Monday, March 31, 2014

Stand Up Guys

The other day we were passing the Mexican naval base just north of town, and a half-ton truck was pulling out of the gate. The big open cargo box was empty except for two marines in battle dress standing with their rifles at port arms looking over the top of the cab.

It reminded me how often I've wondered why I see so many Mexican men standing in the backs of cruising camionetas (pickup trucks), even when there's plenty of room to sit down.

I asked Norma, who cooks for us a couple of times a week and sometimes helps us over cultural speed bumps like this one. Her instant reply was that Mexican men ride standing up because nobody tells them they can't.

But she couldn't say why they would need to be told, considering that it's more comfortable and a lot less hair raising to lower your center of gravity on roads that are cobbled, rutted, potholed or punctuated by actual speed bumps. Most streets here are at least one of the above.

Norma assures me she never rides standing up, and she's pretty sure it's against the law, but the police never say anything.

Well, why would they? The police themselves are the biggest offenders. Their trucks prowl the streets of Vallarta bristling with heavily armed officers glowering in every direction. Some of their vehicles are even designed to facilitate standing passengers with a padded grab-bar frame over the truck bed to reduce the chance of personnel attrition on sharp turns.

Thinking about these municipal squads and the marines mentioned above, I'm at a loss to imagine how a man struggling to stay upright in a moving vehicle can maintain a true state of readiness for anything that could require the use of a long gun. He won't hit what he's aiming at, and he's a fine target himself.

I suppose there's the intimidation factor to consider. A pickup truckload of tough looking hombres waving automatic weapons is a bowel-watering sight if you're not the one who called them.

On the other hand, I had to chuckle when we drove to Morelia last year and spotted a flying convoy of black-clad federales on the toll road in black trucks, each with two commandos looking over the cab. Balaclavas protected their faces against the gale-force slipstream. At that speed, they posed a threat to flying insects but not much else. How often did they have to stop to clean their sunglasses?

So here's my theory. This is a country where nearly everybody, including Norma, seems to have a rancho and where the respectful way to address a man is still "caballero," which translates among other ways as "horseman."

Standing on a pickup truck bed, one makes eye contact with the pedestrian world at approximately the same lofty angle as one would on horseback. To the cultural descendants of the conquistadores what could seem more natural?

Make sense? Probably not, but it's what I'm going to believe until somebody tells me I can't.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Small Box Stores

We shop regularly in a near suburb of Puerto Vallarta called Pitillal, where little one-room stores line all the streets.

Big box retailing has certainly arrived in these parts. We've got Costco, Home Depot and multiple Walmarts. But the little guys still predominate, and now and then I'm struck by the tiny market spaces they occupy.

This store is called "Ruedas y Rodajas." Ruedas are wheels, but I had a hard time finding out why the word "rodaja" was on the sign.

Normally it's a kitchen term that refers to a round slice of something like a carrot, banana or onion. But one dictionary included an alternate meaning: furniture castor. And sure enough, there they are in the foreground.

The store is packed with nothing but hard rubber wheels for your wheelbarrow, wagon, hand truck or dolly, and steel or plastic castors for your heavy furniture or planters. No need for frustrated trolling of Home Depot aisles or hunting for a ferreteria that might have the disk for you.

In ferreterias, hardware stores, you generally ask for what you need at the counter and wait to see if what the man brings turns out to be what you thought you were asking for. It generally isn't, so you ask if there's another store that might have it. Several stores later, you buy beer instead.

If I wanted a wheel, I would head straight for Ruedas y Rodajas.

Seeing this store reminded me of a time a couple of years ago when I was looking for a small stainless steel screw to replace one that was missing on our swimming pool drain cover. The pool supply store couldn't help, but they told me about a store called Casa de Tornillos, the House of Screws.

The name isn't nearly as amusing in Spanish as in English, and the store wasn't either. Two stout middle aged women in severely cut dresses stood behind the counter. They looked like school principals, but they offered any kind of screw you might want, including the one I was looking for.

