old RV park for her usual problems, while her partner suddenly felt weak while they were driving there. She went to the ER while waiting for her partner, and called her sister in another state while in an ER bed.
Suddenly she said to her sister on the phone, "I'm going to faint," and she passed out, literally dead because her heart stopped. A nurse was coming into the room and called a Code Blue and intubated her and worked on her with the crash cart team for 23 minutes before she came back to life. The doctors decided to put her into a deep coma for two weeks to lessen the chances of brain damage, and she came out just fine, though she has a disconcerting way of walking about, "When I was dead..."
After her recovery the hospital's PR director asked if she'd be willing to be in the new hospital's PR campaign, and she got $300 for agreeing. The ad company brought in a hair and makeup stylist and three outfits with jewelry, and dolled her up beautifully for the photos. She was completely unrecognizeable, more likely to be mistaken for Betty White than herself.
And now her beautified visage shines down from a billboard on the freeway, saying, "Mountain Vista is MY hospital!" We'd have never known it was her.
We're glad to be back. The people who move to San Miguel are a very special lot, usually courageous, open-minded, creative, giving, caring, and smart. We have the best friends here we've ever had in our lives. SMA people are the city's best draw, never mind the Parroquia and the UNESCO World Heritage site designation and the beauty and the history and the culture.... The ten years we've lived in San Miguel have been the happiest in our lives.
April 22, 2012--Meeting the new staff at CASA and hearing their plans; newest graffiti on our garage proclaims "ganster"; our Detroit friend experiences San Miguel, including a scary Good Friday night when we can't find a cab; Norma's myasthenia gravis seems to be coming out of a ten-year remission, while at least we take turns at illnesses
A friend hosted a welcome party Saturday for Juanita Moraga, the new administrator of the CASA hospital and midwife school, to introduce her and the current CASA administrators to the SMA community, and a more inspiring group of women you may never meet.
Juanita herself interviewed with CASA cofounder Nadine Goodman twenty years ago for the same position, and she was a bit dazed to get the job now when she was recruited! She's 71, a little older than I am and I would never dream of tackling such a project, including hopeful plans to expand the midwifery program to Guerrera and Chiapas. She's been a midwife for 50 years herself.
Born in Chile, she was married to an American until he died recently, and they lived in New Jersey for 22 years. Most recently she has been a hospital administrator in Florida. She's been in San Miguel for two weeks and has already been captured by the city's magic.
A PhD sociologist whose mother is horrified that three of her children have moved back to Mexico from the US spoke about her role in evaluating the programs, necessary for documentation for grant applications. A midwife from the US spoke on learning from the old midwives of Mexico and Latin America who are dying off, their knowledge lost with them.
Their daughters do not want to become midwives today because the jobs don't pay much, at least in money. She said she knows how to say "push" in dozens of languages and dialects, including Mayan.
I spoke the longest to Ana Lucia Marquez, the development coordinator (firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. (415) 154 6090 ext. 103. US: (718) 360 5645). A recent graduate of Knox College in Illinois, she was introduced as "probably the most brilliant person in the room as well as the youngest." We talked about the importance of the teen peer counseling program, which selects and trains young women from the campos to talk to other teens about pregnancy, nutrition, birth control, parenting, domestic violence, and options that can be opened for ambitious teens. Classes on Saturdays can help them get their high school diplomas if they dropped out, and CASA is doing outreach to other programs that offer scholarships so that more of them can go on to college.
Ana said that it is almost miraculous to see a shy teenager with low self esteem begin to blossom and look around at the world with opened eyes once she gets into a CASA program. There are so many programs, all with long success stories on their website, http://www.casa.org.mx, and let me be lazy for a minute and quote from the website statistics on just the peer counseling program:
> Started en 1981, the underlying philosophy for this long-standing CASA program is that through individual empowerment and education, young people, especially young women, will take pride in their human and reproductive rights. Through their empowerment, they will be better prepared to delay their first pregnancies and avoid unplanned pregnancies.
> In the past few years, the program has expanded to include the topics of ecology and nutrition, as it seeks to promote responsible attitudes and healthy behaviors in regards to sexual health, nutrition and ecology. The program currently works in 16 rural communities and is made up of a team of two coordinators, 10 peer counselors, and dozens of volunteers.
> Achievements to date
> Family planning: Courses on sexuality and family planning and the distribution of free contraception.
> Nutrition: Workshops promoting healthy eating habits, community gardens and zumba classes.
> Ecology: Workshops promoting sustainable practices for preserving the environment, recycling programs, and reforestation campaigns.
> Workshops: To date, 14,849 workshops to 221,477 parents, children and adolescents have been given with topics such as: sexual education, human rights, self-esteem, nutrition, and environmental conservation.
> Home visits: To date, 1,518,725 home visits to more than 266 rural communities in the state of Guanajuato.
> Family Planning: 33,073 committed users of family planning methods.
> Nutrition: 2,048 nutritional workshops.
> Recycling: 480 cleaning and recycling campaigns.
> Community Gardens: From 2009 to date, more than 400 organic community gardens have been planted with squash, green beans, cilantro and onions.
> Reforestation campaigns: 4,290 trees have been planted in 17 annual reforestation campaigns in public areas of the communities.
> CASA has published an 815-page manual on peer counseling.
> In 2010, sexuality, environmental, and nutrition workshops were provided to 6,082 people in 84 communities. This year, the program has worked with 698 people, conducted 4,028 home visits and planted more than 150 organic gardens. ....>
Just as in the US, where the ultra conservatives are fighting all aspects of women's health care and sexuality, there is a conservative element in the state of Guanajuato which often targets CASA for exactly these kinds of accomplishments. There was government pressure on CASA a couple of years ago to release the names of all the women who had received birth control information or who had been treated for the aftereffects of a spontaneous abortion or miscarriage. Dozens of women were in prison for as long as two years for allegedly having had abortions when in fact they had had natural miscarriages.
CASA was recently the subject of a lengthy article on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-rick-martinez/midwives-a-crucial-part-of-women_b_1326910.html. It was written by Dr. Rick Martinez, Medical Director of Corporate Contributions and Community Relations for Johnson & Johnson which has given support for the programs. The article is titled, "Midwives, A Crucial Part Of Caring For The Women Of Mexico." Another article on CASA recently appeared in La Jornada, in English at http://casa.org.mx/dec28lajornada.html.
This is a good group to help in San Miguel, if you're looking for a charitable organization to join. SMA has dozens, competing for the same dollars and volunteers and grants, all helping the poorer people of San Miguel in their own ways. An easy way to help CASA right now is to give items for their big garage sale 9 am to 3 pm next Saturday, April 28, at Casa.
If you have toys, kitchen items, clothing, furniture, shoes, etc. that you no
longer need, call 152-2813, 154-6060, or 121-0875, or email email@example.com. There are two centers for Casa, one the maternity hospital in Colonia San Rafael. The garage sale will be in the patio of the other bujilding, in Colonia Santa Julia, on Calle Santa Julia 15.
I hate to give a pitch for any one organization when there are so many groups in SMA that also need your help. Another of my favorites is Casita Linda, which expects to build its 50th house this year to turn over to a poor SMA family, built with the cooperation of the family and their community. They just finished houses 46 and 47 near me in Colonia San Rafael and the new houses certainly are improvements over the shacks that were homes before. See www.casitalinda.org for photos of these newest homes.
Two very small (about 400 sq. feet) homes were just constructed within half a block of me, both receiving a bright new coat of yellow paint on their front, though the rest of the walls remain unfinished. The yellow paint was barely dry when the first house was hit by graffiti that covered most of the front. It's been repainted since.
And our back garage has been hit again twice with graffiti, after we had it repainted just a few weeks ago. The latest embellishment spells out "ganster," which I'm guessing is supposed to be "gangster." So reassuring. We're out of yellow house paint so it will have to stay there a bit.
Our friend from Detroit, who was one of the women who cared for my aunt her last years, came to visit us for Semana Santa and a few days afterward, and she fell under SMA's spell immediately. All her family and friends back in Detroit and adjoining suburbs had told her to make sure her will was updated before she came.
We actually did have one small scare the night of Good Friday, when she'd been on the run all day experiencing everything. We'd brought stools to see the 5 pm procession, arriving at our favorite spot by Harry's New Orleans Restaurant and Bar at 3:30 to be sure of getting a good spot. That location is in the shade all afternoon, and we can count on Harry's letting us use the bathrooms if we have to. Since I've been praising his food for ten years now, Bob Theissen will do me a favor when I ask.
The procession didn't even leave the Oratorio until 6 pm, and the first marchers, the men in Roman Centurion costumes, didn't round the Jardin corner into view until around 7 pm. We'd been sitting now for 3 1/2 hours. Our friend was wide-eyed the whole procession. She had never seen such a display of faith.
And like me she couldn't resist taking a picture of two of the women's feet who were carrying the heavy floats the whole distance: one woman in sturdy flats, the other in platform stilettos, resting on one foot as the procession took a break. The selected women dress in black and shoulder the floats the whole distance, though they take frequent breaks with wooden supports brought out to hold the floats' weight while they rest.
At the end we made a dash inside Harry's, which was already crowded but Bob found a spot for us. It must after 10 pm when we finished dinner and left, walking ourselves and our stools down to Hidalgo and Mesones to look for a cab. None came.
We walked down to Insurgentes. Even less traffic and no cabs. We walked back to Mesones and waited some more. Three gorgeous young Mexico City women in short-short dresses and those platform stilettos, one brushing her waist-length blonde hair off of her face seductively, did get the one empty cab that came by.
Norma walked back to Harry's and asked him to call us a cab. He told her that there are two nights when it is impossible to get a cab in San MIguel: Christmas Eve and Good Friday. He said he would get us a cab or call his driver to come get us, he'd make sure we got home safely.
He sent one of his valet parking attendants down to stand with us as it got closer to midnight. The young man waited with us the whole time until a grumpy cab driver, complaining that Bob owed him big now, showed up. We tipped the parking attendant and the cab driver very well.
Since our Detroit friend had missed Palm Sunday because she hadn't realized a passport card would not work like a passport for an international flight, she stayed on after Easter a few days. So we took her by bus to Mexico City for an overnighter.
If she'd thought she was astounded at how Mexico did not justify its bad crime rep before, she was really amazed by the beauty of the best neighborhoods of Mexico City! We stayed at our favorite Hotel Catedral, right off the Zocalo, another pleasant surprise.
We took the double-decker tour bus for hours when we arrived, to help her get acclimated. It helps that the tour bus only goes through Chapultepec, Condessa and the other richest colonias where tree-lined streets feel like Paris or London. She walked through the Aztec ruins adjoining the Zocalo and was fully shocked at the history she learned about Mexico.
She really enjoyed Belles Artes and the Diego Rivera murals in particular. The Detroit Institute of Arts has one big central room that has a Rivera mural on all the walls depicting an auto assembly line. As usual Rivera inserted some political messages that didn't go over welel with the auto barons of the 1920s, but the mural stayed, until the one he painted for Rockefeller in New York with Lenin in it, that was destroyed by Rockefeller.
At Belles Artes, Fernando Botero, Colombian artist, is the current guest exhibitor. One of the rooms is solely for his paintings of Abu Ghraib torture, another is of his more famous circus scenes, some other paintings are of seminarians, a transvestite in partial dress with chest hair showing, and political figures.
Apparently he does not like bull fighting--one painting depicts a skeleton astride the bull, the bullfighter apparently dead on the ground. He said of his Abu Ghraib works, Picasso brought public awareness to the horrors of WWII with his paintings, and Botero wanted to do the same with his work.
Here is a YouTube video of most of the works on exhibit:
We didn't get to see the Folklorico ballet and the Tiffany curtain in the Belles Artes auditorium--the show is only on Wednesdays and Sundays--but at least she got to see these photos of the Tiffany curtain and the folklorico dancers:
http://www.google.com.mx/search?q=tiffany+curtain,+bellas+artes,+Mexico+Cit y+photo&hl=en&qscrl=1&nord=1&rlz=1T4GGNI_enUS436US 437&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei= 1g-GT-LmMInu2gXq2MnvCA&ved=0CCAQsAQ&biw=1140&bih=448
She was reluctant to leave San Miguel and now wants to return. Her friends and family won't believe her, not even her photos, I'm sure.
Norma had a bad bladder infection and the second antibiotic prescribed was Cipro, one of the most widely used and overused drugs in Mexico and probably also the US. She felt so bad on the Cipro that one day she just fell into bed and didn't wake up for many hours. I kept checking to see if she was still breathing. The doctor who prescribed it knew she had myasthenia gravis in remission, so she felt comfortable taking the drug, until she had such a bad reaction to it.
Finally she thought to check the internet to see if Cipro is one of the many medicines contraindicated for myasthenia gravis, and it is. The antibiotic seems to have brought on a new episode of myasthenia gravis, and we're going to have to go see one of the few doctors she's found who seems to truly understand MG, to see if we can get her back into remission.
At least I'm pretty healthy right now. I don't know what we will do if we ever overlap with our sick periods. MG is an auto-immune disease similar to lupus and multiple sclerosis. The body builds antibodies that block the smooth transmission of nerve messages to muscles. When the antibodies block a particular message completely, the muscle doesn't move at all. If it is a partial transmission, the muscle may cramp up or partially move, causing a fall in many cases.
Norma used to fall a lot and was in a mobility cart for several years when we lived in Phoenix. It took years to get a diagnosis; mostly doctors thought she had post-polio syndrome, which also causes muscle weakness in those who had polio before the vaccine was discovered in the mid-50's. Norma spent a year in bed at age 12 and had to relearn to walk after she got polio a few months before the vaccine was announced.
At least MG affects only the voluntary muscles, not the life-delivering involuntary muscles like the heart and lungs. What bothers her the most is that MG causes the upper eyelids to droop and her face muscles to lose their ability to show a clear smile.
One nurse who should have known better once came up to her at the RV park where we lived in Phoenix and grabbed Norma's cheeks and pulled her lips upward, telling her that she looked so much better if she would only smile. I would have bitten her.
So now we have another medical crisis to deal with. She's acting pretty normal again but we're going to check it out with her previous neurologist. Surely there have been medical advances on MG in the past ten years.
April 2, 2012--A houseguest for Semana Santa; our neurotic dog; more graffiti; a magical 12-day tour of Guatemala
Once more we've been gone on a long vacation. We knew we wouldn't have internet all time time so we brought only our iPads and I didn't do anything on the website for two weeks. I don't know how many members we lost in the process, but some 400 applications for new forum members were waiting for action when we got home. Unfortunately, only three were real people, not spammers.
I'll do one of my travelogues on Guatemala in a minute but there are some San Miguel events to report first. We have a houseguest coming from Detroit for two weeks, a friend of my aunt's who took care of her many times in her last years, so we are treating her to Semana Santa in San Miguel. She was supposed to fly to Leon from a friend's house Thursday and we were going to drive to the airport to get her and show her a little of Guanajuato on the trip in.
But we got a frantic call from the airport that morning. She didn't know the difference between a passport card (good only for driving across the border, designed for frequent border crossers), and the regular navy booklet you need for air trips. She even had a regular passport 500 miles away in Detroit and had to have it FedExed to her before she could reschedule.
So now she is coming Monday, and will have missed all the home altars and Palm Sunday processions and events.
Let me tell you all the events going on in SMA that we had planned for her, to show newbies all that goes on here this month.
We had a tight schedule for her, starting with the Brazilian Jazz Trio at the Peralta Thursday night, the Patronatos por Niños walking tour starting at the Parroquia Friday morning, and the home altars Friday afternoon and evening with dinner on the roof of La Posadita. On the way back to the car we'd pass the teenaged girl who would be standing motionless for hours in the fountain space at the corner of Mesones and Hernandez Macias, posing as the Virgin Mary.
Saturday we were going to take her to the Organic Market at the Rosewood in the morning, perhaps with a stop for a drink and lunch on the hotel rooftop for the view. We'd see the play at the Biblioteca at 6--I hear "Love, Loss and What I Wore" had a great opening and I was looking forward to it. Maybe we could get out to Fabrica Aurora afterward for Manuel Chacon's art show opening, and at least have dinner at the Food Factory at Aurora.
Sunday morning we'd take her to the first Palm Sunday procession at 9 am starting at the San Francisco Church, then maybe the House and Garden tour at the Biblioteca if she was processioned out, and if not we'd take her to the bigger procession at 11 am. The Garden Club is having their annual Flower Show at the former Presidencia offices next to Posada San Francisco on Canal and Hidalgo until 4 pm--no charge. Sunday night we'd take her to another of our favorite restaurants, probably Tacos Don Felix, for an authentic Mexican food experience and great people.
Monday at 5 pm will be Charlotte Bell's presentation of information from her book, Tears from the Crown of Thorns, explaining the meanings behind the various Semana Santa events, at the Syndicato, Recreo 4. We expected to have the day free but now will be driving to and from Silao for the airport pickup, and may or may not get back in time to make the presentation. We'll do dinner that night maybe at Olé Olé for another very authentic Mexican dinner experience.
One day we plan to take her to Querétaro to see our big box stores and have a walk through that city's historic center, with a late lunch someplace in their pleasant Centro. That night, since we will have missed the gallery opening Saturday night at Fabrica Aurora, we'll take her to the a galley opening. and this time have that dinner at the Food Factory we missed Saturday night.
She's a devout Catholic and will enjoy the Way of the Cross Wednesday at 5 pm, leaving from the Oratorio. The 14 stations of the cross are located all over Centro from the Paroquia to the Capilla de Cavalario up the hill (where the big mirror is for the buses that turn into Centro from the Salida a Querétaro).
Thursday will be the big day of the church altar decorations from 7 to 11 pm and we'll take her to at least the prerequisite seven diffefrent churches so that she can get her plenary indulgence and have all her sins washed away. We'll stay out of the last church ourselves so that we can keep our hard-earned sins.
Good Friday is THE day in San Miguel, with two processions, the first starting with a reenactment of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate at the church next to the Parroquia, and then a procession of the apostles and the two thieves who are to be crucified next to Jesus, and many bare-shirted men carrying wooden crosses with blood on their shoulders accompanying this procession.
It stops at a statue of the Virgin Mary where the statue of Christ on the Cross has a mechanism allowing the head to come upright and meet the gaze of his mother. So many processioners are shocked at this movement, as if it is really happening. Though that is supposed to start at 11 am, we'll have to be there much earlier to get a place with a view. We have three portable seats that we will plop down as close as we can get to where the encounter with Christ's mother will take place. Good luck with that.
At 5 pm Good Friday is the most solemn and impressive procession of the year, with some 2,000 participants. Many expats wear Roman centurion costumes to represent the soldiers who accompanied Christ's body to the tomb, and hundreds of Mexican women share the coveted honor of being able to carry the massive floats of the Virgin Mary, Veronica with her veil imprinted with the face of Christ after she wiped his face on the long walk, and other religious figures.
The women dress in black, with a black veil and white gloves, and they must rest often from the weight of the heavy floats. Ladders are brought along with the procession to place under the floats during these rest stops. Everyone moves in solemn regulated steps. Little girls up to teenaged girls dressed in white strew rose petals along the route. The boys are in choirs that sing at each stop. Instrumental bands are inserted throughout the procession to help keep the solemn rhythm of the walkers.
Before the final float which is the glass bier containing Jesus's body and which is adorned by flowers, there is a procession of priests and altar boys under a canopy. Ushers go to the sidelines of the procession at this time and tell everyone to remove all hats, to stand, and to show silent respect.
And sanitation workers follow the end of the procession with their big brooms and plastic trash bags, to pick up the rose petals and any debris along the route. We all disperse and go for dinner someplace. Maybe we'll make reservations for Harry's to show our houseguest. There shouldn't be any major singles mingling going on at the bar at that moment.
Saturday at 9 pm is a major outdoor mass in the front of San Juan de Dios church, the equivalent of Midnight Mass to announce the Resurrection. And at noon Sunday is the exploding Judases, the paper mache statues of local business leaders who have paid for the right to have their life-sized representations hung from clotheslines in front of the former Presidencia and each one's fuses lit and the statue starts to twirl from the rope and suddenly a big "Boom" announces the statue is about to explode.
Kids and tourists run under the statues the moment they fall to the street, to gather arms and legs and if lucky a papier mache head that can be sold for a lot to some tourist who didn't get a souvenir personally.
And that is Semana Santa in San Miguel. Our houseguest will be mightily impressed.
What else before I report on Guatemala. We got home to find our big black and white longhaired cat, Pico, was so matted we couldn't cut out his mats ourself, so we took him to Dr. Ricardo Merrill's clinic on Salida a Celaya, a block further out of town from Fitness International Gym and Mega on the same side. Pico is now a most-embarrassed short-haired cat, and cold, so we put a heating pad under a bathroom sink where he can hide and keep warm.
At the same time we took in Lambchop because she was so nervous after we got home. Nothing physically wrong, she just has separation anxiety. She is going to get tranquilizers to help her get through tough times. Good grief, we've raised a neurotic dog. How did that happen?
What else before Guatemala. Oh, we had some nasty graffiti on the garage when we got home, the expected "puta" and gang emblems but also a deep red oil-based painting of the saint of death, behind a mask. It looked particularly menacing, and our handyman, Pedro Romero, agreed we should paint over it immediately. He had to sand down below the oil paint for the housepaint to take.
We're getting a third tile mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe to have set into the garage wall where the graffiti keeps returning. We have a big mural out front and people walking by make the sign of the cross when they pass, and no new graffiti has appeared in front since we got that mural installed. But the smaller mural on the back apparently doesn't have enough power to prevent graffiti over the entire back of the house, just the part on the other side of the garage door.
I hope we can find something a little different in Dolores when we go looking, maybe a Sacred Heart of Jesus mural. I wonder if that will be as effective as another Virgin of Guadalupe 20 feet away? Our favorite little tile shop closed on Calzada de la Luz so rather than try to track down another mural in SMA, we'll go to Dolores Hidalgo. Our houseguest will enjoy the drive anyway, and maybe she'll like Vicente's Carnitas, and the weird flavors of ice cream cones like tequila or shrimp cocktail at their Jardin.
Okay, on to Guatemala. We signed up for a 12-day tour organized by Robin Spencer and Dean Underwood of El Pegaso restaurant. And then I was in the hospital with pneumonia and doctors at first said I couldn't go. I improved fast and they finally agreed I could go. But Dr. Gonzales, the lung doctor in Querétaro, said I'd have to take a Viagra pill 45 minutes before the flights each way.One Viagra pill is 155 pesos each at Mega with the INAPAM discount. Viagra is supposed to get the blood flowing throughout the body, a good thing if you have breathing and circulation problems.
So I took it at the airport and as I walked toward the plane I came down with a major nosebleed. The flight attendants brought me towels and a bag of ice, and it finally stopped. So I didn't take the other Viagra for the return flight and maybe I should have, because I was so exhausted when we landed back in Mexico City airport I could barely walk the distance from the plane to immigration to aduana to baggage pickup and to the shuttle back to SMA.
I ended up with a wheelchair, feeling like a helpless fool. My pulse and oxygen meter that I carry with me at all times to check my percent of oxygen in my blood read as low as 78%, instead of over 90% as I am supposed to have. Normal is 97-99%. And my heart rate was as high as 113, when it is supposed to be between 50 and 60 beats a minute according to my cardiologist, Dr. Jorge Alvarez at Hospital de la Fe.
All the readings returned to my normal by the time I was back on the shuttle. The problem may have been suddenly going up in the plane and then descending to 7,000+ feet as Mexico City is at--I'm usually better closer to sea level as most people are. Several people on the trip kept telling me I need to move back to sea level, but I'll go on oxygen next if needed. I'm already using a BiPap machine at night to increase air into my lungs.
Other than being tired sometimes, unable to keep up even with the three 80-somethings on the tour, I did okay. I think we'll do better on our own in the future, though, not having to follow a tour guide, get up early and get the suitcases out front, rush breakfast to get on the bus on time, and make it all the way at the tour's pace. In Italy we did our own thing, and on the cruise we were able to sleep in, stay up late with our iPads, choose what excursions we wanted to take, and take naps or lounge by the pool whenever we wanted. We love cruises now.
When we suddenly came into some money in 1981 and took an eight country, sixteen day bus tour with Globus Gateways and did our own thing late every night when the tour group was supposed to be in US-oriented tourist attractions, the tour director told us he was adding us to the Globus list of people who would never be allowed on another Globus tour again. That was foretelling.
So that sets the stage for our tour, which started out with three days of strenuous hiking that I managed to escape. The tour covered almost all of Guatemala in twelve days, so we were driving a lot, either on the bus or on boats that held from 14 to 50. We were 26 in total, and most of the people were retired expats in good shape who were able to make all the climbs. Five to eight of us at any one time preferred not to, and we managed to scrounge seats in the cabs of the passenger pickups or stay behind when the going got rough.
The first afternoon, for example, we headed for an ecological preserve, the Biotope El Quetzal, named for the national bird which lives there. This was rainforest country, and when we got out at the biotope it felt as if we would sprout if we stood still. We all climbed up maybe a block of mossy damp rock steps to the visitor center, where the "unfit others" copped out while the others headed out on what was supposed to be an hour's climb and return. Some took nearly three hours.
The only ones who actually saw a quetzal bird happened upon one in the parking lot when they got back down, and it flew out of sight too fast for photos.
Meanwhile, I spent some time in the visitor center and enjoyed the stuffed quetzal and the paintings on display, along with exhibits of all the insects and flora of the preserve. I took some gorgeous photos of the taxidermy quetzal, a macaw-sized bird of vivid greens, reds and blues, like a shaggy macaw.
Back at the bus I showed off my photo--"Look, while you were all searching for the quetzal, I was the only one to get a photo of one." And I'd show off my picture and the others were aghast until they noticed the wood logs of the tourist center behind the bird. At least we all know what one was supposed to look like now.
All the hotels were posh, and that night we were at the Park Hotel in Coban. The extended climb had taken so long that we didn't get to stop at the Dieseldorf coffee plantation and an orchid farm that were on the agenda. We picked up another coffee plantation tour and an indigenous instruments music museum later, though.
The tour was actually fascinating and I learned a lot, despite the complaining you are about to hear about the second day. The final nine days of the tour were wonderful; I just want to wipe away all memories of the first three days, once I write about them here.
Most of the hearty 18 loved the next day leaving from Coban and going to Semuc Champey to the south of the little town of Lanquin. We were to see a 300-meter-long limestone bridge over natural pools of crystalline mountain spring water, and then visit some nearby beautiful caves. Those who'd brought bathing suits wore them under their clothes, and we took off on a smaller shuttle down into a deep valley that was a tropical humid forest. It felt as if dinosaurs would at any moment roar and pop their heads out and devour our van.
I took lots of photos of men carrying machetes and baskets on their heads winding their way through invisible jungle paths, and of families in wooden huts tucked into small clearings, often with dirt-trodden paths going zigzag a hundred feet up the hillsides, and of corn growing abundantly if precariously on those steep hillsides. I wouldn't want to plant, weed or harvest that corn.
And then we were in the village of Lanquin--where we learned that now we were to take pickup taxis another 40 minutes each way down to the pools, with all but eight of us who grabbed the cab seats, standing upright in the back of those pickups for the round trip! The other 70-somethings were not so thrilled with that experience. I cherished my cab seat.
When we got to the bottom, there was supposed to be a five-minute walk to the pools where we were to enjoy a leisurely swim. It was rainy and slippery on the frequent stone steps on the path, and the walk took me more than an hour, with men from the tour and others on the excursion stopping to help me navigate the steps.
I finally arrived at a spot where I could see the pools and I took photos to prove I'd been there, but it was still a long walk to the pools themselves and I turned around. One man from the tour would help me through a rough patch, then go ahead to help someone else, then come back to me at the next steps. Norma was on one arm, various men took the other elbow, and I made it back depending on the kindness of strangers.
Those who made the whole trip said it was definitely worth it, though, and some were applauding the tour director when they made it back to Lanquin. They then went on to another walk to the caves. I've been to Mammoth and to many smaller caves in the US. I passed. Muchas gracias for iPads. Back to the luxurious Park Hotel.
The next morning we took the bus to Sayaxche, for an hour boat ride on La Pasión River to Ceibal. For the unfit others, it was another disaster, and we sat it out on logs in a clearing waiting for the 16 to climb up another steep hillside to an archaeological site. As the itinerary states, "Ciebal flourised from 200 AD to 900 AD and has an extraordinary number of Mayan stone carved monuments and temples." Coulda fooled me.
The boat ride was pleasant, and after taking photos of indigeous women in their dark plaid skirts and huital overblouses, I snapped another photo of the younger generation--the daughter of the man who owned the boat line was about 16 and she wore shorts and a blouse as she straddled her red motorcycle.
The next day the tour became wonderful for all 26 of us. We bussed it to Tikal National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site all on its own. Per the itinerary, "This magestic Mayan city is considered the largest and most monumental of all the sites discovered in the Mayan World. We'll have a guided walking visit to the most important plazas, complexes and temples, enjoying as well the tropical forests, the nesting place of hundreds of exotic birds, and the habitat of a wide variety of wildlife."
And so it was, though the unfit others took park ranger cabs to the major plaza and the biggest temples which were quite enough to satisfy me. Nearly 200 wooden steps almost straight up--and back down--led to the top of the tallest temple. I spotted someone in the same color green blouse as Norma up at the top and took a zoom snapshot and later claimed it was Norma up there. I got a great shot of a wild turkey running among the tourists looking for scraps, and I have some unusual birds captured in my camera.
And then we had a late lunch at the park outdoor restaurant and about 20 coati mundis came out of the woods and gobbled from anthills a few feet from us. I got a lot of photos of them, far closer than I ever thought I'd get to a coati mundi. They look like raccoons about the size of a cocker spaniel, with skinny prehensile tails and elongated noses designed for scavenging in anthills. They also took table scraps, not encouraged by park management. Norma and I did manage to walk all the way downhill to the eating area on our own, leaving early so as not to hold up the group. The tour director seemed amazed we'd done that.
Totally invigorated by this splendid day, we took a boat the next morning on the Rio Dulce, also a lush tropical forest with palm-thatched palapas hidden in the riverbanks that reminded me of New Orleans bayous. How otherworldly. In some stretches huge yachts and sailboats were anchored outside vacation homes built into the jungle. In other stretches indigenous fishermen glided past silently in their oar-powered boats.
We stopped for awhile to watch one man wrestle a fish that must have been three feet long--we all saw it jump as the man guided it carefully back and forth to wear it out. The fish lasted longer than we could and we moved on while he still fought the fish.
I have so many photos of pelicans and other ocean birds occupying at least temporarily abandoned boats along the way. On Bird Island other birds I didn't recognize spread their wings to dry out on the top branches of trees. We stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant halfway to where the Rio Dulce meets the Caribbean sea, and a caged monkey family on the way to the restrooms watched the tourists warily, the male rushing over to grab our hair through the wire as we photographed the mother and baby.
