Happy New Year:

Greetings from sunny Oaxaca, where the tourists wear shorts while we old timers would shiver in similar attire.  It’s all what you’re used to, no?

The Christmas season ended on the 6th, Epiphany to some and 3 Kings’ Day to others.  The kids, glutted with gifts, are back in school, and the roscas (sweet breads made into hoops, with angel heads made of sugar paste hidden inside) have been eaten.  Biting down on a head obliges you to throw a party on Candelaria (February 2).

Most of the major churches have celebrated their saint’s day, and things have settled down.  With occasional outbreaks of civic or religious enthusiasm, we will be living la vida cotidiana (daily life) until Semana Santa (Easter week), when we will be complaining about the heat, and looking forward to the coming rainy season.  After the hills have turned green once more, the Guelaguetza, followed by the Days of the Dead, will complete the cycle.

[Susana Trilling and I go back to 1994, when I first arrived. I attended her first “international dinner”, and I’ve been eating at her table ever since. She’s a famous chef now, and we have lots of photos of her in kitchen traje (costume), but this is my favorite, taken at a party a couple of years ago.]

Now, and for the weeks stretching out toward the end of Snowbird Season, our time is taken up with the annual ebb and flow of the returning Winter crowd.  The Tuesday bridge game swells from its Summertime lows of two or three tables to as much as five or six.  The sidewalk cafes around the Zócalo fill up with gringos who come to listen to the State band on Sundays – and then drown out the music with their cross-table conversations.

The weather will soon warm up.  Lots of cultural activities.  Comidas with old friends.  Life is good.  C’mon down.  Bring warm clothes…

Charles Gray, presente!

We mourn the passing, and celebrate the life, of one of our own:  expatriate philosopher and jazz drummer Charles Gray, who succumbed to metastasized prostate cancer last week, attended by friends and fellow musicians, poets and artists.

[Holding forth in the garden of the Casa Colonial, on a Sunday not long ago, putting down his usual clean, professional performance. Love that shirt, too.]

I called him Charlie, and he didn’t seem to mind.  Few called him that, but I had a hard time addressing him as Charles: it seemed too severe for such a bon vivante; and whenever I saw him a line from John Koerner’s rendition of “Good Time Charlie’s Back In Town Again” ran through my head: “Got no money  / got no honey / if I can’t get happy / I’m gonna get funny”.   As it happened, he did have a little money, and a honey as well, and he seldom left town; but happy and funny?  Oh, yeah…

The van from Hell:

As most of you know, Diana is recovering (pretty well, actually) from a heart attack that has left her with a weakened circulation system, with the aid of Dr. Z, the specialists he brought in, the medications she is taking, and the loving ministrations of family and friends.  It was kind of scary there for a while, but – at least for now; and now is all any of us have – she is out of the woods.

She is convinced that the attack occurred during a van ride back from Puerto Escondido in early November, and while I tend to believe it happened on the ride down, still it gives one pause to ponder the transportation options one has when yearning for the sun and the surf.

[Diana, with her two daughters and a grand-daughter, who came down to help see her through her crisis. Without their help, I’d probably be a basket case.]

When I first made the trip down to the coast, in the early ‘70s, they were just building the highway over the mountains through San Jose Pacifico to Pochutla.  The 2nd class bus I was on – there was no first-class service available – took about 9 hours, because it had to stop frequently to wait for the big road graders to smooth out the gravel base enough so that we could get through.

Eventually, the road did get paved, and it was possible to make the trip in 7 hours, including a stop in San Jose to admire the spectacular “top of the world” view.  Still later, the more direct road to Puerto Escondido, through Juquila and Sola de Vega, cut the commute down to 6 hours on a good day.  Both routes suffer from bad patches and the occasional broken bridge.

The second class buses have been fading away in the past few years, replaced with the more efficient stretch vans, whose lower purchase price allows for more departures.  The second class bus depot is mostly empty as riders turn to the more convenient and sometimes more comfortable vans.

The biggest problem with the vans is the drivers.  They are, by and large, a hostile bunch of cowboys with no thought for the comfort of their passengers.  They take the corners too fast, they pass on blind curves marked no passing, and in some cases they refuse to stop for refreshments or relief.  Riding the van makes one yearn for the good old days when buses plied the road.

[This photo of Dr. Alberto Zamacona and his wife Laura was taken at my 75th birthday party on our patio, last year.]

There is a first class night bus to Puerto Escondido.  It is run by Omnibus Cristobal Colon, leaves from the ADO first class bus station, and takes about 10 hours to get there, with stops in Tehuantepec, Salina Cruz, and Huatulco.  The seating is comfortable, there is an onboard rest room, and the drivers are professional.  However, no matter how comfortable, 10 hours is a long time.

The more expensive plane ride takes about 45 minutes.  If you are not in the best of shape, or if you have a very short amount of time, we suggest that paying more for a plane ticket might just be worth it.

[Diana knew Paul Cohen, Lila Downs’ husband, before he knew Lila. I knew her dad at the U of Minnesota. Her mom, Anita, and I are about the same age. Plus, we’ve been following her career, from a small jazz band in a local bistro to diva performer and Grammy winner, for a lot of years now; and I can tell you for sure that success has not spoiled her. Here she is singing last week in the garden at the Casa Colonial, which has been a venue for many of the best musical and social events of my life here.]

Speaking of airports:

Some pretty smart guys in the U.S., with partners in Mexico are creating a new bridge over the border.  No cars, though.  Strictly foot traffic.

The bridge will connect a parking lot and customs / immigration facility on the U.S. side to the Tijuana International Airport.  For a fee of around 15 dollars, travellers will be able to avoid all the hassle and wasted time that marks the other two major crossings, at San Ysidro and Otay Mesa.   Since a cab from those costs $12 u.s.d., the choice should be obvious.

Parking will be extra, but there will be lots of shuttles from all over that part of the border, from San Diego to Mexicali.  You will have to have a plane ticket to cross over.  The projected length of the bridge is somewhere under 500 feet.

Now that the facility appears to have gotten all the permits it needs, expect completion sometime in 2015.  For more details, click here.

[This is our buddy and computer guru Jesus (Chucho) Morales. He’s been pulling us out of jams and advising us on hardware and software, since he was 15. He has never let me down, or overcharged me, or laughed at me for doing stupid things. Higher praise for a geek I know not.]

Is there a crisis in Mexico tourism?

There was an article in the Jan. 21 issue of Noticias that, if flatly true, was quite disturbing.  According to an official of the Oaxaca hotel / restaurant association, less than 20% of Oaxaca’s hotel rooms are currently occupied.  This in a city that is touted by many international agencies as one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

I checked with a friend who works with the tourist sector, and his reaction was that if true, this news is shocking; but that he couldn’t automatically discount it, since except for Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Mexico City, every other major tourist destination in Mexico is sliding into the abyss.

Since 90% of Oaxaca’s visitors are Mexicans, the question is why has the tourist flow dried up, and the most obvious answer is that the combination of endemic unemployment and income disparity has forced more people to save their money to buy food, not plane tickets.

Oaxaca has long had a reputation as one of the more expensive places to live in Mexico, so it will be interesting to see – assuming the hotel guy is right – what effect the absence of tourists will have on the price of rents, for example…


[We have lived here longer than she has. Our neighbor Luz Daniela is almost six. She has the most delightful laugh, expecially when she is playing soccer with her dad. Sometimes she gets in a pensive mood, but she’s mostly a little sweetheart.]