Sunday, December 28, 2014

Big Boxes arrive in Loreto

The week before last there was another significant milestone (kilometer marker?) in the current history of Loreto - the opening of the latest addition to our retail options: Bodega Aurrera, a mini Walmart clone.  This comes just over a year after Lay opened the first chain Supermarket in Loreto, which I have referred to before here in passing. 

One of the challenges I have found with shopping at the Lays is that the parking lot on two sides of the newly built building is too small for the size of the store and the number of customers who want to shop  here.  So much so, that shortly after the store opened they purchased a lot across the street to provide somewhat inconvenient overflow parking, but regardless, every time I have gone to the store I have had a problem with parking.

Of course, one could look at this parking congestion as a sign of a successful business, which I assume it is, but again my impression is that the parking lot seems busier than the store does inside, which I take to be the fault of poor design or planning.  In any event, inside the store it is like a smaller version of a typical North American supermarket with a small pharmacy and a bakery, butcher and deli counters with a good fresh fruit and vegetable department.  However, this selection and variety comes at a cost, the aisles in the store are too narrow and so shopping is slow due to traffic jams both inside and out of the store.

For this reason, and the complete absence of some "staple" items like butter (they do have a big selection of margarine) I prefer to do most of my shopping at what had previously been the largest market here, the independent and locally owned Pescador, which significantly "upped their game" prior to the opening of Lays.  While the parking lot is about half the size, it is possible for me to get in and out with the same load of groceries in about half the time, due in part, I admit, to being familiar with the store.

However, now we have a new "biggest" in town.  The Bodega Aurrera is about a block and a half down the same street as Lays and what strikes one first is the huge parking lot that opens off the rather narrow street entrance.  This far from the center of town the street grid is pretty informal, but the land appears to be a "frypan" lot with a narrow entrance opening up to a larger inner area, which is fairly common here in Loreto.  But it also suggests that whoever planned this development has learned something from their predecessor.

My first visit to the new store was the weekend after it had opened and the parking lot was about half full when I arrived, but this was probably more cars than could park in one place anywhere else in town.  As I approached the store entrance there was a colorful inflated temporary kiosk with enthusiastic young people all in matching logoed golf shirts handing out free balloons on sticks to the kids coming and going from the store.  But I also noticed that the unloading docks were along the one open side of the building and there were currently two trucks busy doing just that in one corner of the parking lot, which I could see may cause different parking issues in the future.

Inside the entrance was a general merchandise section of small appliances and some electronics including several large flat panel TVs and some large appliances like fridges on display, but further back the grocery store took over and what I saw was similar to the Lays store on a slightly bigger scale.  But one thing both stores have in common is the narrow, one way aisles - which were further congested here by stacks of boxes of product waiting to be unpacked along the edges of most of the aisles, making them even narrower.

Now I don't want to come across as an impatient type "A" North American shopper, so I do try to
adapt my shopping to a more laid back "recreational" approach, which seems to be the local style with both these store's clientele.  But when a whole family (Mom, Dad, and at least a couple of kids, maybe a Abuela {Grandmother} or two) are already halfway down the next aisle, I am just as likely to skip that one and head down another one rather than get stuck behind them - only to have to usually double back later to find the olives, or something.  Which is why I think I will continue to do most of my shopping  at Pescador, with occasional visits to the competition if I can't find something there. 

But it occurred to me that for most of the customers in the new store this was a big deal.  I'm sure many of them had visited larger stores before, when visiting neighboring cities.  But having another large store open here in a town the size of Loreto is a significant development and I can understand that for many local Loretanos the first shopping trip could be a noteworthy event for the whole family.  Added to the fact that as I said earlier, this Aurrera is a Walmart clone and, according to a local businessman I had talked to earlier in the Fall while the store was still under construction, they would be selling at lower prices than many of the existing local competition - which has the same appeal to working class Mexican families here as it does everywhere else, which has made Walmart the biggest retailer in the world.

