Change of scenery

I SPENT MOST of my life before age 55 in hot zones. Southwest Georgia, northeast Florida, south Louisiana and east Texas.

I know sweat, and I don’t like it one bit.

So when I leaped off the treadmill, I opted for a big — very big — change of scenery not only in moving to Mexico but in settling atop an ever-cool mountain.

We  live 7,200 feet above the faraway sea — the Pacific Ocean — and we enjoy cool weather year-round. It can get a bit stuffy in the afternoons and early evenings of springtime, but it’s a small price to pay for the other 98 percent of the year.

Sometimes we like to visit a beach, and almost invariably we go to Zihuatanejo, which is about three hours from the Hacienda down a smooth autopista* past mango and avocado trees and high mountain lakes.

That’s our favorite beach, La Ropa, in the video.

If the urge to visit a throbbing megalopolis strikes, it’s about four hours, also on a smooth autopista, to Mexico City, or three hours in the other direction to Guadalajara.

If I don’t want to fight the traffic or teeming mobs of Mexico City, but I do want a wider variety of restaurants than we have here on the mountaintop, it’s less than a three-hour drive northeast to San Miguel de Allende.

Also on, of course, a smooth autopista.

In San Miguel, we now overnight at the Hotel Quinta Loreto right downtown, wonderfully located, not elegant but quite comfy, and a big room costs about $38 these days.**

The fabulous Café MuRo is less than a block away.

Sure, you have to elbow aside hordes of Gringos in San Miguel, both those who live there so they don’t have to learn Spanish and tourists who flock there for the same reason.

But that’s a minor distraction.

Then we return to the cool mountain air.

Changes of scenery are available in every direction.

It’s dang sweet.

* * * *

* An autopista is a fast-traveling toll highway. The tolls, which can be a bit high, keep the riffraff away.

** Including tax!

Election day

voteI WENT TO the voting place on the neighborhood plaza Sunday morning and cast my Mexican votes. It’s really fun to be able to vote in two countries, something I’ve been eligible to do for a decade now.

There won’t be another presidential election for three years, but we got to choose a mayor, a governor and some representatives. I voted the straight PAN party ticket with one exception, our mayor.

I vote PAN due to its officially being the conservative party. I left the plantation, however, in the mayoral vote and went with the PRI, the party of dinosaurs that ruled Mexico for seven decades till 2000.

I did that detour because an old-timer here, a Mexican guy who’s worked in various city administrations for years and who’s a friend of a relative, gave me this advice: They all take advantage, but some do so less than others while doing some positive things at the same time.

In other words, just like in the United States.

He spoke kindly of candidates of both the PRI and the left-wing PRD. I chose the PRI, of course. No left-wingers for this boy.

Here’s how it works. The polling place is just up the street on the neighborhood plaza. You go in, show your official, government-issued, voter identification card with color photo to a fellow with a big book where all the registered voters are listed alongside another mugshot.

This system is a no-brainer even though you find collectivists above the Rio Bravo who don’t think proving your citizenship or even your true name is just and fair because it discriminates against po’ folks who don’t have a car or enough to eat or something like that.

After your identity is verified, you are handed ballots like those in the photo above, which I took while hunched inside the voting booth. There is a pencil in the booth, and you make a big X over the candidates of your choice. You then fold the ballots, leave the booth, and drop them into cardboard boxes. Then your thumb gets inked.

There are no hanging Chads or dangling Josés.

Representatives of the major parties are present at all or most polling places to keep an eye on one other. At the end of the day, the boxes are opened and counted, and the results sent to a central station where totals from all polling places in the area are counted for a larger total.

And so on and so on across the nation.

When each polling place closes and its votes are counted, the results are taped to a wall outside for all in the neighborhood to see. It’s a good and wise system that works very well.

GRINGO POLL CAPTAIN?

Each polling station has a boss who oversees the process for the entire day. Three years ago, I was asked to be that person. Aside from not wanting to sit there all day, I thought that having a Gringo captain of a Mexican polling station was a lousy idea, so I declined.

