Meeting the Neighbors

smileyWhen I moved to San Antonio, it was from a Mexican-style suburban neighborhood where most of my neighbors were Gringos or middle class Mexicans. I only knew one of my neighbors. Most of them stayed behind their walls, and only venture forth in their cars.

My new home, San Antonio is a Mexican village, despite the fact that a lot of Gringos live here. I live on a street much like the ones I walked on in Ajijic where Mexicans mostly lived. My neighbors here are mostly Mexican. This fact has given me the opportunity to start conversations and practice Spanish.

My abode is two houses away from a family that sets up a “roadside’ taco stand outside their home in the evening.

Corner Taco, Enchilada, Quesadilla, and Sope Stand

Corner Taco, Enchilada, Quesadilla, and Sope Stand

It’s just the typical Mexican taco-cooking paraphernalia and a few tables and chairs in the street. This type of enterprise goes on all over. One of the first things I did after moving in was introduce myself to them.

Just around the corner, and over the backyard fence, so to speak, lives Geri, a hardy Gringa who just bought her house, and moved in the same weekend I did. She’s been busy busting up an old kitchen with a sledge hammer (it was all built with cinder blocks) to put in a modern one.

Geri's Backyard

Geri’s Backyard

She also has been trimming a big avocado tree in her yard, and planting a 20 foot palm tree. Other than dropping it in by helicopter, the tree needed to be brought through the front door of the house to the back yard. Geri’s an artist and she plans to install a fountain and, of course, paint the walls.

Well, this being Mexico, many neighborhoods are prone to losing electricity. Sometimes it lasts a few minutes, and sometimes it last for many hours. Spikes wreak havoc with American appliances. What I’ve recently learned is that appliances made for the Mexican market handle the irregular voltage found here – high and low – better than those made for the US.

In fairness, when I lived in Needham, Massachusetts, we had power outage 2-3 times a year. This went on for years. Most of the time, it was after a storm. Sometimes it would happen out-of-the-blue. You always knew the power had been out because you’d return home to find all the digital clocks blinking. The outages were always caused by the same transformer, and usually plunged hundreds of homes into darkness. First Boston Edison, and then Nstar must have thought that regularly dispatching repair trucks was more cost effective than actually fixing the problem.

Last Tuesday evening, I lost power. This never happened in my tony Ajijic neighborhood. When these “crises” occur, they provide an opportunity to form a bond with others in the same situation.

On Wednesday morning, I stuck my head out of my door to the street to see if anyone else had the same problem. That’s when I met my neighbor, Alejandro, who told me that he was informed that electricity would be restored “around” 10. He didn’t say whether that was a.m. or p.m.

Anyway, my encounter with Alejandro proved fruitful. About an hour later I was walking up the hill to catch a bus to Chapala, and Alejandro and his wife drove up and asked me if I needed a ride. They both work in Chapala. It was very nice of them, and it gave me a chance practice my Spanish and for them to correct me. Since many Gringos don’t make an effort to learn or speak Spanish, Mexicans are usually surprised and appreciative when they find a Gringo who does.

I got home to see a bucket truck at work around the corner. It was “around” 1 p.m. Everything was honky-dory until Friday night when we had a major storm roll through (more about that later). San Antonio was undergoing a week of revelry celebrating its patron saint (guess who?). The plaza had been transformed into an amusement park, and really awful bans played until 2 am every night. The only saving grace last Friday, was that the power outage affected the power to the loud speakers.

So Saturday morning, I’m trying to figure out what to do. Stepping out of my compound, I venture across the street, and introduce myself to Martin, the owner of a farmacia.

Martin" Farmacia

Martin’s Farmacia

He has power, and tries to find a number to call CFE, the electricity company. Every other utility in the area is listed except CFE. They probably know that half the population of San Antonio has food rotting in their refrigerators, so why bother with a couple thousand people calling in panic. Anyway this happens all the time.

