Un próspero año nuevo

If you stop and think about it, New Year and its eve are odd things to celebrate. We know time is an abstract, human concept.  We know it is relative: the world uses the Gregorian calendar and tomorrow is 2018, but it is 4713 in the Chinese calendar, 5778 in the Jewish calendar, and 2561 in the Buddhist calendar. So what difference does it make?

Even the precise time of the calendar change is relative. North America is the last continent to experience it, and New York City is the focus. I recall as a child celebrating the New Year as it was broadcast live from NYC, even though we lived in the central time zone in Indiana. Now we can watch as cities in every time zone cross the New Year and celebrate, all in realtime. But why celebrate it at all?

That such celebrations are universal is undeniable. All those calendars I mentioned have a New Year’s Day, with its accompanying celebration. Even long-dead cultures left behind stories of celebration of a change in the annual cycle. It all points to one thing: the fundamental optimism of the human race. It seems that people everywhere and in all times hope for better times with the change of that calendar page.

Optimism is a double-edge sword. I know people who invest great time and energy trying to ensure the very best New Year’s eve date, party, or event, only to feel disappointment creeping into their midnight countdown. Now we all know the fate of our year is not determined by New Year’s eve, but what accounts for all that optimism in the first place?

Certainly human history holds no cause for such optimism: last century was the bloodiest yet, and one in which we eventually developed multiple means to destroy humanity or the planet itself, belying the notion of “the right side of history.” Why would history have an arc that bends toward morality, or liberty, or love for that matter? Of course, some (including me) believe history is unfolding according to a plan, although this guarantees nothing positive in the meantime, just a positive finale.

Perhaps that optimism we all feel is a tiny residue of a deeper longing that one day everything will be better. This is rightly called Hope, and it is not the same as optimism. We often use the word hope casually to indicate something we wish would happen. Hope is actually a form of trust: we hope things will end well because we have been assured, or promised, they will. So while history and our own experiences will often provide an overwhelming rebuttal to our optimism, hold on to the hope. Hope is a good thing.

Of course, one quiet day sometime after the New Year, ask yourself this: Not only what do you hope for, but why do you hope?

Feliz Navidad

Here on Christmas day, just a quick post to send you a simple thought on this holy day.

Perhaps you’re having a spectacular Christmas, full of good cheer and Good News: seeing old friends, gathering with family, enjoying quiet time and parties and thoughtful presents and weather which completes the Christmas tableau for you. I certainly hope this is the case. If so, know that all this is the result of the love of an all-knowing and almighty Creator who only wills all the best for you, and wishes simply to share in your joy.

Maybe this year has been hard for you: rancorous politics, a difficult job or boss, time spent away from family and friends or just alone, even the serious illness or death of a loved one. I pray this was not the case, but all of us have had–or will have–such an experience. If such was the case for you, know that even in your darkest times, you live in the palm of a God-Who-Is-Love, who is all-compassionate in that He suffers alongside you.

Most of us had a year somewhere in between. In that case, know that whether we believe in Him or not, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. If we run to meet Him, He welcomes us even with all our frailties and imperfections. If we stand and wait, skeptical or suspicious of Him, He coaxes us constantly with signs and wonders. If we run from Him, he pursues us with haste, as a father pursues a child headed for a busy intersection.

Such a God is hard to fathom, but then, what else explains a King of Kings born in a manger?

Merry Christmas!

Whither the Weather

We had our annual poor weather one week ago, when the overnight temperatures plunged to the high 40s while the daytime highs still lingered around 70 degrees. We even had a Saturday which was overcast with some rain in the middle of the dry season! Which led me to fact-check one of the best arguments for living lakeside: the incredible weather.  Having spent almost an entire year lakeside, I feel I can now make a better analysis of the “world’s 2nd best climate.”

Let’s start with the biggest statistical category: beautiful days. About 80% of the time, I wake up and make my plans without considering the weather in any way. I take my dog out for a quick walk in the dark at 6:45 am while still in my pajamas, because, well it’s dark and the weather won’t matter (and no, there are no pictures; you can thank me later).

