Shopping Remains a Challenge!

One of my first blogs was about the woes and challenges of furnishing a small condo nearly ten years ago.  Despite all the Home Depots and Costcos that have since invaded the perimeter of the city, the woes persist.

Even the smallest of condos need refurbishing as time and the salt air compromise the metal, wilt the fabrics, fade the sofa.  The refrigerator develops a bloom of rust on the sides and the tile flooring chips and the cabinet doors sag.

I was on a mission today.  I wanted a new bedspread, lightweight for the upcoming summer months, and also wanted to explore the possibility of installing two small panes of stained glass on a west-facing kitchen window that heat up the kitchen when the sun shines on it.  I tracked down the location of a small one-man stained glass place and walked the eight blocks to it just before noon.  He was gone.  The guy making tacos in the cart next door said he would be back at noon.  It was 11:55am.  I waited a bit.  He had posted a phone number on his door, but I didn’t have my phone with me.  I finally gave up and walked back, stopping at Lucy’s CuCu Cabana a few blocks away, as I recalled they had a Guatemala bedspread I had been lusting for all year.

Gil and Lucy were gone, but Nancy was there to assist me.  I asked about the end-of-season discount that I knew they offered this time of year.  She showed me a couple bedspreads and I found one I wanted.  I buy a lot of stuff there, as gifts and for my own home.  My house looks like their store.  These sorts of transactions are always cash, and I didn’t have enough with me.  I had to go home, collect my pesos and also hail a taxi for an outgoing renter.  So at 1:30 I retrace my steps and return to the stained glass place.  He still is not there.  The taco guy shrugs his shoulders, continues making tacos.  I have my phone with me this time and call him.  Taco man says he spoke English.  Well, he really doesn’t.  Glass guy hands the phone to his wife.  I ask her when he will be there, and then my phone goes dead.

Taco guy takes pity on me and dials his neighbor on my phone, they have a conversation.  It’s decided that he will return around 5PM.  I have other plans at 5PM and ask when he will be there in the morning.  “He’s always here at 10AM”.  We’ll see.  Well, at least I can pick up the bedspread on my way home.  I arrive to Lucy’s and it seems Nancy has just closed the shop down for lunch, back in an hour.  I walk home, absolutely nothing accomplished except achieving my 10,000 steps that day.  It’s hot, I’ve been walking.  I snap open the tab of a cold beer left behind by departing renters.  I hear a whistle.

The guy who sharpens knives announces himself to the neighborhood by blowing on a whistle.  He reliably walks our street a couple times a week.  I grab my two $100 Henckle knives and a pair of worn scissors and a cold Coke (also left behind my departing renters) and holler over the railing at him.  “Hey knife guy!” I scream in my impeccable Spanish.  He stops, waves.  His little boy is with him, as always.  One day he’lI be the knife guy.  I hand my knives to the man and the Coke to his son.  He travels with a little stool outfitted with a wobbly sharpening wheel, and a second stone to fine-tune the edges.  He likely does some damage to the edge of my knives, but leaves them sharper than before.  I get this done a couple times a year.

I go back inside with my knives, and return to the beer, which is a little flatter but still cold.  At least something got done today.

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The Days of the Dentista

One of the huge pluses of living part of the year in Puerto Vallarta, or anywhere in Mexico for that matter, is access to good, affordable medical and dental care.  For those of us without insurance in the US, it is a critical part of being here.  Currently, Medicare does not cover the ex-pat community, so our retired neighbors are especially grateful for this.  Names of hospitals, doctors and dentists are passed around continuously.

I have a great dentist – Dr. Michel, who is high on the ex-pat list due to his expertise and fluent English (movie-star good looks don’t hurt either).  Location is not one of the pluses.  There are closer clinics to where I live on the south side – including a well-regarded facility just two blocks away.  But I am a creature of habit, and have been seeing Dr. Michel for 10+ years.  I get on the (twenty minute) bus to Versailles, and walk the remaining 4 blocks to the clinic.

