Monday, December 30, 2013

Gatos y Perros

When we lived in Iowa I remember hearing references to a "million dollar rain" to describe precipitation that arrived just in time to turn a mediocre harvest into a silo busting bumper crop.

We're having that kind of consequential rain in Puerto Vallarta right now, but the million dollars is a disappointing loss, not a windfall.

Vallarta lives on tourism, and the fat end of the fat season is right now, from around mid-December through the first couple of weeks of January. Foreigners and nationals alike save up for holiday vacations and spend them here.

Weather is a big part of what draws the crowds. The monsoon rains of July through September are long gone, as are the summer heat and humidity. Daytime temperatures peak in the balmy 80s, dropping into the 60s most nights.

Skies are blue day after day. The boats ply the bay, packed with whale watchers, snorkelers, parasailers, jet skiers and fishermen. Other fun lovers head by the truckload for zip lines, horseback rides, galleries, and the attractions of smaller towns in every direction. And still others browse the shops for souvenirs, local tequilas, silver, Indian beadwork etc.

They all return to their hotels, order drinks, put on the new tropical duds they've bought, and head out for dinner and views of the technicolor sunsets that make every winter evening special on the Bahia de Banderas.

After that, a lot of them hit the clubs and dance the night away to the booming house music that would keep us awake if we weren't already long asleep. Their wads of pesos at eight-plus to the dollar feel like play money, and they spread it around freely.

But for the past several days, a front has squatted over most of the state of Jalisco. It has been raining almost continuously, day and night.

You don't even see rain like this in Vallarta during the rainy season, when the days are still mostly sunny and the thunderstorms usually don't arrive until afternoon as brief, ferocious squalls. We haven't seen the sun since last week.

What must make it especially hard for local merchants is that they know their million dollars are right here, close enough to smell in the pockets of the disappointed tourists who sit stranded in their hotels or don't venture out any farther than one of the local Starbucks.

Those are all packed with damp and dispirited out-of-towners trying to self-sooth with the familiar menu and caffeine buzz. At least somebody's making a little hay while the sun doesn't shine.

We also see a few visitors now and then in dreary clumps on the sidewalks, trying not to get splashed by the buses and wondering where they can find a windbreaker or an umbrella, items that aren't easy to locate in these parts.

Our ceiling, freshly painted in anticipation of the new roof that we hope will stop the leaks before next summer, is now drizzling on us again and starting to bubble its way back to the scabrous state in which we found it in September.

At least it's an opportunity for me to try to practice my Spanish with fellow sufferers, but the conversations are short.

"¿Que piensas de estas lluvias?" I ask everyone I encounter as I go about my little bits of business.

"Es loco," they almost always reply, in a way that makes it clear the less said the better.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Scrambled Eggs

I understand that an expatriate needs to deal with the language barrier, but it would help if the barrier would stand still.

For example, you'd think that ordering a breakfast of fried eggs should be no great trick regardless of where in the world you might be. And even if it's not so easy the first time, you'd think you could get it right on the second or third.

Well, if that's all true, put us in the slow learners class. We've been coming to Mexico for more than eight years and living here the better part of the last two, but we're still having trouble getting waiters to bring us the sunny side up eggs we thought we asked for.

I finally asked an English speaking mesero how to order the dish he'd just brought me the next time I had breakfast in a Spanish-only establishment. He told me "huevos fritos" should do it.

Well of course it didn't. I knew very well that "huevos fritos" only means "fried eggs," which even a truck stop waitress in Omaha wouldn't automatically understand as eggs up. All the same, I tried it out at the next opportunity and wasn't too surprised when my eggs arrived over hard.

I described what I'd really wanted to the friendly girl who was refilling my coffee cup, and she said what I should have ordered was "huevos estrellados." That looked to me like eggs "starred," which made a kind of sense for what a pair of sunny side up eggs is supposed to look like. The sun is a star too, after all.

But when I ordered it in another restaurant a few weeks later, I was pretty sure I saw a blank look flit across my waitress's face. As often happens, she thought it best not to betray confusion or trouble me with questions. My eggs arrived over hard.

I checked Google Translate at this point. Google says "huevos estrellados" are just fried eggs.

But just a couple of days ago we sat down in a small cafe just across the street from the big Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a stone's throw from where we live. When I picked up the menu I saw what I thought was proof that both Google and my last waitress needed to brush up on their breakfast Spanish.

The menu was English on one side and Spanish on the other. The Spanish side offered "huevos estrellados." This appeared on the English side, plain as day, as "eggs sunny side up." I ordered them.

My eggs arrived over hard.

Baffled, we interrogated our waitress as to how we could have gone wrong by believing the translation on her restaurant's own published menu. The lady at the cash register got interested and joined the conversation.

