Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Jacaranda Season


The jacaranda blooms, my spirit fed.

Frail branches bend to touch my heart

Lavender flowers falling soft upon my head.

As our misfortunes often lead to dread

And taste upon my tongue is sometimes tart

The jacaranda blooms, my spirit fed.

Its beauty is but brief, and I am led

To drink its nectar quickly, lest it depart

Lavender flowers falling soft upon my head.

Since to the heat of Mexico I’ve fled,

I step with awe into each day’s new start

The jacaranda blooms, my spirit fed.

And here among the plants, my life is wed

With unexpected joy, and nature’s art

Lavender flowers falling soft upon my head.

For at the end of every day it’s said

That precious moments linger as we part

The jacaranda blooms, my spirit fed

Lavender flowers falling soft upon my head.

Well, Jacaranda season has arrived. Pictured above is the beautiful Jacaranda tree, so ubiquitous in this area of Mexico. This tree, prolific throughout subtropical seasons is noted for its beautiful blossoms and much-needed shade. One Amazonian myth suggests that early people would meet to make important decisions under the Jacaranda tree, and that it has been called the tree of knowledge or justice.

I have my own theories which I have expressed the the poem above. The form of this poem is a villanelle. This rhyming, metered poetic form has two rhyming, repeated refrains and follows a strict rhyme scheme. The most famous villanelle with which you may be familiar is "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" by Dylan Thomas. I had been working on this for awhile, and am glad to have finished it while the Jacaranda are blooming.

Of course, around here, Jacaranda season is infamous for bringing on seasonal allergies, as it has for me. But the beauty of Jacarandas gracing the streets and gardens makes it worth it!

I have some additional photos to illustrate a few of the things I was discussing in the last post. First, here is a photo of my three Mexican English language students, from left Belin, Bertha, and Francisco.

As I mentioned in the last post, we were preparing to host the Maine/New Hampshire group at our house last week. We had about 20 New Englanders attend where we enjoyed drinks and appetizers on the back terrace. Here are a couple of photos of our "Down East" and "Live Free or Die" friends (the second from the left in the right photo is Brian. He is from Massachusetts, but he's a good guy!):

And finally, I mentioned that we enjoy attending, and sometimes leading, our Great Books discussion group. I asked them to pose for a group photo last week, sans Pixie and me. The result is below. From left: Kenya and George, Paul, Rick, Suzanne, Luis, Fred, and Aida. This is a wonderful collection of minds which leads to thoughtful observations and spirited discussions. One person, Jill Ann, is missing from the photo because she unfortunately broke her hip while on a vacation in Cairo. Fortunately she is back in Mexico and healing now.

You may remember I have been writing a bit about a new book on Mexican geography, Geo-Mexico. Rick, above, is the coauthor of that book. He is speaking this week at the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council and sent me an interesting quote from his speech which addresses Mexico's uncomfortable relationship with catholicism, and I am using it here with his permission:

Oh, but isn’t Mexico a Catholic country? Well, not exactly. Since gaining independence 200 hundred years ago, the Government has suppressed the Church. The Government confiscated all church property in 1857. The current 1917 Constitution, written after the Mexican Revolution, forbids churches from participating in primary and secondary education, denies legal standing to religious marriages, and prohibits the clergy from criticizing the Government or wearing religious attire in public. These restrictions were enforced so strenuously, that they provoked the Cristero Rebellion in 1926. Over 50,000 devout Catholics in Western Mexico took up arms against the Government. This three war cost 90,000 lives and reduced the number of priests in the country from 4,500 to only 334. Many Priests and staunch Catholics were killed, others immigrated to the U.S. Things have gradually improved, restrictions have been rescinded, and the Government finally established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1992.

Not what we might expect. In fact, Mexico has very strong divisions between church and state, which is why there are no catholic schools in Mexico and why the Church is not allowed to own any property other than the land a church is built on.

