Thursday, May 31, 2012

Crossing the Rubicon...I mean Rio Grande

Ran into a snag today. The property management company with whom we were planning to list the house decided they cannot take on our project. It's too unorthodox, it's too complicated. The one-year limited lease is problematic, but the main issue for them is Rowan.

They said that having a teenage girl living technically in the same house (even though the space is physically separated and lockable) "opens them up to legal liability." Without having asked what he meant by that, I assume he means should one of the renters attack my daughter - or in any other way have inappropriate contact with her.

That question actually came up - obviously it has occurred to us that our daughter needs to be safe while we are gone. I asked if the company runs criminal background checks on applicants in addition to credit checks, and was told that they do. That was good enough for me - there is only so much anyone can do to protect themselves and loved ones from whackos. Apparently, however, it wasn't good enough for the legal minds at Accurate Property Management. Now we will have to decide if we want to go through this process again with another agency, or if we will try to rent the house privately.

Meanwhile, Homero found us some cheap plane tickets. The three of us (me and the girls; Homero will be driving) can fly from Seattle all the way to Oaxaca for about a third less than what we thought we would have to pay - but we must buy the tickets two months in advance, which means now.

The thought of buying tickets now gives me a panic attack. I had thought I was committed to this venture. I AM committed to this venture. But buying tickets while so much is left unresolved is frightening.

What if we don't find suitable renters for the house?

Rowan hasn't yet been accepted to University! What if she doesn't get into the program she wants? What if she doesn't get accepted at all?

What if I can't find anyone to take the goats?

What if  we can't get everything ready and organized? What if we are unprepared?

Here's the truth: there will never be a perfect time to go. We will never have everything and organized and prepared. There will never be enough money; there will never be a single second when I feel perfectly ready.

We will have to go unprepared and unready.

I've been here before. When Homero and I were talking about when to have children, and he said we should save money first, wait until the business was stabilized, wait until we were "ready."

"Becoming a parent is not something you get ready for ahead of time," I told him. "It's something you get used to afterward."

During the several years that I dithered about quitting smoking, I used similar excuses. "This is a particularly stressful time," I would think. "I'll do it when I finish this semester... when my relationship is more stable... when I'm ready."

The time will never be right for anything we want to do. There will always be problems, there will always be uncertainty. The mind, that anxious monkey, plays tricks with us, throwing up fantasies of the perfect situation, or even just a better one. "Just hold on a minute," says the monkey. "Sleep on it, why don't you?" If we really want to do the things we want to do, we can't listen to the monkey.

This is not to say that we won't try like hell to make as many preparations as possible. Luckily, this isn't an all-or-nothing situation. Life isn't a choice between being a cringing, indecisive ball of anxiety and being a heedless fool. There is a middle way, and we just have to try and find it.

We will buy the tickets, trusting that in the next two months, we will be able to resolve the most major of the issues. Maybe they will be resolved in less than perfect ways. Maybe we can all just live with that.

P.S. "Anxious Monkey": rock band name of the day

Friday, May 25, 2012

Letting Go

Last week, the fellow from the property management company came out and surveyed the house and farm, providing us with his estimate of what our desmene is worth on a monthly basis. It is very strange, believe me, to invite a total stanger  - particularly one with a silly, spiked hairdo and a too-small, shiny suit - into one's home and follow him about, meekly acquiescing to his instructions.

"You have to buy a dishwasher," he says, totally unaware that I am thinking "you look like a rodent that fell into a vat of hair gel."

"Do something about those weeds," he says, while I wonder how such a strutting little rooster  has insinuated himself into a position of authority. Little does Chicken Little know that I've spent a week's income on hiring a man (well, ok, Phil) to do landscaping and that just last night we ignited a bonfire made of weeds some ten feet across and five feet high. It is shockingly galling to squire an ignorant interloper about the property and listen to his annoying "suggestions," all the while thinking of the hundreds of man-hours we have put into improving the property.

Reading over my words, I realize I am angry. Why am I so angry? I guess I am worried about leaving, leaving my precious house and land in the hands of strangers who have no idea how much work and thought has gone into this place. And wouldn't really care anyway.

When we were looking into buying this place, the inspector - a local good ol' boy who was some sort of cousin of the previous owners - said "I can't lie to y'all, this house needs some serious work."