If we’re in the rainy season, I know the rain may be intense, but generally not last long. If we are in the dry season, it may seem chilly (50 degrees, remember, I am in my PJs!), but once the sun comes up it will warm up considerably, around 70 degrees at least. You don’t need a coat, or a sweater; you may want a hat or sunscreen, but that is about all.

What about the rest of the time? About 15% of the time it gets a little too warm and dry. This is at the end of the dry season, especially the month of May leading into the first few weeks of June, when the rains return. Temperatures can get into the 90s, with a blazing sun. Humidity remains low, so it is not too uncomfortable, but the sustained heat really warms up the brick-and-stucco casas, which will continue to bake for an hour or so after sundown. The predictable weather pattern makes this time of year a favorite for travel away from lakeside.

The final 5% is too cold, generally in short bursts in December or January. Once again, the thick house walls act to insulate, this time keeping it a little cooler than outside temperatures in the late morning. Now when I say too cold, let me admit this is VERY relative.  During any cloudy or cool day in the dry season, you can see Mexicans wearing ski vests, hoodies, or coats and gloves. Long time expats complain of “thin-blood” and similarly break out sweaters, long pants, and coats. You can easily identify the recent arrivals (like me) by our short-sleeves; new expats from the Great White North even sport year-round shorts and sandals (with white socks, natch!).

We still have no means of heating our home; we do have a nifty heated mattress pad, which means we get a toasty warm bed in winter. As I mentioned last post, we are putting in mini-split air conditioners in our living room and master bedroom, just for those few hot weeks. We have some warmer clothing which is mainly for travelling back to the States. That is all the accommodation to inclement weather we’ve made.

Whether our weather is the “second best in the world” or not, after a year I am prepared to say it is not an exaggeration to call it amazingly comfortable. What stands out is that any semblance of regular weather (say rain or wind or humidity) is so surprising as to require notice. Otherwise, it is just right.

One final note: I thought about including some photos of how folks dress around here, but then thought better of it. No one wants to be famous on the internet as an example of peculiar sartorial splendor!

We need more POWER

Actually, we don’t need more power, but we’re getting some anyway. We just had solar panels installed, which led me to reconsider one aspect of expat life in general: utilities.

Utilities are something you take for granted NOB. The water works and is potable, the electricity is always on and the voltage constant, mail is delivered whether “sleet or snow” and sewage just goes away. This is not always the case lakeside. Of course you pay for the luxury of not thinking about your utilities NOB, while here in Mexico we might pay less, with less certainty.

For example, consider electrical power. The line voltage can wax or wane, so you may need to purchase a voltage regulator, or use local appliances designed to operate in such conditions.  Power is generally stable here, although we do get occasional outages during especially powerful storms in the rainy season. Given we endured several such outages in our last apartment in Arlington, Virginia, I can hardly complain. My dear wife tells me our electric bills NOB for a small apartment averaged $105 monthly; I wouldn’t know, as I never paid a utility bill in my life (thanks, dear!). Like typical Americans, we had a TV running constantly, air conditioned/heated to 70 degrees year-round, and had all manner of computers and appliances plugged in continuously.

Electric power in Mexico is heavily subsidized by the federal government.  There are varying rates for electric use, with the smallest use being very cheap. Once you cross over into high use (called by the acronym DAC) your rates triple. This is meant to deter energy waste, but it is still cheap by NOB standards. The DAC measurement is based on a running 12 month average, so it is not a one-time trip wire, but once you go into DAC you stay at the triple rate until your average goes completely below the limit.

I was really focussed on NOT being an ugly American energy waster when we moved down, so I was a fanatic the first month at turning off lights, unplugging small appliances, etc. Then my first bill came.

Now that bi-montly bill only totaled about $27 USD per month. But as you can see, the usage arrow is way over in the red, the dreaded DAC. ¡A poco!  Our bills hovered in the same area the rest of the year. Meanwhile, we sweated through a particularly hot end of the dry season in May and June, which forced us to reconsider the standard no-heat-and-no-air conditioning mantra of lakeside.  But if we went with mini-split air conditioners, we would bust DAC permanently.

