03 January 2006

First three months in Mexico City, 1991

Moving even farther back in time, I wrote the following on or around April 5, 1990, just a few months after we arrived in Mexico City. I used it in various forms as part of a letters to folks back home—I was getting pretty good at using the computer and a word processor to repurpose stuff! And yeah, there's probably too much detail about certain afflictions typically sufffered by new residents in (and visitors to) Mexico, but hey--that's how it happened!


I'll get the baby news out of the way first. No, not us. But Andrew and Coral just had another little boy on April 2. His name is probably going to be Michael Andrew, but Stokely has large problems with that (as in, "Why should he be named after HIM? Why not one of US?"), not that it's anyone else’s business. Ah, life with the Luebkers.

Dan Jurgens and Ann Merrill also had a little boy on February 24, Seth Daniel, and I hear that one evening of prolonged exposure to the new little Jurgens almost was enough to convince Ann Burkhardt that she wanted one too. Gary, however, is not sure that he does. As of this writing negotiations are continuing.

Meanwhile Kathleen and I got a new cat. It was a little black and white stray kitten that was living in the parking lot that we use (about a block from the embassy.) It had nearly been hit by a car, so the guys there took it in and fed it, and it never left. When we first saw her she was a skinny little thing, living in the little hut on the lot, sleeping curled up on a piece of newspaper, with her white fur all dirty gray, and her black fur ratty and forlorn.

As I write this, she is curled up on the back of my chair, right behind my neck, purring, with a large belly, and spotless white fur, and smooth, glossy black fur. Her name is Stacy (short for "Estacionamiento"), and she eats like a wolf, purrs so loud she sometimes keeps us awake at night, and is almost as talkative as the late, great Oofus Kitty.

The herd is back up to five, and they love Mexico.

As for babies HERE, we're trying to figure out the right timing with our respective assignments, and things like whether the pollution is a factor we should be concerned about.

We’ve been in the process of moving from our temporary quarters to our permanent housing, and with all of our stuff arriving, and trying to get organized (something I’ve never been good at) I haven't written to anyone. As a matter of fact, the last letter I wrote was to Mom and my brothers in Stillwater, and it was describing our first three weeks here, and the house we hoped to get.


HOLD IT! That we had that all settled, right? The 3-bedroom apartment in Polanco with the hardwood floors...

Well, like everything else in my life, there's a story.

We arrived in Mexico City on Thursday afternoon, January 11. I’ve never been thrilled about flying (even though I flew up to Minnesota the week before Christmas, and back to Louisville on Christmas Eve), so we drove down. This is a story in itself, including our stays at bed and breakfast places in Knoxville and New Orleans, and the difference between driving in the Mexican countryside now and two years ago when I went down to get Dad. But I'm digressing.

Originally, we were going to move into permanent quarters right away — the aforementioned apartment, recently vacated by a USIS officer (who we have since been informed was a flake) whose tour was up. It was located on the tenth floor of a building in a neighborhood southwest of the embassy called Polanco, which is NOT in the Zona Rosa (as I mistakenly thought), or even especially near it. It is similar, however, in that it is one of the major shopping areas, with a full complement of major department stores (Sears, Liverpool, etc.) and zillions of "chi-chi" (NOT my word — a description by our boss's secretary) little shops, boutiques and restaurants. It's kind of a Mexican version of the trendy parts of Minneapolis, like Uptown and around the lakes.

The apartment itself had been described to us by its previous tenant as big, with hardwood floors, three bedrooms, two baths, and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city in the living room and master bedroom. We couldn't see the Angel from there, but it sounds pretty good, right? Well, our embassy sponsor, an assistant cultural affairs officer (ACAO) named Bob Hugins, and the executive officer, a 25-year Foreign Service veteran named Jim Cunningham took a look at it and decided it wasn't good enough for us. Instead, they put us into government leased temporary quarters a couple blocks from the embassy.

Sounds like a problem, doesn't it? After all, we had paid the maid that the previous tenant had been using to stay on and keep the place clean for us over the holidays, and had bought a couple of big plants from her as well.

As it turned out, the maid hadn't been coming, the plants were nearly dead, and our sponsor, the exec, and a few other people who had seen the apartment were convinced that the place wasn't right for us, and that when we saw other officers' quarters, we'd agree.

So, the first night in town we went to look at the place in Polanco, then went over to eat dinner at the home of another first-tour tandem couple, Terry and Karen Davidson.

Let me say right away, everybody was right.

The apartment wasn't really bad — it was everything we were told. But it had problems:

  • A kitchen the size of a wedge of cheese, with no counter space, and a washer and dryer crammed in it as well;
  • Faulty wiring in two of the bedrooms — you flip the light switch and it throws a spark while the lights in another room go off — just guess how I felt about THAT, after completely rewiring two houses;
  • The whole main living area seemed to gently slope toward the big, floor to ceiling window, and there was nothing but a single low railing outside of it, which brought my fear of heights into a nice, sharp focus;
  • The walls were all a little uneven, moldings were brittle and broken here and there, and in general the place didn't seem too well cared for.

All that said, it still was a bigger and nicer place than I've ever had, but what convinced us was a look at Terry and Karen's house. That's right, HOUSE. They are both first-tour officers like Kathleen and me, but they requested a place that had "some outside space," and got a wonderful, cozy little house with a big kitchen, a fireplace, a breakfast room, and a small garden outside.

If that wasn't enough, two days later we got a look at the place our sponsor (also a first tour officer) has — two stories, skylights, sunken living room, three bedrooms, sitting area at the top of the stairs — and were convinced that to take the place in Polanco would only be setting ourselves up to envy our colleagues for the next few years.

