Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu in Mexico

As everyone surely knows, Mexico seems to be the epicenter of the infamous swine flu outbreak.  Since family and friends have expressed concern, I thought it would be good to explain what the situation is for us now and what precaustions are being taken here.  

First of all, the vast majority  of cases have been in Mexico City, which is about 8 hours from us by car.  The thinking here is that a large number of people were initially infected before the authorities knew what was going on, so the outbreak had a chance to take hold.  Further, many Mexican people are poor and are not as well nourished as they could be which may have compromised their imune systems.  Many people do not have any kind of health coverage, so they waited until theri symptoms were quite severe before seeing medical attention and had advanced pneumonia when they showed up at the hospital.   So the large number of deaths, relative to the US for example, is still under investigation but these are some theories.  

Our situation in the State of Jalisco is quite different.  President Calderon, in order to do eveything possible has ordered widespread closings to prevent large gatherings in public.  Here at Lakeside, all restaurants are closed, open for take-out only.  Schools are closed.  Many non-essential businesses are closed, along with churches.  Many public events have been cancelled.  All this in spite of the fact that no cases of the swine flu have been confirmed in Jalisco here.  We have all been advised to stay home and wait for the threat to pass, which most of us are content to do.  We just have to wait and see how the situaton develops.  

Mexico, as a poor country is not like the US and has limited supplies of anti-viral drugs and face masks available.  The government is relying, as far as I can see, on trying hard to control the spread of the virus.  Most people seem to support the government, although in Mexico there is always a residual mistrust of the federal government.  Hopefully, this will begin to fizzle out and life can return to something approximating normalcy.  

I promised in the last blog entry to show photos of the completed tile work on our fireplace and coffee table we had done last week.   Here are some photos: 

Finally, I had my last English class last night.  We had a party instead of a regular class. Pixie has been helping me in class, and has decided to teach a class herself next fall.  Only four students showed up for the pizza party, and Pixie snapped this photo of me with these students:

Friday, April 24, 2009

Love in Action

Love in Action is an orphange in Chapala.  Mexico has many orphanages, unlike in the US.  Many are sponsored by brothers and sisters from the Catholic church, not surprisingly.  Many children are put into orphanages because their parents have died or are otherwise unavailable. Sometimes, the parents, or the single mother, cannot care for the children and has to put them into an orphanage where they are will cared for.  The orphanages around this area benefit from the generosity, time, energy and money of the American and Canadian ex-pats who live here. This young fellow is Nohei (5), who, along with his brother, Jose (3), was found living alone in a cave!  Both brothers were brought to a wonderful new orphanage called Love in Action in Chapala.  

When Pixie went north to attend the memorial service for her mother, I stayed with our friends, Fred and Mardele Harland.  They have recently become "Godparents" to a Love in Action boy, Kenny (8).  Being a "Godparent" means that you agree to pay money for the child's education each year and become a part of his or her life by doing things with them as often as possible.  While I was at Fred and Mardele's, they brought Kenny, along with two of his friends, Nohei and Jose, to their house for a swim and botanas (snacks).  Everyone had a wonderful time.  Here are more photos.  The top left is Kenny with a mask.  To his right is Jose.  Below is our friend, Fred, with Kenny, then all three boys playing together:

There are so many needs to be met here in Mexico.  Many families live in abject poverty, often with only the moms to look after the children because the men have all gone to the US to work.  Many homes have no phones, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and little hope for improvement.  The Love in Action orphanage was located in a small woefully inadequate space.  But due to the expanding size (60 children now) they were given the opportunity to moce to a much larger compound, which they now occupy.  Here are two photos of the new grounds:                                                         

On another subject, we are having some minor tiling done.  Everything in Mexico, it seems, is tiles.  The floors are all tile.  The kitchens and bathrooms are all tiles.  There is tile throughout all buildings, commerical and residential.  There are two main types of tile.  Ceramic tile is the kind we see frequently in the United States.  The tiles are often larger, a foot square or so, and the designs are printed on each tile using some type of standardized manufacturing prosess.  The colors are more muted, even pastel.  The floor in our house, as you can see in the photos below, are ceramic tile.  The other type of tile is very Mexican: Talavera tile.  These are smaller, very colorful tiles usually painted and glazed by hand.  We already have our kitchen done with yellow tile of this type.  Now we are in the process of tiling the front of our fireplace and our coffee table with Talavera tiles.  In the photos below, you can see the tile work being done.  Pixie was not pleased with the fireplace colors, however, despite its clear University of Michigan theme, and we are having it redone in all cobalt blue with the sunflower decorative tiles.  I'll include the finished product in the next blog.  Here are some photos: 


Our friend and contractor, Antonio, is tiling the table himself.  He does not have any other work at the moment, so he is picking up little jobs to do on his own.  

