Monday, February 18, 2013

Please visit our new website and blog

We have published a book based on the posts that we wrote for this blog, and we are no longer posting here. You can buy our book, Viva San Pancho! Views from a Mexican Village at
Please visit our new website and blog at

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Four decades ago, as a young woman trying marriage and motherhood on for size, I lived among a cadre of North Americans placed willingly or not in a country not our own. Uprooted from across the United States, we were sent to supervise and protect the citizens who lived in what was then West Germany.

Naïve, brash, we fused into community, strangers who quickly grew familiar. We shared the travails of living in a country foreign to us, the richness of another culture, the hilarity of misunderstanding. We gossiped about the locals, traded shopping tips, and directed each other to great dining on a soldier’s salary.

With youthful exuberance we gathered together for traditional holidays and to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and promotions. We formed attachments.

Fast friendships held for two, three, sometimes four years. Reassignment meant bittersweet goodbye with promise to write, call, and of course visit whenever paths might cross again. But the annual holiday greeting cards, the occasional birthday phone calls dwindled through the decades. We moved on.

Lately I have begun to reflect on that tight-knit community in which we lived forty-odd years ago.

In March 2005 my husband and I discovered San Pancho and within days purchased a winter home. We decided to live outside North America part of the year because we wanted sunshine, adventure, challenge, a touch of adversity to prove a bit of mettle still remains.

During the years we have met like-minded souls with whom we share the fun and trouble of living in a foreign place. We gossip about the locals, trade bargaining tips, and direct each other to great dining on social security salary. Attachments are cemented through weekly card games on the beach, shared dinners in the pueblo, organized hikes, and a myriad of volunteer opportunities.

But those attachments are not as furious as the ones formed 40-odd years ago. A sigh beyond the middle years, many of us have begun to assess stamina, security, and stability for the years ahead; some of us have begun to contemplate life more comfortable than life carved here.

Some of us are selling our homes in San Pancho, ready to move on. As before, there are promises to keep in touch, crisscross the country every couple of years to visit, call to commiserate the state of the States, comfort one another in time of need. But the attachments we have formed seem substantive this time around. Perhaps because there is less time to subjugate the priority of friendship. With age comes simplicity.

Attachments frayed with age, perhaps, but not with time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

El Arco Norte

Rejoice! There is now a Mexico City bypass. Until five months ago, we on the Pacific side of Mexico had to drive through the western hemisphere’s largest metropolitan area to get pretty much anywhere east or south of it. And it wasn’t easy.

We recently headed for Xalapa in the state of Veracruz. We checked online for the day the last digit of our license plate would forbid us to pass through Mexico City, slept in Toluca and mounted the assault the next morning. It was a good passage with only one stop to ask directions and was accomplished in about an hour. In fact, it was spectacularly good because, when we got gas on the far side at about 10:30, we learned about an additional rule: No out-of-state cars on the road until 11. The last time we made a mistake, it took 2000 pesos to get out of it.

While in Xalapa word came to us of the bypass, El Arco Norte, and we took it going home. Here’s how:

East-West. Past Puebla you exit the main highway at Texmelucan where it’s almost well marked. A warning sign says El Arco Norte; the actual turnoff says Hwy 57 to Querétaro. At an un-manned toll plaza you eventually figure out to push a button and take a plastic card. The route, through beautiful, sparsely populated countryside north of Mexico City, proceeds past a turnoff to Pachuca, past a turnoff to Querétaro, and on to the exit at Atlacomulco where you pay 340 pesos. Atlacomulco is located at the point where the highway from Guadalajara turns south toward Toluca.

West-East. The exit is not marked “El Arco Norte” but there’s an Atlacomulco exit sign and another that indicates it’s the road to Querétaro.

The route takes about an hour more than going through Toluca and Mexico City but I estimate that the relaxation will add about four days to your life expectancy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Another San Pancho Writer Breaks Out

One of our number, Ellen Greene, published a wonderful book called Remember the Sweet Things (William Morrow/HarperCollins) in 2009, and now I’ve followed her with The Lives of La Escondida (Lirio, 2011.) When we started our writers’ group several years ago, publishing was only a gleam in our eyes, though we were all serious about our “craft” and a couple of us had books in the works. I think both Ellen and I would say that our writing group was catalytic in our writing process.

Things are strange in the book world these days. Barry Eisler (writer of bestseller thrillers) turned down a $500,000 advance in favor of self-publishing on Amazon’s CreateSpace after a hard look at the bottom line. Considering that an advance is, by definition, to be paid back from royalties; that book royalties from publishing houses run in the 10-15% range, while you’ll get more like 40% if you self-publish—with the disparity even greater for the e-version—the math was clearly in favor of the Indie approach.

