All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall

Pink Floyd’s The Wall album and movie are about as surreal and over-the-top as one can get, so this is probably the right intro to my first political post. About that Wall.

Let me begin with an admission: I am a conservative and a Catholic. So I hew to many straight line conservative positions (pro defense, pro law-n-order, pro free enterprise) but I have several significant deviations (anti death penalty, pro social services). I am pro legal immigration, and I strongly hold that the first obligation of any state, if it wishes to be recognized as a state, is to control its territory and the flow of goods and people across its borders.

All that said, I am against the Wall.  Here’s why:

First off, it addresses an imaginary problem.  I hate policies (left or right) that make you feel good but have no other useful effect: they are the auto-erotica of politics. The flow of illegal immigrants across the US border with Mexico is at a four decade low (check the CBP data here).  All those jobs NAFTA created in Mexico means more and more Mexicans are staying at home, which believe it or not, they prefer to do. Since 2009, more Mexicans left the US then entered.  The illegal immigrants still coming across the border are from Central America.  They are fleeing violence and poor economic conditions in the region, transiting Mexico, and then entering the United States. If we want to stop them, we need the Mexican government’s help.  When the Obama administration faced an earlier flood of such refugees, it arranged with the Mexican leadership to staunch the flow, which worked for a time.

Second, any military officer will tell you that a wall is just an obstacle, and unless it is manned and covered by fire (weapons) it is ineffective.  The only walls I have seen which were effective were the Berlin Wall and the Israeli West Bank barrier.  In the first case (Berlin and the old Inner German Border), the Soviets stationed armed guards every 100 meters or so with shoot-to-kill orders…and still hundreds got through.  The Israeli barrier is mostly fence, with the high wall only for those populated areas where they want to ensure no one can shoot through it. It is effective because it is closely monitored with an immediate military response. No one is emigrating or doing much trade across that barrier. That is, they just don’t care about trade with the Palestinians. Are we willing to station border personnel with free-fire authorizations from Texas to California? No. Are we willing to endure the complete cessation of goods and trade between Mexico and the US? No.

Third, some folks think the Wall will assist in preventing the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico to the United States.  Let’s put this line of reasoning to rest forever: as long as there is an insatiable demand for illegal narcotics in the States, drug cartels in Mexico will find a way to supply it.  You can’t escape the economics. Here are examples: Build a high wall, and it still pays for the cartels to dig an even more expensive tunnel under it. Build a deep and high wall, and the cartels will build slingshots to throw drugs over it, or use drones to fly over it.  Build an airborne barrier, and they will build submersibles and submarines to go around it.  Yes, they make so much money off illegal narcotics they can afford to build disposable submarines…if only one gets through, it pays for twenty more. So please, leave drugs out of the Wall discussion.

Fourth, its expensive.  Current estimates for construction alone are running over $21 billion dollars. And that does NOT inlcude all those armed guards on 24 hour watch, along with dogs, SUVs, blimps, ground penetrating radar, and surveillance drones. Some of those guard towers will be in US cities and in (what was formerly) American citizens’ backyards. And even if it works, just how efficient can it ever be? A one way airfare from Mexico City to Toronto is under $350 dollars.  While that may be beyond the reach of the poorest immigrants, many could afford it…so our vaunted Wall is also dependent upon the goodwill of both our neighbors. Or are we going to build two walls?

Fifth, and this is strictly an emotional point, the Wall is pathetic policy. Building such a wall makes the US that crappy neighbor on your block who has overly high fences and signs that say “trespassers will be shot on sight.” Big Walls are what history’s losers have built: See China, The Great Wall, France’s Maginot Line, or the aforementioned Iron Curtain.  The jury is still out on Israel. Building such a wall is the foreign policy equivalent of a teenager stomping off to a bedroom and slamming the door. We get it, people are angry, but what did that *BANG* accomplish?

