Bob Broughton's Blog about British Columbia politics

Book Review: Into the Heart of Mexico: Expatriates Find Themselves Off the Beaten Path

John Scherber has lived in San Miguel de Allende since 2007. He has written 17 fiction books, and this is his third non-fiction. This book is a series of interviews of extranjeros who have settled permanently in Mexico. Scherber asked a lot of good questions, and got a lot of good answers.

At first glance, the “off the beaten path” in the title might seem misleading, unless your idea of “off the beaten path” is “outside of Puerta Vallarta, Cancun, and Cabo San Lucas”. Two of Scherber's destinations, Mineral de Pozos and San Luis de la Paz, are only a few kilometers away from San Miguel de Allende, a major Gringo colony. Morelia, Puebla, and Oaxaca are big cities that attract a lot of tourists, and Pátzcuaro is also a major tourist destination. Zacatecas is off the beaten path, however, and also included in this book are Erongarícuaro (usually shortened to Eronga) near Pátzcuaro, and Tlacolula de Matamoros in the State of Oaxaca. I thought that these three places were the most interesting parts of the book.

 Scherber has several common topics, such as, “how often do you get visits from family members?” and “why did you choose this town?” The cost of living comes up in some interviews, and not in others. Health care, an important topic for retirees, didn't come up very often. The interviewees come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but there are several common threads in their testimonies. One is that they don't want to alter the culture of the place that they have moved into. (I feel the same way.) When Scherber asks, “do you feel safe here?” the response was always “yes”, except for one incident where an interviewee was chased out of San Pedro Chenalho in Chiapas by a group of people with two-by-fours. Well, after all, there was a civil war going on in Chiapas at the time. Another common thread is, the interviewees hang out mostly with Mexicans, instead of other expatriates, and this is the case even in Oaxaca, which has an English-language library that serves as a gathering place.

Volcanos and monasteries in Puebla State

Popocatepétl as seen from Cortez Pass. Photo by Jakub Hejtmánek at Czech Wikipedia.
Popocatepétl as seen from Cortez Pass. Photo by
Jakub Hejtmánek at Czech Wikipedia.

The volcano Popocatépetl, located between Mexico City and Puebla, is currently 5,426 meters (17,802 feet) in elevation; it's the second-highest mountain in Mexico. It erupted on May 8, 2013, and has been sending up ash frequently since January 2012. There are webcams pointed at it, and it's often visible from planes flying in and out of the Mexico City airport. (Sometimes too visible; on July 4, 2013, 40 flights had to be canceled because there was too much ash in the air.)

I wanted to get a somewhat closer look at it. Three places where you can do this on the Puebla (east) side are San Andrés Calpan, San Mateo Ozolco, and San Nicolás de Los Ranchos/Santiago Xalitzintla. There are frequent buses from Puebla to San Andrés Calpan, and frequent collectivos (passenger vans) from Cholula to San Mateo Ozolco and San Nicolás de Los Ranchos.

The place where you get the really good view, though, is Cortez Pass, which is between Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano north of Popocatépetl. The two peaks are included in the Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park. The road there requires a Jeep-style vehicle. If you don't have one, you might be able to arrange for someone in the towns mentioned above to give you a ride up and back. Problem is, this will require some lead time. Another possibililty is Gozamex, which runs a bus tour from Puebla to Cortez Pass. It costs 1,400 pesos, takes nine hours, and requires at least two people. Keep in mind that, like all mountains of this size, Popocatépetl often has a cloud cover.

A travel guide to Cuba

Havana MaleconI made a visit to Cuba in January, 2015. I relied heavily on Lonely Planet: Cuba. This publication is a bit too friendly to the current government of Cuba, so I'm taking the trouble here to provide my version of The Real Story.

First, I did not go to Varadero or any of the all-inclusive resorts. I didn't spend a single night in a regular hotel. This is not what the government wants. They want to transport you from the airport to one of the all-inclusives, and transport you back to the airport a week later. That way, you have near-zero contact with ordinary Cubans, and the government gets nearly all of your money. That's just the way they want it.

If you want to be an independent traveler like I was, the first issue you're going to have to deal with is transportation. Want to ride buses with ordinary Cubans? Forget it. Those buses require an extensive reservation process. And actually, the common means of inter-city transportation for Cubans is a truck equipped with seats, the sort of vehicle used for transporting prisoners (or cows or pigs) in other countries. Cuba has some passenger trains; I considered taking one for the last leg of my trip, and was strongly discouraged from doing so.

Interview with Cuban dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque

Marta Beatriz RoqueMarta Beatriz Roque is the founder of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, and a prominent Cuban dissident who has been in and out of prison several times.

Robert Broughton: You recently had a visit from a group of Democratic U.S. Senators and Members of Congress: Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Sen. Dick Durbin (Illinois), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland 8th), and Rep. Peter Welch (Vermont at-large). What message did you have for them?

