Sunday, December 16, 2018

Doctor heal thyself


I suppose an argument can be made that the ease with which I bought Atorvastatin in Mexico or that my friend Bob bought a sinus medication and a pain killer with a trace of an opiate in it exposes a gaping hole through which less disciplined folks might descend into the abyss of addiction. For sure it lends itself to self-diagnosis as was evidenced by a hilarious episode in Guatemala in February of 2017.

Three weeks into my four week stint at the estimable Ixchel Spanish School in Antigua I woke up with searing sciatica that felt like a red-hot poker shooting down my lower back through my hamstring and into my right foot. It’s always the right side for some reason. My diagnostic skills end with identifying the pain. Yes, it was sciatica. Been there before.

I dealt with the withering discomfort for a couple of days which meant I could make it to the bathroom, the shower, the breakfast room and my mezzanine table for class. Thankfully mi maestra Carmen and I sat five short steps from my treasured dormitorio 4. Or is it recamara, habitación or cuarto? Got me. The Spanish have too many words for bedroom as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, the important thing is that you get room 4. Settle for no other. And while you’re at it ask for a desk or purloin one from the roof deck as I did.

After dinner with Ana, Diego, Ana’s daughter Liliana, and my fellow students the lure of Antigua’s many watering holes demanded I limp and moan to the our bar of choice with my drinking partners. Camaraderie es muy importante. So, shuffle and whine it was for two harrowing days. I was on the brink of quitting school and booking an earlier flight back to Albuquerque when I remembered Sam Fees, my eighth-grade teacher, blistering me for quitting during a 100 yard dash in which I was a poor fifth out of six. My thirteen-year old self thought, “What’s the point?” He screamed, “Never quit, Immel. Never be a quitter.”

Taking that admonition to heart I summoned my inner doctor and repaired to the nearest farmacia on 6a Avenida Sur.  Look for the welcoming Green Cross or Cruz Verde. I described my plight and asked for a pain suppressant and a muscle relaxant. It wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve fought demons of the back and spine for half a lifetime. When I described my malady and asked for the aforementioned potions, the pharmacist presented two boxes and I realized that the muscle relaxant was a daily injection. In the fog of desperation, I bought it. I’d have performed back surgery on myself to get rid of the pain. Hell, I gave myself a shot in the abdomen every day for a year. How hard can it be? Reaching my right hip with the syringe would raise the degree of difficulty but surely I’d manage. Even dream of relief made me feel better.

When I got back to school for lunch, I described my problem to Ana. By this time, I was doubting my ability to reach half way around my body and plunge the magic elixir into my nalga. Ana told me she had a friend across the street who knew how to give shots since she had been doing it for one of her children. “Do you want me get her?” Ana asked. Did I ever.

“Absolutemente." I answered.

With that Ana walked across the street and brought back the muy amable Lucía. “Much gusto, Lucía. Muchas gracias por tu ayuda.” Glad to meet you. Thanks for the help. She asked if I wanted the first shot right then. I said that I did.

Lucía told me to drop my drawers and lean over my bed so she could administer the first injection into my lily white butt. All the while Ana is watching this unfold from the partially open door to my room. I was beyond embarrassment. Lucía could have brought a class of second graders to watch the show and I wouldn’t have cared less.

That process continued for four more days and I was enjoying my morning jog south down Ruta Nacional 10 toward San Juan Obispo that Saturday morning. Best of all I didn’t bail and was able to complete my second four weeks of Spanish immersion in beautiful Antigua.

You have to be resourceful in the third world and sometimes that means taking chances. These little bouts of risk and reward can become the highlights of your adventure.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Just the facts, ma'am


On our last day in San Miguel I decided to walk down the hill to the pharmacy to get a refill of my Atorvastatin, the medication formerly known as Lipitor. For some reason, I like to have an extra prescription period of all my drugs just in case. In case of what I’m not sure. Maybe the Chinese will stop exporting the drugs we know and love. I have a cushion of ninety days on my other two meds but not my cholesterol fighter.

There was something faintly clandestine about my mission. I had no prescription though I did have the pill canister. I skulked into the farmacia, took a big breath and whispered, “¿Puedo comprar esta medicina?”  The pharmacist gave me a furtive glance, went into the stacks and returned with a 90-dose box of the stuff. I asked, “¿Cuanto?” She told me, “171 pesos.” That’s $9.00 to you, gringo. Then came the dawning. A month earlier I had posed the same question at my local Walgreens and was told $342. I passed. I did not pass at $9.00.