If your mind was serving up suggestive wisecracks on the theme of screwing, save them for the business pictured below, the Condom House, no translation provided since its customers are all apparently frisky tourists and expats from north of the border.

I think the jaunty graphic conveys just the right message: carefree pleasure and fun await those who take the appropriate precautions first.

Words we might all take to heart.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bridge Too Far

The International Friendship Club here in Puerto Vallarta is a sort of senior center away from home for expats. It organizes a very active program of charitable fundraising, volunteer work, classes and social activities.

I noticed a month or so ago that the weekly schedule includes bridge classes on Mondays and "social bridge" on Fridays.

I've tried two or three times in the past to learn the game, but never with any real study or structured coaching. If you enjoy bridge, the results I always achieved won't surprise you.

To a player with almost no knowledge of even the simplest bidding conventions and no natural ability to remember cards played, the subtlety and intellectual challenge that make bridge fascinating for so many present themselves as mystery, frustration and failure.

But now in the spirit of embracing the kind of mental exercise that everyone says is so helpful in staving off geriatric memory loss, woolly headedness and maybe even dementia, I've decided to try again.

So far it's not going so well. I'm not quitting, but I keep wondering if I waited too long.

I started by borrowing a book from a neighbor, Bridge Basics by Audrey Grant. It was a relief not to have to choose a book myself. Ms. Grant alone has written 45 of them, and there seem to be hundreds if not thousands of other manuals.

There's also a boatload of instruction and commentary online, but even the articles with titles that sound as if they might be pitched to novices are full of alien concepts and nomenclature.

Luckily, Bridge Basics really is for beginners. I read it carefully and labored through several dozen sample hands. It didn't seem like rocket science, and the following Monday I headed down the hill to the IFC clubhouse.

Pam was busy that morning. She let me know that if they ever change the classes to some other day of the week, she will be busy that morning too.

The classes turned out to be very unstructured. We set up a dozen or more tables in a tiled courtyard, take seats at random, and play. A couple of bridge masters circulate to answer questions about what to bid.

Sadly for me, their advice is nearly always based on detailed knowledge of bidding "conventions," or codes mutually agreed on between partners who play together regularly.

At my rock bottom level of expertise, a bid is only a statement of what trump suit in which I think my partner and I could take a specified number of tricks. But if both partners know the codes, bids can convey or request a universe of other information about what's in their hands. If only one partner knows the codes, bids can lead to fiascos and dirty looks across the table.

Advice from the bridge master based on a code rule I don't know sometimes helps me win a hand. But I have no way to internalize the rules he plucks from nowhere. And it's clear from listening to him that even if you know all the codes by heart, there's more art than science in choosing the one to follow in a given situation.

Thinking that only more experience than one weekly session will help, I downloaded an app called bridgebaseonline and began playing with a trio of robots. They don't glare at me when I screw up, but it's still humiliating to realize from their bids that they and I are not playing the same game.

I have taken to hitting the "redeal" button repeatedly until I get a hand that only an idiot could fail to win.

I still often lose anyway. Worse yet, I'm afraid my bad habit will spoil me for actual bridge if I ever work up the courage to explore the app features that would let me share a virtual "table" with real people.

Anyone for Candyland?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Journey Proud

The whales in the bay are packing up to head back north, and in less than a month we’ll be doing the same thing.

We told ourselves as we drove here last October that we were through with road tripping between Ruidoso and Puerto Vallarta, but apparently we lied. Notwithstanding the tedium, exhaustion and anxiety involved, we’re doing it again.

There are a couple of reasons. The first is that we’re not going straight back to New Mexico. Pam wants to drop in on her cousins in Del Rio, Texas, on the border, and then we’d like to see friends in San Antonio and Dallas.

So our usual route up the west coast to Nogales, Arizona, would take us in the wrong direction. We used it last year because it seemed like the safest way by far, but there have been dramatic developments on the highway map.