This Blog is not the venue for Big Box Store Bashing - besides, I very much doubt anyone from these stores will ever read these words, but the downside of these new store openings is a plot familiar in many places, big store opens with lower prices, smaller local stores cannot compete, and wind up going out of business.  However, there are also some offsets - some new "corporate" jobs will no doubt help the local economy and replace some of the employment that may be lost, and the lower prices will help many hard pressed families stretch their wages.

But perhaps more importantly, it is another significant sign of progress as Loreto grows and develops, while still holding on to the charm and appeal of its natural beauty and local culture.  It is a familiar concept that progress comes at a price, and is sometimes a mixed blessing, but it is also the sign of a healthy growing community and that too is part of "Living Loreto".           

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reflections on Christmas - near and far

As the Christmas Holiday Season draws nearer, signs of Christmas are appearing here in Loreto, although, after spending most of my life closer to the North Pole than the Equator, I still find it challenging to get into the Christmas Spirit living on a Beach surrounded by palm trees.  Growing up in Western Canada where there is always snow at this time of year and there are forests of "Christmas Trees", it is not surprising that I have always had quite a traditional view of the Holiday and the iconic images of the season that were in sync with what I saw everywhere around me.  

Needless to say, spending Christmas in the Southern Baja is a very different experience than the traditional northern celebration - but what I have come to realize is that for the local people, whose home this has always been, their traditions and symbols at this time of year are as much a part of their way of observing this Holiday as mine were in a northern winter climate.  However, over the nine years since my first Loreto Christmas, I have noticed gradual changes that go some way towards making the celebration seem a little more familiar to ex-pats a long way from their winter wonderland homes.

Some of these changes may in fact be a result of the larger number of foreigners who now call this place home, as well as growing numbers of visitors choosing Loreto for their Holiday Vacations.  An example of this is the availability of frozen turkey in the local grocery stores.  I think I have told this story before, but on my first Christmas in my new home here in 2005 a neighbor and I drove an hour and a half from Loreto to the next largest town of Constitucion to stock up on groceries for the Holiday Season.  Of course, on my lengthy shopping list was a turkey, along with all the traditional trimmings for Christmas dinner, and although we were shopping in the biggest supermarket within a 4 hour drive of Loreto, I had almost given up hope of finding a bird in the meat department - being used to grocery shopping in North America where big displays of frozen and fresh turkeys are prominent in every store before the Holiday.

But on my final pass through the store I happened to find a smallish frozen bagged turkey in an unlikely corner of the store between the fish department and a sort of delicatessen area, not with the other frozen chickens and similar meats where I had been looking in vain previously.  Just to be sure, I quickly skimmed the all Spanish language printing on the opaque bag looking for confirmation and recognized "Pavo" the word for turkey, which was good enough for me, and, since it was apparently the only one they had in the store, I proudly placed my Mexican turkey in my cart and headed for the cashier.

Jump forward a week or so and as I was un-bagging the now thawed bird to prepare it for the oven I was in for a surprise.  As I mentioned above, it had been packaged in an opaque printed bag and so it was only when I was removing it that I saw that rather than the expected pinkish white skin I was expecting, this bird was a sort of "cafe au lait" color and the texture of the skin was more like leftover turkey than the raw ones I was used to preparing.  After a closer examination of the Spanish printed on the bag and a quick consultation of the Spanish/English Dictionary (that I had forgotten to take with me on my earlier shopping trip) I came to an unexpected conclusion (and added a new word to my then tiny Spanish vocabulary) - "ahumado" means smoked!

Well the grocery shopping options have improved greatly here in Loreto in the years since my first smoked turkey Christmas, and there is now a plentiful supply of frozen turkeys in most of the bigger markets here in the weeks leading up to the Holidays, with some even showing up in time for the American Thanksgiving.  But that is only one sign of the changes I have seen here.  Over the past couple of weeks I have noticed the sudden appearance of Christmas decorations in a number of stores and outdoor kiosks around town, in far greater numbers than was the case only a few years ago.  