When I had my annual check-up this week, I told the story to my primary care physician who launched into a dissertation on the price of drugs in Los Estados Unidos and the hammerlock Big Pharma has on drug prices and our complicit congress. Back in 2003 when the Republican congress created the Medicare drug benefit it allowed drug companies to set their own prices and denied the right of Medicare to negotiate lower ones for its 40 million clients. Makes perfect sense if you're in somebody's pocket.

Between 2006 and 2016 drug companies spent $2.3 billion, yes that’s a ‘b’, on lobbying and made $30 million in contributions per election cycle to both political parties. It's roughly 60% to Republicans and 40% to Democrats for the bean counters among you. In 2017 alone drug companies and their trade groups spent $171.5 million on lobbying and deployed 882 lobbyists into the backrooms of congress. So, we can predict with high confidence that drug prices will continue to rise despite pledges from both houses of congress and from the White House to rein in prices and though 80% of Americans believe that drug prices are unreasonably high. The means to rein in costs exist, of course. The will to do so does not, of course. Did you know that the drug companies employ consulting firms to tell them how high they can raise prices before patients can’t or won’t pay?

The standard drug industry excuse for high prices is the cost of research which proves to be a specious argument since the industry spends far more on marketing than on R&D.

I know this. There’s something seriously awry when you can get a garden variety medication like Atorvastatin for $9.00 in Mexico and pay $342 in the US.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Act your age

This rangy dude had nothing to do with the post except maybe sorta the aging part

You have good trips and not so good trips. This one was “más o menos.” San Miguel didn’t live up to our ten- year-old memories and the reasons are varied. We found that “living” in San Miguel was hard work, that shopping for groceries was long cab drive each way, that all of life’s necessities took effort and that I had picked a physically cold house that was too far from downtown and that the walk back up the hill from El Centro was a sweaty thirty-minute heart pounder. Take the inconvenience and add a house that you didn’t want to be in and you might as well have stayed in a hotel in the center of everything.

Our street. The gray facade is our casa.

It may be, too, that a month-long vacation is two weeks too long. I’ll take that on advisement. Having to plan payments a month ahead and find someone to mind the house is a stress giver that makes the trip too much of a job. There were highlights aplenty, but the living wasn’t easy, and we never felt we could just be. I arrived in San Miguel thinking it’s a place I could live. I left San Miguel knowing it is not.

The cliff leading to El Centro. It's steeper than it looks.

As is he case in the rest of Latin America, even Taos for that matter, the cultures are separate. In San Miguel the Anglo community is abundant and insular. And old. There were more bad facelifts than taxis and there were a lot of taxis. Restaurants and musical events in SMA reminded me of movie night at the Taos Community Auditorium, a sea of blue hairs with advanced degrees. I can tell you this, if I move anywhere it’ll be younger. I want to be the oddity not the norm.

Which brings up the subject of aging or being old. It’s cliché to say, “age is just a number” or “you’re as old as you feel.” It’s also more or less true. I’ve been asking the musical question, “When are you old?” for a couple of months.  I set up the subject with a disjointed preface that says something like, “I feel pretty much like I did when I was in my mid-forties. I still do the same physical exercise and hold myself to the same standard of effort as I did thirty years ago. But I know that one day something will set me back and I will be old and infirm. Presto chango. I also know that at 77 a very optimistic outlook is another ten years of being able to do the things I do now. I am not happy with the prognosis, Doctor. I don’t know any 90-year-old man-children. Strike that. Bob Cooley in his early nineties say he skies better than ever with his new knees and dances like a mad man. I want to be Bob Cooley when I grow up.

So, the question is this. Do you begin accepting the decline before it happens or hold out till it smacks you in the face? I see a lot of the former, the folks who acquit themselves as old people before their time. It even happens in middle age. Back in Lincoln, Massachusetts where we lived for 23 years, the housewives of the Radcliffe and Wellesley persuasion became matrons in their mid-forties replete with care free hairdos, scant makeup, formless attire and sensible shoes. I want to be my mother.

“Are to you still running?” is something I get asked a lot. I have the urge to answer, “Why wouldn’t I be?” I will till I can’t. And there you have it. Do it till you can’t. That goes for absolutely everything. And corollary to that is this bit of advice. Don’t stop (fill in the blank) because starting over again is a bitch. Every day you don’t do what you do makes it all the harder to start the old engine again. I’m testing that premise this very day. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Market Connections


This trip feels like one continuous meal with short breaks for sleep, study and sightseeing. Instead of exercise it’s been planning where to eat, when to eat and getting to and from the restaurant in question. I’d like to understand the malaise that has kept me from writing, photographing and running. It’s almost too late this trip to make things right on the whole-body front. But if I can reclaim the balance that I enjoy at home in Taos over the next few days I’ll consider it a victory.