This last trip to PV was especially memorable.  I scheduled my end-of-the-season teeth cleaning in March, as did most of the ex-pat community, apparently.  I wasn’t able to see Dr. Michel, but was assigned to another dentist, a young woman named Dr. Bonilla.  She did a vigorous job of cleaning my teeth, including the usual lecture about flossing.  Her English was limited, but you always know a flossing lecture when you hear one.

The next day a molar broke.  This has happened to me before, and Dr. Michel has always taken me for an emergency visit.  Not this time – back to Dr. Bonilla, but grateful to get this taken care of before I left for Oregon, where the cost of a crown would have been at least triple the $350 I paid.  The initial work was done, the temporary installed, the cast sent to the lab.  I was due to return the following week to complete the work.  BAM.  Another molar broke, just three days later.  What are the chances?  So instead of getting my new crown, another initial appointment for crown #2.  Everything is cash, USD.  I was fortunate to have brought enough money with me to pay for the work, but it didn’t leave me with much expense money to live on.  That’s OK, because I wasn’t eating much.

The next two weeks were a blur of buses and endless trips to the clinic to take care of all this.  The crowns didn’t fit, the appointments were long and sometimes painful, and the days hotter as the warm weather approached.  I walked the same streets regularly enough that the guys in the food stands and tiendas would greet me with a friendly wave.  The ladies sweeping the sidewalks in front of their homes and shops offered a friendly “hola”.  They thought I had moved to the ‘hood.  A nice man speaking fluent English stopped me on the street, insisting we had tacos together last year, called me by the wrong name.  (North Americans sort of look alike).

Finally, the work was done.  It was never really satisfactory like the previous crowns, but it was time to go home.  The muscles in my jaw were strained from the procedures and I couldn’t eat, was drinking with straws, and I couldn’t even talk properly.  My mouth wouldn’t open more than one finger wide.  This persisted for several weeks, finally resolving to near-normalcy.

This is June.  I am returning to PV in November.  Think I’ll schedule ahead this time…

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The End of the Season

Just as there is great anticipation for the first visit of the year – packing, planning, contacting friends and general excitement – there is the reverse process for the end of the year.  I had to leave early this year due to family obligations.  My ex-husband was going to Europe on business, and I needed to be here to tend to my daughter.  My usual 5-6 week stay was shortened to just over three weeks, which I know is a long vacation for most people, but tragically short (!) for me.  I really don’t have a good excuse to stay after Easter.  Most of my renters are gone, and the ones that drift in late spring and into summer are repeat visitors who don’t need the assistance that my first-timers do.

Late April and May are my “me” time.  The pace slows, the workload is less, and I get to do the things that the vacationers do for a couple weeks.  That trip to the Botanical Garden that somehow didn’t get on the calendar.  Taking the boat to Yelapa and spending the night.  Wandering down to the beach to watch the sunset instead of getting glimpses from my balcony as I wait for the next airport taxi to arrive.

As my departure day grows near, I start noticing the planes headed north.  I count the dwindling days and make plans to see everyone just one more time.  Make silly meals out of the aging cheeses and limp vegetables that remain in my fridge.  One more speghetti dinner.  Gather up together the things that won’t make it over the humid summer – the pastas, grains, tea bags – and give them to friends, leave them for the maid.

I will have a few renters in my place over the next few months.  Just enough to keep the air moving and the plants watered.  Not so many that my electricity costs are driven up.  Here, power usage over a certain amount will drive up your cost for an entire year.  People who can afford to run the AC all the time pay the price – or their landlords do.

Finally the day is here.  I do triage on my clothes.  Take some home for Oregon’s short summer, tuck some away in my extra dresser to make way for my guests’ things, give some away.  Everything is crammed into my carry-on plus an old backpack that holds my computer and important paperwork.  A book, some snacks for the plane.  I had to leave my jacket here – just wouldn’t fit.  My friend Diane beeped for me right on schedule, and I dragged my stuff into her aging Volkswagen, and she dropped me off at the airport.

