Puerto Vallarta

Here comes the sun….

Our New Solar Panels!

Our New Solar Panels!

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A time of crazy travel, just how it worked out. Back from a delightful week in Puerto Vallarta with my sister and her dear friend and colleague from Poland – his first visit to Mexico, and great fun was had eating and lying in the sun and swimming with dolphins and trying different kinds of margaritas. Many people believe that Puerto Vallarta is uninhabitable in the summer because of the heat and humidity, so there were very few people at the resort, and that made it even nicer. Yes, it was hot, but we were never more than a few steps from the pool or the beach, so we didn’t care!

We came home for just a few days, then we head out again for New Jersey and New York for my Aunt Kay’s 90th birthday party, a couple of performances in New York (Netrebko in MacBeth, one could not resist, and Audra MacDonald’s Billie Holiday show) and restocking some supplies to get ready for the harsh Mexican winter. The most urgent thing – since we don’t have any heat in our house – is a new electric blanket since ours died and the controls and cables were somehow lost in the move to the new house. It doesn’t get terribly cold here, maybe down into the forties or even the high thirties in the middle of the night during the coldest part of January – but without any heat in the house you do feel it. Electricity is expensive, though, and it’s controlled by the Mexican federal government – they can basically charge whatever they like – so running that nice warm electric blanket or the space heater in your bedroom becomes quite a luxury.

Thus it is hard to live in Mexico, where it is sunny pretty much all the time, and not have the thought at least cross your mind that if you could harness all the energy the blazing sun just gives us, especially in the winters when you use more electricity in the shorter and colder days (ironically, it is sunnier in the winter months) you could realize a huge savings in utility bills over time. We have never had enough hot water, and even with our old hot water heater cranked up to “max”, the water, especially at the far ends of the house, was never really hot enough. Friends and our architect all commented that with solar hot water we would have water that was so hot we might well have to install a gizmo that mixes some cold into it so we wouldn’t burn ourselves, and we both became intrigued with the idea. Indeed several friends who have done this have told us that they are delighted with the result; both because your electrical bills go down to virtually nothing and that you really can generate enough heat to have plenty of hot water without needing to be continually purchasing propane. And we have been consuming a LOT.

After a year of lukewarm showers and not-quite-clean dishes from the dishwasher, I was ready to give the whole solar idea a try.  So, in a mad impulse we decided to have solar panels installed on our roof to generate electricity and added a solar hot water heater as well. The solar hot water tank should reduce our consumption of propane very dramatically. Poor Francisco the propane guy will be very sad when he stops by next time to fill our propane tank and we won’t be needing any — hopefully, not for months to come. Not only will it be fun to use all the electricity I bloody well want (keep the fountain running, which keeps it from getting full of algae, have the pool heater on more frequently, all those little things where you are conscious of turning switches off all the time….) since we are generating our own power now, but we can feel smug about doing the right thing to get off the grid and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. While it is a big investment upfront, one can calculate that after a few years the investment will have repaid itself in reduced utility bills and from that point forward, most of your electricity and hot water (except for the few cloudy periods we have here) are basically free.

So we now have a big array of sixteen solar panels, plus the solar hot water heater, up on our roof, and it will definitely get in the way of my planned New York-style roof garden, but there is still plenty of open space up there so whenever I do get around to dragging some flowerpots and plants up there, it’ll still look nice. The solar guys still have some tweaking and adjusting and cleanup to do, but it is kind of amazing to see how it works. After some preparatory laying of cable and making new connections to our electrical boxes, a very efficient team of maybe ten young guys from the solar energy company climbed up to our roof and in one day they had the whole system installed. After it was done, they told me to come out to the street and stand in front of the electrical meter to watch what was going to happen as they flipped the switch and turned the new solar system on. “Watch; your meter will begin running backwards, Señora”, they said. “At that point you will be generating power and sending it BACK to CFE (the federal electricity commission). Sure enough, all of us crowded eagerly around the meter stuck in our cement front wall and the second they turned the system on, the little wheel inside the meter obediently reversed direction just as they said it would. I can hardly wait, now, to get our next electrical bill!

As You Were

No one except a crazy person would think of taking their Mexican maid and her teenage daughter, all expenses paid, on a week’s vacation to Puerto Vallarta.

The four of us at the “delifnario” ready to play with the dolphins!

And ordering the maid not to do anything, for once in her life, to just relax and let the camaristas do their job scrubbing the bathrooms and cleaning the place. Not even to make a bed. In utter defiance of every dictum of expat life (e.g. “Don’t become overly familiar with your household staff and their families”) we decided that Sofia needed a proper graduation present from secundaria. And that Rosa should come along too, to be spoiled a bit, see a new place, and to have some fun. We knew it would be a very special experience for them both.