The temporary place we were in wasn't bad, but the one we found for permanent quarters makes it look like a people warehouse, which is what it is, I guess.


Our permanent place is also a house, located a little farther out from the embassy in an area of town called Lomas de Chapultepec, but only about half a block off of Paseo de la Reforma, which is the street the embassy is on.

The neighborhood itself looks like any nice, well-kept up suburb — wide boulevards with trees, walls and fences around all the yards, the British Ambassador about half a block down the street, and the Norwegian Embassy about a mile farther on.

If you happen to have a map of Mexico City, take a look at where Reforma cuts through Chapultepec Park. There's a street called Virreyes that intersects Reforma at the western edge of the park. Our house is right near there at 1590 Virreyes, with the park directly behind it.

We were allowed up to 1320 square feet of living space, but settled for a little more than 1000, because we really liked the house. So, not only did we avoid apartment living, but because the place was a new rental, USIS provided a brand new set of furniture to furnish the place. My mind just boggled. I figured we'd be getting some ratty, third-hand stuff that had been in other people's apartments or in some warehouse. Instead we get a more or less complete set of brand new furniture to use while we're here. Here is an annotated description of the place:

A huge yard — not quite as big as I had on Lake Carnelian, but arranged in a nice rectangle, all on one level. It is completely surrounded by walls and fences, some of which are covered with climbing bougainvillea and vines. Kathleen and I went down to Xochimilco, where they have a huge plant and flower market, and bought about $300 worth of bougainvillea, gardenias, coleus, colisandra, hiedra azul, and a few decorative evergreens to fill in where there wasn't anything growing.

The walls are around eight feet high, topped with about six feet of chain-link fence, which is topped with barbed wire. There are yard lights all around the perimeter, and the front gates are like doors — the only openings are a mail slot and a peephole to see who's out there — so we have both privacy and security, which is good, because there have been a lot of burglaries in this neighborhood recently (including both our boss's and the press attaché’s houses).

We've had a couple incidents of minor vandalism — eggs thrown at our front gate, and one of the glass globes on the gate lights broken — but these were probably random actions of the spoiled little rich kids on skateboards, which seem to infest the better neighborhoods here.

All the same, security has our house on a list for special attention at night.

A swimming pool with a paved patio all the way around it. The pool has a heater, but it hasn't worked since we moved in, and the filtration system broke down a week ago. The pool man comes twice a week to keep the pool clean. He got the filtration system fixed within the week, and promises that the heater will be working soon. Of course Mexican soon could be months from now, so we're thinking of ordering one of those plastic pool covers that acts as a passive solar heater. At this altitude, we get plenty of sun, even with the pollution. Then we'll probably have the pool guy come only once a week. Someday we may even get to USE the pool.

Room to park as many as four (maybe even more) cars inside the compound. Parking on the street is discouraged around here, even in the best neighborhoods.

One night we were waiting in front of the temporary quarters for a couple of colleagues to pick us up for dinner. Across the street there was a guy trying to park his dented, old Ford in a slot big enough to park a bus —nothing ahead of him, and a nice, shiny, new Nissan behind him. He put it into reverse, slammed into the Nissan at about 20 MPH, pulled forward a couple of feet, shut the off the Ford, glanced at the Nissan, shrugged, and walked away.

Living room/dining room area with glass walls on two sides facing the pool, patio and yard, and a big fireplace with a copper hood on another wall. We set up a sitting area in front of the fireplace with the couch, coffee table and end tables, a couple of chairs, and a couple of brass lamps.

On the wall by the kitchen, there's a telephone table with a mirror over it, and a big bookcase on the wall next to it.

Then on the other side of the room we have the dining area, which is basically a table, chairs, and a lighted china hutch in which Kathleen has arranged all our crystal, and forbidden any super-hero glasses or action figures. Some things never change.

Along the front glass wall we have a couple potted palms (which seem intent on dying), the rocking horse from Mom, and a couple extra dining chairs — we got ten, and only have room for six without putting the leaves in the table. There are a few more plants around the room, but they too seem to know about my black thumb, and are struggling. Kathleen is pretty good with plants though, so I'm optimistic.

The guest room upstairs is kind of small. We put a full size bed and a matching desk and dresser topped with bookshelves in there, and there really isn't room for anything else. It has a closet (which is now FULL of comic book boxes), private bathroom, and a big window that overlooks the pool. There is also a wall heater for the cool nights, and it gets great sun in the morning.

We call it "Diane's room," because it's where Kathleen's sister Diane is going to stay when she comes down for a couple months this summer. She's a teacher, and will be moving back to Los Angeles this fall (from Louisville, where she and her husband Matt moved when Kathleen’s mom died last fall). She'll get a raise if she speaks some Spanish, so she's going to attend one of the intensive schools down here.

There is a small sitting area at the top of the stairs between the two bedrooms. We're planning on putting one of our TVs and a VCR out there, with some wicker or rattan furniture and shelves for the video tapes. Right now, however, it's the staging area as we unpack all our stuff.

Then there's the master bedroom — the biggest room in the whole house. Enormous. We set up a sitting area on one end of the room, with a loveseat, recliner, chair, end table, lamp and desk. We used a rose-colored oriental-type rug that I had in Georgetown to set that part of the room off from the bedroom part.

The rug is ON TOP of beige wall-to-wall carpeting, an idea I always resisted, but which turns out to work very well.

My favorite part of the house is on the bedroom side: built-in wooden bookshelves on two walls, which are so big, I haven't been able to fill them with all my books and videotapes, even combined with all of Kathleen's books, which arrived a couple weeks ago.

Other than the bookshelves, the bedroom is set up pretty traditionally — queen-size bed (standard Foreign Service issue), dresser with mirror, and two night stands with ceramic lamps.