We have put serious work into it, not to mention serious money - a new roof, total upgrading of the electrical system, major rot repair, and a whole new septic system. We have invested many hours plowing out the trash left in the dirt, fixing fences, repairing relations with the neighbors, and fixing up the landscaping. That was all  simple upkeep - beyond that, we have spent an equal number of hours working to plan and create the homestead of our dreams.

We bought materials for fences and stretched them. We bought storage buildings for barns and had them installed. We bought animals and I spent years care taking and improving the herd. We planted an orchard and fenced it. I learned about pasture management, goat midwifery, pruning, gardening, and preserving. I learned how to judge the quality of hay and how to trim hooves. I read books on chicken diseases and waged a battle against bad weeds. Homero built his shop, with his own hands, spending over a year doing it, and has worked steadily and hard to build up his clientele. He built a biodiesel processor and learned to make fuel. He has painted, laid carpet, end generally fixed everything he laid eyes on.

More: this is where my dreams of providing a country life for children came true. I have seen them playing with baby goats in a field full of flowers. This is where I finally realized my lifelong goal of making my own goat cheese! I saw a newborn horse stand up for the first time right here! Do you get it people? This is my home, and I don't want to leave it.

I don't want to leave my home. I don't want strangers to live here. They aren't going to spend time chopping down all the poison hemlock before it flowers. The weed battle will be back to square one when we come home. My goats will all be sold off - Iris, beautiful herd queen and matriarch, the smartest goat , the the one who can open the latches. Flopsy, the first baby born on the farm. Polly, the spotty doeling I had to wait years for, the goat I hope to make the new matriarch of a herd of shiny, spotted Nubians.

I am trying to remember why we are doing this. I am trying to think of what to tell myself now. Something about adventure, something about heritage....?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How to Make the Most Beautiful Piñata

From New To Farm Life ; a post from our Christmas vacation last year. 

The pinata is the universal celebratory item, is it not? I don't know if the pinata is a purely Mexican invention that has spread around the world, or if the idea of the pinata is a kind of cultural universal (I suspect the latter) but in either case, a pinata is a lot of fun and a must-have item for all festive occasions.

My children broke seven pinatas on this trip. That's by their own count. I kind of lost track. Pinata making is a cottage industry in Mexico, and many is the family that makes its living with newspaper and paste. The sad little cardboard factory made things that pass for pinatas here in the states are pathetic by comparison, and I hate buying them. Pinatas in Mexico are truly works of art, even if most of them are based on Disney characters and one might question the tastefulness of beating the little mermaid to death with a stick.

My sister-in-law Temy and her children made the most beautiful pinata I have ever seen - with small help from us. It is in the form of a branch of grapes, and is molded on a clay pot and covered with blown, confetti stuffed eggs. If you count the time it takes to save up so many eggshells, this pinata must have taken months to make. I hope to make one myself someday, so I documented the process. This pinata is truly for those with the Martha Stewart gene, so be warned. But if you want to make the mothers of the friends of your five year old swoon with envy, make this for her birthday party. Just start four months ahead of time.

The girls covering the clay pot with strips of newspaper glued on with a paste made from water and cornstarch. Since you are unlikely to come across an unfired round clay pot here in the states (and may also wish to avoid the risk of concussion), mold your pinata base on a balloon.

For several months ahead of time, anytime you use an egg, be careful to crack it only at the top, preserving as much as possible the shell. Set the shells aside to dry. When you have about 150 of them, buy a bag full of confetti and fill the eggshells with a spoon.

Use small strips of newspaper and paste to cover the openings of the filled eggs. Set the covered eggs out in the sun to dry - this will take a few hours to a day, depending on solar availability in your area.
Turn the pot upside down - or, if using a balloon, cut off a small opening on the top for filling with candy. Then turn upside down. Roll a piece of thin cardboard into a cone and attach to the bottom of the pinata (the top, turned upside down - get it?) with newspaper and paste. Let dry completely. Poke four holes in the rim of the opening and run twine through in a cross pattern. This is to hang the pinata later. When eggs and pinata are dry, use a hot glue gun to attach the eggs, covered side in, to the pinata. Start at the tip of the cone and work your way down on a spiral, trying to cover the pinata as closely as possible. When all are attached and dry, carefully turn pinata right side up and hang with the twine outside somewhere.

Use spray paint to paint the pinata grape-colored. This pinata has leaves made of cardboard covered with green crepe-paper, which is a nice touch. The hardest part is transporting the pinata after it is filled, so if possible make and fill the pinata on the same site where it is to be broken. Once it is turned right side up and filled, a strong person has to hold it at arm's length so the eggs don't break until it can be strung up.

