AS MENTIONED a time or two in the past, I’ve been hankering for a motorcycle. This hankering started last year, and I wrote about it in the appropriately titled Geezer Dreams.
I came perilously close to buying a bike, but common sense prevailed. I’m no spring chicken, and I’m enjoying life too much to jeopardize it for a few cheap thrills.
The dream still erupts occasionally, and I tamp it down.
I considered Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki, all of which are sold in Mexico. There are dealers for the three makes down the mountainside in the capital city.
I also seriously considered Italika, which is the largest-selling motorcycle in Mexico. It’s not sold above the border. It does export to a few other Latin American nations.
Italika is 100 percent Mexican in spite of its name, and the bikes are made in a factory in Toluca. You can buy one online, and it’s delivered directly to your front gate.
A crash helmet is included!
You see Italikas everywhere. They don’t make big bikes, just small to what once was considered mid-size. They very recently added a new bike that is their beefiest at 300 cc.
It’s called the Vort-X 300,* and there’s no price yet.
The first motorcycle I ever drove on a regular basis was my Air Force roommate’s 305-cc Honda Hawk.
I barreled it 100 mph down a California freeway one black night, and I wasn’t even drunk, just young and nuts.
Italika bikes are pretty, and I think I would look quite sporty astride one. They are remarkably affordable.
This likely will remain an unfulfilled desire.
But maybe I could start a biker gang, the Gringo Geezers. We could terrorize anthills and roof dogs.
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* In the course of my “extensive research” for this piece, I discovered there is also an Italika Vort-X 650. It debuted last year. However, it is nowhere to be seen on the Italika website, and it is not made in Toluca. It is made in China, imported, and has a BMW design although BMW plays no part in its manufacture. It’s something of a mystery.
Now it’s my turn. I will state prices in U.S. dollars using the current exchange rate of about 21/1.
The post office box: This set us back $16. Mail comes down here slowly, but it arrives. Be patient.
Water: We pay annually at City Hall for the downtown Casita. It was $90.* Here in the hardscrabble outskirts of town where the Hacienda sits, we pay at an office on our local plaza. I usually pay four months in advance. The monthly price for unlimited water is $2.38. The Mexico City condo is about $1.60.
Property tax: We own three homes. I’ll add them together and announce the total of (drum roll) $84. If you need smelling salts, I’ll mail some to you. Be patient.
We pay property tax for the Hacienda and the Downtown Casita, plus the Casita’s water bill at City Hall. See photo. It’s efficient. We were in and out in 15 minutes. I pay the Mexico City condo’s property tax online.
Garbage pickup: Whatever you want to tip the guys.
I suggest 50 cents.
Car tax: We have two cars. Up until a few years ago, this was pretty steep for late-model cars, but then they canceled the tax. I never understood exactly why. Now we just pay for window stickers. The total for the 2009 Honda and the 2014 Nissan was $78. That was last year. It will be about the same this year. We have until March 1 to pay. I do it online.
Bank Trust Deed: I mention this only because Steve Cotton has it on his list. He lives on the sweaty, bug-infested coast, and there are laws about foreigners buying coastal property. He doesn’t own the land where Casa Cotton sits.
We own the land on which our Hacienda sits. There is no bank trust deed to mess with. He paid $522. We paid squat. In fact, the sum of all our payments — property tax, water, trash pickup, etc., on three homes, car taxes — is about half of Steve’s bank trust deed alone.
Remember those old tour books titled Mexico on $5 a Day? Of course, you can’t do Mexico on $5 a day anymore, but it’s still inexpensive to visit — and to live here too.
* * * *
* This one thing, the Casita water bill, is by far the highest single payment we owe every year.
Note: Steve Cotton and two family members will drive to the mountaintop next week. They’ll stay a week in the Downtown Casita for free. If you’re nice to me, you might be able to stay there free too.
OUR MOUNTAINTOP is a magnet for tourists, especially during the Christmas holidays, Easter Week and the Day of the Dead. Most of the tourists are Mexicans.
But in all the years I’ve lived here, I don’t recall our having the hordes that we have right now.
We live on the outskirts of town, and every day we face a long line of creeping traffic heading downtown. Luckily, there is an alternative route, but I’m not going to advertise it.
A twist to this year’s Christmas season is a gasoline crisis. Lots of gas stations are out of fuel, and those that have some often have long lines of cars. A number of Mexican states are affected, and nobody seems to know why.
Our “Energy Reform” starts Sunday, the first day of 2017. Gradually, the Pemex monopoly will fall as foreign gas stations are phased in around the nation.
In theory this will lower prices, but on Sunday prices will increase from 15 to 20 percent, so people are angry.
But Mexicans are usually angry about something or other. Along with the Energy Reform, we’re getting a reform of the legal system, and reform of the educational system.
