Category Archives: ex-pats in Mexico

Navidad – Going To Mexico


Our recent annual Posadas Parties gig in downtown Los Angeles ended quietly on December 24th.  As we were setting up several employees asked if the evening would end earlier than the other nights, and Yes, we said. We used less equipment and smaller speakers, and shortened the times between events, so that we ended about 9:15 instead of at 10 p.m.

Some of our equipment, waiting to be stored – up two flights of stairs – the life of a musician!
We trudged up and down stairs and put away our equipment in the storage room. We said our goodbyes to the dancers, the puppeteer and the employees, and drove to our motel for our last night.
In the morning we packed up our equipment and clothing, and went to a local pawn shop to purchase a drum machine we had spotted similar to the one we like to use for recording. We then drove to a cousin’s house near Covina where we enjoyed a wonderful meal with ham as a main dish (thank you, Sylvia!. In spite of all the excellent meats available in Mexico, ham and turkey are two things that just are not of the same quality. I am not embarrassed to say that I had several many servings of ham. I had an extremely enjoyable conversation with Sylvia and her lovely daughter while the daughter made guacamole as Christmas gifts for her friends. They were so attentive I probably talked way too much. I do miss having women friends to talk to, and I probably totally dominated the table talk.
As the afternoon wore on I began to cast glances at the clock and fret a little about leaving on time. Our car was due back at the rental agency in San Diego at 9 p.m., and I hazarded a guess that it would be perhaps a three-hour drive. We left about 6:45 after our goodbyes. While I kept driving at a steady pace for about three hours, Chon napped off and on.
We were on an unfamiliar freeway, and it just didn’t feel like exactly the right direction. When I began seeing signs for San Diego, but not for the airport, I called my sister, who was on the receiving end of a snow-and-ice storm in Arkansas. She speedily looked for directions to the airport (she is really, really good at using the computer), and told me if I saw highway 163 I should take it. As her words came through the phone we were just arriving at the off-ramp, and we zoomed onto it. Her directions were perfect and in a short time we were near the airport; we gassed up the car, checked it in and re-packed our things.
I may not have mentioned that one part of our luggage was a large box (The Box) with digital recording equipment we had purchased in Los Angeles. Chon packed it with clothing for additional protection. It had carrying handles, but it was quite heavy and rather awkward. In addition I was carrying a bag we bought at a thrift shop because it had wheels for ease of movement.
Although we had taken the Volaris shuttle from the Tijuana airport to the San Diego airport, we weren’t exactly sure how to catch it back to the Tijuana airport. Although I was fairly sure of the location, I hadn’t really thought about the lateness of our return, and wondered if it would come. An extremely rude taxi driver tried to convince us that my directions were wrong. We showed up, though, at the Amtrak station, and I got directions for the shuttle stop right outside the door. It would arrive, the attendant told us, at 11 p.m. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 1:10 a.m., and we were beginning to feel pinched for time. That is to say, this is when both of us were feeling that pinch; I had felt concerned since, say, about 5 p.m. There was one other person besides us at the shuttle stop, a young man who told us HIS flight was leaving at 11:45.
Our luggage under street lights, outside the Metro Station in San Diego, CA. See The Box?
We looked at each other wordlessly. IF the shuttle arrived at the scheduled time, and IF it took zero minutes to officially cross the border, it still would just not be possible for him to make his flight because of the 20-or-so-minute drive to the border. He suspected it, and we knew it. He asked if we would like to share a taxi. There was one parked a half-block away, and before Chon went to ask if it was available, I asked him to make sure the driver wasn’t a complete A. He wasn’t, and it was available. He wanted $50 to drive us to the border, and the other passenger offered to pay half.  That made OUR taxi ride cheaper than taking the shuttle! We got a strong young guy to help carry The Box, and HE got at least a chance to make his flight.
We raced to the border, the cab driver probably in a hurry to harvest more work on this busy Christmas night. The cabbie had lied, however, when he told us that it wasn’t far for us to walk to cross the border; “less than a block”, he said. We tumbled out of the cab and unloaded our gear and began to walk on the new pedestrian path across the border. My bag, the one with wheels, would begin to rock wildly if I walked speedily or held the handle too high, so I brought up the rear.
We sweated our way along the well-lit, smooth sidewalk that led to a small brilliantly lit room where a sleepy-eyed female border agent asked us where we were coming from, and going to. Chon told her that the three of us were a band, and we were making a regular border crossing to play at a party. She waved us past her with a bored smile.
And then we walked, and walked. And walked some more. The sidewalk became a bridge. With many switchbacks. Chon and the young guy made several changes of sides of The Box because their hands hurt. Several times we passed a middle-aged gringo (and he passed us), and one of those times he asked us, panting, if we wanted to share a taxi. Yes, we did. As we finally arrived, panting, at the taxi parking area, we beckoned to him to hurry so he could ride with us. The taxi driver quoted a $20 price (yes, $5 apiece) and amazingly, loaded The Box and some other luggage into the truck and tied the trunk lid down. The four of us piled in, and passed around our smaller bags so that we could fit.
We started off for the airport, and every time we drove across a pot-hole the trunk lid would bang and the gringo with us would mutter “bad shocks”. We made it to the airport in record time, and the young guy and Chon picked up The Box again and carried it to the luggage scanner. We made it through that first hurdle and I had my visa checked. The young guy began to slink away, and Chon called him back to haul The Box to our check-in line, where he promptly and efficiently disappeared. Who could blame him? He DID make his flight, though.
And WE pushed The Box through the lines to the check-in, where we paid for the extra weight. Then we headed with our backpacks to the security check, where we were told that we could not carry our (brand-new, extra-heavy-duty, expensive) instrument cords in our carry-on luggage. (What???? No electrical cables in carry-on? That is not something I have seen listed as being prohibited by the airlines.) I waited while Chon ran back to the check-in counter where the airline workers told him to leave his backpack with them.  As this was simply not an option (great NEW backpack designed for computer, with a fine drum machine inside), he talked them into leaving only the cables with them, and returned cum backpack to the security check-in, and then, finally, we were through, and the rest was easy.
The Volaris flight took off and arrived on time (congratulations, Volaris!), and when we arrived I had my first opportunity (??) to help carry The Box. After only a few seconds I was so relieved that I hadn’t been the one drafted to lug it all the way across the immigration trails!
A friend picked us up at the airport, and as we headed for the highway to take us home, there were hundreds and hundreds of urracas, boat-tailed grackles, in enormous parvadas , flocks, flying overhead.
We got home about 40 minutes later, unloaded our things and went to sleep for four hours.