Our destination that night was Livingston, a small tourist town on the Caribbean that was settled by former African slaves brought to Guatemala during the early days of the Spanish Conquest. Mexico outlawed slavery decades before the US did, and the people of Livingston are a beautiful cross-section of the colors of the world. We stayed at the Villa Caribe Hotel and a guitarist and singer who had played for many famous rock and reggae groups provided entertainment at the bar. He sang in a local language and was shy for an entertainer. He did agree to let me take his photograph, after I bought his DVD. The hotel and setting was so lush--I know I keep using that word, but it fits. There was also a boat ride to Playa Blanca for those who wanted to swim from a white sand beach.
Then we went to Quirigua, another archaeological site that also has a UNESCO World Heritage designation. Some of the archaeological attractions were stone-carved stelae, the tallest in the Maya world, reminiscent of 15-foot-tall totem poles. The unfit others mostly enjoyed the jade museum and textile shops on site.
That night we were back in Guatemala City briefly, returning to the luxurious Barcelo Premium Hotel. Don't tell the tour guide, but for dinner some of us snuck out to McDonald's next door for a touch of the Old Country, our Old Country. We were pretty tired of "tipico" dishes by then. Have to say, I had no idea there were so many ways to cook plantains.
The next day we had our first look at Antigua, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the itinerary describes it, "Stepping into Antigua is like stepping back in time, cobbled stone streets, sprays of bougainvilles bursting from crumbling ruins, pastel facades under terracotta roofs, parks with fountains a dramatic setting surrounded by three volcations, Agual, Fuego and Acatenango. These are some of the reasons why Antigua is one of the most beautiful colonial cities in the Americas."
Earthquakes have leveled Antigua many times and the former capital of Guatemala contains many preserved ruins. Mostly it was pleasant narrow cobblestoned streets with colorful one-story homes and businesses. It felt very homey and I know expats who lived in Antigua for many years before moving to the activities-rich San Miguel de Allende. I could see living there for awhile. Their Jardin has a white charming church on one side, a stone fountain in the middle, all sorts of restaurants and shops along the sides--and street vendors who were our introduction to aggressive marketing we experienced frequently the rest of the tour.
Never let SMA street vendors travel to Guatemala and learn assertiveness training. "I have good price for you--one dollar," we heard frequently. One dollar was for each decorative item on a necklace, I soon found out when I first thought I could get a gorgeous hunk of jewelry for one dollar.
Now for the local connection: Bette Kempe, who started Villa Antigua Santa Monica hotel and restaurant many decades ago, has one daughter, Georgine Johnson, who lives in San Miguel and is very active in political organizations. Another daughter, Mary Lou Ritinger, has a major shop and jade mining and archaeological center in Antigua, and we got to meet her in a special presentation for our group. She told the story of how the Conquistadors didn't appreciate jade, only the gold, that they found in Guatemala, and the indigenous people soon learned that if they were caught with jade they would be killed. Very quickly the knowledge of Guatemala as a major jade area disappeared, and when Mary Lou first started her research, she was told over and over again that there was no jade in Guatemala and never had been.
She perservered and eventually landed a cover story in the National Geographic on the hidden jade treasures and mining of Guatemala. Then everyone took her seriously. She uncovers the jade in a very ecological way, only on the surface along a river, no mining or underground work. She showed us samples of all colors of jade from the natural white to black, including a fairly rare lavendar. Most of us did buy something in her store--Norma and I got necklaces of small jade beads, mine in the form of jaguars though they look like kitties.
We were to return to Antigua the last day of the tour to have free in the city to discover on our own, but before then we were off to see Lake Atitlán, rightfully called one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. We stopped at the Sololá marketplace on the way to encounter an even more professional group of street hustlers, determined that each and every one of us would not leave town without at least an apron. Women chased us through the crowded marketplace changing prices on us every minute--at some points some sellers were offering those beautiful embroidered aprons for "just one dollar, for you."
Yes, we bought a bright yellow apron adorned with three-dimensional Guatemalan figures for our housekeeper. At home we use bleachable white industrial strength aprons we bought for the restaurant.
All the women were in the dark small plaid long skirts and huitales overblouses, and some of the men were in wraparound skirts as well. The meats for sale were laid out on oilcloth countertops, and kids played with the chicken feet and moved the pieces around with their fingers while their mothers tried to sell their wares.
On to Lake Atitlán and the town of Panajachel, another shopping haven. Atlitán Hotel is on the grounds of a former coffee plantation, and it is as beautiful as the lake. Here we really did break down and buy carved wood birds about a foot tall, painted in every conceivable color and carved out with a candlestick hole.
Someone discovered a multi-strand silver necklace with dozens of little girl figure pendants, in Guatemalan dress, and then I had to have one, too. We got single-strand necklaces of the same style for our three greatgranddaughters, plus tiny woven purses (they're all under six) and then a safari hat with a Guatemalan strand of fabric and a rabbit backpack for our little greatgrandson.
The hotel grounds are so gorgeous that they charge about $5 USD entrance for non-guests. So many macaws were in the gardens, along with flowers and especially orchids I'd never seen before. The Atlitán Hotel is a must-see if you ever go to Guatemala.
We took another boat ride to some of the nearby villages along the rim of the lake, including San Juan La Laguna and Santiago. Fascinating marketplaces and goods. Some of the street vendors somehow made arrangements to come with us on the boat to those villages, and along the way they did hair weaving demonstrations for some of the tourists. One of our new friends is the Textile Queen, who had come to Guatemala for one purpose and that is to buy all kinds of stuff. Luckily she was buying, and the vendors circled her and became her new best friends, and mostly left the rest of us alone.
But when we were to leave the last village, a dozen women came down from the hillside and swarmed onto our dock and tried to make one last sale. Our tour guide had advised us to not make eye contact and not say anything to any vendor who approached us. I was doing that as best I could, though once in a while I would erupt with, "No! Nada! Nunca!" That would only encourage them, I'd acknowledged their presence.
As I tried to sit silently in the boat seat along the rail, one of the women kept tossing her fabrics right over my head onto me. I was ready to scream but Norma led me quickly to another part of the boat. I don't do well with all cultural differences.
The next morning was yet another famous marketplace, Chichicatenango, "the most colorful and picturesque outdoor market in Guatemala." And it was the best outdoor market I'd ever seen. It is open every Thursday and Sunday and it is so far beyond SMA's Tuesday Market! We stopped at another little town known for its paintings, Comalapa. I don't know if Diego Rivera visited the town before painting his trademark painting of a woman from the rear with a long black braid, her arms full of what we call Easter lilies, or if the town's artists were influenced by Diego Rivera, but there were definite similarities with his murals and paintings. Again we bought three small paintings of kaleidoscopes of flowers.
Our last hotel was the Casa Santo Domingo in Antigua for two nights, as we explored the town on our own, and this was the most magnificent hotel of all. It was a former monastery, and the developers kept the religious influence with beautiful statues and artwork throughout. Each room was about 20 by 15, with a sitting room and outdoor balcony. The owner had two museums in the hotel, displaying in one case some of his historical ceramic pieces coupled with modern style pieces that picked up the same feeling but in clean glass lines.
While we were there five weddings were taking place in various nooks throughout the spacious hotel, and some of the reception areas set up with white-covered tables and tents with huge flower arrangements on every table were as big as the Rosewood's public space. At the same time three presidents of Central American countries were meeting in the hotel at a major conference on the drug wars, including a discussion on whether the legalization of drugs in any was at all feasible. I heard that the presidents later flew to San Miguel to meet with President Calderon, who was in Guanajuato for the Papal visit.
And then the tour was over and we flew home to Mexico City and the shuttles to SMA. A most magical trip.
March 10, 2012--Feeling the best I've been in several years; I've been prescribed Viagra before plane trips!; people who shouldn't move to San Miguel; a concert on International Women's Day
Norma says my having had pneumonia was a good thing! The six days in Hospital de la Fe on heavy duty antibiotics has left me feeling better than I can remember in recent years. Maybe something else hidden away someplace got knocked out, too. My oxygen level is 90-94% and I can walk a half hour on the treadmill daily.
I even feel a little more sure of myself on cobblestones and SMA's raggedy stone curbs and steps. (Occasionally someone writes asking if a person in a wheelchair should move to SMA and I regretfully have to say no. Very few curb cuts and ramps, and even some smooth sidewalks are too narrow for a chair, with a utility pole or a deep hole likely to be smack in the middle. Steps are everywhere, even going up into a public bathroom. And some supposedly handicap access ramps are so steep you'd need two people guiding your chair to feel secure. You can probably get by visiting in Centro, but for the long haul, SMA would be just too frustrating for someone with severe mobility problems, IMO. But I am sure there is somebody out there who uses a chair who can prove me wrong.)
I've gotten totally used to the Bipap machine at night, even if it involves wearing a face mask. So for those who have asked, my health is the best it's been at least since before February, 2011, which is when we opened the restaurant and at the same time got word my aunt in Detroit now had liver cancer and needed us to be there for her.
But my pulmonary doctor in Queretaro, Dr. Gonzales, did give me a surprising prescription: I have to take a Viagra tablet 45 minutes before any plane ride! And would you believe that one Viagra tablet at the Mega pharmacy with a 15% INAPAM senior discount is 155 pesos, about $12 USD?
We've said and heard all the jokes about Viagra the past week. Dr. Gonzales didn't have a sense of humor on it--he didn't reply when I asked him what I was supposed to do if I got a four-hour erection on the plane. Some male friends say Viagra just gives them a headache. I asked Dr. Gonzales what to do if I got a headache--take Advil, he said, without even a smile.
So I'm looking forward to my next plane ride to see how Viagra affects me. The rationale behind its prescription is that it opens up all the blood vessels that might otherwise clog in a long trip. Norma and I already wear so-attractive support hose for long flights and bus rides to prevent clots. Bette Davis again: growing old's not for sissies.
Life goes on happily and not always eventfully in San Miguel. I always get several emails a day from someone interested in moving to San Miguel, and most of the letters are a delight to answer. But sometimes one is unbelievable. The latest was a woman who only wanted to know if she could live an exact replica of her upscale US city lifestyle in SMA at a fraction of the cost.
I gave her the standard answer: I know expats who are living here on $600-700 USD Social Security a month, though they have to live extremely frugally and there is no room for an emergency, and they can't qualify for a residency visa so they must return to the border every 180 days to get a new tourist permit. I give a detailed example in The Best How-To Book on Moving to Mexico of how someone can live fairly well here on $1,350 a month Social Security, though again, even this amount does not allow for a sudden big medical bill, human or veterinarian. And most people on a low income cannot afford private medical insurance. Now that there's Seguro Popular (see my last blog), part of this worry is eased.
From a base of around $1,350 USD a month, what you need to live on in San Miguel depends solely on your choices. Some feel poor here living in a million dollar house with their million dollar tastes, because they feel caught in SMA's velvet glove--they don't want to go back to the US and do without maids and gardeners and inexpensive concerts and luxury restaurants half the cost of those in a luxury US area. If you must live an imported US upscale lifestyle, it might even cost more here than it would in the US because of all that is imported!
I also told the woman to look at my 1,500-photo albums of life in SMA on this website, to give her a complete look at San Miguel, not just the luxury areas. She'd be taking on a complete city, not just a wealthy colonia.
She wrote back horrified at the photos of working class areas with graffiti and rundown homes. She couldn't possibly live in an area where she wouldn't have internet and running hot water, or any area that wasn't the equivalent of Santa Monica. SMA was a third world country.
And San Miguel is glad not to have her, too.
Anyone who wants to move to SMA just to save money, and who expects everything to be exactly like it is in the States but cheaper, will be out of place here. You have to have at least some draw to Mexico and to this town! It's like marrying only for money--what a miserable life that can be. Some sort of attraction must be there to help you ride out the rough times when the workers don't show up at all and you wait home all day and then they botch the job, or some teenager snatches your purse, or rainy season is getting you down. Just like you need some strong pull to a partner to get you through his always leaving the toilet seat up or losing the toothpaste cap or spending the money you were saving for a dishwasher on a new aquarium.
Every time we get a glimpse of another exciting place to live or all the stupid little things are getting us down, we reevaluate living in San Miguel and always conclude that this is the best place in the world for us to live. The kinds of expats who move here are generally freer, more courageous, more worldly, more tolerant, and overall more interesting than neighbors anyplace else we've moved. The town just oozes charm for us, and there is always so much to do even if we decide to stay home at night. We know so much is going on that all we have to do is open the door and hail a cab or walk to any of the events listed in Atencion. We don't need to see every Day of the Locos parade or Good Friday reenactment any more, but we know these annual events are going on and if we do decide to go, we will be entranced and caught up in them same as our first time.
Seems like some rental prices are finally coming down, if not the house sale prices. A friend found a three-bedroom, three-bath unfurnished house in Col. San Antonio for $550 USD a month, with very large front and back patios, a flow-through floor design, very nice built in cabinets in the bedrooms, a parking space inside the wall--and it's on one floor! It's a couple blocks from where we had our restaurant, and we always found the area fine. I even see some small apartments being advertised on Civil_SMA for $300-400 USD!
So those in the US and Canada who are still looking for a cheaper place to live that is still charming, exciting, and full of creature comforts can find rentals here even cheaper than before. I think overall retirees will keep coming to Mexico even with the crime news for parts of Mexico, for the simple reason that it is cheaper here, no matter how low housing prices fall in some areas of the US. There's still property tax to deal with in the US, $3000 USD a year or more versus $300 USD a year or less here. The difference equals a few hundred dollars a month more disposable income.
One of the events we did decide to go out for was a blues concert by three women guitarists at The Shelter a few blocks from us in Col. San Rafael. I'd always thought the 60-seat Shelter was high up on the top of a hill off of Calzada Antonio Villanueva, and so we'd never gone to anything there. That's the way the signs pointed. But this time we decided to just take a cab there and let the cab driver think we were fools to take a cab a few blocks.
When he let us out just around the corner off of Villanueva, only a few feet uphill, we were the ones who felt foolish. Next time we won't hesitate to walk it.
Three of our favorite women entertainers in SMA were performing. Our friend Wendy Sievert rarely performs in public, though we asked her to entertain at our 25th anniversary in 2004. She sang our song, "In My Life," the Judy Collins version rather than writer John Lennon's version, and she sang it again Thursday night for us. How could we resist? She also sang two Randy Newman songs, one of which is now an anthem for Katrina sufferers, about floods that hit New Orleans badly in 1927, too. She did a very simple version of "Home, Home on the Range," with emphasis on the meaningful lyrics we'd never really paid attention to before. We hope this successful evening will draw her out to do more concerts.
Stephanie Turner is usually a rocker with a male guitarist and percussionist behind her, but for this night she returned to her blues roots. She has to be the sexiest performer in San Miguel, strutting her stuff no matter the genre. I loved her tale about a bluesman who was so attractive but trouble down to his bones and so she was going to walk. Her background includes taking a boat to Europe with only a few hundred dollars in her pocket and having to ask her mother for airfare home. She turned in the plane ticket and spent more time bumming around Paris and Italy, playing her guitar and singing her songs for spare change to support herself. One of her songs was about only needing a guitar and a hat to get by. She can totally pull you in.
Billie Rose keeps getting better and better. She started out noting that the blues can be really humorous, maybe even more funny than sad. She put her own twist on "St. Louis Woman," adding a few comments to the lyrics about the woman's diamonds only being cubic zirconium. She was pretty convincing on the number, "I think I'm better off with the blues." All three artists came together at the end for a jam session in which the audience got to sing along on such numbers as "Sweet Chariot." All in all, a very pleasant evening, and just one more example of the kinds of events that are going on just about every night someplace in San Miguel. Third world country indeed.
February 24, 2012--Six days in Hospital de la Fe with pneumonia; our process getting Seguro Popular Mexican health insurance; lousy weather interrupted by the brilliance of Candelaria flowers; another quick bus trip to McAllen, TX; two new books by expats on their lives in San Miguel
I was working on a blog about how we got Seguro Popular health insurance, the regular Jan-Feb mini rainy season that always takes everyone by surprise, all the flowers we got at Candelaria, and our last bus trip to McAllen for a third ophthalmologist's opinion on my eyes, when suddenly the rug got pulled out from under me and I foundnd myself in the hospital again.
When you read this I will be back in circulation and linked to Internet once more, but since Saturday night I've been in Hospital de la Fe battling to keep a sudden viral pneumonia from letting a bacterial infection into my lungs that could be fatal.
Drs. Alvarez and Quiroz believe the three different antibiotics I am on will stop it and I should be able to home after five or six days, but they keep telling Norma I'm not out of the woods yet.
And I'd been congratulating myself on staying it an entire year and a couple of days out of any hospital.
This writing won't be a massive pity party, promise. But other expats and newbies tell me they like to read about my medical misadventures because they may be next.
Wednesday morning I awoke with a piercing earache and head cold. I made the first available appointment at 1 pm for Dr. Quiroz and went off to our usual Wednesday morning drop-in/kaffeeklatsch at the Mega coffee bar for weekly gossip updates.
Dr. Quiroz said my lungs were clear, it was just a head cold, and sent me home with drops for my ears and a decongestant. He also said my blood pressure, at 90 over 60, was too low and to drop the half tablet of zestruetic a day and keep monitoring my blood pressure frequently. Of course when we got home the blood pressure monitor no longer worked.
As with anyplace, I often have trouble with different specialists seeing me for different though related problems. I run all prescriptions through the cardiologist.
Dr. Quiroz is an internist and kidney specialist on the staff of the private Hospital de la Fe, and he went to UNAM (the best government university in Mexico) and did 26 months graduate medical training at Mayo Clinic, with which he consults on problem cases.
Though we go to him for things like amoebas and parasites and bad colds, our main primary is Dr. Alvarez, also at de la Fe and at Cien Tech and the Heart Institute in Queretaro. He is the only board certified cardiologist in San Miguel, his English is perfect, he bends over backward to help people, and we adore him.
He wasn't reachable immediately, being in Queretaro. We followed Dr. Quiroz's instructions and I finished the week at a birthday party at which I suddenly felt out of it. I told the friend I'd been talking to that I could feel myself fading fast.
I'd been looking forward to a wonderful weekend at all the keynote addresses and panels at the SMA Writers Conference that weekend--ten prepaid tickets totaling more than $250 USD. Thank you once more, Aunt Dorothy. Instead, I couldn't get out of the recliner all weekend. $250 down the tubes. That's not the half of it. My ability to go on an upcoming tour is now in doubt and we may be out $3,500 USD non-refundable. Note to self: I thought we were too smart to buy any vacation without trip insurance.)
So I'm reclining and declining and Norma suddenly realizes this could be serious. My oxygen blood levels even using the BiPap evening breathing assistance machine are back in the danger ranges, as low as 69% out of the optimal 97-99% range. I can't think of anything more rigorous than my Fishdom iPad game into which I am sinking. I feel like a toad.
Norma has to decide between de la Fe, Hospital General, and the best private hospitals in Queretaro--Angeles and Cien Tech.
We had just gotten approved for the government-sponsored health insurance program open to expats, the Seguro Popular, at Hospital General. All expenses there would be very minimal. Even without Seguro Popular the most I've been charged was about $50 USD for ER stays of up to 12 hours with all blood work, x-rays and IVs included.
We knew the daily room rate at the private Hospital de la Fe was now a little over a hundred US a day. You have to put a $500 USD deposit down at de la Fe to get admitted--more for surgery and birth admittances.
But there's close parking at de la Fe, it was rainy and cold in SMA all week, I just didn't want to be on a public ward at General, the state hospital would be full of kids running around with colds and worse, and Drs. Alvarez and Quiroz couldn't come see me at General if I decided to go there. As in the U S, hospitals are very territorial over who gets to see patients there.
The Queretaro private hospitals would be even more expensive, though for some life-threatening procedures they'd be our first choice no matter the cost.
This was exactly the kind of case where Medicare doesn't pay in Mexico and we thought of making a run for McAllen. But I couldn't be off my BiPap machine that long, considering the blood oxygenation percentages I was running.
Off we went to de la Fe. Norma led, I sort of followed in a fog. They looked at their own oximetry reading and threw me on oxygen immediately. The percentage went from 84 to 97 in two minutes flat.
So why wasn't I feeling better? I learned later the ER doctor worried I might have H1N1 swine flu, the dreaded pan epidemic that didn't happen two years ago, but which doctors around the world are still watching for. Local papers say that there have been a couple of cases near here.
But my fever was low grade, nothing like the high fevers that are the first signs of H1N1. A couple of poor quality X-rays and everyone agrees: pneumonia.
I was never contagious during the hours I was with friends or in public, though Norma and the ER staff were exposed during my bad period.
As I write this, feeling much better, I'm 48 hours post admittance. The oxygen wall delivery system is my friend, even if I've almost decapitated myself forgetting I have this plastic noose. I've had six IV sticks to get two different IVs going in two days. (I've got bad veins.) The nursing staff and doctors are wonderful and my iPad entertains me even without Internet. (Theoretically the hospital has wifi for patients but apparently not in Room 1.) I've read four books.
The food is not the worst hospital food I've ever had, though Dr. Quiroz took one look at my dinner plate of a boiled skinless chicken thigh, boiled carrots, and a thin broth of chicken and carrots with a half cup of white rice, and he told Norma to start bringing in my dinner. Actually, on the farmer Schmidt side, that was a typical Sunday meal when I was being shoved around on that side of the family for much of my youth.
Friends come by every day and I really do feel that they're coming because they want to, not because it is an obligation as was true in most of my adult life. That is the big difference in San Miguel: our friends.
I'm looking forward to beating this medical crisis and maybe being able to go on another trip soon. Maybe I will be well enough to still make this upcoming one. It's iffy, and $3,500 prepaid USD hangs in the balance. We've had to lose worse in past medical emergencies.
I really miss hearing all the speeches at the Writers Conference. If you were at any of them, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
As I wrote, Norma and I were able to get Seguro Popular medical insurance at Hospital General recently, though we chose not to use it this time. I'll write about that process now and finish up with this hospital stay when I get home.
When President Calderon first announced his plan to extend universal health care to all Mexicans not covered by either IMMS (like the broad US Social Security system) or the government employees program, we saw the announcements at the newly opened SMA Hospital General, and we tried to sign up. We were still on only Social Security income and we stretched every cent.
But we were turned down as foreigners, and we understood. It was a huge expensive step aimed at poor Mexicans, and even at average Social Security we were always far above the average Mexican income. Mexico can barely help its own citizens, much less help US expats.
A year or two ago our coauthor Rolly Brook reported on his website that expats were now qualifying for Seguro Popular, though as usual in Mexico, not all Hospital Generals were doing it and the process seemed to offer from point to point.
It was facilitator Sonia Diaz, married to John Galvin, who was the first in SMA to run interference for expats and start helping them get Seguro Popular. Other facilitators were still busy telling expats that they shouldn't even think of draining a program for poor Mexicans.
Sonia, who uses firstname.lastname@example.org and whose cell is 415-106-1499, just kept working away at helping individuals and groups of expats to go through the process of getting Seguro Popular. She takes you through the steps to help you answer the questions in the personal interview at the Presidencia. Other facilitators are discovering that Sonia has cleared the path and they are doing the same thing and mostly charging much more.
What you need to bring:
Of course you need to show your original passport and MX and bring two copies to leave. One should be enough but you never know. As always you need original and copy of the most recent utility bill to prove you live where you say you do. At first it was thought we'd have to have our birth certificates apostilled and translated by an official MX government translator, as we have done for some other MX applications.
(Google "apostille" or do a search on my forums for more information, if you're interested. We had to do it for our marriage license, our past divorce papers, college diplomas and other work achievements for our work permits a few years ago.)
But it turns out you do not have to have your birth certificate apostilled to get Seguro Popular. Just have two copies (only one may be collected) and have your original to show, though again, you might not have to show it.
I think that if you are accompanied by a facilitator the officials have worked with before, they're less stringent than if you go on your own.
If you own your house, you may need a copy of your deed. Talk to your facilitator on that.
There is no charge at all for the actual application, and no charge for the insurance itself if you rent, your house has no more than three rooms beyond the kitchen and bathroom, you have only one bathroom, your income is solely from a pension like U S Social Security, and a few similar questions--level of education, for example.
If you are above these limits there will be a charge for each year's health insurance depending on your answers. I don't know the maximum but I believe it is in the range of a couple hundred dollars USD, below even what the IMSS fees are. The insurance is good for three years and you get only a sheet of paper saying you are covered--no handy card. You're supposed to keep that letter on you at all times. Make copies and have them laminated.
Oh, you do need an 18-digit CURP number and card. You may already have a number and card if you got one for a visa or work permit or other papers, and if you kept the card, great. We couldn't find ours. The real number may be on your visa card.
If you got a Mexican drivers license without having gotten a real CURP first, you may have a partial CURP made up by the clerk with the first numbers and letters right--they're based on your name and birthdate--but not the official ending that is based on the issuing office.
If you have no CURP or an incomplete one or you need a replacement card, go to the Plaza Real del Conde, the big building across from La Luciernaga mall on the corner, and get one on the second floor offices.
Or, if you've simply lost your card--and here's the trick we found from Sonia Diaz--you go to the CURP website and enter your CURP number from your visa and you can print off a new one.
Cut it along the edges, fold it in half so you get a front and back, and have it laminated at Office Depot or elsewhere and you have a new official card.
I'd give you the website Sonia gave us but that wouldn't be fair, she does this for a living. You can probably find it on your own, in which case you're probably one who has already read the Seguro Popular website in Spanish and figured it all out on your own and already obtained your insurance.
After ten years here, and eight semesters of Spanish (conversational through level two repeated over and over again) I'd still prefer to use a facilitator for government dealings. Sonia spent an hour with us in line and guiding us on the questions with the interviewer.
Two women expats who said they'd been in San Miguel for something like 20 years ambled in behind us (and behind a dozen young Mexican women grasping babies and toddlers) and asked us if there was anything special they needed to have besides their old gray inmigrado booklets.
Sonia made sure we had everything, I replied, to drum up some business for her.
They looked down their noses. We can do it ourselves. So what do we need?
I'd already noticed a poster on the wall with all the info in Spanish and pointed it out to them. They read it and said, we can get all that.
You'll need your CURP card, I said.
We've got the numbers in our inmigrado books, they said.
You'll need the cards, I repeated to their departing backs.
By the time they returned Sonia, Norma and I were next, and no one else new had come after.
Did you find your cards? I had to ask.
No, but we have our numbers.
When we both finished with our interviews and received a letter saying we are covered and a booklet of what is covered, we were standing around saying good-byes to Sonia when the two expats came hustling out. They seemed angry they'd been told they needed to bring their CURP cards.
Sonia had coached us on the questions we'd be asked. Even expats on Social Security substantially higher than the official's salary with a college degree can get Seguro Popular for free if a pension is their only income, they rent, and their casa has three three or less rooms other than the kitchen and one bathroom.
You also get asked if your casa has a dirt floor or tile. If you own, or live in a bigger casa, or work or have other income, you get charged an individually calculated amount. It is far less than the nearly $400 a year charge for privately purchased IMSS Mexican health insurance for those over 60.
There is no disqualification for pre-existing conditions, no medical exam, and no waiting period for full coverage. IMSS has all three.
Also unlike IMSS, Seguro Popular won't drop you before paying for a claim by saying you lied on your application if they decide you did have a pre-existing condition, which has happened to many expats, especially in the Ajijic area.
Now with Seguro Popular you have to go to Hospital General for your care. No, the insurance does not apply for Cien Tech or Angeles hospitals in Queretaro, or even for Hospital de la Fe in SMA. You won't get anything fancy or elective. Consider what you're paying for it, compared to hundreds a month for BUPA or other private medical insurance in Mexico or the US.
You'll probably continue to go to your own specialists and pay for them and your prescriptions out of pocket, and even pay full price for short stays in a private hospital where you'll have a private room and bath for around $100-150 a night bed charge.
But what Seguro Popular does provide is that backup security for those of us without private insurance other than Medicare or a Medicare Advantage plan back in the US, so that if we had something serious and immediate, we're covered.
If you have a bad traffic accident and have to be in traction and IVs in a hospital for a month, unable to get up to the US to use Medicare, you're covered.
As always, when you do have the option of going back to the US for something major, like cancer, you'll be weighing the costs of travel, hotel and meals for your spouse or partner, pet care and house sitting and routine cost for your continuing SMA residence, and all the copays and delays for care NOB. (In Mexican hospitals your partner can sleep on the sofa at night and someone is supposed to stay with you, to do all those things a patient buzzes an aide for in the US.)
I didn't have time to get to a US Medicare hospital this time but we would have chosen to be treated here anyway. We never thought I'd be in six days. The first bill we got for Saturday night ER and doctor, a room from Saturday night through Wednesday morning, four chest X-rays, oxygen, nebulizers, IV antibiotics and some lab work totalled 22,900 pesos, about $1,700 USD. That's less than the Medicare copays for an ER/hospital stay would have been on Medicare in the US. Doctor visits are going to be billed separately.
I expect the next three days' bill will be similar. Costly little venture. At Hospital General it would have been free or very little cost, I would have had generic meds, I would have been on a ward with shared bathroom, and Norma would have been on a chair instead of a sofa. Care probably would have been same quality.
Change of subject: the weather has been cold and rainy for weeks. We had the roof flooding problem repaired so we didn't fear any more waterfalls down all ides of our stairs this year, and it held through some bad storms, though we didn't have any 100-year storms this winter. Climate change seems to be making all usual weather trends more intensified. I doubt if all the rains we had did much to alleviate the severe drought this high desert area is experiencing.
We were really looking forward to the huge nursery sale at Candelaria this year. The nurseries local and from afar set up a week before the official Feb. 2 Candelaria day of the blessing of this year's seeds and crops, and it ran a week after. We went on the first Sunday ignoring the sporadic rain, and found it was as jammed as ever, though there were more Mexico City folks, maybe fixing up their weekend homes here, than the usual number of expats.
The government tourism offices keep saying we're breaking records for tourism, but that's because there's more internal tourism, especially from Mexico City. I do see quite a few expats in town, though. The wonderful Chili Cook-Off last month was more jammed than ever, seemingly mostly with Texans. Though I guess everyone's a Texan for Chili Cook-Off.
We ended up making three runs to Candelaria, the first to buy shade plants like hostas, decorative kale, and prayer plants. We have two big flower beds under now-giant palm trees in our front patio and even shade plants struggle to survive. Next trip we got flowers and the third trip our gardener told us we needed more dirt so we bought four big burlap bags of soil.
We didn't want to overload and dirty our little Atos so we looked for a stall selling dirt that would deliver to Colonia San Rafael. The first three shops didn't. But a guy standing by with a wheelbarrow said he'd deliver to us, for 100 pesos, about $7.50. Sounded fine to us at that point, so we said yes and drove home to wait.
