Monday, January 21, 2013

Hay Que Festejar

Me and Elizabeth are about to walk out the door to go to a birthday party for Argelia, one of her "amigos" at school. We had no idea what we were in for.

Argelia has just reached the age of three, which turns out to be a very important passage here in Mexico.

I was grateful we had a nice present and wrapped it prettily, because this wasn't just another cake-and-candles affair. There were at least 300 family and friends there, about evenly divided between kids and adults.

We gathered at the Casa de Arbol, a party place with a covered patio and a playground surrounding a banyan tree with a trunk the size of a large elephant and a canopy that rose fifty feet or more overhead. Halfway up there was a wooden deck with a playhouse, linked by a swaying rope and plank bridge to another playhouse from which little party animals could slide through a plastic tube to the ground.

Not far off was a trampoline enclosed with a net. There was an art table with crayons, play doh and paints for anybody who cared to take a seat. There were adult and kid food lines, seating with tablecloths and napkins, sideboards piled with candy, custard and cakes.

When it was time for the piniata, there were four of them, one after the other, so there were plenty of swings for the whole crowd, and certainly plenty of treats and toys to scoop from the ground.

There was even a face painter to put seahorses, shells and hearts on anybody who could sit still enough for it, which Elizabeth could. A hired photographer documented all.

I commented to somebody standing next to me that it was more like a wedding than a birthday party, mentally calculating that if this was what a birthday calls for around here, we'd have to rethink our family economy.

But Pam told me later she'd heard that the tradition of big third birthday celebrations dates from the 19th Century in Mexico, when three was the age at which a child was deemed to have survived what was then a very high infant mortality rate. Apparently expressing communal joy over anyone younger was thought to be tempting fate.

Mexico's infant mortality rate today is well below the world average, and in any event Argelia herself certainly has little to fear from it. Her parents and grandparents are doctors, and the extended family surrounding her last Saturday looked glossy and prosperous.

Elizabeth bustled from venue to venue for four hours, pausing only to stuff herself with grease and sugar. None of the attractions looked UL approved, so I stayed as close to her as I could while exercising my meager Spanish on anyone who looked polite enough to tolerate it.

When we collapsed exhausted into the car at last, Elizabeth sighed contentedly as she waited for me to unwrap one of her lollipops for the road. "Was that party for me?" she asked.

I just told her I was glad she'd had fun. What hostess wouldn't be thrilled to know she sent her guests home feeling that way?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It's So Obvious

There are some things we can all agree on.

Well, no, actually there aren't. But I keep forgetting and finding myself faced with awkward silences or worse when I try to make party talk out of one of those things we supposedly can all agree on.

The first time I remember it happening was back in the '80s when I found myself standing at a hotel bar in Des Moines next to a pretty girl and decided to chat her up while we waited for our event to start.

CNN was gassing away on a TV above the bartender's head, and an item popped up on convulsions in South Africa as apartheid neared its final days.

"Who in their right mind," I wondered aloud, "would imagine that it's okay to run a country by suppressing the rights and opportunities of 90 percent of its inhabitants?"

D'oh.  "Anybody who can get away with it" is the right answer to that naive question. There are lots of such people, and they've been getting away with it on every continent but Antarctica throughout recorded history.

One of them was my bar companion, whose accent I had failed to register as South African. Who'd have expected to run across her in Iowa? I thought she would throw her martini in my face. She didn't, but she gave me a piece of her mind and a passionate lecture on the shortcomings of her indigenous countrymen.

No matter how utterly wrongheaded or even downright evil you are sure something may be, there are people who are just as sure the world would be a better place with bigger helpings of it. Don't assume one of them isn't seated beside you at dinner or sharing your church pew.

I was reminded of this lesson last year when I saw an article in the New York TImes about people in Chelsea and the West Village who wished the High Line Park had never been built.

The High Line Park is a mile or so of scenic landscaping installed over the tracks of an abandoned elevated freight line, providing hitherto unseen and unexpectedly stirring mid-rise views of the surrounding converted warehouses and factories, stylish new condo and hotel buildings, and the Hudson River.

It struck me the moment I saw it as visionary, an indisputable benefit to mankind. A rusting hulk of unused infrastructure, haven of derelicts and vermin, had been transformed into a beautiful space, open to all, without displacing anything or anyone. Surely we could all agree that this was an unalloyed good.

But no, the park's very perfection and popularity doomed it in the eyes of many locals, who complained to the Times that rents were rising and the new crowds of well-heeled visitors were spoiling the post-industrial funkiness they treasured in their neighborhood.

Which brings me to the images above, before and after views of the Los Muertos pier here in Puerto Vallarta. It's where fishing, water taxi, and snorkeling excursions begin from the busiest beach on the bay. The new pier was just opened this month to great fanfare. Even without the opening night lighting, it's very good looking and far more useful than its predecessor.

Around the central sculpture there's lots of seating with excellent views of the bay, the town and the surrounding mountains. And the business end of the pier descends toward the water in three levels so boats can be easily boarded, high tide or low.

The old one really did look that bad, a crumbling lump of cheap concrete and rotting iron work. Still, there are people who miss it.

I forgot myself a couple of weeks ago and innocently remarked to an acquaintance at a social gathering how puzzling it was that anyone should prefer the old wreckage to its replacement. She happened to be one of the contrarians, and once again I had to listen to the indefensible being defended.

"I've done it again," I said to myself.

And once wasn't enough. Not a half hour later I was talking with a man who's been slowly building his own house next to the barbecue restaurant he runs in the rain forest just outside town. I casually told him how strange it is how Mexican builders seem to leave rusting rods of rebar sticking out of the roof of almost everything they put up.

I expected to share a wry chuckle and a shrug with him at the fecklessness of local builders. Instead he replied, "I've sure got them on my house. If I have a good year I may go up another floor."

Some people never learn. Maybe that's something we can all agree on.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Wardrobe Malfunction

Anticipation is half the fun, and sometimes more than half.

When I was still working and looking forward to the day when we'd be living full time in the tropics, I sometimes expressed my longing by ordering clothes I imagined I would need.

As a result I now have a closet full of fancy shirts and white linen pants I almost never wear, some in their original cellophane wrapping. Most of this stuff came from websites I now realize are aimed at people who have been invited to destination weddings in Aruba or Costa Rica.

I also have a couple of straw fedoras which it turns out I can't use much. They are quite snazzy, but they mark me as a tourist and potential sucker for the cheeky floggers of tequila and time-share condos who line the streets near the beach. Leaving the hats on the shelf spares me the need to choose between wasting my time or being rude to people who after all are just trying to make a living.

I did place one order that has paid off big time though. I bought four pairs of swim trunks, in blue, green, red and black. You can swim in them of course. But they're long enough to look like ordinary shorts if you tuck in the drawstrings, and they've got pockets on the sides for change and keys, plus one in the back for a wallet.

They dry in minutes, and unlike their owner they never wrinkle, shrink or fade. I'm sure they must be manufactured out of some heinous petroleum derivative, because you don't get benefits like these unless there's been a pact with the devil.

I have found that my life now takes me to few places or occasions where these shorts don't work just fine. With a T-shirt, I'm good to go for the beach, pool, or happy hour at the neighbors'. With a wash-and-wear shirt that has a collar, I can get into any restaurant in town. For a charity gala or fancy cocktails, I can rip the cellophane off one of my specials, still no need to change pants.

When I packed to come here, I knew I would almost never need socks. But it has come as a pleasant surprise that I also almost never need underwear.

Well, now I really have over-shared. But what else is a blog for?