Friday, April 24, 2009

Adventures of an aging gringo

La Manzanilla, Jalisco, Mexico -- I was bit by a cobra today, but it is not as bad as it sounds.
It was a boat bite. The boat was a kayak named Cobra. Anyone who works around boats, as I do from time to time, knows that they will bite you once in a while.
Usually it is when you are working on them with tools.
Today it was when I failed to recognize that for some reason I am not able to tackle very large waves in a kayak. I used to be able to do that, so I did not think twice about jumping into the Tenacatita Bay surf, even though the waves were making a WHUMP! sound once in a while.
The first time I tried to climb aboard the Cobra kayak and paddle quickly out through the waves I was gently picked up and tossed over the side. The water was not very deep, and was refreshing.
No big deal.
I righted the kayak, retrieved the paddle, and tried again.
The second time the wave was a bit bigger and it rolled me over in the water, took my new hat and washed it toward the shore. Pat retrieved the paddle from the sand while I collected by dignity, righted the boat, and prepared for a serious assault.
(Meanwhile, my friend Michael, had straddled his kayak and gone straight over the surf into calmer water where he sat waiting patiently.)
The third attempt was when my judgment lapsed a bit. I was pretty sure the local folks were taking bets by this time, and I ignored what turned out to be the largest waves of the day and started back to the sea. Picture the wave scene from the Perfect Storm movie.
I realized, as the kayak began climbing the wave as it crested in front of my face, that I may have made an error in judgment.
Down came the wave. The kayak flipped up into the air -- without me aboard -- did a rather pretty flip in the air and began to drop back into the sea.
Meanwhile, I was rolling around directly underneath where the kayak was spinning, bereft of hat and paddle, sunglasses firmly strapped to my head, which proved to be solid.
The boat hit my head first, glanced off for a rather direct hit on my shoulder, rolled a bit and managed to clip my elbow with a metal fastener.
The foam in my mouth kept my language from being heard by anyone but the fishes.
I recovered and got to my feet with as much dignity as I could muster, noticed the blood dripping down my arm, thought about the movie Jaws, and followed the kayak back to the shore and a waiting beach lounge.
Beer in hand and ice pack on shoulder, I heard the best news of the day: my main squeeze, first wife and beloved of more the four decades had decided early on to put down the video camera and watch quietly from a safe place.
Our friend Sylvia looked at Pat and said, "That would have made a great blog video."
But we are more into scenery, sunsets, and watching the surf roll in.
The video just wouldn't show how rough it really was, so Pat put the camera aside after the first dump to stand by in case she needed to call the Coast Guard.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Living the life

Arroyo Seco, Jalisco, Mexico -- We just spent a week here with our friends Michael and Sylvia, who are establishing roots in this small rancho (a village smaller than a pueblo).
They began seriously looking at living in Mexico a few years ago when they sailed their 48-foot sailboat Sabbatical down the Mexican coast, and found that the area around Tenacatita Bay both charmed and lured them.
They were extremely careful, looked and learned, and then purchased some land in the area that they thought held promise as a place to live, or an investment, or both. They thought about living on the ocean beach, but opted instead for this village. Instead of being isolated from Mexican people and their culture, they chose to be immersed.
They sold the boat, which was their home, to make it work.
Now, a couple of years into the experiment, it is working just fine.
Currently, they are the only two non-Mexicans living inside the rancho. They are gradually building a compound on a large lot in the heart of the village. Last year they had electricity, septic a storage building and a small trailer. This year they have added another larger trailer for sleeping quarters, showers and toilets, a laundry area, a communications tent, and a kitchen. They have guests frequently.
But the most striking features are the palapa, a very large tile-roofed shade structure, with tile flooring, a bar, a dining area, and room to welcome the entire neighborhood for a party or an English class, or -- as is scheduled this weekend -- an operating room for the local veterinarian to perform surgeries. Sylvia is fast becoming known as the lady who cares for dogs.
And, Michael has used his green thumb to create a garden of palms and flowering shrubs, plus a central yard (or jardin) of real honest-to-goodness grass. In a place with no paved streets and lots of wind and dust, it makes an enormous difference in air quality, and in the coolness on hotter days.
They have not "gone native." They still have internet and telephone connections to stay in touch with the outside world, but they are out on the streets every day, caring for a needy animal or going to a taco stand at 9 p.m. for a light dinner.
They have made friends with families, and neighborhood children feel free to drop in anytime the gate is open and stay a while. They have been invited to weddings, and christenings.
They are not escaping the world outside their home, and still spend their summers at a lake in New York and the Falls teaching at a university in California.
But it looks a lot like they have found a place they can call home.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Village life in Rancho Arroyo Seco