It only took an extra ten minutes when we heard the knock on our front door. There was the guy, four bags in his wheelbarrow. He'd walked the load to us! Uphill much of the way! Big tip.
Our garden looks fresh and bright again. We've been told that many of the vendors who show up for Candelaria are not even from this growing region, and they force he flowers to look great for Candelaria but the plants don't last. But we've never noticed that. Annuals don't last anyplace, they're not supposed to.
Let's see, the last thing I planned to write about this blog is our bus trip to McAllen. We thought we'd gotten a directo to Queretaro but somehow ended up on an economico that barely made it in our allotted two hours to pick up an 8 pm Aves (www.gruposenda.com) to Reynosa. Easy ride, only two stops for Immigration to check for Central Americans, and a cursory Aduana check before going through an equally rapid US Immigration line.
Another bus to cross the border and we were in the McAllen bus station. $9 USD cab ride to the McAllen airport to rent a car. Off to Studio 6, the extended stay studio apartments of the Motel 6 chain. We shouldn't have bothered getting a fridge, stove, microwave, kitchen setup, and dining table for about $70 a night--the fridge didn't work and three out of four light bulbs were missing. We could have used the Hilton Garden Inn for the same, or one of the cheap motels in town showing room rates under $40 a night.
We ate Dan Dan noodles at P. F. Chang, lobster at Red Lobster, sausage gravy and biscuits at the Country Omelette, a lousy pizza at Papa John's, and Moo-lennium Crunch Blue Bell ice cream from HEB. We bought hatch canned chiles, canned corned beef hash, turmeric, blouses at JC Penney's, and a chenille sweater from Walmart to replace one our cat chewed. We saw "Iron Maiden" starring Meryl Streep and two more movies. All this in 2 1/2 days.
Oh, and I went to a UCLA-trained ophthalmologist, the purpose of the visit. My double vision may be from my lazy eye, in which case I can get a prism in my eyeglass lenses. or it may be due to my macular puckers in both eyes, in which case I can have surgery in which they take out the eyes and cut off the puckers and put the eyes back in. Yuck.
But there is no worsening of my stage one macular hole. That one is the worst surgery--the vitreous fluid is replaced with an air bubble and you have to stay on your stomach for maybe two weeks to avoid dislodging the bubble. So I didn't get any definite answer from this doctor, either, though he did say to only have either surgery as last resort because they don't always work and can leave you with worse vision than before. We had the lobster and ice cream after that news.
Easy bus ride back, though at the Aduana before Reynosa we did stop for about half an hour. First a soldier came on and just looked us over. Then MX Immigration came on and wanted to see our visas. Finally a woman from Aduana boarded and announced several luggage slip numbers for the owners to come forward. Luckily, none of the suitcases were ours. Oh, I forgot to mention we had a $600 Bose sound system in one suitcase. We would have declared it and paid duty gladly if anyone had asked us or if there had been a customs lane to declare. Nada.
What else. I did read two fun books by SMA expats while in the hospital. First was "Truth Be Told: A Tale of Expats and Outlaws in San Miguel de Allende" by N.J. Blake, about five sorority sisters who visit SMA more than 20 years ago and all end up living here through the years. The women's identities and, I assume, revealing details are hidden, but I could guess who several of them are fairly quickly. It is a riot--laugh out loud and gotta read a paragraph to Norma good.
The second is a more serious book in its breadth of coverage of a move to SMA, but it is even more funny in parts because the author was a part-time stand-up comic! Mark Saunders, "Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak." Best title for an expat book ever. He and his wife, Arlene Krassner, picked up and moved to SMA in 2005 and lasted two years. They moved back to Portland, Oregon for three years and finally realized SMA was the best place for them to live in the world.
They're back for good and Saunders is making the rounds of book signings and readings. It's a very good book. Have to say, it is similar to my "Falling...in Love with San Miguel: Retiring to Mexico on Social Security," though our styles are very different. if you liked my book, you'll like his.
It's Friday and I'm back from the hospital. I'm not supposed to leave the house to be exposed to any germs in my antibiotic-laden state until I see Dr. Quiroz again Tuesday. The first three days cost $22,900 pesos total and the last three cost $25,500, for a total for six nights in the hospital with heavy duty IV antibiotics, oxygen, nebulizers, and X-rays of about $3,800 USD. As I said, copays would have been close to that for a similar stay in the US on Medicare. Twelve bedside visits by Dr. Quiroz were another $10,000 pesos, around $750 USD.
And if we had been willing to be on a ward at Hospital General it would have been close to free with Seguro Popular.
Good to be home. Norma is thrilled, Lambchop is ecstatic, and the cats are ignoring me. Cats keep you humble.
January 6, 2012--My cruise report from September
I promised months ago to write about our first cruise, and finally I'm getting around to it. If you're one who only wants to read about San Miguel and Mexico, this is a blog entry you should skip.
After my aunt died in June, we planned a once in a lifetime vacation to Italy, followed by a 12-day Cunard "Wonders of the Ancient World" cruise on the Queen Victoria leaving from Venice and traveling to Split, Croatia; Greece and Turkey.
Most of our lives Norma and I had never dreamed we could take a cruise to anyplace. Cruises were for rich people. Even when we considered short cruises near the US we worried mainly that we'd gain a ton of weight on cruises' notorious 24-hour big feeds. (That didn't happen--the cruise ship is a thousand feet long and I have a poor sense of direction so that I walked constantly, and there were so many activities going on that I didn't spend all the time in the numerous restaurants and buffets as we feared. There were healthy alternatives for every meal as well.)
With today's prices in Europe in particular after we'd experienced prices in Italy, $1,200 base price per person for a 12-day vacation no longer seemed outlandish. Top quality hotels, all meals, entertainment and transportation in Europe were far more than $200 a day for two.
I was willing to go for an inside lower room at the lowest price but Norma had to have a porthole to avoid claustrophobia, so add $400 or more to the base prices. (That's for a partial view, in our case through the life boats. I didn't ask what the staterooms with balconies cost.) And then there is the final tip divided among all the room and restaurant workers, which Cunard charges in advance for at about $12 USD per person per day for all tips.
Alcoholic drinks were extra, as were all kinds of spa services. The excursions at every stop ranged from as low as $35 USD for a panoramic bus ride to see the highlights of each city, with perhaps a stop at a winery for a tour and shopping opportunity, to small-group personalized excursions of $600 or more each, $90 or so being the average per excursion. We thought about trying to see all the highlights of each stop on our own, doable for those who want to race through a strange city not knowing the transportation system, language or money. But we were very comfortable letting the cruise ship excursions sort it all out for us the simplest way possible to see the best at each stop, with the help of experienced tour guides who spoke English. We felt fine doing all of Italy on our own, but were less secure contemplating Croatia, Greece and Turkey on our own in a short time.
So cruises are not of course cheap, and you can add on infinitum to make the price anything you want. But they can be cheaper than you might think.
When we were signing up in advance for excursions, I picked the most extensive trips available, six to eight hours long, with two to three hours of strenuous walking up hills and stairs and through mud, so that we could see everything possible. And then after I was so exhausted walking through Italy's main sights, I changed our schedule to include more of those panoramic bus and boat rides aimed at those cruise passengers who weren't quite as fit.
The advance brochures gave each excursion a graphic indicating how strenuous it would be, from flat land to a few steps to six steps. When I was changing from the six-step excursions to the flat or one-step tours, I did keep one six-stepper, and worried the whole cruise if I would be able to walk to Santa Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul in eight hours. But it was the only excursion that took in all four places, and I wasn't going to spend all that money and time to get to Istanbul and then not get to see the four highlights I most wanted to see. (I survived.)
As a little girl in catechism classes, I thrilled to the stories of early Church history, from my namesake St. Lucy who I learned plucked out her eyes and carried them around in a clam shell rather than marry a pagan. Heathens converted instantly once they stood inside Santa Sophia, the largest church and dome in the world for a thousand years, and built on the foundation of an earlier church hundreds more years old. Even though the Moors captured Santa Sophia and made it into a mosque and plastered over the mosaics and raided the gold, I still wanted to see it.
Would I swoon standing in the middle of the domed wonder, which was supposed to be so huge you could feel suspended in eternity? No larger church dome was built for a thousand years--St. Peter's Basilica is now number one and the Duomo in Florence is number two. And now Santa Sophia is a museum with both mosque and Catholic church components restored and in balance. The altar now faces to Mecca, and not all the mosaics and statues have been restored. The plastering actually protected the mosaics for a thousand years.
But I did feel exactly the wonderment I wanted to experience, and I cried, standing in the middle of Santa Sophia 60 years from the time I first said to myself that I really, really want to see that before I die.
And now I have. I haven't been a Catholic for many decades but I still appreciate the depth and breadth of religious history and how it has shaped all of history.
Istanbul was the highlight of the excursions for both of us (before I return to the ship experience itself). One of the world's largest cities in the world, it is the only city in the world that spans two continents--Asia Minor and Europe. Residents and tourists cross bridges all day long between the two continents. The river is lined with wooden houses that now cost millions of dollars and often include a yacht space. We took a dinner boat ride our first night in Istanbul and marveled at the displays of opulence.
We visited Morocco on our own in 1984 and it was the worst three days of my life. Fez in 1984 looked like I imagined Istanbul would be like, and Istanbul in 2011 was the Morocco I had dreamed about. Its main shopping street seemed more like Paris than what I imagined Turkey would be like. We worried about getting lost in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, acres of tunnels and shops of high and low quality. We looked for landmarks and then stumbled across the next intersection that looked exactly the same--do we go left or right here? I tought of Tom Sawyer in the caves.
Norma bought spices galore, which vendors packed into airtight bags that they promised would get through customs. They did. We bought jewelry and purses for souvenirs. Norma's daughter and my sister were the most fun to buy for--forget the boys. When I was a kid I wanted a scarab bracelet that I could never afford. This time I bought one, of real Turkish amber. My Christmas and birthday presents.
Waiting for the end of the shopping excursion in the grand plaza in front of the five-hundred-old Spice Bazaar, we figured out how to order a gyro from a street stand (pay at one stand, stand in line at another) and sat on the Bazaar steps and listened to the voices from the minarets all over town, echoing and competing with each other, announcing afternoon prayers. Eerie. Beautiful.
And now I feel no need to see any more of the Islamic world, or even most of Europe again. But we are going to get to see Great Britain with a Brit friend who will do the driving and show us how she grew up, from an impoverished town to Cambridge. I do still want to see more of England, since we spent all our time in London our two previous European vacations. Gotta see a show or two while in London, yes, but last trip I wanted to see Stonehenge, and Norma absolutely would not drive on the left in England.
I couldn't figure out if any buses or trains would take me to Stonehenge back then, and a small part of me still wants to stand among Stonehenge and see if I feel anything of the history. Our Brit friend says it was much more fun to visit Stonehenge when she was a kid, when she could scramble on the stones and chip off small pieces of the monuments to take home. All over the world, countries are becoming more sensitive to the dangers tourism poses to their historical sites. But I want to see it anyway, and to drive through the small towns where Agatha Christie movies are set. I'm not a sophisticated world traveler. Those of you who are don't have to be told thatg.
While I'm talking about the excursions, I have to say that my second favorite was Santorini, a volcanic site that may be the foundation for the legend of Atlantis from its eplosion some 3,600 years ago, back at the time of the Minoan empire. The water in the center of the island is so deep blue, the sides of the volcanic explosion are a thousand feet tall, the stark white houses along the top like so much frosting when viewed from the sea, that I felt in another world. Google Santorini, Greece, it you're intrigued by any of this for photos and details.( I still haven't edited my 1,650 photos of our five weeks, though I did succeed in downloading them from my camera. One step at a time.)
I would have liked to spend more time in Athens, where we got to see the Acropolis and other Wonders of the Ancient World, which was, after all, the title of the cruise. I loved seeing the one remaining column from the Temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the site of the Colossus at Rhodes, another. It was fascinating to learn how one magnificent monument would be pirated to provide materials for a newer one. I thrilled to be at Hadrian's Arch, in the exact same spot I'd seen in grade school history books.
Men in ragged clothes climbed out of hovels and rushed to the excursion groups wherever we went, selling postcards, cheap jewelry and candies. The tour guides chased them away. Poor people lave to survive everywhere, and rich tourists are an obvious target. We never had the slightest hint of crime or suspicious activity, however. By now we know how to prepare for crime against tourists and Norma has a backpack with metal and chain reinforcements so that straps can't be cut or bottoms slashed. The excursions overall were of high quality and quite comfortable. Often the Queen Victoria's 16 lifeboats, which held several hundred people each, were used as the boats to take passengers to shore. Other areas, we could land right up against the docks near the tourist sites. Usually we needed buses to take us to the sites. Not quite ETNs but still very comfortable. (The ship has 1,000 guest rooms, and employs 1,000 to wait on the 2,000 guests.)
We sat around in the huge ballroom area before the excursions and received colorful stickers with the number of our excursions, waiting for our turn to take the lifeboats or buses to our destinations. It was all so easy, compared to our self-directed tour of Italy. So easy, so comfortable. How can anyone not like a cruise? It must have been sour grapes that made us look down our noses at the very idea of taking a cruise before--we thought we could never afford one so they must be snooty and boring.
Now Cunard is a British line and most (not all) cruise goers are older and middle class (there was a more expensive cruise going on out of the highest level, where the rest of us never got to go). So in some ways it was snooty. Some couples did look down their noses at us. We talked to many people but made friends with no one. Whether it was because we're open lesbians, or obviously not as wealthy as some, or more casual by nature and US background, we didn't fit in sometimes. It was never uncomfortable, though.
We signed up for the earlier dinner seating in the luxurious dining room, and four nights were very formal dress, four nights were semi-formal, and four were "elegant casual." We had to bring an extra suitcase because we had no real idea how to dress for formal and semi-formal. We weren't as dressy for any of the nights as many, but we passed inspection coming into the dining room. There actually were people at the doors whose job seemed to be to make sure no one came in wearing jeans or flip flops. If you wanted to dress casually, you could always eat 24/7 at the Lido Buffet on the ninth level, where 2,000 passengers could easily be fed at any time from buffet selections of Japanese, vegetarian, low-cal, Italian, Chinese, and other cuisines.
Our first night we put on lacy blouses over good slacks for "elegant casual" and headed for the dining room, wobbling on low heels. We signed up early for our own table, not wanting to be stuck with ten snobs the entire cruise. Next to us on one side was a table of those who would be the kind who would look down on us. To another side was a table of Japanese tourists who never looked at any of the rest of us. And directly next to us was another table for two, at which a guy sat wearing a lime green sports jacket, dark green slacks, a green and blue and yellow polkadot shirt, and blue and green striped tie. His wife wore a simple black dress.
The guy looked around at all the tables and said to his wife, "These blokes look like they just got out of the coal mines themselves a few years ago." We had to smile. They didn't come to the formal dining the next night, but the first formal night they returned. We were in long black dresses and rhinestone jewelry. He had a dressy suit, she was also in black and rhinestones. This time we talked a bit. He was the supervisor of a pipeline project, over 60 workers, and he kept making references to his lack of college and his discomfort with the rest of the passengers.
We enjoyed them a lot, for the maybe ten hours total we sat next to each other. One night it was his birthday and the crew of waiters brought out a special cake with his name on it and they sang, "Happy Birthday." They shared the small cake with us. A few nights later it was Norma's birthday and we shared our cake with them. We felt like friends by the end but made no effort to keep in touch.
There was a listing in the daily newspaper and calendar, slipped under our door each night, for "Friends of Bill" and "Friends of Dorothy," both of which met at 5 pm on one deck bar. I don't go to AA meetings any more and we didn't know whether to bother to go to "Friends of Dorothy," assuming it would be closeted men who wouldn't relate to open lesbians. And finally we did go and that's what it was. One lesbian couple, who seemed pretty closeted, was there, too, but we barely said boo to each other. We did hit it off with one gay male couple and we sat with them on the Istanbul river dinner boatride later. We exchanged cards and that was all. I didn't really expect to make any friends on the cruise so that was okay. Maybe if we had been more open to it, we would have.
The formal dining room meals were exquisite. One night we had lobster thermidor. Every meal was a choice of the spa (low-cal) menu, five appetizers and soups, two salads, five entrees and five desserts. A sommelier came around to everyone and asked questions about favorite wines and then suggested bottles for every course. Norma bought two bottles of rose that lasted her all 12 nights. He kept them for her and served her personally from her own bottle each meal.
We preferred breakfasts in the Lido because the choices were more casual and varied, and we didn't have to be there between 7 and 8:30 am. Around 9 am we'd stroll past the Japanese section, to the British section of items like thick fatty bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and kippers. I was drawn to the bagels, lox, smoked trout, kippered herring, tomatoes, cream cheese, capers and onions section. Norma went to the US breakfast section to choose among fried or scrambled eggs or custom omelets, pancakes and waffles, corned beef hash, potato cakes, and several kinds of sausages and bacon. The fresh fruit and juices section, toasts and rolls and pastries, coffees and teas, and so much more made breakfast our main meal of the day.
At lunch we liked to go to the English pub for fish and chips, or ploughman's platter, or chicken curry, or bangers and mash, or shepherd's pie. There was high tea in several of the lounges every afternoon. We missed those. And then dinner was at 6:30 pm for the first seating, 8:30 for the later diners.
All day long for those who didn't go on the excursions were many kinds of activities, including a book club. The ship library was three stories high, with a polished wood staircase between the levels (as well as the elevators in three sections of the ship). It looked like an excellent casual reading library, with all my favorite mystery writers. But I didn't get any fiction read this trip. Several authors were on board to sign books and talk about their works. One was a specialist on boat building and he led some discussions that sounded kind of interesting. Just about every day was a cooking class, or a tour of the ship's kitchen, or a discussion on wines, and certainly a history background session on the next stop.
I went to two of the three water painting classes, which actually were valuable learning experiences for painters of every level. I didn't expect to learn anything because I've had a dozen watercolor courses, but the teacher talked about how to capture the Greek island colors and had us recreate a small landscape with a sharp white Greek chapel, the shadows in rose and blue lavendar. We could have brought our own art materials but I haven't done any painting since I started writing againi in 2006, so I had to buy a $35 USD packet of colors, a palette, sketch pad, watercolor paper, pencils and erasers, etc. I still have the paintings I did of a countryside cottage, that Greek chapel, and a fruit still life. I didn't get inspired enough to go back to painting again, but I thought about it.
Every night was a stage show, from Las vegas style revues to a version of "Riverdance" and comedians and singers. Teh first show as for those from the early dinner seating, at 8:30, and the second followed at 10:30 pm.
Only one night was the weather so rough that we couldn't walk easily. I held onto each seat walking into the stage show that night and feared I would end up in someone's lap. It did have to be a formal night so we were in low heels, too. I kept telling people whose lap I was approaching, "I'm not drunk, really." One woman did fall but wasn't injured. Red carpeting and soft seats throughout the auditorium. You could pay extra to sit in one of the boxes. We watched several couples fall asleep during the shows, thinking they were hidden in the box seats.
There was a free self-service laundry on each floor and the first night was a fight among all of us who needed to wash all the clothes we'd used in the days leading up to the cruise. A Spanish woman came through and dumped all of our clothes out of the dryer and onto the floor while she put in hers instead. Norma discovered the switch and put the woman's load on the floor. They kept running into each other in the laundromat every time Norma did a load and teeth were bared. We both preferred to do laundry very late at night, which is why we kept conflicting over the few machines.
The disco on the tenth level was supposed to have more modern music, such as a disco night. We showed up for that one but no one wanted to dance, just wait for everyone else to get up. No one ever did. One night in the formal dance ballroom it was '50s and '60s night, but the orchestra apparently had only learned the early '50s songs like "Vaya Con Dios." Maybe three songs were rock, like "Shake, Rattle and Roll." We did dance to that one, and there was a small group of women led by the activities director who were dancing to the rock. Then a few professionally trained jitterbug dance couples got on the floor and showed off their training. They were mostly in their '60s. Not exactly what we had in mind. We missed Saturday night at the Longhorn with a local band to really dance, our style. The other nights maybe 50 couples showed off their ballroom dance styles in rehearsed routines, with other couples occasionally twirling around on the edges of the dance floor. Interesting.
That's about it. We really enjoyed the cruise and will probably do another some day. The one we both would like to be our next vacation of a lifetime is the entire coast of Latin America, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and up again. Norma has been doing research and says that the basic cost is under $2,000 each. We'll see. We can start saving for that one now. We can't do this year's kinds of trips over again, but we do want to travel as much as possible in our last years. I've been to Alaska but Norma would like to take a cruise up to the glaciers, while they still exist.
When we were talking about our bucket lists on the trip, many other tourists didn't want to even think about such a thing. Aren't you both a little young to be talking about a bucket list, some would ask. Hey, do as much as we can, because you never know. I read in the papers that an old boyfriend from the '60s dropped dead last week, at age 78. I don't think he ever left Detroit and the US. What a boring life we would have led. But he lived the kind of life he wanted and so have I.
January 4, 2012--Update on Mexican Immigration law changes that are to come in three to four months; official response to my questions from SMA INM Director; new fees to be charged for IMN services for 2012, at least until new laws and categories are announced
I emailed the head of the SMA immigration office, Lic. Clemente Villalpando, Delegado Regional en Guanajuato, Instituto Nacional de Migración, with a list of questions regarding the coming changes in the immigration laws.
Here are his complete responses, IN CAPItAL LEtTERS, to my original email questions. He expects it will be three or four more months before INM offices have the new regulations in hand before he can know all the answers for sure.
He verifies that the old FM3/no inmigrante and FM2/inmigrante visas will be combined into a new Temporary Resident visa, and the previous inmigrado card will be replaced by a Permanent Resident card. It will take only four years on a Temporary Resident visa to qualify for a Permanent Resident visa.
In easier format, here are the new INM fees for the various new visa applications and renewals for 2012, though these will undoubtedly change when the new regulations are released and go into effect, along with the new terminologies and categories:
New no inmigrante/FM3: $2001 pesos, up from $1,800 last year.
Renewal: $1.451, up from $1,300
New inmigrante/FM2: $3,889, up from $3,500
Renewal: $3,140, up from $2.800
Adding a work permit to either visa will be $2,289, up from $2,102.
To apply for inmigrado, which will be called a permanent resident visa under the coming rules, is $3,139, all fees for 2012 so far.
(The website to find out current fees for various INM services: http://www.inm.gob.mx/index.php/page/D_S_M_O
So we will continue to wait until the new regulations are released for the rest of our answers. I hope his gracious response helps to ease some expats' concerns. Until the new regulations are released in three or four months, the current laws apply. Below is my letter and the INM responses in capital letters.
....I have several questions now about the new INM laws that were announced last May, that were to be implemented when regulations interpreting the laws were written and released. That was supposed to have happened within 180 days, or some time in November. [Now there is much uncertainty about when the regulations will be released and the new laws implemented.
I would appreciate your responses to my questions, not only for my website but for other expats who would like to know from an authoritative source what is happening with the proposed changes.
1) I have heard that the new regulations have been released and the SMA INM office will begin operating under the new INM laws Jan. 2, 2012?
TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY IN OPERATIONS. BUT THE NEW LAW IS DOES NOT APPLY AT ALL. WE ARE WAITING FOR DE PUBLICATION ON THE DIARIO OFICIAL DE LA FEDERACION OF THE "REGLAMENTO" (RULES AND PROCEDURES) MEANWHILE WE CONTINUE WITH THE ACTUAL LAW.
2) Is this an accurate summary of what the new laws say:
The no inmigrante (old FM3) and inmigrante (old FM2) visas will be combined into one, called temporary resident.
NON INMIGRANTE AND INMIGRANTE WILL BE THE TEMPORARY RESIDENT.
INMIGRADO WILL BE PERMANENT RESIDENT.
WE HAVE TO WAIT FOR REGLAMENTO IN ORDER TO KNOW EQUIVALENCES,
Expats can apply for permanent resident (like the old inmigrado) after only four years on a temporary resident visa.
Those who are married to Mexicans can apply for permanent resident after only two years on a temporary resident visa.
YES, THOSE WHO ARE MARRIED WITH A MEXICAN CAN APPLY FOR A PERMANET RESIDENT ONLY IF THEY HAVE TWO YEARS AS A TEMPORARY RESIDENT.
Others may apply for permanent resident status earlier based on a point system, with points given for money to be invested, special skills or training they bring to Mexico, and volunteer service they perform.
THE PONTS SYSTEM IS NOT CLEAR SO FAR. IT IS NOT APPLYING UNTIL WE HAVE REGLAMENTO.
There will still be the FMM form for all foreigners coming into and exiting Mexico, compiled for statistical purposes.
There will still be a place on the FMM for those who are coming into Mexico just for 180 days, as a tourist.
YES BUT WE WILL NOT CALL THEM TOURIST ANY MORE. THE PROPER TERM IS GOING TO BE, VISITOR WITH NO LUCRATIVE ACTIVITY.
It will still be possible for expats who do not have enough income under the temporary resident visa requirements to come in on an FMM, stay in Mexico for 180 days, then exit Mexico and come back in immediately on a new 180-day FMM, this process to be repeated indefinitely.
The new minimum monthly income requirement for a foreigner to qualify for the temporary resident visa will be 250 times the Mexico City minimum daily wage, which in 2012 is $62.3 pesos, or $15,573 pesos a month minimum monthly income.
That is equivalent to $1,137 USD at a rate of 13.7 pesos to the dollar. But the SMA INM office will continue to use $1,200 USD as the minimum monthly income requirement for a temporary resident visa.
YES, MORE OR LESS. IT DEPENDS ON EXCHANGE RATES.
An expat will be able to get a work permit under the temporary resident visa. This will require an additional fee of
$1451 + 550 pesos at application.
PRORROGAS RENEWALS FOR A NON INMIGRANT, NON LUCRATIVE ACTIVITIES 1451, AND 2356 FOR LUCRATIVE ACTIVITIES
REFRENDOA RENEWALS FOR A INMIGRANT: 3,140.
The fee for obtaining a temporary resident visa will be $1451 pesos in 2012.
The fee to apply for a permanent resident visa will be
FROM $3,139 in 2012.
There will be no renewals required of a permanent visa card. It will allow working. Aduana will not allow holders of a permanent visa card to import a foreign plated vehicle.
The paperwork required for a new temporary resident visa will include:
a) Proof of sufficient income, i.e., $1,200 USD minimum monthly income, documented by the three most recent months' bank statements
b) Proof of residency, such as a utility bill.
c) Four photos in color, infantil size, no hair on forehead, ears showing, no jewelry or glasses.
d) A letter of application.
e) Original and copies of US passport and any recent INM visa or FMM paperwork.
THE SAME SO FAR, WITH REGLAMENTO WILL CHANGE.
It will only be possible to apply for a new temporary resident visa within Mexico. Mexican consulates within the US and Canada will be able to help foreigners do the first step in applying for the temporary resident visa, but the process must be completed within Mexico at the INM office closest to the foreigner's new home within Mexico.
The first step in the application process will continue to be online at the website now used for FM3 and FM2 applications and renewals. The SMA IMN officde will continue to have computers available at the office to assist those who need to use the website for their application or renewal.
After the first year application, proof of income and residency will no longer be required for the next three years. What is required is a letter signed by the visa holder that all information on the original application is still valid.
YES, SO FAR
After four years on a temporary resident visa, a foreigner can choose to go back to starting over on year one of a new temporary resident visa. It is not necessary to move up to permanent resident.
YES, SO FAR
Those who own property in Mexico or who are dependents on the primary visa applicant need only have half the minimum monthly income requirement. To qualify for this deducation, a marriage certificate or birth certificate or adoption papers is required to prove dependency. A deed is proof of property ownership.
YES, SO FAR
SOME OF THIS WILL CHANGE WITH THE NEW REGLAMENTO. WE ARE EXPECTING THREE OR FOUR MONTHS TO HAVE IT.
January 1, 2012--Tortillas jump to 14 pesos a kilo in our neighborhood; La Gripa strikes hard for the holidays; now I'm on a Bipap breathing machine at night, and having double vision double checked; somebody new in our neighborhood really loves fireworks; forgetting to bring out the turkey white meat for Christmas; hope springs eternal on when visa changes will be implemented
Expats talk among ourselves on how much inflation there really is in Mexico and in the US, and how it affects both us and Mexicans. A huge jump took me by surprise yesterday in the price of the most basic of Mexican staples, the corn tortilla. Our nieghborhood tortilleria raised the price of a kilo of regular corn tortillas to 14 pesos, from 10 at this time last year. First they went up to 11, then there was a poster saying they were going to charge 12 so be prepared, then it did go to 12, and then I read government pressure was exerted all over the country to keep this essential food item at a lower price and the price went back down to 11. But suddenly the price is 14 pesos.
Of course a few pesos increase isn't going to affect us but to our working class neighbors this jump will hurt. The supermarkets still charge much less, maybe six to eight pesos a kilo, but theirs are nowhere near as good as our local tortilleria. We prefer corn tortillas that are a little bit on the yellow side instead of pure white--more corn taste, to us--and that show some grill marks and charring where they go through the giant machine. It would be nice to find a local place where the tortillas are shaped by hand and cooked individually on a comal, but that is a bit much to ask. And we're certainly not going to cook our own that way, not for 14 pesos!
At least US expats are getting a cost of living increase in our Social Security checks starting this month. I haven't heard if our Medicare Part B premium will go up an equal amount to take away our raise. Health care is the continuing unpredictable quotient in any expat's retirement plans. I had to get two new prescriptions this week for La Gripa, the cold that borders on the flu and lingers around SMA most winters, especially hard around Christmas and New Year's. We had three couples cancel on various dinners this week for variations on respiratory infections, and then I came down with it myself Thursday night and was conveniently seeing Dr. Gonzales, the pulmonary specialist at Angeles Hospital in Querétaro, the next day.
A top-level specialist at a private hospital these days charges 600-800 pesos for a visit, by the way, and you can get in often the same day and he or she will spend an hour with you actually listening to you and running tests. My cold was a minor problem, compared to the real reason for my visit, but it was affecting my breathing enough that Dr. Gonzales gave me two prescriptions to take for five says that ran 600 pesos combined. Okay, for us a 1,200 peso bill for a doctor's visit and meds is about $88 USD at 13.7 pesos to the dollar, and if we were still just on Social Security that could be a real hardship.
We are finding that there are expats still living in San Miguel on around $600-700 USD Socail Security income a month, by renting a small one bedroom at Chelo's apartments at Ancha and Stirling Dickinson or elsewhere for under $300 USD a month; cooking at home and enjoying mostly free entertainment; using free wifi in the Jardin and many restaurants, and otherwise living very frugally. (They have to take the bus up to the border every 180 days to get a new FMM tourist permit to stay legal.) A working class or middle class Mexican probably goes to one of the 30-peso doctors next door to Farmacias Similares and doesn't even get prescribed these newer medicines because the doctors know they can't afford it anyway.