I miss my little condo like I miss a good friend.  I wonder about it, worry about it.  Miss it terribly.  Miss my friends and neighbors and Rocky the Cat. Miss the sunsets.  Miss the unpredictable life I have there, as I settle back into the everyday life of Portland Oregon, until November, when it all starts up again.  Hasta Luego!  Te Amo!

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Thanksgiving in Mexico

Mexico has two Thanksgivings.  The “Canadian Thanksgiving” which occurs on the second Monday in October, and the “American Thanksgiving” which occurred yesterday.  They are essentially identical food-wise, but spaced about a month apart, as the harvest in Canada occurs before our own.  Snow, all that.  Mexico seems to have no parallel holiday, except for their enthusiastic harvesting of the dollars generated by their north American visitors eager to recreate the holiday they are missing at home.

Nearly every sizable restaurant offers a Thanksgiving feast on both occasions.  Frozen turkeys fill the Costcos and Walmarts (yes, I’m sorry, there are these stores here).  Although there are some good feasts out there, they just aren’t the same.  People go home full, but disappointed, with stories of beef gravy being poured over undercooked turkey.  Something’s missing in even the best of meals.  I call it the “Grandma Factor”.

I was itchy to try something different this year.  I miss my family, and wanted a novel event to take my mind off them.  It would be too easy to just join friends in a local restaurant on the beach.  I decided to join Pam Thompson’s group who each year charter a bus and head up into the mountains to San Sebastian, about a two-hour drive.  Just outside of town is 250-year-old Hacienda Jalisco.  They rent out a few upstairs rooms, each with a fireplace and lanterns, as there is no electricity.  The walls are thick, and a deep porch wraps around the upstairs, and provides a cool spot to watch the sunsets and the thunderstorms.   I was told it was so quiet at night you could hear your heart beat.  A small stream runs through the property, and you can walk into town on a rocky footpath in about twenty minutes.  I was tempted to try, but did not think my flipflops were up to the task.

I knew only a few of the people on the bus, but we quickly turned into a jovial bunch, touring the grounds and the museum, the “John Huston” room.  That guy got around.  There were stories of Liz and Dick, extravagant parties and way too much alcohol.  I’m sure the stories get better every year.  In any case, it is an impressive place, and well worth a trip to see it, or spend the night.

The dinner was fine, but “Grandma” still not there.  I was not there for the turkey as much as the opportunity to take a road I haven’t taken, see what’s in the rugged mountains to the northeast of Puerto Vallarta.  I don’t have a car, so take every opportunity I can to see the area.

We drove through the suburbs of PV, then made our way east through the little towns as we journeyed towards the mountains.  They are real mountains, the Sierra Madre foothills.  San Sabastian is at about 5000’ elevation, and the trees change, the air gets crisper.  The mountains are steep, lushly forested, and the road precarious and winding.  And this is the new road.  On the plateaus are little hamlets, just a collection of small homes at a crossroad of some sort.  Each one has its little tienda, it’s Mexican Dogs (medium size, short hair, all with fleas) flopped down in the shade by the house or the store.  Barefoot kids on bikes.  Every house has its flock of chickens flapping about, excited by every passing car.  These level areas are intensively farmed.  Corn – fed to the animals – is planted and watered by the summer thunderstorms.  Squash is planted under the corn.  By the time our bus passed their towns, the corn was dry and being harvested, and tied into tight bundles.  This provides more sun to the squash, which is nearly ready for harvest also.

Not only the levels areas are used for farming.  This area supplies much of the marijuana that makes its way into the US and Canada.  It grows on steep slopes, in the hidden ravines, accessible by foot and brought out on the backs of mules on little rocky paths, similar to the ones my flip flops decided not to tred.  This is a quiet, peaceful operation at this point.  There are not cartel shoot-outs, helicopters, the high drama that makes the news.  It is just another crop, just other farmers, and it, too, is ready for harvest.

Our bus makes it way back down the mountains sooner than we would like.  It’s best to stay off these roads at night, however, as the cattle wander onto the highway, and frequently other drivers don’t use their headlights (I don’t get it either).  It is dark by the time we approach the city.  There is some problem, a burst water main, that brings traffic to a near-standstill.  We wait, half asleep with the turkey and the rumblings of the bus.

