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April 05, 2004

note received april 5, 2004

This posting covers the period from February 22, when I spent a couple of weeks at home followed by a three week trip around Mexico.

February 22

I am back at home from my border trip, and my iBook decided to get sick at an inopportune time. All my data is backed up, and I dropped it off at a service shop for Macs near my house. Without a computer for several days (this is transcribed from a yellow legal pad).

February 26

I have been without my computer for six days, and I can tell it has limited my journal maintenance. I went to Saratoga Library twice to type and print letters to friends who have written me. There are 24 PCs in the adult area and all are filled. A recent election failed to pass a measure that would have provided some relief for this county library system, but 2/3s approval was needed and the measure only got about 61%. This means layoffs and reduced service. San Jose Public Library has ceased printing in the branches because they have no automated way of paying for printing. A system will be installed later. The county lets each user print ten pages a day at no charge--honor system. There were usually 3-4 people waiting to use a computer, though there is no formal queue as there is in many other libraries. Public access centers remain very popular even in affluent neighborhoods where personal computer ownership is high. This indicates that centers all over the world will be in demand--if they can meet expenses.

March 3

I have been reading books about the border area of Mexico and about Mexican Americans by scholars like Oscar Martinez and Dr. Trueba (who helped Llano Grande.org). Alma Guillermoprieto writes for the New Yorker, New York Review of Books and Latin American pubs. I’m reading Looking for History , a series of essays about Mexico, Colombia, Cuba before 2001. She’s critical but fair,and I’m sure she is not popular with true believers in any country, especially Cuba.

A book that is even more interesting is David Stuart’s The Guaymas Chronicles, a narrative derived from the daily journals from the late 60’s of a young grad student in anthropology who comes back from Ecuador where he had been doing research. His plans to marry a young Mexican girl are interrupted by her pregnancy. She breaks his heart yet he decides to stay in Guaymas, a town on the Pacific Coast of Mexico that is just about to experience a growth in tourism. He hangs out with local working class and some criminal class Mexicans and befriends a homeless child who lives by her wits on the streets of this small town. The level of mundane detail grounds it in the daily life of cafe owners, prostitutes, street kids, and hotel staff. He participates fully in the life of the town, and he explains the nuanced relationships he as an American, an unmarried male, as a wheeler-dealer, has with different people in town, from the elite society to dirt poor rural families. It is a great read in the tradition of Down and out in Paris and London and Moritz Thompson’s Living Poor.

I am heading to Mexico in a couple of days. My Spanish is weak (bastante par ser peligroso) and I have few contacts in the country to start my inquiries, but Stuart’s book sort of inspired me to take things as they come and count on serendipity. I will look for some telecenters and libraries to start my inquiries.
Mainly, I want to relax and visit my friends.

Being home and not going online is very different from being on the road and not having connectivity. Because I worked from home I was online many hours a day, and the activities blurred. Some were purposeful; others were just to pass the time and amuse, and it was easy to forward a piece of news or article to a friend or associate. Keeping up on any kind of current events or discussion was simple.

Sitting at the same table but not having an ISP I can use is like someone who has given up drinking alcohol back at a favorite bar. What am I missing? Relatively simple contact with some of my friends. The newsletter is going to about fifty people, but I plan to reduce that after this third one following my trip to Mexico.

My individual letters are usually much longer than email messages would have been. Perhaps I give them more thought as I compose, and I usually send a photo along with the printed note.

March 4, 2004 To Mexico

Think of all the people who have headed to Mexico for one reason or another: Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene, Ambrose Bierce, General Pershing, D.H. Lawrence, B. Traven, John Ross, William Walker, and even fictional characters like The Wild Bunch and Sarah Connor (fleeing the cyborg played by our governor). On my maternal grandmother’s side some of the Oklahoma Sweet family left the U.S. at the end of the 19th century to join a Socialist community in Northern Mexico, and they changed their name to
“Dulce.” Some day I’ll track them down.

