Monday, September 27, 2010

Good Rainy Season!

Here is how the Chapala pier looks today, in 2010.  It looks normal, meaning that it is surrounded by water, as we would imagine a pier to be. As recently as 2001, however, the rains were insufficient to provide Lake Chapala with enough water, since some of it was diverted to irrigate agricultural fields elsewhere in Jalisco.  To get a sense of how dramatically better the lake is now, here is a photo of the same pier only nine years ago.  The lake was so low, you cannot even see the water in this photo:
(photos from

You hear people today praise the rains and they always explain that they remember when the lake was very low. Here is an excerpt which explains a bit about the lake's recent history, taken from

The Lake is about 75 kilometers (50 miles) long from east to west with a maximum north-south width of about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles). Its large surface area (1,050 square kilometers or 405 square miles) makes it the largest natural lake in Mexico and the third largest in Latin America, after Lake Titicaca and Lake Nicaragua in Central America. Despite its size, Lake Chapala is quite shallow, with an average depth of only slightly over four meters (13 feet) and an maximum depth of less than 30 meters (9.75 feet)— Tony Burton
The region surrounding Lake Chapala comprises eight municipalities in the state of Jalisco and four in the state of Michoacan. Most of the area's visitors and residents from abroad gravitate to the Northshore municipalities of Ajijic, Chapala and Jocotepec.-- Dale Hoyt Palfrey
 Lake Chapala has undergone a dramatic transformation since the start of the new millennium. In June, 2002 the lake stood at the lowest level recorded since 1955, holding less than 15 per cent of its full water storage capacity. The dire situation prompted a number of environmental activists to warn of Chapala's imminent demise, a prediction that fortunately proved dead wrong. Abundant precipitation during the 2003 and 2004 rainy seasons has brought the lake back to around 75% full capacity and the highest level registered since the early 1980's.

The State of Jalisco now opens dams from nearby rivers to help control the level of the lake as well, and limits have been established as to how much water may be taken from the lake for irrigation.  This year's rainfall of over 42 inches is already well above the average rainfall of 31.9 inches, so the lake is even higher this year: good for tourism and fo the farmers.  Ironically, much of the Guadalajara water supply comes from Lake Chapala, yet our local water comes from drilled wells.  

Pixie has started teaching again at the Love in Action orphanage, in Chapala.  She teaches a conversational English class to four children every Wednesday morning, and on Fridays, she and another couple from our Unitarian fellowship, Sue and Kelly, conduct a library time for the children.  Sue was a librarian in her former life and, together with Pixie and Kelly, she has set up a wonderful library with English and Spanish books, puzzles, and computers to give the children something interesting to do.  Here are some photos of the children during last Friday's library session: 

On another topic, Pixie and I have recently finished reading an interesting book, The China Study,  by T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas (  In this book, which was based on a series of longitudinal studies on diet and disease in China, the authors reach the conclusion that plant-based diets, as eaten in many areas of the world, are healthier and provide protection from many "diseases of affluence" such as cardiovascular disease; prostate, breast and colon cancers; diabetes; and hypertension.  He surmises that it's not just the saturated fat which causes so much harm, but the animal protein as well.  Of course, he advocates a vegan diet, which includes no dairy products or eggs either.  

Well, after reading this book, and a few others, watching Pixie's favorite TV doctor, Dr. Oz, and thinking about our diet, we have started converting to a vegetarian diet. Living in  meat-loving Mexico makes it tricky, but we  are trying to move in that direction.  We try to eat a vegan at home, except for low fat yogurt, which we both enjoy. There are thousands of delicious vegan recipes on line.  Eating out and at others' homes is not as easy.  We will, of course, eat the food which is served by others in their homes although I must say, most of our friends eat healthy diets.  When we eat out, we will occasionally eat fish or chicken and cheese.  So, I guess we are doing vegetarian as much as is reasonably possible.  So far, it's not hard and we enjoy cooking and trying new recipes.  We'll see how it works out in the long run.  We are fortunate to have so many fresh vegetables and fruit available locally.  

Our birds of paradise have continued with their "miracle" blooms; we now count five! 