All of which led us to consider installing solar panels. The purchase and complete installation of four panels with microinverters and a monitoring system ran us approximately $3000 USD, which is still cheap. And yes, I know that even considering the permanent DAC costs, this was not a great move in terms of return on investment. It was more about peace of mind while not worrying about our comfort. We’ll soon follow-up with two mini-split air conditioners.  Even after that, our electrical usage should be back down into the low or very low range.

Our array

More about the other utilities in future posts!

La Guadalupana

From our collection

Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which you might have missed. You can’t travel in Mexico, or even a Mexican barrio in the States, and not notice the Mexican people’s overwhelming attraction to the Virgin Mary. You will see murals, paintings, sculptures, and even tattoos with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Guadalupana.”

Typical street shrine

You might think this is a Catholic thing, but it goes way beyond that. Even secular Mexicans and the growing “Nones” still show an uncanny respect for La Guadalupana.  She has transcended religion and become something special–and this in a country where almost anything can be a source of humor!

Most people are familiar with the story: the Virgin Mary appeared to a local Méxica man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin during December, 1531. She told him to ask the Bishop build a church on Tepeyac hill. Juan Diego asked but was rebuffed by the skeptical cleric, who asked for a sign. Our Lady directed Juan Diego to gather roses which had (surprisingly) bloomed on the hill; he carried them to the Bishop in his cloak (tilma). When he spilled the roses at the Bishop’s feet, his tilma revealed a spectacular and unique image of Our Lady. The tilma remains intact and on display in the resulting Basilica in Tepeyac.

The tilma image

Regardless of how you feel about miracles in general or this one in particular, what may be the most amazing part is what happened next.

Recall from my earlier post that the Méxica empire had collapsed in 1521 under the twin pressures of Hernán Cortés and diseases brought by the Spanish soldiers. Ten years on, the Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors had made little headway. While the Méxica people were shocked by the collapse of their proud civilization, nothing that happened undermined their faith. While some locals near the coast thought Cortés and his men might be the return of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Méxica leaders pretty quickly figured out the Spaniards were not gods. The Méxica religion included stories of impending catastrophe which their leaders sometimes invoked to reinforce their position of power (“Look, I prevented the end of the world!”). One story Moctezuma used was a prophecy about the fall of Tenochtitlan caused by two-headed warriors. The metal-clad conquistadors on horseback certainly fit the bill as two-headed bearers of the apocalypse! The Méxica people were demoralized, but what happened fit the precepts of their faith, and they found the sacrificial Savior of the friars to be either confusing or ridiculous. Proselytization went slowly as  result, until the tilma came to light.

While documentary evidence for the apparition only dates to 1648/49 (Spanish and Nahuatl accounts, respectively) and is therefore historically suspect, there is a 1568 account by an English prisoner which describes the tilma image as an object of veneration. The image on the tilma is an exotic mix of Catholic and Méxica traditions, which the Méxica people quickly embraced. Whatever happened on that hill (now) in Mexico City, the heretofore resistant Méxica people became overwhelmingly and persistently Catholic as a result.  That alone qualifies as a miracle.

One final image, again from nuestra casa

Everything you know is wrong (II)

Moctezuma, flashy dresser

Another installment of this occasional series, this one on the Aztecs. You recall the Aztecs, no doubt, the sprawling Mesoamerican empire under Montezuma, who confronted and was later destroyed by the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortes.

Let’s start by correcting a few simple translation differences: Hernando Cortes is Hernán Cortés in the original Spanish, while Montezuma is the more popular–but less correct–transliteration of the Aztec leader’s name: the more correct version is Moctezuma.  I doubt the US Marine Corps will be correcting their hymn anytime soon (“from the halls of Montezuma”, and it is a nuanced pronunciation change, so “As you were, Marines!”). Neither of these points matter much, and are easily explained by the difficulties in translating between vastly different language groups.

The more important change goes back to that term Aztecs. See, there were no Aztecs. From what we know of the empire around Tenochtitlan at that time, the people called themselves Méxica, which represented a new name denoting an alliance of powerful city states (primarily Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco), and the language they spoke was Nahuatl. When you run into many difficult tl phonemes in Mexican place names, blame it on Nahuatl. If you read the Spanish accounts of the conquest, there is no mention of the Aztecs; the Spaniards referred only to the Méxica. (As an aside, if you want to read an amazing adventure story, there is an English language translation of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s eye-witness account of the conquest, which is gripping!).

