expat community

Spring and the Jacarandas are in Bloom

Jacarandas

Spring along the malecon and kids’ play area, Chapala

Arnold commented that I hadn’t put any details about our European trip on the blog, and I guess the truth is that when we got home at the end of October, after a month away, I was pretty tired and ready to just chill for awhile back in my own house and enjoy sleeping in my own bed. And of course, traveling to Europe with my professional photographer nephew-in-law Eric made it into a photography trip rather than a writing trip; I took hundreds of images and we had a lot of fun posting them on Facebook and having friends follow our progress through Italy. Then Wendy, Arnold and I went off to Paris for a great week, eating our way through every bakery and charcuterie we could try in Montmartre, where we stayed in a perfectly delightful apartment.

So of course when we got back home and all the excitement was over, everything ground to a halt for awhile, and before I knew it it was my birthday in December, then Christmas, then time for our annual week in Puerto Vallarta, and now here I am realizing that I haven’t put anything up on the blog in months. The months that passed were all so – well, quotidian, and the point of the blog always was to record our adventures adjusting to our lives as expats, and the contrasts between our new life here and our old life back in the States. But the contrasts, aside from the deep differences in the world-view of most Mexicans and ours, seem to me to be be diminishing somewhat, at least here in our little bubble by the lake. Where I look for contrast and cultural differences, more often than not something interesting happens that makes the two countries seem to be approaching each other — even though I know it’s just an illusion…scratch the surface and those deep differences will quickly appear. But, I also think I am just increasingly accustomed to life here; things that would have really thrown me a few years ago seem normal by now.

Still, there are little subtle changes all the time here as Mexico continues to stumble into the First World. I went into the post office the other day to mail a package of real estate information to a friend who is planning to move down here sometime this year; I paid for the package and proudly Jorge, the young post office manager, handed me a little slip of paper with a bar code on it. “Look, Señora,” he said. “It’s a tracking slip. Now you can track your package all the way to where it crosses the border into the U.S.” Of course this won’t tell me whether it will have actually GOTTEN to him in California, or when, since once the envelope crosses the border and hits customs, the Mexican tracking number is useless for the U.S. Postal Service, but, hey, it is a start. Some day they will probably have some cooperative agreement between the two postal services where the tracking number will work in the U.S. too, but that is probably years away. At least now I was able to look up the package and it said it’s en route, which I guess means I don’t have to worry that it’s still stuck in the Ajijic post office, forgotten under a pile of magazines or something. Poco a poco, like we say around here; little by little.

I’m aware that the apparent ease of my adjustment might only be a fond dream for many of the other foreigners around here, who battle daily with cultural differences and the language barrier makes it endlessly frustrating for many of them. I have the advantage of speaking Spanish, so things that might confound me or confuse some other person who is trying to sort out what’s really happening, almost always really have an explanation. Sometimes it might be almost fanciful – like the time a plumber told me that the reason he hadn’t called me nor answered his phone when I repeatedly tried to contact him was because his cell phone fell down into an aljibe (water storage tank) he was cleaning out, and he had to get some money together to purchase a replacement. Many people here simply wouldn’t believe such a tale, and would think the guy was just being stereotypically Mexican, not wanting to deal with clients (until “mañana”) – but I was perfectly willing to accept his alibi and get on with my life. I actually enjoy these screwball stories most of the time, just shake my head, and figure whatever needs fixing will be fixed eventually and I should just chill. Maybe I’ve lived here too long.

So once again, the jacarandas are in bloom, littering the streets with purple blossoms with every little breeze. Life is steaming along for everyone in our little circle; Sofia will be graduating from preparatoria in July, and she is already deep into the process of applying to universities and figuring out where – courtesy of us, pretty much – she will want to go. We tried and tried to get her a visa to come with us to the U.S. but it has proven to be impossible, so we have given up on it. It’s the topic of another blog post, but the long and short of it is that the U.S. government refused her a visa to come to the U.S. as a tourist for a couple of weeks on her spring break, convinced she was lying and that she wanted to go up there to work. They never even would look at the stack of documents she had prepared before her interview there; the whole misadventure was a horrible and, dare I say, expensive, fiasco.

