Sunday, November 25, 2012

Only in Mexico?

Michael and I took off for a quick birthday weekend trip to Arroyo Seco to pick up some things for our time in Puerto Vallarta and to celebrate my birthday with a few friends at a few of our favorite restaurants.

Nothing worked out quite as we had planned --- nothing new there --- but we came home with stories to tell.

The new paved road into Arroyo Seco!
The biggest Arroyo Seco news was, of course, that the three kilometer road from the highway into town was now paved.

We just replaced the shocks and struts on our Toyota Tundra, which undoubtedly wore out because of three kilometers of washboard road to get in and get out of the village. So the smooth ride was fantastic.

But the planning? Only in Mexico.

Caution tape on the telephone pole
One side of the road is an arroyo or riverbed, so the road had to be widened on the other side. But the big concrete telephone poles had just been installed last year after the hurricane and no one wanted to spend about $1,500 (US) per pole to move about six of them.

So they didn't.

One is in the middle of the road. Another is about mid-lane in one place. One is almost off the road but then the guide wires are in the middle of one lane.

Hmmmm..... what's wrong with this lane?
At least someone thought to put some caution tape around the one in the middle of the road. How handy. But there aren't any street lights on the road between the highway and the village, and some are almost at the top of hills but not quite.

All in all, quite hilarious until the first fatality.

The pavement hasn't quite made it to town yet
Locals just shrug their shoulders, still delighted to finally have a smooth ride home.

Unfortunately, the pavement stops as it gets to town so we still have a dirt road by our place. But our neighbor reminded us that it is poco a poco --- little by little --- and it will arrive. I have patience. It's something else I've learned living down here.

My birthday itself was somewhat eventful. After our beach ride, we returned home for lunch to discover an invasion of tiny ants --- IN OUR BED! So instead of going out for a nice lunch, we were stripping, shaking, spraying. Ick.

Then this morning as I headed for a last bathroom break before getting into the truck to drive back up to Vallarta, I found this little friend IN THE TOILET! Thank goodness I looked before I sat.
Grateful to remember to look before sitting....

I was reminded that living in the country is not for the faint of heart, whether in upstate New York or coastal Mexico. And a mantra from sailing kept coming to mind.... 'it's not an ordeal, it's an adventure.'

That's what we always told ourselves when the trip was devolving rapidly. So the Captain is on notice that I'm taking a rain check on my birthday and that I'll get back to him with a new date and a new plan. No ants or frogs will be invited.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The legacy of our Valois 'frontier' women

I drove up to our lake cottage this week as we were battening down for Hurricane Sandy and a Nor'Easter to simultaneously arrive and I was once again struck --- awe and admiration --- for those hearty women who lived up here year 'round for most of their lives.

My mother at her 80th birthday party, with her neighbor and friend, Mary Crouch.
My mother, Louise Schwartz, chose to winterize our summer cottage in Upstate New York and make it her permanent home after my father died and after we had a brief fling living on Sanibel Island. She wanted to come home to her roots, her family, and this cottage on Seneca Lake was always the love of her life.

She shoveled out her car (no garage or carport) to drive over the icy Searsburg Road to Trumansburg to teach, and later even farther, to Dryden.

It was before the Finger Lakes Wine Trail was even an idea. Or legal.  No wineries, no local restaurants --- just Sheik's Oasis, our corner bar that occasionally threw a frozen pizza in a toaster oven. So it took neighbors and friends to make it through those long winters.

Mary Sullivan Crouch lived next door in a farmhouse her family had owned since she was a child. They would call each other daily to catch up on their news, make sure they were okay. Sometimes Mom would tell me they hadn't seen each other for weeks during the winter, even though they could probably have waved to each other out their bedroom windows.

And they did it as single women living in the country for many decades.

Our house on the left, Mary's below
One time Mom told me she hadn't been out of the cottage for a week. Literally. Not even as far as the mailbox. Way too treacherous with ice and snow, she said. I couldn't wrap my mind around it, as someone who has followed the sun to warm climates for most of my adult life.

But as I went up to the lake house to make sure nothing I left in the front yard would get picked up and smash through the front picture window, as I thought about getting the water shut down before the first real freeze this week, I was in awe.

Awe that this was such a challenging place to live and that she and Mary were up to the job. Didn't even question it.  That they would get snowed in until the plow showed up, that the water pipes would occasionally freeze, that Mom would shut off the second floor to try to keep the downstairs warm enough and the utilities affordable. And that they still loved it.