March 5 Mexico City

The immigration line at the Mexico City airport was the longest I had ever encountered in all my travels. Besides being three hours late in arriving, I was stuck behind two old ladies from British Columbia, one of whom peppered me with questions and somehow steered the conversation to Noam Chomsky who seemed to be a big hero to her. She complained that the New York Times printed a picture of him without his glasses. “He always wears glasses,” she protested. She flew in on American Airlines too, but claimed she avoided shopping at a bookstore in Victoria named Chapters because it was American owned. Mercifully the immigration guard split the lines, and I was shunted to an officer far from this odd Canadian.

I spent the first few days with Scott Robinson. Scott and I spent the weekend at his place a couple of hours from Mexico City. Tlaycapan is not a bad drive if you avoid rush hour. His compound is dominated by a huge rubber tree he planted when it was just a seedling in the 70’s. Around the tree and patio is the kitchen, guest quarters, main bedrooms and a big living room and space here he and his son work on ICT projects. It was made for relaxing.

Scott, MariPaz, and Natasha in Tlayacapan

Tlayacapan is giving refuge to about 500 citizens of Tlalnepantla, a nearby town of several thousand people where the town council decided not to vote in an election where a former mayor, a PRI party official, was going to run again. He had proved to be corrupt the first time, and a lot of the citizens thought he would do no better this time. In a few days this group was planning to returning to the village, and there was some fear of more violence.

Since my visit to this village a few years I noticed two main differences: more cybercafes and a lot more tags on the walls. Graffiti may have been there before, but I did not notice it. In addition to the cybercafes there is a telecenter that Scott and MariPaz, his partner, helped found. It is still running, and added to this mix is a new Centro Coumunitario Digital (digital community center) which is part of the ambitious e-Mexico project generously supported by Microsoft and the Gates Foundation. The center here has a large metal sign, but it turns out it is controlled by the morning staff at the local school. Not only can the afternoon students and staff not use it, neither can the general public--which was the stated purpose of the project.

March 7 Tlayacapan

One of the most memorable routines we had was riding bikes along a farm road that wound through the nopal fields. Nopales are the edible cactus pieces that is so popular in Mexico (and California), and it’s a good cash crop. The fields are situated at the base of dramatic cliffs and rock formations that surround most of the town. Scott’s new husky ran along with us and will be outpacing him in a couple of months.

Nopal fields at the edge of Tlaycapan

There is a wonderful market in Tlayacapan, not too large, but big enough you can find more than basics. It had a better supply of fruit than Puerto Vallarta, and the exotic flavors of ice cream (mamey, guanabana) were inexpensive. I was surprised by the wide variety of pirated music on CDs and movies on DVD. These have largely replaced audio and video cassettes. The music CDs sold for about one dollar U.S., and I picked up a bunch of vanity corridas that sung the praises and exploits of Sinaloa drug merchants. The DVDs sold for about two dollars and included the latest movies just in theaters in the U.S: Big Fish, Cold Mountain, Last Samurai. One was playing on a monitor and every so often below the Spanish subtitle, was displayed, “For Your Consideration” indicating it was sent to Academy members who voted on Oscars this year. So it had been subtitled, duplicated and distributed within a month. Later, on a Mexico City subway --where there were four merchants selling everything from batteries to health aids--a young man was selling Passion of Christ DVDs for $1 each.

At a party the following week there were a lot of professionals from Mexico City I told a number of them about my offline project. What was interesting was how unimportant the Internet was for those who had computers and accounts--this included a criminal defense attorney, a surgeon, and a psychoanalyst. The attorney said she only checked mail once or twice a week. One person who used the Internet more than the woman asked, what about people who write you? The attorney (who did not use it at work either) said her friends knew they could call her on the phone. Another woman, a psychiatrist in her 40’s said “I don’t use the web, just email sometimes. I must be from another generation.” However, she was aware her psychiatric association had a web site that needed updating. Another colleague of hers had no Internet account at all. It just did not seem to be an important part of their lives or even a tool to facilitate contact with others or to retrieve salient information. Of course, I was talking to those not using it, while others at the gathering certainly did.

