Friday, December 28, 2012

The Cheap Seats

It costs about U.S. $75 to get into a high speed inflatable and go speeding across the bay for close-up views of the humpback whales that swim down from Alaska to spend their winters along the Pacific Coast around Puerto Vallarta.

I only paid about twice that for these oversized binoculars and tripod, but now I can stalk marine mammals and a good deal else for free from the comfort and safety of my living room.

I'll admit it's not really a substitute for getting up close and personal, where you can see the scars and barnacles on their shiny hides and hear the deep throaty gasps that accompany their expulsions of spray and mist.

In fact, if it weren't for the tourist barges I'd see far fewer of the creatures long distance, because nine times out of 10 the way I spot them is by noticing a cluster of boats heaved to in the bay. Focusing in on them, I see spouts, dorsal fins, and now and then the lifting of wide flukes that means the whale is diving to cruise the depths for as long as 15 or 20 minutes.

When there's not much haze, the binocs give me such glimpses almost to the horizon. But the ideal distance is close enough to see the action with the naked eye, in which case the glasses make a real show out of it.

That was the case a couple of days ago when I looked up from my book to see a couple of boats flanking some disturbed water in which a gout of spray suddenly appeared that was larger than either of them. A dark shape rose up, and then there was another huge splash.

I lunged for the lenses and got them aimed and focused just in time to see the entire length of that frisky adult whale, certainly a testosterone-driven male, thrust free of the water, then fall back in a cloud of spray that soaked everybody on the nearest boat and probably scared them to death.

It was the best look at a living whale I ever had from any vantage point, ashore or afloat, and for my money those binoculars paid for themselves in that one exciting moment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sharps and Flatulence

I'm already on the record as a heartfelt admirer of Las Peregrinaciones, Puerto Vallarta's 12 days of homage to the Virgin Mary as she appeared in a 16th Century vision to an Aztec convert to Christianity near what is now Mexico City. In this manifestation she's known here as Our Lady of Guadalupe, or La Guadalupana.

But notwithstanding my deep pleasure in watching them, I have to say I'm puzzled and bemused by the musical accompaniment. My Spanish will have to get much better before I've got the chops to interrogate someone who might be able to explain it to me.

"Peregrinaciones" translates roughly as pilgrimages. During the first 12 days of every December, Vallartans assemble in groups, usually consisting of colleagues from their workplaces, to march at all hours along Juarez Street two blocks below our place to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which greets them with extravagant pealing from its many bells. They are ringing as I write this.

Each group has its own personality, but a typical one includes the following elements:

1. At the front, a banner identifying the pilgrims by the government agency, grocery store, hotel or restaurant where they work, thanking the Virgin for the blessings of the preceding year and asking that she look with favor on their lives and their work in 2013.

2. Pilgrims carrying boxes or baskets of flowers, food or other goods to be left in Mary's honor at the church.

3. A drum and bugle corps.

4. One or more groups of dancers, sometimes wearing traditional Mexican folk costumes but more often dressed as Aztecs, most of whom cheerfully perform and march on the rounded cobblestones in their bare feet.

5. An oom-pah band, which is the main part I don't get.

6. The main body of pilgrims singing "La Guadalupana," a ballad that recounts the legend of the vision and celebrates its place at the heart of Mexican culture. Their massed voices are lovely and even after nearly two repetitive weeks the carol has not lost its appeal.

It's a very rich mixture and emotionally powerful, even for lookers-on like us who only dimly grasp what the processions mean to the actual participants. Even Elizabeth is riveted and has asked several times to be taken down the hill for a closer look.

What's so odd about it all is the horns. The buglers sound like halftime at a high school football game. Oom-pah music is absurd even when it's played well. When the band members are the rankest sort of amateurs who probably haven't played together since last December, the result is a musical pratfall. I can't make sense of it as theme music for such a sacramental occasion.

Yet the processions go by, one after another, and virtually all of them have somehow come to the conclusion that off-key Souza and rusty tubas are just the right touch. The Virgin keeps coming back year after year, so she must like it too.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mexico, Land of Contracts

I'm not an economist, but I think it would be hard to beat this as a model of how spasmodic interplays of human idiosyncrasy can spawn a market on which an alert entrepreneur can then feed for as long as it lasts.

That's our Christmas tree above, and it's alive, although I doubt it's very happy in our 85 degree days. But we're watering it daily and sweeping up the needles it's dropping in protest.

In fact, it's not really "our" tree at all. We're only renting it from an outfit that delivered it to us with its ball of dirt and plastic pot and will come pick it up later when we're done with it.

I don't know where they'll take it. But their pitch is that killing fir trees by the million every December is evil, so they swear they will put it back in the ground somewhere to go on with its life.

Will it be somewhere the tree can really put all this behind itself and keep growing? Well, I think such places may exist within a day's drive from here, maybe two days. But gasoline is expensive and the roads into the mountains aren't that great, so the promise is a serious one. I hope they really intend to keep it.

You can buy dead Christmas trees here for less than the rent we're paying. That would be just as effective in nourishing our nostalgia, salving our homesickness and helping us construct the tissue of white lies otherwise known as the "magic of Christmas" for little Elizabeth.

But it would crush our aspiration to be eco-friendly and life affirming, which seems to intensify with age.

So here in aging expat-rich Mexico, one of Mitt Romney's "job creator" types has sniffed us out. Merry Christmas, everybody.