Pixie is back from her trip north to attend her mom's memorial service.  It was a long illness for the entire family, and I think the service, led by our UU friend from Auburn, Kitsie Claxton, helped bring closure for everyone.  The really sad thing about the memorial service came when Corrine's (Pixie's mom) brother, Everard, who was especially close to Corinne and had come up from Massachusetts to attend the service, died in the motel the morning of the service.  One more grief upon all there was already!   Here is a photo of Pixie taken today before she went to her "Red Hat" party! 

I am doing better each day.  I have permssion to drive again, to my great relief.  My  calf with the blood clot is healing slowly, but I am noticing a big difference in the pain this week.  I am exercising it more and following the doctor's instructions.  My energy is coming back, and I am starting to write some poetry again.  I still have no smell, which I address in the following poem:

Losing Smell


It seems to me

I’ve lost my smell

I noticed it one night

While using Ben Gay.

I couldn’t smell

It’s strong minty odor.

“Does this smell?

I asked my wife

Who looked at me

As though I’d lost

More than my smell.


I opened the door

Of the refrigerator.

I couldn’t smell fruit,

The vinegar, the dressing.

So that’s it.

I smell nothing at all.

Some days I test

My nose again

With Ben Gay.

No luck.

What does this mean?


Not all bad.

No septic smells.

No bad farts.

No smells like something died

Across the street.

But then again,

No bakery smells,

No perfume, no bacon,

No coffee, no wet soil.


The doctor thinks

I’ll smell again

When my brain is back

To normal.

[Does he know

My brain has

Never been normal?]

It will

Or it won’t.

I can live with it

Either way,

For I can remember

Those smells,

But it’s not quite the same,

Of course.

I would miss the smell

Of my wet dog. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Happy Easter

Although I am not a Christian and Easter is not a big day for me, it is a HUGE day in Mexico.  In fact, Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a huge time for vacations, beach trips, and family gatherings. The price of fish, for example, around Lake Chapala doubles during this week to meet the demand.  Children have two weeks off from school, and the Lakeside area becomes overwhelmed, not with gringos, but with Mexicans from Guadalajara who have viewed this area for many years as a weekend retreat for Mexicans.  

Each commuity has their own customs around celebrating Easter. Ajijic has its own tradition which is known throughout Jalisco.  In Ajijic, each Good Friday, a procession goes from the church in the center of town, up onto the mountainside, with characters including Roman soldiers, Christ and two theives, each carrying their own crosses, where the crucifixion is reenacted.  Today they tie Christ onto the cross, but several years ago they would actually nail his palms to the cross.  It is a great honor chosen to be chosen to be Christ, but it used to be a good deal more painful.  At any rate, it is a remarkable ritual for which this town is very proud.  Here are some photos taken from the online magazine Mexico-Connect:

The weather here is getting warmer, especially in the afternoons, and dust is becoming much more noticeable.  Wash you car and an hour or two later, it is covered with a thin layer of "polvo" or dust.  Some people cover their comuters during this time of year.   You often see people, presumably with medical problems, wearing surgical paper masks.  Perhaps partly it is because of the dust.  There is, of course, very low humidity, so the heat is not oppressive.  It cools off by evening and stays cool in the morning.   But it is much warmer in the afternoons than usual.  The temperature may only be 90 degrees F, but because the sun is much more intense so it seems much hotter.   