Marta Beatriz Roque: I told the Congressmen (Senators and Representatives) that whether I agreed or not [with the Obama announcement on diplomatic recognition], the decision was made, but a retreat from the recent actions of the Obama Administration would be very painful for the Cuban people, so Congress has to be careful on this issue.

RB: One misconception I had about Cuba was that it has a shortage of tourists. Actually, there are a lot of them. And, Havana's better hotels charge $150 to $200 per night, and the all-inclusive resorts charge around $300 per night. Where is all this money going?

MBR: I would be unfair if I said, “into the pockets of Castro”, because I am not aware that this is happening, but I can say that is not used to improve the people's livelihood, which is becoming worse. However, family members of the regime travel like millionaires, as seen with Fidel Castro's son's involvement in expensive golf tournaments and fishing derbies. Most Cubans do not know what golf is, and haven't eaten fish for many years.

My brief survey of Mexican food

Coctel de camaronesNow that I've lived in Mexico for over two years, here's some culinary discoveries I've made.

Coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktails): Shrimp and avocado in a spicy red sauce. I've learned that the difference between the good ones and the not-so-good ones is, the not-so-good ones are made with ketchup. The best ones I've found in Guanajuato are from Mariscos Los Amigos in Embajadores Park (see picture). The best one I've found in Mexico was in the Old Town of Mazatlan.





CerdoCerdo (pork): There's something that they do when they cook pork that makes it melt in your mouth. I've heard that they use lard, which can't possibly be good for you. My preferred method of ingestion is in a torta (Mexican sandwich). This yummy picture was taken at the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato.








Pozole VerdePozole verde: Pozole is actually hominy, but what we're talking about here is a soup that includes (usually) chicken, hominy, and some unknown spices, garnished with onions, lettuce, and radishes. It never tastes the same way twice, even when prepared by the same cook. There's also pozole rojo, which I don't like as much, and pozole blanco, which I haven't tried yet.







Torta CubanaTorta Cubana: Something that you order if you're especially hungry. You could call it a torta with everything on it; chorizo, ham, slices of hot dog, yellow cheese, lettuce, and tomato. Incidentally, I recently spent two weeks in Cuba, and didn't see torta cubana on a menu once. This picture was taken at Tortas Mi Lugar at Positos 11 in Guanajuato.

Elote (corn on the cob): As sold by street vendors, it's corn with grated cheese, mayonnaise, chili powder, and lemon. You often get a choice of medium or asado (well-done). You can also choose whether you want an actual cob on a stick, or de-cobbed corn in a foam cup (vaso). I've always taken the vaso option, because I don't want to wear it. I also tell them to hold the mayonnaise.


TripeTripe: Not something worth writing home about, but it's listed here because there's a funny story that goes with it. The first time I tried it, I saw it being deep-fried by a sidewalk vendor, and my reaction was “umm, calamari; I love calamari.” Well, I learned about three days later that tripe isn't calamari; it's sections of cow intestines. Had I known this, I never would have tried it. Having tried it once, I like it OK. However, you never see tripe on a menu in a restaurant. It's always sold by sidewalk vendors; if you see it cooked before your very eyes, you know that it's cooked sufficiently. This picture was taken at Embajadores Park in Guanajuato.

My Tienanmen Square experience

The current media coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Tienanmen Square massacre has brought back some memories for me. I walked around Tienanmen Square one month after this event.

No, I do not go around looking for trouble. The trip that took me through Beijing was part of a trip that had been planned for a long time. I had been living in Oslo, Norway for three years, and wanted to return to Vancouver by traveling by rail from Oslo to Stockholm, by ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, by rail from Helsinki to Hong Kong, then flying from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I had already booked and paid for most of this trip through a travel agency in Stockholm a month or two before the massacre happened. This agency had canceled some trips scheduled for June, my my trip was still on. At that time, visas for travel in the Soviet Union were very specific; the dates of each visit to each city, and the hotel that you stayed in, were spelled out in the visa, and it was impossible to change anything. And yes, there were agents of Intourist who checked on you to make sure you stuck to the schedule.

Virginia Intermont College closes its doors

East Hall, Virginia Intermont CollegeVirginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA held its final graduation ceremony on May 4, 2014. The school had been in financial trouble for a while. The beginning of the end came in 2013, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated the school's accreditation. Although nobody ever confused VI with Harvard, this action was not taken because of academic standards. Instead, the problem was that VI had an unsustainable economic model. What this meant was, most of the school's revenue was coming from student tuition, and not from endowments and donations.

The SACS decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prospect of the loss of accreditation scared away prospective students, reducing the school's revenue, and making it inviable financially. VI's administration attempted to solve the accreditation problem by merging with another institution, but a prospective merger fell through.