While all the twinkling lights, tinsel garlands and candy canes definitely add a festive air to shopping trips to town, I confess part of me still finds them a bit incongruous here in this place.
More recently, extensive displays have also been erected in the town square including a tall symbolic Christmas tree and a "Santa Casita" as well as a stage where a variety of different schools and organizations hold concerts and "posadas" or parties.  At the entrance to town too, there is an impressive light display decorating the many palms and cacti growing in the median of the main road, part of a civic decoration program that has grown year by year from modest beginnings four or five years ago.

However seasonal shopping in Loreto is not limited to decorations.  Here, like everywhere Christmas is celebrated, a lot of the attention is focused on kids, but in a town like Loreto there have not been the department stores and big box toy stores that cater to kid's presents at this time of year.  So several of the grocery stores stock up on toys and other children's Christmas gifts at this time of year.  

In Pescador, the original supermarket here in Loreto, one entire
aisle is now a toy department, but that pales by comparison to the newer Lays market (which opened over a year ago) that has a semi-permanent annex to the store that is now fully stocked with an extensive inventory of seasonal decorations, children's toys and games - Christmas is becoming big business in Loreto!

But there are other signs of the Christmas Spirit coming to Loreto.  A couple of weekends ago an arts and crafts show and sale was held at the Su Casa Hotel on the Malacon in town where a couple of dozen mainly ex-pat artists and craftspeople set up a one day outdoor market.  In addition to several jewelry counters, painters and sculptors there was a Mexican Leatherworker with a hand tooled saddle and other "equine accessories".  A bar was set up with drinks and tasty snacks, and a couple of local mariachies were playing guitars for the mainly Foreign clientele.

Whatever changes there have been in the decorations and ways the Christmas spirit is expressed here in Loreto, one thing has remained constant here for over 300 years and that is the Mission Church and the important place it holds here in this predominantly Catholic country.  Although I am not religious myself, it is clear to me that the church still plays the most important role in the celebration of Christmas for most Loretanos.

And so, as we approach another Christmas here in the Baja, I see the growing influences of the North American commercial Christmas celebration blending with the centuries old Catholic traditions that have been practiced here for generations and I believe Christmas in the Baja may indeed be one of the special parts of "Living Loreto"!  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Musically historic week in Loreto Bay

Within the past week there were two music events at the Wine Cellar, our local watering hole, that I thought made an interesting contrast between the traditional indigenous culture of the southern Baja and the evolving culture of the ex-pat community that has developed over the past several years here in Loreto Bay.

The first event was announced on a local email bulletin board last Saturday afternoon by Trudi, a
Loretano who guides trail rides into the nearby Sierra de La Giganta mountains:
"A Last-minute Announcement - Ranchera music in the Wine Cellar @ Nopolo! Come jam with the cowboys, - Chema Arce and Family.  Bring an instrument and make music with them!  All accoustic, Chema on accordion, Guitar and Bass Fiddle.  See you there!   7- p.m to 8:30 or 9 Danceable!" 
Not having anything else planned for the evening I was curious and decided to drop in and see what the evening was going to be like. 

By way of background, the Ranchero culture is an important and fascinating part of the history of the Baja.  In the mountain ranges west of Loreto there is a small but vibrant network of isolated subsistence ranches where people are living in much the same way as the Vaqueros (Cowboys) have lived here for over 200 years.  All of them are "off the grid" many of them can only be reached on horseback or burro and they keep livestock and raise what crops they can, mainly for their own consumption.  As such, a case can be made that their predecessors who were descended from the original Spanish missionary soldiers, through the spread of the Catholic Missions north from here as far as northern California, spread what became the Cowboy culture to the rest of western North America.