There is surely a giving of thanks throughout the world, when the next crop comes in, when food is assured for the people, their children, their animals, for the next year.   We express it one way in the US and Canada, and I’m sure similar observances and small prayers are offered elsewhere.  I am thankful for being in this beautiful country and celebrating another harvest, another year.  I am thankful my family is together, celebrating “American Thanksgiving”.  But I miss them.  I miss Grandma, too.

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One of my neighbors here at Selva Romantica joined me last spring in a drink or three in the upstairs balcony of a local bar, Que Pasa West.  There is a Que Pasa East, but that is another blog for a different day.  Our schedules don’t often correspond, so this was as much a getting-to-know-you chat as hard-core gossip about our mutual neighbors.  The conversation found its way to the wonders of coconut oil.  Linda, most likely the most gorgeous woman in our building, with long platinum hair and flawless skin, divulged the wonders of this oil, which is actually a solid at room temperature in the US and Canada.  She uses it to condition her hair, uses it to remove her make-up, uses it as a cooking oil and indulges in spoonfuls of it for a snack.  She goes through about a quart a week.  I did some reading on this, and was impressed by the range of health benefits it offers, so now I use it at home in Portland.  I used it as furniture polish until my house starting smelling weird.  Rubbed it on my skin (this is the solid state, so not quite as convenient.)  Use it for cooking fish, various stir-fries, baked goods of all sorts.  I set it on my woodstove to get it up to melting temperature.

When I return to Puerto Vallarta, I return to the source of fine coconuts.  The main harvest season for coconuts seems to be late spring, but they are harvested whenever they get large enough to threaten to drop on a passing head.  They sell them on the street, attacking them first with machetes.  Some are grown for meat, others for their “water”, the thin liquid in the center of the coconut.  The guys whack away at them to form a solid bottom so it will set flat on a table, then whack away at the top until the hollow of the nut is exposed, just barely, and put a straw in it.  The ones I’ve had contain about 8 ounces of coconut water, which is a clear, mildly refreshing beverage, especially good chilled.  The vendors sell it out of their refrigerators, and set another one in its place and rotate their supply.

Your average chilled coconut goes for about 18 pesos, although it is considered good form to give them a 20 peso note.  So this treat is about $1.50 US.  I had been making the run of the local markets, picking up some fish here, some bread there, vegetables at the farmers market.  It was a warm day and I was ready for a break before I navigated the hill up to my condo.

I stopped to purchase a chilled coconut and it was so good and cool, and felt like the healthiest thing I could possibly put in my body at that moment.  The thing is, they are heavy.  I was already laden with my previous purchases and was now carrying around this extra item about the size and weight of a human head.  That if tipped, will leak.  I found an old brick wall, sat between the random rebar sticks, set my groceries down and enjoyed every single drop of my coconut.  I’ll get a couple more when Linda returns next week and we might, just might, add a bit of rum to our coconuts.

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Arriving to the Next Season in Puerto Vallarta

November 5, 2012 

The sunny morning is quietly turning to a cloudy afternoon.  The sun in a bit of a haze, the sweat of the day cooled by a breeze.  It won’t rain.  November 8 is my “weather turns perfect” date, always reliable.  The tiles beneath my feet are still warm from the kiss of the sun.  The forest is lush, green, sipping up the last moisture from the summer storms, the autumn mists.  Soon it will be a dry winter, and the trees, the vines, the small flowering things will hunker down, hoping for a stray shower over the coming months.

Puerto Vallarta is on the edge of the next Season.  These few months of the year – lasting until Easter – when not only the plants are trying to survive.  The bartenders, the restaurant owners, the beach vendors, the maids and wait staff, the rental agents (like me) hanging on to this Season and hoping it is better than the last.  Please, no fevered media reportage of problems.  No swine flus, no drug cartel shoot-outs.  No earthquakes or hurricanes.  Just happy stories of tanned (but not burned) tourists and clever dolphins, por favor.