March 8-10 Oaxaca

We drove back to Mexico City Monday morning, and I caught a bus to Oaxaca, about six hours away. I sat next to a woman my age. Her mother had been a school teacher, and she wanted to practice her English. So I spoke in Spanish, and she answered in English. She seemed to be quite sharp, yet during the ride she asked me five times if it was my first trip to Oaxaca. I showed her a map of the town where I was planning on staying (I had visited in 1990), and she became flustered. “I never could understand those things,” pointing to the map. I asked her about computers, and she said she had seen them but not touched one. Her work, buying clothes in the capital and reselling them in the open market in Oaxaca, did not compel her to make use of any tools a small business might use. She watches TV, does not use a cell phone, and of course not the Internet.

I wandered around Oaxaca, enjoying the street life. The town was bigger,but the historic center looked about the same, except for increased tourist traffic, loads of cybercafes and the multitude of campesinos who had come into town for a week-long rally organized by the Frente Popular Revolucionario (revolutionary popular front). I heard the speakers haranguing a somewhat listless bunch of men and women gathered around large banners of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. This crowd mixed with the tourists from Japan, U.S., and Mexico. There was a march for ten blocks or so but no big police presence or (while I was there) acts of civil disobedience. I just wondered how all the masses ate and where they went to the bathroom. No portable toilets were in evidence. Some of the FPR staff cars were unlicensed Nissan Altimas. One had the FPR logo as well as a Nike Swoosh on the windshield. I guess you can serve two masters...

Marxist party marches in Oaxaca

In the cultural centers and library there were special programs for women that week. I went into the court of the public library and a group of women set in a circle and discussed a common work. There were panelists in the evening for programs that drew thirty or forty adults. This was the only place where I saw adults using the libraries, but in Oaxaca there were places for kids to study, check out books and video, and adults seemed to be more numerous in the general reading room. They had no computers in public areas at that time.

On the main bulletin board was posted an article from the February 22 Proceso, a magazine something like Time. President Fox is building a “Mega-biblioteca” in Mexico City (sort of like the grandiose French library project back in the early 90’s in Paris). The magazine contacted library directors in many of the Mexican states and printed their comments. Many were critical because the other 7000 Mexican libraries are not operating fully, and this big one would only benefit people in the Federal District (with the exception of some online services that might be part of the project). The librarian in Oaxaca, Gerardo Francisco Espinosa said it’s not enough to build libraries without providing more trained librarians. He also said that most Mexicans read light weight stuff or just watch TV. The lack of a reading culture and the high illiteracy rate is what librarians have been targeting, and clearly they need more resources for that--not for a giant building in the capital.

Small businessman in Oaxaca: 50 years in the same location

After I lost my Lone Eagles Consulting hat in town, I headed for the big market where you have an amazing choice of fresh produce, household goods, clothes, prepared food, and hardware. I met a man who had been doing business for fifty years in the same location. He sold hats and other straw goods. I bought a straw cowboy hat for about $1.70 and we talked a bit. He asked what kind of work I did, and I said I had worked in libraries. He looked puzzled and said he did not understand. I replied, “Libraries, like the one you have in town here, near the Zocalo .” He had not been to the biblioteca and did not know about it. He asked me what it was. “A place with books and magazines where people come and read, and some will come to use computers.” He still had a hard time with this and asked, “You mean it is a room full of stories?” “Yes, and novels, and science, and computers.” He was not stupid; he had been in business since the 1950’s, but he had a hard time with this idea of a room full of stories, and so we did not even get started on computers. He would have had a good conversation with Borges.

Oaxaca is surrounded by villages devoted to different crafts: ceramics, metal work, and weaving. The Zapotec rugs are famous, and for years have been sold as sort of lower cost version of southwestern U.S. Indian rugs (mainly Navajo). I had visited Teotitlan del Valle in 1990 and bought a few nice rugs. I took a bus out there and found bigger houses, some mansions, and more signs for weaving studios where the prices were much higher than my last visit. I stopped by several and asked if they were using the Internet to sell their products. Several people said yes, but as we discussed it, it was clear they were not using the Internet, but wanted to engage me and get me in the studio (I was one of the few tourists in town that day). I went to the town square and there was the typical cybercafe setup I saw all over Mexico: a little room or hole in the wall, a modest sign, and some young people using a couple of the computers. A boy under ten assured me that some rug dealers were selling on the Internet, and he called his mom. She, too, assured me that some were. I asked how people learned about it, and she said there were computers in the high school but nothing for primary school or for adults. In bigger towns there are courses for everything from computer basics to Microsoft certification, but it will be hard for the average non-user to have access to training at low cost (as I believe they do at the telecenter in Tlaycapan).