There are many legitimate grievances which lead average Americans to conclude we need a Wall.  We need to spend the money we would waste on building the Wall to address those grievances.  We need a guest worker program so industries which rely on cheaper immigrant labor don’t collapse. We need job re-training and vocational education for those Americans most at risk from competition from immigrants.  We do need to develop the legal ways-and-means to deport illegal immigrants convicted of a felony. And we have to conclude some final legal status for the millions of illegal immigrants already here, probably in exchange for better cooperation from Mexico and other concerned governments.

This problem did not happen overnight. It goes all the way back to the World War II Bracero program, where we invited Mexicans to come to the States and work. For my liberal friends who think the current President is an outlier on this issue, I invite you to look at the policies of Jack Kennedy, who encouraged efforts to kill the Bracero program and FDR, who tacitly condoned the repatriation of more than a million Mexican-American citizens during the Great Depression. Immigrants have always been a whipping boy for both parties, when expedient. So climb down off that high horse.

We can’t solve this issue overnight, and we can’t solve it at all with a Wall. But we can solve it, if we want too.



Observations on Daily Life

So we’ve been here a few weeks and what have we noticed thus far? What’s new, what’s unexpected, what’s different, what’s surprising?

I think the top of the list is the different pace of life: much slower. You drive slower, you eat slower, and if you’re trying to speak Spanish, you talk slower. Its not just the difference between living in a big city (like Washington DC) and a small town.  I grew up in a small town, and even when we lived in the city, we visited several small towns every year.

People seem more present in the moment, and not in a great hurry to the next thing on their agenda. I have seen some locals walking glued to a smartphone, and even a few driving that way, but nowhere near the number back in the States. Drivers let other cars into line, pull right to let others pass on a narrow road, or even let someone cut a long queue by driving on the shoulder.  I think the concept is: if you’re in a big hurry, you must have a good reason, and the rest of us are just glad we are not in a hurry.

That “being in the moment” is not only a function of time, its also a function of simply being. Since people are present with one another, there seems to be a real attempt to have higher quality interactions with each other. For example, workers want to be good at what they do, and want you to recognize them for their quality.  So far, I have met several everyday workmen: delivering my furniture, gardening, installing or fixing appliances in my house.  They don’t have that “wish I was doing something else” look I was familiar with, and they seemed genuinely interested in whether I approved of how and what they were doing for me.

One example: we arranged for an electrician to fix our laundry room’s fluorescent lights, which were buzzing and blinking.  It gave the room the look of a creepy abandoned lab in a sci-fi movie.  When he came on Saturday, he realized I didn’t even have a ladder for him to use to get up at the light.  “No problemo,” he tells me, and leaves to find a ladder and return.  I hoped it was just an issue of bad bulbs, but when he returned, he showed me that the bulbs worked in some sockets and not in others, so it was the step-down transformer attached to the lights that needed to be replaced.  He suggested the fixtures were pretty old, and who wants fluorescent lights anyway, so he offered to go to the store and buy replacement lights for me.

On Monday he e-mails me photos of different options from the store.  We choose the same basic light, but he explains he can switch out the internals so the light works off a regular bulb: Great!  When he arrives Tuesday to install the lights, he realizes the new regular bulb won’t fit inside the old cover.  So he takes the lights back to his house where he has the tools to carve a hollow out of the plastic so it will fit. Then he returns to my place, installs the lights and sweeps the floor of the laundry room.

As he is about to leave, he asks if I smell gas. I say no, but he says he could smell it pretty strong, and he has been in my laundry room for several hours over several days. He asks for some dish soap, and he checks the gas connection and it bubbles, indicating a leak.  He borrows a wrench I have and tightens the connection and its fixed. No charge.

Now stateside, I would have been installing the lights (with much swearing), or if I contracted someone else to do it, there would have been teeth-gnashing about bulbs, the lights, etc.  Oh and don’t even think of fixing the gas leak!

It was not the most efficient process, obviously.  But the lights got replaced, everything works, and the electrician showed off some real “McGyver” skills. Everybody went home happy.