Everyone has their own stories for being here, for getting here.  Mine has been going on since last time I left.  The list of all the stuff to bring “next time”.  My list expanded from the normal stuff like bedsheets, cheese, chocolate and new tank tops, and ranged into “border orders” such as computer parts and a new master cylinder for a VW bug.  I get cranky as the border orders come in;  inevitably describe as “compact, small, light-weight”,  using up my valuable luggage space.  I left behind four feather sofa pillows and an extra laptop this time, but did manage to cram an incredible amount of stuff in one “personal item” backpack, a carry-on suitcase and a Rubbermaid 18-gallon plastic box.

Much of this involves cheese, and other contraband.  This is an elaborate process of buying a bunch of food items at the last minute, packing them in the plastic box, taping it thoroughly, and storing it overnight in the trunk of my car so my early morning taxi can retrieve it quickly and put it into his trunk.  The box is inevitably checked for explosive cheese by the US Customs, but this doesn’t satisfy the Aduanos, who, green-light or not, will pull me over and examine my luggage.  Of course I mark “no food” on the Mexican Customs form.  Of course my stuff is 25% food items.  They look suspiciously at my dried shiitake mushrooms, the repackaged Splenda, and the six different cheeses.  I bury the alfalfa sprout seeds at the bottom of the box (tough to explain).  I have on occasion put a “sacrificial sausage” on the top of the box, so they could triumphantly seize it and overlook the cheese and my other sins.  I have given up on bringing cat treats and Trader Joe rice blends.  The stuff of terrorists, I’m sure.  Non-negotiable.  The airport was busy, and a new wave of cheese-laden tourists were swarming behind me.  I was waived through, given stern stares, and made it past the time-share desks to the safety of a waiting Volkswagen, waiting patiently and gratefully, for its new master cylinder.

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Feliz Cumpleanos, Diego!

Note:  Originally published October 2010

Most of Wednesday was consumed by Diego Ibarra’s birthday party.  Diego is our building manager, employed by our condo association Administrator.   She is not particularly liked, but Diego is widely appreciated for his charm and tact.  Birthdays are a big deal here.  The Mexicans have their own version of the birthday song, do silly stunts like pushing people’s faces in their cake, give little gifts.  It is important to acknowledge the birthday of key employees where you live.   So it was particularly important to celebrate Diego, as he was leaving, as was she, at the end of the year.

Diego, married, 40-ish, mentioned his birthday quietly to me the day before, and I realized he recognized I was the sort that typically organizes such events.  I had 24 hours to pull this off.  I immediately sprang to action, sending emails to the few owners that are here, telling a few favored renters, posting a notice under the palapa and ordered a cake.  Tres Leche, a favorite of the Mexicans, made with various milk products, is very dense, garishly decorated, weighing in at about 10 pounds.  Two other owners also ordered cakes, through a misunderstanding.  Cake everywhere.  I carefully translated the order for the bakery so no mistakes would occur.  The Yahoo translator obviously favors Castillian Spanish over Mexican Spanish and it directed me to request a boleta.  So I go to the little Panaderia around the corner and ordered a birthday sandwich for 12 with the words Feliz Cumpleanos Diego! written on it.  Fortunately the error was caught in time, but later was thinking a sandwich might have been a good thing.  People drifted in, greeted Diego and his lovely wife Juanita (the spouses always attend such things).  Not much real food appeared.  I made deviled eggs, which apparently is an unknown in Mexico.  Juanita swooned over the eggs, requested the recipe.  This all occurred in Spanish.  Our maintenance man joined in, also enjoyed the eggs, and asked what the yellow stuff in the center was.  No one knew the word for “yolk”.

We snacked on cheese and crackers, the single guy brought an opened bags of peanuts, and there was a platter of vegies.  That was dinner.  We filled up on cake and beer.  Diego was pleased beyond words, feted by his friendly owners and feeling very appreciated.  He came to my door this morning to thank me for my efforts, eyes welling up just a bit.  Happy to do it, Diego.  Happy birthday!