So, after talking with Martin, I checked with the taco people. Yes, they had power. Up on my terrace, I accosted Geri who was having coffee and taking a break from swinging the sledge hammer. She didn’t have power either. Geri’s house is wedged between the taco family on one corner and a corner store, called an Abarrote, on the other. Geri told me that she had talked with the owner who said the problem would be fixed around 10 a.m.

Jesus behind the counter of his corner store

Jesus behind the counter of his corner store

So I take a walk around the corner and introduce myself to Jesus, the owner of the corner store. Jesus truly looked distraught. Because of the festival, this is probably one of the biggest weekends for beer sales (sort of Christmas season in June). What would he do without cold beer?

Around 3 p.m. the power goes back on. Can this really be true? How long will it last? So I hike over to Jesus’ store. The coolers are humming and Jesus has big grin.

I give him a thumbs up in universal sign language.

Beer and Tomato Juice

A concoction of beer and tomato juice doesn’t sound very appetizing. Does it?

I remember many years ago sitting in a bar in Michigan, and a guy who was just off of work was pouring a little can of tomato juice into a beer.

“Icky,” I thought.

“What’s it called,” I inquired.

“A poor man’s Bloody Mary,” I was told.

Not having any desire to try one. I just looked on with disbelief. What had I been missing in my short 22-year life span? That afternoon stuck with me, and I have since learned that the combination of beer and tomato juice goes by many names, depending on where you are.

Fast forward to Mexico, 45 years later. The beer and tomato juice concoction exists here as a Michelada. But, in Mexico they put their own twist on the drink. Instead of tomato juice, they use Clamato Juice, a mixture of tomato juice and clam juice.

“How in the world,” I ask myself, “did the Mexicans develop a taste for Clamato Juice?” I don’t know anyone who drinks it in the U.S. and only one person who used to. Somebody must drink the stuff, because Motts (of Apple Juice fame) or one of its predecessors has been making it for decades.

The only person I ever knew who was fond of Clamato Juice was my Dad. I never saw him drink it with beer, but he loved his bi-valves in any form, and was known to consume copious portions of fresh raw clams and oysters when available. In Wellfleet, Massachusetts at low tide, he would walk out on the flats and gather a slimy feast to down with his beer or martini.

I can still picture him holding a 3-inch long, recently shucked oyster he had harvested. He hoisted it over his open mouth, and let it slide down his throat. Last week I was walking along the shore of Lake Chapala watching the Pelicans fishing. The pouch below their beaks was translucent, and when they raised them, you could see the fish flapping inside just before it disappeared down the Pelican’s gullet. It reminded me of Dad.

Micheladas are very popular here. There are signs for them everywhere – at roadside stands, in the market, in storefronts, and in bars. The first time I actually saw someone dinking one was a friend, Brad, at the first CASA meeting I ever attended. There are many ways to make them, everyone has their own recipe.

What piqued my interest in trying one was when Bill, another guy I know, ordered a Michelada at Tom’s Bar. Ben, the bartender, made just like I would make a Bloody Mary (except for the beer and Clamato Juice). He added hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, celery salt and fresh lime juice to the Clamato, and then poured the fizzy beer into it. Some places even put chopped fresh veggies in it. Tasting a sip of Bill’s, it was actually pretty good.

Inspired, I went up the hill to El Torito Market and bought the ingredients I didn’t already have.

Michelada Ingredients

Michelada Ingredients

Micheladas have now become a regular late-afternoon treat, when I’m not enjoying a gin and tonic.

If he had ever had the chance to taste a Michelada, I think my Dad would have found a new use for the Clamato Juice he enjoyed. And it would have been the perfect accompaniment for washing down a slimy bi-valve!

Mexico a’ la Americana

I’m having a real problem. The entire situation is surreal.