But kids spring back from most disappointments, and after she was denied a visa for the second time, she just recommitted herself to her studies and pulled her grade average up to a 9.6, which will greatly enhance her chances for a nice scholarship at one of the colleges she has picked out. Now she is seeing the end of prepa, kind of like the horse seeing the barn, and she’s working really seriously to get her grades up as far as she can between now and June, when she will take her final exams.

The three younger kids are all doing well in their first year in private school, thriving with nice new friends from good families and tons of homework and real books and real lessons, none of which really happened at the underfunded and overcrowded public school in San Antonio, where they had been going before (and not learning much of anything). It has been fun to watch them blossom in their new environment.

One thing we are facing, rather resignedly and sadly, is that both my parents’ ashes and those of Arnold’s daughter Ava, have been languishing in the bedroom closet. It has been ten years since Ava died, and we have decided we need to send all three of them to their final resting places. More on that in a subsequent post, I promise.

Summer is coming for sure

A couple of my faithful readers asked if I could change the format of the blog to not be white type on black – they said it was hard to read – so see if everyone likes this better. I am planning to tweak it a little bit but for the moment perhaps this will be easier on everyone’s aging eyes. Comments welcome.

All isn’t totally quiet on the Western (or Southern) front, but it definitely is quieting down. The installers came today to put in my fancy-dancy new range hood, next week they will start the process of the ductwork to connect it to the outdoors, the locksmith came and adjusted some of the locks that were misbehaving, but other than that, no workers, no plumbers, no nothing. Just quiet. It is very nice. Arquitecto Roberto is stopping by to check out some last little details, and yes, of course, there are a few, but every week that goes by there are fewer and fewer items on the punch list.

Arnold is back home having survived his surgery and we are both grateful that the worst of the remodeling is over, and now we can really kick back and enjoy the spring. As much as we love to travel, it is expensive and complicated and we are both so tired from the relentless banging and crashing that has been with us for the past seven months that we’re thinking we just want to stay home now for a little while and gather our wits. Since the old house sold, we are free of that obligation, so I can begin to think about what I want to do with myself going forward. No more remodeling, that’s for sure! Oh, maybe a little tweak here and there — I am my mother’s daughter after all! There is no such thing in my genetic makeup for “leaving well enough alone” — but as for adding new wings and such – I think not.

A few old friends from the States have let us know that they are seriously thinking about moving down here – an interesting development! One of my good buddies at Merrill Lynch, who is both ready to retire and ready for an adventure, and one of my high school classmates and his wife. I keep wondering whether the horrific winter up north this year will mean that in spite of being terrified about the violence down here and the undeniable challenges of living in a foreign country, more people will be sick enough of the weather and some of the other strange political developments up north so they just decide to brave the unknown and come down. Someone sent an interesting graphic around, via one of the webboards of the ex-pat community:

city safety

Violence in Mexico vs. American Cities

As I write this, it’s eighty-four degrees and sunny, just gorgeous out there. So maybe at least a few people are thinking, gee, it can’t be as bad dealing with the cartels and the narcos as it is with sixteen feet of snow, let’s get out of here. One never knows.

Meanwhile, in the “dealing with another culture” department, after driving around with expired drivers’ licenses for months (thank god I still have a valid NM license!) We actually got our Jalisco licenses renewed today! We are both in a state of shock. We have been trying for months to get this done. But every time we have gone over to the license place, we apparently needed a different piece of paper, a different document, a newer document, a newly issued I.D. number, some crazy thing, result being that we have had an awful time. Arnold – rightly – was concerned about driving himself around town with no valid license; the gossip is that they can impound your car – I am not sure whether that is true or not but neither of us wanted to take a chance. So I have been doing pretty much all the driving for the past several months, with Arnold only taking the car out himself when I had to stay here for workers or to be on duty for something in connection with the remodeling. It has gotten old and inconvenient and we are both sick of my having to be the chauffeur-in-chief, so once he got back from the States and his surgery done with, we picked up the thread and tried yet again to get all the paperwork in order.