I had my antique trunk shipped down and bought some cedar to line it, and some paint and stain to fix up the outside. When it's done, it will probably go at the foot of the bed to store extra blankets and linens.

I'm also building a small cabinet for the TV, stereo and VCRs in the bedroom, with a swivel top so we can watch TV from the sitting area or the bedroom area.

There is a wall heater in this bedroom too, as well as a terrace that overlooks the yard and pool, and from which you can see Chapultepec Park behind us —trees, disappearing into the distance! One of the USIS drivers told me that it will all be bright green when the rainy season starts in a month or so.

We have a private bathroom — two sinks, so Kathleen and I can get ready at the same time — and a dressing room with so much closet space that Kathleen said she'd never have enough clothing to fill it. The lady from housing suggested that might be a goal to work toward. However, since there are some cabinets and shelves in the dressing room which are great for underwear, socks, and sweaters, I decided to put all of my clothing in there, and not use any of the dresser. So we actually DID fill it, but mostly because we each got some new suits before coming down (mine from the stores, Kathleen's from her mom's things) and because we put our coats, a file cabinet, and some other stuff in there too.

The security guys at the Embassy made the dressing room our "safe room," which means that if the house is attacked by terrorists or aliens or something, we go in there and lock the door. They put two huge locks on the door and gave us a radio to use in emergencies. Great, huh?

I figure we'll live in the bedroom, and save the rest of the place for company and entertaining.

Maid's quarters in the basement. Since we aren't planning on having a live-in maid, we're going to make this another guest room. That means carpeting the nasty concrete floor and probably putting up one of those Armstrong suspended ceilings to cover up the pipes. There's also a sewage smell coming from someplace down there that will have to be found and sealed before we ask humans to live in there.

Since it will cost money, and since we are not being deluged with visitors just now, we're not doing anything about fixing up the room yet. In the meantime I'm using it as a workshop. I got a table saw as an engagement present from Kathleen, and I've been using that to build some cabinets and shelves that we need.

We're also storing some of the furniture down there that we intend to use when the room is finished, so for now, it's a multi-purpose area.

Off the main room there's a rather spartan tiled bathroom and a little room with a BIG storage closet that has floor-to-ceiling shelves where my boxes of junk will live. Then there is an iron spiral stairway that goes up to the laundry room and pool dressing room.

The laundry room. Since I moved out of my mother’s house, I've never lived in a place that had a washer and dryer of its own, except for the temporary quarters we were in for the first few weeks we were down here. Here we have a separate laundry room, small but convenient. It has a washer and dryer, a little closet where we keep the vacuum cleaner and other stuff like that, and a hot water heater just for the laundry and pool dressing room.

The pool dressing room, which is right next door, is basically a toilet, sink, and two shower stalls done up in yellow tile, with some hooks on the wall. I should probably call it the maid's dressing room, because we don't use the pool, and we do have a maid that comes in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and does all our dishes, cleaning, laundry, and ironing for the ridiculously low sum of 25,000 pesos a day (less than $10 U.S. at the current exchange rate of about 2765 pesos to $1.) She uses the dressing room to change into her work clothes (no, not one of those goofy little uniforms) and to clean up when she's done.

I never figured I'd be the kind to hire domestic help, but we leave home at 8 AM and get home at 6 PM (if we don't have to attend some infernal dinner or cocktail party) and neither of us has the time or the energy for trying to keep up with the housework in a place this size. A maid? How did we ever do without one?

We have a small, but decent kitchen. There is a new propane gas stove with a griddle in the middle, tiled counters, a water filter (for minerals) on the sink, and one of those bar-like counters between the kitchen and living room, where we can eat breakfast. We have lots of cabinet space below the counters, but only two wall cabinets, neither of which is deep enough for dinner plates. Sooooo.... I built another cabinet, and I guess I did a pretty good job. I just can't keep my hands off those damn tools.

A downstairs bathroom with shower, which is all done up in white and blue tile, so it seems very cold. We call it the meat locker, and are trying to mitigate the effect with peach colored rugs and towels. I'm not sure it's working.

There are two separate telephone lines coming into the house: 011-525-596-1259 or 011-525-596-1704. The second line will eventually be connected to an answering machine so people can leave us messages when we're not around. First, however, I have to rewire the telephone connections so we can hook the answering machine up.

It's the nicest place either of us has ever had, and we can't quite believe our luck. On the other hand, it's not been without problems.


The day we were supposed to move in, I took what is called an administrative day to be there when the movers delivered our USIS furniture. There was a two page list of repairs, improvements, and cleaning that the landlady was supposed to have taken care of before we moved in, but when I arrived that beautiful, sunny morning, only two or three of the items were finished, AND the two workmen who were supposed to be doing them were living there. I woke them up when I arrived, and they kind of staggered into the morning light with hair standing on end, clothing rumpled, and shirts unbuttoned.

The place was a pigsty. I called our executive officer at the embassy to see what could be done, and he said he would send the cleaning crew from the Biblioteca Benjamin Franklin, a USIS library a couple miles from the embassy, to try to clean up enough before the movers arrived so we could at least bring the furniture inside. Then the movers arrived.

I called the housing department at the embassy to see if they could get a hold of the landlady, Sra. Quijano, and find out what had happened, and why the place wasn't ready. The movers wanted to know where to put the furniture. I had them put it on the patio, since it was the only relatively clean place. Next, they discovered that they had not only our furniture, but our household effects from Washington, stuff that was supposed to arrive the NEXT day, AFTER we got all our furniture set up. Oh well, put it on the patio.