There was an article in the New York Times a couple of days ago that reported on the discovery that septuagenarians who had exercised throughout their lives had muscles that are virtually indistinguishable from 25-year-olds. That was me until we came to Mexico. I’m not blaming my dissipation on the Mexico exactly.  I’ll take some of the credit.

The cold snap didn’t help. When night temperatures dipped to the low thirties for a few nights the house responded with highs below fifty. That is not a typo. My memories of the gulag had faded but living in a refrigerator brought them back with chilling clarity. Our rental house doesn’t have central heating, a condition not uncommon in these mild climes. So, the job of heating this barn was left to two incapable wall heaters one of which didn’t work. Responding to my desperate pleas for warmth, our alleged house manager sent a plumber with a new gas wall heater which, according to form, didn’t function.

Then there are the cobbles which make every step an adventure. To run on those bastards is to move slower than walking. Today I went for a 50 minute jog and tripped three times, one almost resulted in a face plant.

When you do nothing but eat and all of the eating is done in restaurants you run up a tab for starters. Do it enough and you’re bound to score a good meal from time to time though we’ve haven’t had any world beaters and I’ve had no food epiphanies. The single most memorable dish was carnitas in a plastic and Naugahyde emporium on the main drag of Dolores Hidalgo 35 miles north of San Miguel. Carnitas are best described as fall off the bone roasted pork. I love carnitas at Guadalajara Grill in Taos. They’re mighty fine, but Vicente Fernandez’s carnitas at Restaurante Carnitas Vicente take the art of carnitas to new heights. Beg your server to bring you Vicente’s pork rib carnitas and you will be transported. Those fatty flavor bombs are out of this world. Real carnitas, by the way, entail roasting the pork in lard till the lard melts and the spices are added. A direct shot to the artery would be quicker but not as much fun.

When you travel you learn as much about yourself as you do your new environs. I learned that simply being an observer doesn’t cut it. I found that I need a purpose and that, though the location may be new, I still want to do things I want to do. To write, photograph, run and lift just like at home. The theme of travel and how to do it has been the subject of many a dining room table discussion since we’ve had our capacious dwelling in Atascadero to ourselves. As I touched on last time, being a small part of the actual community is key. Engaging your waiter or taxi driver in their language is part of it. Putting yourself in places where that can happen is key. Moving out of your comfort zone is part of the deal.




I went to the enormous “Tuesday Market” this week. I wanted to do street photography, street portraits specifically, and can’t think of a better place to do it. The Tianguis Mercado sprawls for city blocks and is a trove of tchotchkes, new and used clothing (new clothes are ropa nuevo and used clothes that are new to you and are nueva ropa), housewares and food stalls. Even before I got there after a 15-minute walk from our house I was focused on carnitas. There were half a dozen stalls offering them but one stuck in my mind. Can’t tell you why. It was at the far reaches of the mercado and, even though I was still walking off breakfast, I made my way to Carnitas Guero at noon o’clock. That’s early for lunch in Mexico but what they hell. Restaurants at El Jardin don’t switch from breakfast to lunch until one o’clock.


There were three young men operating the establishment, one roasting the pork, one chopping the carnitas and preparing the plates and the other serving. I ordered two carnitas tacos and the server gave me an are you lost look. I was a stranger from a distant planet. He wrapped the tacos with packets of pico de gallo and salsa in a plastic bag when I told him, “Quiero comer aqui.” I want to eat here. His eyes brightened and he scootched the tacos onto a plastic plate. He seemed to appreciate that a lost old gringo would be ordering carnitas much less eating them at his rustic stall. His eyes kept shifting back to me as he worked. I was quite the novelty. What’s your story his eyes seemed to say. When I was half way through my first juicy taco, he pulled an orange Fanta out of the ice and raised it my direction with a lift of his head that said, “Want one?” I smiled and said, “Sí, por favor.” It was my third sugary drink with no food value on the trip. So far. I wouldn’t have had the thing if he hadn’t asked and I’m pleased that he did. Sugary drinks with carnitas rock. He was saying that you are welcome here and we’re surprised that you are. When I finished, the apparent boss who was manning the stove, came up to me as asked if it was good. I said, “Maravillosa. Donde esta la basura?” Wonderful. Where is the trash? He smiled and took my plate from me. I said, “Hasta luego.”

I have the feeling that if I visit Carnitas Guero a year from now I’ll be recognized. It’s like my favorite bar in Antigua, Guatemala where I guarantee the owner Carolina would give me a hug and pour me a dark Gallo beer before I had a chance to order.