PS.  It turns out my dentist, Aden Michel, is Diego’s best friend.  There was a birthday party in progress when I arrived for my appointment today.  I mentioned to Dr. Michel that I just hosted a party with the famous tres leches cake two days earlier.  He remembered that was his friend’s birthday and put 2+2 together.  We swapped Diego stories, sort of, with his broken English and my numbed mouth.  It turns out that Diego has a “secret” first name, as do many Mexicans.  “Alvaro”  A friends-only name.  I will call him that tomorrow and enjoy his reaction!

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Dogs and Cats in Mexico

Note:  Originally written April 2008

There are a whole bunch of homeless cats and dogs in Mexico.  Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of people and organizations dedicated to their welfare.  But all in all, it is a lucky few that get adopted and tended to.  When I first moved into my condo here in PV a couple years ago, there were two young-ish cats on the premises, strays that wandered on to the property, made them and their fleas at home in my home and those of others.  Everyone in residence here thought of them as “their” cats and were a bit surprised to find that Smoky and Oreo were wandering from place to place, eating and growing large.  They finally settled in with our neighbors, Ken and Darlene, who live here full time and thus presented the best opportunity for a constant food supply.

Then Smoky was poisoned.  One of the contracted construction workers here took a dislike to him and left out poisoned food in a place he spent his afternoons.  The entire community here was beyond upset, mourning this stray cat that was so much a part of our life here.  The Mexicans do not hold animals in the same high regard that we do, and were astonished at the feelings and reactions generated by the gringos.  In another incident, one of the workers jabbed a sharp stick into a drainage hole that served as a home for one of the iguanas, just for the hell of it.  There was a general meeting of all the workers here and they were told that any more incidents like this would be met with swift reprisals and loss of job.  So Oreo remains safely with us so far.

I had some renters this spring who stayed a month, and adopted a beautiful long-haired white kitten with sapphire eyes who wandered into Selva recently.  They had no actual plan in place for when they left.  No, couldn’t take her with them.  Handed her off to me and flew home.  So the gringos are also capable of mistreatment of animals, in a different way.

One of our neighbors here who had grown fond of little Frieda donated the money necessary for her to be spayed.  I tracked down a vet through one of the animal rights people, and she drove us across town for the surgery.  She had other errands to run, so I took a bus home.  Then later that day, took a bus back.  Picked up dazed little Frieda and returned in a taxi.  Frieda became her old self in a few days, but I still needed to find her a home, as my schedule did not permit tending to a cat here, and doubted that my Portland cats Amber and Buster would welcome her there.

My friend, Patricia, lives a few blocks from my Selva home in a luxury penthouse with an ocean view and a large terrace.  She offered to take Frieda in, so we thought it was settled and Frieda had found a good home.  But then Patricia decided to give Frieda to her maid, who took her home to her house in the mountains with kids, other cats and a few acres to roam in.  So the little stray Mexican cat has come full circle and back with a Mexican family and will hopefully live a long and happy life there.

We miss her.

Update: May 2008.  I was walking down the street to the beach to get some fresh juice from the family who has a stand there.  I recognized one of my neighbors who lives in, and manages, a small older apartment building halfway down.  An older Mexican man with an old white mangy dog (named Mariposa “butterfly”, who as a puppy he might have resembled) who flops on the sidewalk each afternoon.  Both of them.  Various family members flit in and out of the dark cave-like apartment on the street level.  He was holding a tiny white kitten with white long hair and blue eyes.  Frieda’s sister.  One of the eyes was crusted over with a dry yellow puss-like substance.  Infected.  He said “la gatita” was only 20 days old.  Doomed to blindness.  I tracked down a local vet and described the symptoms in my terrible Spanish.  Brought a potion back with me.  The neighbor is an enthusiastic drinker, so timing was important.  But, in the end, several trips to visit with the medicine, and with the cooperation of his daughter, la gatita has two clear blue eyes and is ready to face the world, which is not too kind inMexico for excess kittens.  Much less so blind ones.  The sad news is that the mother cat, the mother with the long white coat and the blazing sapphire eyes, the mother to so many of the stray kittens here in our part of town, is still roaming free and creating new ones.  The endless cycle continues.

