Saturday, October 25, 2008

Odds and Ends

The weather is turning a bit chillier in the morning, the rains have ended, for the most part, and it won't be long before the hills start to turn brown and our snowbird friends return from the cold north. And, try as she might, Maggie has not been able to learn to fly. She runs outside into the garden with great earnestness and jumps into the air to try to catch one of the birds or butterflys. Hope springs eternal.

We finally decided to get our Jalisco drivers licenses. Pixie's Maine license had expired, and so she could not drive legally. I decided to get mine at the same time so they would expire at the same time. We had heard mixed reviews about the experience, but we decided to go for it. We got a copy of the questions in English from our next door neighbor, and Pixie practiced her parallel parking (she had not done it since getting her Maine drivers license.) We hired a facilitator to take us into the Guadalajara translate for us. His name is Fernando; he speaks English and promised us we would have no trouble getting our licenses. We left early in the morning to get there before it got crowded. He obviously knows everyone there and had done his homework. He brings all the necessary people little snacks and stops to chat with everyone. "These are my friends," he assured us, "So you will have no problem with your license."

We first took the written test. The Mexicans take it on the computer, but we needed an English version, so we needed to take a paper test. The questions were generally the same we'd seen, but not exactly. Some of the English translations made no sense. On my copy, someone had circled the answers, but I could see some of them were wrong, but some were confusing to me. We evidently passed, because they took our tests and returned several minutes later to have us take our absurdly easy eye test. The symbols were huge; anyone could pass it unless they were completely blind.

Now came the part we were dreading: the road test. There was a line for the test, but, thanks to Fernando, we were taken to a beautiful new Honda Accord almost immediately. (The others had to take their test in an old Nissan or a huge pickup truck.) Pixie went first, driving around the driveway, by herself, while the inspector more or less watched. When she went to parallel park, she bumped the sign in the back. Fernando told me not to worry because his friend was there. Then it was my turn. I also hit the sign, but we were both shuttled into another line which apparently meant we passed. SO here's a copy of my new license:

If you look closely at the expiration date, you'll notice it expires on June 27 of next year. "It's a new law," Fernando explained, just for foreigners. Your license expires the date your immigration expires. Since our FM3 expires every year, so does our license. It seems like a tit for tat for the way Mexicans are treated in the US. Oh well. But last week we noticed an article in the newspaper which indicated that a group of foreigners had hired an attorney to challenge the law. Come to find out, this policy was made up by the Guadalajara office, and the rest of Jalisco was not doing this. It was straightened out, so we will have to go back with Fernando, and they will issue a new license for the full four years. We'll hope for the best!

I had a successful book signing event at the Lake Chapala Society. One thing I have learned about publishing your own book here is that the people who buy your book are generally your friends. I had lots of friends and fellow members of the writer's group attend and buy books. Some even bought extra copies as gifts. As a result, I made my publication cost back, and now I am collecting money to donate to the English language program at Wilkes.
Here I am with some of my Writers' Group buddies: Next to me is Alex Grattan, the founder of the group and editor of the Ojo del Lago. Victoria Schmidt is next to him, a new arrival who worked in the film industry, as did Alex. In the front is Karen Blue, author of a popular book on living here, Midlife Mavericks (no reference to McCain or Palin), Jim Tipton, an excellent poet, writer, and good friend of Isabelle Allende, and Jim Rambo, my friend and fellow Phillies fan from Wilmington.
Here are Vicente and Donna. Vicente is the artist who did the cover illustration and Donna did the translation of the title poem. It was a fun event, and I felt lots of affection from my fellow writiers.

The lakeside area has been excited all week because of the arrival of the circus. The circus pulled into town last week, set up a big tent, and had been driving a truck with a trailer with tigers in the back selling tickets. The cheap seats are only 25 pesos, or $2.50 US, so families can afford to go. We went on Thursday night with our friends, the only gringos at that show. We saw death-defying acts, clowns, and lots of animal acts. For some reason, however, there was a problem with the tigers so they did not appear. It was a fun way to spend an evening.

