Archive for April, 2013

Noches en La Paz

April 24, 2013

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Back in my party days, my girlfriends and I would drive down from Washington State all the way to Baja to party all day and all night.  Typically, we hit the beach, take an afternoon siesta, have a late dinner, hit the clubs around 11:00 p.m, dance, drink and flirt till about 4 a.m., drag ourselves home catch a couple of snoozes and then hit the beach again.

Now I’m an old married woman and frankly this just isn’t very appealing anymore.  I can’t bounce back from hangovers like I used to, and the only dancing I do is in the zumba classes at the gym.  Besides, I had to remind myself that, although I am spending two months in paradise, I am still working (albeit reduced hours) via the magic of the internet and need to get up in the morning to participate in telephone conferences, write briefs, etc.  So how have we been spending our evenings?

Strolling the Malecon

La Paz has one of the most attractive Malecons (waterfronts) in all of Mexico.  The Malecon has a 20-ft wide paved walkway that stretches from the Cortez Marina in the southwest end extending approximately 5 km, all the way to Playa Coromuel Waterpark in the northeast end.  The first 3 km runs along Abasolo, the main drag.  On the non-water side of Abasolo are countless shops, mid-sized hotels (no mega resorts), restaurants, ice cream parlors, etc.  It seems like everyone walks the Malecon, especially at night, when who families stroll the length admiring the sunset, the public artwork, buy ice cream, rollerblade, ride bikes. Etc.  John and I have both walked and biked the Malecon at all hours of the day and it’s enjoyable anytime.  Weekends, you will also hear musicians playing and everyone just seems to be having a wonderful time.  Unlike Cabo and other “resort cities” there are no trinket vendors or time share salespeople constantly harassing you.  La Paz’s Malecon feels very authentically Mexican, and was clearly built with its own citizen in mind – tourists are a mere afterthought.  It’s a lovely place to catch the sunset, and I took the photo above from the Malecon at sunset.  We reward ourselves by getting an ice cream at La Fuente ice cream shot, or a gelato and Giulietta e Romeo, or a paleta (homemade ice cream bar, sometimes dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts) at Casa Villa.  There are also parlors that sell bubble tea, frozen yogurt and smoothies, we just haven’t gotten to them yet!

Attending a guitar concert at an art gallery

My friend Judy, an American ex pat who lives in La Paz, graciously keeps me informed of, and invites me to all sorts of events.  A few weeks ago, we attended a lovely guitar concert at a local art gallery.  The guitarist played only music written by Latin American composers.  We sat outdoors in a courtyard under the stars below the canopy of a large tree.  During intermission, we looked at the art and purchased wine, coffee or tea.  The cost of the concert? 70 pesos, or less than $6 per person.  Varietal Spanish wine was less than $3 a glass.  It was chilly that night, but positively enjoyable.

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Another night, we attended a free outdoor screening of Robert Redford’s documentary “Watershed” in one of three community gardens, just a few blocks off the Malecon.  We arrived before dark and toured the garden where Alex, Judy’s husband, shares a plot with a neighbor.  The park is full of whimsical murals, and even the water tank is brightly painted.

Image We munched on the sweetest cherry tomatoes, crunchy organically-grown carrots and jicama sprinkled with Tajin, a Mexican spice blend.  Various enterprising gardeners found ways to reuse all those discarded wine and beer bottles by inserting them into the dirt upside down around beds to use them as edging.  The movie itself was very informative, following eight communities in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Baja Norte and Sonora affected by the increased demands on water, the Colorado river compact and efforts to restore the delta.  One realizes how much we take water for granted and how precious it is.  Here in La Paz, the soccer fields are dirt because there simply isn’t enough water to maintain grass.  The arroyos are bone dry.  Baja Sur is one of the driest states in Mexico and depends on the Sierra Laguna for its water.  But 70 percent of the water is lost to evaporation, 15% ends up in the sea and only 15% makes it into the acquifer needed to supply the entire state.  Here in La Paz, the municipality turns off the water without warning and the pressure is so low, we fill our tinaca (water tank) by hand every other day.  Our drinking water is delivered in large bottles by truck.  Throughout the day, I hear the music from the various water companies and can now identify whether it’s the Coca Cola truck or another company.  Several days after seeing the film,  we drove down to Los Cabos and I cringed when I saw those lush green lawns and golf courses.

