THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY ARE THE SAME: PAN,

the conservative opposition party, once again sold out to the ruling PRI at the last minute, abandoning a “steadfast” position opposing the government’s bank bailout plan, for undisclosed concessions. Following a week of tumultuous sessions in the lower House of Delegates which included fist fights, and a last-minute invasion by the debtors group El Barzon who threw flour and rotten vegetables, the House passed the administration’s plan with few changes, on a party-line vote. The left opposition PRD cried “foul”, but to no avail.

The bailout plan is seen by most as business as usual. Guillermo Ortiz, the present head of the Central Bank and the architect of the policies which have led to about 700 billion pesos (about seven billion usd) worth of bank failures, whose head the PAN demanded as an absolute condition of approving the fund, will not only remain in place, but will also get to name the person who will head the fund (and, presumably, investigate the roots of the frauds that caused the losses). Although the PAN claim they are still after Ortiz’ head, their latest capitulation raises some doubts as to their credibility on this issue.

The actual bill that got passed had originally been introduced by the PAN. It included strong proposals for protecting small landholders and businessmen and some consumers who had been bankrupted in the monetary crisis of 1994-95. These provisions were watered down, and an article was added expediting the process for acquisition of Mexican banks by foreign banks. Most importantly, in the minds of many, the bailout does little to punish the inept or crooked bank managers responsible for granting the billions of dollars in bad loans that brought the crisis on in the first place.

For a lot of Mexicans, this vote spells out clearly that the opposition majority in the lower House will not bring change to Mexico; that the PRD and the PAN will not form an effective coalition against the PRI; that favor for favor and cronyism will continue to be the way.

PESO RECOVERS SLIGHTLY IN SPITE OF SIGNS OF SERIOUS TROUBLE:

When we left on our European adventure, the Peso was pegged at over 10 to the dollar, the worst position since the massive devaluation of the early 1980’s. Today, it is holding steady at around 9.7. This in spite of the fact that oil, which last year produced 1/3 of Mexico’s revenues, has dropped to a new low of around $7 a barrel, and Jose Angel Gurria the Minister of Finance, is warning that new austerity measures will be needed, impacting necessary infrastructure investment and social programs, while the 6 billion dollar bank debt is about to be passed on to the taxpayers.

You may well ask, “how can this be?”. I know I do. Earlier this year, there was much talk about the possibility of an official devaluation of the Peso in December, but it does not appear to be happening. Uncertainty about the future of the Peso is contributing to the slow rate of investment, and as the government continues in its plans to sell off nationalized industries to foreign investors most people are listening for the other shoe to drop.

THE SNOWBIRDS ARE HERE, AND THE TEMPO IS DEFINITELY INCREASING:

In the week we have been back, we have attended two parties and one fund raiser, missing (due to conflict) two art openings and a concert by the excellent string quartet TAO. And not all the usual suspects have yet arrived.

This season, the gringo community is pitching in to support fund drives by the Casa de Mujer and the Frente Comun Contra El Sida (AIDS). Both are locally run, primarily educational in their approach, and sorely needed. Frente just lost most of its USAID money, which amounted to 2/3 of its 60,000 usd annual budget. Casa desperately needs more money to deal with the increased work load created by its excellent job of outreach and awareness building.

Word also reaches us that Pina Palmera, the Zipolite-based organization tending to the needs of the differently abled, has used up the flood of money produced when word got out about how hurricane Paulina destroyed the place. Now part way toward recognizing its first stage goal of constructing central buildings able to endure bad weather, it is putting out the word that it needs more do-re-me.

As I hear more news about these worthy charities, I will pass on the word. If any of you want to make specific contributions, I will be glad to respond to requests for information.

HOW YA GONNA KEEP EM DOWN IN OAXACA AFTER THEY’VE SEEN VENICE?

As you know, we have been gone on a three-month jaunt through Italy, Greece and Turkey. While we have not had enough time to digest all the impressions, visceral and mental, that we received, nonetheless a deadline is a deadline…

Travel is not restful. At least not if you have to do your own organizing. There are suitcases to schlep, schedules to plan, tickets to buy, taxis and hotel hawkers to deal with, and new languages to learn. There are itineraries every day (do we do the Archeological Museum or the Arboretum?) to be planned and executed, city maps to read and reread as wrong turns are made, decisions about whether or not to take the umbrella (bulky); the guidebook (heavy); a jacket or a sweater or both. Wrong moves in any of these categories can provide the traveler with a wonderful unexpected treat or a seemingly catastrophic conundrum.