They concluded that the reason I was eating the wrong kind of eggs wasn't anything to do with their menu. It was that I should have ordered "huevos tiernos."

Google plays this back as "tender eggs," which makes the same kind of sense that "starred eggs" did. I will certainly try it out next time, but I think the odds are no better than even that I won't get eggs over easy, closer but still no cigar.

I have noticed throughout that "huevos revueltos" is always and everywhere scrambled eggs. I may switch my preference just for the sake of certainty. Mornings are challenging enough without turning breakfast into a game show.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Parts Is Parts

We took Laurel's little papillon, Lula, to the vet this week for some dental work.

Nothing too remarkable about that, for two reasons. First off, high quality dental care in Puerto Vallarta is far less expensive than it is in the U.S. or Canada, roughly one third the cost of work I've priced in New Mexico and then had done here.

For a lot of people, dental care is the main reason for visiting. You can get a bridge or an implant in a spic-and-span, state-of-the-art office and then enjoy a tropical vacation with the savings. We figured the same should be true for dogs, and that turned out to be true.

The second reason Lula's trip to the dentist was all but inevitable is that her teeth were in terrible shape. 

Like many small breeds, papillons often lack sufficient jawline for the number of teeth Nature gives them. Some of the teeth end up misaligned. In Lula's case a few were so badly askew they pointed horizontally from the side of her mouth.

She also has an astonishing underbite, and her lower jaw is offset sideways, as if she were smoking a cigar like one of those dogs in the poker paintings. But she's fluffy and cute, and since her puppy days we've always found her deformities endearing.

Alas, she's now nearly eight years old, and by the time she and Laurel arrived here for the holidays it was clear after one look in her mouth and one sniff of her foul breath that it was past time for serious action.

Our buddy at the SPCA referred us to a good vet, and he pulled out the five teeth you can dimly make out in the little plastic bag pictured above. For once the soft focus and low resolution on my iPhone camera serve all of us well.

What startled me is that the teeth were available for photographing in the first place. The doc handed them over to me without comment along with his bill, apparently in the spirit of business as usual.

It reminded me very much of automotive or appliance repairs after which the defective parts that have been replaced are handed back to you. I'm never sure exactly why.

Because they're your trash and not the repairman's? 

Because you might want to try fixing them yourself? 

Because you might otherwise suspect that the parts weren't really defective or even that they weren't actually replaced?

None of those explanations make much sense for diseased body parts, though Pam did have a moment of doubt when she saw them.

"Hey, those teeth look pretty good," she said. "I thought they'd be black."

But Laurel says the proof is in Lula's post-op breath, which she says now smells like springtime. I'm taking her word for that.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Habitat For Humanity Only

I'm as big a fan of the animal kingdom as anybody, and our open-air existence facing the ocean gives us plenty of opportunity to enjoy it.

Squadrons of pelicans sail by regularly, when they're not collapsing their wings and plunging into the sea for snacks. Enormous fish which I think are dorado but might be marlin occasionally break completely free of the surface, who knows why, maybe just to test their hang time.

We see manta rays in great schools, sometimes in feeding or mating frenzies that roil the surface of the water. Swarms of smaller fish create their own patches of seething foam, puzzling behavior because it never fails to draw a matching crowd of predatory birds.

High overhead, frigate birds and turkey vultures wheel against a sky that sometimes includes a full daytime moon, or late in the day a gaudy sunset.

And of course in this season we're occasionally lucky enough to be looking when a humpback shows its flukes, or breaches and falls back in a blast of spray the size of a depth charge displacement.

Yes, we can all agree that wildlife is so awesome. But I like my place at the top of the food chain and my voyeur's eye view of nature red in tooth and claw. The lizards are welcome to stalk flies across my ceiling, but otherwise if I want a closer look that's why God made binoculars.

Thus we were not at all pleased several nights ago in pre-dawn darkness when a fluttering shadow passed across the moonlight streaming in through the folding glass doors to our bedroom balcony and disappeared into the hallway.

"What kind of bird was that," Pam asked. I said I thought it was a bat.

We went warily looking for it, but it seemed to have headed for the living room and then back outside. So we made coffee.

Then several hours later I was playing Candyland with Elizabeth on the coffee table when I happened to look up into the brick dome that makes up most of the living room ceiling. High up in the windowed cupola at the top a brown mass dangled.

I aimed a small pair of binoculars at it and saw two large eyes staring back at me. It was doing that Dracula's cape thing with its wings and seemed quite comfortable. We left it alone in hopes it would go out hunting again at sunset when we were planning to be away, and it did.