Finally, I attended the annual awards luncheon for the writers in the local magazine, El Ojo del Lago (Eye of the Lake) last week.  My column, "Uncommon Common Sense" won this year's award for best column.  No money, of course, but a nice plaque.  

The column is really about critical thinking, although I often adapt it to local issues or worldwide events.  In October, I am writing about the Islamic community center being proposed near ground zero, and use the emotional opposition  to this project as an example of collective "weak thinking."  This month's column is included below, for any who may be interested.  You can access the magazine online at
(Thanks to Kay Davis for photo)
Why Do People Believe Weird Things?

In my former life, I was a professor at a community college.  I have had a long-standing interest in rationalism and critical thinking.  I was active in the “critical thinking movement” in education.  This was an effort to transform education from the “lecture and regurgitate” model of learning to a pedagogy which insisted that students learn how to think and reason, how to decide for themselves what to believe.  Our goal, I believe, was to teach our students how to learn, how to think, not what to think. So that’s my bias.

When I attended a college graduation in Maine one spring, the commencement speaker was an eminent educational reformer.  When he stood up to speak, the first words from his mouth were as follows: “The purpose of a college education is to teach you to be a good crap detector!”  It shocked the audience a bit, but I think he was right.  The purpose of being an educated person is to be able to decide what to believe and what’s just a bunch of crap. 

Why do so many otherwise intelligent people believe so many wierd things? An example:  I have met a number of people who really believe that George Bush ordered the destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.   They point to “evidence” that he was in cahoots with the Saudis, that scientists claim that the towers were sabotaged, that he needed a crisis to revive his presidency, etc.  Now I may be unsophisticated, but I just don’t find this plausible. I may be proven wrong, but from what I’ve read so far, I doubt it. 

Some people believe that eating a particular Chinese herb will single-handedly prevent illness and extend their lives.  Others believe that your dead relatives are trying to communicate with you, that wearing a takionic headband can improve your thinking, that psychics can predict the futrue, and that planning their lives around astrological configurations will bring them prosperity and happiness. 

These are just some examples of what I consider to be “weird” beliefs people have.  If I haven’t alienated all my readers by now, I’ll consider why I think such beliefs persist. 

First of all, I think the world is a confusing and scary place.  Bad events may affect any one of us at any time.  So, because we fear the unknown and the randomness of events, we are always looking for ways we can stay in control.  As a result, we are vulnerable to those who claim to provide easy solutions to problems which may, by their very nature, be insoluble.  If I believe I can avoid problems by looking at the configuration of the stars, then that’s comforting.  If I convince myself that I can avoid a random illness by ingesting a particular herb every day, then I will feel safer. 

The root of our anxiety, I think, is fear of the randomness of life.  We look for ways to “control” our lives.   We are susceptible to claims that promise to protect us from illness, unhappiness, or loss.  We look for explanations which make us feel in control of our lives.  The reality that we often have little or no control, or that our loved ones are gone forever, is a frightening prospect. 

The problem, of course, is that instead of basing our beliefs on clear evidence, we sometimes base them on what we want to be true.  We want to be able to control our health and make ourselves happy.  Unfortunately, most of these so-called solutions, are ineffective.  Conspiracy theories are popular because they explain, and assign blame.  In reality, we cannot control many things in our lives. We need to become good “crap detectors” and make sure when we decide what claim to believe, that we first carefully examine the evidence.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Miracle Blossom

Well.  Here's a story.  Our beautiful birds of paradise plants had stopped blossoming for over a year.  We consulted our gardener, Horacio.  He thought our plant had just become dormant or that the plant was dying. We were worried we'd never see another blossom.  Well, as I've written in the last couple of posts, Mexico has been going crazy celebrating the bicentennial of its independence.  The big day was Thursday, September 16.  The crowds gather on the evening of the 15th to reenact the reading of the 'grito' and party all night.   We, I am a bit ashamed to admit, were too tired to attend the grito ceremony this year.  It's late... around midnight... and it's so crowded, it's impossible to find a place to park or even sit, because it's SO crowded.  So we begged off and stayed home and listened to the fireworks from Chapala which went late into the night.  (I should point out here that Mexicans love to shoot off fireworks for ANY reason, ANY night, so we are all very used to these 'bombas.').  