It would be unseemly. They still remember that we stole Texas, plus diversity and multiculturalism are not embraced in Mexico.

I know my place.

THAT VOTER ID

Yes, you must have a voter identification card in Mexico. It also serves as a national ID card. In the United States, the Democratic Party opposes such atrocious impositions. Here is a fun take on that:

card* * * *

The Moon has a new look, again. I change now and then because it’s free, easy and fast. I’ve been doing it so often lately — a couple times a year — that I don’t even make an issue of it anymore. I always think the last change will be it, but like a shapely lady in a closet full of clothes, I waffle.

I like this look, but I always like the new looks. It’s clean. The column down the right side has vanished, the one with the quotes and other stuff. I have erased all but two of the quotes, and most of the other items and links are there when you click on Menu at the top right.

* * * *

UPDATE: Both my candidates for mayor and governor lost, it appears. Another fun report on this situation can be found at Better than bacon.

The first ride

beach
On the Gulf Coast beach at Biloxi, Mississippi.

MY WIFE’S INITIAL visit to the United States was very surprising to her. “How clean,” she remarked as we walked through downtown San Antonio on our first night, having just driven up from Laredo. I think she meant “how orderly” because Mexico is clean, but sometimes it’s not too orderly, part of its romantic, chaotic charm.

It’s not that she was some provincial bumpkin who’d never been anywhere. She spent six months in the mid-1990s in Spain doing postgraduate studies in civil engineering in Madrid. She took advantage of that opportunity to travel all over Europe in her spare time.

But she had never been above the Rio Bravo until we drove up there in 2004 a year after our wedding. Before the trip, she was fond of saying that she had little interest in visiting. Hadn’t lost anything up there, she repeated with a smirk. There was a strain of anti-Americanism in her family.

All that changed immediately when she saw Texas … and Louisiana … and Mississippi … and Alabama … and Georgia. We drove in our little Chevy Pop, which is something like a Geo Metro. No AC, no stereo, no power steering or power brakes or power windows, no power anything. It was the first car I purchased in Mexico.

We spent a couple of nights in San Antonio, strolling the Riverwalk. There was a side trip to Bandera where we ate barbecue on the main drag. It was followed down the street by root beer floats. There’s no root beer in Mexico.

We drove on to Houston, my old home town, for a few more nights. We visited with a few of my previous coworkers who were still wage-slaving on the Houston Chronicle. Then on to New Orleans for rides in the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue and beignets at Café du Monde abutting the river in the French Quarter.

We hired a carriage, horse and driver for a romantic ride. Though she has seen Paris, New Orleans made a big impression on her. We walked the sidewalks of the Garden District. We ate oyster po’ boys.

The stretch from New Orleans to Atlanta is a long, mostly boring haul. We spread it over two days, spending the night in a Holiday Inn somewhere in the sticks of Central Alabama. The best thing about that night was a fried-catfish plate at a nearby restaurant. Alabama knows how to fry catfish.

She’d never had fried catfish. She’d never had oyster po’ boys. She’d never had a beignet. She’d never had a root beer float. She was happy. And her opinion of the United States changed forever. She was in love with the food, the shopping (Target in particular) and even the people, especially Southerners.

Southern people are genuinely friendly, unlike the famous (feigned) friendliness of Mexicans who grin and hug you to death if they know you and cast you a stone-faced glare if they do not.

A Mexican’s face is a mask, and so is his smile. — Octavio Paz.

We made it to Atlanta where we stayed about a week, visiting my mother, doing more shopping, more eating, and then we headed south, mostly repeating the route north but with briefer layovers.

The trip had begun the first week in March, so the car’s lack of air-conditioning was not a problem. But we almost got nailed on the return drive in mid-March, just one day, the leg between Houston and the border at Laredo. We sweated a bit. Ironically, on entering Mexico, things cooled off. There are mountains.