There was one final document – kind of like a Mexican social security number – that we needed and after months of waiting and engaging a facilitator to help us get these numbers for each of us, we finally got them and the moment came for us to venture back to the license office to try yet again. We decided we’d get up early, BE there at 8:30 when they opened (so as to avoid a two-hour wait in line), and hand all our documents over like good little kids and hopefully be back home in time for our architect to stop by and review some items with us. So we packed up everything in a nice folder and hied ourselves to Chapala, where we were third in line (easy!) and strode confidently up to the little desk. Whereupon the transito cop processing the documents told us that we had to go BACK to the recaudadora (car tax office) and pay another twenty pesos each because we had paid for our new licenses a few months ago but as of the first of the year the cost had gone up. WHY they couldn’t have told us this when we were there the last time and they scrutinized our documents with the receipt in plain sight, I have no idea, since it was just a short week ago. But – hey, bienvenidos a Mexico and all that.

So we RAN, literally RAN, over to the recaudadora, made our way to the front of THAT line, paid the freakin’ $20 pesos or whatever it was, RAN back and by then of course there were a ton of people in line. But we were not to be deterred. Actually, it wasn’t too bad and this time we just stuck it out till we made it to the front of THAT line. After an excruciating wait while the officials checked everything in minute detail,  they grudgingly had to admit that everything was “correcto” so they took our photos and our fingerprints and to our amazement they finally said “wait here for a few minutes and we’ll call you when the licenses are ready”.

Ten minutes later the little machine spat out our new licenses and we flew out of there clutching them to our hearts before they changed their minds! They are good till 2018!

I Guess We Are Staying

I Guess We Are Staying....

I Guess We Are Staying….

The Mexican government has decided to change all us expats’ resident visas around, with a range of implications for the foreigners who are living here. As was the case before, now you’re either herded into the “tourist” group, or a permanent residents’ group.  As a “temporary” visitor, e.g. tourist, they give you a piece of paper called an FMM which gives you 180 days to hang out in Mexico, and you can bring your U.S. or Canadian plated vehicle in with you. You can legally then stay in the country for six months,  really touring around, living in your rented casita to finish writing your novel or whatever. But you have to leave Mexico when the six months (or ten days on the beach) are up. Alternatively, you’re a permanent resident, which opens a different can of worms. Before, there were different classes of resident visas all the way up to “inmigrado” which meant you figured you were here to stay and your next step past that, if you were interested, was naturalization, going for Mexican citizenship. That visa came with the ability to get working papers – essential for all those condo salespeople at the beaches and others living and legitimately working here.

But now they’re changing all of it, and people are none too happy about it because they are tightening up the rules that directly affect us – about driving foreign-plated cars, how much money you have to have to live here permanently as a retiree, and a couple of other important things. The financial requirements for residency used to be quite minimal, and it was one of the things that made it attractive for Americans who had only the most basic Social Security income to move down here. But under the new rules, everyone needs to demonstrate a stable income of about $2,100 a month. The lawyers are saying “don’t worry, they will probably grandfather in people who have been here for a while” but nonetheless, already some people are panicking that they’ll be thrown out anyway, and proactively planning to head back NOB (North of the Border).

The old Mexico hands are also saying “wait, wait, they will revise and clarify these laws, they’ll see that they are running off perfectly good folks who employ maids, gardeners, and pay VAT and other taxes – they will backtrack on this”…. but there is a lot of discussion about just going back up north instead of hunkering down and seeing what happens. Our feeling is that most of this talk comes from people who have never been too happy here; it gives people a good excuse to bail. But some lawyers believe that there will probably be some sort of credit or point system put into place, so that even absent the required income stream, if you own your own home, or have other investments, you’ll get your permanent visa income notwithstanding. However, as of now the new rules are the new rules and everyone is having to deal with them. There are lots of theories as to why this is being done…revenge for the U.S.’ horrible immigration policy? Trying to get a “better class” of person here with tighter regulations? (try to emigrate to Canada, New Zealand or Australia and see what THEY require!) – no one really knows, but all of us who are living here, for all intents permanently, are now being forced to deal with the new requirements.

The car situation is complicated too. Because cars are cheaper up north, many people have been down here for years with older foreign-plated vehicles with long-expired registrations from wherever they came from originally. It makes perfect sense to me that the Mexican government wants to have everyone who is living here as a permanent resident be driving – in our case – a Jalisco-plated car so they can track it if they need to. Amazingly enough, all car registrations in Mexico are on computers now. But as a practical matter they are now forcing those with U.S. plates to scurry back to the border to sell their vehicles and come back down and buy something here in Mexico that will have Mexican plates.

