Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mexico photo album

Best-looking toilet I've ever seen - at Mario's....

The bed's a bit firm, but looks great...

Pat's on the front porch, actually a palapa....

Sanders at El Gerasil having morning coffee and a bun... by the jardin...

LaManzanilla, a fishing village still. Looking north along Tenacatita Bay...

Two men fishing at sunset in a tiny boat off LaManzanilla...

The cathedral at Cihuatlan, just south of where we stayed...

Sanders and Michael beach-walking near Arroyo Seco.....

Where the river meets the bay at La Manzanilla...

Tourists meet the vendors at Tenacatita Beach....

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sustainability: geography and history

Local food -- Papaya -- comes from the tree in the yard in Mexico...

Camp Connell, Ca -- While we in the United States struggle to adapt new
technologies to survive what many fear will be a major economic
collapse, there are two places I visited recently which were far better
prepared than we are for hard times.
One place was historical, the other geographical.

I was in Mexico, our "Third World" neighbor to the
south. Yep. The same place people leave seeking opportunities in the
U.S., just in case you like a little irony.
I was struck by the similarities between the way the Mexican people live
today, and the way we lived in the U.S. a few generations ago.
That prompted a memory/historical visit to my grandparents.

Maybe if we open our eyes and minds to our past and our neighbors to we might actually improve the planet.
Up here in the Sierra Nevada we are swept up in the effort
to become part of what is popularly called a "sustainable culture."
I know. This is California and we are expected to be trendy.
But that does not make the current efforts any less sincere, or less important.
We humans will either find a way to adapt to our planet in better ways, or we will choke life off the surface.
Despite the Luddites among us who deny we have a problem -- our president
acting as "chief denier" -- it only takes a quick look around to see
where we are heading.

We are using up the world's fossil fuel
supplies, fouling the air beyond belief at the same time, and wasting
our fouling basic resources like water.

Our food supply is
endangered by forces we have turned loose without understanding, from
patents on seeds to tax benefits for corporations to grow crops we
don't really need.
One potential agricultural disaster is the declining world population of bees, upon whom we depend
for most of our food supplies. If they die, food supplies shrink.
Sea life is 90 per cent depleted, and the cycle of life that depends upon clean water
moving from ocean to sky to land to ocean is being strangled by bits of
plastic bags trapped in the ocean and waste from our cities.
It's a bad old joke, but the affluent society has become the effluent society, and we are drowning in it.

As people accept these as serious concerns, and as my
generation accepts a larger share of the responsibility for creating the
problems, the effort to reduce our impact is gaining strength.
We've begun to learn:
-- Eating local food is healthier for us, and the planet;
-- Electricity as we use it is a luxury item, not a necessity, and solar
power is a realistic option for much of the world's energy needs;
-- Walking beats riding, and riding on shared transportation is more efficient;
-- Those of us who live near the sea have a close-by food supply that is
inexpensive, and healthier than corn-and-manure-fed beef;
-- And pesticides and herbicides are extremely dangerous, and not always necessary for health or food production.

Our ancestors knew this stuff.

My grandparents and great-grandparents lived closer to the land and created far less planet survival problems than we have.

When an economic recession staggered the economy a hundred or more years
ago, people did without luxury items, and more important, met many of
their basic needs on their own.
A much higher percentage of the population lived on farms, Even those who live in the cities kept chickens for eggs and occasional dinner meat, and had a milk cow in a
shed on the property.

The Barry family home in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1800s...

My grandmother lived in a city, and the
photograph of her family gathered on the front steps 100 years ago
shows the garden was part of their daily life. As a boy my father would go help pick his dinner from
their yard.
It's paved over now, more room for cars to park.
During my childhood most city people gave up gardens, except during war time,
but the produce man still came around in a truck direct from his farm. Fresh
vegetables were always available from a local supplier.
The mass migration off the farms and into modern cities guaranteed us a new
vulnerability to economic depression. In modern America when someone
loses their job, or the factory closes down, they don't supplement
their food supply with a garden. They get food stamps, if they are
We traded one kind of sustainable culture for modern
appliances, convenience, and mechanized world where cash replaced
barter (and the rich get richer).
Also, now consider Mexico today.
Life in a village seems a lot like the life led by my grandparents' generation.
People don't talk about recycling much in Mexico, any more than my grandparents did, but they live it.
Little is thrown away.
If an appliance breaks, someone has the skill to fix it for far less than
the cost of a new one. Old cars are kept running through generations of
owners. Old houses, torn down, find their usable parts hauled off to be
reused somewhere else.
People can't afford to be wasteful.