Rancho Arroyo Seco, Jalisco, Mexico-- This small community is home to about 300 people, many of them children, many of them related.
It apparently grew from a small group of farmworkers who gathered to work at one of the large ranches or plantations in the area, and grew from there.
Life here is not simple despite the temptation to see it that way.
On the surface, it appears bucolic and straightforward: we awaken every day to the sounds of chickens clucking and geese honking. You still see someone ride a horse nor burro to pick up tortillas from the local tienda. Restaurants are a few tables set out on the side of the street in front of homes, serving mostly tacos. If you need a coke or beer they will walk across the street and buy it for you, but they expect you to go get it yourself.
Homes have electricity and running water, but drinking water is universally purchased from trucks that come here daily.
Stereotypical Mexico, whatever the stereotype, does not exist here.
Everybody works, often including children, and many people make a living with two or three skills or jobs. Our neighbors manage a ranch, have a small store with incidentals for sale, run a restaurant on the street three or four nights a week, and will do anything they can to provide well for their family of five.
There are extended families in the rancho that own large and expensive equipment such as dump trucks, tractors and grading equipment, items that help them make a decent living. The tienda next door has at least $300,000 worth of such equipment parked out back. It's part of the income producing work they do. Another tienda in a home down the street has an enormous big screened television set where the public can view movies certain nights of the week. No admission charge, but they do expect you to buy a beer or coke or snack from the store.
Another neighbor drives a $45,000 pickup truck, and several families use quads to get around town and to the nearby beaches.

Many of the residents are literate. Some are not. Many are bilingual because they have worked for higher wages in the United States. Some are not. The younger generation seems to have an interest in education -- 30 neighborhood kids came to a free English class here recently -- and the 17-year-old across the street is planning to go to college. While he works on completing high school, he can and does work at a variety of jobs, basically anything his family needs him to do.
Some families are land rich and cash poor. One family we know inherited significant land when it was broken up years ago, and is building an RV park on the beach. But they don't have a lot of money, or at least don't display it.
The poor are here too.
Some children do not wear shoes except for special occasions, and one elderly man sleeps on a pallet under a tree. When the rainy season hits he is brought inside by family or friends. He is not quite right.
But most of the children dress well, particularly for school and church and community events. Cleanliness is expected, and enforced, by parents.
Almost every family has animals, including pets. How well they are cared for may depend on economic circumstance and education. No one here buys Alpo, for example, but the ever-present little Chihuahuas are fat happy and healthy. Farm dogs don't fare as well, but get by on scraps and chicken bones.
Only three non-Mexicans live inside the rancho limits, our friends Michael and Sylvia who arrived last year and a California surfer drop-out has been happily near the beach fort ten years more more. By necessity, they all speak Spanish and all live a lifestyle that is a blend of Mexican and Norteamericano. (Gringo, incidentally, is not a bad word. It means "someone not from around here" in local vernacular.)
Family is very important. It is not at all unusual to run into three generations enjoying each other's company. Our neighbors probably are related to 40 or more people here directly or through in-laws.
There are good people and bad people. As a visitor I am not privileged to know which is which, but the local folk know and that makes the community function quite well. Not everyone likes each other, and old disagreements seem to be remembered. But there is no open animosity or yelling and screaming. I have not heard of any violence in a week, and drugs don't seem to be something people think much about. The police show up, if at all, once every few weeks to by a cool drink at a store and move back to the highway.
In this place, only few adults drink alcohol and there are no rowdy bars. Why pay $3 for a beer, as gringos do in town, when you can get one at the tienda for less than a dollar and enjoy a visit with your neighbor on the sidewalk?