Perhaps because I used to live in Calgary, (the "heart of the New West") and I am familiar with the modern urban cowboy culture, I find the "frozen in time" aspect of these authentic Vaqueros to be so interesting, in any event, I arrived at the Wine Cellar where a larger than normal crowd was assembling for the evening's entertainment.  Eventually the three musicians, all members of the Arce family, were introduced; Chema on the accordion, accompanied by relatives on the stand up bass and guitar.  Aside from their handsome acoustic instruments, they had no other equipment and they sang without benefit of a PA system.

I spoke briefly to Trudi during the evening and she told me that she was helping the three musicians to attend the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada at the end of January, to which they had been invited as special guests.  This annual poetry and music festival which celebrates the "Cowboy Culture" would be a showcase for their most traditional form of music, let alone an amazing experience for the three musicians from rancheros in the Baja.  I later learned that one of the three had literally ridden his horse all day from his home in the mountains to get to Loreto and the three of them were due to leave the next day to fly to Tijuana to apply for visas to travel to the US for the festival - which would be the first flight the three of them had ever taken.  Their story and the simple, but authentic, music they played together obviously caught the imagination of the 40 or 50 people at the Wine Cellar that evening, both from their enthusiastic response to the music and the well filled donation bucket that was set out for contributions to help them fund their trip.  You can find more information on this event at:

The second musical event of the past week was the first solo performance of one of our most popular local musicians, Rich, who many of you will recall from previous posts, was one of the founding members of Los Beach Dogs, and the several different versions of that group that have evolved over the past few years.  Due to the fact that all of Rich's "playmates" were currently either gone from Loreto, or otherwise unavailable, Rich had decided that he would do a solo gig at the Wine Cellar.  Talking with him earlier in the week, I know that Rich was unsure as to what the turnout would be for his performance, but he need not have been concerned.

Arriving before the scheduled start time of 7:00 pm I saw that almost all of the seats were already
taken and Rich would have a full house for his solo debut.  Soon after I arrived Rich began his first set, accompanying himself on amplified guitar through his new Bose PA system that was well suited to the size and acoustics of the Wine Cellar.  But partway through his first song I realized that he was also using another new gizmo - through a foot switch he could turn off and on a "vocal backup synthesizer" that gave the impression of backup singers harmonizing with his lead vocals.  By switching this effect on and off between verses and chorus' he was able to very effectively create the illusion of accompanying himself both vocally and on the guitar at the same time.   

As neat as this illusion was, I found myself quickly focusing on the music itself and not the technical wizardry that helped to produce it.  With a blend of cover tunes, liberally spiced with Rich's own growing list of compositions, he performed two sets of entertainment to an enthusiastic "home crowd" that had gathered that night to support his first solo venture, while enjoying an evening of good music among good friends.

Reflecting on this musically entertaining week, I had seen our community come out to help support three traditional Cowboy musicians to achieve their dream of travelling to the US and present their authentic version of the musical heritage that they had inherited from generations of ancestors.  And later in the week we came together again to enjoy and support one of the original residents of Loreto Bay who, over the past five years, has flourished as a musician, singer and song writer - no small transformation from the Orthodontist that he had been in his pre-Loreto life!

Respecting and supporting the rich heritage of this place, and later celebrating our own recent history of coming together to create a new and thriving community, through the words and music of one of our own, while appreciating his talents that have flourished in the environment we have created here - I found a new harmony this past week in "Living Loreto"!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Things are different here!

For those of you reading these words in a cold northern climate at this time of year, it may sound superfluous for me to say that things are different here in the Baja compared to western Canada, where I spent most of my life before settling here.  Particularly when winter weather, in much of North America, has arrived with a vengeance even before that season has officially begun!  So pardon me, but, THINGS ARE DIFFERENT HERE IN MEXICO, and I don't just mean the weather!   

Let me backtrack a bit.  I was at a loss for what the Blog topic was going to be this week (an event that I had previously thought I would write about didn't work out) and so I was thinking about possible topics while I went about getting a number of things done on a day off from the Office.  As I went about my "to do" list, the idea began to form that the day's activities would provide a glimpse into how doing a number of fairly mundane activities is different here in Mexico than wherever we may have come from and how things are done there.