Shoes are not just made here in the town of Huerta, they are repaired rather than thrown away...

It is not idealizing poverty to recognize that their priorities start with
needs, but in the U.S. we worry a lot more about what we want rather
than what we need.
Of course, many Mexican village people are poor. They don't have a lot of flat-screened television sets, and
I didn't see a single Hummer rolling down the street. But they manage much better than we do on a lot less.
I met a family of three that lives far below our poverty line. Because they
live in a small village where community counts for something, they have
found a place to live in a very small house that meets their needs. It
was not clear to me whether they pay rent, or live there for free. The
house was empty and it is entirely possible that
someone who knew about it simply encouraged them to move in, and the
owner either wasn't around or was glad to have someone take care of his
property. It happens in a community where people watch out for each
other, and family members still live near each other.
In another village a friend of mine bought some commercial property that included
a small decrepit house. A man living there heard through neighbors
that the place had been sold, and moved on. There was no dispute, no
eviction, and no conflict. It was simply no longer available for his use.
My temporary Mexican neighbors don't have room for a garden,
but have skills despite some physical limitations (not handicaps). The
entire family cooks, and they prepare fancy food treats and take them
downtown to sell, generating cash. They set up a table in front of an
abandoned store on main street, and established their business. People
like their treats, so they buy them. The economy works.
The mother knows a local realtor through a family
member, and helps clean rental units on the beach. They also take in laundry from the neighbors. To do the laundry they rent a washing machine for fifty pesos (about $4.50) a day. She
can make that much off of one lazy tourist, like me, and the rest is
her profit.
I know they are poor, but I also know that they are members of the community in good
standing, contributors to village life, and responsible for themselves.
They are living and working in a sustainable culture.

Mexican construction workers, on a break, designed
and made a tool to pick fresh papaya from a tree near the work site.
The papaya was going to waste until they spotted it, got permission,
and retrieved it for lunch.
There are some other aspect of Mexican life I find appealing.
If there is a hole in the sidewalk, people have enough sense to walk
around it. You assume responsibility for your own safety. If you trip,
it is because you didn't look where you were going.
You can walk in the street, but it is up to you to get out of the way if a truck comes along.
If a restaurant sells bad food the health department does not descend with
warrants and shut them down. The place closes because no one will go
there any more.
Few people sue over disputes in Mexico, because the
loser may go immediately to jail. You have to consider whether that
would really help you get the other fellow to pay his bill, or maybe
you should work it out directly.
If something breaks, you fix it, or find someone who can.
Ride sharing on a bicycle is normal, as is carrying three or four people on
a low-cost motor scooter. Walking is the most popular mode of transport.

I recall all the jokes I heard over the years about abandoned car
bodies in the yards of rural homes in my native South. I even made a few jokes myself
about an uncle in North Georgia who had a mix of cars, trucks and even
a road grader sitting in the weeds.
But he never had to go look for parts. And he could fix anything.
The old road grader worked, which he proudly demonstrated one summer, and he
sold a rusty Model T truck in the shed to a collector for a lot of
He wasn't a redneck hillbilly people joke about.
He was a pioneer recycler.

Maybe we need to go back to history class, and study our geographical neighbors lifestyle.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Beach Time

Tenacatita's bay beach along the north shore of Tenacatita Bay draw people year round for food, swimming, and family fun.

Tenacatita, Jalisco, Mexico -- The current population of this village adds up to no more than a few hundred people at most, probably less. The majority of residents are Mexican, with a few people from the U.S. and Canada who found this out-of-the-way place over years and keep coming back every winter. Most of those stay in the one small hotel, or in their own RV or trailer near the beaches. One man we met has been coming here for twenty years.
There are no subdivisions, and no downtown. The village -- if it deserves that title -- straddles a point of rocky land on the north end of Tenacatita Bay, with spectacular sandy beaches on each side.

To the south of the point, sweeping inland to the east, are the bay beaches lined with a dozen or so restaurants. One hotel, two stories tall with a swimming pool, sits back from the beach a block surrounded by palmetto scrub, palm trees and the edge of the mangrove swamp and lagoon. For about $25 you can take a "jungle ride" along backside of the beaches through the mangrove. It's a popular deal for birdwatchers and those looking for crocodiles.
The restaurants are the type found all along the Pacific Coast in smaller towns: a large shaded area covered by palm fronds supported on posts; umbrellas and chairs down to the edge of the water; a utilitarian half-building made of concrete that houses a kitchen, bathrooms and maybe a shower stall or two. Most of the restaurants are illegal, in the U.S. sense, in that the owners do not own the land. They just use it till someone comes along and complains. That's an accepted practice here, and some of these places have been here for years.
In Mexico, possession may actually be nine points of the law.