When I returned to Oaxaca that afternoon I passed by two typewriter shops near the market. One owner said there was a lot of demand for typewriters, and the second, larger store had a display window full of Asian-made Olympia’s and one German-made model that was five times the cost of the others. Olympia was the first portable I owned, a present in the seventh grade back in 1956. There were also a couple of old Pentium I laptops for sale.

Back at the Zocalo the FPR speeches continued, the militant rhetoric blasting out of the speakers at one end of the plaza while at the other end someone had set up speakers and was playing 50’s big band music. Several dozen older couples (definitely not rural campesinos) were dancing while the crowd of tourists and locals looked on admiringly. Somewhere in the middle of the plaza, the two sounds collided and mixed into a muddle.

March 15 Patzcuaro

After returning to Mexico City and another weekend in Tlayacapan, I took a first class bus to Morelia, capital of Michoacan. The two movies shown during the trip are pirated: Mona Lisa Smiles and Hart’s War. From there I went immediately to Patzcuaro, a town where I spent Day of the Dead in 1996. The old town sits on a lake in which are located Tarascan island villages and coastal settlements. All the building signs are in large serif letters, the first in red and the others in black. Near one of the main squares is the Museo de Artes Populares, and early the morning after my arrival I am the only visitor. Patricia, a guide in her 20’s gives me a good tour showing me an abundance of pottery and enamelware. She knows the contents well and points out the black flagstone floor grouted with neat rows of cows teeth. It has stood up well over the centuries Patricia has never used a computer, and it sounds like she does not think she will ever have the chance to use one. This seems odd for an educated and well-informed person.

Patzcuaro Public Library. New e-Mexico computers (lower right) await Internet connectivity

Later I head to the public library, situated in an old church. The pews and altar have been replaced with shelves and tables for reading. The first time I enter, few people are there. After 3 p.m. it is filled with students. A bus stop for points outside the town is just outside. I speak with Gloria Blancas Lopez and explain my background and what I am doing. She points to a big sign in the corner for the e-Mexico project. “They won’t let us put it up until we have satellite connectivity.” In the front of the library are ten desktop PCs with flat screen monitors. She is aware of the training issues and the need for support. I tell her how much her job will change when the demand grows for these machines, especially with young people.

March 17

I have been offline for eight weeks. I don’t miss the online world too much, As I strip away this tech layer I wonder if something else will replace it, a new overlay. I value the chance encounters I have during this trip but do miss my friends. However, over the years my friends and family have spread far and wide, and it’s infrequent and expensive to see them face-to-face. A telephone is the house is not enough to maintain these relationships, and letters are anachronistic to most.

March 18 Uruapan

Avocado capital of the world. This is a nice town where the only national park inside city limits is situated. It is a tropical mountain river surrounded by forest, trout farms, and waterfalls. All about a mile from the main square. Near this square is a city building housing the library, and it is, again, full of kids and no adults. The e-Mexico computers are in what was the children’s room (now closed), but the librarian is waiting for connectivity. Same old story. She said she knew little about computers and was more concerned with the youth and their reading habits. Outside the library the kids are using cybercafes and filling the game arcades everywhere. How will the library differentiate itself, other than providing free access? Another building that houses a series of small shops selling local, high quality crafts, has a bilingual guide who asserts that they are using the Internet to sell the products, but there is no address on the publicity. He doesn’t know the web site, and he tries to sell me some of the local crafts.

Also near the square is a city building and in the shaded courtyard a line of public scribes sit behind their typewriters. People bring in documents for them to type, and some have them write letters (if they cannot). This is common in most towns.