NOW.... as a critical thinker...I know this was most likely a coincidence, but the next morning, at the exact dawn of Mexico's third century, there it was, a beautiful new blossom on our dormant bird of paradise plant.  So, who knows?  I'm sure my Mexican friends who are very spiritual and believe in  milagros would not have such skepticism as I.

For the record, here are some great images of the bicentennial celebration in Mexico city, including one of President Felipe Calderon at the 'grito' ceremony in the capital.  (Images courtesy of The Huffington Post).

So, the celebrations are over, and now life is back to normal.  We went to visit our friend, Sue Kelley today who just had a hip replacement (a couple of weeks ago) at the IMSS hospital in Guadalajara.  The IMSS is the national medical care system (although many Mexicans are not covered).  The cost is about $400/ year, and it covers everything, including drugs.  She had a problem which required a follow-up procedure, and now she has to stay in bed, flat on her back, for six weeks.  UGH.  She needs company, so lots of us from the fellowship are spending some time with her.  She looks great.  

We are working to get our house ready to go on the market about October 15.  There's not much to do but some painting and fixing a few things, but it could take awhile to sell.  

Chuy is doing well and has had some recent play dates with Layla, Curly, and Rudy, his canine friends.  He's calming down a bit and seems to be developing an affectionate personality.  He is choosing to sleep on our bed occasionally, so that's progress.  But he's still prematurely gray!
We're following the US election season with some horror.  This 'tea party' phenomenon means something, but we're not sure exactly what.  The US political system seems to go through periodic meltdowns, and this appears to be one.  We are hoping the Democratic voters will come to their senses and rush to the polls in November to prevent a right-wing landslide.  I regularly read the US newspapers and political blogs on line.  A friend just lent me a wonderful 2003 book called The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria.  I think it explains a lot about what the problem is with US politics and government today.   Check it out if you get a chance.  Has anyone out there read it?  

Google, which hosts this blog, has recently changed its software so I can now allow people to post comments to the blog without registering.   It's now easy, so feel free to click 'comment' and give your thoughts.  

I'll end with a view of our wonderful green mountains across the street from our house and a couple more garden photos.  

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New York Times Op-Ed Reflections on Mexico's Bicentennial

September 14, 2010

In Mexico, a War Every Century

Mexico City

EVERY 100 years, Mexico seems to have a rendezvous with violence. As the country gathers on Wednesday night for the ceremony of the “grito” — the call to arms that began the war for independence from Spain — we are enduring another violent crisis, albeit one that differs greatly from those of a century and two centuries ago.

In 1810 and 1910, revolutions erupted that lasted 10 years or more and were so destructive that both times it took decades for the country to re-establish its previous levels of peace and progress. Both episodes furthered Mexico’s political development, however, and our collective memory centers on these two dates that have taken on such symmetrical and mythical significance.

In 2010, Mexico is again convulsed with violence, though the size and scope of today’s conflict does not even remotely approach that of 1810 or 1910. This war is unfolding within and between gangs of criminals, who commit violent acts that are fueled only by a competitive lust for money. This is strikingly different from the revolutions of 1810 or 1910, which were clashes of ideals.

In 1810, Mexican-born Spaniards — the creoles — saw no recourse other than violence as the means to gain independence from Spain. Their principles were inspired by the doctrines of 16th-century thinkers like the Jesuit Francisco Suárez, who argued for “popular sovereignty.” But the creoles were also driven by specific grievances: they had long resented domination by men from the Iberian Peninsula; they were also indignant that the seemingly inexhaustible wealth of New Spain had been the principal financial resource for the frivolousness and senseless wars of the Spanish empire.

Yet the crown repeatedly ignored opportunities that might have avoided violent revolution — Spain certainly could have loosened connections with its overseas dominions and granted Mexico some degree of independence. When the provincial priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla shouted his call to arms, the grito, from the steps of his Dolores church, the war for independence finally exploded.