But i was handed two prescriptions, one for a pediatric formula of prednisone cough syrup, very low dosage so as not to interfere with my other meds, and a new antihistamine that dissolves instantly on the tongue, no NSAID since they can be bad with my other meds. Only for five days. I was shocked at the bill. And these two drugs are not even the outrageous ones, the highly advertised new ones that aren't generics yet.
So I've been thinking about future budgeting, as we all tend to do at the start of the new year. With elections in both countries, the economy is going to be a major issue, with lies, exaggerations, and tweaked statistics being put forth that will prove anything a politician wants. I am so sick of the smear tactics. As Lily Tomlin put it, I keep getting more and more cynical, but no matter how hard I try, I can't keep up.
Both, or all, sides of the issues involved in building the 8,000 supposedly low income housing units out in Atotonilco, challenge my balancing ability. How can be I be against low-income housing, even though some say it isn't needed, and others say that many small homes have three or more families who all need affordable homes of their own, and they don't have the kind of jobs that provide proof of a stable income. We all know what happened to the housing bubble in the US when families in the US that couldn't really afford a home were sold homes out of their economic reach, and their bad mortgages bundled and sold as AAA quality to huge profits for the bundlers, and then it all went bust. But who am I to question Mexico's home loan practices, with our example?
Former Mayor Luis Villarreal came out with a position statement on his Facebook page charging that current Mayor Lucy Nunez Flores's approval of the permit for these 8,000 homes is illegal because the development violates many laws regarding building on land of archeological, historical and ecological significance and possibly endangers SMA's UNESCO World Heritage designation. He's Pan, she's PRI, and both parties and also the PRD and Green Party will be throwing charges and lawsuits at each other through to the July election and the October installation of the winners at all levels of government.
So here I sit, an old hippie and political activisst, living in a country where the Mexican constitution and other laws forbid involvement by foreigners in any way in Mexico's political proess, being told I am allowing evil to triumph by not getting involved, and not knowing all of the issues for sure anyway even if I were already a dual citizen allowed to vote. (I still hope one day to have improved my Spanish enough to be able to go through the naturalization process, but I suppose that means I need to be working at my Spanish along the way instead of waiting for fluidity to magically appear.)
Enough of politics, my main concern right now has to be improving my breathing, which has always been shallow, but for the past year I've had occasions where the oxygenation in my blood was as low as 83% instead of 98-100%. Last February when we were opening the pizza restaurant (at the same time that we found out my aunt's breast cancer had spread to her liver and she was so out of it she thought it was 1912 and Kennedy was president), I went to the ER for a spell of arrythmia and exhaustion.
Hospital General put an oximeter on my finger and the alarms kept going off when the rate dropped below 90. According to my internet research you should be on oxygen supplementation when it goes below 92, and US insurance companies will pay for home oxygenation if it is below 88. Mine kept registering 83-85%, and my coloring was blue-gray, people told me.
I carried on because we had to, no time to think about my own health at the moment, but on the Italy trip and in Las Vegas I again kept turning blue and gasping for breath. Enter Dr. Alvarez, my cardiologist at Hospital de la Fe (and the only baord-certified cardiologist in San Miguel), and pulmonary specialist Dr. Gonzales at Hospital Angeles. I am now on a bipap machine to assist my breathing at night, and it's a miracle! I feel so much better, my coloring is rosy, and Norma says my personality is back. I see now I was walking around in a bit of a fog a lot. My home oximeter registers around 94% most of the time now.
A bipap machine, by the way, is the latest version of the CPAP machine, CPAP standing for continuous positive airway pressure, a steady stream of air being emitted into your face mask all night long so that more air enters your lungs. The newer bipap machines emit two levels of air pressure, a higher one when the machine senses you are about to take a breath, and then lesser pressure for exhalation. I thought I would hate wearing a face mask at night but I have to admit, I love the machine, it makes me feel so much better. If I were to get worse, I could use it a few more hours a day while on the computer or in front of the TV, and there is always mobile oxygenation.
Another solution that would raise my oxygenation about four percentage points is to move to a lower altitude--out of the question, of course. I did notice my rates were better at lower altitudes, but not enough to give up my beloved San Miguel. I still have lots more options to try before I ever did that! But I do know people who have had to do so. You'll see me with an oxygen machine before that happens!
My other health problem that I will have double checked at a top US opthalmologist soon is double vision.
Norma has always been the better driver and so I got out of the practice and was thinking about trying again on some back road. We were driving one day when suddenly the road ahead split and half veered off to the left and we were apparently about to crash broadside into the car ahead. I screamed but instantly realized that if I closed one eye the road went back in place. My lazy left eye that has always wanted to close has now come to the point where the right and left eyes don't want to align their images. So far I can control it by closing one eye in an emergency, or really concentrating on making my eyes align, and fighting my tendency to close the left eye except in an emergency. So now no more plans to try driving again, and we will see a top eye doctor to see what can be done.
Enough about health. Someone new in our neighborhood really, really loves fireworks, the booming bomb sound kind, and our dog is hysterical. The cats run for closets and under beds, too, but our dog stands in a corner and shakes until one of us sits on a chair and holds her until the guy runs out of fireworks for the day. We need to go to Victoriana across from Belles Artes (which is closed for remodeling and will reopen in the fall), and buy some melatonin drops, Rescue Remedy, for pets afraid of fireworks. The guy is new, and we haven't gotten around to it yet. The worst is probably over by now. Maybe for Three Kings Day he will have a new stash to explode, and we'll be ready for him by then.
Luckily I felt too sick to go out New Year's Eve and we were home to hold Lambchop. We'd planned to go down to the Jardin and join the massive party. Tons of Mexican tourists are in town for the holidays--some gringos, too, but I think the numbers from the US and Canada are way down. We'll see this month if we get our usual winter influx of snowbirds or are they too scared off by media images that all of Mexico is under siege. Peaceful in San Miguel.
We made turkey for a potluck Christmas dinner and forgot to serve the white meat. Our guests were too polite to complain and maybe thought we were hogging the white meat for ourselves for leftovers. I wouldn't notice, I like dark meat, and if I had hogged anything it would have been turkey thighs. We're still living down that one. And it was good that we did have the turkey for when I came down with La Gripa. We've had six meals of turkey sandwiches so far. I have a booklet with 40 tried and true turkey leftovers recipes but we're barely up to making sandwiches, which we love. More in the freezer awaits the recipes.
In other news on San Miguel, we heard reports that some of the immigration employees were already training on the new regulations to implement the changes to the INM rules announced last May 10, 2011. The regulations to implement the laws were to have been written and implemented within 180 days, then that deadline was extended, and now INM's website says it will be months more.
Maybe there will be a gradual rollout of the new regs as they are written and disseminated, and maybe each INM office will go at its own speed, and maybe every expat in Mexico will go nuts in the process. Keep saying to myself, in the US not every clerk and every official is up on every law change either.
I remember we were stopped for speeding on a back road in Texas right after the federal law had changed to allow a higher speed on unmarked rural roads. We tried to tell the officer that the laws had changed, and he said in a booming voice, "The great state of Texas will never change." And then the next day I read in the papers that Texas did indeed raise its speed limit for unmarked rural roads.
[Originally I had posted here most of a letter I sent to the SMA INM director asking when the changes would take place, and if I have an accurate idea of what the new procedures will be. Since then he has responded to all my questions and my letter with his responses is the subject of my Jan. 4, 2012 blog above.]
December 23, 2011--Holidays here started Dec. 12 and run to Jan. 6; Ajijic gets its turn at bad crime PR after SMA had the spotlight early last year; US and Canadian tourism is down but Mexico City weekend visitors are carrying on; more new restaurants; work suspended on proposed McDonald's for Centro; do expats have the right to demonstrate against Mexican political decisions? Our Las Vegas family reunion
Just as with our Italy trip and cruise, we didn't announce ahead of time that we were going to be out of our house for eleven days, even though our housekeeper stayed here while we were gone. We're back from our family reunion in Las Vegas and well into Christmas planning, though our neighborhood and most of SMA has been partying since before Dec. 12, feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
There are two painted life-sized portrayals of the Virgin within two blocks of our house, and the streets were blocked most nights for a week leading up to Dec. 12 with prayer sessions and processions. Another shrine half a block away has a life-sized statue enclosed in glass. All are well-lighted and the bouquets haven't totally faded yet.
Some days it gets a little hairy finding a way into our neighborhood not blocked by processions and gatherings in December. The posadas of children reenacting the Biblical story of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn crisscross our corner from Dec. 16 to tonight, landing at a different house each night before being welcomed to the manger scene.
San Juan de Dios mercado turns into a giant Christmas store all month, and other stalls spring up with lights and ornaments, and new dresses for the baby Jesus doll which doesn't appear in the nativity scenes until Christmas eve.
One place you'd barely know it is Christmas, however, is the Jardin, where only a few nativity scenes, a big red screen with small red devils, and a large silver metallic angels status are the only decorations. The city owns a giant Christmas tree framework for poinsettia plants to make up a focal point for holiday decorations, but Mayor Lucy Nunez doesn't put it up. It and other city statues and decorations purchased by former Mayors Luis Villarreal and Correa are in storage.
The election is in July for a new administration to be installed in October. The charges, countercharges and lawsuits inevitable with each change of administration are underway. Tradition has it that every political figure loots whatever city funds he or she can get a hold of at the end of the terms, though this is one of many such traditions being fought against in the name of the fight for honest and transparent government.
The average expat, inadequate in Spanish, has no idea what is going on, not really, no matter how well connected our housekeepers and gardeners are. And the Mexican Constitution forbids foreigners (i.e., us, unless we have achieved Mexican citizenship) from influencing Mexican politics in any way.
To me, that includes protesting government decisions made even at the local level which are political battlegrounds among the parties. But there are many non-citizen expats currently involved in protesting a proposed McDonald's for Centro. The city's director of urban planning first approved the permit but then under pressure withdrew the permit, saying he hadn't been aware it was for a McDonald's. And then he was fired by the Mayor and City Council.
PAN, the political party of the previous mayors, is considered more conservative and favorable to business, compared to the PRI, PRD and the Green Party, each of which has its own stance regarding what SMA should be. To me, the McDonald's decision is highly political. But SMA Consular Agent Ed Clancy has stated that he is in favor of expat citizen involvement in community issues. I did a lengthy post in the forums on this issue, which I will copy at the end of this blog.
Just a little on our family reunion, which is by nature very personal. Norma has never gotten used to my writing about some of our personal stuff on this blog, and her family certainly didn't sign on to their lives being an open book that they don't get to proofread.
We stayed three days in the Excalibur, which is comparatively inexpensive and which has a floor of children's games that we treated the three little greatgrandchildren to. They sat on their fathers' or mothers' laps and aimed water pistols at racing horses, ships, and dragons to see who could get their target to the finish line first, to win a little stuffed animal. They whacked moles, they tossed balls into floating bowls, they aimed toy guns at ducks, and in general had a blast. The fourth greatgrandchild, a boy, was sick and had to stay home.
I was surprised how independent and strongwilled these preschoolers of today are. I made the mistake of joining into a game of tag with two of the girls and their grandmother, grabbing one of them when she raced by and tickling her for a second before letting her get back to her chase. She stopped, put her hands on her hips, and said, "I don't like to be tickled."
Well, excuse me, and come to think of it, I didn't as a kid, either, but everyone was tickled unmercifully in my family, and instinctively I carried on the tradition that should rightfully be laid to rest. I apologized and she kept looking at me sideways in case I even thought of tickling her again.
One grandson came in his formal Navy dress, along with a sailor buddy, and they admitted the uniforms help them get "chicks" and free drinks. Another grandson we'd worried about now has a job in the copper mines near Phoenix, blowing up mountains. He's having, pardon the pun, a blast, and is considering buying a house.
Out of all 19 at the reunion, only one is still disfunctional--which we think is really great! We were delighted to see how the grandkids have turned into responsible young adults and the greatchildren are far more free and expressive than repressed Norma and me were in preschool years. So the main goal of the family reunion was accomplished.
Before and after the Excalibur time, Norma and I stayed at the Mandalay Bay and lived it up. Yes, we gamble, on the penny slots, and over eleven days we lost a couple of hundred dollars but we kept up the suspense and the fun on that amount that kept rising and falling the whole time.
Vegas tightens its slots unexpectedly. When we got there, loose as a goose. Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, penny pinchers. Once the crowds left, we had a chance to win some more.
The slots are such fun these days. My favorite set off a thunderoud buffalo stampede across the screen whenever I won. Some slot machines had howling wolves and coyotes to announce winners. Neptune kept rising out of the ocean in another machine that paid off well for me. I was ahead some $60 in pennies at one point!
We love the shows of Las Vegas the most and were able to see two Cirque de Soleil shows that we'd been wanting to see for years, the Beatles "Love" and the Elvis tribute.
Can't say enough about the Beatles show. Their most psychedelic songs were interpreted with such spectacular special effects that I felt carried away with the music. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is one of my favor ites, mostly because my in-the-closet uncle called me that all the time, in honor of my hippiedom of the '60s and the fact my middle name is Lucy. This Lucy spun around her trapeze line so fast at the end that she disappeared into the sky.
"Lady Madonna" was a very pregnant young black woman who stood up for herself and danced in a tribute section to African-American music with jive tap dancing. Four young boys playing the teen John, Paul, George and Ringo came in and out of scenes that portrayed early life.
"You Say You Want a Revolution" didn't really convey all the conflict within the antiwar movement over that fairly establishment song but the crackdown by the police on the demonstrators felt familiar enough.
I'm just three years younger than Norma but she was married with kids while I was still in college and taking part in all that. So she wanted to see the Elvis show even more. While we waited for the curtain to go up, about 20 young women dressed from the '50s were milling with the audience and leaping onto the stage whenever it sounded like Elvis was about to appear. Ushers, also really dancers, slid them off the stage, and then they were all in the opening songs.
One particularly impressive scene to me was an interpretation of Elvis and his twin brother in the womb, swinging and interacting in gymnastics as if suspended high on stage, and then the twin crashing to the ground in blackness to represent the death of the twin at childbirth. Totally unexpected for a tribute show.
Have to say my favorite dance and gymnastics number was interpreting Elvis in boot camp, learning to march in perfect timing, scaling those walls. All the young people who had been ushers and teenyboppers in the opening scenes now could show their determination and strength.
The show included songs from Elvis's early days when he was heavily influenced by the black church, and when he brought the songs of "race music" to a white audience. Big Mama Thornton's version of her "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" was nothing like Elvis's, but he brought enough raunch and sex to his first '50s songs to shock his elders.
The movie clips of all the women Elvis kissed in his abundant movies were fun. Great shows!
We also saw "Menopause: the Musical" and related to every rewrite of rock song lyrics. We shouldn't have bothered to go see Sting, since we're not huge fans of his, and we were out of place in all the fan adoration surrounding us. I'd hoped he'd do more of his political songs but instead got "Every Breath You Take," the stalker song. All these couples around us were singing the lyrics to each other as if these words showed a healthy relationship. Can you tell I detest that song? I'd hoped it was so old he might not perform it still.
We had a great time in Las Vegas, of course catching up on our favorite chain restaurants as well as local favorites. In 'n' Out Burger, Streets of New York pizza, Baja Fresh, PF Chang's were all as good as we remembered. Chevy's Mexican was not so hot. Raffles in the Mandalay Bay offered a lobster and asparagus omelet in the morning that started my day right.
When we were with the family at the Excalibur we treated them to a buffet each day and they stuffed purses with extra food for breakfasts and snacks. Buffets are buffets.
We were disappointed with two meals other than our chains--Carnegie Deli had such a huge pastrami and corned beef sandwich, at least eight inches high held together with long toothpicks, that we couldn't even split it, and it was so dry and lean, the bread and mustard so overwhelmed by the size of it, that it didn't even feel good to have the monstrosity in front of us. Nobody around us could finish their sandwiches, they were being sent back half eaten, and somehow that felt wasteful and too self-indulgent.
The other restaurant we didn't like was The Noodle Shop in Mandalay Bay. We were looking forward to, I guess, Americanized versions of Chinese food, and these dishes were just a little off to us. Maybe we should have gotten a clue from the fact all the other customers were Asian, and so the food was authentic, not Americanized. PF Chang's is our speed.
That's enough about Las Vegas. I'll paste that forum entry I did on the McDonald's controversy in closing.
For those of you considering taking part in the demonstration against the proposed location of another McDonald's, this time on Calle Canal in the historic center, on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 4:30 pm in the Jardin, here's some history.
When we first moved to San Miguel nearly ten years ago, a Baskin Robbins had just gone under from lack of customers, but there were still Domino's Pizza and BlockBusters on Ancha. Subway came in near Plaza Civica, to much protesting,. It closed months later. I heard there were other issues besides lack of customers. We happen to like Subway and the first times we went in, gringos stood outside on the sidewalk and told us to leave, to the annoyance of the Mexican employees and customers.
Then, we heard a Dunkin' Donuts was coming to the Dolphy's ice cream shop right on the Jardin, San Francisco and Relox. Lots of protests. When it opened there were no signs on the outside announcing that Dunkin' Donuts was there, and the only presence in the store was a display case on the back wall and a few coffeemakers. That failed, too--Dolphy's has its own doughnuts and coffee now, no more Dunkin' Donuts signs.
El Caracol housing development out on the libramiento between Mega and Soriana caused more protests, largely because of its size and design. The developers radically changed the design to a terraced look, more in keeping with the nearby homes in the hills, and scaled down the size. That complex looks to be largely empty today.
Mega itself was protested and the parent company changed the bright orange trademark color of Mega to a more subdued color. The Starbucks now on Canal right at the Jardin was loudly protested, even though the land belonged to a family who had been leaders in San Miguel for centures and one family member is Luis Villarreal, former SMA Mayor, now Senator, and a candidate for Guanajuato governor. His stepmother Carmen runs the dress shop in the same family complex and sells insurance and has other business ventures. The senior Villarreal, Arturo, is head of the support and fundraising group for Hospital General, among many other community services. The Starbucks went in, and the signage was changed several times to be less conspicuous.
Development close to El Charco botanical gardens was protested, and I think the opposing homes were stopped because they were over height allowances. A parking garage expansion in the block with the Biblioteca and Dr. Robert Maxwell's office was protested but it is now open. The Biblioteca and the offices were damaged during construction. A government housing program to build several thousand low-cost homes near Atotinilco for those in substandard housing in ejido land (former communally operated farmland on the outskirts of SMA) is still being protested. A Superama supermarket and a WalMart-affiliated Sam's Club were to be built on the former La Siesta Hotel and RV Park property adjoining Pollo Feliz across from Mega, on land owned by the same family that started the nationwide Pollo Feliz chain. That development reportedly has been stopped and another RV park is to be built since SMA lacks a facility for large luxury RVs.
There may have been more protests, but those come to mind. In a few of the cases the demonstrations seem to have had some success. No one was ever arrested or deported who took part in any of these demonstrations. And yet the Mexican Constitution states clearly that no foreigner can do anything to influence Mexican politics, and make no mistake about it, one city administration's decision on something as important as a major commercial enterprise within San Miguel is always a political issue among all the other political parties.
For a thorough analysis of the Mexican Constitution's banning of foreigners participating in MX politics, this link gives the MX sources and a heated debate in the reader comments. Steven Fry is one of the best sources out there on all things affecting expats in MX.
As to whether a city government decision to grant a permit for a new businesses is political or not, you might check on all the permits granted by previous mayors which were cancelled when a new political party was elected.
What Centro should look like is a hot political topic in every SMA election, each party having a distinctly different stand. Many expats' views coincidentally back the positions of one or another of the political parties, making their protests very political, IMO.
As recently as April an expat university professor who was supposedly just standing by observing a demonstration in another part of MX was arrested and then released, but four months later he got a notice from the government that he needed to come in for the final step in his final FM2 renewal. When he came in, he was deported with no notice, the only grounds given being his arrest at that demonstration.
Now the professor is a militant far left activist, not just an average expat, so other issues were probably involved. But the fact remains, the only legal grounds given for his deportation were his participation (by being swept up into it) in a demonstration. It happened to me often in the '60s as a reporter--I had to show my press pass several times to avoid being booked. (Now the question of whether I was actually participating instead of just observing is a valid one--I was the first white reporter for The Michigan Chronicle in Detroit and had free rein to go to any protests I wanted and cover them whatever way I wanted, back in those days. When I started to work for a suburban daily a few years later I was corraled in and taught all about a reporter's objectivity, something I had managed not to appreciate in journalism classes. In any event, my press passes always got me off the hook. I doubt a visa would suffice here.)
The US State Department warns against any US citizen being even close to any Mexican demonstration because it is very easy for what seems to be an innocent demonstration to suddenly turn violent or confrontational so that police sweeps are made. Also, a tourist or even a longtime resident may not understand the nuances behind a demonstration that seems to be nonpolitical but in reality the political parties may be behind one position or another.
Eight US visiting students who thought it would be cool to join a protest of the Mexico City airport expansion were expelled a few years ago, too. The law may not be enforced often, and there are undoubtedly as many different government officials' positions on when a particular expat should be deported as there are government officials--as usual in Mexico. But there it is.
Whether McDonald's food is healthy or not is not the issue--the US hardly has any grounds to stand on in telling Mexican citizens what they should eat.
It is also not the issue whether a US expat not involved directly in obtaining or maintaining the UNESCO World Heritage Site approval for San Miguel can make the decison that SMA should not allow another McDonald's because it might endanger the UNESCO status. That's not an expat's decision to make. Again, that is protesting a government official's decision, an official who belongs to a political party whose stance shaped that decision.
The one major change that affects expats coming out of the changes earlier this year to the Mexican Constitution regarding deportation for any reason the government deems sufficient is that the foreigner now has the right to a hearing before being deported.
That hearing could be in any form or in any amount of depth, and it is certainly not guaranteed that an expat would win at the hearing and escape deportation.
Several longtime expats are encouraging all expats to come to the demonstration Dec. 7. I'm not going. And hey, I'm one of the few expats who actually eats at the La Luciernaga McDonald's once in a while, mainly to fit in a quick meal before or after the movies, though I prefer the restaurant within Liverpool. Can't beat McD fries. As Norma puts it, sometimes you just want a touch of the old country. McDonald's is almost always packed with Mexicans and is probably the most popular restaurant in San Miguel. There are McDonald's, Burger King, and many other chains right on the Jardin of Puebla, another historic city in this region which has had its UNESCO World Heritage Designation for many years before SMA.
McDonald's is probably the most international restaurant in the world. It doesn't matter in the least what you or I think about the food at McDonald's or the suitability of its presence on Canal. Not our call when it comes to the decision made by this political administration at this time.
This is not the US. The laws and customs are far different here. Just because we are used to a certain interpretation of freedom of speech from the US does not mean that all the countries of the world have the same interpretation. The basis of Mexican law is still more Napoleonic than British and US, which rely more on case law and precedents. In Mexico a judge has much more free rein to treat each case as unique, to be settled purely on its merits, not on what other judges have said in similar cases.
If you want to see the other side's views in their own words, here's the link to the petition against McDonald's in Centro:
Meanwhile, some new local restaurants are opening and others are struggling. Norene Caceres, email@example.com, has opened a new restaurant in the old Kike's plaza on Stirling Dickinson#28, Plaza Pueblito local#7 (through the arc & inside the patio), tel. 1524265. Two more restaurants we intend to try are Cafe Firenza (we've been told the short ribs are the best) and Virundella's on Codo, for its Argentinian steaks. Rick, the owner, is Argentinian and he won't sell arrachera--says it's poor quality. His steaks are prime cut imported from Texas.
Cafe Firenza (on Ancha just up from Hotel Real de Minas) has a three-course early bird special (3:30-5:30) to die for (salad or soup, a pasta dish, and a meat or fish dish). Bring your own bottle of wine; beer is sold there however.
We took friends to Francesco's next to Cafe Monet, where Zacateros runs into Ancha de San Antonio, and the food was terrific, as usual. Our partyhad Caesar salads, ziti with chicken, fettuccini Alfredo, lasagna and eggplant parmesan. To us, it's the best Italian restaurant in town. But no one else was there.
We did love the gourmet pizzas at Karin's, on Cuna de Allende between La Posadita and Ten Ten Pie. Friends invited all their friends to a pizza party there to spread the word that this excellent restaurant is struggling as well. Karin also makes terrific Austrian pastries and desserts.
Since so few US and Canadian tourists are in town, scared off by the economy and by media reports that make it sound as if all of Mexicois a giant cartel battleground, it's up to us expats to support our favorite little restaurants.
Ajijic is getting a taste of international unfavorable media attention over crime this month, especially after a retired lawyer was shot and killed in his carport while unloading groceries in an apparent carjacking gone wrong. But the robbers whose ballistics match the bullets were caught, while committing another robbery in Gualalajara. The worst headline SMA got last winter was, "Who is killing the expats of San Miguel?" when an expat woman who lived on a ranch outside of town was murdered in what was reported as most likely a revenge murder by a former housekeeper who was fired. I don't know the facts in any of the crimes, of course--I posted links to all the crime stories as they were reported, with what made the newspapers at the time.
The most shocking crime news this week was the firing of all 800 police officers and 300 officed workers in Veracruz, followed by the murder of 16 the next day in an apparent encroachment for territory of the Sinaloa cartel under Shorty Guzman into Zeta territory on the east coast. And 40 police officers were fired in San Miguel after the latest round of examinations. Corruption and the cartels are still too evident in Mexico. But our daily lives in San Miguel, and I'm sure in Ajijic, go on normally, as you can tell by my blog on our lives here.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukkah, and Happy New Year's, everybody!
November 20, 2011--Revolution Day and children's parade; a question on whether any restaurants are left in SMA!; a new favorite for breakfast
I did a post on the SMA forum that sounds like a blog to me, so I'm copying it here.
Monday is a legal holiday, commemorating the start of the 1910 Revolution, the bloodiest period of MX history after the Conquest. There was a small parade of children in Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata costumes and girls in long dresses also carrying toy rifles and bullet bands, but there will be a bigger one Monday starting at 11 am by Cardo and Ancha de San Antonio.
Meanwhile the annual Wool and Tin Fair is going on in the Jardin. We bought three enameled metal bugs about eight inches across, for 100 pesos each: a green praying mantis, red and black lady bug, and violet and gold dragon fly. They may end up on the walls of our office. Maybe they'll scare away mosquitos.
So much is going on this weekend and the crowds from Mexico City are here in force, the young women in tight short shorts in honor of this new warm spell.
Someone wrote and asked if there were any good restaurants left in San Miguel, since she'd heard so many had closed. This is what I wrote:
When one restaurant closes, two open. Right now I can think of 20 moderate and upperscale restaurants that I would be delighted to show off to guests, and another dozen in the lower to moderate range.
Harry's, Hecho en Mexico, Keith's Longhorn Smokehouse, La Posadita, Sierra Nevada, the 1826 and the rooftop bar and tapas place at the Rosewood, China Dragon, Carcasonne, Ole Ole, OKO Vietnamese, the Food Factory at Fabrica Aurora, Vivoli's, Cumpaño's next to El Correo, The Restaurant at Sollano 16, the Pizza Pig out on the way to Taboada thermal spa, La Burger close to it, Patsy's Place out that direction, Nirvana which has moved out there, Antigua Villa Santa Monica for Sunday brunch in particular (Harry's is great for Sat or Sunday brunch, too, and pretty cheap for all you get at brunch), Cafe de la Parroquia for breakfasts, Cafe San Francisco for breakfast in the Hotel Posada de San Francisco on the Jardin, Bugambilia's which has moved to Sollano, Chamonix on Sollano 17, Mi Casa inside the Instituto, and Tio Lucas for steaks and live music after 9 pm all come immediately to mind.
Tell your husband not to worry, he and your friends will still eat very well in beautiful settings! End of email.
That list should get her started. Did we miss your favorites? Restaurant recommendations are always the favorite posts on the forums.
We'd been told how good breakfasts are at the new Cumpañios on Correo at Recreo that we finally had to go. The space used to hold a combination Spanish flamenco dinner house and Chinese/sushi joint. It's a couple doors from El Correo, a long-time favorite of just about everybody.
So we parked at the super convenient parking lot around the corner on Recreo and were stopped in our tracks by all the filled doughnuts, pecan rolls, muffins and breads for sale in the bakery section.
The restaurant section was jammed all the way to the bigger tables in the rear with Mexico City families. We got one of the tables for two up front by the open windows, and had to ignore a boy begging for money. He got annoying and I had a waiter chase him away. Hard to say "no" when you're feeding your face within grabbing distance. He didn't look actually hungry or otherwise needy, he was simply annoying and demanding. There are city programs to get kids off the streets and back into school, and to see that they get meals and clothes. Authorities even tell expats not to give money to school-age kids. We do still keep change for the old women sitting on the cold sidewalks.
The waiter brought a tray of those doughnuts and my hand jumped up and pointed to a cream-filled pastry which made Norma choose the pecan roll. We needn't have done it--the bread tray arrived next with two mini loaves of a French bread and a crusty wheat and raisin loaf. Besides butter there was a guayaba and ginger jam!
I had the eggs Cumpaños, 85 pesos, a slice of bread in the bottom of an enameled casserole dish with two poached eggs and plenty of a salsa verde and grated cheese. Norma had the Croque Monsieur grueyere and ham sandwich, 120 pesos. Excellent! Just what we needed, another favorite breakfast place!
We've got a family reunion coming up, to meet our four greatgrandchildren. We hosted one twenty years ago to meet the grandchildren. Disfunctional families R us!
November 11, 2011--Day of the Dead; Pizza Pig; Stefanie Turner with Rockin' Raul and the Pickup Artists; farewell to VuDu Chili's David Garza; 1826 restaurant at the Rosewood; it's cold!; returning a plastic patio table to Mega; Lambchop is allergic to protein; the usual crime rehash
Some of the events that I’ve enjoyed since my last blog include Day of the Dead, which I wrote a few paragraphs about in our forums but I'll copy them here. We went down to Centro Tuesday night, Nov. 1, which was the night Los Labradores had its annual parade of mostly expats who pay a few hundred pesos to get their faces painted like Catrina skeletons and put together appropriately tarty costumes with big flowered hats. Some Mexican kids are figuring out that Halloween night is Oct. 31 when expats are most likely to be in the Jardin or at home giving out dulces to kids saying something that sounds like “trick or treat.” But there were throngs Tuesday night, too. The crowds were so big the parade sort of got lost.
We went to Harry's for dinner beforehand--it was jammed and we had to wait. While we were in line around 7 pm about 30 Catrinas came in and had a party mostly in the back dining area and we were sure we'd missed the parade ourselves, even though the Los Labradores website had said the parade would be at 8 pm.