Tourist Mexico or Real Mexico


As I have been talking so much about Mexico, I thought I would take the opportunity discuss the difference between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico. When most Americans think of Mexico, what they picture is Tourist Mexico. Tourist Mexico comprises the many locations such as Cancun, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallerta and others which were developed specifically to entice cold weather visitors from North America and Europe.  My family has visited Tourist Mexico many times, as have many Americans.  But Tourist Mexico is not Real Mexico.  Tourist Mexico is to Real Mexico as Disney World is to the United States. Disney World is a fun place to visit, but if a foreign visitor thought it was America, they would be shocked when they got to Detroit, or Austin, or Peoria.

The place where Judy and I live is not Tourist Mexico. If you lived in those locations (say, Playa del Carmen) your life might be more like tourist Mexico then real Mexico.  Let’s see what the differences are:


Mexican cuisine is quite varied, with each region having specialties.  Mexican cuisine and French cuisine are the only two cuisines recognized by UNESCO as unique cultural heritages for the entire world. However, when you are in Tourist Mexico, you will most likely find a version of Tex-Mex, the food that passes generically for Mexican food north of the border.  It is more Texas than Tejas: heavy on spicy sauces, lots of beef, thick cheese. Burritos on the menu are a dead giveaway.  The emphasis is on quantity. Real Mexican cuisine tends more toward beans, queso fresco, fresh vegetables, and homemade tortillas.  If there is meat, its often chicken or pork, or whole fish. The emphasis is on quality and freshness. Tourist Mexico may serve up fresh ingredients, too, and if you look beyond the tourist menu, you can find authentic dishes.


Tourist Mexico has some of the best beach weather on the planet.  Its real, its tropical, and its magnificent.  Warm sun, soft sand: exactly what so many tourists come to experience.  Yet Real Mexico has an incredibly varied climate.  The Sierra Madre ranges runs the length of the country, providing wonderful vistas and active volcanos! There are extensive deserts, tropical rain forests, a Mediterranean coastal climate, and high temperate plateaus (like the one I live on). If you want the big city, Guadalajara checks in at over 4 million, and Mexico City at a whopping 21 million (biggest in the western hemisphere).


Here is where you will see the least change between Tourist Mexico and Real Mexico.  What every visitor notices is just how friendly the Mexican people are. Now you would think the Mexican people working in tourist resorts are paid to be friendly, but the amazing thing is they would be that friendly anyway!  Real Mexico is a lot like small town America 50 years ago: people greet each other on the street, and if someone needs help, someone else will offer it. Nearly all expats living in Real Mexico have a story of how some Mexican went way out of their way to be helpful.


Depending on where you’re from, you might find Tourist Mexico to be much less expensive than home; even if you come from a less expensive place in the States, you’ll probably notice some deals just because of the dollar-peso exchange rate.  Here’s the good news: Real Mexico is way less expensive than Tourist Mexico. In those areas where Tourists frequent, you will be able to use credit cards or dollars for your purchases, but you’ll get a poor exchange rate (consider it a convenience fee).  In Real Mexico, many stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards, and cash business is in Pesos only.  But the prices are often ridiculously low, especially for the labor involved in any product.


One last, big, area of difference.  Tourist Mexico has evolved to handle Gringo culture.  Things are done faster, portions are larger, deals are Gigante!  Real Mexico is very different: things are slower, and manana culture (“tomorrow, if ever”) prevails.  Portions are normal, and while bartering is a possibility, you don’t take advantage of the seller, because they too are making a living.

In Real Mexico:

A religious parade might break out at any time…
horses merge with horsepower (she just put away her smartphone, btw)

And in Tourist Mexico:

Are those golden arches? Look closely and you might see some Spanish!
Always more FOR SALE, but beware the HECHO EN CHINA label

I am not criticizing Tourist Mexico, just suggesting that if you only know Tourist Mexico, you should give Real Mexico a try.  And yes, those are my pale feet on the beach in Tourist Mexico:

I never said I didn’t like it!

Home, Sweet Casa

We woke up quite refreshed from our first day’s drive in Mexico and feeling pretty good about ourselves.  Yes, we only had intermittent Waze access, but Google maps seemed to work ok and coincided with the written instructions we had from other expats, and the drive was uneventful.  We had a great breakfast at the hotel, and only about six hours of driving to “home”…or so we thought.