Then they tried to take the washer and dryer down to the basement where the laundry room was originally going to be, but the washer wouldn't fit down the stairs. The only stairs to the basement.

About that time, the cleaning crew arrived and went to work upstairs. Then it started to rain. By then, the movers were gone, so the cleaners dropped what they were doing and helped me haul everything inside, where we put it on top of dirty, dusty carpets. Then it stopped raining and the sun came back out. So we hauled everything back outside.

Next, Sra. Quijano arrived with her son, her nephew, and her houseboy. I tried to explain the various difficulties to her, but my Spanish was apparently as bad as her English. Fortunately, her son had a good command of both languages, so we achieved some kind of communication. Unfortunately, about all we were able to solve was what to do with the washer and dryer.

Since the washer wasn't going to fit down the stairs, she said they could put the hook-ups in the room next to the pool dressing room, a room which, at the time, had a hot water heater and a tile-covered concrete bench in it. I said that sounded okay, and within minutes one of the two workmen had dropped whatever he wasn't doing, and was smashing the bench with a sledgehammer. The senora dispatched the boy she'd brought with her to get a plumber and a guy to do the concrete work, then she left, promising to return the next day to see that everything was done.

She didn't, and it wasn't — but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Her nephew turned out to be the most useful. His English was about as good as my Spanish, and he stuck around to help get the bedroom furniture upstairs. The cleaning crew had finished up there, and had tried to start taking things up. But the stairs were too narrow, and they turned a corner, like the ones in my old apartment on Third Street. The only stairs to the second floor.

So we had to hand everything up to the balcony where it could go through the sliding glass balcony door. I wasn't quite sure what I'd be doing in the Foreign Service, but I didn't think it would be balancing on top of a step ladder trying to hand a dresser to a bunch of Mexicans on my bedroom balcony. It worked out okay though, and we had most of the upstairs stuff upstairs before it started to rain again.

The cleaning crew had time to finish most of the downstairs, so we hauled the remaining furniture back inside, and this time we left it.

Meanwhile the workmen were doing a lot of head scratching and not a lot of work on the various repairs. They needed parts, they had to call this other guy... Reminded me a lot of a fellow named Beghbie who did some work on the Carnelian place where I used to live…

It took them six days to finish the work so we could finally move in, and if it had been for that good old American tradition which the Mexicans share — the desire for dollars — we might still be waiting. But the rent payments didn't start until we could move in, and Sra. Quijano wanted that money. The deal was a year's rent paid in advance, with a 5-8% increase the second and third years. Landlords here love renting to the American government. But if we didn't get in there soon the whole deal could fall through. Entonces, estamos aqui.

There are other little problems. There are virtually no grounded outlets in any homes or apartments. If you have a microwave, washer, dryer, stereo, TV, VCR, computer, or anything more complicated than a lamp, you are going to need grounded outlets, so you can use surge protectors to make sure that variations in the electrical power don't fry your electrical equipment, not to mention the danger of getting knocked on your can by an ungrounded appliance.

There were only two three-prong (grounded) outlets in the whole place — one in the basement, and one in the laundry room. So I set out to replace some of the non-polarized, two-prong outlets with what they call "tipo americano" — three-prong, grounded — outlets.

I did three outlets, and there were the two I mentioned which were already installed. Then I tested all of them with my little outlet checker gizmo. One of the two existing outlets, and one of my three installations said "HOT/NEUTRAL REVERSE," which means the two wires that attach to the outlet were switched around. So I switched them the other way and got the same reading. It was maddening.

After switching them back and forth a few times, I finally called the landlady and had her send her electrician over. He came while I was at work, so I have no idea what he did, but now all the three prong outlets test okay. With only two wires, it seems like there would be only two ways to hook the damn things up, and I certainly am not new to wiring, but...

Then there's the mystery leak in the kitchen ceiling. The dressing room is above it, yet every week or two we get this wet spot on the ceiling. The plumber says it could be pipes, it could be an old chimney that wasn't sealed properly, or it could simply be a miracle — the Weeping Ceiling of Virreyes.

Meanwhile the leak seems to be spreading. The other day I noticed water dripping out of one of the recessed light sockets in the kitchen ceiling, right after the third bulb blew out in two weeks. You don't suppose there's a connection?

There are little skylights in the vestidor and the bathroom off the master bathroom. Each has a fluorescent light above it to simulate daylight at night. Since Monday — I'm writing this on Thursday — black, smelly, oil-like goo has been dripping down from the lights inside the skylights. The landlady sent two plumbers to look at it on Tuesday, and an electrician finally arrived today. He took the leaking parts out and said he'd be back tomorrow or Saturday to finish the job. Meanwhile, no lights in the john.

The downstairs shower, which is big and roomy, all tile, and has a bench to sit on, also leaks all over the floor. Fortunately there's a floor drain in that bathroom, but it's still annoying.

Oh yeah. The other day there was a scorpion sitting in the corner on the kitchen counter. I saw it before it saw me, and I whacked it with a hammer. Ah, Mexico!


Then there's the pollution. It's as bad as we were told. Every day the newspaper has a little map of the city with an air quality index listing the levels of ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide in the various neighborhoods. Ozone levels are almost always in the "unsatisfactory" range, and sometimes near "dangerous." The others are usually in a range called "satisfactory" but by whose standard, I don't know.

I've heard that National Public Radio (in the U.S.) did a story a while ago about the pollution down here, and there was some environmentalist in town who said that on January 24 "the level of toxins in the atmosphere was three times beyond what is considered hazardous to human health."

The thermal inversion — that's the thing that holds the pollutants in place — lifts at about 10 AM each day, so the levels of the nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide might improve a little, but the concentrations of sulfur and ozone keep getting worse all day. We breathe a nice chemical soup most of the time, and when we first got here, I got headaches that felt like my collar was too tight. You can rarely see anything of the mountains beyond the city because of the daily haze, and you find black stuff in the Kleenex when you blow your nose.