To keep it from coming back, we went out and bought some Christmas piñatas to hang in the center of each of our three open walls, and pulled the doors about halfway shut, believing this would look on sonar less like a cave.

My theory the following morning was that the piñatas on sonar resembled a greeting line of relatives. The bat came in again and startled us over our first cup of the day. I stood up to open the doors again, and the creature brushed by me as it took the hint.

Laurel is here for the holidays and briefed us frantically and chillingly on a PBS video she saw about bat-borne rabies.So the next night -- last night if you're reading this on Friday -- we closed the doors all the way.

This morning, we awoke at 5 a.m. to a thump that shook the balcony doors.

Is it sick? Is it drunk? Pam thinks it may have lived in the attic of the building just demolished a couple of blocks down the hill directly on the malecon, the seaside promenade. The top floors were all vacant, and there were big holes in the walls. So maybe it's just homeless.

There's no safe or reasonable way to find out. But I have done a little research and learned that the Spanish word for scarecrow is espantapajaros. Maybe they've got them at Costco.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It's the Thought That Counts

If you're thinking about sending us a little holiday something, please just tell us about your generous impulse and we'll give you immediate full credit for actually following through, with no further action required on your part. We'll even send you a thank-you note by return email if you want one.

No need to make any purchase. No gift wrapping. No tedious trip to the Post Office or Fedex. Just don't. Please.

In Mexico we have finally removed the hypocrisy from that sanctimonious old saw that claims it's more blessed to give than to receive. For us now, it really is, no kidding.

For starters, you can't really mail anything directly to us that you want us to get before hell freezes over. We don't have much experience with the national postal system here, but what we do have suggests it can take as much as three months for a letter to arrive from the U.S., if it gets here at all. No idea about packages, but it's probably at least as bad.

Of course we need to do a lot better than that for personal business such as bills we can't handle by bank draft, Social Security communications, health insurance advisories and the like. To get those, we've had our mail forwarded from New Mexico to a Miami post office box managed by Mailboxes Etc. Within a week a week or so it gets shipped here to the mailbox we rent from them.

It's not a cheap arrangement, but it's highly reliable and has generally worked well for us, as long as we're just talking about envelopes or the occasional AARP periodical.

But if I go to my box and find the laminated card that tells me I have a package waiting, it feels like drawing the Queen of Spades.

The pain comes in two flavors. First I have to pay Mailboxes Etc. by weight. My rent entitles me to delivery of 2 kilos of stuff per month. A single package can mean a surcharge almost as large as the monthly fee, or more.

And second, there are customs duties, which are based on the value of what's in the package. Last year we ordered a coffee/espresso maker for the New Mexico place that failed to reach us before we expatriated and therefore got forwarded via Mailboxes, more than doubling the cost of the machine, which makes good coffee but not nearly THAT good.

So rejoice, this is a win-win situation. The more expensive the gift you were thinking of sending us, the more you save by not actually sending it and the more truly grateful we are that you didn't.

¡Felices fiestas! (Roughly, happy holidays.)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Small Packages

We've got a new dog, a chihuahua mix that Pam adopted from the SPCA shelter here.

Street dogs are common in Mexico, many of them so filthy and emaciated that they've attracted a major share of the vast store of gringo do-good energy that's always looking for an outlet in places like Vallarta.

The SPCA shelter is the project of Janice Chatterton, a neighbor of ours who turned one of Richard Burton's former homes into an upscale boutique inn and restaurant just up the hill from where we live.

A committed dog lover, she gives her gang of white miniature poodle mixes the run of the place, and we see her staff out walking them from time to time.

Pam had also contacted Mexpups, the other big dog rescue operation in town, and they sent an interesting couple over to do a home visit so we could get on the eligible list.

She's a teacher and her companion is a non-denominational minister whose day job is conducting marriage ceremonies for Vallata Adventures. That's the biggest of the local businesses that provide boatloads of tourists with whale watching, zip lining, snorkeling, sunset dining and, I now realize, wedding services.

We were glad to meet them, but by the time they reached our house, Pam had already gone out to the shelter with Janice and come back with Chiquita.

She definitely looks like a chihuahua, but she's got the body type you see everywhere in Vallarta, very long torso and short legs. My theory is that some Austrian princeling with a dachsund came here with Emperor Maximillian, his horny pet got away from him to run riot through the countryside, and now every Mexican mutt is a weiner dog.

Chiquita is seven months old, they told us. She's sweet and affectionate in spite of her hard times on the street. She was starving when somebody turned her in to the shelter. She still looks like her own X-ray, so her name fits. It means something like "petite."

Laurel thinks we should rename her Queso, which means cheese, because of her color. We're trying it on. Elizabeth will probably be the one to decide. She makes all the big decisions around here.