That latter has the teachers, a gang of union leftists, foaming at the mouth, which tickles me no end.
Mexico is changing.
The last gas crisis, earlier this year, only lasted about a week. The current one has gone on more than two weeks. Nobody seems to know how long it will last. I fill the Honda tank every time I pass an open station with no line.
Mexico is ever entertaining and challenging. If it’s not severed heads rolling down cantina floors or teachers apoplectic at having to take competency tests, it’s something else.
One way to stay mellow is to sit at a sidewalk table on the main plaza with a hot café americano negro, reading my Kindle and sometimes seeing street musicians.
LONG BEFORE I even thought of moving to Mexico I was a fan of the Day of the Dead tradition.
A Catrina stood on my bathroom counter in Houston.
But that fascination played no role in my choice of a place to live. It was pure happenstance that I landed in one of Mexico’s major hot spots for the Day of the Dead.
Even more good luck has found me living within walking distance of a generally excellent cemetery to visit on the Big Night. Being within walking distance is important because the traffic here on this day is a nightmare.
So, after doing some chores in the morning, we had the Honda in the carport by noon, and did not drive outside again.
Around 5 we took a walk to the neighborhood plaza for the heck of it, and we sat on a steel bench. I shot the photo above of the man toting flowers to the nearby cemetery.
I then pointed the camera in the other direction. As you can see, we had the plaza to ourselves because all of our neighbors were decorating graves in the cemetery.
We’ve visited that cemetery most years on the night in question, and the experience has been variable. Sometimes it rains, making a muck of things.
Some years, TV news crews have showed up with bright lights. One year, the municipality installed a huge spotlight on a high pole at the entrance, spoiling the atmosphere.
That’s gone now.
But when it’s just right, it’s spectacular, a very moving and incredibly beautiful experience.
Last night was one of those nights.
We headed out just after 7 because night had fallen. We walked the two blocks to the plaza, which we crossed diagonally. We continued two more blocks.
We crossed over the highway via a pedestrian walkway and looked down at the bumper-to-bumper traffic of clueless visitors heading elsewhere. Just a short walk farther was our huge neighborhood burial ground.
I did not take a photo because thousands of other people have already done it for me. Here is one.
As always, my child bride had built an altar in our living room. I photographed that later with my Fujifilm camera with no flash and with the living room lights off.
We have lots of deceased on my wife’s side due to the large family and unexpected deaths. Her mother died at 31. Two brothers were murdered in unrelated incidents.
(Note to my daughter: Your paternal grandmother and great-grandparents rest among the altar crowd. It’s a pity you’ve never come to visit. You’d love it.)
THERE ARE two, large, high-mountain lakes hereabouts. One I can almost see from our upstairs terraza.
Tall trees impede the view.
The other, Lake Zirahuen, is about 15 miles away. We traveled those miles in the Honda on Sunday to lunch at Tapimba where we’d eaten only once before, about a year back.
The restaurant serves a killer plate of arrachera, and that’s what drew us, that and the spectacular setting.
Entering the dining room, we noticed we were the only customers with the exception of three beautiful babes, just to the left of the photo above. They were models.
It’s a good thing Donald Trump wasn’t there. Or Bill Clinton. The gals were totally safe with me, of course. I had my child bride who provided stiff competition, beauty-wise.
The models were with two fellows who were setting up camera equipment on an old, covered dock just below the restaurant. While we were still eating, the models joined them and began doing those silly poses that models do.
But we went for the arrachera which was, as Mexicans say, “well-served” with a big glob of guacamole and a baked potato. You don’t see baked potatoes often in Mexico.
We won’t wait another year to visit Tapimba again.
WHEN WE first wed years back, I was the primary cook and dishwasher. I remain the latter.
But I tapered off on the cooking, mostly due to shiftlessness. It’s not that she took over so much as we just prefer the easy route. Quick stuff, takeout, restaurants, etc.
I used to do other work too. Decorative painting on the Hacienda’s walls. I’ve stopped. Too much effort.
Due to feeling increasing shame recently for my laziness, I’ve begun fixing more meals. I have some old standards. There’s jambalaya and gumbo. Jambalaya is lots easier than gumbo, so gumbo hasn’t returned to our plates just yet.
Maybe it never will. It’s not a quick meal.
I prefer easy fixings. I do a nice 15-minute minestrone. And there’s a pasta dish on which I dump steamed broccoli and garlic. Just today we’ll be having meatballs that I made yesterday in a crockpot.
And I’ve decided to work more in the yard, easy stuff. And wash the Honda more. I’ve been letting carwash guys on the plaza do it because it only costs a bit over two bucks.
Paying anybody to wash the car in these parts from June through October is akin to burning cash since it rains every single day. A clean car lasts about an hour.