When we first got here, we went out to play some softball on Saturday morning with the Marine guards, some other embassy folks, a few British Embassy people(!), and some teachers up at the American School. I was wheezing like an old man. My chest hurt and I saw stars if I stood up too fast after sitting for a while. I'd be out of breath after chasing down a long fly ball.

On the other hand, the ball carries forever in this thin air. I hit a long line drive to centerfield my first time up that bounced past the fence for a ground rule double, and took an outside pitch to the opposite field for a homer over a 15-20 foot right field fence the second time I came up. The fence was only about 250 feet away, but so were the ones in Washington this past summer (which I never reached), and the ball was still rising when it hit the trees on the other side. I'm no power hitter, so it's got to be the air (or lack of it).

Throws from the outfield come in like rockets too. I hit our third baseman with a waist high throw from the fence in left field, and he threw a strike to the catcher to nail a guy trying for an inside-the-park home run. I've never had an arm like that before. I may even try playing third base (they call a third baseman "antesalista" — before leaving — here), now that my body has made enough new red blood cells to sustain me.


Then there was our encounter with the local police. They have a program here to fight the pollution (and traffic congestion) called "Hoy No Circula," which means that one workday every week — depending on the number on your license plates — you can't drive. It's a good idea, considering how many cars there are in Mexico City, and how few have any kind of anti-pollution equipment. The law applies to almost everyone, even tourists, but it doesn't apply to diplomats (diplomatic immunity) and besides, we still have the anti-pollution equipment on our car.

Even so, we were taking cabs on Wednesdays, our off-day. We still had Kentucky plates on the car (since SRE — Secretary of Foreign Relations — is a little slow at getting the diplomatic tags sent out), and we not only were trying to be good citizens, but we didn't want to get hassled by the cops.

Then I had to go to the hospital one Wednesday morning for some tests. (More on that later.) That's how we met the local version of what passes for law enforcement. No, we didn't pay them the bribe they obviously wanted. However, we did spend half an hour convincing them that we, in fact, were exempt from such laws, and received a terse little speech about not being so rude, and how the police are only here to serve us.

Ho-ho. I've heard of places where the cops actually PAY to work a particular corner because the "mordidas" are so good.

We had our Virginia plates (different number) in the trunk, so we put them on when we needed to drive on Wednesdays after that. And a couple weeks ago we finally got our diplomatic plates, so we probably won't be stopped again.


Then there are the health problems. Kathleen has had food poisoning twice — our first weekend in Mexico, and again a couple weeks ago after the drive up to Laredo to get the cats and do some shopping. The second time was so bad we had to take her to the hospital, where they put her on an IV for a while and gave her a couple of injections to stop the cramping and the nausea.

A couple days later she found out she has amoebas as well.

Then of course there are my usual stomach problems. I'd been lucky enough to avoid the indigenous maladies, but noticed that the heartburn I always have had gotten a lot worse.

So I went to an English-speaking, American-educated gastroenterologist who performed a particularly unpleasant examination of my esophagus, stomach, and intestines with a tube down my throat, and discovered I have a hiatal hernia. The book describes it as "an abnormal weakness or opening in the diaphragm, the big, thin muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity," and what it means is that my stomach is leaking acid (which it already produces too much of) up my esophagus.

The doctor has me on three kinds of medication, and a diet that excludes virtually everything — fresh fruit and vegetables, any cereals or grains that contain fiber, fried foods, rich foods, chocolate, soda, coffee, teas, fatty meats, in short anything fun to eat. The idea is to let the damaged area scar over, and treatment takes about five weeks.

Well, was supposed to take five weeks. I talked to him yesterday, and he says I have to go another month with the diet and medicine, AND elevate the head of the bed about seven inches. He actually suggested the raising of the bed when I first went to see him, but I haven't gotten around to it, so he chewed me out good.

If this doesn't work out, the alternative is surgery, which has a recovery period of five to seven weeks. The doctor says that in a lot of cases the surgery only works for a year or two before the problem redevelops. I guess I'd better cooperate, because I like the idea of surgery almost as much as I like the idea of traveling by plane. Besides, you've got to trust a doctor who tries to talk you OUT of surgery.

As I said, the problem was discovered the same morning as our little encounter with the police, when I went to the American-British Hospital for a gastroendoscopy — a wonderful little test where they stick a tube stuffed with fiber optics down your throat to look around.

They gave me a local anesthetic for my throat — some foul-tasting stuff that I had to gargle — and Demerol to relax me. They gave me 100 mg., and I was nothing like relaxed until about 20 minutes after they finished the procedure. Then I felt like my head was going to float away. I guess the adrenaline from our half hour with the police was stronger than the Demerol.

At any rate, I was gagging and throwing up stomach acid the whole time the tube was inside me, which I was later told only happens in one or two cases out of a thousand. Lucky me.

The doctor invited Kathleen to watch the test and look at the pictures, so now she can honestly say that she knows me inside and out.

The special diet makes eating a lot less fun, and makes dinners and cocktail parties even less fun than usual. I basically can't eat or drink anything that tastes good or is any fun.

Next came the bacterial infection in my left eye. That was actually no big deal, because it went away after about three days of putting salve in it.

Now I've got this virus. It hit me Sunday evening, and had me running to the bathroom every fifteen minutes for the rest of the night. I was able to get to sleep at about midnight, but woke up around two-thirty in the morning with nausea, a fever, and so many general aches and pains that I couldn't even lie in bed comfortably. On top of that, the combination of fever and dehydration gave me hallucinations and had me babbling like a fool. Kathleen finally got me to take some Imodium (anti-diarrhea medicine) and to drink some fluids to replace a little of what I'd lost, but the net result was that neither of us got any sleep that night.