That’s what hospitality is about.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Blessing the Carnitas



Held on the second weekend of November, The Blessing of the Horses or La Bendición de Los Caballos in San Martin de Terreros will be the most memorable experience of our month in central Mexico as it was ten years ago. I’m jumping the gun with a week left in our trip, but I’d make book on it. During the thousands of Blessings that are given the village of San Martin swells from 695 people to 60,000. It’s a sea of cars, campers, busses and tents. The cacophony of the massive mercado that leads to the church is an assault on the senses, overwhelming you with the sounds and smells of football fields full of gimcracks and foodstuffs and a crush of humanity that jostles you all the way to the church. 

In Mexico San Martin is called San Martin Caballero (Saint Martin Horseman) and is Mexico’s cowboy saint.


For days cowboys and girls ride across the campo for religious and temporal pleasures. A constant stream of riders can be seen along the highway as they seek blessings in San Martin and as they ride home to their ranchos strewn across El Bajio, the vast central plain of Mexico.




In Europe he is Saint Martin of Tour, a former Roman Centurion, monk and the Bishop of Tour. Saint Martin was born in Hungary in the early 300s and was conscripted into the Roman army as a young man. It was during his time as a soldier that he came across a half-naked beggar. According to legend he gave the beggar half of his red cape and that night dreamed that the unfortunate soul was an incarnation of Jesus. The next day he left the Roman legion to become a monk. Later, he became the bishop of Tour and devoted his life to the needy. When he died, he was buried with the remnants of his cape or capilla in Italian. Capilla became the word that means chapel in Spanish.

As in 2008 we were the only Anglos at the Blessing of the Horses. Why is a mystery. Though I suppose it’s a matter of pride to know you are the very special and intrepid travelers who have braved the hordes for a taste of the real Mexico.


There are many schools of thought about travel. There is the first-class option of four-star hotels and guided tours which, in my opinion, insulate you from the people and the culture and from the tastes and experiences that define a place. More meaningful is a step or two above steerage where you partake of life like a local. The case can be made that a blend of the approaches is ideal but if you don't get some downmarket reality you really haven't seen the place. I like a first-class experience as much as the next guy especially on the dining front. Yet, why is it that the dining experiences that we find most memorable where those enjoyed shoulder to shoulder with locals in their establishments of choice.

When I queried Peggy and Bob about their best or, better said, most memorable dining experience of the visit, Bob said it was the roast chicken with beans, rice, pico de gallo, fresh cilantro and homemade corn tortillas at an open-air restaurant under a tent at the Blessing of the Horses in San Martin. It was during that repast that I had the second of my honest to God Mexican Cokes. Those are the Coca Colas made with cane sugar not corn syrup. The last time I had one of those you needed a prescription for the stuff. The lunch in San Martin, I submit, was special because we had been transported into an alternative universe, temporary city of Mexicans celebrating La Bendición de Los Caballos. And to think we would have missed the event if I hadn’t seen riders traversing San Miguel de Allende the previous day. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I will go back in order to tell the story of the jaw dropping extravaganza. I find myself wanting to camp there but may not have the huevos.

In a similar spirit, Peggy said her favorite meal was the carnitas with all the trimmings at a plastic and Naugahyde establishment called Restaurant Carnitas Vicente across the street from the movie theatre in Dolores Hidalgo. Our guide Carlos who had led us through the village of Atotonilco in the morning asked if we wanted to eat in Atotonilco or up the road in Dolores. Thankfully we voted for Dolores. I’m a serious carnitas fan. It’s the dish I order at least once a week at Guadalajara Grill in Taos. But Vicente’s carnitas are in another league. At the front door of Vicente’s shrine to braised pork is a huge copper-bottomed cauldron in which pork butt is slowly simmered in lard. When the lard has melted, spices are added, and the meat is simmered till it can be pulled apart or chopped. When you go, as I know you will, be sure to ask for the ribs. They are the not so secret star of the show and are among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mas o Menos



We travelled to San Miguel de Allende, Travel and Leisure Magazine’s Best City in the World the last two years, so we’d be here for the raucous and colorful celebration of those who have left our midst. Just as it was ten years ago Los Dias de los Muertos were loud, crowded and memorable. To be at the El Jardin at night is to experience a Times Square New Year’s Eve in miniature.