We are awaiting the arrival of our friends from Maine, Curt and Judy, on Tuesday. They were down last year and are returning this year for the Day of the Dead festivities. Democrats Abroad has been very active with the election this fall, although most of us voted absentee weeks ago. The Mexican TV station even did a spot about the gringos voting here. The Mexicans are obviously very interested in the results of this election, and when we wear our Obama T-shirts, we get many positive comments from Mexicans. The Mexican peso has been dropping in value since the beginning of this economic meltdown, which is good for us expats but terrible for the Mexican economy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


This is the view from our hotel window in Morelia, the capital city of the neighboring state Michoacan, on Sunday night, as we wrapped up our four-day trip there with our friends Vicente and Donna.

We started out on Thursday and headed straight to Paracho, the guitar capital of Mexico. This little town, which has little to brag about except its amazing guitar makers, has hundreds of guitar makers in one town. (This is typical of Mexico, where towns will routinely specialize in one craft item. There are towns that specialize in knives, particular types of pottery, copper, silver jewelry, and rustico furniture, to name but a few. It's hard to understand how anyone can make any money with so many competitors!) At any rate, Vicente and I were on the search for good guitars. Vivente had provided the cover art for my poetry book, and in lieu of pay, he wanted me to help him learn to play guitar. After playing many guitars in many shops, we ended up with guitar maker Jesus Leon, and bought sister guitars (according to Jesus) for about $240US. The guitars are made with Mexican rosewood and Canadian spruce. Here, Vicente and I pose with Jesus:

From Paracho, we headed south to Uruapan, a very Mexican town with few gringos. We did run into one very interesting gringo lady who had bought an old textile mill in Uruapan in 1952, and has been running it ever since. They make beautiful cotton fabric, hand dyes and woven on manual looms. The process of using these looms requires a very aerobic dance to keep the shuttle flying at the right speed and keep the fabric smooth. Here are some photos:

Michoacan has been called by some the most beautiful state in Mexico. The national park in Uruapan certainly supports this idea with its tropical plants, waterfalls and wildflowers. We spent time in this park on Friday, taken by its beauty:

Patzcuaro is a beautiful town well known for its Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration. It is on a beautiful lake, and tourists descend on the town and the islands in the lake where the rituals and grave decorations are spectacular. We will, of course, be celebrating the Day of the Dead this year with our friends Curt and Judy, from Maine, who are making a return visit to Lake Chapala, so we won't be in Patzcuaro for the festivities. We were there to enjoy the ambiance of the town and see the amazing crafts for which Michoacan is famous. Here is the interior courtyard of our hotel in Patzcuaro ($41US):
Patzcuaro has a very different, wide plaza, with no gazebo and lots of trees:
Nearby Patzcuaro is Santa Clara de Cobra, a copper mining town which specializes in all types of copperware. We were able to visit a workshop and watch the artisans pound the copper into beautiful plates, vases, and other household items. Here is the process of hammering the hot copper ingot. This piece would eventually become a copper sink:We ended up our trip in Morelia. Morelia was the site, on Spetember 15, of a bombing during the celebration of the "grito," the declaration of independence from Spain read evey year on the eve of Independence Day. Eight people were killed and hundreds injured. It has been blamed on a drug gang who wanted to make a statement against President Calderon, who is from Morelia. The bombings took place in this plaza.

You would never guess that this was the scene of such a violent, tragic event on Sunday, when the plaza was full of people eating, buying balloons and enjoying the day. Below is a poster protesting the massacre of dozens of students in Mexico City by the government 40 years this month:

One of the most appealing things about Morelia is that it is a vibrant, clean city. We happened to be there for the final night of the Morelia International Film Festival, and we were able to catch an Israeli film while we were there. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Morelia is the abundance of well-preserved colonial architecture. Here are some examples:

We returned, safe and sound on Monday, in time for me to race off to class. Here are Vicente and Donna, our travel companions, my book collaborators (Donna did the translation), and good friends:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sacred Lake Reviews

Well, this is a somewhat reluctant post, since it seems a bit self-aggrandizing, but I thought it would give a flavor of the response to my book down here. I am duplicating two reviews of the book which appeared in a couple of online publications.

This first article is from the October issue of Living at Lake Chapala, a publication primarily written for those considering a move to this area. Judy King, the editor, also seminars for people who are considering retiring here so they'll get a realistic view of what to expect.