Fitting Last Meal, no?

Leaving Matehuala, all we had to do we re-enter the highway, drive south by southwest around the towns of San Luis Potosi and Lagos de Moreno, and we would soon be on the Macrolibramento (Outer Beltway) around Guadalajara and home to Ajijic. Since the previous day went so well, I let my guard down and as we approached the first bypass for San Luis Potosi, where we had to make a decision.  Google maps showed us going around to the north, but our written instructions were very clear: take the southern bypass labelled “Guadalajara.”  We came upon the exit at speed (about 80 kmh) and I said to my navigator (Judy), “I’m going with the digital directions; at least they are ‘live.'” With that we headed along the northern route. I thought about the line from the Steely Dan song “My Old School,” “Ohhh, no, Guadalajara won’t do!”

At first, we seemed to be on another bypass, and I thought, “hey that worked out well.”  But next we were on an a I-395-like highway right through the middle of SLP.  Still not too bad, and we cleared the city with only about 30 extra minutes of drive time.  Then we found the road changing from an divided highway down to a four lane local street and

Long way down

finally a two lane country road. Better still, one side of the road was a cliff straight up, and the other (our side) a cliff straight down.  The Mexicans say “Vaya Con Dios” or “Go with God,” and they mean it, because there was no shoulder and no guardrail.  Even my dog stood up in his tiny back seat space and began to pant in my ear.

“Umm, Dad, is this the right way?”

The road swerved along a series of ridges for 30 kilometers or so; in many places the switchbacks were so severe you were headed back in the opposite direction every hundred meters. We survived it and breathed a sigh of relief when we finally rejoined the Cuota (toll road) to which the other bypass lead. Now we were an hour behind schedule.

I committed to following the written instructions, and luckily Waze began working and confirmed our choices. We made it around Lagos de Moreno and headed onto a Carretera (main highway) toward Guadalajara.  We had about 150 kilometers of high desert plateau to drive through, straight as an arrow and no towns, so it seemed like we could set the cruise control and “go.”  But we had another Mexican moment coming: all of a sudden, all the traffic on our side of the four lane, divided highway was collapsing into the single, left lane.  Up ahead, we came upon a car with flashing emergency lights driving slowly in the right lane, and then we passed a group of bicyclists following a flatbed truck with a religious shrine to the Virgin Mary on display in the back.

What the %(#*@?
Bike Pilgrims, of course!

Seems today was the day of a bicycle pilgrimage south of Lagos de Moreno, and every mile or so for the next hour, we passed another set of pilgrims gamely riding bicycles up and down the same mountain road we were driving. Only in Mexico.

This too passed and we were finally approaching Guadalajara’s outer beltway, which is a toll road and still under construction. We started down our exit and came to a small toll booth. As we pulled up, I asked the young lady “Cuando?” (how much) but she responded with a “no” and a stream of Espanol that immediately exceeded my limited capabilities.  So we sat there at the exit, with a restraining arm between us and the road home, and looked at one another and thought, “what now?” Judy asked if the the girl spoke English, but no, she didn’t.  Luckily, no one was behind us, but we were stuck.  The girl spoke again, and Judy heard “Chapala” and correctly guessed she was asking us where we were going.  We cheerily shouted “Lake Chapala” and like a magic password, she raised the arm and let us through. Why does the Mexican government pay to have someone asking people where they are going on a limited access, toll road?  Quien sabe?!

We left the toll road, drove up the pass over Sierra San Juan Cosala and arrived at our house, 90 minutes behind schedule. Bu then again, what’s a schedule? “Schedule, we don’t need no stinking schedule.”




Crossing that border (when I come to it)

The actual move process began on Friday, January 27th, when my dear wife and I had our appointments with the Mexican consulate in Washington DC to apply for our visas.  You say you’ve never had to get a visa to visit Mexico? Well let me explain.