We finished dinner a few minutes before 8 and could barely get across the Starbucks corner because of all the Catrinas which seemed to be in a parade coming from the Hernandez Macias direction. In previous years they've come from the San Francisco church direction into the Jardin. I'm just guessing that was the parade. So many more Catrinas than past years! And the music and conchero dancers and singers on the stage in front of the Parroquia just topped off the night.
We brought an 11-pound bag of wrapped candy from Costco--I thought it cost only about $6 but Norma remembers it was 160 pesos. Well worth it, we supplied every kid in the Jardin, I think, or so it seemed. I tried to pick a candy variety I didn’t like, and then found that many of the pieces were mango filled with chipotle-seasoned cream inside. I gave one to the taxi driver who drove us to the Jardin and he said that kind was his favorite, too. If the kids didn’t like that kind, their parents did.
I got a bunch more photos of Catrinas, concheros and costumed kids, all of which I had hundreds of already, but who knows, you never know when you might need another reminder of what a Catrina, conchero or costumed kid looks like!
I still haven't downloaded my 1650 photos from our vacation, totally intimidated by the numer, and now I have another 50 tacked onto the end of the series
Today we got out to Pizza Pig, the new pizzeria on the road to Dolores Hidalgo, which has a lot of buzz going for it. The owners bought assorted supplies from us at our closeout sale for Norma’s Pizza a la Parrilla so we got to visit our old chile flakes and parmesan table servers, our pizza pan table racks and more.
Friends have said that Pizza Pig comes the closest to Norma’s crispy thin-crust pizza, and they have a full range of ingredients to choose from to customize each pizza. They also offer the Piggy, which has all meat—carnitas, ham, and bacon. Their 16-inch is good for two or three, so I had the Piggy on my half, with the addition of their homemade sausage, while Norma chose sausage, pepperoni, green peppers and onions for hers. Delish!
The crust from a wood-fired oven isn’t quite as crispy as Norma achieved on the grill, but we’ll go back. A 16-inch Piggy is 175 pesos. They also have two 8-inch dessert pizzas—apple that tastes like a homemade apple pie, and a cream cheese and blackberry one that we enjoyed. Pizza Pig is open every day except Mondays, lunch through dinner, 415-110-2153. They’re at the corner where you turn left to go to the Taboada spa and thermal pool, in the same building that the best carnitas restaurant in the area was once located—Dos Cruces, I think was the name, The guy who used to make those delicious carnitas there is back on weekends, if you want carnitas instead, or also.
We had a great time at Keith’s Longhorn Smokehouse a couple weekends ago when Stefanie Turner with Rockin’ Raul and his Pickup Artists entertained. They’ll be back this Saturday, Nov. 12, at 8 pm at the Longhorn to get everyone dancing again. Come by 7 to get a good seat and have some ribs and brisket before the show.
Stefanie is a powerhouse. She’s lived in SMA for more than a dozen years and married a Mexican man, and they recently had a baby. Stefanie is back rocking again, and her fans put on a show themselves on the dance floor. “Hips” was there again last time and will be back Saturday, she promises. (We ran into her at Pizza Pig.) Maybe Norma and I will hit the dance floor as well, at least for one tune.
Stefanie is going to entertain Sunday, too, in a full roundup of talent raising some money for David Garza’s farewell to San Miguel. He’s the lead singer for VuDu Chili, one of the best rock groups in SMA, but he fell in love and is moving to North Carolina with his wife to be. His friends are even putting on a bake sale Sunday to raise some more money for his farewell journey. Here’s the news release for the event:
GARZA-PALOOZA - A FAREWELL- FUNDRAISING CONCERT FOR DAVID GARZA!
David Garza, lead singer of VUDU CHILE, has been one of San Miguel’s favorite performers for more than seven years, but now he’s leaving. He has fallen in love, is getting married and moving to North Carolina. So what better way to help him put some cash in his pocket and get him started in his new life than an afternoon of live music?
The concert is slated for Sunday, November 13, from 1 pm to 5:30 pm in Colonia Guadiana at the Gustos Gathering Grounds amphitheater, on the corner of Calle Guadiana and Calle Mezquite, just one block up from Ancha de San Antonio. The entrance to the amphitheater is 7.5 Mesquite.
Some of San Miguel’s finest musicians have donated their talents for the day. The line-up includes: Billie Rose, Sach Rioja, Stefanie Turner with Raul and the Pick-Up Artists, The Jazz Cats (Ken Bassman, Victor Monterubio, Tonio Lozoya), Doug Robinson and of course VUDU CHILE. Garza will also play an acoustic set including some of his original songs.
A $150 peso donation gets you in the door. All proceeds will be given to David in thanks for bringing such incredible music and loving spirit to our magical town. You can BYOP (Bring Your Own Picnic, including your favorite beverages) and don’t forget your dancing shoes! We will also be selling baked goods at the event.
This may be your last chance to see David Garza play here in San Miguel de Allende especially if you aren’t a night owl, so don’t miss this opportunity to wish him farewell.
Tickets are now on sale at the Mesa Grande (corner of Zacateros and Pila Seca) and Solutions Mail Depot at Recreo #11. Tickets will also be available at the door.
For more information, or if you would like to donate baked goods please write to Stefanie Turner: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 044 415 107 6543. If you can’t make it to the concert but would like to donate please contact Stefanie as well.
End of news release.
(But the bold face won't end. Oh well, the new cable that should allow me to work on this website on a different computer should be in soon. Try to ignore this section of bold face, please)
Now if you remember Gustos restaurant and bar in the front section of Los Milagros on Relox, you know the women behind Gustos Gathering Ground, a new venue that has so many possibilities. They also are the organizers behind the annual SMA International Chili Cookoff, too, so this farewell party should be a blast. We’ll miss Davis Garza. We’ve been to a couple of expensive local concerts lately from top talent who phoned it in. I think this concert will be full out.
Speaking of expensive, we ate at 1826, the formal dining room at the Rosewood, one night and were impressed. It wasn’t as expensive as we feared and it was twice as good as we hoped. The unusual breads and rolls come with herbed butters. A free appetizer features tender squid chunks on long white rectangular plates with herbs. A plate of four chicken empanadas on a bed of guacamole with a dipping sauce rose far above the usual empanadas. Norma had perfectly cooked shrimp. I had veal shanks with still-crunchy veggies on a polenta/mashed potato bed. The service was the most impeccable I’ve ever experienced. And the cost was less than we’ve paid at Harry’s.
We were planning on going up on the roof bar for tapas, even though a Margarita is something like $15 USD. I forget what we were celebrating that night—sometimes it doesn’t take much of a reason when we want to do something. But it was so cold that we ducked into 1826 and were very glad we did.
It has been very cold lately—some nights it has gone down to 29 F in some areas. Our casa is behind a protective wall and I don’t think we get that low. But we’ve had our electric blanket on each night and we turn on the propane heater in the office when we’re working, and we brought out our sweats for the duration. Even after a cold night, we often wear short sleeves , capris and sandals during the heat of the day, when it can get into the 70s. December and January are our coldest months, April and May our warmest.
Your experience of cold depends on where you last lived and your own body temperature, too. Norma is always colder than I am, and she blames it on having last livied in Phoenix. That was nearly ten years ago. I was there, too. I’ve adjusted, she never has.
I spent more years in Michigan frigid winters than she did, though, while she was tanning to walnut every summer on Huntington Beach in Orange County. She’s paying for it now, having to go to Dr. Blanca to have an intensive melanoma exam every three months.
This time of year you can tell the Canadian tourists—they’re in shorts showing very white legs. You can tell the Mexicans—they’re bundled up, their babies buried in blankets. Expats are putting on jackets and rippng them off all day long. Our homes have thick cement walls which makes our houses far colder than when we lived with forced air heating up north.
Not everything is perfect in paradise, of course. I love Mega even though I never trust their meat which is often displayed without ice and then put back into the refrigerated counters. I love their cappuccino mocha frappe in the coffee bar even though half the time the machines aren’t working right and new servers put half a cup of artificial whipped cream on top. But there are times I want to boycott the supermarket forever.
We spotted a white molded thick plastic folding patio table that seats 8-10 for around $120 USD and bought it immediately. If you see something you really want, buy it right away—you may never see it again. We had Mega deliver the table plus armless white plastic patio chairs to our home in Colonia San Rafael. The elderly couple with a pickup who showed up around 6 pm charged us 60 pesos for the delivery, and they could barely haul the furniture up our eight entry stairs. We tipped them another 30 pieces and tore into the box.
The legs were missing.
It was clear where the two arched pieces were supposed to go to make the four legs. It was obvious where they were supposed to click in place under the tabletop for storage. The directions clearly showed the missing pieces. They weren’t there.
By now it was almost closing at Mega but we rushed down and went to the service desk with the directions showing the missing pieces. The first line of defense accused us of not looking hard enough for the legs. The second line scrutinized the directions and looked at us very carefully before going for a jefe, a male executive of some sort. He didn’t have on a name tag or title and didn’t introduce himself by name or title but we told him the story again.
He believed us and went back into the warehouse area and returned with the two pieces. Aha! But he wouldn’t give them to us. He said we had to bring back the table and the box so he could get the number off the box. Sheesh.
Our little Atos doesn’t hold that size of box, and we couldn’t lift it anyway. We called Pedro Romero, our handyman, who came over the next morning and packed up the table and box and met us at Mega.
He kept muttering that we shouldn’t be too hopeful, he’d tried to get a return on a leaky watering hose once and they wouldn’t give back his money or a new hose because he couldn’t prove it leaked. He said if they would only take the hose into the back and test it themselves, or come with him to a hose hookup. Nada.
But he assured us he would do his best to be our translator and male authority figure, in case that was the problem. Old expat women aren’t always taken seriously by young Mexican men, or by young US men when we complain in the US, too. We were covering all bases. All the employees at each stage seemed to understand my Spanish—this wasn’t UN translating—but I was still getting that glazed over look. So I would let Pedro talk this time.
We arrived in the parking lot, Pedro hauled the table and box to the service counter, and he explained our problem to the first two lines of defense. When the jefe finally arrived, he went back promptly and returned with the leg pieces and handed them to us. He never looked for any numbers on the box. And Pedro hauled the table back home for us and put it up. Perfect. We paid another 100 pesos for Pedro’s help plus gave him a couple bottles of beer as he left.
And then we tried out the table and chairs and a friend ended up sprawled on the floor when one of the plastic chairs broke underneath her.
We’ve given all the chairs to Ojala, Elsmarie Norby’s school where she’s organized a bunch of volunteers to teach campo kids arts, crafts, music and basic classes. She was thrilled when we called—someone had just donated a big table to them, and they were wondering where they could find chairs they could afford!
Little kids should have no trouble on the chairs but we don’t want any of our large adult friends to break a hip on the chairs. We’re going to get replacement metal upholstered chairs at Costco our next trip. They deliver, too. The delivery guy greets us by name when we walk in the door, hoping we’ll buy something big each time.
These kinds of things make life interesting. The usual stuff happens even if we’re living in paradise. Our little Save a Mexican Mutt watchdog keeps getting pickier and pickier on her food. Lambchop was only eating 14-peso a meal Little Caesar chicken and vegetables canned food, two packages a day. And then she started turning up her nose on that and eating only the cats’ lamb and chicken dried food from Costco. And then she started scratching her ears all the time.
Off to Dr. Vasquez, our favorite vet. He checked for mites and every other possible source of the problem in the ears, and said that since nothing obvious was the problem, it was most likely allergies, particularly to getting too much protein. Cat food has more protein than dog food since cats need more protein. Try a lower protein diet for two months. Ha!
We went home and made up 40 meals of our own lower-protein version of Little Caesar chicken and vegetables, stewing a chicken in the crock pot, deboning the chicken while making rice in the broth, and running frozen veggies through the blender. We estimated the final mixture was about 20% protein, a little under what is needed by dogs, and far under the percentage in Little Caesar and cat food.
She loved her first meal. And promptly had diarrhea all over the house.
We just happened to look in the Mega dog food section the next day and there it was, a new dry food for small breeds, made of chicken and vegetables. We bought one bag and she loved it. And no diarrhea followed. We went back and bought all the remaining three bags. It is manufactured in Spain. The name is Summit 10. We can only hope Lambchop will continue to eat it and that it makes her ear itching stop.
Life goes on in paradise.
I still haven’t written up the cruise section of our five-week vacation. Some day. And those 1650 photos are still in my camera. I may hire a computer tech friend to hold my hand when I start that job.
A blog isn’t complete without some opinions on crime. On our forums a potential newbie wrote to ask if expats were kidnapped more often than Mexicans in San Miguel. I don't know of any gringos in SMA who have been kidnapped
There have been only a few cases of Mexicans kidnapped, though one case in particular keeps getting international retelling as the well-connected couple has been featured on Dateline (repeated frequently as if the case has just happened and so it sounds like there are dozens of cases when it is the same one being made into a book and movie as well as TV and magazine articles).
There is also the factor that some people choose to fake a kidnapping which makes their families sympathetic, rather than face an embezzlement charge or an out of wedlock pregnancy or an undesirable marriage. I know personally of several cases where a guy chose to disappear and have the rumors be he was kidnapped, and then he came back when the trouble was over.
And then there are the telephone rings, often from prisons, where someone gets a call that their son/grandchild/spouse has been kidnapped and send money to X account immediately. Sometimes the family getting such a call about their allegedly kidnapped child has the child right with them when they get the phone call. Enough people pay up to make it a worthwhile organized crime endeavor.
Mexican families are often hit by these extortion calls about their family member working in the US, who has been arrested and needs bail or legal fees, or is in the hospital and needs medical bills paid, etc. Since the person in the US possibly can't be reached for confirmation, this is an effective kidnapping technique as well.
The reality is that several prominent Mexicans have been kidnapped nearby, and hundreds receive these phone calls, and some kidnappings are faked. Kidnapping is a profitable crime for drug cartels as they expand and as they find new ways to make money when their drug routes get cut off or their leaders caught or a group breaks off from a cartel to do their own rackets.
Kidnapping expats is just too much hassle, it calls international attention and resources down on the organized crime ring, and it is viewed negatively by higher-ups in the cartels. Richer Mexicans are very wary of kidnappings and the sale of armor-plated cars, bulletproof clothing, and guards for kids on their way to and from school, is a profitable business.
I don't know of a single expat who has even thought of doing any of these things. We do experience crime but it is far more likely to be a purse snatching on the street, or a burglary when we're not home. These are the kinds of crimes that happen in every tourist town in the world, and in every place where there are fairly wealthy people and very poor people in close proximity. We may not feel wealthy but those living on midrange Social Security are still making far more than most middle class Mexicans--we feel poor compared to the US while we're rich compared to our housekeepers and cab drivers.
Crime is a perennial issue, and it doesn't help that the US politicians and media keep portraying Mexico as one giant gun battle. So many stupid things are said in the media every day that sometimes I want to scream. Last week in the news Jesse Ventura said that he was going to apply for Mexican citizenship so that he could spend more time in his beloved Mexico because he was angry at always getting patted down at airline security lines because of his titanium hip. I get extra scrutiny all the time because of my metal knees--no biggie.
First, he can't just apply for Mexican citizenship, he has to live here for five years on an inmigrante visa (formerly the FM2) and then take an oral history and culture test in Spanish to demonstrate knowledge of the language and country (just as in the US). That may go down to four years when the next round of visa changes is announced, but he can't just apply for Mexican citizenship and have it happen.
And he doesn't need to become a citizen to spend more time in Mexico--we're here fulltime for nearly ten years now, first on tourist, then on no inmigrante, then on inmigrante visas. And then he announced in the same rant that he was also going to run for President or some other office in the US to get the Homeland Security measures changed. This is the kind of ranting that goes on every day in the US and no one challenges it in the news reporting. Millions of people read or heard the story and now think that you must apply for an easily obtained Mexican citizenship to live here! Grrrr!
In the same way, the crime news is just reported piecemeal, rarely in context, and rarely in comparison to crime the average person is likely to experience in the US. Yes, there is a terrible drug war going on in Mexico, and yes, some areas are not particularly safe anymore.
But I personally still feel safer in San Miguel than I did in Detroit, LA and Phoenix. Norma does rein me in sometimes when I go to post too much personal financial information on this website. I just want to tell all, to trust all, and Norma points out that it would be stupid to post for the world to read about things like our bank accounts, and when we will be gone from our house on vacation (we have our housekeeper move into our house while we are gone anyway).
The news from Nuevo Laredo where the Zetas have killed five Mexican citizens who were posting information about Zeta movements is particularly disturbing. The mess with the group called Anonymous that supposedly challenged the Zetas when a member was kidnapped may have been a complete hoax, since the guy in Texas who was making all new news about Anonymous as their spokesperson turns out to be writing a book about it all.
There may or may not have even been a kidnapping—for starters, the story kept changing on whether a man or a woman had been kidnapped. This kind of self promotion doesn’t help the drug war in any way. There is a chilling effect on all web posts when something like this happens, and that is the goal.
It’s funny, I suppose, to feel so safe in an area where there is nothing like the mess at the borders, when my friends and relatives up north keep telling me I’m wrong, they’re right, from afar. We live in interesting times. Discuss pros and cons.
October 20, 2011--Where we've been, on the vacation of a lifetime!
Back home again! Since it isn't wise to post to the world when you will be away from your house for a long time (even though our housekeeper moves in whenever we are gone), I posted earlier that I wasn't going to be doing much on the website or blog for five weeks while I concentrated on a big project involving my aunt's estate.
Vague enough. What we really were concentrating on was a five week vacation of a lifetime, starting with three and a half weeks all over Italy, followed by a twelve-day Cunard cruise on the Queen Victoria to Split, Croatia; several cities in Greece; and Ephesus and Istanbul, Turkey. We got to check off five more things to do from our bucket list.
We're still recovering and the suitcases aren't fully unpacked. I'm going to post a complete report on our vacation for those who have asked, and those who only want San Miguel de Allende reporting will be skipping a lot. I took 1,650 photos in the five weeks, and that's the ones I kept. I'll start a new section in the Photo Gallery of this website to separate them from SMA and Mexico photos---some day. I can't even think about that task.
I will start this blog update with some thoughts about SMA, though.
Like most travelers we were thinking in the back of our heads of how each city compares to home and wondering what it would be like to live in these differerdent places. All along we concluded that the pros and cons of San Miguel outweigh the pros and cons of everyplace else, even subtracting the money factor that puts all of Europe out of reach for most US and Canadian retirees.
Obviously poor people do live throughout Europe on less than average US Social Security, but it must be even harder than it is for expats on lower incomes to survive in the US. Luckily times change and we're not living as tightly as we were when we wrote Falling...in Love with San Miguel: Retiring to Mexico on Social Security nearly six years ago and started this website. But I'm aware that many of our readers continue to look to this website for advice on living inexpensively and well in Mexico as an expat. When you read some of the prices in Italy, SMA prices look really good!
Venice was the most expensive city of all. San Miguel de Allende has some 60-80,000 residents in the city itself, plus another 80,000 or so in the 540 small communities surrounding SMA and receiving at least some SMA city services like police. Venice also has about 60,000 full-time residents in the city itself--and they get at elast that number additional tourists each and every day! Venice has 20 million tourists a year, which prompts some observers to say that it is being loved to death. The draw of Venice is obvious, and they don't have to do a thing to attract anybody. So Harry's Bar can get away with charging the equivalent of $220 USD for a "light lunch"! San Miguel has to be conscious of staying competitive.
I was delighted to be reminded that San Miguel de Allende finished in the Top Ten of travel destinations in the WORLD in a recent Travel + Leisure reader poll, headed by Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand; Florence, Italy; Rome, taly; Sydney, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Oaxaca, Mexico; Barcelona, Spain; and New York City. Most polls seem suspicous anyway--Chiang Mai as number two most popular destination in the world? But still the thought was nice.
Now where are all those tourists to San Miguel today? The streets are almost emply sometimes, and many of our favorite restaurants have very few customers. The US and Canada are full of news and opinions portraying all parts of Mexico as equally crime ridden as Ciudad Juarez and other border cities and other drug cartel centers. Seems like a losing battle.
President Calderón took a big step in trying to counteract these generalizations in his five-day interview with a PBS reporter that took place climbing up 91 steps to the top of a pyramid, scuba diving, and showing off the rest of Mexico to the world. Here are links to the hour show as it finally appeared:
Do check out the videos if you can. Calderón comes across as the likable athletic Harvard grad he is, and he'll help you remember all the good things about Mexico.
While we were gone it doesn't seem as if anything too s
urprising happened. Sounds like the proposed Sam's Club and Superama won't be coming into the former La Siesta hotel space behind Pollo Feliz near Mega, but an epanded RV park able to take the larger rigs will. Only a 12-space RV park for smaller rigs is currently open in SMA.
Favorite restaurants disappear, or move. Mexican landlords experiencing financial slowdowns decide to make more money by raising rents and then the business has to close or move. Homes are still not selling the way they used to, and it's still a renter's market. The city is paving three side streets behind our house, which will reduce flooding and dust in our area.
Our block keeps having power outages while the rest of Colonia San Rafael stays lit. We've added Xbox and Hulu and tried various other approaches to get some of the US TV programming we still haven't been able to get on DISH satellite. Apparently both Telecable and TelMex TV systems are giving more problems to expats who want US programming.
There are still occasional kidnappings, a few of which seem to be staged while someone flees SMA in some kind of personal trouble. The lasst city we lived in, Phoenix, has a huge kidnapping problem, which somewhat offsets the image that everybody who crosses the border into Mexico immediately is kidnapped. Not to downgrade the horrors of real kidnappings, just to point out that things are not always what they seem, and expats have no "right" to insist on knowing the details and will never know the whole story.
The drug cartel situation in Mexico keeps shifting as more and more leaders are caught and new cartels and leaders spring up. News keeps coming out that US intelligence is deeply imbedded throughout Mexico. When first news reports came out that Iran had hired a Mexican drug cartel hitman to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, it came out later that the hitman was really a US DEA informant. The election news in SMA, the state of Guanajuato and Mexico City is as complex as election news in the US that may effect US-MX relations. Life goes on.
We still wake up late some mornings to hear a parade forming outside our house, an impromptu ragged band marching through the streets with someone collecting money, or kids playing futbol in the street. Just an ordinary working class Mexican neighborhood. Centro is still as magical as ever.
Time to move to my vacation reports. I'm taking them from the emails I wrote home to friends periodically, so you're getting them fresh as we experienced the cities.
We left SMA by bus to Queretaro Tuesday afternoon, August 30, took the Primera Plus to the Mexico City airport from there, and went on to the Terminal 2 in Mexico City because we thought that was where all international fights left from, and certainly the Hilton would be at Terminal 2, too. Wrong.
At least there is an elevated tram back to Terminal 1 where Iberia (part of British Airways now) leaves from. We had to catch an early flight Wednesday morning so decided to go early and use the Hilton, which is right in the airport. Good choice, and the Hilton was as expected--for $160 USD a night it should be. Good restaurant just below it on the first floor, the Bistro Mosaic. We had salads to get some greens down us, then split a corned beef sandwich. French bread, mayo, lettuce and tomato. It didn't claim to be a Jewish deli.
We filled out the FMM for MX immigration but always we fill out the wrong side and the officials look at us as if we are stupid. I'm supposed to know this stuff and I still get nervous whenever I'm loking for Immgration, which in the DF air,port is among the duty free shops after you get your luggage checked. We put on our surgical stockings to avoid blood clots and swollen ankles while seated among the perfumes and booze shops.
We're sticking with Airbuses whenever possible, and this one had the larger Airbus seats with nice leather and more legroom that we like--but it was the largest Airbus made, some 240 feet long, holding some 342 passengers. Good flight to Madrid airport, landed in middle of their night, had to walk forever and catch all sorts of trams all over the place before finding the right gate.
First time I ever felt a late night airport was a little spooky. Up a flight, down two, over a mile on a tram, upstairs again, back down, another tram... We'd arrive at what we thought was the right gate only to find that the gate had been moved. Repeat above. Norma says that the architect who designed the Madrid airport should have his teeth pulled out without anesthetic.
Smooth flight to Rome airport, where we couldn't find the tourist office where you pick up online-ordered RomaPasses for free admission to any two of about 25 museums and events. We're going for the coliseum and Galleria Borghese. The Vatican Museum is separate, the Pantheon is free, and we'll see about St. Peter's Basilica and the Forum.
Of course we'll return to the Fountain of Trevi since we threw coins into it 30 years ago which guaranteed we'd return some day--and here we are,. And we want to ssee the Jewish Ghetto area which is now supposedly gentile gentrified. We've been told the Rome Zoo is not worth it. We saw the catacombs last time 30 years ago and that was far too much. We thought we allotted a lot of time here, six nights, but it could have been much more.
Saturday--someone wrote and asked me how I was doing with my two knee repolacements four years later. Today we walked six hours in the Vatican Museum (collapsing onto guards' chairs when they weren't looking and having a lemonade at every restaurant, but we were on the go most of the six hours). I wrote back to the woman that everything in my body hurt except my knees.
Thirty years ago we had 45 minutes to do the Vatican Museum on our 8 countries in 16 days Globus Gateways bus tour of Europe, so we relished discovering every nook this time.
I saw more Greek and Roman statues of famous men adorned only with oversized fig leaves than I had ever thought existed. I actually looked at all the statues of noble horses falling inwar, lions eating horses, and crocodiles eating lions. We tucked ourselves into the English-speaking tours to learn that such and such a room marked the transition in art history when people (the paying sponsor type people who paid the artists) wanted to feel a part of history and Bible stories and so the family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus traveling on a burro to pay their taxes looked like an average family on a picnic.
We listened to a guide give the real story behind the 1,200-foot-long, four wall mural in one of the Raphael rooms of Constantine's sacking of Rome and how he made many stupid mistakes--like sending his army two abreast across a narrow bridge on which they were slaughtered two by two. We didn't want to pay $60 each or more for a thrree-hour tour, not liking the mass herding experience anyway, but we picked up a fair share of art history along the way.
It was an absolutely wonderful experience, all I had hoped. To see Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Rembrandt and Raphael all within steps of each other was breathtaking. The Sistine Chapel is so far overhead that I was glad our guidebook had closeups of all 400+ figures Michaelangelo painted over four years. He was in effect a slave to the Pope, lying on his back far above the floor to paint for years. Thirty years ago when we were here the Chapel was being renovated and all was scaffolding as we were rushed through. This time we could sit for as long as we wanted and stare at every panel. It was impossiible to comprehend it all, but we tried.
This is our hotel in Rome, a small luxury boutique B&B near the Vatican for 110 Euros a night, about $160 USD, not bad for the location and quality: http://www.lestanzediorazio.com/ We recommend it highlly and will write a review on TripAdvisor.
It has a low-key entrance, 14-foot wooden doors off the quiet one-way safe street, with a dozen steps to the one-person-at-a-time elevator. Norma picked it partly because it had an elevator, not realizing there were a dozen steps to get to the lift. As many Rome B&Bs are, the building is mostly condos with one floor devoted to the B&B.
The young woman who is on duty is absolutely deligthful and charming, born in Milan, very cute, big wide eyes, pretty good English. Breakfast is not anything like an "American" breakfast, nor is it just a croissant and cappuccino which is advertised as a typical Italian breakfast. Nor is it even a "continental breakfast" of rolls, butter, jam, coffee, and maybe cheese and juice if you're lucky.
It has everything in a continental and Italian breakfast plus fruit-laden yogurt, corn flakes and milk, three juice choices, all kinds of fresh fruit including bananas and wrapped cookies and small cakes to take away for a lunch, a kind of fruit tart and more. Take your pick.
A meal at Raf includes 10 Euros ($14 USD) for a shared huge spinach salad with big slices of of parmiggiano reggiano and walnuts and blue cheese and oil and balsamic vinegar; a 12-inch very thin crusted pizza for 7-10 Euros, no more than Norma charged when we had the restaurant; a liter of aqua mineral for 2 euros and a glass of white wine for 5 euros. Total: 33 Euros, about $50 USD, not the $100 each we'd been told to expect for dinner. Still, this was in a neighborhood joint, not the downtown ristorantes.
And then we walk to the neighborhood gelatoria for three scoops of the most wonderful ice cream we' ve ever tasted in a big cone for 3.4 euros each, about $5. That's about what two small scoops would cost at Santa Clara in SMA and far superior.
The ice cream colors are not bright, they use no artificial colors, and so you may be put off by a cone of pistachio, hazlenut, and chantilly, all sort of beige. We eat with our eyes and they all blend together and thus for some reason it can also be hard to distinguish the flavors!
So the second cone I picked was a deep, deep chocolate, a deep raspberry, and the pistachio--much better. Exquisite even.
The people are very nice, and many speak English. Not true that if you speak Spanish they will understand, unless they also speak Spanish. A guy at a tourist information booth heard my garbled question in English, Spanish and a little Italian and asked me in perfect English if I wanted the answer in English, Spanish or Italian. What a relief to hear English when you're lost. It isn't true that only US tourists are Ugly Americans--so many rude tourists from all over the world. A Senegalese and a Japanese tour group in line at the Vatican tied for most impatient, demanding tourists we'd ever witnessed.
The city is clean and beautiful. The people are gorgeous. It is hot and so all the young women are in spaghetti strap sundresses. or tank tops withshort shorts. Many actually wear those high platform stilettos. They are lithe and tan and active from all the walking. So many men, too, looked as if they stepped out of a magazine ad, or a movie. Well behaved dogs on leashes are everywhere, including in many stores and restaurants. So many people smoke.
Part 2, Rome six days later
Today is a general strike in Italy. Everything we wanted to do our last day in Rome is out. We bought RomaPasses for our last three days and they would have been a bargain if we could have used them as we planned today--saving 23 euros for the Borghese museum and palace and lots of Metro rides. Now unused. (Added later--at least we were home by the time the Occupy Wall Street support demos had some streets in Rome in flames. we recognized the backdrops of some scenes on TV and we'd been there, by the Coliseum and Forum.)
We did get to use the RomaPasses for the Coliseum entrance fees and earlier Metro rides, but this strike wiped out the value of the pass. Oh well, tomorrow we're off to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, by high speed first class Eurotrain. We want to go deluxe this first train ride and maybe later take cheaper versions, at many times the hours. I think the last time I was on a real train was to Montreal with my aunt when I was about 18. We didn't take the Metro much in Rome--too many broken or nonexistent escalators for all the steps. (We had no experiences with crimes committed or attempted this trip--in 1981 we were pickpocketed on both the Rome and Paris subways despite our best precautions.)
The owner of the B&B two floors up from ours, a far more expensive and bigger one, had breakfast with our B&B group yesterday and shared that he thinks Italy is in big trouble, like Greece and many other European Union countries.
His dream is to be able to retire at 60 in ten years to San Francisco. He has lived in the US in the past and obviously has big money. He even has a dream house picked out in SF and he checks the real estate ads on it every so often. It was $1.8 million USD a few years ago and now is $1.4 million. When it gets below a million he may swoop in andbuy it. As I said, he has money. And so his views of how Italy is in trouble may differ from how average income folks see the issues.