There seems to be a process by which you can “nationalize” a car with foreign plates IF and only IF it was made in a NAFTA country. Meaning they look at your VIN number and see where the car was manufactured. If it was made in Mexico, Canada or the U.S., you may be able to nationalize it – a big hassle, and the nationalization route quickly became rife with fakery and corruption so it was an expensive risk to take. People paid a lot of money to “consultants” who turned out to be scam artists when the hapless gringos discovered that their fancy new Mexican registrations and plates were entirely fake. We have friends who have a much-loved Subaru they’ve been driving around here for six years, but alas, it was built in Japan, so no nationalization is posible for them. They have to return the car to the border, have its importation tags cancelled and removed, and get rid of it. They are buying a new car down here, the legitimate way, from a dealer in Guadalajara.

All of it is a big pain in the neck. We’re fine in the car department; after the carjacking in 2007, I decided I didn’t want to drive around with foreign plates any more and our present car has had Jalisco plates since the day we bought it. Much easier and we are grateful now that we see so many people going crazy with all these new rules and regulations! So the car thing is a non-issue for us, but it turned out that  our old visas (called an FM-3) were destined to present us with some problems. Aside from the fact that they are being done away with, they were “sort of” permanent resident and “sort of” not. One of the bad things, we discovered, about our old FM3 visas was that if and when we sell our present house, we would have owed a huge amount in capital gains taxes to the Mexican government. The way around that is to become permanent residents under the new rules. Then you’re allowed to buy and sell a house once every five years without owing capital gains taxes on the sale. Some of the other visa classifications also had limits on how long you could be out of the country, and other weird rules we could just as well do without.

So Arnold and I, without even having any sort of conversation about it, called our attorney and said “we need to apply for those permanente visas, because our house is on the market and when it sells we would be liable for a lot of capital gains taxes!” We actually had the notario figure it out and it was scary how much we would have owed, in spite of the fact that we have actually not made a dime on this place. Actually, we have put a lot of money into remodeling it and updating the electrical, plumbing, etc. But with the collapse of the U.S. real estate market we had a collapse here too, so no one is making any money on the sale of their houses. A huge tax bill on top of that would not be what we had in mind.  We were told that to apply for the “change of condition” in our visas from FM3 to permanent, we had to submit six months worth of bank statements, proof of our income and investments, and tons of other stuff and it is taking about three months now to get these visas. It used to be that the little immigration office right here in Chapala could handle this, but now, once again, they’ve tightened things up and all the decisions about getting or not getting a visa are handled out of Mexico City. So you send in your request and you basically sit there and wait until you are summoned – in our case, to Guadalajara – to be fingerprinted and a couple of weeks after that your permanent resident card is ready for you to pick up – or so we are told.

Being a permanent resident is also, like the old inmigrado classification, one step below being a naturalized Mexican citizen. And unlike the old visas, which had to be renewed every year, these are permanent and at least right now, for the moment, they are saying once you have it, that’s it. No need to renew it annually or anything like that. Of course down the line they may realize they are giving up a nice income stream in fees or whatever and they may change the rules, but right now we are looking forward to getting the new permanent visas and being free to come and go as we please.

So we made an appointment with our attorney, went in to her office with the requisite piles of bank statements and such, paid to have an official translator translate them all into Spanish, then she submitted them a few weeks ago, and now we just wait. We’re figuring we might get them in August sometime, but ¿quien sabe? Walking back to the car we just looked at each other and said “Hmmm, I guess we’re staying here, yes?” “Yeah, Arnold said, well, we are buying our second house here, and we now have four cats and a dog (no New York co-op for us, even if we had the dough…); and we can’t figure out where we would move to that we could afford even if we DID want to leave here, so, well, I guess we are staying…”

And we went home and I fixed dinner.

Dia de la Madre

We have come to the hot, dry, dusty season where we are all waiting for the rains to start in June. One can only hope the rains will come soon and be plentiful, as there has been no real rain since last September. The lake level is very low, our gardens are drying up, the hills are brown, and it’s gradually getting hotter here in the summers, exactly the same as pretty near everywhere else.