ImageHot Dogs!

One thinks of seafood tacos in La Paz, but hot dogs are also extremely popular.  This hot dog cart, Yapa, is just a few blocks from my house.  the owners originally just had a cart in front of their house but they became so popular, they set up indoor seating with a flat-screen TV, and serve other foods and drinks.  But it seems everyone comes for the hot dogs.  Pazcenos like their hot dogs wrapped in bacon, grilled and served on a toasty bun with onions (I like mine grilled rather than raw), jalapeno peppers, catsup (I hold the catsup), mustard and a drizzle of crema (mexican sour cream).  The best part, they only cost 10 pesos or about 80 cents U.S. The hot dog cart (and many in the city) is only open at night.

Bars

La Paz has its share of bars and clubs but is nothing like the insanity of Cabo.  We have actually only gone out at night to a bar once, and that was to the Tailhunter Fubar and Cantina, a popular sportsbar on the north end of the Malecon.  The owner, former California native Jonathan Roldan, also runs a sportfishing business.  We went there the night of the NCAA basketball championship game between Michigan and Louisville.  The game was on every screen in the bar.  The seats were filled mostly with gringos but it was not packed to the gills.  Great beers and a fun evening.

TV and movies at home

Mexico plays many Hollywood films at about the same time as in the US.  They are either in English with subtitles or dubbed in Spanish.  We don’t get the range of films seen in the U.S.  Most are action films of family-friendly films.  We haven’t gone to see a movie in a theatre yet, but there are plenty of multiplexes, just like in the States.  The house we are staying at has no TV.  We brought our computer monitor down with us and hook it up to the laptop.  Outside the US you can watch U.S. television on a website called ustvnow.com. It’s on an east coast schedule. We can watch network and basic cable for free. If we want to, we can pay a subscription for premium channels or DVR. But instead, we mostly watch netflix movies. We saw the entire series “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey and are now watching “Mad Men.”

Other cultural events

There are plenty of other cultural events in La Paz. I’ve received email notices for the ballet “Peter and the wolf,” a classical piano concert, a concert with the state orchestra. Admission to none of these events costs more than $9. La Paz is also celebrating its “foundation days” in early May (it’s 478 years old) with concerts, food, parades). I’ve been told, however, that there are no touring broadway shows or semi-professional musical theatres here. Maybe time to found a company!

A trip to the Mexican hospital

April 15, 2013

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Sunday, the temperatures were in the 70’s and we thought it would be nice to go mountain biking.  John researched on the web and found a mountain bike trail on the north end of town. It was rated “moderately technical” with maximum climbs of 780 ft.  Seemed relatively easy.  We rode our bikes along the bike lane on the Malecon (waterway) – about a 3- mi trip and then turned in land at the trail head.  There was a nice wide dirt road into the desert.  The first 1 km was ugly because people had dumped their trash there (obviously against the law).  But after the road turned to single track, we followed it up hill.  In places the trail was hard to navigate because of soft sand and gravel, but we learned that “moderately technical” must mean rocky single track flanked on either side but nasty looking cacti.  The track was narrow enough that a few times, I couldn’t walk my bike because my bike and I were too wide to avoid the cactus on the side of the road.

 

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During the entire ride we saw only one other person, a hiker who was resting underneath a large rock outcropping.  Vultures circled overhead and I joked to Johnny that they must like Gringo white meat.  The trail was short (only about 3- mi) then we crossed an arroyo over to where the hiker was resting and caught up another trail back to the trail head.

This trail was very rocky in places and I got off my bike several times to navigate some scary-looking rocks.  But as I approached an area that appeared to flatten out and the trail began to widen, I got back on my bike.  Stupid mistake.  as I came down the hill, the trail cut sharply to the right, marked at the curve by a an 18″ metal spike, a boulder about 2′ high and several smaller boulders.  My back tire hit loose gravel and I skid and I lay down my bike.  Fearing impalement on that nasty-looking spike I jumped off the bike and fell smack onto the boulder striking  hard my left ribs, elbow and bending back my left index finger.