Update to the update:  July 2009.  I saw my neighbor sitting on the stoop outside his home, and inquired about la gatita.  He said she died, poisoned.  A hard, painful way to die.

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The Fifty-Nine Second Phone Call


Sr. Carlos Slim is the wealthiest man in the world.  He owns Tel-Mex, the Mexican phone company.  To make a long-distant call, back in the day, you had to line up in front of the phone company and wait your turn until the operator could connect your call.  This was only about ten years ago.  There were pay phones for local calls, and the more privileged households had land lines.  The tech revolution changed everything.  Enter the cell phone.  Even five years ago, a rare item here.  Now every Mexican teenager has one.  We have VOIP, Skype, Magic Jack, Vonage.  It’s all fairly civilized.

But we still need cell phones, and it’s different here.  Sr. Slim still gets his cut.  My own cell phone was recently stolen.  I let one of my renters use it during my absence.  She left it in the unit and it vanished by the time I returned to retrieve it.  No good deed goes unpunished.  I immediately tumbled into cell-phone-hell.  The first phone I bought, about $30., didn’t work at all.  I tried to enter a phone number into the contact list, and it popped up a bunch of other people’s names.  So it was a used phone they tried to sell me.  I returned it, yelled around, and spent an extra $10 for the next, better phone.  One like I had before, and knew how to use.

Here, you buy the cell phone of your choice.  It comes pre-loaded with maybe 30 minutes of talk time, maybe more.  Then you buy more minutes as it runs out.  This is as simple as taking your phone to a local mini-mart, giving them your phone number and they recharge it with more minutes for a service fee of about .50.  There are no contracts, a good thing.  They also “register” your phone.  This is part of Mexico’s efforts to combat the drug problem.  If the police can track a phone used in a drug deal to your name and address it makes their job easier.  If the police tracked my stolen phone to me, then too bad for me.  This is a country that doesn’t worry much about the details.  The phone store “registered” my first phone to a phony Mexican entity, to protect me.  The second time, they insisted on ID, and my name is on it.

But it’s not cheap.  Outgoing calls are about .40 cents/minute.  Incoming calls are free.  No free nights or weekends.  So everyone plays the 59-second game.  You can call someone and speed-talk for 59 seconds (and it’s surprisingly easy to gauge this after awhile).  Or call them when you know they can’t answer and wait for them to call you back.  Or call them, let it ring once and hang up, so your number is on their missed call list.  Tag, you’re it!


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Lampshades in Paradise

It starts out as a dream.  A small wish, a tickle in your imagination, as you stretch out on a quiet tropical beach on a perfect 82 degree day.  I could live here.  It starts out innocently enough.  A week in Puerto Vallarta with a friend, in her Dad’s time-share up the beach a bit.  You’re young.  You can’t even remember the name of it now.  An impulse.  Lured by a free week at an ocean front condo and a frequent flyer ticket, you’re there.   Drinking cheap beer on the beach, watching amazing sunsets with Miguel, snapshots on your point-and-shoot camera.

You go back years later.  The next time with a boyfriend.  The time after that with friends.  Then you’re fine by yourself.  After that with your husband.  You find new places together.  The trips happen more frequently.  So much to see!  Now you know people, and feel at home there.  You bring your children, sullen and sunburned.  They’ll understand it – they’ll like it when they’re older!  You go anyway.

After staying in every dismal little hotel by the beach, enduring every broken or rattling air conditioner, every idling city bus, every unruly neighborhood dog and noisy rooster, you are ready for your own place.  You buy a time-share on the beach.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, fueled by high-pressure hustlers and too much free tequila.  The next stage of the dream.

You like it at first – it’s easy!  Just like a hotel, really.  It’s furnished, maids come on schedule, things are repaired and maintained magically.  Unpack and you’re ready to roll.  Eventually you notice something’s missing.  You miss the sense of it being…yours.  You can’t leave personal items, your favorite pillows, your art on the walls, and have to adhere to a rigid schedule and other people are living there when you’re not.  Suddenly it seems more like a hotel, really.