  

ANNUAL CHECKUP

I love the pointillistic effect of a Blackberry in poor light!

We have been here in Mexico off and on for over a year, and I thought a general examination might be in order.
PERSONAL
I am happy here. There is really nothing I miss about California life., with the exception of a few wonderful people, and hot water. The bathing water that the family here calls “calientita” is really not even warmer than my skin.
My job as a high school choral teacher was stressful. Each year when I began the year I wished I was not aware of how much hard work was ahead of me. My work here is enjoyable. I like caring for our house. I never considered myself a good housekeeper, but the daily sweeping and mopping of floors is not unpleasant. The frequency means that there really isn’t a lot of dirt. It’s quick and everything smells good afterwards. I’m trying to enjoy dusting as well.
I still don’t cook here – Chon’s sister does that. Since I like to cook, that has been a minus, but still, there is a definite ease of life when you only have to heat up food when it’s dinner time. After we return from Los Angeles we are going to refresh the kitchen with new tile floors and paint, and we intend to do our own cooking when that is finished; we are sending the small stove (with NO oven) to Chon’s sister’s house, and starting with our own electric oven that has been languishing in the patio (it’s 220 v, and, well, nobody has 220 here) or a new gas stove /oven. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. In a check-up do you get to include future plans?
I don’t have many friends, but I think that might change when I am more fluent in Spanish. And about that – it is slowly becoming more easy to have conversations, although I have occasional brain farts when I can’t remember very common words. Maybe that will never change – happens in English, too!
FINANCES/PRICES
Since inquiring minds want to know, food and household items are LOTS lower in price than in the US. Medicines are rather expensive, but the doctor care I have experienced is efficient,excdellent, and inexpensive. For most people here, it seems expensive, but compared to the California health care I am familiar with, it’s very low-cost. A doctor’s visit is less than $40. A brief, efficient, and very state-of-the-art hospital visit for Chon’s sister to remove gall-stones was completed in about three hours, and cost about $1,500. Really.
Food/groceries are good, and inexpensive.
Mattresses cost about a third of what they cost in the US.
FARMING AND GARDENING