My first thought was Omigod, don’t let there be a rattle snake under this rock I just overturned because he is going to be very upset that I disturbed him.  Fortunately, no rattlesnake.  Then Omigod, I broke my arm and ribs – the searing pain!  The third thought, “hey I’m going to live, the vultures circling overhead have left the area!

John, who had ridden about 200 yards in front of me heard my screaming and cussing and ran back. After gasping for breath for about 5 minutes, I did manage to stand, but couldn’t get back on the bike. We were still two miles from the trail head and had no choice but to hike back. I managed to walk back to the road without assistance and John walked both bikes.

When we got to the road, we turned left, walked another 200 yards or so, and entered a hotel parking lot where a small taxi was waiting. The taxi was too small to take our bikes, so I got in alone and had him take me to the hospital. The driver told John he was taking me to Salvatierra hospital. He apparently managed to flag down a larger cab, but still had to take the bikes apart. The cab driver took him to our house where he unloaded the bikes and then he proceeded to the hospital.

Salvatierra (shown in the photo) is a very modern-looking newer hospital opened in 2010. When it opened, President Felipe Calderon called it the most modern hospital in all of Mexico. From the outside, it is certainly shiny and new. Inside however, it did not have the sterile squeaky-clean look of an American hospital. I found the emergency department. They took my name address and birth date off my passport and asked me what I wanted to be seen for. I was not asked to fill out form after form and no one asked me about insurance. Then, wonder of wonders, after giving my information they IMMEDIATELY took me inside to an exam room and within one minute a young doctor came in to examine me. While waiting I looked around. The room had two examining tables but neither had paper on them (that would normally be changed between patients). I thought about my bike shorts that had been rolling in the desert dirt half an hour ago sitting on the table and the poor patient who would follow me, as well as wondering who had been there before me. There were overhead tracks for privacy curtains, but no curtains. There were two sinks, one of which had a prominent sign in Spanish “Do not use for washing your hands.” The other sink had no such sign so I assumed it would be okay to use it to wash my hands. There was liquid soap dispenser and paper towels but only the cold water work. Gee, I thought, I sure hope I don’t need surgery.

The doctor came in and was friendly and introduced herself by her first name. She examined me and asked the right questions. We communicated in Spanish, but I suspected she could speak English too. She then referred me for X-rays. The x-ray technician came by within 2 minutes and escorted me to the radiology department. Again, no paper or other protective covering on the examining x-ray table. There was a glassed in window from which I could see where he operated the machine and a computer screen to view the x-rays. He x-rayed my arm from two angles and my ribs. I was not given a lead apron to protect any areas not being x-rayed. I saw him take the films into the next room and through the window could see him and presumably a radiologist looking at them on the computer. Then he came back into the room and escorted me back to the exam room where he handed the films to the ER doctor. She put them up on the viewing panel and showed me that I had no broken bones or fractures. A nurse came into to wrap and immobilize my elbow, which has swollen to twice its size. I had an abrasion on my knee but the doctor told me I did not need a tetanus shot, as I did not cut myself on any metal. She gave me a prescription for extra-strength Ibuprofen, handed me my x-rays to keep, and said I would be fine in a few days. My discharge papers did not contain any diagnosis or instructions for follow up treatment. But here’s the great part: the medical exam and consult, three x-rays and patch up cost me only $59. In the states I probably would have paid several thousand dollars and for the privilege of waiting for five or six hours to be seen for a total of 15 minutes. Salvatierra had me in and out in 45 minutes. I was discharged five minutes after John arrived.

Random thoughts on living in La Paz

April 12, 2013

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Now that we’ve settled in in La Paz for over two weeks, I thought I’d share some random observations and thoughts with you.  I’ve learned it takes at least two weeks before you stop feeling like a tourist and more like a temporary resident.

Weather – currently very nice. When we arrived, day time temps were in the 90’s, cooling into the 60’s at night.  No need for AC at night.  It’s actually cooled down over the last week to the 70’s or 80’s in the day and into the low 60’s or high 50’s at night.  Typically in the afternoons, a steady breeze rustles through the palm trees and it quickly cools down.   I sleep with the windows open and actually need more than one blanket.  I’ve been told the hot weather we initially experienced was atypical of late March early April, and what we have now is much more typical.  It will steadily heat up again in the day time and by May we will need AC, even at night.  No rain likely for the remainder of our stay (late May).  Water temps are still too cold to comfortably swim except in the shallowest of beaches.