She went to the Embassy Health Unit first thing Monday morning, and told them my symptoms. They gave her some kind of rehydrating fluid for me to take called Pedialyte and gave her the usual little-plastic-cup-in-a-bag to get a stool specimen from me. Down here, they ask for a stool specimen for any ailment, from a hangnail on up. They also told her that if my diarrhea didn't stop she should take me to the hospital.

As it turned out, I was able to take the fluids, I took some Tylenol for the fever, the Imodium did its job, and I didn't have to go to the hospital. By Tuesday everyone was concerned that I wasn't going to the bathroom, so I had to make a command appearance at the Health Unit. They weighed me, took my temperature, asked me when I last urinated, and gave me some antibiotics and more Pedialyte. It's a glamorous life.

By Wednesday and Thursday, I was running a low-grade fever and enduring some kind of itchy rash. I'll probably go to work on Friday, no matter how I feel. I'd hate to have everyone forget whom I am.

One good thing came of all this. Kathleen was supposed to leave on Monday for a few days of TDY (temporary duty) at the consulate in Monterrey with the six inspectors who are here from Washington to spend five weeks looking over USIS Mexico. She really didn't want to go — she'd been up there for a couple days at the end of February, and didn't much like the traveling by Mexican airline or staying by herself in a hotel — so when our exec officer told her to stay in town so she could take care of me she wasn't exactly disappointed.


We didn't really get out much the first month or so that we were here. However, one place we made a point of finding was the local supermarket, Superama, which is a lot like U.S. supermarkets. The main differences are the way bakery stuff is sold — displayed in bins, where you pick it up, put it on trays, and take it to a counter to have it bagged and priced — and the other things they sell, like stereos, refrigerators, and large appliances.

Although we have a good-sized commissary with all kinds of U.S. products, we're trying to buy and use as many Mexican products as possible. They're easier to find, and usually a little cheaper than their American counterparts. A lot of the same brands are available here, so it's worked out okay. It's interesting to compare the Mexican and U.S. versions.

For example, the Head & Shoulders shampoo down here smells like the Head & Shoulders in the U.S. did around 10 years ago before they came out with the "new, improved fragrance." It’s kind of like traveling in time.

I also found the Mexican version of Irish Spring soap, which is made and marketed by Colgate Palmolive of Mexico under the name "Nordiko." It looks and smells like the old Irish Spring — it may be a little stronger smelling — which I stockpiled when they brought out that miserable new version. The difference in smell could be because my stockpile — down to 3 or 4 bars the last time I looked — is getting stale with age.

Anyway, I'm happy to have found it. Every store here carries a selection of products, but nobody seems to carry all of them the way the big stores in the U.S. do, so I looked for about three weeks before I found it — at the store right across the street from our apartment. Naturally I hadn't thought to look there.

Some things, notably milk, are harder to find, so we buy those at the commissary. The milk comes in every two or three weeks and sells out the same day. People are allowed to buy 6 quarts of each kind — skim, 2%, whole, chocolate — which they take home and freeze, then use as needed. We'd been using a lot of powdered milk, but now that we've caught on about the milk shipments, we've got a freezer full of the real stuff.

I had a hard time figuring out how to get things like comic books, video tapes, books, art supplies, plastic models, and all those other silly things I used to buy. I figured out I could mail-order them, and so far it's worked out okay, and, in the case of the comic books, has kept me in touch with some of the guys. I did hear that Gary Sissala finally had to close Comic City, but the way things were going for him the last year I was up there, it was more of a shock that it took so long than that it happened.

There's a big K-Mart-like store in town called Gigante that takes care of my odd hardware and tool needs, and enough big department stores and shops in Polanco to take care of almost anything else.

We got out to an English-language Catholic church the first week we were here, but neither of us was too impressed with it. There is another English-language church about a block away from our house (but with no bells — thank heavens!) It's called Union Evangelical Church, and purports to be nondenominational Protestant. We've been there once so far. They use a service a lot like the Methodist church where Kathleen and I got married, their hymnal is Presbyterian, the choir and the music are very good, and the congregation is almost all Americans. All in all, it'll do just fine for those Sunday mornings when we can drag ourselves out of bed in time to go.

Sunday morning is actually about the only time it's safe to go out driving around here. Although driving on the highways to get here wasn't bad at all, the traffic in Mexico City is like nothing I've ever seen. The first night we were in town I drove Terry Davidson (ACAO — assistant cultural affairs officer — mentioned above) home, and he told me that driving in Mexico City was a test of manhood, and that I was failing!! Now, anyone who has ever ridden with me knows I am not a timid driver.

Mexico City traffic follows no apparent rules. Few intersections are marked in any way, and there is no discernible rule for who has the right of way. Pedestrians emphatically DO NOT, although the newspapers say that the law was recently changed to give pedestrians the right of way. I guess that drivers don't take the time to read the papers (of which there are at least 7 regular Mexico City dailies). People regularly run red lights and stop signs, particularly after dark. If you DO stop, there's a good chance you'll get rear-ended. People do not use turn signals or even headlights. They turn left from the far right lane with no warning. All I've been able to infer, is that every driver is confident that all the other drivers will do whatever is necessary to avoid an accident, then drive however they please.

I used to say the roads would be safer if everyone drove like me. Well, here they do, and they aren't.