Of course, Eisler was already well known and has no need for the book tours and all the other publicity efforts of the established publishing houses. Oops, make that the book tours, etc. that used to be part of the package at the established houses. Now, times are tough, and HarperCollins belongs to Rupert Murdoch.

And those traditional houses accept manuscripts only through literary agents, and agents take a hefty percentage, too, if you can land one, which I hadn’t when I stopped trying. I stumbled upon a publisher that would accept author submissions. I submitted; I was accepted! But if something seems too good to be true… After nearly two years of dealing with rank amateurs—extending to their knowledge, or lack thereof, of grammar and punctuation, and a refusal to allow the book to appear in e-form—I extricated myself from my contract.

What’s more, the publisher was going to print my book using CreateSpace, and then give me 10%. Sure, he provided me an editor—whose work I couldn’t use—and a proof-reader—who wouldn’t consider even the Chicago Manual of Style (“We aren’t in Chicago.”) Those, if competent, are worth a lot. However, the publisher wasn’t paying these people—thus justifying his percentage. They were working for royalties, too, and their work was slow since these weren’t their day jobs, which they should never consider quitting.

So, like Barry Eisler, I published on CreateSpace, and I make about two dollars more per book than Kathryn Stockett gets for The Help. (It won’t be necessary for you to point out who is likely making more money.) For fees, CreateSpace will edit, proof, or design, but you may do it all yourself virtually free of charge. And, if there are tricky bits, there is also prompt and competent tech support. For ten dollars, one can have an ISBN attached to a publishing house of one’s own—mine is named Lirio, from Casa de los Lirios, my San Pancho home.

My book is a romance that violates some of the conventions, hopefully making my characters more lifelike, while still devastatingly appealing. I based it in New Mexico where I lived for thirty-seven years, and in Mexico, too. There, in the 1590s, the Inquisition drove suspected Jews north to New Mexico where they went underground and hang on until this day. The book is available on Amazon and in all e-reader forms, as described on my webpage:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Tlacuaches Trumped

Opossoms, (tlacuaches, in Spanish), find my San Pancho home agreeable, as I’ve complained in several posts. Yes, they can have some bad habits, such as chewing through the gas line to my stove and causing an explosion, but I’ve now achieved perspective. My daughter found baby-blues to be too much, my grandbaby beckoned, and I’ve moved to London for a time to be what help I can. And it is London that has opened my eyes.

And how has London, more precisely, Chiswick, done this? Chiswick with its meandering streets, some of which probably follow old cow paths; where dropped items hang on fences until reclaimed; dense with prams and nannies and lovingly tended gardens; home of Colin Firth, for crissakes—is infested with foxes. Walk home after dark, gaze out into the garden early in the morning, and you’re sure to see them starting out on the night’s business or heading back to the den, which is probably hidden under a garden buddleia, maybe yours. But don’t think they aren’t out in the day, too. These foxes look as though they have no need of “sly” or “wily;” those traits were apparently given up as unnecessary long ago. A better epithet would be “arrogant as a fox.” They don’t slink or skulk home in the grey-green morning light. These animals are alpha, top, apex predators. And I’m not overlooking humans.

I say without fear of contradiction that everyone in the UK knows that a fox entered an east London house, went upstairs, and mauled twin baby girls in their crib—one on the face. When the screams brought the parents running, they found the fox sitting as calmly as if it were the family dog. It was headline line news when the babies finally got out of the hospital. Tlacuaches would never do anything like that.

Another baby was attacked while sleeping beside its mother on the sofa. The woman whose house I’m staying in found one in her living room with her three-year-old. They regularly tear up my daughter’s garden. Everybody has a story. It’s been hot, but do you think you dare leave open a ground-floor window?

Foxes have a devoted following in England. Fox hunts—“…the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” (Oscar Wilde)—were a target for animal rights advocates for decades and are now banned. One may be arrested for killing or trapping a fox—though, I presume you’d get off lightly if it could, definitively, be shown to have injured your baby. It’s hard to understand why some humane fox removal is not being attempted until you realize that there’s no place in England that isn’t already full of foxes. Given that, one wonders why the men aren’t out with torches and pitchforks at night.

And if it’s not enough that foxes threaten babies, they kill house cats. (In fairness, I note that The National Fox Welfare Society disputes this and says they only chase them away from their kits, or tease them. Italics, and scepticism, mine.) You’d think even a rumour of cat-killing would put the nail in the fox coffin, cats being nearly as essential to human happiness as babies. And while London wrestles with its dilemma, we hold our grandchildren close and think of the mild-mannered tlacuaches of San Pancho.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On the Road Again

ruins recently excavated near San Miguel de Allende

I often lament to friends and family my not traveling as much as I say I would like. Well, I haven’t booked a flight to Buenos Aires yet, but I did take some baby steps in the past few weeks by driving around Central and Western Mexico with a friend. We stopped in Lagos de Moreno, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Patzcuaro, and Morelia on the first leg, then Mascota, Talpa, and Tapalpa on the second.