It feels like a damn shame to destroy such a beautiful, painstakingly constructed object. You will not want to. I didn't. But the children have so much fun, they are so delighted with the crash and the shower of confetti and the candy. And there is something both terrible and elating about the violent destruction of beauty, especially of a beautiful object that embodies so much time and effort.

Breaking this pinata is like a tiny lesson in mortality. In all endeavors, natural and artificial, complexity occurs slowly and with effort, but can and will inevitably be reduced in a relative instant. Breaking the pinata is ritually laughing in the face of death, a beautiful celebration of ending. To break the pinata is to bow to the inevitable, but to do so with grace and spirit and joy.

How very Mexican.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Finance Freak Out

I have a beautiful house, now that we've done so much work on it these past couple of months. My house hasn't looked this good since we first moved in. It's gorgeous. In preparation for the visit of the guy from the property management company, Homero and I spent almost all of the last three days cleaning, Homero outside and I inside. The children all helped, too. I had Hope and Paloma washing the kitchen cabinets. 

Everything looked so nice I took some pictures, just so I can remember how clean it's actually capable of being:

The dining room

Kitchen (look at those shiny cabinets! Nice job, kids)

The living room.

Of course, as I was reminded by the look on the property manager's face, my idea of a really clean house and yard is not the same as some people's. The man specifically mentioned getting something done about the weeds - he had no idea of course that we'd just burned a pile of weeds five feet high and ten feet across. It took Phil three full days to pull and chop and otherwise destroy all those weeds. But even after 25 man-hours of work, the yard still looks like crap, if what you are used to is the manicured cul-de-sac look.

Same goes for the rest of the house. This house is clean - really clean - by old farmhouse standards. We scrubbed the floors, the walls, and even touched up the paint in the high  traffic areas. But as everyone who lives in an old farmhouse knows, there are cracks and crevices that will never be clean. There are some surfaces that cannot be cleaned, only replaced. Like the grout in the shower, to cite just one example. A sixty year old house will never be new construction clean.

We have done just about everything we can to fix up the house for renting out. The list is long: new carpet and new paint in all three bedrooms; new carpet in the playroom (about a half-acre of it); pressure washing and staining the entire deck; major yard work. We can't afford much more, even if we had the energy and the time, which we don't. The house is just going to have to do, as is.

In matter of fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my private assessment of the appropriate rent turned out to be just about exactly what Mr. Property management suggested. I had been thinking that if we were to rent it privately, I'd advertise it at $1250. Mr. property management suggested $1200.

Together with the rental income on the house in Seattle, we should have a decent income while we are in Oaxaca. We will not have the same income as we do during a year here, because Homero generally makes more as a mechanic than the house will bring in in rent, but of course our expenses in Mexico will be considerably less than they are here. That doesn't mean, however, that we are going to come out ahead. Preparations for going have been terrifically expensive so far.

The improvements we made to the house are things that needed to be done in any case, so the cost of doing them shouldn't really count towards the tally, but I'm counting it anyway. Because if it were just for us, we would have lived probably an extra five years with a moldy deck and disgusting carpets. We're cheap and we just don't care. I haven't kept good records (which, it occurs to me right this minute, was very stupid, since these improvements are most likely deductible), but we've spent somewhere like - let me see...

new carpet and paint for bedrooms: $1,800
new carpet for playroom: $550
deck: $400
paying Phil for yard work: $250


The other big expense is setting aside some money to dole out to Rowan over the year. She will have a free place to live (here) and a car with the insurance paid for, and her tuition and books covered, but that's it. Oh wait no, of course we are paying her health insurance. But she is going to be responsible, for the first time in her life, for her own food, gas, and share of the utilities.

We told her that we will help out, but that we cannot give her enough to cover all her expenses - nor would we even if we could. It's important that she start taking on a greater share of her own care and maintenance - greater responsibility to go along with the much greater freedom she will suddenly have when we leave.  Having seen among her peers what happens when parents dole out extravagantly to meet their children's every need, she agrees with us. She has a part-time job and is proud to be making her own money, but we know that that will hardly cover even the most basic expenses. We have arranged to send her $300 a month, and have set aside that money ahead of time, which makes another...