A Lyrical Look At Lakeside

By Judy King

When Karen Blue and I founded Living at Lake Chapala, our goal was simple. We agreed that we would strive to provide solid information and a clear view of life here in Mexico in every article published in the monthly magazine.

There have been 93 issues of this publication—that's over 1100 articles. While other local publications frequently publish the poetry of local writers, we've not found poems that adequately described life at Lakeside…until now.

Recently at a meeting of the Ajijic Writers Group, Bill Frayer stood behind the microphone and began to read from Sacred Lake, his newly published book of poetry. Before he could sit down, I'd bought a copy of the book. I was hooked with the way Bill has captured the essence of the way we, as foreigners, live in the midst of Mexican villages.

As Bill explained on the back cover of his slim volume of poems—most with a Lakeside theme—he retired after 31 years as a Maine community college humanities professor, and while he spent many years teaching writing, communication, and critical thinking and has enjoyed poetry for many years, this is his first volume of poems...and he's written all 34 of them since he moved to Mexico with his wife, Pixie, in 2007.

Former Maine residents Bill and Pixie Frayer are delighted with their new Lakeside life.

In just over a year, Bill and Pixie have both found their places in the Lakeside community. In addition to their circle of friends, reading and writing, they are devoted volunteer teachers of English as a Second Language class at the Wilkes Education Center in Ajijic. Pixie started her educational career teaching children with special needs and later taught English as a Second Language at the community college level. Due to the Frayers' commitment to the program, Bill is donating the proceeds from the sales of Sacred Lake to help with WEC's ongoing expenses.

Once you've read the sampling of poems we're publishing here, we think you'll want a copy of this book for yourself, and it's nice to know that you'll also be helping educate some of our Mexican neighbors.

Bill's volunteer teaching position and his devotion to his students is reflected in the "Learning English with the Gringo" from Sacred Lake.

Learning English with the Gringo

They are patient with me
The gringo who no longer works
While they struggle to learn new sounds
Which hurt their mouths
So they can understand more clearly
What these old gringos really want.

They arrive in our tiny classroom
On Mexico time, straggling in,
Always pausing at the door, smiling
Until I invite them in
To join our loose group.

I butcher Spanish words, they politely correct
Sometimes in unison, articulating with wide mouths
Showing their teeth, but all together
So the sound is muddled to me.
"Que?" I ask; they obediently repeat
Until they are satisfied with my approximation.

They talk about their families
As they try to fathom
Our language, where objects are sexless,
And pronunciation follows no rules.
"Not bideo," I implore, "viiiideo!"
"Veeeeedeo!" they repeat, eyes twinkling.

When learning geography words
We come across "Paris."
"heh heh," chuckles Juan José, "Paris Heeeelton!"
"Oh," I declare, "She's a bimbo, you know."
"Pan?" they look bewildered
"No," I laugh, and swish.
"This is a bimbo!"
They roar and I love this moment.

Reading Bill's poems is not just a joyful experience. He has twisted the lessons of his adjustment into the stanzas. In each of his poems I see him reveling in his exploration of his new world and new culture. "Foreigner, Walking" captures a moment in time. It is a vignette of life here and also reveals how we feel so much at home here—and slightly out of place.

Foreigner, Walking

Stepping out into the surprising heat
Whitening my skin, it seems
As I navigate the uneven stones
Of our Rio Zula
Past a dark-skinned boy
Drinking Coke and mixing sand
Into cement. "Hóla," I offer,
And he responds more lyrically.

Mangos fallen to the street
In the overnight rain
A flat-faced madre
Picks them up, bruised and unripe alike,
Into a faded nylon mesh bag
Another beautiful "Buenos Días"
Enunciated slowly, carefully,
With a slight smile.

Passing a tienda, glancing into
The dark space
Lined with small packages of snacks,
A cooler with soda, juice
Milk and cerveza.

A small boy, ebon hair,
Busy red fingers dancing
Counts berries into small bags,
His grandmother cutting melon
At a white, plastic table,
Teen boys with greasy hair,
Gold chains, swagger by, ignoring.