So, life goes on here. Things are relatively quiet now. The days are hot and the snowbirds have mostly left. Many people who live here take vacations north during April and May because of the heat. Many, like us, take leave during the summer months. So it is quiet and the traffic is not so congested now. I like this time of year.
I'd like to include one more reading in this post. My Dutch-American friend John De Waal has been working on a cause which many are skeptical about: getting Medicare benefits to cover treatment Americans receive in Mexico. The logic is simple. Medical care is good, and much less expensive here. Medicare could save money if people sought care here. It always seemed unlikely to me for political reasons. But John recently sent me an article form the Miami Herald which talks about cooperation between the Mexican and US governments to plan for many more retirees to move here from the US, including the Medicare issue. Likely? I don't know, but here's the article:


Mexico's big hope: get 5 million U.S. retirees



MEXICO CITY -- Mexico is silently working on proposals aimed at drawing millions of U.S. retirees to this country, which could eventually lead to the most ambitious U.S.-Mexican project since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Felipe Calderón is likely to propose the first steps toward expanding U.S. retirement benefits and medical tourism to Mexico when he goes to Washington on an official visit May 19, according to well-placed officials here. If not then, he will raise the issue later this year, they say.

``It's one of the pillars of our plans to trigger economic and social well-being in both countries,'' Mexico's ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan told me. ``We will be seeking to increasingly discuss this issue in coming months and years.''

Calderón brought it up during a U.S.-Canada-Mexico summit in Guadalajara in August last year, but President Barack Obama asked him to shelve the idea until he was able to pass healthcare reform, another official told me.

Now that Congress has passed healthcare reform, Calderón is preparing to charge ahead.


There are already an estimated 1 million Americans living in Mexico. And according to Mexican government estimates based on U.S. Census figures, that number is likely to soar to 5 million by 2025 as the U.S. population grows older and more Americans look for sunny, cheaper places to retire.

The U.S. Census projects that the number of U.S. retirees will soar from 40 million now to nearly 90 million by 2050. Already, 5 million American retirees live abroad, of whom 2.2 million are in the Western Hemisphere -- mostly in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Brazil. Another 1.5 million live in Europe and 850,000 in Asia.

The key to luring more U.S. medical tourists and retirees to Mexico and other Latin American countries will be getting hospitals in the region to be certified by the U.S. Joint International Commission, which establishes that they meet U.S. hospitals' standards. There are already eight Mexican hospitals certified by the JIC and several others awaiting certification.

According to Mexican government estimates, healthcare costs in Mexico are about 70 percent lower than in the United States. And from my own experience, those estimates are right: As I reported at the time, when I was hospitalized in Mexico two years ago for an emergency operation, my hospital bill was indeed about 70 percent lower than what it would have been in Miami.

So what will Calderón specifically propose to Obama? Most likely, the Mexican president will suggest starting with a low-profile agreement that would allow the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration to pay for Medicare benefits to U.S. retirees in Mexico. Under current rules, Medicare only covers healthcare services in the United States.


My opinion: Mexico and much of Latin America are bound to become growing U.S. retirement and medical tourism destinations, much like Spain has become a permanent living place for Germans, Britons and Northern Europeans.

You won't read much about it now because neither Calderón nor Obama will emphasize it publicly while the drug-related violence in northern Mexico is making big headlines, and while the political wounds from the recent U.S. healthcare debate are still open in Washington, D.C.

But I'm increasingly convinced that, as the violence in Mexico subsides and the healthcare debate becomes a distant memory in Washington, medical benefits' deals will become a top U.S.-Latin American priority. Just as free-trade agreements were the big thing of the 1990s, healthcare agreements will be the big deal of the coming decade.

I wouldn't be surprised if Calderón and Obama take the first baby steps toward a U.S.-Mexico healthcare agreement by finding a way to pay for Medicare benefits for U.S. expatriates in Mexico, or getting U.S. states to allow similar payments. Then, most likely after the 2012 presidential election in both countries, the two would start negotiating a more ambitious deal.

Demography, geography and economics are pointing in that direction. With the U.S. population getting older, a record U.S. budget deficit, rising U.S. healthcare costs, and Mexico and other Latin American countries badly needing more tourism and investments, this should be a win-win for everybody.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lazy, Hotter Days

Well, we don't have many great photos since the last post, so I thought I'd put a new photo of Chuy up front. He's about ten pounds now and very healthy. He's completely house trained, and adapting to our routine well. Chuy and I take about a 2 mile walk every morning down to the park by the lake. He's doing well with walking on a leash. When he gets tired he just lies down wherever he is. Not a bad strategy, I suppose. Like Maggie, he's very good at just living in the moment, and he reminds me to live mindfully!