Then there are the expenses associated with the actual journey. Plane tickets, last time I looked, were running about $800 a pop. Three of us will be flying. Homero will be driving the van, which first needs a new engine. I don't even know what that will cost but I'm going to assign it the conservative figure of $1000 (Homero has sources for cheap used engines). The combined costs of gasoline, customs tolls, and highway tolls will be another $1000 or so. Let's see, now we are up to...


Holy crap. I haven't added this up before now. $11,000. Yikes. Okay - deep, slow breaths. Let's cap it here before I hyperventilate and pass out. The negative side of the ledger reads $11,000. Let's take a look at the positive side.

Rental income from this house, assuming $1,200/month will be $14,400. The Seattle house brings in $19,200. That's $33,600. But my mom taught me to subtract at least a month's income for repairs, so call it $30,000. Property taxes, combined, run $7,000. Now we're down to $23,000. Good lord, I've already spent half of next year's income. But what's done is done, and it won't actually affect what goes into our pockets next year, just what's left to us this year. What WILL affect our cash flow is that I'm going to assume Rowan will have a few emergencies that require us to send extra funds - doctor's bills, car repair, that sort of thing. I'm going to budget another thousand for those, leaving us $22,000.

Divide by twelve and you get $1,833 a month. That's not a lot of money even in Oaxaca. We'll be living small. Allright, thanks for listening everybody, I'm going to go brew myself a nice cup of valerian root tea. Goodnight.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Women's Magic (How to Make Real Tamales)

A repost from, my old blog, follows. This is an example of the kind of thing I hope I will be doing a lot of in Oaxaca - learning traditional food ways. As anyone who has followed along on my journey becoming a new farmer knows, I've been fascinated for some time now with learning the ways that my foremothers fed themselves and their families.

Partly this has been borne out of anxiety about the future, but mostly it is simply pure interest - I am just turned on, for some reason, by the nitty gritty, day to day realities of growing, preparing, and preserving food for a family from the starting point of the local plot of earth that one has access to.

Most of this knowledge - though by no means all - has been lost to the modern American girl. I was lucky enough to have a father who gardened and a mother who cooked well and canned, and to have been raised for a few years on a farm where we raised chickens and milked goats. Even so, I keenly feel the loss of a huge body of knowledge. In another age, I would have been raised with all the knowledge I needed to grow, cook, prepare, and preserve food, as well as to doctor to my family with plants.

I would have been taught - by my mother, father, my grandparents and neighbors - everything I have instead needed to glean from books and to learn by trial and error about animal husbandry, gardening, soil amendment, cookery, and preservation. I have written before about...

...women's magic, true old fashioned feminine wisdom. Passed down from grandmother to granddaughter (or re-learned when the generational chain gets interrupted, as it has for most of us). Not-so-secret knowledge of how to make good food that keeps the family alive and healthy. Beyond food magic, of course there are the traditional feminine mysteries of midwifery, herbal lore, sewing and the fiber arts. Horticulture. Storytelling, history-remembering, child rearing, nursing the sick and smoothing the way for death. All essential, all capable of opening up into a lifetime of study and practice...
I'm an utter generalist, but even I have an area of expertise, and it's in the kitchen. I love being a kitchen witch. I love developing a store of useful, practical knowledge and elaborating it into art. I also, of course, like to eat. I like the feeling of knowing my family can depend on me to put food on the table - healthy, nutritionally balanced, delicious food - day after day. I really really like the process of learning about all the food related arts I've been learning about these last few years. I like being a competent housewife, goddammit.

Being in Mexico for a year will give me a wonderful opportunity to interact with women - my mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law, and sister-in-law - who have original experience in these arts. It may not be the same kind of experience I would have learned from my German/Russian Jewish foremothers, had they been around to teach me, but it is authentic feminine wisdom, handed down from the ages, and I intend to learn as much as I can.

How to Make Real Tamales

Part of yesterday and all of today (so far) was given over to making tamales. From actual scratch. It's something I've always wanted to learn to do, and now my mother-in-law has taught me. Here is how we did it, step by step, start to finish. This pictorial recipe is as detailed as I can make it - I do believe that if you want to make tamales from scratch, this post will show you how. It's not easy, but it is fun if you have lots of help and the tamales are incredibly delicious. This is for real!

I can break the recipe up into three parts: the masa, the filling, and the process. Here we go.