But you gotta do something or, come November, you won’t even remember the color of your car.
So I’m working more now. Cooking, gardening, carwashing. It’s good to keep fairly busy, I think.
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The hermit life
I‘m reading a fascinating book called One Man’s Wilderness: an Alaskan Odyssey. A writer named Sam Keith used the journal of Richard Proenneke to construct the story of a man who moved alone at 51 to the Alaskan wilderness in the 1960s where he erected a cabin and lived solo for 30 years.
Proenneke’s talents with his hands and mind were awesome. He wasn’t an actual hermit because he received occasional guests, which he enjoyed, and, now and then, he returned to the Lower 48 for brief visits with relatives and amigos.
The book spoke to me perhaps more than to most people due to my longstanding hermit inclinations. Were it not for my love of womenfolk, perhaps I would have been a Proenneke. But I would have needed to hone my handyman skills first.
As a youth, I dreamed of living alone in an underground home on the bank sweeping down to the pond among cypress trees that rested on my grandparents’ Georgia farm.
Decades later, my hermit dream was to live in a half-buried school bus in the desert near Big Bend National Park. I read of a woman who did just that. I was flush with envy.
One wonders what a psychiatrist would say about those two dream homes being half buried beneath ground level?
I would have required a hermit woman, but doesn’t that negate the concept of being a hermit?
I would have cooked her gumbo in the school bus. And I would have washed her dishes. And maybe I’ll fix gumbo at the Hacienda again one day.
WE JUST ended a month of nonstop renovations here at the Hacienda. It all started with the driveway.
The incline from the street, when we bought the double lot 13 years ago, was already in place.
Mostly, it was big stones buried in dirt which allowed weeds to flourish wildly in the spaces between.
The area at the top between the work zone and the Alamo Wall was dirt and grass when we bought the property, and it was mud during the five months of the rainy season.
Seven or eight years ago, we had that section covered with stone and cement — empedrado in Spanish — a treatment that’s quite common in these parts.
But that incline from the street remained an eyesore which I was hesitant to improve because it would block the cars from coming and going during the work.
And it surely did.
While this renovation was happening, we parked the Honda in a parking lot downtown. Every morning, I took a minibus there and picked the car up. Did the same in the evening to leave it. The Nissan was simply left trapped at the Hacienda.
That situation continued for nine days.
* * * *
THE NEW THRONES
We also replaced the john in the downstairs bathroom.
The original, which my wife describes as “folkloric,” and which we purchased in the talavera capital of Dolores Hidalgo, was a bit smaller than standard in size.
It was a conversation piece but not the best place to sit, so it was out with the old, and in with the new.
Now here’s a regal place to squat. The old throne was given to a nephew who’s son recently busted their toilet.
Gifting the “folkloric” johnny means we won’t be using it as a yard planter, the initial idea. Just as well because I was told by a high-born woman that it would have been very cheesy.
This is the first time in my life I’ve changed a toilet, especially just for the heck of it. This new baby is Mexican-made, and cost the peso equivalent of about 120 bucks.
It was installed for about 10 dollars. I could change my ride every couple of years just for the ever-living thrill of it. Different colors. Oval versus round, whatever.
The initial plan was to replace only the john in the downstairs bathroom, mostly my wife’s environment. But I began to seethe with envy, so I bought an identical one, and had it installed in “my” bathroom upstairs.
Here’s the old throne upstairs:
The new toilet is exactly like the new one downstairs, so no need to duplicate a photo. Your time is valuable.
* * * *
Now let’s turn our attention to the rear of the Hacienda.
What you see here are the first-ever photos published of the backside of the Hacienda, which fronts — if that’s the proper term — on what I used to call Mud Street.
So these photos are collector’s items. That’s the tail of the sex motel in the distance of the second and last photos.
The work done out there was a civic gift. It is not on our property, but it was an eyesore. It was a dirt strip between our property wall and the street.
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NEW VERANDA ENTRANCE
There are two arched entryways to the downstairs veranda. One serves a dual role. During the five-month rainy season, it doubles as a conduit for rainwater which creates lakes inside the covered veranda, a colossal nuisance.
After 12 years of cursing this phenomena, we decided to do something about it, a redesign that directs the water outside instead of inside the veranda.
Next Spring we’ll also have metal gutters installed along the tile roof of the veranda, long overdue.
As mentioned at the get-go, this work took a month, exactly. It was done entirely by one guy, a very talented workman who lives in the neighborhood. Unlike all work we’ve had done in the past, we paid him by the day, as he requested.
This can be a mistake because it can lead to slow work, dragging it out to earn more. We prefer a set price. Then work can be done at whatever speed the workers prefer.
