Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Corruption outrages Mexicans, but they feel powerless

A young man I work with has daily fits of outrage when he reads my copy of the leading daily newspaper here in Guadalajara.

The front page always has a story of corruption or inefficiency whose audacity leaves Poncho frustrated. What´s worse is that these revelations don´t seem to bother any of the public officials or move them to action. There are no crusaders against corruption.

Asphalt for 20 times the going rate

Yesterday Poncho was in a tizzy because of an article about how the city of Guadalajara is paying 20 times the going rate for asphalt used to patch potholes. The contract was awarded to Perma-Patch, a U.S. company, without bidding.

The head of public services said it was the acquisitions department that was responsible. No one from the acquisitions department was quoted. This kind of buck-passing is typical. No one is responsible or held accountable.

So far this year, the city has paid more than $600,000 for the asphalt on this no-bid contract and has exceeded its budget in this category.

Poncho is putting his hopes on a reformist mayor to change things.

Making off with the money from the PTA

Yesterday El Universal newspaper published a story about how voluntary parent contributions to improve schools are regularly diverted to the personal use of principals and others in charge.

These contributions include revenues from fund-raising activities like school lunch counters and amount to an estimated $1.3 billion (17 billion pesos) annually, according to the National Association of Parents. It was this organization that denounced several cases of fraud. (The figure of $1.3 billion works out to $52 for each child in Mexican schools.)

According to the parents´ group, no one pays any attention to how this money is spent. School officials browbeat parents for contributions and then divert it to personal uses such as sending their kids to the U.S.

$2 billion in oil products stolen in the past year

The state-run oil company, Pemex, is well known for its inefficiency and lax management. In the past year an estimated $2 billion of its oil and gas was stolen. That´s billion with a B. Organized crime milks its oil and gas lines and sells the products in Mexico and the U.S.

A reasonable person might ask how Pemex knows that the thefts totaled $2 billion. Given its management practices, losses could have been greater.

Bonuses paid despite falling production

The 114,000 workers at Pemex are known in the oil industry to be among the least efficient in the world. (see Economist article)

They just started receiving a 21% monthly bonus on top of their salary. The bonus is supposed to be based on "encouraging and increasing productivity". They´re getting it even though production has been falling for years.

Suggesting foreign investment is political suicide

Pemex spends virtually all it takes in rather than investing in new wells, production and refineries. Because of a lack of refining capacity, Pemex has to import 40 percent of its gasoline.

Where would new investment come from? Either from wiser managment of its oil revenues, which would mean cutting lots of cushy jobs and sweet contracts, or from letting foreign companies invest and thus control part of the reserves. Both options are politically unacceptable.

The sad part of this is that it affects public services. More than a third of Mexico´s federal budget comes from oil revenues.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spanish speakers love nicknames

Nicknames in English as well as Spanish often have their origin in how a baby brother or sister pronounces the name of an older sibling.

Anyone here who has the name Jesús is likely to be called Chuy (pronounced chewy).

Eduardo is often Lalo, and the comic strip that we know as Hi and Lois is known here as Lalo y Lola.

Francisco is Pancho or Paco. Guillermo becomes Memo. Alfonso is often Poncho with a long O sound.

Women named Guadalupe, after the Virgin of Guadalupe, are often called Lupita or Lupe, as in "Little Latin Lupe Lu," a song made famous by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

The noted writer Gabriel García Márquez is commonly called Gabo. Gabriela is Gabi.

Graciela is Chelita. Socorro (help, as in our Lady of Perpetual Help) is often nicknamed Coco. Maria Teresa becomes Maite and Maria Fernanda is MaFe.

In all my time in Latin America, I have never met anyone nicknamed Chico, which would be considered derogatory. It means boy or kid and would have been used by English speakers. There were 10 players nicknamed Chico who played in the major leagues, but notably none since 1982, maybe reflecting the changing status and attitudes of Latin players.

The best of them was Alfonso "Chico" Carrasquel, an All-Star shortstop from Venezuela who played for the Indians, White Sox, Orioles and Athletics. He´s my brother Mike´s all-time favorite player.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cindy's Excellent Vacation - Part III, Baltimore & Boston

I spent the last two weeks of my USA vacation with Christine - first in Baltimore to ostensibly help her get ready for moving, then in Cambridge, MA, where she now resides. Christine was already well prepared for the move so I spent the first week visiting friends and getting my annual medical exams taken care of. What I did not do was take pictures. I enjoyed many visits with former neighbors, co-workers, and "co-bellringers."

The move went perfectly barring one unfortunate incident. Christine had 11 helpers to load the truck which took less than an hour. Pretty amazing. We dodged thunderstorms and New York City on the drive, spent the night in a crummy motel outside Boston, and had half the truck unloaded the next morning before her 2 helpers at that end showed up. Her new landlord was a tremendous help. The unfortunate incident involved a box of kitchen supplies traveling on its side and a leaky bottle of fish sauce. That stuff is really, really rank. It soaked into the seat of an upholstered rocker that she was planning to reupholster anyway but luckily missed the couch and mattress.

Christine lives a block from Porter Square in Cambridge. There's a T station, grocery, hardware store, Pier 1, bookstore, Radio Shack, post office, restaurants and fast food, delis, used furniture, watch repair, shoe stores, etc, etc, all within a few steps. She sold her car before the move, knowing it would be more hassle than help in the Boston area. (She is starting a post-doctoral fellowship in math at MIT.)