Dust everywhere  This is the desert and there hasn’t been any rain since we cross Mexico in late March.  Main roads are paved, but even just a few blocks from a main road the road becomes dirt.  We are staying in a very nice neighborhood but even though it’s only two blocks from the main thoroughfare through town, the road is dusty dirt.  We found a great hand-wash a few blocks away for about $6.50 the car is spotless and shiny inside out; but within a block after we leave, it’s dirty again. 

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Driving The Baja California Sur drivers are not particularly bad, compared to those in some countries I’ve been to (e.g. Italy, the Philippines, Egypt).  They are not overly aggressive and rarely honk their horns.  They tend to stay on their side of the road and don’t cut you off.  They do practice the so-called Baja California rolling stop.  There are stop signs everywhere, sometimes misplaced 20 yards back from the intersection, or not at an intersection at all (even though they say “4 altos”), or on the wrong side of the street.  We have learned that stop signs are merely a “suggestion.”  If someone stops at a stop sign, he/she is probably a gringo/gringa.  Pazcenos just roll slowly through a controlled intersection and maybe will yield the right of way to whomever gets there first.   There are also plenty of speed bumps or fake bumps painted in the road to make you slow down. some are wickedly high and you have to take them at an angle about 2 mph or you will knock your muffler off. There are many one-way streets, not always marked that way, you have to check which way the cars are parked and whether there are any signs facing the direction you want to go.  Also, once you get a few blocks inland from the waterfront, there are no street signs at all.  Most homes and businesses don’t refer to their house numbers.  Addresses state the street name and the two closest side streets.  We can drive at night in the City but don’t go between towns at night.  This isn’t because of crime (it is incredibly safe) but because the land around the highway is unfenced and cows like to sit on the road at night because it retains the heat.  If you hit a cow, the cow will probably win.

Safety We have felt very safe in Baja California.  We lock our doors of course and don’t leave valuables in plain sight.  But violent crime is pretty  nonexistent down here.   Walking down the Malecon (waterfront) you are probably more likely to be run over by a toddler on her tricycle than mugged.  In Loreto, we stayed in a hotel right on the main plaza.  The front door to our room opened right onto a patio on the main plaza.  The door had a single key and was made of wood and had a glass window.  We were never afraid of being robbed or burglarized.

Cost of living   Baja California is an “island” bordered by the U.S. to the north and separated from the “mainland” of Mexico to the east by the Sea of Cortez.  Produce is locally grown and costs anywhere from 60-80% what we pay in Alta California but the quality is infinitely superior.  Tomatoes are always ripe and flavorful.  Avocados buttery and smooth.  Seafood is very fresh but not cheap .  Bread is very good and very cheap.  A large freshly-baked sandwich roll costs about $.15.  A artisan demi-baguette will set you back $.60.  A huge capuccino muffin costs $.60. Everything else is shipped in from the U.S., China, or the mainland. Packaged goods cost what they cost in the U.S.  Dairy is much more expensive that in the U.S.  A gallon of milk will run over $4 and if you want non-fat it will be over $6.  Labor costs are cheaper and you can get a good meal at a taco stand for about $1.50 a taco with all the trimmings.  A car wash (by hand inside and out) costs $6.50.   Two large loads of laundry – wash, dry and fold costs $8.  A fill at the local nail salon costs $17 (about what I pay in California).  Gas is sold by Pemex, the government-owned petroleum company and costs slightly less than in the U.S.  A friend went to a retinal surgeon for a consult and to have some stitches taken out and a prescription and he charged her $50.  The medicines he prescribed, purchased at the local pharmacy, however, cost $60.  Many prescription meds (not antibiotics or controlled prescriptions) can be purchased over the counter.  Prescription meds, if available here, cost about 80% what they cost in the state.  Generics, however, sometimes cost the same or more.  No giant Costco bottles of allergy medicine at volume discount.  The same medication here will be sold in small packets of 28-30 pills and the per pill cost is almost identical.  I don’t know how the average Mexican (who makes about $20 a day) can afford to live here. 

