Thursday, August 14, 2008

A letter from Cindy

At a show of traditional ceramics in the nearby town of Tlaquepaque.

To family and friends,

Seven weeks in Mexico. That means five weeks in our apartment. Hard to believe. Our last furniture delivery arrives today - 2 more book shelves to go with the 2 we brought and another 2 we bought. And we really did pare down - a lot. But these last two shelving units aren’t for books; they’re for vases and decorated boxes, fancy plates and mosaic animal figurines, etc - all mementos from other trips, other countries, other homes. That won’t quite complete my shopping binge but it will come close. I’m already thinking about what to get rid of before the next move, which will probably be 2 years from now.

The cathedral in Zapopan, on the border with Guadalajara, is a tourist attraction.

We expected to get a furnished apartment but the pickings were slim. So now I’ve spent 5 weeks outfitting an unfinished 3 bedroom (MBR, TV room, and study for us), 2 bathroom apartment. I've purchased everything from a sofa to sofa pillows, from a refrigerator to casserole dishes and everything in between. This is a major accomplishment for a woman who took 2 years to select a desk for the living room on Dixie. I thank God for WalMart, a store I avoided in the U.S. But here it has become my Bed, Bath, and Beyond, my Home Depot, my Target, for linens, small appliances, kitchen ware, cleaning supplies.

What can’t I find? Cookie sheets, ordinary blankets (I’ve seen one electric blanket and a million comforters), a folding shopping cart (I’ve seen a few fancy ones in the department stores for over $100 but I’m not that desperate - I’ll just build some muscles instead), Weight Watchers.

Guadalajara is mostly like any big city in the U.S. There’s too much traffic; SUVs are very popular; there are skyscrapers and slums; mega malls with recognizable stores and brand names are everywhere; prices are similar (higher for some things, lower for others but still in the ballpark); new movies, in English, premiere every weekend; 70 cable channels and nothing’s on; friendly people.

The differences are not bad, just different. The number one difference, of course, is Spanish. I know the basics for getting around a store. “Solo mirando” (“just looking”) is my favorite. Other than that I use a lot of mime. I plan to get serious about studying the language one of these days.

The weather is outstanding and probably the reason for so many North American retirees in the area. Like most of the buildings in Guadalajara our apartment has no air conditioning or heating. We just missed the hottest months, which occur in late spring. Jim was here for a week in May and though the temperature was high 80s and 90s it wasn’t uncomfortable because there is very low humidity. Now we are in the rainy season which keeps things cooler - sunny days in the high 70s and 80s, rainy nights. There are ceiling fans in the apartment which we rarely use and we have yet to break out the 2 room fans we brought with us.

I miss beautiful buildings. Anything under 4 stories is stucco and usually flat roofed; most skyscrapers are steel and glass. I miss the suburbs and yards and flower gardens. This is definitely not the high desert I was expecting but there is little visible landscaping. I suspect all the good stuff is hidden behind the walls that are built right up to the edge of the sidewalk. Sometimes you can get a glimpse of a small planted plot through a barred door in a wall but it is usually overshadowed by the 2 or 3 space parking pad right next to it. There is a lot of green, though - trees bordering sidewalks, tree lined median strips, lots of parks with lots of trees - for which I am very thankful. I’m learning to look up.

This is the TV room with a fold-down couch frame and futon.

The traffic laws and accepted behavior take some getting used to but then so did moving from Ohio to Maryland, and Connecticut was just plain crazy. I think Mexico is most like Connecticut with the addition of large traffic circles with up to 5 lanes and 8 entry/exit points. I plan my routes in advance to try to avoid them. The infrastructure can’t accommodate all the vehicles anymore so it’s always rush hour and parking can get very inventive with blocked cars, blocked sidewalks, double parking, parking up on the curb. Plus you have to watch out for cars backing into the street no matter how busy the street. The really bad part about the traffic is that it is not conducive to bike riding. And I don’t think the “country” roads are any better unless you have a mountain bike and can get off the highways.

Starbucks has replaced Borders for our weekly treat. We see a lot of movies - in movie theaters, on TV (lots of English offerings), renting from Blockbuster. We live in a very nice area of town with lots of restaurants and cafes. Unfortunately, we live on a very busy street with the associated traffic noise (Christine, bring your ear plugs). On the other hand we’re within walking distance of a lot of handy enterprises - Blockbuster, two grocery stores (one sells only products from the states), Starbucks, more than a dozen restaurants and cafes, a 7 / 11, four banks, Subway, Pizza Hut, pharmacy, hardware store, dry cleaners, hair salons, Dairy Queen - the four basic food groups, as you can see.

I miss Let’s Dish. I’m trying out recipes in the half dozen Weight Watcher cookbooks I bought before leaving Baltimore. It’s OK - not my favorite activity but much easier to handle since I’m not working. I’m also cross stitching and working on a photo project, scanning all our photos onto my laptop and getting 2001 thru 2008 into albums. Reading is still my favorite activity and I have luckily discovered an English library of donated paperbacks at the American Society of Jalisco, which I have joined. I thought AmSoc, as it is called, might provide some social opportunities but the members are mostly retirees aged 75 and up and we have dissimilar interests. I’m grateful for the books, though.

