Sunday, January 03, 2016

What I Learned in Mexico

Author’s Note: I was in Mexico from 16 December to 25 December 2015. It was my first visit to that country. I stayed on the Yucatan, on the Mayan Riviera, and drove Highway 307 back and forth to Cancun several times. Those are the only true facts in this post.

1.    The Mexican has a fluid interpretation of driving. The property manager for our little casita stopped by on our first day to ask how we were doing, and give us some local knowledge. He laughed when we mentioned the driving. Mexicans don’t need to take a driver’s test to get a license; they only have to pay the fee for the license. Then he began cataloguing all the accidents he’s suffered through. Here’s what we experienced:
a.     Four-way flashers. The Mexican puts on the four-way flashers for a variety of reasons and meanings:
                                               i.     “I’m merging onto the highway. Kinda. I’m not sure yet, so I’m just going to straddle the line between the breakdown lane and the right lane of the highway and put on my flashers because they are a secret sauce that protects me until The Great Calabaza decides it’s okay for me to be in traffic.”
                                              ii.     “There’s a police checkpoint coming up, so I’m going to be slowing down, and since my brake lights probably don’t work because we don’t inspect our cars, I’m warning you.”
                                             iii.     “There’s a speed bump coming up in this middle of this highway that has a posted speed limit of 100 km, and since my brake lights probably don’t work because we don’t inspect our cars, I'm warning you.”
                                            iv.     “I’m not sure what to do. I feel confused. Or I’m tuning the radio station. Or I’m hungry. Or…hey, is that The Great Calabaza over there?”
                                             v.     “Oooh, flashing lights!”
b.    Left and right turn signals are used infrequently and deceptively, as in, “Fooled ya! I’m not really going right!”
c.     License plates, headlights, paint, and wheels are optional items on Mexican automobiles.
d.    Scooters are everywhere, and the Mexican uses scooters the same way the Clampetts used their 1921 Oldsmobile Model 46 Roadster in The Beverly Hillbillies.
e.    Renting a car is an act of faith. Your gringo insurance is no good down in Mexico, and everyone is trying to upsell you. But get pulled over or get into a fender-bender without the right documentation, and the Mexican defers to Napoleonic law: You’re tossed into jail while they try to figure out what to do.
                                               i.     We were issued a beater from our car rental company. The right side mirror was smashed, there were dents and scratches (which I photographed), an no functioning brakes to speak of, unless you consider the grinding screech of metal coming from the front wheels the brakes.
                                              ii.     The rental agent proudly pointed out the new spare tire, which did not inspire confidence.
                                             iii.     The clutch had the range of a Boeing 777. Pushing it in order to shift required a prosthetic extension on my left leg, and that didn’t guarantee that the gears would shift. Eventually I gave up on shifting altogether, and I just jammed the manual transmission into the gear I desired.
                                            iv.     Buying gasoline requires more focus than the dodgy driving. All fuel is pumped by attendants, so it’s imperative that you follow these rules:
1.    Make sure the attendant zeros the pump before beginning fueling.
2.    Try to pay with a credit card, because the attendant will try to negotiate U.S. dollars from you. Don’t. He will give you a poor exchange rate.
3.    Don’t bother checking the fluids. The attendant will offer this service, seeking a bigger tip, but who knows what he’s doing under the hood? Better to leave it be and drive another 1,000 km without any oil in the crank case.
4.    Tip your attendant. Though some may be incompetent, and some may be trying to swindle you, they are still poor, much poorer than you and your pale skin. You are the 1% to them, so cough it up. Twenty or thirty pesos will do.
2.    Pay no attention to that man waving his arms. Arm-waving is the primary source of income generation on the Mayan Riviera. In Tulum, we pulled off the highway to go to the ruins, and dozens of men began running after us, running in front of us, waving their arms. Since I didn’t speak much of their language, I couldn’t tell what they wanted, but they seemed concerned. Here is what I thought they were saying:
a.     “There are velociraptors up ahead! You must stop!”
b.    “There are banditos up ahead! You must stop!”
c.     “Turns out the Mayan calendar was right! World’s ending! You must stop!”
d.    “Landshark! You must stop!”
3.    Waving Arms, Part II: When we slowed down, I could understand their excellent English (shame on me for not speaking Spanish), and this is actually what they were saying:
a.     “Park here! Best rates! You must stop!”
b.    “Swim with the turtles! Best rates! You must stop!”
c.     “Titty bar! Best rates! You must stop!”
d.    “Landshark! You must stop!”
4.    The Yucatan is heavily militarized.
a.     AK-47s hang off cops, soldiers, and security guards the way coconuts hang off the trees: in bunches.
b.    When you realize all the security if for you and your gringo dollars, your tipping increases significantly.
5.    There is a caste system:
a.     The taller, whiter, and more bilingual you are, the better your job.
b.    Pretty, well-spoken, light-skinned women occupy customer-critical contact points, like condo sales associate, or spiritual hostess, and they are lightly-clothed.
c.     Smaller, darker, cross-eyed men are issued machetes and sent out into the heat to hack away the vegetation choking the sides of the highway.
6.    The ratio of limes to human seems to be about 4.5 billion to one.
7.    Grocery stores have coolers strategically placed at the ends of most aisles. These coolers are filled with freshly made tortillas. The tortilla and the lime seem to be the basic unit of food in Mexico.
8.    The scuba diving is extraordinary.
a.     The dive shop to human ratio seems to be about 1:1.
b.    There were so many sea turtles swimming past me when I dove on the reef that I thought some air traffic controllers would be a good idea down there.
c.     My thought as I continually equalized on the way down: “My God, this is the most astonishingly beautiful and unique environment on the planet. Everyone (and I mean everyone; that’s not hyperbole) should come down here and understand the importance of our environment, and that in this world, there is only the environment. Everything else is derivative.
d.    Actually, my thoughts as I continually equalized on the way down were, “Holy shit! A sea turtle! Holy shit! Another sea turtle!”