I’m in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, having lunch. I’m in Applebee’s, after shopping at Costco. The restaurant is just down the street from Costco, next to a Walmart. The highway it borders could be Rt. 1 in New Jersey or even north of Boston. Like Rt 1 in the northeast U.S., the highway ugly and the traffic is endless. It’s lined with a mish mash of local stores selling furniture, automobile dealerships, fast food restaurants, big box stores, and even an outlet mall.

Shopping trips to Guadalajara, are a favorite pastime for many expats at Lakeside. It’s ironic that all these people who now call Mexico home, feel a compulsion to get an occasional taste of “home” north of the border. What you quickly realize is that Walmart, Costco, Office Depot, and Home Depot are as much a part of middle class Mexican life as they are for Americans.

I remember when I was in Belize going across the border to Chetumal, in Mexico, was a big deal. There you could see an American movie, shop at Walmart, and eat lunch at McDonalds or Outback Steakhouse.

A few weeks back I saw a presentation by a guy named David Truly, a university professor who studies demographics and their impact on tourism and healthcare in Mexico. He also consults for American and Mexican companies and government agencies. He’s also a rocker, playing lead guitar with a popular 50-something band down here called The Tall Boys. In his presentation, David pointed out that, once the big box stores and fast food and chain restaurants from the U.S. started showing up in Guadalajara, retiring at Lakeside became much more palatable for the average middle-class American and Canadian. You could retire in paradise without retiring your Costco card.

I never go to Costco in the states. Being single, the economic order quantities at membership stores don’t make economic sense for me. The mega-quantities of perishable items would spoil before I ever consumed them. I usually don’t have enough room in my freezer for tempting frozen foods that I shouldn’t be eating anyway. I know a lot of people who buy their paper goods at those stores. But, I’ve found that the local grocery is cheaper when paper goods are on sale.

The only things I can find any value in are party-sized cuts of meat, which can be cut down into smaller portions, and customized birthday cakes. Both types of items are typically very good at places like Costco.

Right now, I‘m living in a nice sized 2-room apartment. If I were to purchase the 36-roll package of toilet paper, I wouldn’t need to go back to Costco for a year. But, I would need to put one of my chairs in storage. I could warehouse paper towels, laundry detergent, beer, and anything else that won’t go bad where my couch now sits. But with the dollar surging and the peso plummeting, everything is going to get cheaper anyway.

So, I’m sitting in Applebee’s with two friends, Robin, who offered me the free trip to “limbo land” in Guadalajara, and Maureen. I’m eating a culinary mess called Chicken Margarita on top of some bland yellow rice, and sipping an unsweetened ice tea. With each bite, I’m reminded why you should only eat Mexican food at Mexican restaurants when in Mexico.

We had just come from Costco where it was no problem dropping $130 on a lot of stuff I didn’t need – a 4.5 pound boneless leg of lamb for when the kids visit, a 3.5 pound arrachera (skirt steak) that I cut down into 6 meals, a 4-pack size of Ghirardelli truffle brownie mix, a kilo of coffee, a liter of real maple syrup (a 3-year supply, cheaper than Trade Joes), a case of beer, and a bottle of rum so I can make tropical drinks when the weather gets warmer.

Part of my Costco shopping spree

Part of my Costco shopping spree

The ride home was an adventure. I’m told that driving to and in Guadalajara is as much an adventure as it is an art. Robin, my able driver, learned how to drive living near New York. So driving with Mexicans is nothing new to her. The drive was made more interesting when, deep in conversation, she missed the retorno (U-turn) to head back toward Lake Chapala.

In the states we have limited access highways. Just like Rt. 1, this highway was limited access. There were express lanes and local lanes. Both had very few places to U-turn. For those readers who have been unfortunate enough to have experienced it, it sort of reminded me of the Bruckner Parkway in the Bronx. If you missed your turn-off it was either like Bonfire of the Vanities or Charlie being on the MTA. You might find yourself in a scary situation or never get off before reaching the U.S., Pacific Ocean or some other place of no return.