The Spanish Colonial bones of the splendid city of 75,000 haven’t changed since we visited ten years ago. The historic buildings are still standing and assiduously protected, and San Miguel is still a Pueblo according our guide Carlos. The designation Ciudad or city is reserved for real sprawl. Yet, the pueblo bonito has become busier and more touristy and not for the better according to me. As a plodding student of the Spanish language, speaking the local lingo is an even less necessary than it was a decade ago. And so, I’d point you to Antigua, Guatemala for more immersion, better instruction, fewer English speakers and a cultural experience that rivals San Miguel. Smaller, more intimate and more comfortable for, dare I say, two thirds the price.

About four days into this visit I was touristed out. To quote the immortal Peggy Immel, “I get tired of wandering around looking at shit.” The woman has a way with words.

My sense of place comes from being in the culture not just an observer of it. It’s the reason that, like Bourdain, my fondest memories come from a food cart or a counter in the public market for a massive Cubano sandwich with every meat known to man including slices of hot dog. Need I mention that two of those suckers and two Boing fruit drinks set you back six bucks.

And to the subject of cost, depending on how you eat and drink, prices in the old Pueblo are creeping toward those of the US of A though an eight-course prix fixe dinner at the elegant Moxi in the Hotel Matilda was just $65. That’s half of a similar repast north of the border I’d say. But there may be more million-dollar homes in San Miguel than Santa Fe and that foretells something insidious.

When I look around in Spanish school, in better restaurants, galleries and music venues everybody is me, white and old. Might as well have stayed in Taos by that measure.

The drone of stores left me in shock by day four and our palatial if worn digs are just far enough up an unrelenting hill to make going to El Centro and back a workout and then some. My idea of a neighborhood is walking a couple of blocks for a baguette or a pastry, for a leisurely breakfast or a convivial drop in bar. Here it’s a twenty-minute proposition. Good thing taxis are cheap and plentiful. It’s roughly 60 pesos or $3.25 to downtown or back. Still Peggy and I try to walk to and from El Jardin unless it’s late night or we’re packing groceries.

Our neighborhood, Atascadero, is a kind of Gringo Gulch. It’s so Anglicized that there’s a croquet lawn at the top of the hill and half of the people we meet on the dreaded hill say “hello” not Buenos Dias.

Music has been a highlight of our trip so far. Our housemate, Bob Dempsey, made reservations to see the world class guitarist Gil Gutierrez and his trio play at the Instituto Allende the night after we arrived in San Miguel. We were excited to see Gutierrez whom we first heard play in 2008. Ten years ago we went to hear him thinking he’d be playing with Doc Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s long-time band leader but Severinson was ill. Still we were treated to an otherworldly musical performance sin Doc but with Señor Cartas, Gutierrez's partner at the time.

This time Gutierrez was joined by a jazz violinist and a drummer both from Mexico City and a bassist from San Miguel. Each was outstanding. Bob and our other housemate, Jamie Hindman, said they’d never heard a better musical performance anywhere and those dudes have seen it all.

Then on the second night of Los Dias de Los Muertos we sat on the tile floor of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel to hear an orchestra and choir from Mexico City perform Mozart’s Requiem. That's the night that I almost got in a fight with a rude French jerk who tried to muscle a spot next to Peggy. I can see the headline now, "Elderly gringo clocks arrogant frog during Mozart performance."

Another night we watched a Flamenco troop in full Day of the Dead regalia dance, play and sing at Teatro Angela Peralta. Suffice it to say, there are more diversions in San Miguel than my simple mind and spirit can accommodate.

Until yesterday, we’ve had a paucity of time to just be. For me that’s writing, photographing and exercising. I’ve run exactly once, lifted precisely zero and that makes Steve a snippy SOB. It was the first time I felt I was “in” San Miguel and not watching a piece of performance art. I walked down to northeast corner of El Jardin for a breakfast of jugo de naranja, café Americano and Huevos Otomí, scrambled eggs in a white bean soup, I first tasted it in 2008 with my friend Lindsey Enderby and he never fails to mention it when we talk about San Miguel. This one’s for you, amigo.



Monday, November 05, 2018

Leather and Sinew




Sorry everybody. We haven’t had internet since Saturday morning meaning that I missed my first blog post in something like 12 years. That’s a little like getting the first ding on your new car. The next time will be easier.

I’m taking a small break from the string of posts that will allegedly be woven into a memoir before I croak. So, today a couple of street portraits are my feeble effort.

These sinewy gents were standing in front of the Mercado Publico a couple of blocks northeast of the Jardin. The Jardin or garden is the epicenter of San Miguel. The soul of the enchanting Spanish Colonial pueblo radiates out from its manicured beauty.

For you gearheads, these were a product of my oh so handy Sony RX100 Vl. Pretty happy with that bad boy.