We walked over to the Zona Rosa one afternoon, just to get some idea of what was around us. We didn't buy anything, or at least didn't intend to. What happened was this: A shoeshine kid, maybe 15 or 16, asked me in English what time it was. I told him, and he said his English teacher wanted him to speak as much English as possible, and were we Americans, and this is good shoe polish, see?

He was actually diving at my shoes with polish on his finger while I tried to jump back out of his reach. After about three jumps, I thought, "Why be an ugly American? Let the kid shine your shoes." So I did.

When he was done, he told me he used special wax and wanted 25,000 pesos, which, although it's only about $9, is a little steep for a shoeshine. His English gave out about that time too. Fortunately, we had enough Spanish to explain to him that his price was too high, and that a comparable shoeshine in Washington, DC was only $5. He said okay, $5, so we gave it to him. The next day I found out from our exec officer, Jim Cunningham, that the price for a shoeshine around here is about 1500 pesos, or about fifty five cents. Oh well.

Not all of our spending has been so ill-advised. We went out to dinner a couple of times, and managed not to get my shoes shined.

For Kathleen's birthday we went to a place called the San Angel Inn, which is a restaurant in an old converted convent. It was good, and surprisingly inexpensive. Most things in Mexico City actually cost about the same as comparable items in the U.S., but for chateaubriand for two, with soup, salad, fresh bread, drinks and coffee, it only cost about $38. And that included a 20% tip because there were so many people taking care of us. There were literally five or six of them there to serve the main course. I asked if I could get a couple of aspirins because I had a headache, and they brought them in a wineglass, with a separate tumbler of water, so I wouldn't have to use the water I was drinking with the meal. It's amazing.

The other place we went was called Focolare in la Zona Rosa. We went there with my current boss, Steve Telkins, and his wife Pat who runs the CLO (Community Liaison Office) at the embassy. Besides good food, they have a nightly stage show featuring traditional Mexican dance and music in the style of the Ballet Folklorico.

We had a table right next to the stage, so we got a good view when two of the dancers lost heels off their shoes during the show. They had a mariachi band, three guys playing some kind of wooden xylophone, twin sisters who danced solo and with a couple of guys, a guy who did rope tricks, two singers, trained roosters that did a mock cockfight to music, and an emcee who kept the show moving. It was like something out of an old movie musical — the restaurant with an elaborate floor show, waiters in tuxes, good food — sometimes I just can't believe we're really here, actually living it. And they say it's hard getting Foreign Service officers to bid on Mexico!

We went to a cocktail party at the ambassador's house — oops! I mean residence — for newly arrived embassy employees and their families last Tuesday after work. Both the ambassador and his wife seemed like nice, down-to-earth folks — not at all like the sort of people we'd heard some ambassadors have been.

The next night the PAO's secretary had us to dinner at her apartment with a couple of other young officers from the embassy. It was a lot of fun and allowed us another opportunity to get to know some more of the people from work. The only glitch was one guy who works in the Department of Agriculture office, whose voice seemed to get louder with each drink, and whose conversation seemed less interesting and more crude as he went along. Probably be a short career for that one. (Or quick promotions — I really don't know how the system works yet.)

As for life at the embassy, well, it's different.

I did my first six weeks in the press office. One long weekend (because of a Mexican holiday) in February I worked on a visit and press conference by Treasury Secretary Brady, who was down here to observe the signing of the commercial banks' debt agreement with the Salinas government. We had to go to the airport to meet this whole entourage, then over to the National Palace for a ceremony and press conference. Mostly, I stood around with a radio in my hand, trying to look like I knew what was going on. Later, we went back to the embassy, where we assembled and edited the transcripts of the press conference. I ended up working from 8 AM until after 10 PM. Still, it's all so new that it's interesting no matter what we do.

I enjoyed the time I spent in the press office, because I had a good supervisor, I got to write and edit some stuff, and because so much of what we did was connected to current events. I even got to write some remarks that the Ambassador delivered at the opening of a travel show down here. It made me feel like I was involved in something real.

Another time, one of the little side trips both Kathleen and I got to make was judging a nationwide speech competition held over at the American School.

The visa line, my next assignment, was maybe a little too real. It was good for my Spanish, but I had a terrible time doing what was required, because so often it was contrary to my own sense of right and wrong. Case in point:

A young Mexican woman came in to get a visa for her four year-old daughter. The woman was a legal resident of the United States (probably an illegal alien who received amnesty under the 1986 immigration law) who was working as a maid in Dallas. She was a single mother, and the kid was living here in Mexico with the grandmother. No way could I give her a visa. Why? Because the law says that each applicant must prove he or she has strong enough ties to Mexico to compel him or her to return. There was no way this kid would be coming back. And even if I thought so, the office policy said no visa.

What kind of thing is that to tell a mother?

The same was true when retired folks came in who had kids living in the United States. Too many ties to the U.S. and not enough to Mexico. Doesn't matter if they'd been here for their entire lives, we weren't supposed to issue to anyone with strong ties to the United States. However, because the policy on these folks was less defined, we were told to use our judgment.

Guess how I used mine.

I always tried to keep in mind how easy it was for me to get a visa to go visit my dad when he was living in Ajijic. I walked into the consulate in St. Paul, showed the guy my birth certificate, told him where I was going, and in less than five minutes walked out with my papers in my hand.

Here, the average Mexican arrives at the building next to the embassy where the application process begins (an unheated, uncooled, corrugated metal structure called "the barn") at about 6:30 or 7 AM. He puts up with police and guards selling places ahead of him in the line to get in, coyotes encouraging him to purchase their services, beggars, organ-grinders, vendors, hordes of other waiting applicants, until finally around 8 AM he is let into the building with the thousand other applicants, handed an application, and told to sit on (not stand by or near) one of the long, hard, backless wooden benches.