Mexico has three different kinds of visitor visas.  The first and easiest is Tourist, which allows you to stay in Mexico for up to 180 days, and its approval is automatic for US citizens.  You do pay a small fee (I think around $35 USD) which is included in the price of your airfare or cruise cost if you travel either of those ways.  The second is Temporal, which is designed for longer stays (1-4 years), costs around $170 USD, and requires you to show some form of secure resources (income or investments).  The third is Permanente, which costs around $250 USD and requires proof of even greater financial resources.

I was applying for Temporal and Judy for Permanente for reasons of the different rights which apply to each.  We had read horror stories from current expats who told of Mexican officials refusing to grant status “just because” or asking detailed questions and requiring extra proof. Well, the DC consulate was not at all like that.  We arrived early for our “appointments” and there was no one else there. The young

Anna, very helpful at the DC consulate

lady behind the counter glanced at our paperwork, took it, told us to have a seat and we’d be done shortly! We had to be photographed, fingerprinted, and pay a small application fee, but we were both out of the building in under 30 minutes with our approval to cross the border.

Stuffed FJ

On Saturday we started a round of goodbyes with friends and family, and then packed out the FJ.  As it turns out, we still had about one and a quarter FJ loads, but only one FJ.  We hastily repacked, decided on what we could leave behind until we come back to the States next August, and tried to get some sleep.

Come 6:00 AM on Sunday the 29th, we gunned the FJ down the southwest route via Chattanooga to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for our first night. We experienced heavy fog and light snow, maybe for the last time. We continued a torrid highway pace via Baton Rouge to stay the second night in San Antonio, Texas.

Day three (Tuesday) was the big enchilada: get up early and drive to cross the border at Nuevo Laredo. Just as we crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, our Waze app conked out.  Waze is absolutely the best way to get directions and real time traffic info, and we really needed it as we crossed the border because we had to go to a specific building and get our visa stamped and find out if our car was approved for entry. Lucky for us, the Mexican government must have gotten tired of gringos wandering around Nuevo Laredo lost, for there were good signs leading us straight to the admin building.

The parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived at 10:30.  We had no lines and no trouble as we got our visas stamped, paid an entry fee, and got TIP approval to (finally) bring the FJ into Mexico.  All very smooth. We left the building and headed on the bypass around Nuevo Laredo, knowing there was one more customs stop about 20 kms down the road.  This too proved to be nothing more than a large facility where all traffic was routed into a single lane, passing by a bored-looking young man in a booth waving us on!

So all that worry about the car’s paperwork, the dog’s paperwork, our paperwork: for naught.  We rolled on through the Mexican countryside on their Cuota (toll roads) to the small town of Matehuala, where we had hotel reservations for the night.  As Judy & I sat down (with our dog at our feet) for dinner at the hotel restaurant, we knew how Andy Dufresne must have felt when he saw Zihuatanejo!

“We’re not in Kansas anymore”


In rereading the last several posts, I don’t want to engage in rose-colored glasses history. There were several times things went wrong along the way, and could have derailed the whole process. Here are a few of those, to even out the story.

My employer, the US Government, required me to report all my dealings with foreigners. It never occurred to me this might include buying a foreign property.  I had already put the money down on the house before asking for permission.  So I submitted the request, said a prayer, and it came back approved. Similarly, I changed property managers and failed to notice my new manager was Canadian (who asks such questions, right?), so I had to go back and make another official report on that, too.

About two and a half years out, I wondered why my dear wife Judy wasn’t starting to sort things out so we could sell our townhouse and move to an apartment.  Finally, I sat down and asked her about it point blank; she indicated she knew it had to get done, but it was emotionally too hard to start, so she kept putting it off. It was difficult to sort through a life’s collection of stuff, and preparing to move is never easy.  That set us back about six months, and we ended up dealing with simultaneous rent and mortgage payments for several months, so we could get our house sold and get exactly the apartment we wanted.