Now that the shopping is slowing down we plan to do more touristy things on the weekends. So far we’ve stuck to the city - its parks, colonial squares and buildings, churches, craft markets. I’m ready to do some hiking.

Love to you all,


270 police assassinations in Mexico this year

Yesterday I read in El Publico, a local daily, that so far this year 270 police and drug enforcement officials have been assassinated by organized crime figures. Many are tortured before they are killed.

The head of the bank police in Oaxaca was assassinated by a group of gunmen one morning in January while he was walking in a park. (Notimex photo)

The death toll is more than one a day, and it is highest in the state of Chihuahua, which borders Texas. Particularly dangerous is the city of Ciudad Juarez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Second-most dangerous state is Sinaloa, which is on the Pacific Coast, about halfway between Mexico City and the U.S. border.

Being a drug enforcement officer in Mexico must be like being a police officer in Iraq. You sign up because...why? You believe in the mission? There are no other jobs? The money is pretty good?

Druggies in the U.S. provide the money to finance organized crime here. The money flows are staggering in their size and impact on Mexican life. The money is used to bribe local officials, start popular community programs and buy heavy weaponry to take out the police and army. By comparison, the police and the army are poorly paid and poorly armed.

(Update: On Aug. 16, El Universal published a story saying that murders by organized crime in Mexico totaled 2,682 so far in 2008, more than all of 2007.)

The kidnapping industry
There has also been a great outcry lately after some high-profile kidnapping cases in which the criminals were led by police from the kidnapping units.

The tendency here has been to pay the ransom, which of course has encouraged more kidnappings. President Felipe Calderón recently proposed life sentences for kidnappers, and the issue is being hotly debated.

The kidnappers have targeted business owners and their families, as well as conspicuous consumers. Memo: Sell that Hummer.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Boy of Sax

I´ve been messing around with a program called Soundslides to create an audio slideshow, and because I had photos of Patrick, our son, I decided to use them as a basis for a little story. People I know who do multimedia say it´s simple. Well, for me it wasn´t. Watch the slideshow first, and then read about my little ordeal.

Ths slideshow with music and voiceover is here..

Jamming with Phil Woods. Baltimore Sun photo

Whining about technology follows

Soundslides is easy, all the multimedia people told me. You just load in the pictures, load an audio file, move the photos around and basically you have an audio slide show. In theory.

First, I have an Olympus digital recorder that records in a format used on PCs called WMA. You can´t use files in that format in Soundslides. You have to convert them to MP3s. I tried converting the files in several programs on my Mac (including iTunes and Garage Band) without success, so I bought a little program called EasyWMA, which was, as advertised, easy. $10.

Then I tried using a free software program called Audacity to edit the four sound files I had. All of the multimedia people say Audacity is easy, a piece of cake, but I couldn´t get the thing to work on my Mac, even after retracing my steps and downloading it more than once, restarting the computer, etc. Wouldn´t work. So then I loaded Audacity onto Cindy´s PC, shipped the MP3 files to her computer, and everything worked fine.

Then I loaded the audio and video into Soundslides on my Mac, and again, not all of the functions work, despite my paying $69 for the super version of Soundslides. Among the functions that don´t perform are some that have to do with captions and credits.

Then when you´re done, you find that you can´t just publish your Soundslides project to your blog. You have to post it to a server somewhere. That was a complicated process that had more than 15 steps to it ( A little tutorial on Soundslides´ website was invaluable. Thank you for that.

It´s easy, if you know how to do it. So here´s the slideshow. I´m not even that concerned about its quality. It´s my first time editing sound. I´m just glad I was able to do it at all.

Also an update on daughter Bridget

She is the dancer who lives in Germany. She was in Santiago, Chile, in July and August to perform in a gala. She choreographed a pas de deux that she and a dancer from the Stuttgart Ballet performed. She got a nice review in the local paper.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mexico challenges U.S. in obesity

It is hard to ignore all the publicity that Mexico´s problem with obesity is attracting. There are the solemn editorials, the ads promoting various products and the pronouncements by politicians (it´s a safe topic if you frame it as concern about public health).

(In this cartoon the headline says Mexico is a leader in obesity, and the character is saying this isn´t the best way to get status as a big country.)

Various studies show the U.S. as the world leader in the percentage of obese people, followed by Mexico and the U.K. See chart.

The business magazine Expansion recently ran a cover story that detailed what various food producers are doing in Mexico to respond to all the publicity. Some of them have been singled out as part of the problem. And which companies are they? Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Kellogg, and Bimbo, an international baked goods company. Their eat-healthy campaigns might be good for the image but not for the bottom line. Some of the healthy products don´t sell.

Here´s an article in English that will tell you what the Mexican papers are saying: more than 71 percent of Mexican women and 66 percent of Mexican men are overweight.