1) The Masa

Buy three kilos of dried Mexican corn - available at Mexican groceries. Hopefully. We had to use "posole" corn, which Senora Maura said wasn't right, but which worked in the absence of the right corn. Also buy at least 1 cup of "cal." Cal is lime, and is a white powder. It looks like baking soda. Be careful with it, as it is actually a mild form of sodium hydroxide and will burn you if you aren't careful. Mix the cal with a quart or so of water. Use a spoon to blend and make a slurry. Set aside. Put 2 gallons of water to boil in a large kettle. When water is hot, add corn. Now take the bowl of cal-slurry and start pouring it slowly into the kettle of corn. Most of the cal will have settled to the bottom - this is good. Pour only the water off the top, do not add the semi-solid slurry from the bottom. That is too strong.

Now comes the first part that calls for judgment - judgment that you will not have if, like me, you have never done this before. Nevermind - resolve to go boldly where you have not been before. Taste the water from the kettle. It should "bite." That means, to my mind, that it is bitter and you can taste the cal, but it should NOT burn. Bring the kettle to a boil and simmer for about one hour. The hulls of the corn will turn yellow and they will rub off with your finger.

Let the kettle sit overnight. In the morning, test the corn. It should be soft enough to pierce with a fingernail, but still very much "al dente." The outside should be butter yellow and the inside chalky white. Rinse some and taste it - now you should barely be able to taste the cal - if it tastes strong, rinse the corn and let sit in fresh water for a while. Rinse and rub off the corn skins. They are very delicate and sometimes barely visible. Don't worry about getting every little bit.

Run the corn through your grinder. I used a meat grinder with the finest disk.
After the first grinding, the masa was still too textured for mama, so we added the other ingredients and ran it through again.

The other ingredients are a) a liter more or less of melted lard - in this case from our own pig. I'm afraid that if you don't have access to lard from a pasture raised pig, your tamales will suffer. The lard you can buy in the store is snow white and almost entirely flavorless. Good lard is golden yellow to light brown and has a rich, porky, unctuous flavor. Add your lard to the ground corn in a large kettle. Also add a biggish pint or so of strong pork broth (this comes from boiling the pork for the filling - see next section), and about 2 tablespoons of salt. Use your clean hands to mix and mash everything together. Run through the grinder again. More judgment is called for here - the masa should be thick and should easily hold it's shape when squeezed. It should not be dry or crumbly. It should be spreadable, like peanut butter. It will feel slightly gritty but not chunky. If you have a very fine disk or a different kind of grinder, you may be able to skip the second grinding.

While the corn is boiling, or whenever it makes sense, make the filling (2) thusly:

put 5-7 pounds pork roast (shoulder, butt, whatever you have that isn't too fatty or boney) into a large pot. Cover with water. Add an onion, roughly chopped, a pinch of cumin, and a few cloves of garlic. Boil at a fast simmer until very tender, about two and a half to three hours. Remove meat from broth. Broth will be used in making the masa. Meat, when cooled, should be shredded more or less finely. Set aside.

Make salsas. We made green and red salsa. Green salsa is made by:
simmering together 1 kilo husked, rinsed tomatillos, 5-10 whole serrano chiles, 2 cloves garlic, and a pinch salt. When tomatillos are quite soft, strain and put everything into a blender. Blend until smooth. Remove to refrigerator until ready to use.

Red salsa: Heat a few quarts water in a large pot. When hot, add 25-40 guajillo chiles and a small handful chiles de arbol (these are dried red chiles, available in most groceries and in Mexican stores. If you don't want it too spicy, omit the chile de arbol). Add two cloves garlic and a pinch salt. Keep hot but not boiling until chiles are soft - about one hour. Remove chiles to blender and blend on high until as smooth as possible. Pour result into a fine mesh sieve over a bowl and use a spoon to force as much paste as possible through the sieve.

Bring red sauce to a simmer and heat until somewhat reduced. It should coat a spoon. Meanwhile, put a few packages of dried corn husks to soften in warm water. When soft, and when all the components are ready (masa, salsas, and meat), bring everything to the table and call all your friends to help out forming the tamales.

The process (3):

You should have laid out in front of you a big crock of masa, a bowl of each kind of salsa, and a plate of shredded pork. You really ought to have, at a minimum, two people. The first person takes one of the corn husks and turns it smooth side up (it will curl upwards like a boat). Use a spoon to put a blob of masa on the husk - the size of the blob depends on the size of the husk. Use the edge of the spoon to spread the masa out in a thin layer, leaving a space at the thin end.