But nature does send us some positive indications. Every year the cicadas come out of the ground and for a month and a half make a terrific and unmistakable racket; the folklore around here is that the rainy season will start exactly six weeks after the first cicadas make their appearance. The expats around here call them “rainbirds”, actually, and that’s what they sound like when they get going… an introductory and quite loud “chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck” for a few seconds, followed by an ear-splitting whine. As the season wears on, there are more and more of them out there so it becomes pretty deafening at times, but most people are eager to hear the first ones, as harbingers of lush gardens and emerald hills, and a recovering lake, just a few weeks from now. One gets excited calls from friends….”I just heard one! I just heard one! The first rainbird!”

However, setting thoughts of the dusty streets aside, it’s Mother’s Day here – unlike the States where it floats every year, here it is fixed, May 10. The village is full of balloon and flower-sellers and moms walking around in their best finery carrying armloads of flowers with little kids trailing behind in regional dance costumes, communion dresses, or other special outfits. The schools always have the children prepare some kind of special Mother’s Day party and performance – a folk dance show, music recitals, little plays. Of course all of this gives every kid a chance to be in a costume and Mexicans love any kind costume or mask – any excuse to shape-shift into something historical, folkloric, mythical, religious. Everyone knocked off work early, half the town was closed up by 2 p.m. and now, in the late afternoon, people are are busy barbecuing, stereos at full blast, kids running around, with much merriment as you’d expect. I normally complain mightily about the blaring music right over our walls, but the folks across the street have a big fiesta going for their family and they’ve got Jorge Negrete or Antonio Aguilar or one of those great old singers on their stereo, volume cranked to the max, and I have to admit it’s actually really nice for a warm, beautiful spring evening. You can tell they’re getting more and more sloshed because they’re starting to sing along with the CD quite lustily. I ran into town for some groceries for the weekend; Wal-Mart was giving away free cake and every cart that came out of the store had at least one cake in it, and people were carrying out boxes with new blenders, pot and pan sets, and all sorts of other Mother’s Day gifts and regalia.

Mexican friends have asked me if I miss my mother on this dia festivo and of course the answer has to be terribly nuanced because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. On one level, the truth is “no, I really don’t” but the more accurate response is that sure I miss her, but I miss the Shirley several decades ago, before illness, depression and dementia took their horrible toll. It would have been so much fun to have had her as she was back then, to go house hunting with us in this latest relocation escapade. She would have so enjoyed seeing all these wonderful Mexican houses. And of course in her imagination she would have occupied herself with remodeling and decorating each and every one of them. It is really too bad that she wasn’t well enough to have had a home of her own here; it would have been a fantastic project for her. That missed boat along with a long list of other missed boats just fill me with sadness, I guess, but there’s no going back now; she’s gone, my dad is gone, and we are getting on with our lives.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, in spite of not having sold our present house as we had hoped, we did find a new one we absolutely love and we seem to have purchased it! So my “leisurely” summer to lie around, relax in the pool and do my nails has now turned into having to pack this place up, move to the new house on or about July 1, get it up and running and start the process of settling in to a new home. The new place needs a fair amount of cosmetic work, which made it affordable – so we have some grungy times to live through with some construction and repairs to be done. But its bones are wonderful – a great “Mexican Contemporary” on a clean, quiet, charming block-long cul-de-sac street with nicer, larger homes, mostly inhabited by wealthier Mexicans and older, long-retired-here expats. After a couple of years there, having fixed up the things we want to fix up, it should be the perfect house for us; with any luck, we won’t have to move again.

To be completely frank about it, one of the biggest pluses will be getting away from the things that have driven us crazy about our present neighborhood. We have adjusted to it, but not all that happily, to be honest: the incessant barking of the roof dogs at night, rockets (which terrify pets), roosters at all hours (charming at first but there are zillions of them and contrary to popular belief, they DON’T only crow at dawn!) ear-splitting loud parties on the weekends, car alarms going off, constant noise from the highway, garbage in the street in front of our house after every weekends’ fiestas. This almost incessant racket will be greatly diminished, if an issue at all, in the  part of town we’re moving into.

When we first become expats, we didn’t want to live isolated in a gated upper-class fraccionamiento (subdivision) or in an expat community. As a newbie, many people want to live down among the people and all that. Well, we’ve done it for seven years now and while our working-class neighborhood has its charms – and it really does; there are parts of it we will definitely miss  – as aging Americans in a completely foreign culture, we are more willing to admit that we’re over it; at this stage of our lives we need something different for ourselves. You realize that you can love the country you’re in, and we have no plans to go back to the States, but after seven years here, we will be happy to be in a slightly classier (read cleaner, quieter) part of town. And the new house is a bit bigger and better suited to our needs now than this one is.