I have, unfortunately had another experience with the medical system.  Although my mysterious brain bleeding is recovering nicely, and I am having far fewer symptoms and reducing my medications, I was having some sever pains in my calf, so I returned to my (new) physician.  He thought we should rule out a clot so sent me for an ultrasound.  Well, it turns out, I have a deep vein thrombosis in my right calf.  The treatment is complicated by my brain bleeding, which means they can't use anticoagulants, the therapy of choice.  Since the clot is below the knee, though, it is not in a high risk for breaking off and causing a pulmonary thrombisis (clot in the lung) which could be very dangerous.  They are monitoring the clot very closely to see if it changes or grows to become more dangerous.  I can report that it finally seems to be improving and my pain is better.  I have never had problems seeing either my physician or my cardiovascular specialist the same day if I had any concern.  I have had top notch imaging evaluations, including CaT scans, MRI's and doppler ultrasound.  So, hopefully, once this is over, I really will be better.  

The really sad news is that Pixie lost her mom to a long and courageous battle with lung cancer this week.  Pixie had gone to Maine in late January and stayed for five weeks to help her sister care for her mom, but she felt she had to return in Early March and help me with my problems.  It's been a tough winter for Pixie.  Here is a photo of her Mom in 2003 talking with Pixie: 

Pixie will return to Maine for a few days next week to attend the memorial service.  Unfortunately, I cannot fly now because of my medical problems, so Maggie and I will be staying with our friends Fred and Mardele Harland while Pixie is gone.  It's been a difficult time for her entire family, and I wish them the best.  

Sheldon James, a good friend of ours, found this excellent article which accurately discusses the narco-violence problem in Mexico.  I continue to get emails from my friends north of the border who worry about this issue, and imagine us trapped in our house surrounded by bandidos, certainly not the case.  Here is the article.  It's from a blog entitled The Truth About Mexico:

A post by "Frank Koughan" |

Frank is the author of Burro Hall, and is a former CBS News 60 Minutes producer who has been living in Queretaro since 2006. To see more posts by this author, click here.

As the Iraq War enters its seventh year, I’ve been trying to imagine a world in which CIA director George Tenet, faced with deciding whether to recommend sending young American men and women into a dangerous foreign country, receives information from the State Dept. and, instead of disregarding it, accepts it as credible and recommends standing down from the mission.

As reported by the New York Times this week, this actually did happen. Unfortunately, it happened six years too late; the country was Mexico; the mission, spring break; and the young people at risk were Tenet’s college age son and his friends. And this time, it was State that was being unnecessarily alarmist.

Last month, the State Dept. issued a travel advisory for Mexico that was, by bureaucratic memo standards, rather breathless:

“Mexican drug cartels are engaged in an increasingly violent conflict - both among themselves and with Mexican security services - for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border…Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.

Large firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but most recently in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juarez. During some of these incidents, U.S. citizens have been trapped and temporarily prevented from leaving the area…The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted.”

The phrase “large fire fights” tends to have a cooling effect on the tourism trade, and sure enough, colleges across the US have started warning students against spending spring break in a “war zone.”

I have lived in QuerĂ©taro, Mexico, for two-and-a-half years. My city is about 450 miles from the nearest beach, and farther still from the nearest wet t-shirt contest, and so I don’t have any particular interest in persuading a swarm of horny teenagers to come survive for a week on tequila shooters. But America’s young people are being fed a lot of misinformation about their neighbor to the south, so I’m here to set the record straight. For the children.

There is indeed a great deal of senseless, drug-fueled violence happening in Mexico right now: over 5,000 people were killed last year, and this year the body count hit 1,000 in just 51 days. But the vast, vast majority of the dead were either involved in the drug trade themselves, or were part of the forces (Army/ police/ judges/ officials) who are fighting them. If you’re planning to spend spring break either working for a drug cartel or joining the Mexican Army, then by all means you should think twice about coming here.

Consumers of American media could easily get the impression that Mexico is a blood-soaked killing field, when in fact the bulk of the drug violence is happening near the border. (In fact, one way of putting this would be that Mexico is safe as long as you stay far, far away from the US.) If your spring break destination of choice is Juarez, Tijuana or Nuevo Laredo, I would humbly suggest that you’re both a degenerate and insane. You’ve got plenty of underage prostitutes right at home in America, and despite what you may have read there’s no such thing as a “donkey show” here. Tenet is right. Cancel your vacation or I’m giving your name to Interpol.