After a few miles in the local lane, we did find a U-turn, and headed back. Leaving the hustle and bustle behind, the real Mexico unfolded before us. Negotiating the directional signs to make sure we didn’t end up in Manzanillo on the coast, the road took us over a pass where the mountains ringing Lake Chapala became visible. A few miles more and the bypass around Jocotopec lifted us above the town, giving us long view of the lake mirroring the sunny, cloudless blue sky.

Descending to the turnoff to Ajijic, I experienced a weird feeling. This place was beginning to feel like home.

Sunny Sunday in Right Field

It’s Sunday, the last day in November, and the Mexican Pacific Baseball League season is in full swing (no pun intended). The Jalisco Charros are at the top of the standings, and are scheduled to play the Cañeros of Mochis. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to spend a sunny, warm afternoon in the right field bleachers watching these titans of baseball duke it out.

In the states we have our grapefruit leagues that start playing sometime in February. But I didn’t know that there is another world of fall baseball. Yes, I’d heard of the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues. But I didn’t know there were 2 leagues in Mexico. Major and minor leaguers play in the fall leagues. I’m told they’re often sent here by their teams to work on skills in the off-season.

Guadalajara, about an hour up the road is the home of the Jalisco Charros. Jalisco is a state in Mexico and Charros, as far as I can tell are cowboys. The Lake Chapala Society sponsors day trips to interesting happenings in the area, and recently started sending baseball fans to see Charros’ games in a partnership with the company that runs the vending concessions at the ballpark.

Leaving promptly at 10 am, 22 of us gringos piled into a couple of vans for the trip. This would be my first venture into Guadalajara. The road was four-lane divided highway for most of the trip. Except for the distinctly Latin American neighborhoods and architecture, you’d think you were in the U.S., as Walmart, Home Depot, and McDonalds flashed by out the window.

The main entrance to Charros' ballpark

The main entrance to Charros’ ballpark

We were let off in a VIP parking lot and ushered into a special area in the right field bleachers. The area had its own concessions, and umbrella-covered hi-top tables rimmed the right field fence. Grabbing a seat to watch the teams warm-up, I was engaged by a young lady in white short-shorts and a blue, Charros-colored shirt. She looked more like a NFL cheerleader than a waitress. Unfortunately, all she wanted to know was if I wanted something to drink.

It was beer weather – probably 80 degrees in the sun – and a cold Tecate hit the spot. The game got started with a pitching duel for the first five innings. Cheers of Vamos Charros Vamos were led by the loud speaker system. Occasionally, the Mexican hat dance would erupt – usually just when the opposing pitcher was winding up. And every time the teams changed sides, the cheerleader waitresses spiced things up by go-go dancing on risers behind us.

Both right-fielders were kept very busy, and I couldn’t help thinking about the Peter, Paul, and Mary song…

“… Playing right field can be lonely and dull
Little leagues never have lefties that pull
I’d dream of the day they’d hit one my way
They never did, but still I would pray…

Playing right field, it’s easy you know
You can be awkward, you can be slow
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow…”

Well, this wasn’t the little leagues, and there weren’t any dandelions. I don’t think they had artificial turf when that song was written.

Charros' pitcher catches the batter looking

Charros’ pitcher catches the batter looking

In the 6th inning, the Cañeros broke it open with 2 runs, and then scored 4 more in the 8th. The Charros churned through their pitching staff, but the Cañeros silenced their bats.

When you go to the ballpark on your own, you can pick yourself up and leave when all hope is gone. We were supposed to meet the vans for the return trip to Ajijic 15 minutes after the game. Unfortunately, we had to suffer through the rest of the game. However, I did get home in time to watch the Patriots fall to the Packers.

Would I go to another Charros game? Sure. If the weather is sunny and warm and the beer is cold, it’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Lyrics © Willy Welch d/b/a Playing Right Music