So that’s where we are. Since Arnold had his second stent put in a couple of weeks ago, we are both feeling “you know, life is short, we don’t have any kids to leave our estate to, let’s enjoy what we have and if moving into a different house is part of the plan, well, let’s just do it!” He’s fine, but his new identity as a permanent, “till death do us part” cardiac patient has been unsettling. His cardiologist is sure he has a long life ahead now that his plumbing is repaired, but the symptoms, especially back in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet, had him rattled (Conclusion: guess we aren’t moving back THERE). So my job will be to manage the house move as well as I can without letting either of us get too stressed about it. Fortunately we’re in Mexico where you can hire a couple of strong young people to move furniture and boxes around for you all the live-long-day and it is a fraction of what it would have cost in the Ancestral Homeland.

It’s fun to have something to be really excited about after all this sadness and loss; I am counting the weeks till we move on July 1. I definitely could use one of those glittering New York New Year’s Eve balls to drop the night of June 30 with the roar of a huge crowd counting down the seconds till the next phase of our lives really will begin.

December 31, 2012

For some strange reason, it is pouring rain tonight in normally bright, sunny Ajijic. It has been dark and cloudy the last couple of days, just enough to wring all the warmth out of the air, and now Arnold and I, Reina the dog and the cuatro gatos are hunkered down in our house in warm clothes, wrapped in sweaters and rebozos, to try to get warm.  The kitties are all too cold to fight, each one has found a nice toasty place, one on my stereo receiver, one on the TV satellite box, two others tightly curled up on sofas. The good news about not having a heating system in your house  = no heating bills. The bad news = when it does get cold out there you freeze, especially after the sun goes down. We do have a gas fireplace with cement logs in the living room, and in desperation we’ve been turning it on the past couple of nights. It does help, but it isn’t in a room we really frequent, and I wonder how quickly we are going to have to call Javier, our liquid propane guy, to come and fill the tank again. Hopefully not tomorrow, as it’s New Year’s Day and nearly everything will be closed up tight.

Less and less frequently do they shoot off pistols in the air for New Year’s – it used to be a bit dangerous to be out late at night on December 31. But it is still enough of a concern so that I’m just as glad we are staying in. Before we moved into our house, while we were still living in Santa Fe but had actually completed the purchase, our gardener reported a huge, growing puddle of mysterious origin in the garden. For the life of him he couldn’t figure out where the standing water was coming from, so, fearing some long term damage to the house’s foundation, we told him he’d better dig up the whole water line to see what was going on. Turned out some undoubtedly inebriated loco had fired a pistol into the air over our wall on New Year’s Eve and it landed buried several inches in our lawn, severing the water line. Puzzle solved.  We may be living in a fantasy world, but it does seem to us that at least in our very Mexican neighborhood, those shenanigans have diminished somewhat in recent years. Or they know the house is occupied now so they very kindly shoot somewhere else.

We won’t even be able to hunker down in bed and watch the midnight ball drop in Nueva York on TV because of course, our TV is out because of the rain. But – we can be reassured that things haven’t gotten totally waterlogged –  we can still hear a few rockets and firecrackers going off here and there, rain or no rain. We’ve been invited to a little party tomorrow, so that should be nice; then we will stop off and see my mother and tell her “Happy New Year”, which won’t be so nice, but it is obligatory and with any luck she will be at least a little bit awake and will recognize us.

Having survived the surgery about as well as anyone could, I am full of gratitude that things went so well and exactly as planned and predicted; but still, it’s unnerving that I seem to have lost a couple of months out of my life to medical tests, x-rays, CT scans, trips to Guadalajara for medical appointments and much worry – whoosh, gone, just like that. And now, suddenly, it’s practically 2013.  So I’ve been a bit unsettled and over the weekend, my first couple of days of being truly pain-free and with a bit more energy, I did the only thing I could figure out to do, to re-establish some relationship with quotidian life – went into girlie mode and fiercely emptied out and rearranged all my clothes closets.  Gave some things away, took some things to the resale store. Most Mexican houses don’t have great closet space (that’s what those wonderful painted armoires are for!) and ours is better than most, but I still complain constantly that pants are here, shirts are crammed in another closet a room away, coats and sweaters somewhere else and I have to traipse all over the house to find things.