Sofia had never seen the ocean, never walked on the beach. Of course in the private school where she is a scholarship student, all the other kids have back and forth been to the beach for vacación all their lives. Arnold and I knew she would be thrilled at the chance to get a glimpse of a lifestyle her friends have known since they were born. I had read Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris as a kid and that book had a tremendous impact on me – the idea that even if you could only cross the class boundary once in your life, as if by magic, the experience would change who you were forever.

Rosa had cruelly been thrown into the water when she was younger, not knowing how to swim; she nearly drowned and had been terrified of the water ever since. I decided for some inexplicable reason that to get her past that fear would be a cool thing to do. So I began to plan a week at the beach for the four of us; Sofia, Rosa, Arnold and me. They were beside themselves when I said, in the most off-the-cuff manner I could muster, “Hey, we’re going to the beach this summer and we want you to come with us this time”. Usually, they stay behind and take care of the house and the animals, but I roped Gaby, one of Rosa’s other daughters, into housesitting duty. She was happy to help out, saying “it would be so wonderful for my mother to have this experience….of course I’ll do it!”

We found a terrific “rent one condo and get one free” online deal for the summer, when it is  mostly steamy, rainy and hot in Puerto Vallarta. But summertime is when kids are out of school, so there are promociones and sales to get people to come. It is interesting for us, too, because the feeling in Vallarta is completely different from the winter when the Americans and Canadians are all there – mostly sans kids – fleeing the freezing weather up north. But in the summertime, just as it is in the States, families bundle everyone into cars and head for the beaches, the difference being that here in Mexico “everyone” includes not just the nuclear family but grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and every imaginable stripe of related kid. In fact, seeing the place overrun with Mexican families was just the lesson we wanted for Sofia.  We wanted to give her some food for thought about her future, seeing this nice hotel crowded with Mexican families from abuelita (grandma) to the littlest babies, the generations all together for one week. We said to her “Think about what these people must be doing for a living, to be able to afford to bring a bunch of their relatives here and spend this time together….they can’t ALL be narcos!” Of course they aren’t; they are also doctors, executives, and engineers, members of Mexico’s growing and increasingly influential middle class. To Sofia this is all new: if she gets even through high school she will be the first one in her family to have made it that far. But after a year of lessons in the covered indoor pool of the local swim school she is now a strong swimmer and was more than ready to try her skills in the warm waters of Banderas Bay and enjoy the enormous pools at the resort…baby steps.

Still, I was worried about the long-term consequences of this adventure, of course (as I always am). Here we are, taking two people from a completely different social class and background and introducing them to “our” world – a breezy week at the beach, an attractive hotel where they could each have their own room and bathroom (Sofia doesn’t even have her own bedroom at home), huge buffets served throughout the day; all you have to do is wave your arm with the plastic bracelet that says you’re on the meal plan, to have absolutely anything and everything you want delivered to you poolside or wherever. What would be the result of this? Was it cruel to open the doors to an experience where people very much like you are the ones waiting on you? When you can’t swim or have never seen the ocean, to be exposed to beach activities, playing in the sun by the pool? And if it was, at the end, a life-changing experience and a total blast for them, to have had a magical week? Then what? A la Cinderella – everyone returns to their customary places, sort of like “as you were, men” in the military; or musical chairs, where everyone scrambles to plop down when the music stops? I kept thinking about that, and how the one who doesn’t HAVE a chair gets tossed out. Survival of the fastest.

But arguing for going ahead with the adventure was that Sofia has just gotten herself admitted to what is probably the best high school around here; a completely bilingual school where there will be no more than ten students in a class. She is going to have American and Canadian kids as classmates, and all the kids in the school are obviously university-bound. Everyone who is working with Sofia – volunteer tutors, teachers, relatives, all think she has a tremendous future ahead of her – but as a part of her development she needs to think outside the box of her incredibly loving, warm, but provincial upbringing. She indeed had never seen the ocean. We imagine that someday it would be great to take her to New York, to Paris, to Mexico City one day, even to California (where I never have given her the long-promised trip to Disneyland). But given everything that is going on, with Arnold’s heart stuff, my mother, my sister going in for surgery – right now, those big trips are only fantasies. However, we thought, “But we can take her to see the ocean. THAT, right now, this summer, we can do.”