My wife returned a changed woman. Before she loved only one Gringo. Now she loves them all. She wants to rent a home and stay in the United States for months at a time. She wants to eat po’ boys and barbecue and beignets and catfish every day. She wants to roam the aisles of Target with a debit card and a smile.

Other trips followed, but it’s been six years now since we’ve been above the Rio Bravo, and she’s unhappy about that. Maybe we’ll return some distant day, but only the Goddess knows when … or if.

We haven’t lost anything up there.

The nearby train

rail

I THINK IT was Columbus. It surely was not Flatonia because, as I recall (it’s been quite a spell), that’s where the good barbecue joint was located just off Interstate 10 about midway between Houston and San Antonio.

Flatonia, that is.*

No, it likely was Columbus where my second ex-wife and I decided to spend a night in a hotel, just a fun way to get out of Houston, deep into the sticks, so to speak. We used to head out on weekends now and then, near and far, to spend nights in hotels just for the heck of it, a change of scene.

It was a train that etched that night into my memory so firmly even though it’s been about 25 years now. That wife’s long gone, and so is Texas, out of my life, but not trains.

That night in Columbus, we chose a quaint little wooden, two-story inn that had been a train-stop hotel way back, a place for travelers who arrived by rail in Columbus to easily step from the train almost right into the hotel lobby. But passenger service to Columbus went the way of cavalry charges and vanished.

The hotel went out of business and stayed that way a long time. Then some folks, probably city slickers dreaming of running a small hotel in rural Texas, answered an advertisement one day and, presto, the hotel was reborn, just as quaint as ever, but on purpose this go-around.

Some time after that, we showed up and checked in. The hotel was all decked out in old-timey stuff, real cute, you know, and we liked it. That night we hit the sack around 10 or so, as usual.

The train arrived a couple of hours later. The tracks remained directly beside the hotel, and I mean directly. It was a freight train, and it did not continue through, which would not have been so bad. No, it parked right outside our second-story window. And it sat … and sat … and sat … with the motor running.

Didn’t get much sleep that night. On leaving the next day, I understood why we were the only hotel guests. Who would return after a night with your bedside lamp spitting distance from a rumbling locomotive?

I’m sure the new owners, possibly Yankees from New York trying to get away from it all, regretted their decision, likely losing their shirts, but all we lost was one decent night of sleep.

* * * *

Flash forward a quarter century. I live pretty close to a railroad track, and it’s a busier track than the one in Columbus, Texas, by far. But it’s not just outside our window. It’s like a block and a half away.

Our property extends from one street out front to another street out back, which is to say it’s a full block deep, and the house sits against the back street, not the front. Crossing that front street, you’ll see houses, and it’s directly behind those houses where the railroad runs.

We hear the trains, which pass at all hours of the night and day, real well. I don’t know how the people who live across the street, with the trains passing just behind them, put up with it.

The trains pass in a number of styles, depending on the mood of the engineer. The style matters more at 2 a.m. than at 4 p.m. Sometimes they pass quietly. Well, as quietly as a train can pass. Just the bump-bump-bump of the wheels, nothing more. Or it can be full-tilt boogy with horn blaring and bell clanging.

We did not notice the railroad when we bought the property, and we likely would have purchased elsewhere had we been aware. But guess what? After a couple of weeks back in 2003, we ceased to be rattled by the passing trains, even in the dead middle of the night.

Not only that. We like it now. From the upstairs terraza, we see the top portions of passing trains clearly, and it lends a sort of vagabond air to the neighborhood.

If you walk the 1.5 blocks from the Hacienda to the neighborhood plaza and look left you will see the scene in the photo above. The train tracks bisect our funky neighborhood, and we live on the right side of the tracks because where we live is, by definition, not the wrong side of the tracks.

* * * *

* The barbecue joint was directly next to a gas station. Once I used the john in that gas station and found it so unkempt and repulsive that I told the station manager than I’d seen nicer johns in Mexican whorehouses. She didn’t take kindly to my accurate comparison.

(Tomorrow: About milk. Stay tuned.)