A man with a leather-lined face
Pushes an incongruously white
Straw hat up his forehead
As he leans intently, under
The open hood of a twenty year-old
Plymouth, proud but helpless.
He waves and smiles,
As I trudge past,
No place to be,
Plenty to eat,
Here by choice,
And grateful,
But foreign.

Perhaps the reason I so appreciate the poems in Sacred Lake is that through Bill's eyes and words, he has returned to me the feelings of wonder I felt in my first year at Lake Chapala. He has so beautifully captured the colors, the sights, the sounds, the surroundings of Mexico in his poetry. "In Squeezing Lime on Jicama" he also helps us capture some of the tastes of this new adventure.

Squeezing Lime on Jicama

Squeezing lime on jicama
Dusting with chile
Fresh taste bursting
Into our new life
And our newfound hours.

We chop plum tomatoes
Onion, cilantro, jalapeños
Salt and lime
Concocting a new salsa
For our anticipated sunsets.

From the Tianguis, a symphony of color
And unfamiliar tastes
Sour, sweet juice
Dripping on the bright tile
Of our simple, intentional life.

Savoring grilled goat stew with red grease
Chewing a suspicious texture
Brings us to another plane
Our days no longer the same
Challenging us to live larger.

Leaving cautious taste behind
Our new palate paints vivid
Delicious days, taking nourishment
From the rich, thick fruit
Of our newly-minted moments.

Over the years I've tried to explain to other parents how it is that I have chosen to live so far from my grown children. In the future, I think I'll just let them read "Worries from Afar Seem Diminished," Bill's incredibly clear take on the topic.

Worries from Afar seem Diminished

Children, as adults, are difficult.
They heed their own voice
Even when I know their paths
Will lead to ruin and tears.
We raise them to think
And they do, not as I would
Of course. But why should they
Listen to me?

When living close
I hear their problems intensely
And stand helpless before their tears
Occasionally grimacing as I
Provide rescue funds
And watch them continue
Down my idea of
A futile path.

But, worries from afar seem diminished,
Theirs to me and me to them
Now distance provides liberty for all
To live unobserved.

They don't need to please
I don't need to see
And with this comes
The perspective I craved.

If you want a copy of the book to quote "Worries From Afar Seem Diminished" to your friends and family, Bill will be reading, signing and selling Sacred Lake during a October 7 Book Fair, Sale and Signing which will feature more than a dozen local writers in the back patio at the Lake Chapala Society.

The published members of the Ajijic Writers Group and many of the other area published writers will be on hand with their books from 11 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. This event is a fundraiser for the ACA Eco Training Center in Jaltepec. The entrance fee is $75 pesos, all of which will go to ACA, which will also have a good supply of their fresh, organic produce on hand for sale. Don't forget that the proceeds from Bill's book are going to help with WEC programs.

This next review is from Mexico Connect, Mexico's largest online magazine which covers all of Mexico. Jim Tipton is an established poet who has published in many publications and won the Colorado Book Award for his collection of poetry. He is also a member of the Ajijic Writers' Group, and he has done a lot to encourage me to keep writing. Here is his review for Mexico Connect.

Sacred Lake

By Bill Frayer

Bill Frayer, 2008

Available from the author

Reviewed by James Tipton © James Tipton 2008

Life in Mexico observed by someone who is bursting with affection for his new country.

I have reviewed a lot of fiction and non-fiction books for Mexico Connect, but I have been hoping to eventually discover a collection of poems written in English by an expatriate living in Mexico.

Now I have in hand Bill Frayer's book, Sacred Lake, and it is a lovely book, nicely produced, with lots of fine poetry. All of the poems were written since Bill arrived in Mexico last year. Bill, who lives in Chapala, Jalisco, has fallen in love with Lake Chapala, and with Mexico. In the opening poem, "Sacred Like," the author announces that:

Yes, as I came upon this lake
So resplendent with spirits
Of many lives lived, I found my muse
And it quenched a thirst
I never felt till I fell at its bank
And drank deeply of its richness.

These poems are filled with charming details of life in Mexico observed by someone who is bursting with affection for his new country. I have often thought that a country, and land itself, really belongs to those who love it most. Bill, although he feels himself a stranger, a "Foreigner," finds himself more and more being hugged by the big brown arms of Mother Mexico. In the second poem, "Foreigner, Walking," Bill steps out into the heat and passes a boy "Drinking Coke and mixing sand/Into cement." Later on that same walk he sees:

A man with a leather-lined face
Pushes an incongruously white
Straw hat up his forehead
As he leans intently, under
The open hood of a twenty-year-old
Plymouth, proud but helpless.