So whence Aztecs? The Méxica people’s origin story was that they descended from a tribe who lived in a legendary place called Aztlan, and were thus “from Aztlan” or “Aztecas” in Nahuatl. It was an important term of ancestral relationship, much like my family claiming to be Irish, when we have more German ancestors than any other ethnic group, and we’re all Americans, anyway.

This interesting historical and linguistic fact (the Méxica, not the Neary’s) was irrelevant until the 19th century, when a German explorer conducted an expedition into Mexico and wrote about the Méxica origin story, calling them Aztecs. His work was cited by William Prescott, a famous American historian who wrote History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843, long considered the seminal work on the subject. Prescott used the appellation Aztecs for the Méxica, and it stuck.

It makes much more sense that a country named México was inhabited by a people named the Méxica; less so the Aztecs. While the Méxica origin story is important, it was probably a mistake to re-name their culture for it. Imagine a historian of the future noting that in the 21st century, there were people living around a lake in Mexico, and their origin story was they were Expats, so they must have been from a heretofore undiscovered place called Expatia. In some sense it would be technically correct, but not in any sense right. The next time you here a reference to the Aztecs, stick up for the Méxica!

When Worlds Collide

No, not the 1951 science fiction classic (and you’re dating yourself if you even remember that movie), I’m thinking of the line from the opening song to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (“Science Fiction/Double Feature”). As in “But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride, I’m gonna give you some terrible thrills.”

Actually, there is nothing so dramatic to report here. The title just occurred to me as I considered what it is like to live in another culture during a holiday season.

One sample menu. Price in pesos equals ~$10 USD

It really hit home a week ago Wednesday, when Judy and I were hiking. As we were nearing our casa, I said, “that was a great hike. I think tomorrow will be pretty quiet; do we have anything planned?” Judy said “Just Thanksgiving.” Yes, I had completely forgotten the most American of all holidays. Oh, we had plans, including a traditional dinner with friends at a local restaurant. Because of the large expat population, many local restaurants serve up a traditional Thanksgiving feast. I even had a little warning, as Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday of October, and was dutifully celebrated by Canadian expats and local restaurants lakeside.

Thanksgiving week here coincided with the start of the Mexican fiesta season.  The third Monday in November (November 20th this year) commemorates the 1910 Revolution (Día de la Revolución) which overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The weekend leading up Día de la Revolución has been adopted by Mexican commercial interests as Buen Fin (Good End, as in “buen fin de semana” or “good weekend”, which is the Mexican equivalent of Black Friday). Interesting to note that the stores did not try to purloin a religious holy day, but instead chose a secular holiday.

The very next day was the start of the patronal feast for San Andrés (St. Andrew).  Each town has a patron saint, and celebrates a novena (nine day fiesta) in their honor. This includes bands playing at dawn, fireworks until midnight, parades sponsored by different groups, singing, dancing, rides and beer/food stalls and items for sale on the closed streets around the plaza…each night! San Andrés feast is November 30th, but for some reason (Mexicans don’t require much reason for this) the fiesta is extended this year all the way to December 3rd.

That date is muy importante, as the next day begins the novena (yes, another nine days of national fiesta) for Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast is December 12th. Mexicans of all ages hold Mary in special regard and this is a very special time for them. But you can see where this is going, because on December 16th, the novena before Christmas begins with posadas (nightly street processions recalling the Holy Family’s search for an inn in  Bethlehem, but these processions end with house parties). New Year’s eve is much the same as NOB, but is followed by Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) on January 6th, which is the traditional day for giving children gifts in Mexico.

Basically, from November 20th until January 6th, not much gets done lakeside (or in Mexico, for that matter), and there is always some reason to celebrate.

And for those still wondering why I began this post with a clip from Rocky Horror: well, last Thanksgiving, I posted (on FaceBook) a link to the classic song “Alice’s Restaurant.” I thought I would show a little range with my musical selection this year…after all, “its just a jump to the left!”