We met another lesbian couple, one of whom took a walk to get away from her partner's rants--she was a very angry US libertarian from Berkeley--in front of the museum we were all supposed to have gone to. The angry one, a retired CPA, was telling us how bad Italy is--rioting, deaths and fires here, too. We had a huge argument in front of this opulent museum/castle that would have done our SMA libertarian friends proud. Of course neither of us knew what we were talking about.
And meanwhile the hostess of our B&B is a sweet young woman from Milan whose dream is to visit Mexico and see the blue house where Frida lived and see as many works by Frida that she can. Then she will happily come back to Rome and try to start her own B&B. The Italian dream.
The B&B upstairs ranks #2 in Roman B&Bs on Trip Advisor, the owner told us. Our hostess, Laura Esposito, begged us to do a review of hers, Le Stanze di Orazio, on Trip Advisor, and so we will.
She said she has a fraternal twin sister back in Milan who is so jealous that she was praised in an earlier TripAdvisor review. Our hostess pointed out, out of nowhere, that her sister is very dark, like a North African (we're talking Algeria and Morocco), while she is much lighter. She even put her arm next to mine to show how light she is.
Interesting that Italy too is very color conscious. The woman who cleans our room each day is darker, no coincidence. And shorter, much like Mexican physical and class interactions. I wouldn't have thought of a racism issue in Italy, but there it is. I knew they had a North-South division almost as bad as the US North-South Divide, with the prosperous North angry that it subsidizes the South. All we were seeing was the fantastic gelato and pizza.
Tomorrow we will be traveling. Much more to add about our first six days in Rome--the taxi drivers alone are worth a page or two. Our favorite restaurant opens now, 7:30 pm, and the locals will crowd it at 9-11, but we need to go early and try to pack everything back into our two big suitcases once more.
The only souvenirs we bought here are some spice mixes for bruschetta and carbonetta we found at the Campo de Fioro, field of flowers, open air market this morning. Turns out the meadow once was a field of flowers, then some pope paved it over maybe 700 years ago to help the wet fields situation in Rome, and it became a public execution spot.
A philosopher amed Bruno who believed the earth revolved around the sun was hanged on the spot about Galileo's time. Now there's a big statue of him in the middle of the market, erected by free speech supporters a few centuries later. There's a statue and a public gathering spot and a story around every corner here.
Norma fell asleep waiting for me to finish so I'll dash off one more. The B&B owner from above told us to be sure to see San Clemente church and the museum below for another side of Rome. The archaelogical museum stories down was a Mishram, a gathering spot for followers of Mishra, probably an offshoot of the Iranian pagan god Mishra from long before Christ.
There are some 470 rediscovered Mishrams in Rome, and they were very active around the first century CE, a direct competition with the fledgling Christianity. Not much is known about Mishra, maybe because the Christians once they got iinto power with Constantine around 315, built Christian churches on top of all the mishrams, just as the Spaniards built Catholic churches on top of every Aztec religious site they could find. Mishra is always pictured being born out of a stone as a young man, and the main event of his life that is celebrated is his slaying a bull, one of his hands gripping the bull by the nostrils while the other plunges a knife into its throat.
Part 3--Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast
We are taking the day off today, letting slide pre-purchased, nonrefundable $100 USD worth of boat tickets to ride around the Isle of Capri and see all of the Amalfi coastline by water today, because the bus tour yesterday along the coast did us in. Shades of our 1981 eight countries in 16 days trip when we were 20 years younger.
It was beautiful, and the Amalfi coast has just knocked Big Sur and Oak Canyon Drive in Sedona right off my list of most scenic drives I've ever been on, and the 26 Mile golf course one near Carmel is now number two. I have a feeling that Cinque Terre next week may do the same shakeup.
I should remember that I am going on 70 and no longer am almost 40 and can't burn candles at both ends any more. We rushed to where we thought the bus would be leaving at 7:55 am (not a good time for us night owls to start with) and we were way off base. The crowds rushing past us to buses far below were our first clue.
But we made it to the bus about a million steps below us and headed off on a trip that we were warned from the start had 2,500 curves, most of them tight hairpin curves--no, make that bobbypin curves. Anyone old enough to remember bobbypins?
We had our Dramamine in us and held on tight. I could never figure out how to make the side armrail click into place. Norma says that's what she's for. Without that armrail in place I was on the floor.
The jagged tree-covered mountains went straight up, the deep blue-green waters went straight down, and thousands of homes perched precariously along the way. Multi-million dollar resorts and mansions spread themselves out between the pastel clusters. Carlo Ponti bought one mansion and took Sophia Loren to a luxury hotel within view of the mansion where he proposed. The mansion was her wedding gift if she would accept. What would you do? One island home rents out for 250,000 euros a week, about $375,000 USD.
Sting had a home hanging off one cliff for awhile but too many fans found him and harassed him into moving away.
Right off I didn't like our tour guide and bus driver. The guide seemed to me to be doing her own Sophia Loren imitation minus the talent and beauty, and she had a bit of Susan Powter in her--isn't that the exercise coach who yells out, "Stop the insanity"? I felt I was being horsewhipped when I couldn't keep up with her at each stop, and I suspect she kept moving the bus farther and farther away up hills and slipping in toilet stops that were up more and more steps.
She gave up totally on me at one village and Norma was torn between staying behind with me and keeping up with the group so that she could make the group wait for me. She stayed with me, and we figured out that we could catch the next intercity public bus back to Sorrento, where we were staying.
But the tour guide sent another woman back to find us and lead us to where the group was having refreshments. Another time too the group was totally out of sight and we had no idea where we were, but Norma went ahead a bit and found them. The guide kept saying, "Take all the time you need," with her words, while her motions were, "Hurry up already, we're on a tight schedule."
She kept joking about how the driver was going to take his afternoon siesta now so we should too--as we wound around another bobbypin. And he treated me like an 80-year-old great grandmother instead of the 70-year-old great grandmother that I am, giving me his hand on the stairs when I much preferred the steady railings. Oh well, at least he was reaching out. The guide would have preferred I disappear.
Ravishing towns, like edelweiss scattered in the dense green trees and jagged rocks. The most famous town is Adalfi itself, which was a fortress and shipping center more than a thousand years ago. It was a trade hub for the world at that time. And now it is reduced to a tourist trap, a couple thousand people making a living out of the many thousands of tourists moved in and out like sheep. I did want Norma to buy an apron stamped with pizza photos and recipes, though--only 10 euros, $14 USD. Can't buy an apron at Abrazos in SMA for that!
The region is known for its lemons, both grapefruit-sized regular lemons and some even bigger thick-skinned blotchy ones called citron that we're making a wild guess are used for citron candy for fruitcakes and such. They make a limoncilla liquor from pure alcohol, drinking quality, not available retail in the US, with sugar and the humongous lemon rind soaked in it. Norma had a sip, probably 45% alcohol, which I think means 90 proof, and almost fell down.
Other than not being able to keep up with the rest of the bus tour, I absolutely loved Amalfi. We are staying in Sorrento, the first city below Naples that leads into the indentation that is the Amalfi Coast, and it is a luxury resort town on its own. We lucked out and the hotel overbooked and had to upgrade up. We are in a suite bigger than most apartments I used to live in, maybe 1000 sq ft with a private shrubbed terrace with French doors open onto from the bedroom, living room and spacious bathroom.
The floors are yellow and white striped tile, very striking. The decor is mostly white and yellow, with small collections of white ceramic cats grouped on tables, shelves and windowseats throughout the suite. The owners of the small hotel also own a fine furniture store where they do traditional designs into the wood.
I took a dozen photos of the highly detailed porcelain settings for sale in several Sorrento shops--one scene was a young man and woman on swings, another was a man making pizza, another was an elderly couple enjoying themselves in a home scene with dog and cat and fireplace. Much of the ceramic work has lemons as the theme.
Coral jewelry is also made around here and it is calling me. I'm saving my jewelry souvenir budget for Murano, the island famous for its blown glass, near Venice. Norma has stuck to only the spices for her souvenirs so far--guess you can't count the electrical adaptor plugs for Europe's bigger, rounded plugs, nor the two different traveler alarm clocks we've had to buy when the first one stopped working the first day.
Of course the area is also known for its fish, and we took a photo of the strangest fish we'd ever seen in one of the markets. It was rolled up like a wide leather belt of maybe three feet, and it was narrow like an eel and very shiny silver, with a big black round eye that seemed to stare back.
Norma had gigantic shrimp scampi with linguini one night at a restaurant called the Foreigner's Club. Imperialism reigns long--this was a palace, very British feeling, with what was advertised as an authentic American bar with hot dogs, hamburgers and fries. We were ready for something besides pizza and gelato that night. I had a smoked lamb shank with boiled potatoes and carrots.
The rest of our meals have been traditional Italian--we've learned to stop looking for what we consider real Italian sausage and dodge the stuff that tastes like ground bologna and ignore most of the deep red thick cured hams that are too chewy and salty for me. Breakfasts continue to be a roll or croissant and a half cup of cappuccino, very strong, though for tourists the hotels add several kinds of sweet rolls and corn flakes and a lot of fresh fruit.
This morning we had whole fresh green figs as well as watermelon and three kinds of juices. There was even a sort of poached egg appliance for those who couldn't live without eggs, and we thought about trying to figure it out. I've had meals like a potato and spinach gnocci with a creamed salmon sauce, asparagus soup, antipasto with huge green olives and ridiculous attempts at sour pickles and slabs of buffalo mozzarella and several kinds of ham I now avoid.
Every night we pick a new gelateria and point to outrageous ice creams to pile into cones. One of my favorites could loosely be compared to Cherries Garcia, with big black whole cherries and slabs of dark chocolate.
We haven't gotten to talk to any of the people in Sorrento. We came by train Wednesday, then had the sublime/horrible experience of the bus trip yesterday, and today we hid out and slept in. It's so much of a tourist area and so many of the tourists seem so wealthy that we aren't going to connect with anyone here.
Tomorrow we head to Greve in Chianti, in Tuscany, where we will live in a vineyard cottage for a week and use it as a base to see Florence, the hill towns of Tuscany, and Cinque Terre. W're taking another luxury high speed train from Rome to the Florence airport area--we have definitely decided that the extra money is worth it in time saved and in comfort.
After the thrill of making it from Rome to Naples in a little over one hour, we then spent the next three hours fighting with the local train to Sorrento, a much shorter distance. The Eurostar trains are even nicer than the ETN buses in Mexico, and attendants come down the aisles even on an hour ride with free wines and all kinds of drinks as well as a bag of peanuts.
Seats were two across on one side, one on the other, and the insides of the deluxe coaches were modern and clean. We didn't get any kind of porter to help us lift our large suitaces up, however, but a young man helped us put them in a separate baggage area we hadn't noticed when we got on. It was similar to the baggage sections of airport car rental shuttles.
An entitled grouchy Italian man by and sat in the seat that had been assigned to me, next to his wife. He couldn't get his suitace up overhead, either. Somebody took pity on him, too, and put his bag away. He just gave me that look, I dare you to make me move. Luckily no one was sitting next to Norma where I wanted to sit anyway. It was a smooth, quick trip.
At Naples Norma said she'd read how bad the cab drivers and porters are, so don't agree to anything. We still found ourselves in the hands of a guy who kept steering our bags toward the next Sorrento bus, and he got us to the right place to buy our tickets (4 euros each, $6 USD, compared to about $50 USD for Rome-Naples).
He got us through the area where you get your ticket validated and right to the place for the next train to Sorrento. Norma and I had agreed among ourselves that we would give him 10 euros--he deserved it, even if it was only ten minutes work. Then he demanded 20 euros each. Norma stood up to him but she did give him another 5 euros and he went off mad and we went off mad.
The train was a mess, graffiti covered, crowded. A guy gave me his seat but Norma stood the first half hour. We were on particular guard for pickpockets, using our money belts. Norma has a new backpack designed to deter thefts--steel inside the cloth, all the zippers snap into additional locks, straps and bottom impossible to cut. So far we haven't been the victims of even an attempt at anything, other than the porter at the train
station wanting $60 USD for ten minutes work, and a few Roman cab drivers who overcharged.
(While I'm thinking about it: We had one woman taxi driver in Rome and asked her to drive us to the courtyard of the Vatican one night so we could sit around with other tourists. No one was there, so we called her back a few minutes later when she had joined the queue of taxis waiting riders. The male taxi drivers almost attacked, theyw ere so angry we'd picked her out of order, but we and she convinced the men that this ride was an extension of our first trip with her to get to the Vatican. She suggested the Spanish Steps--good choice for chatting with other tourists and enjoying beauty all arround.)
The train broke down several times and we thought it was being pushed by another train at one point, but Norma figured out that the electricity powering it overhead, like the old electric buses, had gone out several times.
The trek to the Sorrento bus station was on bad cement and when we got inside we found that the only bathrooms were back outside where we would have had to buy another ticket.
We hailed a cab, not having a clue how close we were to town or our hotel. The driver tried to sell us tickets for his personal tour shuttle along the coast, for around $200 USD for the shuttle. If we had six other people it would have been a deal. Instead we bought the 35-euro tickets to the ride I described above.
The driver took awhile getting to our hotel and still left us off half a block downhill from it, and charged 10 euros. It was not until the next day that we realized we'd been only four blocks from the train station. As I said, this is a tourist town. And then we got our upgraded suite and all was well again.
In moving our luggage I hit Norma's big toe with my suitcase and she was in such pain she said that she'd probably lose the toenail. I didn't believe her--no one I've ever known has lost a toenail. But she said she's lost toenails before. It wouldn't have been so bad but we had our toenails doen for the first times in our lives before we left. We decided that for the cruise ship formal dinners our rough sandals and feet wouldn't do. We bought gold and silver heeled sandals and had pedicures from our handyman's daughter, a beauty school grad. My ten toenails are still a glistening gold nearly two months later, while Norma's nine toes are a dusty rose.
Yes, she lost the toenail, which popped straight up three weeks while we were actually at one of the formal dinners on the cruise. She tugged it off, and then what do we do with a big toenail? We carried it back to our state room wastebasket. Maybe Bella Celeste will paint Norma's big toenail skin our next pedicure. Yes, having pedicures quickly becomes addictive.
Back to Sorrento.
The sun is down. I think I'll stop now and we'll go for a walk along the cliff overlooking the sea, yachts in the harbor, Beautiful People to watch, maybe a pizza or pasta or seafood for dinner, gelato for dessert, a patio to unwind on, a good bed with the smell of the sea in the air, and another adventure tomorrow.
Part 4--review of Rome and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, Florence
One thing I didn’t count on was uneven internet service, even in the nicest hotels. It’s been weeks since my last vacation report, not for lack of trying. I’m going to review the highlights of Rome and Amalfi just to put it in perspective, after my gripes about long walking have faded from memory.
Rome is a livable city if we had unlimited funds and could learn Italian any better than we have Spanish. I’m going to always remember Laura Esposito, the hostess at Le Stanze di Orazio B&B near the Vatican, who was so eager to go to Mexico City to see Frida’s blue house and art works and someday have her own B&B. When she said, “See you later,” and we added, “…alligator--after while, crocodile,” she looked up Bill Haley and Comets’ tape of the 1950’s song and played it whenever we came into the breakfast nook area. She said it made her very happy, and her happiness was contagious. We warned her to only play the song for those who looked to be about 70.
I will remember standing in the Rafael rooms just before the Sistene Chapel in the Vatican Museum and feeling what it was like to be in the middle of Constantine’s sack of Rome, surrounded by a panorama on all four walls of the battle, two life-sized horses falling with terror in their eyes in front of me as the stupid army continued to march two by two across a narrow bridge where they were murdered two by two but won Rome anyway and made Christianity the official state religion from then on. What a different world we would live in today if Constantine had lost.
I will remember Raf pizzeria half a block from our house and the discovery of all the versions of Italian pizzas, so different from ours, and loving their combo of basil tomato sauce, ham, fresh mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and black olives on a thin crust crunchy from the extremely hot ovens run only after 8 pm when Italians start to think about having dinner.
And then we discovered gelaterias, one near the B&B loaded with 20 flavors served in every combination of sundae, cone and bowl, lines waiting every night because it was worth it. The Coliseum, Forum, the underground temple to the Persian god Mithra covered up by St. Clement church, the Ghetto, all the fountains and the Spanish Steps and all the tourist landmarks, and then sitting forlornly before the museums that would not open our last day because of Italy’s General Strike and learning about Italy’s role in the global economic crisis.
On to Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, where I have almost forgotten the smirking tour guide who left us behind, and for my lifetime Sorrento will be a spacious upgraded hotel suite with three-inch-wide yellow and white striped tiles for the floor and bath, the suite in yellows and whites, white ceramic cats placed in groupings all over for the décor, balconies from every room including the bathroom.
It will be a bus ride through a narrow mountainous road lined with thousands of pastel homes clustered on the rugged coastline, the tour guide telling us of one friend of hers who taught school for 37 years and each day climbed more than 1,000 steps to go to and from work, and when she got too old to climb any more she had to leave her beloved Amalfi.
And now I am caught up all the way to Greve-in-Chianti in Tuscany, where we rented a car at the Florence Airport and drove to a vineyard that had converted some of its outbuildings for agritourism, which is what is sustaining many of the smaller vineyards in these tough economic times. I didn’t sense Tuscany was struggling, though--it felt like a very comfortable, relaxed, beautiful area of the world, where it would also be very easy to live if you had enough money. We finally felt relaxed in Tuscany, though for a longer stay there wouldn’t have been enough to do for us. At heart, we’re city people.
My 69th birthday was Saturday, Sept. 10, and we spent it with one last breakfast overlooking the Amalfi Coast and ended it in Tuscany. Along the way that day we made an exhausting push to get our suitcases, which are swelling larger by the moment, to the Sorrento train station and wrestling them on two trains to Florence and then getting a $32 USD cab ride to the Florence airport and Avis.
On the train from Sorrento two guys with an accordion and guitar came on board at one stop and did spirited versions of "La Bamba" and "Quantanamera" aimed at us--the obvious tourists. For my birthday I gave them two euros, around $5.50 USD.
On the deluxe train to Florence we were across from eight young Americans, two of whom had gotten engaged on an Amalfi beach! She was like a young Laura Linney, perky and sweet, and he was dark, bearded, handsome, and totally smitten and romantic. They may not be able to do the wedding in Amalfi and were already considering San Miguel as one destination wedding spot. They ave our business card to convince them further.
We thought we'd reserved a Fiat Panda subcompact but Avis upgraded us to a Fiat 500 sports car. Everything is stick shift, really hell on bobbypin curves and steep hills. Norma wisely paid another $16 USD a day for a GPS system, which we set for Greve-in-Chianti and just followed the Italian-accented voice speaking English for us. Every other turn we missed and he thought for a minute: “Recalculating….”
As we would head into a turn Norma would suddenly realize it was wrong and the three of us would say simultaneously, “Recalculating.…” As the GPS voice kept reciting the highway names they kept getting longer and longer--I thought German was bad for piling words on top of each other to make long ones. We' be laughing at the long street names so hard we'd miss the turn. "Recalculating...."
Once in Greve we’d made it to a neighborhood retaurant that night where I had the day’s special, fried rabbit and chicken with an abundance of tempura-like veggies. Norma was glad to see pork curry with basmati rice and a salad on the menu for her. The place was a bar, a tiny grocery store, and a restaurant sprawling down several levels into the garden, quite lovely all around. At nine all the tables were taken and candles lit the dark.
We returned for breakfast--fried eggs, thick and to us undercooked bacon, fruit, toast, cappuccino, and what we were delighted to spot on the menu: home-made biscuits. Oh right, biscuits are cookies in Europe. We ate the little fruit tarts anyway.
With a car, we found a laundry and paid $5 USD each for two loads, $7 USD for one large dryer. The British couple just leaving the Greve laundromat when we entered warned us the $9 USD big washer didn’t work, and we passed on the warning to the Filipino couple who came in after us as they stuffed their double bed comforter into it.
They pointed out that no other machine was big enough for the comforter and the previous couple had nicely filled the soap section for them. They took a chance and pushed the button. It worked. We all applauded.
We had an hour’s conversation while we all sat around waiting and found out that the couple had two sets of twins, boys 10 and a boy and a girl 12. They said they did all their regular laundry in the sink at home but the comforter had to be done at the laundromat. The man’s brother lives in Chicago and is doing better, he said. The US--still considered the land of ultimate opportunity. This couple had been living with his elderly parents who had just moved to Chicago, too. They were in their parents’ home, putting everything they could aside for their kids’ futures.
We weren’t sure we understood everything he said but it was clear his kids were going to college no matter what. He said he had nothing in savings and could do nothing but survive and save until their kids were launched, and he wanted very much for them to do better than he was doing. He didn’t say what his job was, I was guessing he probably worked in the vineyards, but he said only that he wants his children to know that they are not what their job is, they need to swallow hard and do any job they have to take to get ahead.
He didn’t want them to be like so many kids today who think that they deserve to step into an excellent job right away with no preparation. He stressed that over and over. He also doesn’t think the world situation overall is at all good and he just hopes his kids have a place in which they can do well when they graduate. And I am positive those kids will graduate or else!
After the laundry we walked to the main Coop grocery store in town--which closes Sundays. (The next day when we returned it was closed from 1 to 4 for siesta, too, worse than Mexico where at least the supermarkets are open all days with no siesta breaks.) A wine tasting fair was going on in the Greve town square and we bought a few things for breakfast in the cottage we deliberately had picked with a kitchen so that we could cook some meals ourselves. And then we ate in one of the tourist restaurants on the square, where I had wild boar ragu on thick noodles while Norma had her standby spaghetti dressed only with slabs of peccarino romano cheese, garlic, oil and white pepper.
I thought the boar, rescued from endangered species status and now raised in domestic abundance, showed a depth of flavor missing from regular pork. Norma tasted it and compared it to her mother’s pot roast--not a compliment.
The next morning we decided to drive to Sienna, the first of the hill cities we’d been told we must experience. If all went well we might even keep driving to the car parking lot for Cinque Terre and see if we could get a train to go to a couple of the villages that evening. There was a lot we wanted to see in Tuscany and Florence and we had ambitions plans to work it all in.
But Monday morning on the bobbypin mountain roads behind grape trucks and sports cars and Italian drivers in general made us both nearly hysterical. We got to Sienna, after the constant GPS refrain of “Recalculating…” when we missed a turn, and found ourselves in the first parking lot we saw. No parking spaces. We sat there in the car and shook. Norma just could not go on. She was afraid her fear of driving this manual transmission in the hills could carry over to her fearing our own manual Atos car when we got home.
“Let’s go back to the cottage and pack and find a hotel in Florence tomorrow,” I said. Agreed. So much for Tuscany, which hadn’t quite grabbed me and insisted I move there as my first days in San Miguel had. I'd been afraid it might, from all I'd heard. It's another of those magical areas.
It was prettier than the rolling farmlands of northwestern Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina and northern California, but not that much, and there was an underlying burnt orange tone to the hll sides because of the drought. September is always a dry harvest month in many areas but there was an extra depth of dryness that I just didn’t like being in. Norma’s fall farmland allergies were kicking in. And then there was the driving. Italians deserve their bad reputations.
Since we were shifting plans on short notice and wanted to be in central Florence in a place without a lot of stairs, we found online the Hotel Casci two blocks from the Duomo, the focal point of Florence, and from David. The Uffizi museum was a few blocks more. We walked all over Florence, far more than I thought I’d be able to do.
When we’d first looked at the Florence map and planned our main attractions, I kept saying we’d have to take a cab. It ended up we walked almost all the time and got lost and found little niches and did all the things we like to do in a city.
The Hotel Casci was way too expensive but the best we could find on short notice in Centro. It had an elevator, but just like in Rome, there still were stairs to get to the lift and within the hotel. The room felt something like a college dorm with plaid bedspreads and dark green walls. At least the internet worked well all the time. Back in Greve the internet only worked out in the patio, and then the mosquitoes attacked. Norma got stung three times in a few hours by bees on that patio. She was pulling another bee out of her sandals with a napkin while it continued to try to sting her. The constant bees attacking Norma were probably the last straw on Tuscany. She got bees, I got mosquitos. We much preferred Florence.
David is still David, perfect in every way. Oh, don’t tell me that it isn’t in perspective for the viewing place it now has since Michelangelo made it for a higher spot where the head and hands had to be made larger to see normal proportion. It is possible to just stare at it until you feel hypnotized. The Academia wasn’t as crowded as it was 30 years ago and we could spend all the time we wanted. But you can only lose yourself in David so long.
The rest of the museum is more Renaissance, plus one very strange sculpture of a squared off booted foot in blue, done by an artist in the last century. I kept wondering why it was there. Norma kept wishing for a museum with some Monets and Van Goghs.
The Uffizi is considered second in importance in Italy only to the Vatican Museum. We’d gotten tickets to both Florence museums ahead of time online. We discovered a handicap elevator that saved us half the steps, only leaving maybe 80 more during the day. It was so hot that I kept sneaking onto the guards’ chairs when they were walking around, and I just dripped. My hearing aids aren’t supposed to get wet--every so often I floated them out of my ears and dried them off and tried to dry my hair. I could have wrung out my shirt.
I have a tendency to head for only the most famous artists, starting with any Da Vincis. Back in high school, whenever a college application or other document asked us who in history we’d most like to have been, I always said Leonardo da Vinci because he could do so much. His unfinished dark painting here and one fairly faded work made him easy to outshine in this museum.
From the Ufizzi I am going to remember Botticelli’s Annunciation, not the standard formal Renaissance painting of the modest and obedient young virgin hearing from the angel that she was pregnant with the son of God. Botticelli’s virgin is repelled by the news, backing up in almost horror from the pushy angel. Tense action, all jutting elbows and horrified eyes. Yeah, that scene I could imagine happening.
We wandered down to the Pont deVecchio, the bridge that the Medicis ordered could exhibit only fine jewelry and gold since the 1300s so that their castle would be surrounded by class, and hauled ourselves all over the rest of the day. Some tour guide said that Starbucks would never succeed in Italy because Italian coffee was so much better. Well, a Ben & Jerry’s is flourishing across from the Duomo in Florence, surrounded by possibly the finest gelaterias in the world. A double scoop cone is 8 euros, $12 USD.
Ben & Jerry’s does make a concession to its Italian customers’ tastes: it is whipped a bit more to make it a similar smooth consistency as gelato. But you can still get Cherries Garcia, Cookie Dough, and Chunky Monkey. Of course we had to try it. The next night we were back with Italian gelato.
We had McDonald’s for one breakfast, too, when we overslept the hotel breakfast. As a side treat, instead of poppers the Florence McDonald’s sells crusted and deep fried large green olives, $1 USD each. An egg McMuffin with a sausage patty is $4.50 USD, a Big Mac by itself is $7.50 USD.
We had first planned to drive from Greve to Pisa and take a train from there to the Cinque Terre, the five little coastal villages that Rick Steves singlehandedly turned into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy when he did one of his PBS travel shows from the Cinque Terre hiking trails connecting the villages. That plan was scuttled with our decision to give up the car. So this time we were heading to Cinque Terre from the Florence train station.
We changed to a local train and bought a $1.75 USD ticket to the first of the five towns. Much climbing of stairs to go under all train tracks to get to the right platform. Much gnashing of teeth on my part. We finally got to the right stop and the right side of the train platform at the first of the five and…not much there. Is that all there is? Could Rick Steves and a million backpackers be wrong?
Six older people who alighted with us had reservations to stay a week at a small hotel straight up at least seven flights--and the elevator operator had closed down the elevator for siesta, another two hours. While they groaned we decided to go on to the next town. And here we discovered what all the fuss was about. Rick Steves and the backpackers are right. This area did go to the top of my lis of beautiful coasts, now ahead of Amalfi and Big Sur and everything else.
Winding climbs through charming shops and well-used fishing boats pulled out of the water lining the cobblestoned streets all the way to the deep teal water, where beautiful people sunned themselves and climbed the black craggy rocks and boats came and went loaded with fresh fish. We had seafood overlooking the water at sunset and knew we would always remember Cinque Terre for that moment.
Which was good because it was too late by then to go on to the other three towns without trying to make room reservations in one of the few rooms along the hiking trails, and we didn’t think we could top this memory anyway. It stands for us in our memories forever for Cinque Terre.
What I will also remember most from Florence is the Duomo, which almost knocked us over with its immense clean-lined beauty when we first rounded the corner and came upon it our first night out exploring in Florence. If you’re not familiar with the Duomo, Google it, you may never find it in my photos once I get them online, if I ever get them edited and online. It has the second largest church dome in the world, after St. Peter's Basilica. It's just ahead of Santa Sofia in Istanbul, which was built usin less sophisticated technology a t housand years before the Duomo and the Vatican. Santa Sofia has been on my must-see list since I was a little girl. Three more weeks until Istanbul.
And now we are on to five days in Venice, before embarking on our 12-day cruise.
How can I do justice to Venice and get this blog off before probably losing internet connection for the next 12 days?
Venice is just so overwhelming, it is the city itself which is the charm. Nothing like it anyplace else on earth. We had spent one day here in 1981 in our eight countries in 16 days bus tour, and I had just seen “Don’t Look Now” with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, a dark moody film about a child’s death in a dismal Venice. Reports of Venice’s almost imminent destruction were scary in 1981, and I couldn’t really get into enjoying the city.
Apparently a massive reclamation project was started around 2003 and when it is done Venice will be saved for another 100 years or something. I didn’t read the report too carefully because I didn’t want to see any “…but…” in the story. I just wanted to fall in love with Venice, which I did.
Every corner turned is another favorite spot, one gigantic photo op. Now this is a cosmopolitan city, you never know what language you’re going to hear from the table next to you. Again, beautiful people everywhere, and such styles and creativity in the store windows and on the streets! Norma kept eyeing some $1,800 USD watches in crazy colors with dripping numerals alternating between Arabic and Roman.
I kept looking at the knee high jewel encrusted boots with platform soles and five-inch stiletto heels for $4,000 USD. We found the Versace-Gucci-Bulgari window displays. Men from Africa were selling knockoffs on the sidewalks around the corner. In Italy the buyer pays the huge fine for copyright violation, not the seller, though the guys certainly didn't tell their customers that.
Have to say, this is the most expensive city I have ever been in. We got used to not gasping at menus charging $6 USD for a soft drink or bottled water, and $30 USD for a mediocre meal. We thought we had found a bargain one night with a small restaurant offering a price fixe meal for 11.50 euros--a pasta dish and a main course for the equivalent of $17 USD each. The equivalent meal at a San Miguel neighborhood joint would have been $5 USD.
The pasta sauces could have come out of a Campbell’s tomato soup can. Norma’s fried fish and salad platter included three tiny razor-thin pieces of fish coated in thick heavy batter so that it had maybe the essence of fish in coating as the main taste. The "salad" was a few plain lettuce leaves.