I stood on our overlook watching the northerly winds blasting down the lake, feeling the temperature drop, the rain come on. I looked up at the huge trees surrounding our little cottage, limbs swaying in the breeze. I thought about a story that my cousin's husband, 'The Bear' told me --- that when Mom was snowed in long enough she would call John and he would show up on his snowmobile with a pack of cigarettes for her. Otherwise, she was 'just fine.'

This summer our neighbor down the hill, Ruth Rundell, passed away at 87 years old. Mom died at 83. Mary died at 93. These three amazing women are gone, the three cottages passed on to the next generation. They were hearty, strong women, good neighbors always.

It's a beautiful legacy. One I hope to live up to....

Louise in her garden on the shores of Seneca Lake

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cashing in return tickets?

Probably not, but I can definitely see why so many cruisers got this far and never left.

On a secluded beach on the East side of Vava'u, Tonga

We've explored the Vava'u island by kart, then swam with the whales the next day. Yesterday was the opening day of the Vava'u Regatta, followed by a Pub Crawl through the town, Mardi Gras style.

Michael, far left, swimming with a Momma whale and her calf
Today is a traditional Tongan feast, complete with the poor little suckling pig that was probably just running across the lawn at the Port of Refuge Villas where we're staying.  Sundays are a mandatory day of family, church and rest in Tonga. Apparently no shops are allowed to be open, other than the bakery (which is the day they bake, I guess).

Tomorrow I teach my first Zumba class here as the Regatta goes into full bore race/party.

What's really bizarre is that today is the Spring Solstice here, which is tomorrow for y'all on the other side of the planet, and it's Fall for you. Love it!

Very lightweight internet signal so this is just a quick post to say that Tonga is fantastic, and yes, we're still coming back to the States in another week with lots of photos, videos and stories to tell.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A change of season, a change of plans

This is the first time we've been at our cottage at Seneca Lake in Upstate New York after Labor Day in about, oh, 40 years or more.

The end of the fresh veggies and the beginning of the grapes
We could feel the season changing --- shorter days, the bright colors of the early leaves changing, the last of the best sweet corn ever, treasuring the freshness of every last slicing tomato.

It was probably the hottest summer on record (again) in Upstate New York and it made for an endless summer of boating and swimming and generally finding ways to cool down. For all of you who poo-poo the difference between 90 degrees of dry heat and 90 degrees of humid heat, just try it out for yourselves. Ninety-five degrees and 80 percent humidity just sits on your chest and diaphragm and makes you seek shade near the coolness of the lake with a cold drink in your hand. Productivity diminishes as the temperature rises. Most of the houses in our area don't have air conditioning --- nor have they ever needed it.

Until now.

But the demarcation of Labor Day is still like a 'before and after' of summer. It was hot, hot, hot. Then the switch flipped and it was cold, cold, cold. Low of 42. High of 62. And now I get how the locals love the change of seasons. Pull out the fleece, make a cup of tea, and ho ho! Our energy is back and frisky, just like all the dogs that have gone from panting in the shade of the park to leaps and frolics.


As we started to shut down the lake cottage, getting all the linens cleaned and dried and into plastic storage bags, scrubbing down a summer of dirt and fun so the critters will have less motivation to move in while we're gone for the winter, I time traveled back to every summer when we would go into mourning as we closed up and returned to the city the day after Labor Day.

School in New York started the Wednesday after Labor Day (and probably still does) so after months of running free, not having a schedule, swimming, skiing, playing games, hanging out, it was back to the 'real world' for us. No wonder we weren't eager to leave.
We had planned on being in New York for our first fall since our college years and have had so many of our snowbird friends tell us that fall is their favorite season there. That you can have warm weather, sun and swimming anywhere if you go south enough, but fall, ahhhhhhhh. It's special.

Mourning the last of the sweet corn
But in our normal subject to change lifestyle, we're in Sacramento today to see our kids and grandkids for a few days before we hop on a plane to go explore the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific for a few weeks and write some stories, do some sailing as part of a regatta, dance some Zumba with the Tongans.

We'll have plenty of photos and stories to tell when we return, along with a plan, for sure, to spend next fall on the shores of Seneca Lake.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Knock on wood, I'm back

After another three weeks of coughing, and I really think, this time, I'm going to make it.