Shortly afterward, a vast, mostly Indian army, armed mainly with slings, stones and bludgeons, conquered various regional capitals, stopping just short of Mexico City itself. Though Father Hidalgo was captured and executed in 1811, the uprising continued under the leadership of another priest, José María Morelos, who would also be seized and killed by the Spanish government. But Mexico would finally gain its independence in September 1821.

From 1810 to 1821, the war for independence cost about 300,000 lives in a population of around 6 million. Afterward, state income, agricultural, industrial and mining production, and, above all, the availability of capital for investment did not reach their pre-1810 levels until the 1880s. And the material desolation was followed by almost five decades of insecurity on the roads, political instability and grievous civil and international wars.

There was also a series of confrontations between the country’s Liberal and Conservative factions until the victory of President Benito Juárez over the Conservatives and the French army that supported them. Following this unstable period, the Liberal government separated church and state and adopted a stable, electoral political structure.

Unfortunately for our fledgling democracy, Porfirio Díaz, Juárez’s greatest general, seized power in 1876. Still, under his long authoritarian regime, Mexico achieved notable material progress in the development of industry, the transportation network and foreign trade.

In 1910, after more than three decades of dictatorship, a large portion of the population believed that violence was the only way to overthrow Díaz. A brief, purely democratic revolution attained its aim but was soon reversed through a military coup supported by the American ambassador.

This new assault on the honor and well-being of the country — along with other accumulated grievances of peasants, workers and the nationalistic middle class — led to the first true social revolution of the 20th century.

The revolution of 1910 was even more destructive than the one in 1810. About 700,000 of some 15 million Mexicans died in warfare or through illness or starvation. An additional 250,000 emigrated to the United States. Industrial production plummeted. Ranches, haciendas and cities were demolished. And from 1926 to 1929 came the additional devastation of the Cristero war between Catholic peasants and the anti-clerical government; the state’s eventual victory took 70,000 lives.

Beginning in 1929, the country re-established a central government (though unlike the Juárez presidency, it was not a democratic one) under the hegemony of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The government carried vast agricultural reforms, substantially improved the conditions for workers, established public institutions for social welfare that are still alive and well and oversaw decades of growth and stability. In the view of most historians, the great social reforms accomplished by later governments justified the Mexican Revolution’s decade of violence.

Today, a handful of powerful criminal groups has unleashed a blood-soaked and utterly illegitimate wave of violence against the Mexican government and Mexican society. This “war,” which rages in too many cities and states of my country, has created a truly Hobbesian situation of human brutality.

This situation is, in part, an unintentional result of Mexico’s definitive transition to democracy. In the past 10 years, there has been a centrifugal effect on power, loosening the authoritarian hand of the president and giving more latitude to local forces that, unfortunately, have included drug cartels and other criminal enterprises.

This war, though, will have to be won — and economic growth will have to be revivified — within the rules of democracy. Congress and President Felipe Calderón must agree on reforms to make the economy more open, competitive and efficient. And the struggle against organized crime will require a centralized police force that is more honest and professional; secure prisons; better control of the customs apparatus and the flow of money; and changes in the judicial system, along with nationwide campaigns against drug addiction.

Despite a bloody mythology that venerates the great protagonists of 1810 and 1910, most of whom met brutal deaths, the common denominators of our national history have been social, ethnic and religious coexistence; the peaceful construction of cities, villages and communities; and the creation of a rich cultural mosaic. Many of us want to believe that we are living through a nightmare from which, one morning, we will simply wake up, once again at ease.

But this is not the way things are. We are dealing with a situation generated, to a great extent, by the market for drugs and weapons in the United States and by the refusal of many Americans to recognize their own portion of responsibility in these tragic events. The drug war will have to be resolved on both sides of the border.

Nonetheless, on Wednesday night, as we have on every Sept. 15 for 200 years, Mexicans will gather together in the central squares of our cities and towns, even in the smallest and most remote villages. At midnight, we will hear a local governing official re-enact the grito uttered by Miguel Hidalgo, the “father of the fatherland.”

All the plazas across Mexico will be filled with light and music and color. And in the historic center of Mexico City, we will watch the fireworks and the parades and we will hear President Calderón ring the church bell once sounded by Miguel Hidalgo and then we will shout, jubilantly, with genuine feeling: “Viva México!”