It’s hard to blame universities for issuing these dire warnings, since they have a responsibility to their students, and the fact of the matter is, Americans do get killed here. But in debating whether or not Mexico is dangerous, they’re asking themselves the wrong question. The issue is, is Mexico dangerous compared to the United States? We’ve been hearing for years how American kids are falling behind in math and statistics, so I’ll try to keep the following simple as I can.

According to the State Dept., 669 Americans died “non-natural deaths” in Mexico in the three years between Jan ‘05 and Dec ‘07, which accounts for 30% of “non-natural” American deaths around the world. Sounds scary, but then Mexico also accounts for 30% of the foreign trips taken by Americans, so what do you expect? Furthermore, we’re talking about 45 million American visits to Mexico, so while 669 deaths are a tragedy, they are not exactly a killing field. Based on these numbers, the survival rate for Americans in Mexico would appear to be 99.9986%

Breaking that State Dept’s numbers down a little further, though, we see that 58 percent (389) of these “non-natural deaths” were from accidents - car, plane, boat or “other.” Eighty-five Americans drowned here in this national full of beach resorts. Fifteen died of drug overdoses and 61 Americans - nine percent of the total - committed suicide! Admittedly, life here can be frustrating sometimes, but any tourist who kills himself here should, in all fairness, not be counted against Mexico total.

The number of Americans who decided Mexico would be a great place to kill themselves is nearly half the number of those who had that decision made for them. According to the State Dept, a grand total of 126 Americans were murdered in Mexico during those three years - just slightly less than the 45,000 killed north of the border during the same period. So while your chances of not dying here may be 99.9986%, your chances of not being murdered here are 99.9997%. Anyone who considers those to be dangerous odds would be advised not to spend spring break in Las Vegas, either.

Recently, the Houston Chronicle took a look at the numbers (covering four years, instead of State’s three) and came to a similar conclusion: that fewer than one-thousandth of one percent of American visitors to Mexico come back to Uncle Sam in a pine box. Actually, the way the Chronicle phrased it was, “Caught in the Chaos: More than 200 U.S. Citizens Killed in Mexico Since ‘04”.

So, y’know, one a week, which makes the country a lot safer than most US cities. But then the Chronicle goes on to note:

“The Chronicle analysis showed some American homicide victims were involved in organized crime. The dead include at least two dozen victims labeled hitmen, drug dealers, human smugglers or gang members, based on published investigators’ accusations. Others were drug users or wanted for crimes in the United States…in at least 70 other cases, U.S. citizens appear to have been killed while in Mexico for innocent reasons: visiting family, taking a vacation, or simply living or working there.”

In other words, of the “200 U.S Citizens Slain,” 130 of them simply didn’t draw their own weapons fast enough. So we’re really talking about seventy murders in four years, during which time Americans made 60 million visits to Mexico, which has a population of about 120 million. For the record, that’s ten percent fewer murders than took place in Houston, population 2 million, in the first three months of 2008:

“HPD officials say that the City of Houston has recorded the fewest numbers of murders for the first quarter of this year since 2005.

“The unofficial numbers show 78 murders were recorded through the first three months of this year.

“There were 88 murders for the same period in 2007. That’s an 11.3 percent decrease.”

In case it’s not clear, Houston officials were proud of this. And they should have been, because in 2007, Houston had the second-highest urban homicide rate in the country:

“In Houston, the number of murders increased to 379 last year from 334 in 2005, a jump officials blamed in part on hurricane evacuees.

“The homicide rate has been much higher in years past, especially the 1980s,’ HPD Capt. Dwayne Ready told the Chronicle in October.

“‘Even if the number … for 2006 hits 400 it’s not a bleak picture for Houston.’”

If 400 people get gunned down in Houston in one year, the Houston Police Dept. doesn’t think it’s a “bleak picture.” But seventy innocent Americans get killed in Mexico over the course of four years, and the former director of Central Intelligence is warning people to steer clear? Where was this sense of caution six years ago?

Mexico is a real country, kids, not some isolated beach resort. There’s crime here. People die here – mostly by accident, but some by murder. But the same is true of the United States. The state of QuerĂ©taro, where I live, is very small – a little over a million people – and at any given time there are about 50,000 Queretanos working in the United States. In 2007, forty-one of them were shipped home for burial by the Mexican embassy. Strangely, no one here ever tries to talk me out of returning home for a visit.