I had a liter of carbonated water and Norma had two diet Cokes. That’s where they made up on the bill--this miniscule meal came to $55 USD. So much for the come-on price fixe. And the young waiters were so hyper and flighty that I called our kid “Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.” The young man crammed in close to the table next to us laughed. I think he was from Korea, though his T-shirt was LA. We laughed together when we ran into each other again in the bar next door ordering pizzas to fill us up after that disaster.
And the restaurant bill I thought I would never experience was at Harry’s Bar. Yes, we had to go there, and I do have documentation, although no photos are allowed. I took one before the waiter could get to me to order me not to take any photos, but employees were allowed to take shots of customers with their own cameras with no one else in the shots. I kept looking for the celebrities whose privacy we were supposed to be protecting but maybe that was the point, these were really low-key celebrities who wanted to remain that way. Or whatever. The decor was so low-key it could have been Ma's Fish and Chips joint back in Michigan. Quite a disappointment.
We looked at this menu and truly did gasp out loud. A piece of cake was 26 euros, about $40 USD. The special was a “light lunch” for 44 euros, each, starting with a salad, pasta, and piece of cake or ice cream. Since the cake alone was more than half that, and we’d never be there again, and anything else we wanted on the menu was going to be more than that, we went for it. We had a lot of euros we had to get rid of, yeah, that's it.
Turned out it was one of the best meals we've have ever had. The salad was large and fresh and full of all kinds of greens and veggies, and the dressing was a light champagne vinaigrette. The pasta was a baked platter of thin spaghetti in a creamy green sauce with a lot of cheeses, a recipe spposedly unique to Harry's. The cakes were the best we’ve ever had, so light and high with tasty fillings and frostings, indescribably good.
Norma had to have a bellini, the famous drink created at Harry’s with peach schnappes and a sparkling wine--only 18 euros. The bill came to $220 USD! One more time, we no longer claim to live on just Social Security, though we did so for our first four years in San Miguel when we wrote Falling...in Love with San Miguel: Retiring to Mexico on Social Security.
We took a boat to the famous glass-blowing Murano Island to buy necklaces, a souvenir that fits in anywhere, and at last count I think we bought five each. Since it is almost October and the main tourist season is over and new products will be made all winter long, some of the stores had sales to clear out this season’s remaining glassware. We appreciated it.
I can’t tell you how much we love Venice. But disembarcation is coming and I’d better get this much off before then while I still have an internet connection. I’ll finish off with the cruise experience when we’re back home, if I can't get a good connection before then.
Part 6--The cruise.
Ooops, this part was never written while we were actually on vacation, and I'm going to have to review my photos and papers before I can recapture the cruise feeling. I'll do this part at a future date and make it a new blog in the future.
Now, back to my regular San Miguel de Allende blog. I've been having problems with Site Studio, the website builder software I've been using since we started the website in 2006. We didn't keep up with all its updates and meanwhile we upgraded to new computers a couple of times. So now Site Studio does not work on our new computers. I have to go back to an old laptop from 2006 when I want to add anything to the website itself now. The forums and photo gallery use other software through VBulletin and they're still fine. I found the old slow laptop and worry it will give out at any moment, and then I'll really be stuck.
What I need to do is to shift to a new website builder that is compatible with my latest computer, though none are likely to have templates that look anything like the Site Studio pages you and I have gotten used to the past five and a half years. I'll worry about that tomorrow. Meanwhile, this is the end of the vacation report I've done so far.
Now on to older blogs that are back on San Miguel topics. I know that there has been nothing at all on the Carol's Blog page for months and some of you have worried about me. Now you see that you had no cause to worry, but maybe to envy. I still can't believe this trip actually happened! Sometimes dreams do come true!
This is the end of my vacation report for now, though I do plan to write up the twelve-day cruise part. Preview: Istanbul was our surpise and delight of the trip! Promise: I'll get back to SMA news and opinions in my next blog, too. Now back to my older blogs.
August 19, 2011--Report on Coffee with the Consul
A new Coffee with the Consul will be scheduled soon, which hopefully will include the latest news on the changes to the immigration and car importation rules, but this is the report on the last one.
The meeting at 9:30 am at Juan's Cafe Etc., Relox 37, was pretty uneventful. Ed noted that his office has moved to La Luciernaga Plaza, around the corner from Soriana supermarket. The official address of the office is:
U.S. Consular Agency
Centro Comercial La Luciernaga
Libramiento Manuel Zavala
San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato
415-113-9574 (cell, for after office hours emergencies only)
Ed's personal email address is email@example.com, and his official consulate email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
He said that many expats abuse the cell phone number for non-emergencies--he has even gotten non-emergency calls at 4 am.
The first questions that came up were on car permits. Ed repeated the advice that your car sticker (temporary vehicle importation permit hologram you get at the aduana when you enter Mexico) is valid as long as your visa status remains legal.
He added that people are reporting different experiences, even though the aduana officials in Leon at the main Guanajuato office insist that no expet needs to fill out any more paperwork so long as your visa status remains legal.
Some SMA residents drive to Queretaro every year after they renew their visas to get a letter from aduana saying that their permit remains legal.
(From my earlier posts in this forum, here are the directions to the Aduana in Queretaro which is where you would go if you want to have an annual verification that your US plated car imported on your FM3 that has been renewed each year is still here legally.
(There is no cost to do so and supposedly it is a quick process.
(You will need to make out three copies of their application and give them a copy of your FM3 (all pages that have writing on them), a copy of the car's title, and a copy of your vehicle importation permit papers.
(Someone also recommended bringing a copy of your auto insurance certificate--the more copies the merrier, it can't hurt.
(Address: Prolongation Universidad/Campo de Militar y Kellog.
(You take the usual 57 in to Queretaro from SMA but do not turn off on B. Quintana where the big box stores are.
(Exit at Av. Universidad and go right. Follow that road past a Special K plant on your right. You will also pass a military base on your left. Keep going until the road makes a 90-degree right turn and then at the end of the road is the Aduana.
(You tell them that you are there to register your vehicle and wave at them your FM3 and the other papers so that they will let you drive into the complex. The office closes 3-6 pm.)
Ed brought up the rules in how you pay for your permit at the border, which changed June 11, 2011.
(The best source on the new car permit laws that went into effect June 11, 2011 are on our coauthor's page:
Ed said that only Aduana officials are allowed to seize a car for permit violations. (Other police levels may seize cars for other possible legal violations, however, such as suspected drugs hidden in the car.)
Ed recommended the Municipal Security Committee website for current information on any crimes important to expats which have beenr eported to the website.
Ed recommended a friend of Mayor Lucy Nunez in the administration as a source for assistance with many issues related to the city government: Irma Rosales: email@example.com.
She is the Mayor's coordinator to SMA NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations, the private charities).
Several people asked questions about the new Mexican immigration laws approved May 25, 2011 and the possible regulations that will allow the laws to go into effect around mid-November.
(The best source I have found on the new laws is http://yucalandia.wordpress.com/livi...o-the-article/)
Among the issues which the new laws raise is what will happen to those who have foreign-plated vehicles. They are now allowed to have temporary vehicle importation permits for those who have no inmigrado (former Fm3s) or inmigrado rentistas (former FM2s for those who only have income from outside the country, i.e., rentista income).
The new laws indicate that there will be simpler levels of visas, mainly temporary and permanent residents. Both no inmigrantes (former FM3s) and at least most inmigrantes (former FM2s) will be changed to temporary residents.
After four years as a temporary resident (or any combination of residency visas previously totaling at least four years), an expat can become a permanent resident, which seems to be similar to the current inmigrado visa status.
Inmigrados are similar to US green cards, and do not have to be renewed every year. Inmigrados cannot continue to have foreign-plated vehicles, and it may be a problem for some expats who qualify for the new permanent residency but who don't want to sell their foreign-plated car back NoB.
All of us will be interested in seeing the details in the new regulations in mid-November or so, on how these issues will play out. Ed said that he isn't going to talk much about the new regulations since they have not been released yet and any discussion now is premature.
Questions still remain on whether an expat with a temporary vehicle importation permit must turn in that permit every time he or she leaves Mexico and get a new one upon re-entry, or whether multiple entries and exits without stopping are allowed.
One expat noted that when he has tried to turn in his permit at the border upon leaving Mexico temporarily, the aduana officials laugh at him and don't know what he is talking about.
This is a common problem with many Mexican regulations and officials--the rules are not well understood from one office to another.
Ed noted that border officials do seem to be becoming more insistent on visa renewals--in the past an expired visa might mean only a 20-peso fine, and now the fines may start at 1,000 pesos.
Several questions were raised about car insurance for US-plated cars for which the US registration and plates have been allowed to expire since they are not necessary in Mexico.
Some expats continue their registration in the US if they are going to be going back and forth a lot. It is also possible to call Clay County, South Dakota, which is the only DMV in the US that allows car registrations for those who are not residents of that state.
Use only Clay County, no other South Dakota office. South Dakota does not allow personalized license plates for non-Sout Dakota residents, however.
Some people lower their US coverage to the bare minimums for the rest of the year when they are not in the US, and they bump their coverage back up to higher levels before going back to the US.
A few US states allow online drivers license renewals, while others require proof that you live in the state, such as current utility bills--each state is different. Some will allow renewals for as long as 20 years.
Ed notes that his GEICO policy in the US allows him to cancel between visits to the US and reinstate the policy when he will be returning to the US, to get the lowest rates overall.
There are many auto insurance offices along the border for those who need to get new insurance before entering the US, but these are pricey.
It can be cheaper to buy a year's policy than to try to buy a policy for a few weeks. US insurance can be purchased on line as well. Be sure to buy more than liability insurance if you are going to rent a car in the US, Ed added.
Questions were asked about obtaining a Mexican drivers license. A new or renewal for five years is now 623 pesos. If you turn in a current drivers license from a US state you will not have to take the road test when you apply for a MX drivers license.
(You may not have to take the written test if you hire a facilitator--the facilitator may take the test for you! You will need a blood type certificate available for a few dollars from any medical lab or hospital, and there is a medical report that doctors next door to Farmacias Similares will fill out for about 30 pesos.
(The form seeks to find those who want to drive with diabetes, high blood pressure, or many other medical conditions but usually these are not noted in the quick medical tests that are often done for drivers license applications.)
Expats reported turning in US drivers licenses and then getting new US ones when they go back to the States. Some people have their licenses copied in color on both sides, trimmed to the exact size of official MX licenses, and having them laminated, so that they can give up a copy of their license if stopped for a mordita.
By law you don't have to give up your license to any police officer who stops you, you only have to roll down the window a slight amount to talk, and to show the license up against the window from the inside.
Once you have given up your license you now are in a vulnerable position where you have to negotiatge tog et it back.
Ed said that he didn't have a problem with someone giving up a copy of their license to "the wrong kind of guy," if you are sure the officer is a fake. "But if you are in the wrong, say you actually have been speeding, and you give false documents, it makes the officers very angry."
Questions were asked about making complaints to SMA city agencies such as Ecologica.
Ed said, "One difference between US and Mexican government agencies is that there may not be a written protocol in Mexico. The local agencies have a lot of discretion. It's hard to research exactly what the law is."
There are definite laws on allowable decible levels, but Mexico has far more tolerance for noise violations, for example.
You could do a petition so that more than one person is on record as being concerned about edxcessive noice levels, and take the petition to City Hall, Ed advised.
However, neighbors are unlikely to sign a petition even if they don't like the noise--they may fear retaliation, or not want to get involved, or they may be doing something wrong as well that then might be reported.
One person raised the issue of a new car wash in his neighborhood which is very noisy, but neighbors are afraid of the young men who work at the car wash.
"You can always talk to the owner," Ed said. "You can offer to pay for a roof or sound barrier or some other solution."
Someone asked about the likelihood that the arroyos (the rivers that run around part of San Miguel and that contain sewage and trash and often smell bad) will ever be covered in the poorer areas.
They are already covered in richer neighborhoods. "I don't see any attention from the current administration to this issue," Ed said.
"The city has made some progress but not much. This is a health issue and should be of concern near schools and play areas in particular. This is an expensive problem and perhaps it would be more effective to go to the State level and see if there is money there, or grant money, to cover the arroyos. The city doesn't have much money--several projects were begun and then they ran out of money to finish them."
Trying to get together a petition on something like this raises similar issues as petitions on noise, Ed said. "If you complain, you'll get some sympathy, but if soemone sees any kind of personal risk in signing a petition, they won't."
Again he recommended contacting Irma Rosales for information on how to approach city problems. He also suggested contacting Luis Villarreal, former SMA mayor from 2003 to 2006, and now a federal Deputy (like a US Senator) who is running for governor of Guanajuato in 2012.
Someone asked about the current situation with the proposed Superama and Sam's Club that were to be built behind the Pollo Feliz near Mega, on the site of the former La Siesta Motel and RV Park.
"A powerful family owns the property," Ed said. "Irma Rosales on behalf of the Mayor sought responses from throughout the community on whether she should approve the permit. The Mayor is only one voice when it coes to granting final approval." Ed personally would prefer such stores to be located outside of the city on the libramiento, farther away.
The perennial question came up on whether an expat who only works online for US clients should get a Mexican work permit, register with Hacienda (like the IRS) and pay taxes. And should an expat report such income, to the US and/or Mexico?
The US requires that you report world-wide income, but you get a tax writeoff for up to $80,000 earned outside the US. You have to declare the income to be able to get the deduction, however.
You may think you are invisible to both governemnts but it is very easy to suddenly become visible in ways you didn't expect. Ed said that this law is another where there is considerable local interpretation. "I don't think that anyone thinks that Salman Rushdie should pay taxes in the US for the times when he is in the US writing."
Why do expats write in to Civil_SMA asking for legal advice? someone asked.
"Now that is the question," Ed quipped. "In the US you would know better than to write in to a bunch of lay people for legal advice."
He added that Mexican Hacienda "has very broad powers to be tolerant if they think that you are trying to do the right thing." He said he knew of two expats right now who are being audted by the US IRS for money earned in Mexico.
"Don't think that because you are outside the US you can escape US taxes." A mailing address alone is never considered proof of residency, he said.
A retired tax accountant noted how many past clients thought they could get away with evading taxes but they generally were caught and the penalties were worse than the original taxes if they'd been paid.
Asked for a recommendation on US tax preparers in SMA who could help with US tax advice, Ed mentioned Barbara Harding, a CPA; Kimberly Moore, and Melanie Nance.
Ed ended with a sales pitch for expats to register online with the US State Department, via: http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/...tion_4789.html
Not just travelers but expats should register, Ed stated. By doing so the State Department can reach you in case of a local emergency, or in case something happens to you and no one knows who you want to be called in an emergency, or in case a relative or friend in the US is trying to contact you in an emergency.
In the past each consular office kept its own paper records of those who registered with them, but the records were impossible to keep current or even use easily.
Now all such records are kept online and any consular office in the world can find someone in an emergency.
Part of signing up is signing a limited privacy waver to allow the consulate to call the family and friends you allow, and any others you specify. No one else will be given the information.
Ed noted that he often is called in on a health emergency or death of an expat who has no family or friends locally, and they must be treated as a John Doe since no one has access to the needed information.
The meeting went quickly. Ed will be contacting Mexican officials to explain the new immigration and car permit laws after November when the regulations are made public.
August 10, 2011--TelMex and computer problems forever; I finally find a good dentist; one of those days, in Queretaro
So far we've pinpointed two computer I problems we've been having, and both are fixed. Butmore remain.
TelMex finally came out three weeks after they said they would, and replaced all the outdoor and indoor cables, which had been old and inadequate for internet, the techs said.
A new friend spent several hours on the phone to the tech department of TelMex working through the other problem--the TelMex modem was conflicting with the Vonage modem.
As far as we know we have one more problem for our friend to figure out: we want to go back to Internet Explorer 8, not 9, and definitely not Safari, which is the Apple version of Foxfire. It is supposed to work on PCs but not apparently mine. Soon I may be able to get back to the rest of the website. Lots needs updating.
Little things make me happy--Mega has started to carry Frank's hot sauce and Buffalo wings sauce! We just brought back four big bottles from Detroit, but at least we don't have to ask friends to bring us more bottles in the future! That's assuming we're not the only ones in SMA that will buy it.
And then little things drive me nuts. Yesterday started out just fine. You may recall that I walked out of Dr. Jorge Vargas's dental office when he insisted on continuing with a root canal that was killing me--I was afraid it would literally kill me.
And so I have been bugging all my friends and reading all online recommendations of other dentists, looking for a guarantee of a dentist that would not hurt, or perhaps even would pull the tooth and reconfigure my partial to add a new tooth and new attachment hooks.
In desperation I started calling McAllen dentists. We have to go NoB again in a couple of days to get a bank officer from a US bank in which we have an account and which is a member of the SEC, to sign a signature guarantee card that we are who we say we are, so that we can meet some other bank's requirements on my aunt's estate.
No, the San Miguel Consular Agent, an employee of the US State Department, who has known me for nine years, will not suffice. Some bank employee who never saw me before will do.
I found two McAllen dentists who would do "sedation dentistry," using an MD anesthesiologist and Vercet or some such anesthesia that doesn't knock you out, you just don't feel a thing while a procedure continues.
A friend has had to use sedation therapy in Queretaro for some extrememly major dental surgery, and my cardiologist said that was a possibility for me.
He pretty much confirmed that heart patients can die under extreme dental pain, though of course this is extremely rare. Still, if it's possible, I will fear it.
The only two dentists in McAllen licensed to do sedation therapy said that they would not do it on an older heart patient since it slows the heart. So much for that.
I talked to the dentist who is doing my friend's major work and he agreed that I was not a good candidate for it. But he promised that he and his partner could complete the root canal and it would not hurt or I wouldn't have to pay.
That's about as close to a guarantee as I hoped to find. And the office is in Queretaro, very close to CienTech, the new hospital that houses the Cardiac Institute where my cardiologist, Dr. Alvarez, is also on staff.
Turns out the root canal specialist is a Villarreal, and the guy in McAllen I talked to was also a Villarreal, and Luis Villarrel is a former SMA Mayor, current federal Deputy (like a US Senator), who is running for Guanajuato Governor next year. All Villarreals on this hemisphere started from a Villarreal who came to Mexico from Spain in 1602. For no logical reason I found that bit of trivia reassuring.
The main doctor, by the way, is Isaias Garcia, a prothesist, one who specializes in implants, dentures, bridges, crowns, implants, and the work related to them.
What is wonderful is that he will be opening an office in San Miguel one or two days a week in about two months!
He will be in a new second story office being finished in the Banamex/Oxxo/Oko Noodles/Bove/Italian Coffee plaza across from Mega. I will let you know when he is actually opening the SMA office.
There are many excellent dentists in SMA, and this one is not cheap. A root canal is 3,000 pesos. New dentures are 20,000 pesos. But he speaks perfect English, he is so reassuring, he delivers on his promises, and he studied at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, and at LaSalle in Philadelphia. He was very comforting, without being patronizing, with an excellent bedside, or dental chair, manner.
Back to how yesterday started. Our appointments were for noon. We left SMA at 9 am.
Why? For my initial appointment a few days ago that was supposed to be at 4 pm, we'd turned onto Constituyentes from Quintana B. at 3:45 pm. At 4:45 we were still driging up and down Constituyentes looking for a new tall blue office building with La Gran Muralla Chinese restaurant on the first floor.
There are no house numbers, or rather office building numbers, anywhere in Queretaro, we think. We made three desperate cell phone calls to his office from the car and finally found it.
So of course this time, having left so early and now knowing the way, we were near Querataro by 10 am. Two hours to kill. We stopped at Superama and then at Aladino's, the gourmet imported foods store on Quintana B. beyond Costco about two miles on the same side of the service drive.
We love Aladino's--I stocked up on all sorts of unusual diet sodas, Norma found a Chinese garlic chili sauce. By now it was close to noon.
Knowing it was ridiculous, that morning I had awakened singing to myself, "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie"--"This could be the day that I die." Yeah, my dental phobia goes that deep.
I asked Dr. Garcia if he knew the song "American Pie" and told him about the lyrics I could not get out of my head. Norma was horrified. He thought it was funny and reassured me once more that if it hurt one bit I didn't have to pay.
It didn't. Dr. Villarreal first put the usual four pain injections into my jaw, and I told him that would not be enough. So he put in three more right into the area around the tooth, including between the teeth! It did not hurt one bit.
At one point I heard Norma making horrible sounds in the chair next to me, on the other side of a partial wall, and I jumped. Dr. Villarreal jumped too--he wasn't even touching me at the time.
"Are you hurting?" he asked?
"No, Norma is," I said, and Norma chimed in that she was okay, she'd gotten some dental relining stuff down her throat and had gagged. Loudly. Repeatedly. No one had expected her to be the one making emergency cries.
At the end I had to say, "Well, it didn't hurt, so I guess we have to pay you." And then he found another necessary root canal in another part of my mouth. I go back the 18th.
That was the good part of yesterday. From there on everything went wrong. We drove to Liverpool to try to find the Apple iPod store to see if they had a recharger for my four-year-old obsolete iPod.
We spotted the homemade chocolates department in the Liverpool basement and felt we needed a reward for surviving the dentist. Norma got a turtle, and the moment she bit into the caramel, nuts and chocolate, four front teeth from her partial broke off.
Yikes! Dr. Garcia had just told her the bottom partial was worthless and needed replacing and couldn't even be relined, and now it was in pieces.
Since we were already at Liverpool we first found the Apple store and discovered that there was a piece of plastic jammed into the slot where the recharger was supposed to go.
No wonder the last time we had found the recharger it hadn't fit, and now it was lost somewhere in the house because we hadn't paid much attention to it because we thought it was a worthless piece of equipment.
The iPod has been dead for years. Online new rechargers were around $40 USD, and at the Apple store one that did fit now was 460 pesos. We didn't buy it. An online acquaintance has arrived in SMA and has promised to bring me his iPod recharger to see if he could get mine going again, before I even think of spending 460 pesos.
I meet him at Starbucks tomorrow to see if my iPod can be saved, and if it is worth it to keep it going. Four years age for an electronic gismo is a lifetime these days.
Once we'd discovered something was stuck in my iPod slot we headed back to the dentist with the four teeth in Norma's purse. The office was closed 2-4 pm.
Our nerves were shot but we headed to Costco for a few things to kill time until 4. We had planned a lovely dinner at Chili's but we'd had yogurt and a banana at 9 am and couldn't handle ribs and corn on the cob with missing front teeth.
We decided to just have a slice of pizza at Costco. Norma wanted Diet Coke and lots of it. Yes, it's addictive. She says the caffeine calms her nerves.
The outdoor eating area was being remodeled. The clerk behind the counter shook her head when I asked for pizza. I asked about a hot dog--Norma said she could cut it fine and chew with her back teeth. No hot dogs, the clerk shook her head again.
At that moment four hot dogs went past me, handed out to guys waiting next to us in line.
I was being careful to use my best Spanish. The clerk was frozen already from the moment I had opened my mouth, able only to shake her head yes or no. But I asked her anyway, slowly, enunciating as best Warren Hardy had taught me:
"Porque ellos tiene hot dogs y no es posible por mi tener un hot dog?"
She got even more of a deer in headlights look.
One of the guys with a hot dog said that he'd been told there was a 15 minute wait for hot dogs to heat up.
"Es verdad, necesito esperar quince minutos por un hot dog?" I asked. She was still frozen in place. She could barely nod yes.
"Es posible tener un Coca Light y un aqua mineral?" I asked. She shook her head no. I could see Diet Cokes in the fridge behind her. I pointed to them.
The guy intervened again. "She told me they didn't have aqua mineral but they have regular water." I suddenly realized he was speaking to me in excellent English, though I thought I was speaking passable Spanish. The clerk was still frozen in place.
"Aqua normal y un Coca Light," I finally sighed. She dropped the money I handed her and fumbled with my change, and another counter staffer brought me the drinks.
I remembered a friend who lives in Queretaro who had once posted here that she finds in Queretaro that few Mexicans have any experience with gringos speaking Spanish. Even though she has been in Mexico 20 years and her Spanish is excellent, she gets that deer in the hedlights look all the time, too.
She wrote on this website that it is as if some Mexicans look at her and think to themselves, "Here is a gringa, so she must be speaking English. I don't speak English. I wish she would go away." The concept of a gringo who can speak any Spanish is so alien that it just doesn't register. I think I may have been experiencing that same thing. Or not.
And by now all the Mexicans in line behind me were irritated at the gringa who was holding things up. "Lo siento," I turned and said. "Estamos tarde para una cita con el dentist." I figured that would get us some sympathy and leeway, and I think it did. Everybody hates dental appointments.
By now we were really hungry, and Norma went into Costco looking for something in the deli section we could eat quickly. We didn't want a package of six sandwiches or 40 pieces of sushi or anything else she spotted so she grabbed a package of salami and provolone, which we devoured. So much for Chili's ribs.
We got back to the dentist at 4 and he quickly repaired Norma's teeth, and by now we were just so frustrated we decided to go home, minus a lot of things we'd planned to buy in Queretaro while we were there. Oh well, I go back next Thursday. I'll try not to work myself into a panic attack this time.
These are the kinds of frustrating days we sometimes have in SMA, though we had plenty of days that were just as irritating and draining while we were in the US. Prospective expats need to know that there will be days like this in Mexico, too.
But more days are fine. We went to the Instituto Art Fair Sunday and found a new Rosa's papier mache chicken to replace our nine-year-old one that has been tossed by the cats once too often and its head and feet have fallen off. We found a beauty for 550 pesos. Rosa has been discovered. We've seen her distinctive chickens in fine homes from Provincetown MA to LA. Tourists come to SMA with the express goal of buying a Rosa's chicken.
Our new one is a deep red big rooster with a flourishing tail and lots of sequins and glitter, not your average papier mache rooster you'd imagine. When I figure out my new camera I'll post a photo of it on our gallery.
We have a real life bird drama playing out on our back patio. We had a small roof built to cover the path from our kitchen to the garage and that has disturbed the flight plan and child rearing for the current batch of swallow parents.
Our handyman Pedro had knocked down the old nest with a hose when we thought we would be making pizzas in our back patio, but our BBQ is back on the front patio and the swallows came back.
We actually liked seeing each batch of babies as they peeked out of the nest and finally learned to fly. But this time the parents built the nest too high and too far back in the corner, and the babies have no room to arc upward when they're trying to fly.
So far three out of four have not made it. We see their little carcasses on the cement floor. We're going to knock down this nest, too, when the last bird leaves the nest, hopefully successfully. The parents need to find another spot.
We had another great evening enjoying the new Italian restaurant Francesco's on Zacateros next to Cafe Monet, just where Zacateros becomes Ancha de San Antonio.
The eggplant parmesan was the best item on the menu, from a taste I got from a friend, though I did love all three components of my sampler platter: lasagna, manicotta, and cannolini. The soups and salads were wonderful, too. Another winner joins the SMA restaurant scene.
Our friends Sibyl and Jay English are back in San Miguel for awhile, preparing for Sibyl's Aretha Franklin tribute Friday, Aug. 26 at 8 pm at the Teatro Angela Peralta.
Check out www.SibylEnglish.com is you've never heard her sing, and then get tickets early at the box office, 152-2200.
For me, the very best moments of this month so far were Friday night, Aug. 5, at the sold-out El Sindicato on Recreo 4 when MediaNoche was introduced to San Miguel.
Doug Robinson, Julian Mendieta, Kimani Carrazana, and Aaron Romo have put together a Latin Jazz fusion band that was the most exciting performance we've seen in ages.
The always fine Ken Basman joined the group for several numbers, and then a man I hadn't heard of but who deserves to be remembered as more than a memory from the '70s took center stage.
Google Luis Gasca and see all his credits, and then make sure to show up next time you see his name on a players' list.It was one of those moments when you realize instantly that you are in the presence of genius.
For several numbers two dancers in sexy orange costumes, Sofia and Everardo, took the stage to accentuate the rhythms with sensual dance moves. Other dancers who joined them on the floor below included some more professionals, and you could tell.
One woman who asked Everardo to dance for one number was stunning in her all-out sexuality, and our gaze kept following her the rest of the night whenever she was on the floor among the crowd. We were totally impressed by the debut of MediaNoche and hope to see them play again soon.
The International Chamber Music Festival continues in San Miguel through this week, and these are world class entertainers, as usual, in one of the year's highlights for San Miguel. This year there seems to be an extra amount of free concerts, at the Angela Peralta and througout the city. Another fine festival.
We're still dealing with my aunt's estate details and I'm still thinking about my aunt, whom I came to love and appreciate more her last days. Reading someone's journals can do that to you. She was so different than what she presented to the world and to me.
Maybe I'll write that report about our total Detroit experience, and maybe not. There were some very funny moments which, yeah, I'll have to write down one of these days while I still remember them.
One was one of her friends who did not approve of Norma and me at all, at least in the beginning, and whenever I would go to introduce Norma as my partner, this woman would jump in front and say, "Friends. Very good friends."
I was waiting for the opportunity to introduce her and her husband of some 60 years as "Friends. Very good friends."
July 28, 2011--A word from Joseph Feuerborn's son-in-law; Mayor Lucy Nuñez seeking input from all residents on whether to honor the permit for new Sam's Club and Superama near Mega; severe rains and hail, our street had to be excavated from rocks and soil; the city paints out all the graffiti in our area; Dr. Blanca finds another mole in process of becoming a melanoma on Norma so we get examined every three months now; fantastic evening with Philo's band at Longhorn Smokehouse; "Michael Sudheer on Broadway" extended another month at Arthur Murray's; I'm getting hearing aids; our easy US passport and inmigrado asimilado visa renewals; still working on my Detroit report.
Last blog I summarized the details of the murders of expats in SMA since January that caused a Toronto Sun tabloid reporter to headline his sensationalized story, "Who is kililng the expats of San Miguel?" I noted that the police reports concluded Joseph Feuerborn, 80, died of a heart attack, and all of his thrashing around trying to get help caused massive bruising, bleeding, and dishevelment of his house, and that his son-in-law still believes that Feuerborn was beaten and murdered in the process of a robbery. The son-in-law, Gordon McCall, wrote to me again to repeat his belief Feuerborn was murdered, and he said he was pressured to sign off on the official police report in order to get his father-in-law's body released.
He said he was through ranting, he was going to move on, but he concluded, "Something that you are quite welcome to share, though, is my genuine interest that the elderly ex-pat community simply dial up their awareness a notch, whilst still enjoying all the reasons why they are in SMA. I am convinced that none of these horrific occasions are related, but with the overall rise in socioeconomic pressures of the region (and world for that matter), sadly these situations are probably not going to be the last." In honor of his loss I'm sharing his concern here.
I still haven't processed and written my report on our month in Detroit tending to my dying aunt and then handling her estate closing, but interesting things keep happening in San Miguel that I had better write about now while they are still somewhat newsy.