The spring heat has arrived. The daytime temperatures are about 90 degrees F. but the humidity is low. We've had not a drop of rain since February, and I don't expect any until the rains arrive in June. In the meantime, it's hot during the day, and dusty. It seems as though dust accumulates on the car and inside the house on the furniture. Fortunately, the evenings and mornings are cooler. During the middle of the day, we tend to stay inside and relax.

We are busy with a number of things this week. We are hosting the Maine/New Hampshire group for drinks and appetizers on Wednesday. There are, at any time, about 30 people who hail from Maine or New Hampshire who gather at one of our houses for a happy hour; then we go to a local restaurant for dinner. These evenings are nice, since we can discuss the Red Sox and Patriots, the weather in New England (and how we are glad to be missing it!), summer travel plans back to New England, etc. It's a nice group and a fun tradition.

Pixie and I are both teaching workshops for our Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Pixie is teaching a workshop entitled "How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything." It's a creative exploration using craft items and drawing to enable people to explore what's important in their lives and seems to be popular and fun. I am leading a writing workshop for people to do autobiographical writing. Some people are writing a memoir, some are writing memories down for their children and grandchildren, and others are just experimenting with using their own memories to produce fiction or poetry. We meet once a month and usually sit on the terrace while participants share what they've been working on.

I am still teaching English to three Mexican students at one of their houses. We sit around a table and go over vocabulary and practice speaking and writing. For this week, each student is writing a story to share with the group. As each one writes his or her story, we use it to generate new vocabulary, English idioms, and practice grammar. I am enjoying this informal teaching much more than teaching a larger class of younger people at the library. The student I have now are all adults and highly motivated. Pixie is still teaching at an orphanage in Chapala. She is now in the process of working to help reorganize the ESL program. She loves her little Mexican children.

Our great books discussion group is still meeting twice a month. We enjoy it because it makes us read challenging pieces we likely would not read on our own. So far this year, we've read Plato, Plutarch, Immanuel Kant, Heinrich von Kleist, Thoreau, Matthew Arnold, William James, George Bernard Shaw, Chekhov, Yasunari Kawabata, Shirley Jackson, Lisel Mueller, Clarice Lispector, Eavan Boland, and Tim O'Brien. I like some readings more than others, but our discussion is always interesting because all twelve people in the group actually read and prepare for each session. I always walk away from each session feeling like the time we spent reading and discussing the works was worthwhile.

I will be reading some poems at the Ajijic Writer's Group this Friday. Several sessions ago, we had a guest speaker, James Falen, who is perhaps the most eminent translator of the Russian writer, Alexander Pushkin. Although I was a little bit familiar with Pushkin, I was very impressed by Falen's translations of some of Pushkin's Lyric poetry. Here's one example from Falen's translation of Pushkin's Ressurection:

The artist-vandal's lazy brush
Besmears a truthful work of art
And in a senseless, drunken rush
Destroy's a painting's living heart.

But with the years those painted lies
Like rotting scales are all unpeeled,
And once again before our eyes
A work of genius stand revealed.

So, too, with age there disappear
My soul's transgressions and untruth,
And then once more there reappear
The purest visions of my youth.

I was so inspired by reading the volume of Falen's translations of Pushkins rhyming lyric poetry, that I produced two new rhyming poems. The first, entitled Migration, is about my experience visitng the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan in February. The second, Sonnet to Futility is a lament about writer's block.


As you alight upon my wrist
Looking hale, firm and fit
Your Princeton patterned, paper wings
Have brought you here to rest and sit

In these high pines in Mexico
From Canada; you’ve made your flight
Primordial beacon led the way
I, pausing, breathless, drink in the sight,

Scores of thousands dripping here
From branches heavy with the dense
Migratory miracle
Of Monarchs mating, and I sense

As I look out upon the swarm
That I have witnessed here today
An unexplainable event
And now I watch you fly away.

Yet my small life, be as it may
Will never replicate this day.