For example, there was Ischia…

Ischia is an island off the Italian coast near Naples. On our last day before catching the early morning train (a Plus-class Italian Eurotrain which required reservations in advance) to Brindisi to connect with the ferry boat to Corfu (on which we had reserved a cabin) that afternoon, we took the ferry to Ischia to “take the waters” at a thermal spa friends in Naples had recommended. When we arrived in Ischia town, we checked the schedule posted outside the ferry office to find out when the last boat left for Naples. The board said 8:30.

After an afternoon of tepid water in an overpriced and very user-unfriendly spa, we headed for town to have dinner before catching the boat back. Knowing that we had plenty of time, we enjoyed a very leisurely dinner and a post-prandial walkabout before strolling down to the dock at about 7:30, to watch the shipping and wait for our ferry. Just as we got there, the 7:30 ferry was pulling away.

I went to the ticket window and asked for two tickets to Napoli, please. When? Why, tonite. No, there are no more tonite. That – pointing at the departing boat – is the last boat. What? The board says there is one in an hour. No, that is only on Monday. Today is not Monday. If you want that boat you must wait three days, until Monday. Look again at the schedule. Do you not see the little, barely visible teeny tiny dot next to that boat? Can you not read the bottom of the schedule, where it says teeny tiny dots mean Monday only? I am going home now, goodnight.

Wait, when is the first boat in the morning? 6:30. (Too late, of course, to get back to Naples, pack our gear, and be ready for the taxi which is coming at 7:30 to take us to the train station for the 8:00 train.)

So there we are, in Ischia, hopelessly marooned, without enough money between us to get a hotel room, if there were any available (we had left all our excess safely locked up in the studio apartment we were renting in Naples). We faced the loss of our investment in boat tickets and train tickets. We had to be out of the apartment the next morning to make way for new renters. We were underdressed for the rapidly cooling night air. Disasterville.

We decided to try to find a private boat owner who would take us across. The certain loss of more than $200 if we stayed, we were sure, would more than cover the cost. We were walking along the waterfront looking for an open shipping office or travel agent, but all seemed to be closed. We asked a hawker for a restaurant where we could find a boat owner and he said he maybe knew one, but the cost would be very high. How high? Seven hundred dollars. What? Yes, that was the price. We can’t afford that. Well, get a hotel. We don’t have the cash. At which point a bystander who had been listening to our exchange, said why didn’t we get the 3:00 a.m. ferry? Huh? Yeah, there is one early morning ferry but it doesn’t go directly to Naples. It goes to an exurb of Naples, where you can catch the Metro to Naples. From here? No, from the next town up the road. Yippeeeeeee!

By now it is 9:30. We do not know when the last bus goes to this town, and in any case we have very little money left, so we decide the best thing to do is to grab the next bus. Which we do. It is a lovely town, San Micciaola by name, but it is woefully bereft of anywhere warm to sit without paying a cover which will exhaust our cash (bad planning, you say? Well, we WOULD HAVE had enough money if we hadn’t missed the boat…). We are reduced to a bench in a park across from the quay.

This park is a very interesting place. From about 9:00 until about 11:00, it is occupied by a combination of local folks and German tourists, in separate groups, hanging out and conversing. After the elders go home, the youngers start to gather to show off their scooters (in Italy, scooters can go ANYWHERE) and boom boxes. By 1:00 we are the only ones visible, except for an occasional car whizzing by on the near empty roads.

Starting at about two in the morning, the fish wholesalers line up to wait for the ferry. In trucks small and large, three-wheel minitrucks and modified station wagons, they are on their way to the fish markets of Naples and surrounds. The ferry has come in, but no-one can go on board because the ticket seller is late. He shows up at 2:30, completely mystified at why anyone would grumble. We buy our tickets and go on board.

This ferry is unlike any other we have taken so far: a frill-less workers’ boat, short but wide, with one small lounge upstairs that includes a coffee bar with an assortment of fresh (at 2:00 a.m.!) sweet rolls, sandwiches, and coffee. Most of the drivers lay down on the benches and catch an hour’s nap.

We get to Pozzuoli at 4:30 a.m., but the Metro doesn’t run until 5:30. We wait. Eventually, we get back to our apartment at 6:00, exhausted, starved, shivering and happy as hell. We make the taxi, the train, the boat – and fall into a deep sleep, rocked on the waves of the Adriatic. We arrive in Corfu only slightly exhausted at 8:00 the next morning, and that afternoon we are swimming in the Ionian sea.