The dream moves on with a life of its own.  You want your own place in paradise.  Despite the well-intentioned energies of whatever real estate agent you work with, it will most likely happen when you’re not looking.  You’re just walking along on the sidewalk, and see a sign.  A friend drags you along to see a property she’s interested in.  You’re just visiting someone, who mentions a place that’s available.  It won’t hurt to look.

Then you’re in love.  You find yourself signing papers written in Spanish, wiring money, emailing friends for advice, most of which is…don’t do it.  You do it anyway.  Buying a place already furnished is a charming thought, but if you do what I did and bought new construction, this is what you can look forward to.

In my case, I bought my little casita based on a fabulous infinity pool (the developer wisely installed the common area prior to selling the units) and a sketchy floor plan, in metric and Spanish – two languages I’m only vaguely familiar with.  The location was dead center to where I wanted to be.  I was familiar with the site, which housed a delapitated collection of brick bungalows on a small rise just a couple blocks from the beach.  I had friends who stayed there year after year, lamented its demise and expected pool privileges for life.  I climbed up a ladder to imagine the anticipated view.  It was minimally an ocean view, but still “counted”.  I signed the papers.  Bank wires rolled on.  I returned to Vallarta three months before delivery to plan for furniture.  I was told it took awhile.

I had no idea.  I walked through the casita, a two-room studio, metric tape measure and notebook in hand.  I laid out a basic floorplan with masking tape and then went shopping.  There are three ways to shop in Puerto Vallarta.  (1) You are really rich and smart and hire a designer who does it all for you.  (2) You are almost as rich, but even smarter, speak fluent Spanish and arrange shopping adventures in five-hour-away Guadalajara with trusted friends and arrange truckloads full of stuff.  My plan was (3) not-at-all rich and taking the bus to far-flung stores which are ALWAYS on the other side of town, and my notebook, and providing endless entertainment to the ever-accomodating Mexican merchants.

Virtually everything must be made on order, to your specifications.  Especially upholstered things, couches, dressers, anything that needs to fit in a precise space.  The ready-made stuff appeals to Mexican sensibilities.  Think the US in the 60’s.  Maybe Jersey.  Mafia chic.  Chrome, brass, nagahyde, formica, lots of mirrors and glitz.  The good news is that the custom stuff doesn’t cost much more than the ready-made, but it takes a long time to materialize and is actually made in Guadalajara (see plan #2).  There is lots of room for error and it will always be your fault.  I had my sectional couch made at a place locally that actually did its own work.  It’s weird and hard and the seam split and the legs don’t quite match up, but such a deal.  My parota-wood dresser was a splurge, but worth every cent.  Delivered late, but eventually delivered.  Table and chairs at yet another place, with fabric on the seat covers from the place that made the couch.  Delivered by me, on the bus.  Each chair seat broke, one by one, over the last year, as the chair structure was not adequate to support your basic American butt.  Lampshades were virtually impossible to come by.  I even rescued a couple for the short-term next to a dumpster across the street.  It took months to track them down, impossible to bring in a suitcase from home.  The nightstands were fashioned out of the same wood, as was the end table, by a little shop just down the street.  No one spoke a word of English.  A lot of pointing and metric measurements and sketching took place, but it all worked out.  I taught them a valuable phrase, “see you later, alligator” and they taught me that I really need to learn more Spanish.  I took delivery of the nightstands by riding home with the guy in the truck and his dog with the furniture in the back of the truck, unwrapped, just sitting there.

It’s so much easier now, seven years later.  There are real furniture stores, a Home Depot, a Costco.  I am happy for my neighbors that breeze through the process.  But I learned a lot about Puerto Vallarta and the Mexican culture in the process, and when it’s time for a new couch (soon) I’ll know where to go, and arrange it again, in terrible Spanish, to the next patient shopkeeper on Avenida Francisca Villa.

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