Now put a blob of salsa on the husk, and a little bit of shredded meat. Fold the husk in thirds - each side over the middle and the tip folded up. Place the folded tamal in a kettle fitted with a steamer basket. Put it in standing up with the folded side down and facing out toward the edge of the kettle (this is so that as you go along you don't accidentally start putting tamales inside of each other and opening up the husks.). When all the tamales are in the basket, remove the basket and put three or four quarts of water in the kettle. Bring to a boil. Then replace the steamer basket and cover tightly. Steam tamales for about two hours.

After a couple of hours, open up a tamale and check it (well, okay, a couple of times during the steaming you should make sure you aren't running out of water and add a little if needed.). The masa should be firm and kind of "sproingy" to the touch. It should not stick to your fingers.
Call everyone to the table and open a whole bunch of cold beers. Eat until you feel just the tiniest bit sick and wholly satisfied. Turn on a movie and relax on the couch with another beer.

My notes

The table after assembling the tamales. I put down a sheet to protect everything from salsa and hot lard. Good plan.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bureaucracy and Corruption

I've been talking a lot about what we've doing to get the house ready to rent out (which is a lot), but I don't think I've said much about a whole other category of things that need to get done before we can go - the bureaucratic side of preparation.

It's surprising how many different institutions I have to deal with to get ready to leave the country for a year. It makes me feel like a real grownup, but not in a good way. I didn't realize I was tied down with quite so many guy-wires. It made me wistful for the days when everything I owned could fit comfortably in the bed of a 1986 toyota pickup truck. Moving involved one full day's work. I was twenty-one, childless, scared of nothing at all. I guess a paucity of worldly goods isn't the only thing I'm nostalgic about, here.

Following is a partial list (I say that because I'm sure I'm going to forget something) of things that need to happen before we go, along with a progress report for each thing.

- Renewing the children's passports. Since I have the old passports, I figured this would be a simple matter of getting new passport photos. No; as it turns out, for children under sixteen, renewals have the same requirements as initial passports. Both Homero and I have to show up in person, with the children and certified copies of their birth certificates, our own valid identification, new passport photos, and a whopping $135 each.

- Health insurance. Actually, this one is done, as of today. Spending not quite an hour on the phone, I figured out how to cancel the family policy yet leave Rowan covered. There is no point in keeping our health insurance - it probably won't cover us in Mexico. In fact, it doesn't really cover us here - in the five years we've had it, they have yet to pay out a red cent. The premiums are nearly $600 a month - money which we desperately need at the moment. My sister thinks I'm insane for letting any of my children be uninsured for a minute, but I think it's a pretty safe bet. If we can all avoid getting hit by a bus for the next twelve weeks, we will be covered once we are in Oaxaca. Assuming, that is, Homero succeeds in....

- getting Mexican citizenship for me and the kids. In theory, this isn't difficult. The children are entitled simply by virtue of their father's nationality, and I am entitled by virtue of marriage providing I can prove I speak Spanish and pass a Mexican history test. I do speak Spanish and I can study for the Mexican history test. The devil, as usual, is in the details. In order to complete the process, we need to make an appointment with the Mexican Consulate in Seattle, and show up with all the children, their birth certificates, our birth certificates, and two witnesses who are willing to swear to whatever they are asked to swear to (I swear these children will not be a menace to Mexican society?). I am fairly certain I can bribe two of my friends into being witnesses for us, but what we cannot seem to do is make an appointment with the Mexican Consulate.

Homero has called over and over, encountering busy signals every time. This morning he managed to find another number to call, and was able to leave a voicemail. I am not particularly hopeful that will bear fruit. in the form of a return phone call.

Arranging Mexican citizenship is not optional. Without it, not only will be we have no access to Mexico's national health system, but the children may not be able to attend school, and we will have to leave the country after six months. Also, I wouldn't be able to work, should I choose to do so. Which I might. I don't know what to do about this situation. If we were to go to the Consulate and camp out on the sidewalk until someone saw us, they'd only tell us to call for an appointment.

- Arrange with the bank for Rowan to receive an automatic deposit every month. This was more complicated than I thought it would be and involved opening not one but two new accounts. As I told her, we are certainly not going to give her enough money that she doesn't have to work at all, but I want to make sure she at least has something for groceries every month. In addition to tuition, we will be providing her with her housing and car insurance - which brings me to...