Where Tenacatita Bay meets the Pacific Ocean

The point where bay and ocean meet rises into the air in a series of short steep hills, decorated with giants rocks where ocean and bay meet, left behind by some long-forgotten volcano and eroded into sharp and beautiful shapes. The swells from the Northwest crash against the ocean side, rocks and beach, sending giant spumes of water and mist into the air. It's easy to get wet standing 50 yards in from the water's edge when the surf is high. It almost always is.
To the north is one of the last great unpopulated beaches in Mexico, sweeping in a long curve, an old plantation of coconut palms marching in a line behind the dunes.
As of last week there are two small houses on the beachside in the first several miles , and those are occupied for less than half the year. Maybe two or three more old places are abandoned and falling down.

Pat taking a siesta at Mario's place, the only new building on the ocean beach.

When we walked on the beach on a Sunday afternoon we did not encounter another walker, though two teenagers on their four-wheelers did ride by on they way into "town."

What we did see as we stepped onto the beach for a walk was a massive whale, coming completely out of the water, turning on its side, and crashing into the sea. he was about a half-mile offshore, and while we could see his spout and some foam on the water, he never did repeat his showy entrance. I was too excited to take pictures.

The beach was noisy thanks to hundreds of seabirds feasting on schools of fish just beyond the crashing surf.

A sign of the future is barbed wire fencing. In one year, virtually every lot along this stretch of beach is marked off by barbed wire boundaries, and an occasional "se vende" or "for sale" sign stuck in the sand.

Bulldozers are carving roads out of the sand, knocking down trees from the old coconut plantation. Speculators are moving in, though so far no one has proposed a condo. There is a rumor, though, that a rich landowner plans to build several homes for millionaires on the rocky point which divides bay and ocean. Right now, battered and dusty campers and RVs are the primary and temporary residents. One Berkeley escapee has her vacation home for sale on the hill. No power. No water. No septic or sewer. But a great view.

North of Tenacatita Bay on the ocean, near Arroyo Seco, reachable only by dirt roads...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Cats and dogs and Cisco's Amigos

The operating room at work...

Post-Op volunteers at work....

La Manzanilla, Jalisco, Mexico -- Interesting things seem to happen to people who travel to this part of the world on vacation.

First, pretty much everyone falls in love with the natural beauty of the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Second, tourists familiar with Florida, the Gulf Coast or the West Coast, are generally stunned at how inexpensive it can be to visit here.

Third, and most interesting to me as a former resident of other tourists' enclaves on U.S. coasts, is that the kind of people attracted to LaManzanilla, Tenacatitia, Barra De Navidad and similar towns, almost always get involved in the local community. I'd like to think it is the good old American can-do spirit at work, and it probably is so long as we remind ourselves that Canadians and Mexicans are Americans too.
I don't recall seeing this sort of effort in Florida, though I am sure it must happen.

This past week, for the fifth year in a row, the expatriates who live or visit The Costa Alegre in Mexico conducted an animal spay/neuter clinic for the local region's pets and strays. Working cooperatively with veterinarians from all over Mexico, they have been rounding up stray beach dogs, feral cats that prowl the garbage cans at night, and any other pet that any person would like to bring in. The event is called Cisco's Amigos, and a report on the effort this year can be found at:

Michael's "pet" cat, a wary target

Even disguising this trap loaded with stinky fish did not work...

For some of the animals, it may not be fun to wake up with stitches in your tummy, or other parts, but they also get kind and gentle treatment and chance at a longer life, thanks to the scores of volunteers working to keep the population of animals under control.
Beach dogs are so common here they are even considered a breed, adapted to the local environment. Generally they are medium in size, lean and short-haired. They are rarely threatening, as they seem to survive by being moderately friendly and kissing up to patrons of seaside restaraunts.
A friend who has been building a small beach house in an isolated are has had three to keep him company. They hang around, bark at strangers that approach his property, and make the place look occupied when he is away. They are not his dogs, generally living off garbage they find at night, though he feeds them sometimes. They are beach dogs, similar in appearance to hundreds you can see in the villages and beaches nearby. A friendly beach dog will allow a human to pet him or her. After all, they are dogs.

Mario and one of his beach dogs.....