In between bouts of house cleaning, unpacking, and shopping (thankfully we found almost everything right in Porter Square) Christine took time to explore Boston and Cambridge with me. Our first outing was to Boston Common and a walk down Commonwealth Avenue where we saw this perfect line of beautiful row houses.

Another day we walked to Harvard Square along Brattle Street, also known as "Tory Row" - large elegant homes with gorgeous landscaping. Christine is standing in the gardens of the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

We took time to do part of the Freedom Trail, stopping at colonial churches, markets, and government buildings in historic Boston. This is the Old State House, dating from 1713.

Plus a stroll along the wharf and thru the North End (which could just as easily be called Little Italy) where my brother-in-law Charlie, doing some consulting in Boston at the time, treated us to a fabulous Italian dinner.

And not to forget why Christine moved here, we stopped by MIT a couple of times. This is probably the most interesting building on campus - Frank Gehry's Stata Center - built in 2004.

As Christine gets settled in Cambridge I'm back to my usual pursuits in Mexico - reading, aerobics, x-stitching, photo project, a little cooking and cleaning (as little as possible) and some traveling. Plus - PIANO. I was inspired by my mom's piano playing when I visited Georgia. I want to be able to sit down, get out some sheet music and play "Hymn of Promise" without stumbling. So we bought an electric piano - for my birthday - and I am practicing. I have about 3 years of lessons behind me and I figure on another 10 years to get reasonably good. Good thing I'm starting now.

Love to all,

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cindy's Excellent Vacation - Part II, GA & WI

And the adventure continued with week long visits to Lawrenceville, GA (near Atlanta), Madison, WI, Baltimore and Boston. I planned to be with Christine in August when she moved from Baltimore to Boston so I filled in the 2 intervening weeks with, first, a visit to my mom in Georgia and then a trip to Madison to check out Patrick's and Emily's new digs.

Lawrenceville, GA

While in Georgia I started filling my shopping list - some small housewares but mostly books and movies. I ended up taking 26 books back to Mexico with me. Also 12 video cassettes, 2 DVDs, 2 CDs and about a dozen craft magazines. A quite respectable haul, I thought.

My niece Carly (Betsy's oldest) and her 2 kids, Brooklyn and Brendan, were also visiting.

Carly's plans included a visit to the Cabbage Patch Babyland General Hospital. This is the "delivery" patch. Mom and I tagged along and I gave thanks that I didn't have any little girls to buy for.

My sister Judy and her family also live in Lawrenceville and we got together several times for meals. This is Christian, holding his nephew Noah.

The final and crowning activity was a group pilgrimage to Helen, GA to go tubing. Mom and I took it easy in the shade and got pictures of the finish while Cary's crew and most of Judy's enjoyed the river. Judy's oldest son Dan is in the foreground with Carly and Brooklyn right behind him.

Madison, WI

Next stop - Wisconsin. We ran into these cows when Patrick, Emily, and I visited New Glarus, a town settled by Swiss immigrants in the mid 1800s. Wisconsin means cheese and . . .

. . . beer, right? New Glarus also had a brand new brewery to explore.

They kept me well entertained, starting with a trip downtown to an outdoor jazz performance. The summer jazz series was conducted right next to the Capitol building, which, later in the week, was also the site for . . .

. . . the largest farmers' market I've ever been to. There was a solid wall of booths surrounding all 4 sides of the State Capitol.

The week long visit included several long walks to admire the fine houses and gardens in Patrick's neighborhood plus a bike trip to Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Emily and Patrick are posing in front of the Thai Pavilion in the gardens.

Another day Emily took us around the Univiversity of Wisconsin campus. These picnic tables are right outside the student union. There is also a beach just out of sight to the right. Seemed more like California than Wisconsin. Lucky students - until winter hits.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cindy's Excellent Vacation - Part I, Canada

Dear family and friends,

I have recently returned from 5 weeks of visiting with family in the US and Canada. It was a wonderful vacation from my eternal vacation in Mexico and I'll tell you about it in pictures. This blog entry is going to be out of my usual style with only a few pictures of buildings but a lot of the people I love.

It all began at Falcon Lake in Manitoba where Jim and I met up with our kids, Patrick's partner, Emily, and Bridget's partner, Phillip, to enjoy time together in the beautiful Canadian wilderness.

This beautiful cabin was our lakeside retreat for one week courtesy of Phillip's family.

It was the perfect venue for relaxing, which we did like pros - reading, watching movies and episodes of Boston Legal, playing Cribbage and Dominoes . . .

. . . soaking up the ever elusive rays of sunshine ...

. . . and, of course, cooking and eating. Great kitchen, great groceries, great cooks, great home-cooked meals and I didn't have to do any of it - my dream vacation.

Emily reflects our hosts' attitude towards the unusual cool temperatures and constant threat of rain ...

. . . but we didn't let the iffy weather interfere with our outdoor pursuits. There were kayaks to paddle in search of bald eagles and loons . . .

. . . and hikes across the Precambrian Canadian Shield.

When the rain held off we were happy . . .

. . . to improve on our lawn bowling skills . . .

. . . take a spin on the lake under Phillip's capable captaincy . . .

. . . and visit a fish hatchery. (Yes, I know these aren't fish but we were at the hatchery, it's the only decent picture of the family that we have, and pictures of fish are boring anyway so deal with it.)

And on the one sunny, warm day we had we made the most of it - either hanging on for dear life . . .

. . . or letting go for the time of our life.

Rain or shine, cold or hot, we had an excellent time.