This is much more a snapshot of life here than an anthropological study. But this is a very interesting place. Folks have made us feel welcome. And it's not much like life currently in the U.S.A. Perhaps, if the recession gets a lot worse as some folks expect, we can learn from our neighbors how to get along with less.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Viva Mexico

Rancho de Arroyo Seco, Jalisco, Mexico -- We are living this week in a Mexican village, though technically it is called a rancho, with a population of about 300.
So far, everyone we have met has been polite and welcoming, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone that we are among the few gringos who ever come to this place.
The video is a snapshot of early morning at the Arroyo Seco home of Michael Fitzgerald and Sylvia Fox They call it Palapa Flamingo and have created this home in the past year.
We awake every day to the sounds of birds singing, children laughing, and ever a burro braying. The commerce begins early with the sound of the metal doors of the tienda next door being raised, and the vendors arrive to sell their goods along the street. Each has a distinct way to blow the horn of the vehicle so people will know what is for sale. You can buy a bed, or masa, of beer, or meat, or almost anything from the vendors. Most of the people buy the groceries they do not grow from the tiendas. It's easy to eat out when there are four small family restaurants and they only charge about 20 pesos for a nicely done taco. A meal for four last night cost about seven US dollars.
In the tourists towns the prices are higher, but even there food is a great bargain most of the time.
There will be more details later.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring in the Mountains - a video

Camp Connell, CA -- Spring is trying to arrive here, but it is a challenge.

In the past week we have seen sunshine, breezes, rain, sleet, snow, and finally more sunshine late today.

The video is a first attempt, so forgive the rough cuts. But it is less than two minutes long and gives you a picture of what this week has been like.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Never before Frog Jump

Camp Connell, CA -- A local expression, transformed into holy writ for gardeners, goes like this:
"Never plant before Frog Jump."
You have to be a resident of Calaveras County, California, in the gold country, or a devoted fan of Mark Twain's colorful prose, to make the link between then - the 1800s -- and now.
Remember the story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," by Twain?
In the current century local boosters of tourism have adopted, or hijacked, the frog story to create a local festival/fair called the Jumping Frog Jubilee, centered at the Calaveras Fair Grounds and the city of Angels Camp. To locals, it is just called "Frog Jump."
It is a REALLY big deal. We even have a Frog Jump Princess, a significant local honor. And we have champion frogs, and brass plates cemented into the sidewalks of the town to commemorate great jumps and jumpers of the past.
But the highlight is the annual frog jump contests. That's plural "Contests" because the folks at the county fair jubilee and the local club that "owned" the frog jump contest had a tiff that resulted in competing jumps.
But people still come for both, enter frogs domestic and foreign, and vie for the jumpiest. Check it out at
The big event(s) is(are) planned for the week of May 14, which for most people around the country would be late Spring.
Not for us.
Frog Jump, as we call it here in the mountains, is the date before which you plant your garden at great risk of a late season freeze.
I confess I have not taken this too seriously, so as Spring-like temperatures flowed up the mountainside in the past two weeks I have been dreaming of flowers.
Yesterday, Pat worked in the raised garden beds at our daughter's home, getting ready for planting. The chickens helped by scratching around for bugs in the warm sun.
I took the snow tire chains out of the van and put them away at our house. And just last week, as the ground became almost totally free of snow, I put the snow blower away for the season.
We are currently in Murphys, lower down the mountain, horse-sitting for our daughter and family. It turned cold and rained here at 2,000 feet last night, and then the phone rang early.
A neighbor called to change the weekly poker game location because we have too much snow at home, closer to 5,000 feet. About six inches on the ground and still coming down when he called. About a foot when I checked later on a webcam located near my home.

At least we didn't plant before Frog Jump.
Maybe I should apply the lessons of the local culture to things like snow blowers and tire chains.
I still have to figure out how to get home without chains. Maybe I can borrow the horse.