At 8:30 AM two American vice consuls arrive to "rove" the crowd. This means that the well-dressed, the professionals with their cedulas (except university professors, because they don't earn enough), and anyone who seems to be from the upper economic bracket is taken out of the lines, sent to a separate line, and issued a visa. Theoretically, this will be one-third to one-half of the people who come on a given day. Their status is determined by two things: appearance and a thirty second interview.

The questions? "Do you have any family in the United States?" (If the answer is "Yes," you probably stay in the line.) "How much do you earn each month?" (It had better be 1.5 million pesos a month, or more — that's a little less than $545 U.S.) "Where are you going?" (It better not be Disneyland, even if that's where you're going — Mexicans seem to want to go there a lot, so we are taught to mistrust that answer.) "How long do you plan to stay?" (Anything longer than two weeks is suspect.)

But pity the poor Mexican wants to ASK a question. Vice consuls do not answer questions, and anyone who TRIES to ask one is in danger of being thrown out of the building.

If the applicant has had the misfortune of previously being denied a visa (as indicated by an apparently benign stamp placed on the last page of his passport, which says, "Application Received — U.S. Embassy Mexico City" and the date), he is sent to wait in another line at the back of the building, where he will wait until all other applicants are processed. This line is humorously referred to as "the rechazados" (the rejected) by the vice consuls.

If he is not pulled out of the line to be issued a visa or sent to wait with the rechazados, he waits where he is. Then, row by row, the rest of the applicants are issued numbers and led into the embassy by a guard. They must pass through a metal detector, and if they set it off they are required to empty their pockets. If they set it off again they are searched.

Inside, they wait in a long line until one by one, they are summoned up to a glass window (like a bank) for an interview. The interview may last as long as two or three minutes, during which an applicant may be asked to produce bank and credit card statements, documents of ownership on his house, pay stubs from the last two or three months, tax documents, or any number of personal papers that the average privacy-loving American would blanch at the thought of being required to show. However, if you're a Mexican applying for a visa to the U.S., it's show, or don't go.

Some of the vice consuls take great pride in how fast they work, processing more than 50 applicants an hour, and in how high their rejection percentage is. They simply take a brief look at the person and make a decision, often without even examining their documents. So much for the interview that the law promises.

It's true that there are a variety of rationales for this system, but the bottom line is that it's like working in a factory, only your product is human, it can feel sadness, rejection, and even start crying. I couldn't be happier being out of there.

The other thing that bothers me are some of the social events we have to go to. They average out to only one or two a week so far, but I'm realizing that even that is too many. Here's an example:

A couple of weeks ago we were invited to a dinner at the Ambassador's residence in honor of the U.S. secretary of education, who was visiting Mexico. I had been sick, in bed, with a sinus problem all day, but had to get up and go, because the unwritten rule is that you NEVER decline an ambassador's invitation.

We arrived early to see if we could help out (another unwritten rule) and were each asked to take another guest around and introduce him or her. The Ambassador's wife said, "I'm sure you've read the brief." There was no brief. And even if there had been, we knew virtually no one there. Anyway, no amount of brief-reading would have put names to all those strange faces.

Then the dinner. Of course Kathleen and I were seated at separate tables — no couples together, except at the higher level jobs (yet another unwritten rule). I was put at the same table as the secretary and his Mexican counterpart, between the wives of two wealthy Mexicans that no one seemed to know. Each knew a little English, I knew a little Spanish. None of us was fluent enough in one another's language to make the kind of polite small-talk that is required over dinner. I tried, but there was a native-speaking Mexican on the other side of each lady, to whom each talked throughout dinner. Imagine what hair looks like when you part it. I was like the one stray hair that sticks up from the part. Swell. By the time we left, I was ready to start looking for another line of work.

I should point out that on that particular night I was also suffering from the depressive interaction of two types of medication that I was taking — although we didn't know it at the time. I guess that may have influenced how I was feeling.

Cocktail parties aren't much better. I can't drink because of my stomach problem, and even if I could I probably wouldn't. Each one is two hours of pointless standing around with people who are sucking down too much free liquor and making mindless, insignificant chatter. Nothing gets done or said that remotely affects either of our jobs. Perhaps this will change as we rise through the ranks, but somehow I doubt it.

All that said, the job still holds promise. The people we work with are very good, and some have gone out of their way to counsel us, show us around, and to make us feel welcome. However, the embassy is not without its personality differences. There is one guy at work, one of the bosses, who has a reputation for being kind of a louse. When I was hallucinating the other night, I had this vision of him giving Kathleen and me bad work evaluations. Kathleen related this to another of the top guys in USIS, who has made his feelings about the first guy quite clear. His comment: "Mark doesn't need medicine — he needs an exorcist!"

When I finally get out of this sickbed I will begin a rotation in the Program Development Office, coincidentally under the same boss mentioned above. This particular job deals with U.S. foreign policy, the war on drugs, and American studies. I'll let you know if I need any holy water.

The senior FSN (Foreign Service National — a Mexican employee) that works in that office is having trouble with a pregnancy and had to take some time off, so I will be assisting the woman who I will be replacing next fall. I'm looking forward to seeing what I will actually be doing for the next few years.

Both Kathleen and I have received our follow-on assignments — me in the above mentioned job, and Kathleen as an assistant cultural affairs officer in charge of non-academic exchange programs and binational centers, beginning in summer of 1991. Because her job starts nearly a year after mine, she will continue to take rotational assignments for the foreseeable future, beginning with the press office, and possibly including a tour as special assistant to the Ambassador. Also, I will have to extend for a year in my job in order to keep us on the same bidding cycle for our onward assignments. This means we'll be in Mexico through the summer of 1993…