Sonnet to Futility

So again I sit here, take my pen
To ink a poem upon this page
I touch some part of me, which then
Was immature, but now, with age,

I can see its truth from here
And let the cadence through my lips.
I know not how these special words
Can find my heart, the poem drips

Back deep within my soul again
It stirs my muse, more rhyme spills out;
Yet, alas, it’s naught, no birth
Of poem here; I’m left in doubt.

I fear I’ve mined all store of verse,
And labor on, in endless curse!

In the latest edition of the Guadalajara Reporter, there are articles about the earthquake risk in Jalisco (after last weeks quake in Baja California), an upcoming UN conference on telecommunication to be held in Guadalajara which is expected to bring 3000 delegates to the city, the rising life expectancy in Mexico (75.4 years, a rise of 14.8 years sine 1970), a concert of perhaps the world's best mariachi band to be held in Ajijic, and an article about a 52 year American woman who has been released from a Mexican prison after serving four years for money laundering and involvement in organized crime.

Finally, this photo shows our attempt to rejuvenate our sickly bougainvillea plants along the west wall of our garden. We had rather large plants which were here when we bought the house, but they never produced many blossoms. Our young gardener, Horacio, suggested we cut back the plants and also plant some new ones. We did, and now we'll have to see how well they grow. You can see the new growth on some of the cut-back plants...but we'll see. I'll post results later.

We have made our final plans for our visit to Maine this summer. We'll be flying to Boston on June 24, then renting a car and driving to Waldoboro to visit my dad and step-mom for a few days. On July 1 we are moving into a condo owned by friends from our Auburn UU Church, Marc and Beth Ayotte. We'll be there until July 29, when we'll visit Gloucester, MA and my two brothers. before returning to Guadalajara on July 31.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mexico Through Cassie's Eyes

Our youngest daughter, Cassie, finally arrived for a visit in Mexico after being unable to get out of Boston at Christmas because of the huge snowstorm. She had been in Fort Worth Texas the previous week for a week-long session for her MFA program in Illustration through Hartford Art School. She is finishing up her program, so she arrived here exhausted and with lots of drawing and writing to do to finish up her thesis. We didn't do much very exciting, but we did have a wonderful visit. The above photo of Cassie was taken at the Balneario in San Juan Cosala. It is a facility with swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, and spa services. The waters are mineral, thermal baths, heated by the volcanic activity in this area. The Balneario is a popular relaxing spot for many Mexicans, and it is one of our favorite places to visit. In fact I was "ordered" by my orthopedic doctor to soak in the hot tub and exercise my shoulder there once a week when I was doing physical therapy for my torn rotator cuff last fall.

Cassie forgot her camera, so borrowed ours while she was here. She has a different eye, so I thought I'd share some of her photos. These photos are from the malecon (paved walkway with vendors) area of Chapala:

Here are some of her views of Ajijic, perhaps different from the ones I might take:

So there you have a "Cassie's eye view" of our area of Mexico. Of course, mostly what we saw of Cassie was her working hard, for many hours, on her drawings:
So, now she's returned to Providence with her partner, Alana, and her new puppy, Yote. They are relocating to Maine this spring, and Cassie will be completing her program at Hartford in July. Alana is starting her program at USM to become a nurse practitioner. Cassie starts her new job at a preschool for autistic children in the middle of this month. Needless to say, she will be very busy!

This is a sad time of year for us as we are forced to say adios to many of our friends who are here only for the winter months. This was the case with two friends, Ron and Jean from Kennebunkport, who left yesterday. They were staying at the Casa del Sol B&B helping out Cathy Roberts who also relocated here from Maine. I attended a reception for them At Cathy's B&B. From the left, Cathy, Jean, and Ron:
Fortunately, we'll get to see Ron and jean this July when we visit Maine, and they have already made arrangements to return next winter.

So, as the snowbirds leave, we are left with the blooming Jacaranda trees, which are beautiful but intensify pollen and allergy symptoms for people like me. The weather is turning decidedly warmer, and will be quite hot in another couple of weeks, until the June rains come and cool things off. This is Holy Week (Semana Santa) here and the restaurants and thermal baths are crowded with vacationing Mexicans. We are going to have our annual flower communion at our fellowship on Sunday then attend a Mexican buffet and mariachi concert at a local hotel for Easter.