I watched his toil closely. He did not foot-drag, but he was very detailed, which took longer than necessary. However, the results were spectacular.
And he did some painting to boot.
He arrived on the dot at 9 every morning on his bicycle. He took an hour off for lunch at 2 p.m., and he went home at 5, working steadily in between. We’ll hire him again.
The entire project cost about $420 for labor and $555 for materials, excluding the two toilets, which were about $120 each. Those are dollar equivalents at today’s exchange rate.
Month’s grand total: $1,215 or about what a U.S. plumber would charge for a one-hour house call.
* * * *
(For your architectural pleasure, here is a photo collection of the Hacienda over the years. Come visit, but phone first.)
THERE ARE MANY happy reasons to live in Mexico. One is sheer convenience. It’s usually easy to live here.
Here is a typical example: I had to leave the Honda today at the repair shop, which is about halfway between our hardscrabble neighborhood and downtown.
I drove to the repair shop, explained the problem, and the mechanic got to work immediately. I stepped outside to the street and waved down a minibus, which costs seven pesos, about 40 cents in American money.
Fifteen minutes later, I was deposited directly outside the Hacienda’s front gate. The car will be ready in the afternoon, one imagines.
Another example: The water heater in our downtown casita must be changed. The current heater is too small. We drove to Home Depot in the capital city and purchased a hefty heater, which just fit into the back of the Honda.
On returning home, I called my plumber-electrician, an independent operator. That was Saturday. He said he’ll do it tomorrow. He’ll come on time, and he won’t charge much.
A third example: We’re doing renovations here at the Hacienda. When I decided to do that, I phoned “a guy” in the neighborhood. He came over immediately on his bicycle.
He started the work two days later. His work is incredible. He’s an artist with stone and cement, plus he installed a new toilet. The work is over half done. More on that later.
And the price is quite right.
Example No. 4: Need a doctor appointment? Call and make it for the next day. And the waiting room will not be full of folks. It will be full of just you. You won’t wait long.
Mexico, in most respects, is a far easier place to live than in the United States. And when the problem with the Honda is resolved, I’ll get a call. Then I’ll step out the front gate, hail a minibus and retrace my route of this morning.
Another 40 cents, and I’ll be at the garage’s door.
RECENTLY, I’VE received word from people above the Rio Bravo that living in Mexico is a war zone or a hellhole. I became worried and decided to investigate.
After all, we do reside in one of the “most dangerous” Mexican states, according to the U.S. State Department, an agency rarely given to error, as everyone knows.
Normally, every weekday morning, the two of us take our exercise walk around the nearby plaza, but since we’d never witnessed violence on the plaza, we decided the mayhem must be taking place elsewhere in the hardscrabble ‘hood.
We left the plaza and headed down some ominous-looking streets. Surely, we would find the war zone quickly.
There was a Hellish cast to the blue skies.
* * * *
But before I tell you what happened next, and how we managed to arrive home unscathed, know that yesterday we drove the 40 minutes down the mountainside to the state capital, a spot where no sensible soul sets foot unnecessarily.
First, we went to the snow-white Star Medica hospital and got our yearly flu shots. Then, with ballooning trepidation, we drove down a flower-rimmed boulevard to an office of the ETN bus line where we safely made a ticket exchange.
The red splashes on the street were bougainvillea instead of blood.
Then, breathing sighs of relief due to our stretch — so far — of good fortune, we headed to the Superama supermarket — part of the Walmart chain — for purchases. Following that scary venture, we had lunch at a vegetarian buffet.
The restaurant’s clientele consists primarily of medical students from a nearby university. Surely, most are studying to patch bullet wounds, grenade gashes, and to reattach severed heads that roll across all cantina floors.
Next on the agenda was a stop at Costco. Then we went to an ice cream stand before dashing back to the Honda, heads down, expecting gunfire at any moment.
Again, luck was with us. Not even a flesh wound.
* * * *
We made it home, and the next day dawned, this day, and now we’re walking through the neighborhood in search of our war zone.
Something blood red approaches down the street, and there is noise. We freeze in place. Is this it? Am I about to meet my Maker?
It comes closer, a marching band and rows of students in scarlet uniforms. They’re from the nearby school, rehearsing routines for Revolution Day next month.
We stand on the sidewalk as they pass. Many of the kids giggle on spotting the tall, strange Gringo in their neighborhood.
They decide not to murder us.
As music fades behind, we trod on, apprehensively. But nothing happens, and we return to the Hacienda intact, still wondering where the war zone might be.
I toted my camera, expecting to shoot exciting footage that I would sell to international media outlets. There would be corpses, blood and body parts. A Mexican Robert Capa.
I was disappointed. But I did take these photos.
The war zone remains elusive, hidden. Maybe mañana, amigos.