While I was in England, the British press took every opportunity to make jokes and cartoons about obese Americans. They also liked to point out the problems that Mexico was having. Occasionally they poked fun at themselves, as in this cartoon about a plan to have schools notify parents that their child might have a weight problem.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Whoever or whomever

I was watching “The Office“ here on cable last night, and in this episode the characters debate at an all-staff meeting about whether someone has used “whomever“ properly.

There were lots of opinions, nearly all of them wrong, and I wanted to scream and pull my hair out. Less than 1 percent of the population knows how to use the words. One bright guy at The Office said that “whomever“ was the “more formal“ way to say whoever. Well.

The rule is, you use whoever when it´s the subject within the clause, and whomever when it´s an object within the clause, or the object of a preposition within the clause.

Incorrect People often mistakenly say, for example, Give the money to whomever wants it, thinking that it´s “whomever“ because the word follows “to.“ But it should be “whoever wants it“ because “whoever“ is the subject of the clause.

Correct: Give the money to whoever wants it.

Hint: To test whether you´re using the words properly, just drop “-ever“ from the word and see if it sounds right.

Wrong “He will perform for whomever shows interest.“ (Test: He will perform for whom shows interest.) The test doesn´t sound right, does it? That´s because without the -ever cluttering things up, you can see that “who“ is correct as the subject of the clause “who shows interest“ or “whoever shows interest.“

Correct: He will perform for whoever shows interest.

If you don´t like my explanation, try this one. It´s pretty good, and it tries mightily to make it simple.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

80% of Mexicans have cell phones -- really?

Economic notes
Eighty percent of Mexico´s population has a cell phone, according to something called the National Chamber of the Telecommunications and Technology Industry.
The figures I´ve seen elsewhere were in the neighborhood of 55 percent and growing fast. The point is, most people, except for the very old, the very young and the very poor, find a way to own a cell phone. Mexico has a population of around 105 million.

A Baltimore company, Laureate Education, now has more university students on its Mexican campuses than any other Mexican university, public or private. It recently added to its portfolio with the purchase of a large university called Unitec.

The company was taken private by the private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts in 2007. It now has 116,000 students on 40 campuses in Mexico. Overall it owns 37 institutions in 18 countries, with more than 400,000 students.

The current edition of Expansion, a major business magazine based in Mexico City, has a four-page full-color advertising spread promoting an MBA in international leadership through Laureate´s Universidad del Valle de Mexico and its IEDE Business School of the European University of Madrid. According to the advertisement, the master´s program is reconized by the Mexican department of education and the European Community.

Laureate is trying to capture a market of aspiring middle class families who want a U.S.-quality education for their kids but can´t afford to send them to the States or can´t get into one of the very selective free public universities in their country. Apparently Laureate is making a lot of money on this. Private equity firms usually expect high rates of return.

The Chivas, Mexico´s soccer gods

Guadalajara has three professional soccer teams, the best known of which is the Chivas, the female goats. I don´t know why they´re not the Chivos (the billygoats) except that the word Chivas has connotations of extravagant behavior in certain expressions. A bit of a backstory is certainly there, but I haven´t seen it yet. It´s probably something involved like why Georgetown is the Hoyas (a Greek exclamation).

Friday night we went to see the mighty Chivas play their crosstown rivals, the hapless Tecos (Chivas are in red stripes, photo of the match above is from the site The Chivas are supposed to be like the Yankees of Mexican football. Six of their players were recently named to the Mexican national team for World Cup and international play. Supposedly they´re as good as any of the European teams.

The game with the Tecos (technology boys), was an entertaining, hard-played match. Although it was on the Tecos home turf, the crowd of some 40,000 was lopsidedly Chivas fans in their team shirts, which have the name of their principal sponsor, Bimbo, a baked goods company, on the front.

We got an education in how to rag the opposing team. Every time the Teco goalie made a goal kick, the Chivas fans shouted, “PUto-oooo.“ Which is like saying, You wimp (actually worse). They also freely used the words cabrón (English equivalent refers to an orifice) and pendejo (needs help from Viagra) to describe either the opposing team or their own player when he made a bad play. And they urged players to do something unspeakable to their mothers (chingar), as any inebriated sporting fan might.

Both teams had four or five great chances to score and blew them because of a bad finish or missed cross. The Tecos played more than half the game a man down after an ejection for dirty play. Still the Chivas couldn´t take advantage, and the Tecos scored the game´s only goal on a little chip shot that caught the Chivas goalie a little too far out. It just cleared the goalie´s desperate leaping attempt.

Lots of beer was sold in the stands. Chivas fans threw smokebombs and batteries at the Tecos goalie, who held up the game at one point to complain to the ref, who told the guy to get back in his goal.

The stadium, built in the early ´70s, has cement bench seats, very narrow aisles and terrible circulation patterns. The lights didn´t come on for the 8 p.m. game until the sun was down and dusk threatened visibility. We bought two general admission tickets at face value from a scalper, $25 each. Don´t look for an usher. There were actually lots of families with kids in the stands.

News update: A few days after this game, Barcelona, one of Europe´s best teams, thrashed the Chivas, 5-2, in a friendly (exhibition) played in Chicago. The Chivas are now at the bottom of their league table.