- Cancel car insurance, except for Rowan. Haven't done anything about that yet.

So far, all of this has been relative painless, hours on hold notwithstanding.

I have some experience with Mexican bureaucracy and red tape, and it makes American red tape look like silly string. Once we spent about six hours in a hot little concrete office in Tijuana waiting to buy a decal for the windshield of our car that would allow us to drive it more than ten miles from the border. The number of proofs required was absolutely absurd - I think they asked for about fifteen different documents. Mexican real estate transactions are unbelievably complex. Here is what I wrote about what was involved in getting title to a property we had actually bought (in the sense of forking over cash in exchange for) some two years before -

Homero bought a property on a hill above one of the little villages and although we had paid for it, we had to finalize the sale and transfer title through a complicated process involving a ton of small town Mexican beaurocracy. Believe it or not, every sale of real estate requires that the buyers, the sellers, and all neighbors who have contiguous properties be present - at the SAME TIME - for an official measuring, which must be done by a government official. All parties must be provided with refreshments and a meal by the buyers. As you can imagine, causing this event to take place requires the powers of a diplomat and/or magician.
That's not the end of it, though. Homero did manage to get the property officially measured, even in the driving rain, but the creation of an official document to be signed by all interested parties had to await the next day, and required more refreshments. Altogether, the process took two full days, and we counted ourselves extremely lucky to have been able to complete it. Now we are the proud owners of a very pretty 1 and 1/3 acre on top of a hill with a 180 degree view of the ocean.
Or Homero is - as an American, I cannot legally own property in Mexico. Nor was I present for any of the official wrangling. That would have thrown some sort of monkey wrench into the works. 
When certain members of Homero's extended family wanted to exchange one property for another, it took some eighteen months of wrangling with the local authorities, part of which was spent waiting for the next election so that more favorable authorities would be in power. 

Many Americans have the idea that Mexican bureaucrocy can be circumvented by the timely application of a mordida, or bribe. The recent breaking of the Wal-Mart scandal has certainly reinforced this widespread view. While it is certainly true that Mexico has longstanding issues with corruption, it is not necesarily true that this makes life any easier for your average citizen trying to get shit done. 

This is not an area where I have any expertise - my only firsthand experience of Mexican corruption was when some rural cops stopped us as we were driving through Michoacan and demanded to see our papers - the ones that went with the decal on our windshield (see above). They scrutinized these papers until they found some tiny anomaly and then said they would have to impound the car, then and there. I began to totally freak out, since all of our worldly goods were in the car, along with my three children, and I imagined us all thrown out into the broiling Mexican heat and having to depend on the mercy of passing strangers. Homero was mad enough to spit tacks, knowing exactly what was expected of him but refusing to comply. 

Clearly, there was a script to be followed here, and we weren't following it to the police's satisfaction. They kept upping the ante ("we will have to search the car... you will have to stay in jail until your car is certified...") but with increasingly doubtful looks on their faces, as if they hadn't thought there would be any need to go so far and they were in untried territory. Homero shut down like a clam, and I, in more or less a blind panic, reached into my purse and grabbed a handful of cash and passed it out the window to the cops. With disgusted looks at my serious breach of etiquette, they fumbled the cash into their uniform pockets and drive away. Homero fumed silently at me for the next hundred kilometers. 

Later, I learned how the script should go:

Cop: Sir, Ma'am, there is an anomaly in your papers, we will have to impound the car until we can communicate with the proper authorities.

Citizen: Oh my goodness, that can't be true. There's been some mistake. Will you show me the anomaly please? 

Cop: Here, you see there's a smudge right here.

Citizen: Oh yes I see. But we can't stay here... you can see our children are sick....Isn't there anything you can do to help us, Sir? Perhaps you could fill out the proper forms on our behalf? Of course, we understand that your time is valuable....

Cop: I don't know, that really is irregular... 

et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum, until some peso figure is arrived at, which is more or less uniform and understood ahead of time. On another trip, we were stopped in Mexico City and had to pay a small bribe to avoid trouble. For some reason this event didn't bother Homero as much, perhaps because Mexico City has always been known as a cesspool of corruption, but on the previous occasion we were in the supposedly pristine countryside? I don't know; I'm guessing. Anyway, we gave the cop our money and he gave us a slip of paper with a code on it. This code was for us to present to the next cop who stopped us, to prove that we had already been shaken down once that day and he should let us go in peace.

Honor among thieves.