Feral cats are different. Almost all are small, cute and very wary of getting too close. The cats that adopted our hosts here come to the door every morning and night, and meow for food and a little attention. But you don't pet these cats unless you want to see one leap a fence, or nip your fingers. But the image of a feral animal as vicious does not apply. These are still cute kitty cats.
In the neighborhoods you can see them by the score early in the evenings, as they start making their rounds, doing whatever it is cats do.

Sleeping it off after surgery....

The event was a great success, thanks to volunteers like Pat, but there are still a lot of cats and dogs out there if you would like to help out next year.

My favorite volunteer, taking a break...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mexico Hoy es muy bueno

La Manzanilla, Jalisco, Mexico -- Well, we are on the beach of Tenacatita Bay, a few thousand miles south of our snowed-in home.
And, no, we don't miss the cold and snow one bit.
The high temperature has been around 80 F most days, sometimes not getting out of the mid 70s. The low, on the other hand, has not dropped below 65 so far as I can tell. Really, I don't care. It's warm here. Cold there.

Our normal daily routine has been to let our hosts Michael and Sylvia get up first, and stir around. When they go for their morning walk Pat and I crawl into the kitchen for Yogurt and Cheerios. Then after Sylvia takes off for work (yes, someone we know still works, but that's another story) we might take a walk of our own, usually finding a restaurant with good coffee and an outside table in a sunny spot near the Jardin or Plaza. The town wakes up as slowly as we do, with most businesses, except those that sell breakfast or building materials, cranking up slowly sometime before noon. Of course everyone stays up late every night -- kids included -- so the town is really hopping around 9 p.m. The most popular restaurant in town (Chop Chop, but that's not the real name) is a place with plastic tables on the edge of the street. Full dinner and beer for about $4 US, only if you eat a lot. It gets really busy around 9, and can go on into the evening.
Tonight we went down to watch the sun set, which it does just for us, every day, and went to a Gringo hangout called Palapa Joe's, run by Willie, a Bay Area computer guy and blues guitarist who discovered several years ago that being a restaurant/bar owner in Mexico was a lot more fun.
But back to the beach.
The beach is best in the early mornings, but it is pretty darned good almost anytime. In the morning, after my coffee sinks in, we walk on the beach from the area where the commercial fishermen beach their pangas and mend their nets, through the three-block long tourist-oriented beach area, past the lagoon where the large crocodiles live, and on up the beach to the area where houses are rare and widely-scattered Canadian RVs are the dominant dwelling. Local people still ride horseback on the beach for fun, but Canadian four-wheelers now outnumber the four-legged transports.
Some days this place looks a bit like a southern outpost of Ontario. Canadians outnumber U.S. and other tourists by a significant amount. They are appreciated by the local folk even though the U.S. tourists make jokes about their frugal ways.
But then, you never hear anyone telling "Ugly Canadian" stories about bad behavior and rude jingoistic language. Most people try to be good guests, but a few were jerks before they left the U.S. and remain so when they travel. Fortunately, the Mexican people are extremely tolerant of childish rudeness and adult stupidity, and usually let it pass.
The sounds of this village start early, with roosters and birds putting in early calls. Almost as early is the propane truck with its blaring horn and PA system blasting out "GLOBAL GAAASSS!" Then the competing water trucks come along: my favorite is known as "Tarzan water" because they use an amplified Tarzan Yell to let people know they are coming.
For a brief moment it reminded me of the calls of the street vendors in my early childhood on the Gulf Coast. In Mobile, like New Orleans, we still had street vendors in mule-drawn wagons into the 1940s in our neighborhood. Progress and the end of a World War killed off the cart produce business, but it was an echo from the past.
The other sound that dominates the air here is that of construction. Even though things are reported to be slowing down now, the sounds of concrete mixing and chisels chipping are common. We wake every day to the chip chip chip of chisels. Seems that here they always pour solid concrete walls and ceilings first, then decide where to put the electric wires and chisel away a place to put the wire. After the wire is in place, more concrete seals the deal.
Whatever works. And, here chipping is cheaper than conduit.
This is a really fine place for vacation if you want warm air, a nice beach, lovely people, good food, and an interesting culture. If you need a resort to cater to your every need, those are here too, but why bother. You can go to Carmel and be pampered, and save the air fare.
The picture above was taken by Admiral Fox, formerly Professor Fox and currently Consultant Fox, showing the commercial area of the beach. I had to steal a picture from her computer because I left my Nikon cable in California and can't unload any of the hundreds of award-winning travel photos stuck in my camera. That means you'll get lots of pictures when we get home.
For more of the area, check out the blogs Captain's Blog and the Admiral's Blog, linked above to the right.
Adios, amigos.