We harvested our fields last month, and made about a 50% return on our investment in seed, tractor work, and labor, and we are opening a savings account to keep the money we made for next year’s farming expenses (it costs a lot to plant and fertilize).
Our garden was a success, but will be much better next year. We were casual in our seeding, and the result was overcrowding. We got a great harvest of zucchini (and lots and lots memorable meals with zucchini flowers). The poblano chile plants, now freed from the shade of the sprawling tomato plants, have now set on tiny chiles. if we don’t get a killing frost, who knows! Chiles in January?
WEATHER
Here in central Mexico the weather is temperate. That doesn’t mean that it is warm all the time. Lately it has been quite chilly, with temperatures dipping well into the 30’s some nights. When we brought clothing here, I was told to bring sweaters. Now in December, I’m glad that I did.
HOME IMPROVEMENTS
We created some space – a new bedroom and bathroom for Chon’s mother (the old bath is outdoors and down a step, making it difficult for her to navigate). 
We have a new studio for practice and recording. And a stage on top of our garage, for performances. (Years ago we began a tradition of performing for the town. Come see us on New Year’s Eve!)

Does he look like a guitar god?

 AUTOMOBILES/REGISTRATION

We finally got the registration papers for our large truck. We use it mostly for band equipment. It took months to get this task done.  There are a bewildering number of laws and rules about importing  cars to Mexico. The truck qualified, but it evidently had some customization that was difficult to explain, or get cleared, or – something. Now, though, it is legal, and has Mexican license plates. 
TRAVEL AND DRIVING
We have driven many, many miles without trouble. When you cross state lines, however, you may well be stopped by federales, local police, or soldiers. We had an unpleasant experience in Nayarit when federales inspected our PT Cruiser and announced that they had found a marijuana seed in the back. They were insulting and a little scary while they kept us there for about half an hour. They pretended to be insulted when Chon offered to pay them for their trouble, but one of them took some large bills from the travel money we had with us.
Another time when we were stopped by some troops the young soldiers were very happy to accept a mordida although they took it hurriedly so that their superior officer did not see them; probably they didn’t want to share!
Driving here is – different. In general, the rules and laws are the same as the ones we all know and love. But the signs are different, and I don’t mean because they are in Spanish. They are placed differently; not regularized in placement, or color, or lettering. Sometimes you must make a turn before a sign, and sometimes quite a way after the sign. It can be a challenge to find signs for street names. Glorietas (or round-abouts) are a little scary at first, but then they begin to make sense. Just keep to the center of the circle if you are going all the way around, and to the outside lane if you are going to turn right. Many large cities have removed glorietas and replaced them with signal lights.
 UNWRITTEN RULES AND ETIQUETTE
I can’t give myself a high mark in this, but it is improving. Here’s an example: if I were at my home in California and a visitor was seated on my couch, I would go sit next to them to show I was happy they were there, and that I wanted to visit and be sociable. Here, in Mexico though, if someone is visiting and I go to sit with them, in a few minutes they get up and go. A territorial thing? (Sometimes useful!)
I think this was quite random, but that’s what I can think of right now for my checkup, and I’m just going to quit.

DEATH OF A LOCAL CHARACTER

Nena was born into a family of over twenty siblings. When Chon’s mother describes  Doña Mathilde’s and Don Luz’ multitudinous family she always says that Mathilde had 23 children; “tres vezes cuates”; three times twins.

Nena’s name is Maria Elena, but was never called that. She was always called Nena, a common nickname for Elena. Nena is also a word for “baby girl”. Nena was a twin, born second. She was always trailing behind – in everything.  She was not very healthy, and many things just sort of passed her by. As she grew to adulthood she became known in this little town as a viguera; a person with “bad” language. She liked to sit in front of her family’s little store, right across the street from us, and watch the world go by, trumpeting  insulting remarks about nearly everyone.

We met about 26 years ago, and I tended to avoid her; not because of her language so much, but because I was learning to speak Spanish, and Nena was harder than the usual to understand.  As I came to know her better, we would have conversations. I can’t remember her ever saying anything really rude to me, but whatever Nena said to anyone was heard by everyone within a couple of hundred feet because of her extremely loud and focused voice. She was absolutely incorrigible; loud, rude and crude.

Her health, never good, began to deteriorate to a serious level a few years ago. A small-boned person, quite short of stature, she began to carry more and more weight on her frame. She looked a great deal like a ball and she had to lean back to walk on her tiny feet. People said that she carried a lot of water weight, and evidently that was true. They said that from time to time the doctors would remove several liters of water from her stomach. That was not true, except for the amount.

Several times I heard family say that they just didn’t know what was wrong with Nena; the doctors had told her, but they just couldn’t remember what it was that they had said. She died of renal failure.