This is part of life in Mexico. Only today while I was walking along with Bill's book in hand, I saw a man working on his ancient truck in Calle Zaragosa here in Chapala - the white decals on the dusty back window read "¡Jesús vive!" (Jesus lives!).

Other poems celebrate the Mexican palate, and the unfamiliar juices "Dripping on the bright tile/Of our simple, intentional life." ("Squeezing Lime on Jicama"). In "Opening My Fruit," the poet has awakened at dawn, and alone in the cool air he can "Work on my fruit." As he exposes the sweet inner flesh of mangoes and papayas and melons and bananas, he becomes eager for more, and even squeezing "prickly fruit/Over-ripe" releases, unexpectedly, "Thick, white globs of life/Over my hands."

Likewise, Bill learns to bow before the Mexican attitude toward death, so different from that of his own culture, or perhaps better to say the culture he lived in before he moved to Mexico and began to discover his "own culture." He decides he wants to be remembered the way Mexican people remember their deceased loved ones. In "Remember Me with Good Dark Beer," Bill has discovered that…

In Mexico, when people die
Their stay on earth does not expire,
Extending on in memory
As concrete offerings require.

Flowers, photos, food, tequila
All that they loved their families share
And gather o'er their loved ones' bones
To eat, to weep, to laugh, to bear.

But a few short stanzas later the author steps back to take a look at the attitudes of his own (and we need to begin to say former) country, and compares Mexican practices with those we had been more familiar with before his move south.

And as I watch this ritual
With skulls and food and special bread
I think of mother's bare, cold grave
Unvisited, of course, she's dead;

She couldn't know, nor could she care
If we brought her garlic bread,
Or beer, or shrimp, or needlepoint
Or tell her, "Mom, we're all well fed!"

But, that is his "former culture," and Bill now is begins to hope that when he dies his friends will, in good Mexican style, remember what he held dear: "like chips and good dark beer."

In other poems, Bill is intent upon discovering "What Makes Them Sing" in spite of the expatriate culture that now "clogs" their streets, "arrogantly," forcing them to be "accommodating." Still, though, the Mexicans are both laughing and singing as they carry "heavy white buckets of cement/Up old and splattered ladders/Again and again in the heat." Bill longs to (and rather obviously is learning) "to live/Among their songs." As others, I suspect, are learning to live "among Bill's songs."

For many of us, once we have been in Mexico for awhile, and particularly for those of us who have made a permanent move to Mexico, something "shifts" inside and we can begin to more easily revisit and rethink and reflect upon past relationships, including those difficult relationships that can only be healed by love; indeed, most of the closing poems in Sacred Lake are about love. "How Profound is my Love?" begins this way:

How profound is my love
For the father, who,
By his gentle example,
Taught me how to live
And to think,
So that I could live,
As he,
In a world
Where character matters?

In "My Mother Dying," Frayer is "waved… away one last time" but he is able to acknowledge to himself that she had been a difficult mother.

She had not been an easy mother
And now… alone - she needed my help
To shop, to manage.
I couldn't sense much warmth
Or gratitude. With guilt, I knew
Her death would bring relief.

In contrast to that mother who simply "endured" him, Bill and his wife have left the "stale debris/Of yesterday behind them." Bill and his wife have made a long journey together, ultimately to Mexico. Here the poet is rediscovering not only his own life, but his beloved wife as well.

And now we awake together to breathe the same air
And brew our tea from the same pot
Somehow having arrived in paradise
At the same time.

Earlier in the book, Bill wrote about "As I Carry the First Box into the New House," and in that poem he and his wife are "full of hope/For years left unlived." Reading the poems several times, I begin to feel that for Bill that "New House" is really all of Mexico, and most particularly the Mexican people. That poem ends this way:

I am content to be here
In this moment
With our future, unrevealed.

SubscriptionSubscribe and read all the complete articles . . .

James Tipton's E-mail
His Bio
His Stories