About a year out, as I surveyed what we wanted to bring/ship to Mexico, I got the bright idea to do a trial run to Lake Chapala and take a load down in my Toyota FJ truck. I thought it would be a good practice trip, and give us an extra load of carrying capacity for the overall move.  Now if you’re driving your car more than about 25 miles over the Mexican border, the Mexican government requires you to get a visa for your automobile.  It costs about $400 US dollars, and you are reimbursed this cost when you drive back into the US.  In effect, the payment is a bond to ensure you don’t take your car to Mexico and sell it there. [It all goes back to NAFTA.  Americans will recall the “giant sucking sound” people in the US were afraid of: that US jobs would go to Mexico (many did!).  Mexico was worried that entrepreneurial Americans would start driving their cars across the border and swamp the Mexican auto sales market, so they put this restriction in place.] You can get this visa, known as TIP for Temporary Importation Permit, when you cross the border, or you can apply online. Trying to save time, I dutifully went to the online site and applied for my visa in advance, and I received it in the mail a few weeks later. It all went so smoothly, I should have sensed trouble!

You see my employer, the US Government, decided it was too dangerous for any federal employees to drive across the border, so they disapproved my trip. I was irritated, but it was only a practice run and single carload, so who cares?  But what do I do about my auto visa?   I looked online, and the websites were unclear about what to do. It was still two months before I was supposed to travel, so I figured I would send the visa back to the office which issued it and ask for a refund.  They responded a month later with a very nice, very long letter full of the most untranslatable Spanish bureaucratese.  After much Google translate review, I determined that they insisted I had to prove my car was not already in Mexico. You see, in their minds, I could have already driven the car to Mexico and sold it!  I could prove I did not do so by presenting my car at the border for them to inspect, or by sending them a notarized, apostilled letter from my local police department.

Meanwhile, my dear wife had found an online form to request a TIP cancellation, so I tried sending it along with a copy of my current car registration; I figured, well, it’s a government document, it shows my car is in the US, and I had it both notarized and apostilled. Most people know what a notary does, but may be unfamiliar with apostille.  It serves as a second check of authenticity, and is recognized outside of a given country.  In my case, the Commonwealth government in Richmond had to apostille my notarized documents. By the way, explaining to a notary what this was all about was entertaining to say the least. I guess the Commonwealth office was used to it by now, because I just mailed them the material and they returned it to me.  

About another month went by, and I received a second long letter full of references to Mexican Federal law and explaining why my attempt to send them my registration was insufficient. I was NOT driving to the border and crossing it just to turn around and drive back: that would have cost more than the 400 dollars I was trying to recoup.  But the second letter had a surprise in it: they also mentioned that if I did not resolve this matter to their satisfaction, they would place my car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, on their list to prohibit me from ever bringing it into Mexico.  AGHH! My car was now in danger of being placed on the Mexican automobile equivalent of the TSA No Fly list! I wonder if the list is called “No-Va”?

Anyway, being as how this was the SUV I planned to use for our one-load move to Mexico, things had gotten very serious, very fast. I contacted the Arlington County Police’s public outreach office and scheduled an appointment.  A very polite Sergeant agreed to meet with me, and I told her my sad tale of woe.  As I recounted the various letters, notaries, apostilles and Google translations, I could almost hear Arlo Guthrie describing the “27, 8×10, color glossy photos full of circles and arrows with a paragraph on the back of each one” from the classic tune “Alice’s Restaurant.”  Luckily, there was no Officer Obee in sight, and the Sergeant dashed off and signed a letter testifying that on that date, my car was safely in the good ole US of A.  After the customary notarization and apostille, I fired another volley off to Mexico City.  

Several months past, and I received a large envelope from the Distrito Federal, or DF, which was the name of the Mexican Capital region much as the District of Columbia is for the US (they just changed the name to La Ciudad de Mexico, or CDMX). In it was another bureaucratic masterpiece, which took two pages to say “OK.”  Attached was a quite stunning, multi-color Cancelation document which dwarfed the original TIP.  Included in the letter was a warning that whenever I tried to enter Mexico with my FJ in the future, I would have to show this document to prove my car was not ‘on the list.’

I never found any reference to a rebate, and friends have since told me there is a separate process to get the money back: I will probably just consider it a donation to the bureaucratic gods. How will the story end?  Will my car be confiscated and sent to Guantanamo? Will I transfer my carload to donkey and set out across the Sierra Madre? I will let you know in my next post.

My alternative?