I keep arranging and rearranging, trying to find a system that will work for me to have access to my wardrobe  (This time I’m trying a “color wheel” system for organizing clothing that I read about online….hey, it’s worth a shot!) Arnold says “it’s just stuff, get rid of it all” – but at this chilly moment I am very happy indeed that I have not given my winter clothes away. In fact, contrary to what a lot of people do when they move here from Michigan or Canada (and jettison everything but their Teva sandals and their Bermuda shorts), I kept enough of a variety of winter clothes left over from my old Santa Fe days – where I gather it is snowing tonight – so that the fortunate fashionista even has a choice of which warm sweater to wear. And, of course, the sun will be out again in a day or so. Naturally, keeping all this winter stuff has only made my closets more tightly packed, but what’s a girl to do?

No one is talking about it much, but it feels to me like much of Mexico is really ready to bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2012, with the horrific bloodshed and violence brought  on by Calderón’s six-year war against the cartels. Our newly installed movie-star president, Peña Nieto, is promising everyone here the moon; and we all know how far he’s gonna get with all that fol-de-rol given Mexico’s intractable disregard for the rule of law and pervasive corruption inbred from the days of Spanish rule. Still, from what I can tell, perhaps things will feel a little calmer, but one will never know whether the perceived tranquility is just an illusion with the same unthinkable things going on but with less publicity – or whether the new regimes, both local and national, really will be able to get things settled down a bit. One can only hope.

In any event, if tonight was to have been an evening of wild parties to ring out the old and ring in the new, whether with pistol shots into the air or not, it probably ain’t gonna happen in our little town, or at least not to any great degree.  One thing is for sure, the people around here are very spoiled by their normally superb weather and a cold, driving rain, expected to go on for awhile, will undoubtedly keep many people in their houses and off the slippery cobblestone streets. Probably, actually, not such a bad idea.

So, having said all that, feliz año nuevo everyone, stay safe.

The Regata de Globos

I guess a lot of towns have a couple of crazy things they do every year – special traditions that take root somehow and resonate with local folks as annual events, so they get repeated each year, and they evolve and change – or, sometimes even better, they don’t. It’s basically just the same thing each year, which is what helps people feel rooted to their communities, I suspect. When we lived in Santa Fe there was the Christmas Eve walk up Canyon Road by candlelight , singing carols as we froze in the snow, and in the late summer, the burning of Zozobra, a huge paper-filled mannequin that supposedly took all our cares up with him to the great beyond as he was incinerated with much fanfare from the assembled crowd. As one who has always had an interest in traditional culture, I have always enjoyed these unique events wherever I’ve come across them.

Mexico is full of such festivals, many of them religious, of course, but some of the most delightful ones are secular. They just evolve and become a part of the local calendar of annual fiestas along with Christmas, Dia de la Independencia, and the other “obligatorio” Mexican holidays. We have a couple of them here but one of my absolute Ajijic favorites is the annual Regata de Globos held each September around the time of the Fiestas Patrias, Mexican Independence Day.  It’s a homegrown balloon festival where the community gathers to watch impossibly fragile tissue paper balloons rise giddily to the heavens – if they don’t burn up first. No one really seems to be able to definitively describe how the globo festival got started here. People remember their fathers and grandfathers making them, though, and I’ve heard various stories of how the tradition “really” got started. Just like the sturdiest of the balloons, which manage to get lost in the mists above the soccer field and fly off over the lake, the real roots of the regata are probably now lost in time.

Having spent years in Santa Fe where one’s idea of a balloon festival was the enormous, world-famous annual International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, ours here definitely assumes its place 180 degrees opposite that one on the balloon scale, I am sure. The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta attracts enormous and spectacular balloons, flown by licensed pilots, who descend upon Albuquerque each year from all over the world, many sponsored by corporations. Its gorgeous, carefully planned, mass ascensions are televised in their entirety every October. So you can imagine my surprise when I first learned that there was a baby balloon fiesta right here. Big or little, there is just something people love about seeing something they made – kite, model airplane, balloon, sail up into the sky as if by magic, defying gravity.