I know, I've said that before.

I spent the last few weeks breathing through a nebulizer four times a day, inhaling steroids, taking an antibiotic. And coughing.

The final verdict is that I probably had whooping cough --- pertussis. I started getting sick with a pretty horrible cough at the end of February, serious fatigue, and a cough that changed over the months but never got better, only worse. It was only when my newest doctor threw everything at it that I started to get a little better. And get hope.

And besides the coughing, that was the toughest part about being sick. Wondering if I was going to have respiratory problems that would last the rest of my life. These past few months, I just stopped doing my usual everything and did nothing.

I quit going or teaching Zumba. I lost the motivation to do all the home projects I had been looking forward to doing. I didn't walk. Didn't play my fiddle. Didn't socialize. Didn't write. Nada. Because not only do you feel sick from being sick, you feel terrible from all the side effects from all the medicines that are essential to keep the cough at bay, much less cure the damn thing.

Now that we have a diagnosis and I'm feeling better, I understand what happened. When I started coughing, I (and all the doctors) assumed it was a typical virus. If I had taken an antibiotic then, I might have had a chance of a quicker recovery. But adults don't have the typical 'whoop' sound of the cough, it's just deep and persistent. So by the time I took one of several antibiotics, it was to treat secondary infections.

In other words, too late.

But what I really want to say is --- knock on wood --- I'm back. I taught a Zumba class yesterday morning with just a few short hacks and wheezes. I worked on a quilting project. I took an hour long walk with Michael, up and down the Watkins Glen hills. And I felt fine afterwards, just tired. As it should be.

Monday morning I start teaching a long postponed Zumba class to my Hector Warrior Women friends, launch a business I've had on hold (more about that another time), open up the lake house, and generally go back to life in the fast lane of retirement.

And be very, very grateful that I can.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Missing a patient friendly Mexico

Knock on wood, I think I'm going to make it.

I picked up some little respiratory virus on the beach in Mexico at the end of February, which started with a little hacking and wheezing and ended with a lot of hacking and wheezing, multiple inhalers and a lot of interactions with the medical profession in Mexico, California and New York. And the winner in patient care is...... drum roll, please.....

Mexico. With no runner ups.

If you think that we have the best health care in the world, think again.

My bronchial cough started in the little village of La Manzanilla, and it was simple to walk into Dr. Marta's pharmacy, find out what respiratory virus has been going through the winter population, what to expect, and how to treat it.

No appointment required.

The following week I could feel some some asthma-like symptoms after exercising, so I headed up to another clinic, just up the road from Arroyo Seco. The clinic in Careyes is quite impressive, open until 8 each evening and all night if you pay more. They charge $700 pesos per visit if you're not Mexican (about $52), and the doctor sells you the medicine you need so you don't need to go to another pharmacy. No doubt she has also figured out the profit margin on drugs.

But the point is, medical care was accessible. I was sick, I could go see someone. I could get medications. I could go home feeling a little less anxious about whatever was going on with my lungs.

The following week we were vacationing on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, north of our Mexican vacation home, and my lungs or bronchials still weren't working well. So I could walk into another 24-hour clinic and get a thorough check up, this time getting an additional prescription for a secondary infection. Although I was frustrated that I couldn't shake this thing, I was relieved to be able to get checked out. That clinic charged $40 U.S. and rechecks were free.

Next we traveled back to Sacramento, California, spending a few fun weeks seeing kids and grandkids. Lungs and bronchials were still giving me grief, and I still couldn't exercise. But now we're back in the states, so I had to make an appointment with my regular physician for the following day (although I only had a $20 co-pay. Although insurance picked up $165 U.S. dollars for that 20 minute visit). A nice bonus with the California system is emailing your physician with questions, although it might be a day before you hear back.

Then home to NY: Because my doctor in New York had moved on from the clinic where we usually go, another doctor was kind enough to see me on an emergency basis. But no calls to or from the clinic after 4 p.m. when the clinic closes for the day. Any minor emergencies, like changes in medication, requires a trip up to the local emergency room. And a lot of dollars.

So from a patient's perspective, Mexico works a lot better than what I've been experiencing.

In Mexico, doctors usually work from about 9 a.m. until 7 or 8 in the evening, having taken a break between two-hour break for lunch mid-afternoon. So they are available evenings when people often need them.