Flying was ridiculously expensive for a forty-minute flight, so the four of us took the bus, heading west over the mountains, past extinct volcanoes and the agave fields of Tequila, then snaking down toward the coast through the Nayarit jungle. Even that was new for both of them, though Sofi, like all the kids I know, had to be prodded to lift her eyes from her cell phone (busy texting her friends) to catch that first glimpse of the blue ocean through the jungle. These kids experience life in a way totally different from my generation, where, when we travelled, we looked wide-eyed at all the scenery through the window of whatever conveyance we were on – car, train, plane, bus, whatever – and focused on every passing detail. Of course, in those days they hadn’t even invented computers yet, let alone Facebook and texting your pals. These kids experience everything through the filter of technology. I shake my head at how taking a photo or video of something is starting to replace actually SEEING it. But, my laments aside, obviously it’s the new reality for all of us.

Breakfast by the sea: Sofia, Rosa and Arnold

Once we got settled in our rooms, we looked around for some educational experiences, especially for Sofia, knowing that on her own, since she’s gregarious and not as shy as she used to be, she’d make friends down on the beach or by the pool and without some structure, she’d just hang out all day. We found out about a program that sounded like fun – where you get to be a “Trainer For A Day” and go to the “delfinario” where dolphins and sea lions are kept – and learn about how they’re trained and try your hand at working with them yourself. We signed Sofia up for the full day class, and we adults signed up for the much shorter “dolphin encounter”, just for fun, ourselves. Then there was a “canopy tour” harnessed to cables that fly over the jungle. On another day we sent her out alone on a day-long snorkeling cruise. She had to get herself back by taxi – we told her where she had to go, gave her cab fare, and sent her off for the day. In my beady little mind, all preparation for the day when hopefully she gets sent off to college somewhere.

Well, we can report that it all was a huge success; we all had a wonderful time. Rosa came into the pool with me guiding her (“Don’t go any farther than this, it’s too deep for you and I don’t want you to get frightened”) but after a few tries ended up – like everyone else on vacation at a resort – running from the pool to the Jacuzzi to wade into the ocean, and back again, and absolutely loved all of it. Sofia indeed made some friends; she swam and played beach volleyball until the sun went down. One day she rode on the “banana” –  a scary-looking inflatable yellow tube several people straddle, one behind the next, hanging on for dear life. You’re taken on a hair-raising ride towed by a speedboat tearing madly through the ocean until the grand finale when you, and your compañeros sitting atop this thing, are dumped with much merriment into the water as it turns sharply and heads back toward the beach. Then you all have to swim back to shore (yes they all must wear life jackets). She loved snorkeling and said the brilliantly colored fish were amazing. At the end of the day, the boat returned to the marina in a driving rainstorm over choppy water, so that was part of the adventure, too.

A Girl (me) and A Dolphin

Now, without a doubt, Sofia has experienced the ocean and Rosa is over her fear of the water and can’t wait to get back in. Sofi has to begin her new life as a preparatoria student (high school) in a couple of weeks and with her new course load, she won’t have time for swimming lessons any more. She swims well enough now, so I asked Rosa if she’d like to take Sofia’s place at the swim school, go three times a week for a couple of months till she has learned the obligatory four strokes they teach you; and once and for all, at nearly 50, to learn how to swim. I said I’d pay for it as a special treat. She is signed up and will start in a few days.

So it IS “As you were, men” but not quite. Both of them have seen a new place and learned a little of what it is to travel. Sofi learned how to snorkel and how to hang out with dolphins and sea lions and Rosa got into a Jacuzzi for the first time in her life, and we practically had to drag her out of it. We all got kissed by dolphins, nuzzled by a sea lion whose whiskers turn out to be surprisingly soft, and after it was all over we hauled our sandy selves back onto the Vallarta-Guadalajara bus and came back home. Life has resumed its normal routine but undoubtedly two lives have been changed.

In other news, we were without power for a day, and it was just restored a few minutes ago. Someone stole a block’s worth of electrical cable for the copper, leaving the whole calle without any power for almost 24 hours. The electrical guys must have found some new cable in a warehouse somewhere, because everything, gracias a dios, seems to be back to normal now. Rosa came to clean on her regular schedule and thanked us again and again. “Never in my whole life, “she said, “did I think I would ever get in the water and not be afraid, let alone ride around on a dolphin…” She is a little apprehensive about swim class and doesn’t want me to spend any more money on her, but I have convinced her – “for once, let us do something for YOU alone – a few hours a week not taking care of your daughters, your grandchildren, or the house or worrying about us”; and now after some badgering from me about how I want her to be able to swim for pool safety around her grandchildren if nothing else, she’s eager to try it. Sofia went off to the new school to finish her placement exams for the next semester. Soon it’ll be time to purchase her new uniforms, getting ready for the fall. Jose came over to see us with his periodic report on Mother and to pick up a new supply of opera DVDs from Arnold. The battles of the cuatro gatos continue apace, and we are trying different things to see what will help them all get adjusted, with varying degrees of success.

For the moment, at least, everyone got a chair.