For us, the big savings is rent.  We are staying in a furnished 600 sq ft two-story casita with 2 BR and 2 BA, a fully equipped kitchen and living room and a 300 sq ft covered patio with dining area, living area and bar overlooking the swimming pool.  We pay $650 for the month, which includes utilities and drinking water.  We pay an extra $16 a week for the housekeeper.

Inconveniences   We take so much for granted in the States.  No, you cannot drink the water out of the tap.  We have large jugs of drinking water delivered and go through approximately one jug a week.  I do use tap water to brush my teeth and wash my fruits and vegetables in it (with white vinegar added to the washing water to act as a disinfectant).  I boil pasta, rice in purified water and because water is so scarce, actually save the water and reuse it (for example, left over pasta water was used to cook dried beans). The City often shuts the municipal water off with no warning, so we have a back-up tank for these emergencies, which we have had to resort to twice.  When the back-up tank runs out, we refill it by hand from our landlady’s tank.  Water pressure is very low here and it can take a long time for the water to heat up, but we do have hot water.  Many people don’t have that luxury.  Sharon, our landlady, lets us use her clothes washer.  She doesn’t have a dryer.  We hang our clothes out to dry on a clothesline.  It’s so hot and dry here that mid day, clothes will dry within two hours.  But they come out stiff and scratchy.  Now I know why Latinos love fabric softener.  We wash and dry our clothes this way, but take our sheets and towels to a small family-run laundry down the street.  They charge us $8 to wash, dry and fold two large loads. The sheets and towels come back nice and soft.  Credit cards are widely accepted in Mexico except at smaller businesses and restaurants.  We try to use our credit card as much as possible. First, because we get a better exchange rate than withdrawing cash a the ATM, and Capital One doesn’t charge a foreign transaction fee.  If we have to withdraw cash, the maximum we can withdraw is the equivalent of $300/day and Banemx charges us  about $2.20 and Wells Fargo charges us $3.  The exchange rate is slightly more than 12 pesos to a dollar.  Plumbing in Mexico is better than it was when I used to come down 30 years ago, but in most places, you still can’t throw the toilet paper in the toilet.    Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon, especially on certain days, to smell an unpleasant sewer smell, especially near Walmart (How’s that for poetic justice?). Internet Service is slow, especially in the late afternoon, and things do not run as efficiently as they do in the States.  Nonetheless, the slower-paced life is part of Mexico’s charm.

Some other random observations  I’ve seen very few smokers, and most of them have been crusty old gringos.  Electricity is expensive so most of the light bulbs are compact fluorescent.  Watching the national Mexican news, there was a small box in the lower right hand corner of the screen with a sign language interpreter also delivering the news.   There are recycling bins throughout the public areas labeled “organico” and “inorganico”, but no one seems to really use them properly.  There is no curbside recycling and I haven’t found a place where I can schlepp and drop off paper, cans, bottles, etc.  Watch where you walk at all times.  Sidewalks are uneven and the water meter wells are frequently exposed.  You will definitely trip and fall into a hole if you don’t look where you are going.  The Mexican military takes tourism seriously.  On busy weekends (e.g. Easter weekend), fully armed (assault rifles) and uniformed soldiers will patrol the beach and tourist areas.  We have never been stopped by a cop and asked to pay a mordida.   There were lots of military inspections on the way down but the soldiers were courteous and helpful, even giving us sightseeing recommendations.  The Mexican people are warm, friendly and generous. 

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La Paz is a beautiful medium-sized City with lovely beaches nearby and lots of tourist activities but it does not feel like a tourist town. Mexican tourists outnumber gringos. There are no loud bars blasting rock music and we do not see drunk gringos in the street like you see in Cabo. Other than some boat operators who will approach you to see if you want to go fishing or to Isla Espiritu Santo to see the sea lions and swim with the whale sharks, you will not be pestered by timeshare operators, souvenir sales people or the like. The town has a family feel and in most places Mexicans far outnumber gringos. Nonetheless, there is a sizeable ex pat gringo population here, many from Oregon – I’m not sure why.