Enrique Krauze is the editor of the magazine Letras Libres and the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power.” This article was translated by Hank Heifetz from the Spanish.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Mexico Gets Ready to Celebrate


Mexico celebrates two major events this week: its independence from Spain, in 1810, and the beginning of Mexican Revolution in 1910. Miguel Hidalgo, left, was the priest who led the War of Independence against Spain. Unlike Great Britian, Spain's approach to its holdings in the New World was not one of improvement and setting up the institutions of a great civilization. The Spanish brought Catholicism to "New Spain" and enslaved the indigenous people. Spain had few liberal constitutional traditions from which the independent Mexican Republic could draw its government structure. During the Spanish inquisition, the Church asserted its power and used it to manage its New World colonies. Spain exploited Mexico for its gold and other natural resources. Although Mexicans revere the bravery of Hidalgo and his fellow freedom-fighters, independence did not lead to peace and prosperity here. The poor Mestizo and Indio populations continued to be exploited by the rich hacienda owners and controlled by the vast wealth of the Church. The United States promptly appropriated about half of Mexico's land, now much of California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The irony is that illegal immigration into Mexico's land by American squatters gave the US a reason to go to war over this land. The seizure of this land by US troops created long-standing resentment in Mexico and makes the current focus on Mexican immigration so tragic.

In 1910, the peasants in Mexico rose in rebellion, led by their complex heroes, Poncho Villa (above right) Zapata, and Madero. This uprising was a result of the policies under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz who was letting foreign investors exploit Mexican natural resources and allowed the continual poor treatment of Mexican workers. While Mexican workers remained poor and undernourished, Diaz and his hacienda cronies basked in corruption and wealth. The Revolution, which lasted 10 years , eventually overthrew Diaz. By the time the Revolution ended in 1920, the church was no longer able to own land or participate in education or politics and much of the hacienda land was redistributed to the peasants and the indigenous people. (Actually some of this reform had started under the administration of the popular president Benito Juarez in the1880's before Diaz came to power). Poncho Villa, Zapata and Madero were popular leaders of the Revolution. Poncho Villa actually launched an attack on the United States, which actually owned 27% of Mexican land in 1900. He is remembered as the only Mexican who launched an attack on the US. General Pershing sent a contingent of US troops to Mexico to capture Villa, but they never did. He remains an complicated hero, portrayed as a bandit by some and a hero to many.

Today, Mexico is preparing for its bicentennial as an Independent Republic on September 16. Flags are for sale on street corners and many businesses will be closed Wednesday September 15 and Thursday September 16. On the evening of September 15, crowds gather in the plaza of every puebla in Mexico to hear the reading of the grito, Hidalgo's declaration of Independence from Spain, followed by a huge fiesta and fireworks. We plan to be in the Ajijic plaza for this momentous event.

Yesterday, I went into San Antonio, the town between Ajijic and Riberas, where we live. Besides a good supermarket there, which stocks many American products if you want to pay through the nose, San Antonio recently opened a pescaderia, or fish market where we can buy a variety of fresh fish several time a week. It is also where we go to Handy Mail to get our mail which is brought down twice a week by courier from our Laredo, Texas post office box (they sell water treatment products in Handy Mail too).

While I was in San Antonio, I came upon a Mexican funeral. Typically, these funerals are very simple. Family and friends usually sit with the body all night after the death, eating, drinking, and reminiscing about the person's life. For burial, we often see people carrying a wooden coffin, followed by family and friends in procession to the local cemetery. Yesterday, I saw such procession. Instead of carrying the coffin, in this case, the people were actually walking behind a hearse.

Finally, I've included some photos I took of the gorgeous gardens at the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic. The LCS grounds were donated by Neill James, for the promotion of good relations between Mexicans and foreigners in Ajijic. It offers many services for expats, including a huge library and medical services. It sponsors English language and art programs for Mexican children and adults. But the most striking feature is the mature tropical garden which allows members and visitors to sit on the grounds in contemplation, reading, or in conversation over coffee, enjoying these wonderful plants.