In yesterday's "Living in San Miguel" forum I linked to a lengthy El Correo article on all the candidates who are being mentioned as possible mayoral challengers in SMA for next July's election, which you might want to check out. Chris Finkelstein Franyuti, former Director of International Relations, Economic Development and Tourism under former Mayor Luis Villarreal, and the one who did most of the conclusive work in getting SMA the UNESCO World Heritage site designation (and the city liaison I worked with most closely while on the Security Committee during the serial rapist terror), is expected to run again. The head of Telecable is expected to be a strong candidate. Many others are presented as well.
I also posted a short email from the Mayor's liaison to non-governmental organizations, NGOs--that include all the expat-organized charities in town. The Mayor is asking for all residents' opinions on whether she should allow the permit for WalMart to build a Sam's Club and Superama on the extensive property that was the Hotel La Siesta and RV Park behind Pollo Feliz, across from Mega at the El Pepito glorieta. Here's that request in case you wish to comment and you didn't catch the request on our forums:
Send your reply to Lic. Irma Rosado: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First, in Spanish:
>Como es del conocimiento de muchos de ustedes se pretende abrir un Superama y un Sams en el lugar donde fue el Hotel La Siestecita, atrás de Pollo Felíz Glorieta del Pípila. Para otorgar los permisos es muy importante para el Ayuntamiento la opinión de la sociedad. Mucho les agradeceré enviar su opinión sobre la conveniencia o no de que se sigan autorizando este tipo de negocios en nuestra ciudad. Por favor enviar tu opinión ya sea a nombre de tu organización o a nombre personal a email@example.com
Reciban un cordial saludo,
Lic. Irma Rosado Soto
Dir. de Vinculación con las Ong´s
Here's an English translation from www.translate.google.com. I did change back the name of the Hotel La Siesta--the computer translation was Hotel Snooze:
>As is known to many of you intends to open a Sams Superama and the place was the Hotel La Siesta, behind Pípila Glorieta del Pollo Feliz. To grant permissions is very important for the City's view of society. Much thank them send their views on the advisability of continuing to allow such businesses in our city. Please send your opinion to either your organization's name or personal name to firstname.lastname@example.org>
If you're interested in what I wrote, here is my email to Lic. Rosado:
We have a website with 1,300 registered members dedicated to helping US and Canadian citizens find out more about San Miguel and assist them with their move. We also have published two books with the same goal, which we know have been instrumental in bringing hundreds of expats to San Miguel.
We hope the Mayor will allow WalMart to build a Sam's Club and a Superama in San Miguel. We and hundreds, probably thousands, of expats drive at least once a month to the Superama in Querétaro, and often weekly to Celaya for Sam's Club, WalMart and/or Costco.
We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting the Querétaro and Celaya economies, and that money could be spent in San Miguel, causing hundreds of jobs to be kept local.
The proposed site is far enough out of the Historic Centro that it is not a disruption to the historic roots and feel of San Miguel, in our opinion.
Why should wealthier expats and Mexicans who have cars have access to the lower prices and wider selections of Superama and Sam's Club, while SMA's citizens without cars must use the bus to go to these stores? We've done it ourselves by bus many times, but it would be so much more convenient to have these stores here.
It isn't just expats who patronize these kinds of chain stores. The Walmarts, Costcos, Superama and Sam's Clubs in Celaya and Querétaro are patronized almost entirely by Mexicans. These stores are popular in areas where there are almost no foreigners, too. There is a reason they are so popular--they provide a real service, with quality goods at good prices and with a huge selection. All of us love choices.
We think even small SMA shop owners will benefit because they already go to Celaya and Querétaro themselves to stock up in bulk for their SMA stores.
We're all already buying WalMart products at our local tiendas, the items just pulled out of bulk and sometimes repackaged and the price raised.
If you are going to buy something at your neighborhood tienda because of the convenience, you'll still go there. It will just be a little cheaper for the tienda owners to buy their stock locally rather than having to drive so far to restock so many of their products.
We hope you will reconsider your decision to block these two WalMart stores. SMA needs the jobs and the economic draw of these stores to get more people into SMA from surrounding towns, and to keep our dollars and jobs in San Miguel.
Thank you for asking for our opinions.
I copied my response to the friend who sent me the original emai. She expressed concern over traffic patterns and congestion on the small streets behind the proposed construction.
I thought about it and answered her that from the moment I heard about the proposal, I envisioned that the main entrance would be off the Libramiento through the big empty lot next to Pollo Feliz, where customers coming out of the parking lot would turn right and then be headed directly to the glorieta, from which they could go any direction.
Another entrance/exit off of Salida de Celaya would require a right hand turn only for exiting vehicles, and it is true, many drivers would just make a left at the next possibility, which could cause disruption. I think more cars would head out the libramiento along the new construction past Hospital de la Fe to Calzada de Estación/Canal, which seems to be the route taxis in the know use these days whenever possible, including to our house in Col. San Rafael.
Those residents on the small streets behind the former hotel will probably have more traffic, but I think development of that massive property in such a prime location was inevitable sooner or later. Views and quiet streets cannot be assumed to be forever.
Whatever your belief on the Sam's Club and Superama coming to the Mega area, please let Lic. Rosada and the Mayor know. Expats often say they want to be consulted in big decisions by the city. Here's your chance.
On another welcome response from the city, our street in Col. San Rafael was originally a river bed, dry except for during the rainy season, according to the owner of Tacos Don Felix nearby, whose father once owned most of the land in the area. Monday night we had very heavy rains, flooding our bedrooms and washing down our stairwell, though a solution has been proposed for that problem and we're getting bids for the landlord.
Tuesday night the storm started in our area with a deluge of hailstones which made us fear our skylights would break. We turned off all lights and disconnected all surge protectors and UPS systems, in fear that water and glass crashing through to cords on the floor could cause all the wet floor to become electrified. We put our pets and ourselves downstairs on the sofa to wait it out in the dark.
Never mind, we promptly had a power outage in our area for the rest of the storm so no dangers there. The skylights had held. (My sister who lives near Dallas recently lost her skylight in a hailstorm, as did most of the owners in her condo community, and they're undergoing a special assessment to repair them all. This was not an idle fear.)
Life resumed as usual. The next morning when we went out, the entire four blocks down to Calzada de Independencia/Guadalupe were covered with big jagged rocks and soil washed down by the temporary river. It was impossible to drive on the street without worrying about tire blowouts and getting stuck in deep mud. The city sent workers with a piece of yellow road equipment that shovels out dirt and rocks by the scoopfuls and the street was cleared that day. Often the city does respond very promptly.
The city agency responsible for cleaning up graffiti, unbeknownst to us, repainted the entire back wall of our house and our metal garage door, in the correct colors, to get rid of the latest round of graffiti in our area! Someone who used "BLAM" as his signature has been layering that name all over the colonia, and he has been thwarted for awhile. What a nice surprise!
About six months ago Norma had her regular examination by dermatologist Dr. Blanca Farias de Villarreal on Hernandez Macias 85A at Umaran. Dr. Blanca found a small suspicious mole and had it biopsied then. The biopsy results indicated to take it all and all the surrounding area because it was indeed a potential melanoma. That left a four-inch-long scar on Norma's back.
So this time Dr. Blanca, using photos of Norma's past exams and a jeweler's glass type eye microscope, went over Norma extremely carefully. On her right arm was another suspicious mole, and the biopsy this time said it was in the process of turning into a melanoma. Another matching four-inch-long meandering scar. The second biopsy along the entire four-inch length of tissue said there were definitely early melanoma cells found, but they were contained within the area removed, a wide safe margin taken as well from all around. If we had waited a few more months Norma would have had a Stage 1 melanoma.
So now Norma goes every three months for a skin cancer exam. She lived from ages 18 to 40 near LA beaches and was nut brown all summers long for 22 years. Scientists say that it is the early burns you get even as a child that are the ones that are most likely to cause skin cancers later in life.
In Detroit many of us got a severe burn every July 4 picnic, and had repeated burns through to Labor Day. That was a typical summer for my first 27 years and Norma's first 17. In LA my husband wasn't a beach person so we rarely got burned those years. In Phoenix Norma and I stayed inside most of the time, only going in the pool after dark. I'm also darker complected. Norma was a towhead until adulthood. I'm not sure what good precautionary measures do in our later years, but all those cute hats and rebozos around town have a purpose.
Last night was another of those fabulous evenings that make us remember why we love San Miguel. A guy named Philo Haywood from Puerto Villarta comes to SMA during their humid summers sometimes and gets together some of the former rock stars and performers who live in SMA and puts together a night of country-western, rockabilly, and rock at Keith's Longhorn Smokehouse on Salida a Celaya 6. This time was one night only, but maybe next summer he'll be back more often. We've seen him perform at Keith's several past years, too.
I didn't know how famous some of the band members were. I don't remember who played for what bands, but dozens of the great US rock bands of all time were mentioned from the resumes of the guitarist and drummer. And then Philo called up Marshall Chapman, a lanky tall blonde who turned the audience to jelly with her own songs and her accompaniments to Philo. Turns out she's written some of the best country western and rock songs that you've heard all your life. Phil asked her if she lives in San Miguel now, and she answered, "I'm living here now." Her guitar playing was as strong and powerful as any hair band star.
I found out later that Marshall Chapman will appear at the San Miguel Literary Sala celebration in memory of late author Wayne Greenhaw, at 5 pm Thursday, Aug. 4, at the Hotel Posada San Francisco on the Jardin across from Starbucks. Here's part of her bio from the Sala PR for the event:
>Following the tribute, Chapman will relate many of her encounters in Nashville which appear in her newly-published book, They Came to Nashville, in which she writes about her experiences with such music legends as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson, among others. Chapman has an impressive career as a songwriter, singer, and author. To date she has released twelve critically acclaimed albums, and her songs have been recorded by everyone from Emmylou Harris and Joe Cocker to Irma Thomas and Jimmy Buffett. Her first book, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (St. Martin's Press) was a Southern Independent Book Association (SIBA) bestseller, 2004 SIBA Book Award finalist, and one of three finalists for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. She is also a contributing editor for a variety of journals. 2010 was a banner year for Chapman. In January, she landed her first movie role, playing Gwyneth Paltrow's road manager in Country Strong. In February, her musical Good Ol' Girls (adapted from the fiction of southern writers Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, featuring songs by Matraca Berg and Marshall) opened off-Broadway. Later that fall, Chapman simultaneously released They Came to Nashville and a new CD, Big Lonesome. They Came to Nashville was recently nominated for the 2011 SIBA Book Award for nonfiction.>
See the kinds of talented people that pop up in San Miguel sometimes and you think they're just an ordinary singer and then you find out they're real celebrities? She was down to earth at Keith's, kicking off her shoes to join Philo at the one microphone they had to share because no one could find another mike at that hour.
As usual SMA dancers are incredible. The first woman up on her feet must have studied the hula and excelled at the Twist and shimmy and maybe learned some belly dancing sometime in her life. Her hips never stopped, and her hands, if you looked away from her hips, kept moving like a hula dancer's, too. And then a long-maned blonde did some gymnastics that could have been around a pole, bouncing off the floor like a break dancer hired as the background rhythm for a porn flick. She was really good, often just jumping up and down like what I imagine a rave scene to be like in the front rows of a rock concert. Such energy, she never stopped. And those hips on the other woman kept shaking all around her.
Soon dozens of dancers were on the floor, including one couple all in black who could have been instructors at Arthur Murray's. Norma was table dancing--gyrating in her seat as strenuously as any of the dancers on the floor, so we finally got up and showed our stuff, such as it is. As usual more women danced alone than couples--men of our age and maybe all ages tend to be reluctant to dance. We had a fantastic evening, that followed our favorite Keith's BBQ sampler platter of ribs, brisket and sausage, with three small salad sides, 95 pesos. We asked ourselves as we left, where else that we have ever lived could we have had such a great evening for such little cost, surrounded by old and new friends? No place we know of.
We went to another live music program last week as well, "Michael Sudheer on Broadway." He's been extended for all of August as well, performing every Friday night at 8 pm for 100 pesos at the Arthur Murray Studio and Baile Restaurant across from Belles Artes on Hernandez Macias. We first heard Sudheer about nine years ago in "Cabaret," probably the best stage presentation ever seen in San Miguel. He played the Joel Grey role and mesmorized the audience with his hissed "Welcome," his fun dance with two women playing his dual lovers, his convincing "Money Money Money" makes the world go round.
He's been a professional stage actor since the age of 19, though he regrets he can't sing his first stage song, "I am seventeen going on eighteen, I will take care of you," that he performed in "The Sound of Music" back then. We all have aged and his voice admittedly doesn't have the range of his youth, but he brings a wise maturity and sad depth to songs today. Most of his selections he joked we'd never have heard before, and we hadn't.
They were Broadway tunes, yes, but some of them never even made it to the stage, having been cut before opening. One such beautiful song was from the early days of the AIDS epidemic. He says he changes his material every week. The show we saw was a benefit for Casa Hogar Santa Julia orphanage, and Robin Loving presented three girls who are among the success stories, the oldest heading off to high school on a scholarship.
Each Friday night a different charity benefits from "Michael Sudheer on Broadway." You have to call early to make reservations at 152-0095 or 415-109-7720. You can come at 6:30 for an early dinner before the performance. We enjoyed spring rolls for about 65 pesos, a grilled mahi mahi fillet with mango salsa for around 120 pesos, wild rice and coconut ice cream, all of it delicious.
A big happening for me personally is deciding to finally get hearing aids. Instead of pretending to hear I started telling Norma what I thought I heard her say, and she got so irritated at how wrong I often heard that she gave me the incentive to make an appointment with Guilliermo Sanchez, 152-2233, at Hospital de la Fe. He is an audiologist from Mexico City who comes to SMA once or twice a week, and he is always booked. Yes, the tests showed I need hearing aids in both ears. Norma's hearing is borderline so she's putting it off until she can't anymore.
The cost for one digital hearing aid is about $1,600 USD, with 100 batteries included. That's about two year's supply. I got the conch style that is visible in the ear because it can be adjusted easily when you listen to a concert versus whispers, etc. The totally in-ear styles are a little more expensive and use more batteries, and I'm not particularly vain anyway.
We also got both our Mexican visas and our US passports recently. Our inmigrante asimilado visa cards, formerly called FM2s, were very easy this time. We still prefer to go to the Escritorio Publico across from Immigration to have him do the website form for us and to do the letter for us to sign declaring that all the information on our original application is still correct. I.e., no more financial statements to prove income. We did need to have a letter from our accountant certifying that we are paid up with Hacienda on our work permit taxes.
Now everyone gets a new wallet sized plastic card every year, so we had to go to the Escritorio anyway for new infantil sized color photos. The total charge from him for both photos and the application was 400 pesos each. I know we could do it ourselves starting online, but then we'd still need the photos, and it's simply easier and faster, hassle-free. It's people like us who provide jobs to Mexican facilitators and helpers of one kind or another.
We had our renewal cards in 24 hours! We picked them up the next day.
I asked the woman at the pick-up line whether when the new regs go into effect in November, could we come in and change to the new permanente residente status, equivalent to the current inmigrado status? She said yes, though I'm not positive she understood my Spanish. Immigration announced new changes to immigration law on May 25, and the regulations spelling out how the laws are to be enacted will be announced within 180 days, around Nov. 20.
Nothing is known for sure until the regs are announced, but there will be changes ahead. Read my many posts on this on our forums for hints of what might be ahead for us. It will only take four years living in Mexico on a temporary residency visa (which will incorporate most FM2s and all FM3 categories) to qualify for permanente residency, for one big change. There will be no more FM2 inmigrantes or FM3 no inmigrantes, only a category called temporary residente, or so the advance notices seem to indicate. Hang loose, we'll all find out what the changes mean to each of us around November. The fees to renew an inmigrante visa are still 2801 pesos.
We haven't gotten our new US passports back yet--Ed Clancy says maybe six weeks. We paid $160 for that application. You need a 2"x2" color photo, two copies, front view only, for US passports, and the Escritorio doesn't do that size. He told us to go to San Juan de Dios mercado, the covered part, and go to the back where the buses leave for La Cienegita and other nearby sites. Turn around away from the mercado and we'd see a photography studio called Arco Iris, the rainbow. There it was. I think it was around 70 pesos each for the passport photos. Very easy.
That's it for our current lives. I still haven't gotten around to doing my Detroit report. Still processing. Since it is my final take on my aunt and on this five-month process and on her life, I want it to be good. Or maybe I'll never write it. And that will be okay.
July 17, 2011--Long time no write but I'm processing all that has happened; we're back for good, contrary to some rumors; a little about now in SMA before remembering the long trips, Detroit, and my aunt's death
Somehow it all keeps happening, more and more, and I never know quite where to start and what to include. But start somewhere. It was a heavily emotional experience, as you can imagine, and any time anyone is up close with dying, all is reevaluated in the broadest and deepest concepts and details.
Of course we considered all possibilities, including staying on in my aunt's condo with her car back in Detroit. After three days that thought was out! I'll go into why we decided to stay in San Miguel the rest of our lives, if the crik don't rise (meaning anything now unforeseen but the worst sometimes happens). I think I'll just write about what is going on right now back in San Miguel before facing last month.
We're enjoying immensely going to our old haunts, with no worries of whether we should really be headed back to Detroit or the constant worries of the restaurant. All that is over. People ask us if we are going to reopen the restaurant now, but been there, done that. We got the call from Dorothy's doctor in January, as we were about to open Norma's Pizza a la Parrilla, that we needed to get back there to get her into a nursing home because her dementia was so severe--she thought it was 1912 and Kennedy was president. And the next week as we opened we got the call that her breast cancer had metastasized to her liver, and we knew inside our restaurant plans were doomed but we tried to carry on anyway.
Didn't work, one short trip up didn't accomplish a thing, we had to go back for awhile. End of restaurant. It hadn't been doing great anyway, admittedly, and it would have taken all our marketing knowhow to make it go, but we think we could have beaten the odds for new restaurants. Oh well, we did it, and that's another item checked off our bucket list.
It is very freeing to be able to shop in Mega and not have the ingredients list for a dozen dishes rotating through the mental Rolodex all the time to try to keep up, or worrying about whether an employee's feelings have been hurt and they'll quit, or whether the gourmet cheese shops will have real asiago this week, or whether the basil plants on the roof will produce enough basil this week... Of the 62 basil plants we had all over our roof, terraces and patios, all but one have died, by the way. Now we can smell the baby roses again.
We've been spending more time in Centro, walking the streets again. So many shops and restaurants have closed, and gringo tourism is certainly down, though it feels as if as many Mexico City tourists are coming. San Miguel has always been an historic place where Mexicans who have moved to big cities come back to get in touch with their roots--contrary to some expats who always say we are ruining the town. (But they don't leave.)
I remember former Atencióneditor Sareda Milosz speaking to the Unitarians our first week in SMA, saying that she thought SMA was changing for the worse, it was nothing like the almost ghost town Stirling Dickinson revived almost singlehandedly in the '30s. I say, hurrah! Some expats who have been here 20-30-40 years remember when there were gunfights in the Jardin, corruption was far more rampant, the utilities could barely function, and there were none of the services expats and Mexicans take for granted today.
Sareda's Unitarian audience reacted badly and Norma and I hustled our new friend out of there ASAP afterward. No one ever wants to hear that things are getting worse and maybe we've had some part in that. But to me we've had far more of a positive effect, and the kinds of encroachment of US products and ideas that have taken place here are echoed by what some in the US see as the Mexicanization of the US, on an even larger scale. The free exchange of ideas, culture, business, and social attitudes is global, not just happening in San Miguel. All borders are porous, especially the airwaves.
The millions of Mexicans who went to the US to work and have come back are bringing back their love of McDonald's and the eight hour work day and good roads, far more than some expats' constant quest for creamed horseradish or Oscar-nominated movies. (We certainly enjoyed 14-screen movie theaters in Detroit showing more movies to our tastes instead of teen-oriented action flicks that are the backbone of Cinemex here, that's for sure. But since we've been back we've seen the Valerie Plame movie and we'll take in Harry Potter tomorrow.)
More and more Mexican restaurants are opening in the Detroit area, not just Taco Bell and Del Taco. The changes are two-way, folks, or actually 360-degree-way. And I see we have another Thai restaurant trying to make it in SMA, this time on Mesones. That's one we want to support. We can't go to all the new ones on a regular basis, we're having a hard enough time getting back to all our old favorites. We did the Food Factory Friday night, when there were several gallery openings at Fabrica Aurora, and their plank of grilled meats and veggies is as delicious as ever. We celebrated another occasion with an excellent dinner at Casa Allende, which we hope survives.
La Posadita is as charming as ever, Ole Ole keeps hanging in there through the decades, Max is still smiling at all passersby in front of Tio Lucas, Bob is still hugging the women coming into Harry's, Keith is still making the rounds at all customer tables to make sure all is well, Tacos Don Felix continues to make everybody happy, and hundreds of Mexican families cause long waits for Sunday dinners at Pollo Feliz.
When we arrived in SMA In 2002 we went to everything, we scoured the Atención calendar and fit it all in, there wasn't a gallery opening or parade or concert we passed by, but now we don't seem to have the energy and interest for all of it. We still love San Miguel, but loving San Miguel doesn't mean we have to attend every Day of the Locos parade or stand through both the morning and afternoon Good Friday processions with the same floats or buy a 40-peso comida at Carmen's every week.
What does it mean to love San Miguel, after nine years? It means we feel most comfortable here, we just plain enjoy looking at the streets and the people, we find it the best place we have ever lived for meeting people we like, we have more friends from a wider base than we have ever had, we can live our lives the way we like with the least possible hassles here, life is always interesting, the things that don't work and the people who annoy are not overwhelming, we feel very safe in our daily lives. We are always pleasantly surprised by some bit of generosity or concern by a Mexican we barely know. We keep learning about more aspects of the history, geology, politics and culture of Mexico that broadens our outlook. We feel happier driving into town, catching glimpses over the miradors of the cityscape, than we do approaching any other place we've lived. We're happier here.
When I talk about Detroit and its suburbs you'll see the difference. Not that I don't still love Detroit in some ways and feel a little guilty that I was one of the millions who left rather than staying to fight the problems.
What else is going on in our daily lives today? Flies. Horrible masses of black flies move into homes and restaurants when the weather goes from hot to cool, or when it rains, and this is rainy season. The weather is perfect most of the time, and I even enjoy the rapid onslaught of black rain clouds that move in and dump their loads and then are gone in a few hours many days. Flies are called moscas in Spanish, and a flyswatter is a matamosca. We haven't been able to find one here yet. Atención has many purposes. A Huffington Post article reported on 15 ways to control fiies in your house, only three of which worked, they concluded: a fan to keep the air moving, a heavily scented floral dish soap in a little water, and lavender scented candles. Norma is allergic to perfumes so the last two are out. A good swat with Atención also works.
In the heaviest rains, our house does not do well. While we were gone our housekeeper lived in our house and twice she had to do the same emergency sweeping of water out of the bedrooms and down the stairs that we had to do last year, when we had storm water cascading down our stairwell not only down the stairs but in a waterfall down the sides of the open well. Mexican contractors don't seem to always remember to put in enough drains from roofs, to have floors tilt slightly so that water flows outside rather than patio water flows inside, to have weatherstripping to keep down the flows. I couldn't understand why so many Mexican homes and businesses had a step inside the door, which otherwise might be accessible to someone in a wheelchair or with a mobility problem. Now I understand and would have them built into our entrances, too.
(A guy who uses an electric mobility chair wrote to me at the website recently, eager to move to San Miguel, but I had to discourage him because he would not have nearly the range of freedom he has where he lives in the States. He was very depressed. I couldn't in good conscience tell him it would be easy on him to try to conquer all the mobility hurdles he'd find constantly here, including curb cuts on one end of a street and not the other, narrow sidewalks further interrupted by utility poles, holes, and steps out into the sidewalk, a step badly placed inside a restaurant bathroom so that a wheelchair user can't use the facilities, etc. Not everything about San Miguel is wonderful.)
As usual some in the expat community are up in arms about rumors a new McDonald's is coming to Centro, on Canal, near Starbucks. Puebla, also a UNESCO World Heritage City with as much claim to tourism as SMA, has McDonald's, Burger King, Starbucks and so many other franchises that originated in the US all around its Jardin. We've seen McDonald's in downtown Santa Fe (though the city made them change its colors to southwest colors like teal and rust), Paris and London.
Though Subway now claims to have more stores than McDonald's, Big Macs are sold in far higher volume around the world than any other restaurant meal, and people who live in cities without a single US citizen or tourist enjoy their own Mickie D. Some expats have even complained that McDonald's did not do an extensive survey of the neighborhood to see if the neighborhood really wanted them to come. As if any restaurant does that anywhere in the world, including in the US.
In one phase of my life I worked on a suburban daily and had to cover City Council meetings for Warren, Centerline, Sterling Heights, Roseville and other suburban Detroit cities. Whenever a permit application came up on the agenda for a new McDonald's, the councils reliably would get into an uproar about the amount of traffic and trash and the potential for doomsday if the new restaurant was approved. They always were, and Armageddon never happened.
I think I would prefer all international businesses to be out of historic Centro, even to a few blocks away, but it is not expats' decision as to how San Miguel voters determine which candidates' policies reflect their wishes most. Mayor Lucy Nuñez faces reelection next July and the next mayor will be installed next October, 2012, as the US is racheting toward its presidential election. The world will soon see whether Mexican voters want to return to the policies of the PRI, which ruled Mexico as a dictatorship for more than 70 years up to Vicente Fox's election in 2000, or whether they will continue President Calderon's conservative PAN party in power, or whether the more radical PRD or the Green Party or some coalition will be in charge next October, and who will be determining SMA's future for the next three to six years. Not our decision.
The main issue which has had many SMA expats upset since we've returned is the murder of Canadian native Judy Baylis in her home near Atotonilco. Her dentist husband was in Toronto at his practice when it happened. Before the uproar cooled, the final newspaper articles were saying that police were concentrating on the theory that a woman employee who had been fired for theft and not given severance pay had come back, maybe with her husband, and robbed and killed Baylis. She was stabbed 23 times, the articles reported, which the TV crime shows tell us indicates a crime of passion, strong emotion, directed very personally at the victim, not a random crime or robbery. The Baylis home had eight bedrooms, horse stables, and many employees. The couple had lived in SMA for many years.
The Toronto Sun sent out a reporter for a few days who camped at the Baylis front door, made a tour of the grounds and reported where he thought a robber could have gained access, reported in the paper who came and went, and repeatedly knocked until the husband came out to see him and told him to go away. The few words the husband said were repeated in several contexts until it sounded as if the reporter had had an actual conversation with him, but the police came and escorted him off the grounds.
The husband told reporters that he trusted the police and how they were handling their approach to solving the crime, he did not think more publicity would help the case at all, he did not want reporters approaching him any more, and he was grieving enough with the enormity of what had happened to have to keep dealing with reporters.
Probably the same SMA expats who think McDonald's should survey neighborhoods before opening a new story were saying that the SMA mayor and police chief should be reporting to the expat community frequently to keep us updated on all aspects of the crime. As if that happens routinely in the US. Decisions are made by police and city officials on when to use publicity and what and when the public needs to be kept informed, but no US mayor or police chief reports regularly to a small foreign community within their towns. Imagine if non-US citizen Mexican immigrants demanded in the papers that the mayor of any US city should hold regular press conferences with them! Whether they were legal or not, they'd be threatened with deportation by angry readers.
The same Toronto Sun reporter wrote one story published with the headline, "Who is killing the expats of San Miguel?"
He published inaccuracies, incomplete reports and distortions of every murder and alleged murder of expats in San Miguel recently, and also of most deaths of Canadians throughout Mexico in recent years, to build his case that SMA was unsafe and no Canadians should ever come to Mexico.
He implied that the SMA police didn't even know the full name of Andrew Walton--he was supposedly "a man known only as Andrew"--and neglected to mention that the young man was known to be wanted in the US on drug charges, he was known to local police authorities for his drug activities, he was in Mexico on a slightly different name on what appear to be falsified documents, and he was known to have gone afoul of a drug cartel. He was shot and dumped along a highway. This is not the kind of murder an average expat has to fear. To be accurate, SMA police and no one else know for sure what Andrew Walton's real name might be.
The reporter made Peter Mudge out to be a saint, and he said that Joseph Feurbotton (I know I have the spelling wrong and I will check it later) was the fourth murder victim in San Miguel this year. As Ed Clancy told the Feb. 11 open meeting on security issues in SMA, the cause of death on the death certificate is heart attack, and he knows personally of heart attack victim cases where the person thrashed and fell many times during the seizure and caused extensive bleeding and bruising that could look like a beating. Also, the elderly pale-skinned man had dark and ugly lividity marks, which a reporter who saw and decided had to be signs of a beating, which is what he first reported. The relative of the man who came down for the body talked to the reporter and was convinced his relative had been beaten. But Clancy said police had no evidence that had occurred. The Toronto Sun report made it sound as if all expats in San Miguel were in danger of at any moment having their homes invaded and being brutally beaten and murdered. Who is killing the expats of San Miguel indeed.
The Toronto Sun reporter also lumped all cases of deaths of Canadians together as if they were murders, when in fact several of the cases of inebriated young men falling off of balconies while on holiday were just that, no evidence was ever found that anyone pushed them. And on every one of the Sun's stories, the reader comments that followed were absolutely horrible on Mexico, as racist and inaccurate and sensationalized as they could be. I thought about trying to post some semblance of truth in the reader comment sections but concluded I would also be vilified and ignored, as were the few supporters of Mexico who tried. No one wins in tackling those kinds of arguments. I ran into those kinds of attitudes over and over again when we were in Detroit--a city which is often called Murder Capital of the World, though admittedly today Cuidad Juarez deserves that title.
So the bigotry and misconceptions about Mexico followed me back to San Miguel, where many expats find themselves angry in spite of themselves when they hear such comments and judgments, even here when it is so obvious that we live in an entirely different reality than what many NoB believe is universally true about all of Mexico.
I know at least one reader out there is going to jump up and down and post on other forums that I'm wearing rose-colored glasses and have my ostrich head in the sand and am deceiving potential newbies into thinking it is totally safe to move to San Miguel. Of course no place in this world is totally safe. But I feel very safe here, especially after having returned from Detroit. And of course we take all common sense safety precautions and have an alarm system and bars on some windows and a barking dog, just as we did in LA.
That may be it for what is going on with us in SMA since we returned from Detroit. I don't seem to want to write about my last days taking care ofmy aunt in her home as she died, though they were among the most profound days of my life. Surprise, there are actually some experiences I won'write about!
I've been blogging here since February, 2006. I keep only the latest blogs onsite; older blogs become edited into future books. Thanks for reading!
Carol Schmidt, Living Your Dreams in Mexico and San Miguel de Allende