The last few months of her life she developed a continuous cough, deep, rasping, and painful-sounding. Here at our house we heard it a lot, because she would visit nearly every day. She especially liked to visit on Tuesdays when Chavela would come, because she often brought or prepared here delicious meals. Nena was the first one to the table, not only at our house.  She made herself welcome in many, many neighboring homes.

She and Chon would sometimes exchange mild insults. Other people would avoid her, or just chuckle and shake their heads, saying “Oh, Nena,”. In spite of her insulting and low speech, was quite religious, and attended mass when she could.

There was much conjecture about her coffin – how would they fit the enormous amount of flesh into it? As it turned out, the coffin was a normal one, with a glass window on top.

The funeral mass was very well-attended, and included many family members who had not visited for years. Many of the attendees had never been friends of Nena’s, but attended out of respect for the family, or bald curiosity.

There were fireworks Saturday night, when Nena’s body arrived from the hospital/morgue, and there were more fireworks early the next morning. These are typically rocket-type things that are shot into the air, and explode high above. You can hear the swish of the rocket as it flies.  There was also a mariachi group, only occasionally hired in our little town (mariachis are costly). Nena had a couple of favorite songs, and they were sung, along with popular rancheras, at the velorio.

As far as I know, although Nena told stories about bus drivers and musicians that she had her eye on, she never had a boyfriend. I doubt that she ever had a close friend. She never attended school. She lived much of her life in pain. She was truly one-of-a-kind, and I already miss her.

Playing With Johnson Grass

If you have done any farming in the US, you know what it is. Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve seen it – big clumps of grass with plumy seed heads in the summer. This is healthy young Johnson grass – no seeds yet.

We walk to La Tabla Grande (each field has a name here!) with a borrowed shovel. Maybe it’s a spade – it’s the only shovel around here that isn’t a flat for-shoveling-gravel one. It’s about 6 inches wide, and maybe 20 inches long. The sun is shining and it promises to be hot. But, oh, it’s so beautiful here walking along the tops of the fields. Green and blue and brown and green and blue and brown. Hills and fields with houses in the distance. A bright red bird.
We pass one field that looks like all weeds. It’s been replanted, but it looks awful, although the little plants are visible in their rows. We pass another one that there is much speculation about. The owner is famous for using and over-using chemicals. They say he has spend over 50,000 dollars, not pesos, on his lands. So far. Some fields look “clean” and healthy, some have puny plants.
Chiggers can be a problem, and it’s not fun to think about them. It’s also not fun to think about how many times people have said “You can’t get rid of Johnson grass, but you can try to control it.” 
We start digging the Johnson grass that has invaded the edge of our field. It’s tall and in clumps, and it grows all the way to the bottom end of the field. Here’s how we do it. The person lucky enough to be doing the digging digs close to the clump of grass. Since the blade of the spade is so long, you have to raise your leg pretty high, then really put your weight on the top edge of the spade, and send it as deep as you can into the ground. The person lucky enough not to be doing the digging picks up the big clump – it’s hard and sticky, like a huge, heavy black wad of gum, then bangs it on the ground (not very effective) or the knee or leg (effective, but increasingly painful). Then the grass with a little bit of sticky dirt still on it gets heaved onto the road.
In one spot where the grass is thickest, Chon decides to dig deeper, because he is sure there are more roots down there. He uncovers what he calls a nest of roots. It’s thick and knotted, and it’s about a foot and a half under the surface. He digs down further and finds more roots. They are very thick, about as thick as a child’s finger, and very white with pretty pink streaks. They look frighteningly healthy. He digs some more, and he’s about two and a half feet down now. There are more. We leave them for another day. Later someone tells us the roots can go down two meters. I don’t believe it.

We do this for two hours. We didn’t think to bring water or food. Ni modo. Next time.
We are returning to the house. Chon sits down on a rock to rest, but I keep plodding along, thinking about chiggers in the grass around the rock. Soon I see that he is up, and cutting across the furrows in the field, and he’ll soon be ahead of me if I don’t walk faster. I’m a little ahead and he asks “My Friend, are you tired?”  
“Yes”.
He says he’s tired too, and if he had to run for some reason, he’d have to think hard about it first. He puts the spade across his shoulders and hangs his arms over the handle. He says it feels like he’s carrying his arms on his shoulders. He is.
At the house we eat tamales and zucchini flowers cooked with onion and tomatoes, feeling  happy.

Something to meditate on – they look good enough to eat, don’t they? Cows love ’em.