In conclusion, go to Mexico. They are our neighbors, and they deserve at least our understanding.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Pumpkins Ruled the World

In his book The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan makes a startling assertion: that we humans are not the masters of our universe. Not only does he forward the classical Darwinian thesis--that we are one among many, and all of us subject to the same forces (evolution, gravity, Google)--but that we are in many cases dupes of nature. The example he gives is grass. We think we are the ones wrangling the grass into neat squares with our mowers and weed control. But what we are really doing is beating back the forest, which is the enemy of the grass. The grass has convinced us that seeding it and mowing it and watering it is culturally important. And if you don’t believe that grass has us under its control, consider that the largest member of the grass family is corn, and that the United States has more acres planted for corn than any other crop. It sweetens our food, powers our vehicles, fattens our livestock, and sometimes we even eat it. But corn faces new competition from a fruit that is poised to take over the world: pumpkins.
Pumpkins are winter squash and they seem benign and vaguely artful as they lie arrayed in a crisp September pumpkin patch, exuding orange coolness. But they have totalitarian goals in mind. Pumpkins were cute when they allowed us to carve silly images on them, and could only be found otherwise in cans. Now their presence is relentless, and pumpkin season begins in September and runs all the way through Christmas, where pumpkins are trying to insinuate their way into our hard-won secular mythology by claiming a place on Santa’s sleigh.
Pumpkin is no longer just a canned fruit. It’s found in bread, cookies, pies, mousses, succotash, chili, soup, salsa, gnocchi, ravioli, waffles, pancakes, curry, chowder, butter, biscuits, fries, facial rubs, body scrubs, beer, cider, and oils. Pumpkins can be used as jack-o-lanterns, of course, but they can also be used as bowls and doorstops, and delinquent teens appreciate them for their ability to explode on pavement when dropped from a great height. If that’s not utilitarian, what is?
And all of this utility has resulted in a cultural shift in this country that produces endless pumpkin festivals. There’s the Pumpkintown USA festival in East Hampton, Connecticut, the Jack-o-Lantern spectacular in Providence, Rhode Island, the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta in Damariscotta, Maine, and the Keene Pumpkin Festival, which moved to Laconia, New Hampshire after college students, tripping from ingesting too many pumpkin products, rioted.
The pumpkin meme has invaded our culture, too: It can be traced back to Washington Irving and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where the image of a shattered pumpkin was associated with the Headless Horseman; Linus van Pelt (appropriately a Knickerbocker himself), the schizophrenic philosophy king of Peanuts fame, hallucinates a gourd in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; the students of Hogwarts played their own version of beer pong with pumpkin juice; and one of my favorite new wave bands of all time, XTC, penned the glorious "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead," which is laced with themes of service, sacrifice, and redemption, all traceable to a pumpkin zeitgeist.
And we haven’t yet discussed the clearest sign that the Apocalypse is upon us: pumpkin chucking (also known as punkin chunkin, or punk chunk, or just PC). While pumpkins may not be the nutritional champions of the planet, who came up with the idea of launching food as a sport? And why pumpkins? Why not ears of corn, which could be rifled and fired with accuracy? Using a variety of medieval devises such as trebuchets, catapults, and slingshots, contestants send the orange fruit screeching into clear autumn skies. The world record is nearly a mile.
If you’re not convinced that pumpkins are actively seeking world domination, you’re not paying attention. The proliferation of pumpkins is the biggest threat to our Constitution, to religious liberty, and to the craft beer industry. The sad news is that it’s probably too late to do anything. Any day now we’ll be pulling up to gas stations and pumping pumpkin-diesel into our coal-dust spewing Volkswagen TDIs. Thanks, Obama.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting It