Many Mexican doctors give you their cell phone number and email addresses so you can ask questions. I don't have to make an appointment, travel to the doctor's office, sit and wait my turn to ask if he or she thinks I can lower a dosage.

A patient friendly system, for me, is to work as a team. They have the knowledge, I have the body and the systems. And often, yes, the anxiety. Our system isn't patient friendly as long as we keep our physicians sequestered and inaccessible.

A minor status detail in Mexico --- the doctors walk in the same front door into the office or clinic as the patients. When is the last time you saw a doctor walk in the same door with you? It definitely discourages casual interaction.

This isn't to blame U.S. doctors. The ones I've seen are great. They've taken their time, they are thoughtful in their approach to treating a persistent problem. I have no doubt that in the current medical system of having too many patients and too little time, they could be inundated and work 24-hours a day trying to be responsive.

But, regardless of whose fault it is,  it's pretty bad that when I'm sick, I wish I was back in Mexico for my health care.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Little Arroyo Seco starts to grow up

We returned home to Arroyo Seco late January this year, months later than normal, to find our sleepy little Mexican village not so sleepy anymore.

It’s like realizing your child is now a teenager. It’s with a lot of mixed emotions.

The big news?

After years of promises, the 3-kilometer road connecting us to the highway is on its way to being paved.

We arrived just after a big meeting on the beach to announce that the local municipality and the state had committed the funds to finally pave the road all the way to the beach.

I’m sure it has nothing to do with the state senator who built a beautiful beach home on Playa Grande last year.

Cattle still share the roads with cars and quads.
The locals are vibrating with excitement about a paved road --- no longer the washboard road that was the price of admission to our lovely little village on the coast.

And they are hopeful that their cars will last longer and that lots of land will start to sell again --- maybe even for more money --- after sales stalled with the U.S. economy several years ago.

But for the two of us gringos in town, it is with trepidation that we imagine the future here, of Americans and Canadians and Europeans ‘discovering’ Arroyo Seco, now that the road will signal a clear and easy path to the beach.

We are in Sayulita this weekend, the tiny little groovy surf beach where every meter is built, and we wonder, what will Arroyo Seco look like in two years? Five? Ten?

We’ve spotted a lot of subtle  –– and not so subtle –– changes already this season.

The municipal government workers are driving a brand-spanking new garbage truck to town, and two large dumpsters are on the beach. They look really nice and the vultures seem to be enjoying how much garbage is available without even having to cruise for lunch.

We are hoping the municipality actually starts to pick up the garbage too.

Coconut shrimp served on the beach.
Down at the beach we have three ---- yes, three! --- restaurants and the seafood is fabulous and fresh. Seriously fantastic. And one even serves sushi.

And weekly we have interrupted Russian MTV cameras filming surfing and other exotic events on the end of our beach during our rides on our Honda 4 wheel drive quad.

That’s when I knew for sure progress is heading our way, sooner rather than later.

Russian MTV cameras on Playa Grande
In the meantime, much remains the same.

The children still walk by our place about 8:30 every morning on their way to school. The mothers with the younger siblings pass by at 10 to bring the schoolchildren their lunch and sit with them while they eat. All the kids are home at 1:30 for the day.

Most of the teenagers are playing volleyball in the square at night, families are sitting in front of their homes for the evening conversations. But this year you can also spot some of the teens in the new internet café (gasp!), chatting on Facebook, of course.

We can still buy a chicken or vegetables from a neighbor’s place a block behind us who swings by our place on her bicycle later with the freshly killed and plucked chicken, the freshly picked squash or cilantro or tomatoes from their farm just outside of the village.

Later you can make an appointment with her for a pedicure for $75 pesos, the equivalent of maybe six dollars and change.

The tortoises are still laying their eggs on the beach, but rather than the locals digging them up to eat (for virility) or selling (for pesos), some of the locals are finally rescuing the eggs by digging them up and putting them into a more secure area on the beach to launch after a natural hatching.

The fun part for me this year is that my Spanish is finally sufficient enough to pass the time with my neighbors, and I go to town with a local girlfriend or two and we can converse enough to make jokes only other women would understand.

And that was really the goal when we made the decision to move here, to immerse ourselves in a village where we were forced to speak Spanish so that even this tired, old brain could learn another language. 

So we will watch progress march on through this village and in front of our home on this newly paved road, treasure the time we’ve had to get to know the people and the culture.

And we will see whether progress is for the best.