We love our local version, and Arnold and I go now to see it down on the Ajijic soccer field every year. The difference being, of course, that our balloons are still – mandated by tradition – all made of colored tissue paper; there is no helium or gas or professional races or television cameras or anything like that – just hot air, and neighborhood teams of volunteers who work all year to painstakingly piece dozens of the fragile balloons together with scotch tape, and hundreds of people taking the afternoon off and simply having a good time.

I could describe it in great detail but it was so much fun to shoot these pictures that I assembled a video. I suspect that it will give you a better sense of the goings-on down on the Ajijic soccer field than I ever could write. Just sheer madness and fun!

Piles of Signs

A street in the village….

Sad to say there was another narcobloqueo in Guadalajara the other day – major roads blocked, buses set on fire, a bus driver killed, the usual. Rosa said they found two men hanged in Zapopan too. To the north, it sounds just horrible, gunfire and grenades in the night. Supposedly our fun and games here was in revenge for the federales having captured a big drug kingpin and extraditing him back to the States. Guadalajara continues on “Alerta Roja” (red alert); the scuttlebutt is that they are zeroing in on another capo or two. No matter, alas, if they get the one they want another is right behind him (or increasingly, her) in line to move into the top spot. It just never ends.

But at least over the past couple of months, we have been spared anything too horrible here in our little village, though everyone is always somewhat on edge, because of course it can all start up again at any time.  Still, for a change, there are the stirrings of some good things happening  – signs that people are coming out of the shadows after so much recent violence.  At least this week, instead of dealing with mayhem, our local government has been trying to spiff the place up a little bit, in hopes of encouraging tourism and “quality of life”, one supposes. Our much-loved contractor and volunteer-about-town, Moctezuma (Chuma for short),  has organized a charming remodel of our town plaza, with mosaic floors, new plantings, and art donated and commissioned from a number of  favorite local artists and craftsmen. The crew does as much work as they can till they run out of money, then they stop.  Chuma puts on a fundraiser or two, and they then continue on. We ran into him in town today and he said that next month there is going to be a folk dance performance we have to attend – to benefit the plaza redecoration project, as the project is once again broke. Of course we will go.

Then, the last time we took the bus in to Guadalajara, we noticed a little cement block bench at the bus stop, where before, people waiting had to stand in the blazing hot sun in the middle of a knee-high weed patch just off the highway in order to avoid being killed by oncoming traffic. The grass around it had just been trimmed and someone had painted the little bench white. This was really nice because so many of the people who wait for the bus are elderly, or are parents with little kids or babies in their arms. And then a few days later, a steel roof magically appeared over the block bench to shield people from the sun.

They have also been putting up new street signs all over the village to replace the now rusty and faded old ones. When I saw them being put up everywhere I thought “Boy, our corner could really use one of those.” The original one got knocked down or stolen years ago and now, since there are no street signs anywhere on our street, people are never quite sure where they are. So I went into our little city hall and stopped at the entrance, where a tiny desk was flanked by three police officers (one a young woman), their scary-looking automatic weapons leaned against the wall in a corner as they chatted amongst themselves over styrofoam plates of tacos. I asked, as respectfully as I could, given the armaments just a few feet from where I was standing, where the Street Sign Department was. I told them I wanted to find out how to apply to have one put up. “Oh, just go upstairs, Señora, they are working on them now and someone will help you.”

Upstairs consists of two rooms, a tiny office where the delegado – basically the mayor – works, and a second room, which was filled with boxes and piles of street signs all wrapped in plastic. I went in and pled my case – that we really needed one of those on our corner, people often got lost, there had been one before, etc. “Of course, I think we have an extra one here, and I know exactly where you mean for it to go”, said the nice man who was on all fours in the middle of the room organizing all the piles of street signs. “We’ll run out there tomorrow morning and put it up for you…” “Muchas gracias”, I said, carefully backing out of the small room. “De nada, señora, que le vaya bien”. Once back out on the street, I thought, sort of growling to myself, oh, sure, I know I’ll be back here twenty times asking about my famous sign before I ever see it, if they ever DO put it up. There are a zillion signs in there they are dealing with, they’ll never get around to it…but at least I tried. I went off on my other errands and forgot about it.

Well, damned if I didn’t walk to the corner early the following morning on my way to my exercise class, when lo and behold, there was the new sign in all its glory, gleaming in the sunlight, nailed up precisely where I had suggested they put it. Not completely straight, but there it is. Que le vaya bien.