Public scribes in Uruapan, Michoacan

March 19 Tepic

Capital of Nayarit. In this state are the Cora and Huichol Indians, the latter being famous for very colorful and skillfully rendered yarn paintings and bead work over carved, three dimensional objects (gourds, jaguar skulls, eggs). There are a number of shops selling the art work; all are modest operations, and none have any indication they are using email or the web in pursuit of business. I make a few purchases at stores I visited in 1996 and am shocked, just shocked, that the prices have risen in the past seven years.Tepic is not a wealthy town, but there are big stores on the outskirts; in the center the streets are filled with salesmen selling small food items and sundries. One man on the corner near the bus station sells only shoe laces. How much can he possibly make in a week? There are cybercafes and courses for computer classes.

Cybercafes are numerous in towns, less common in villages

March 20 San Blas

A short bus rides takes me to this modest beach resort on the coast of Nayarit. I splurge for a nice bungalow near the Captain of the Port office on the beach. I used to do the same job in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when I served in the U.S. Coast Guard. At that time the Coast Guard owned one minicomputer in Washington. We communicated by radio, phone, and teletype. We planned searches by manual calculations of sea currents, wind direction, and other variables. It was amazingly crude. I’m surprised we found anyone!

I watch a BBC profile of J.G. Ballard, author of many ground-breaking novels. In talking about trends, especially dysfunctional ones, he says, “I want to arrive at the scene of an accident before it takes place.” That puts into perspective an idea I had: what would we do differently if we knew the sum of effects that the automobile culture has had over the past century (assuming that we could do anything more than set emission standards, seat belts, and diamond lanes on highways)? I have that in mind as I look at the effectiveness or lack of impact the Internet has in the United States, Mexico, or other countries. So far, it does not seem to have transformed daily life to the same extent that television or the automobile have, except for certain sectors and demographics. Those of us in the development industry or computer industry may find it hard to look outside our interconnected world.

March 21 Puerto Vallarta

I’m coming down with a cold, and I just spend time relaxing in this tourist town. I had planned to visit Yelapa, but I have so much junk in my luggage, I decide to stay put after I can’t reach my contact there. Instead, I visit the art galleries of Puerto Vallarta. There are at least six galleries selling Huichol art, and each dealer has a somewhat different story about the origins of the bead work. One says the Indians used seeds, then the Spanish missionaries introduced beads, but several said the beads placed on waxed figures originated in the 70’s possibly with the encouragement of a Soviet researcher. Most agreed that the beads used were/are from what is now the Czech Republic. Some dealers had email but did not sell over the Internet. All deals had to be concluded in person. Puerto Vallarta had more cybercafes than any other town I visited, and the clients were young people and tourists. In one I saw a Nordic family of four all clustered around one machine, probably checking in with folks in Odense or Malmö.

What’s Next?

I am home until April 3, planting vegetables, weeding, getting over my cold. April 5 I set out across the U.S and will be in the following places roughly on these dates: April 4: Needles, CA; 5: Holbrook, AZ 6 Albuquerque, NM; 7 Mangum, OK; 8, 9 St. Louis, MO; 10 Barnesville; OH; 11-12 Syracuse, NY area; 13-19 Boston, MA; 20 Far Hills, NJ; 21-2 Washington, DC; 23-4 Louisville, KY; 25 Kansas 26 Imperial, NE; 27 Boulder, CO 28-30 back to San Jose, CA. I might see a few of you on my way through.

After this continental trip, I plan to stay at home and write. No other trips outside the U.S. are planned at this time.

People ask if I have stayed offline. I have looked at a couple of screens displaying web info, and I talked to a colleague in the U.S. Scott Robinson was using Skype to connect with, and my wife has sent via email some photos on my behalf. When my iBook was rebuilt I lost a hotel reservation and had to search online for the contact information.

Handmade chairs in Puerto Vallarta

05:34 PM in steve's letters | Permalink



Posted by: mugu at Aug 31, 2004 11:28:29 AM

There are many stories about the origin of the bead work of Huichol and I am not very sure which is the right one.The only thing I know is that he some really beautiful bead works which I want to have.

Posted by: Cara Fletcher at Jul 13, 2007 12:33:57 PM