Last weekend my friend David asked if he could borrow my pickup truck. Of course you can, I said. When you buy a pickup truck, loaning it out to your friends is implicit in the sale. Read the fine print. I bought a 1986 Ford F-150 after I graduated from college, and I spent the next five years helping my friends move from apartment to apartment in Boston. My fee was pizza and beer. And friendship. It was a good deal for me.
            David paid me with a hug and a four-pack of Heady Topper from the Alchemist. He didn’t need to give me anything, but he gets it. He gets Vermont’s barter economy, where the spiritual value of the tender is as important as its commercial worth. This weekend, I cashed his payment, cracking one of the cans of Heady Topper. I looked at the can, and realized that David isn’t the only one of my friends and neighbors who gets it. Printed on the side of the can of Heady are the words, “Don’t Be A D-bag, Recycle This Can!”
            It would be nice to think that in the second half of the year 2015 in Vermont, U.S.A., potential litterers would not need the exhortations of a brewmaster to do the right thing. And of the top three kinds of litter found on the road (Dunkin’ Donuts Styrofoam cups—themselves unconscionable this deep into human evolution—McDonald’s bags, and Bud Light cans), empty cans of Heady rarely make an appearance. But still, Jon and Jen Kimmich of the Alchemist Brewery get it. It’s important to them that their customers aren’t just giving them money for beer, they’re responsible as well. Sometimes, what you are not is as important as what you are, and avoiding D-Bag status forms a critical part of the Heady Topper drinker’s personality profile.
            The term “getting it” is a tricky one to use, because it can mean different things to different people and cultures. But basically it means doing the right thing, as opposed to doing the thing right. We’re reminded of that at the inn during this busiest time of the year. Vermont’s fall foliage spectacular draws people from around the world hoping to experience the colors they’ve seen in the coffee table books. This year, the fall colors are a little late, probably due to a warmer than average September. And this has caused consternation among some folks.
            When someone plans the “trip of a lifetime,” and then it rains, or there’s a windstorm that rips the leaves off the trees, or the colors are delayed, they are naturally disappointed. The weather is the weather, and until we can forecast months in advance for local conditions, everything will be a risk. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it isn’t. To base the happiness of a trip on a single factor is to invite disappointment. And Vermont offers so much more to see and do; foliage can be a colorful backdrop to those activities.
            So why am I talking about D-Bags and “getting it” and the delay in fall foliage? I think I just outlined it. Last week someone with a multi-night reservation called several times, concerned about the news that the leaves were delayed in their changing, and that he would be disappointed. We talked to him at length, assuring him that if foliage wasn’t at its peak in our valley, it would be in the next valley over, or up the sides of the mountains. No use. He cancelled, and is now probably congratulating himself for prompt action in the face of potential disappointment.

            There’s a quote on my website from G.K. Chesterton that says, “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” So we may have lost a tourist this week, but we hope to gain many more travelers in his stead. I might even share a Heady with one or two. After all, I don’t want to be a D-Bag.