Mexico has opened a new toll road through the jagged peaks of the Sierra Occidental between Mazatlan on the coast and Durango to the northeast. The route has long been known as El Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Backbone, and we’d have never dreamed of taking it before now.

But the new highway cuts nearly six hours from what used to be a difficult and famously risky eight-hour trip. A chain of more than 30 bridges and 60 tunnels carry four lanes of traffic soaring across forbidding terrain that used to be a barrier but now has been converted to breathtaking scenery.

Most breathtaking of all will be the main attraction of the ride, the Baluarte Bridge pictured above, a modern marvel that spans a gorge said to be deep enough to accommodate the Eiffel Tower, with headroom.

Wikipedia says it’s the highest cable-stayed bridge in the world and the second highest overall. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a country that sometimes can’t even seem to fill a pothole. Mexican officials proudly note that the project is puro Mexicano, from design to engineering to construction.

If we leave early enough we might get to Durango the first night of the trip. From there we can head northeast to Monterrey and cross the border at Laredo. 

I hope we like the Baluarte link. We could use it in future migrations to position ourselves for a direct northward shot from Durango to Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. From there it’s just two hours through the Tularosa basin and up the mountain to Ruidoso. 

That would mean no more sidetracking to Nogales, which suits us fine. Arizona has been so annoying lately, it would be satisfying to pretend we’re boycotting it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


We started coming regularly to Mexico nearly a decade ago when we bought our home and used it for winter vacations. We noticed what looked like a good emergency room on the road to the airport in case we needed one. That's it in the picture. This was our health plan, and it was probably okay.

Our visits got longer, the law of averages began enforcing itself and one or another of us occasionally came down with a bug. We located doctors and found we could see a good one here for not much more than the co-pay would have been back home. That became our new health plan, and it was still probably okay.

Time went by, and we stopped thinking much about it. Our visits grew from weeks to months to substantial fractions of a year, but there was a lot of other stuff to think about and many life adjustments to make. 

We had doctors in Mexico, doctors in New Mexico, and for special occasions we still had doctors in New York. We had Medicare to insure me and the AP health plan for Pam and Elizabeth. If we needed expensive treatment, we told ourselves we’d get it in the U.S.

You could argue that this wasn’t smart when we were spending any more than a month  here. But two years ago when we began living here in earnest for six months at a stretch, it became magical thinking.

Our foolishness didn’t dawn on us until last year when a high school classmate of Pam’s who lives here permanently had a heart attack.

The quality of health care in Puerto Vallarta is quite good, with the right advice on choosing providers. You can get absolutely reliable help on every medical specialty from a gringa who has carved out a valuable niche for herself as a sort of health care concierge to the expat community.

Medical and dental tourism is a growing mainstay of the local economy. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if even your dog needed major surgery, you could save the cost of your plane ticket and beachfront hotel by having it done here at no increased risk to the dog. Our vet practiced in Los Angeles for several years before returning to Mexico.

The caveat is that while office visits here are a bargain, anything that requires surgery and/or hospitalization for a human being is not, especially at hospitals that cater to foreigners. Pam’s old chum had to cough up about $20,000 in cash to get himself back on his beloved golf course.

We suddenly realized how terribly exposed we were to any injury or illness so serious that we couldn’t get home for covered treatment. 

Naturally, the insurance industry was waiting for us, although in my case not exactly with open arms. A close friend here represents what she says are the only two reliable carriers in the country. One of them wouldn’t touch me with my benign schwannoma. The other would, but only with an exclusion for tumor-related care.

Since I’m past 65, I could get a $5,000 deductible policy that covers me for the most likely medical catastrophes at less than $100 a month.. I’m not sure why, but the price for Pam and Elizabeth is way higher. We decided to cover me now and wait till next year when Pam’s premium drops before dealing with the rest of us. 

A few weeks after my new insurance card arrived, the New York Times ran a piece on Americans living abroad who can’t find enough coverage at a reasonable cost, even in single-payer countries like France.

Why is it that every time I find myself on the cutting edge, the blade is facing the wrong way?