“Isn’t that dangerous?” more than one person asked when they heard of my plan. Holdups and random acts of violence permeate the news from Mexico.

My experience, however, was as pleasant as it has always been here: friendly locals who smiled at us as we walked around their town snapping photos; well-mannered kids stepping off narrow sidewalks to give space to us elders; new arrivals at restaurants saying “Buen provecho” as they passed our table.

But the bad press must have left its mark somewhere in my subconscious because I felt apprehensive when I pulled off a back road in Michoacan to look at my map and a big-wheeled pickup with two men in it stopped behind me. One of them got out and approached my open window.

"Are you all right?” he asked in accent-free English. “Can I help you?” He then gave me what turned out to be perfect directions to the little town I was looking for, returned to his truck, and, along with his passenger, gave me a cheery wave as they went on their way.

Capula, the pueblo I was looking for, remains one of my favorites. Famous for its “brownware,” i.e. brown clay tableware, hand painted and glazed, Capula’s finest artisans are pointillists whose intricate fish and birds vibrate with color. Fabulous prices (around $20 USD for a plate beautiful enough to hang on a wall + matching salsa bowl) meant I could load up on gifts for friends as well as refresh my own stock at home in San Pancho.

It was fun to walk around Tzintzuntzan again, too. Pronounced “tseen-TSOON-tsan” it means Place of the Hummingbirds and is a pre-Hispanic town that specializes in straw goods. My husband Marsh bought a straw hat there years ago and always wore it to the Vallarta airport when picking up houseguests.

“I was angling for a comment on my hat,” he used to confess when someone commented on it, ”just so I could tell you where it comes from and say “tseen-TSOON-tsan.”

I always succumb to the charms of colonial beauties Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, captured in this video: I thought, and still think, that I would have chosen Guanajuato as my new hometown if the pull of the ocean weren’t so strong. The University of Guanajuato is a big plus for me. Known for its arts programs, it attracts over 15,000 students and gives the city a youthful vitality and a rich cultural life that includes the fabled international Cervantino festival every October. I went one year and loved it.

Note to self: talk up the Cervantino festival among friends and go again this year. Return to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, too. And to Mexico City to experience the renowned anthropology museum. And to Tulum to swim in the surreally turquoise water.

Get out there, as the old cruise line ad used to say.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Valentine's Day in El Tuito

The B & B where we stayed on February 14 was perfect for a Valentine’s Day getaway. Located south of Puerto Vallarta in the quiet old town of El Tuito, El Jardin (The Garden) is run by a French couple whose taste runs to the romantic. “A Touch of Paris in Mexico” is the hotel’s motto. Draperies of raspberry-colored silk, diaphanous panels used as room dividers, fluffy pink towels, and candles, candles, candles made for a sensuous setting. Feather boas and bouquets of roses added to the lavish effect.

After settling in, we browsed around El Tuito and went for dinner at Valle Azul, a restaurant with a few sidewalk tables near the main plaza. As we waited for our coconut shrimp, we watched a vendor selling Valentine balloons and stuffed animals wrapped in pink and red. We were musing about what a special Valentine’s Day it had been, when a pickup truck loaded with a slaughtered cow pulled up and parked in front of our table. A skinless head, eyes intact and horns attached, and clear plastic bags of cow innards balanced on piles of bloody meat.

A large fellow wearing a black plastic apron hopped out of the truck, pulled up the metal door of the butcher shop next to our restaurant and backed up the truck smack against our table. I know what’s going to happen next, I thought, and I’m not going to let it bother me. Our coconut shrimp arrived.

The burly butcher slung a side of beef over his shoulder and carried it into his shop. He looked like a strong guy, but it wasn’t easy. Not going to bother me, not going to bother me, I repeated to myself. I thought of my vegetarian daughter, and though I miss her, I was glad she was not there at that moment. The butcher finished unloading the carcass just as we polished off the coconut shrimp.

We settled up with Valle Azul and I asked the butcher what he did with the horns. Unless they are especially big ones, he said, he throws them out. Seems a shame, I thought, but if there is something useful you could do with cow horns, a butcher would have thought of it by now.

In hopes of getting a photo memento of our special Valentine’s Day dinner, we stopped the next morning at the butcher shop. The sides of beef hung from hooks behind the counter, where the butcher stood, slicing fat from chunks of steak. “That was one big cow,” I observed as a conversation starter. “Very heavy, about 500 kilos--more than a thousand pounds,” he said. The butcher, whose name is Joaquin Gómez, seemed pleased when I asked if I could take a photo, and he wondered if it would be on the Internet. “I don’t have email myself,” he said, “but my sister in California does, and she can send me a copy.”

So here’s to you, El Jardin del Tuito and Joaquin Gómez. And thank you for making Valentine’s Day 2011 a memorable one.