Banking in Mexico can be a challenge for many of the ex-pat community, particularly those of us
whose Spanish is limited, but beyond the language there are different customs and regulations that apply here which makes navigating the system even more difficult for many Foreigners.  A reality that is further complicated by the ever increasing security requirements around international money transfers everywhere in the world.  For this reason, many of us, as well as a large number of Mexicans, use ATMs whenever possible, but that too has become more challenging recently when we lost one of the two Banking Companies that serviced the Loreto area and now there are only a couple of locations where we can access a "money machine", other than at the one remaining Bank Branch in town.

So with this as the background, I recently went to the Bank and waited for one of the two people who speak English there to set up online access to my bank accounts, a necessary first step before I could do transfers from my account to another third party account.  I wanted to be able to do this because I am now making a regular monthly payment into another account and being able to do it online saves me driving 30 km round trip into town, and then often waiting in line for up to an hour to make the transfer in person at the brick and mortar Bank.  

Under the impression that I had already set up my online access, it was now time to try to make my first transfer and so my first task of the day was to try going to the Bank website (on which most of the necessary instructions are in Spanish) and do the transaction.  Unfortunately, it didn't go well.  In fact, due to my confusion with the necessary procedures and uncertainty over passwords, it wasn't too long before my repeated and unsuccessful attempts to gain access resulted in my account being blocked and receiving the message (in Spanish) that I would have to go back to the Branch to re-establish access.  So much for the convenience of online banking!

Faced with the need to go into town to the Bank again, I got myself organized to do some other errands while I was there.  That entailed preparing "crib sheets" of the necessary information in Spanish for some of the things I was going to do, using my reasonably reliable new best friend - Google Translate.  I wrote earlier this Season about my written Spanish responses to the inevitable questions asked at the Federal Checkpoints on my drives north and south, and how well they worked,  and this is the same idea, except I write out questions or requests that I have translated into Spanish when the language requirements are beyond my own limited (but improving) vocabulary.

Now prepared with my crib sheets and banking files in hand, I headed into town, stopping first at a Ferreteria (hardware store) where I wanted a 3 prong extension cord, some muriatic acid and distilled water (trust me, it's too complicated to explain!).  But after parking the car in front of the store, I was stopped on my way in by the driver of the truck I had parked behind, who I knew vaguely, and who had apparently recognized me as working for Nellie in Loreto Bay, someone he had been trying to get in touch with.  After his explanation (in English) I was able to give him her phone number and carry on with my errand in the store - which I mention only because the small town coincidence of this chance meeting is one of the other differences I find here in Loreto.

After a successful completion to the hardware shopping, I continued into "downtown" Loreto and made my way to the Bank, where first I used my Mexican debit card to withdraw some pesos from my account at the ATM, and then went into the Branch itself where I was pleased to see that the line-up was only 6 or 8 people long.  When I made it up to the Cashier I handed him my first note requesting the transfer of funds into another account - but as soon as he read it he told me (in Spanish) there was a problem with the account number I wanted to transfer into. 

Fortunately, I was able to use my cell phone to call someone and get the correct number and was then able to make the transfer.  When that was completed I handed him a second note requesting a replacement for my debit card which had begun to split, (possibly due to excessive use?), after the Cashier had inspected the card and confirmed its damaged condition.  He then began a multi-step procedure that required inputting a surprising amount of data into his terminal, printing out several signature slips for me to sign, disappearing into a back room and returning with an envelope, inputting more data, and then making a phone call to someone followed by a several minute conversation, and eventually he presented me with my brand new debit card!

But I wasn't finished yet, I then took a seat in the waiting area until the Bank Manager, who is one of perhaps two people working there who speaks fluent English, and with whom I have done most of my banking set-up in the past, came out of his Office, saw me, and waved me in to take a seat.  I explained being blocked out of my online access and he proceeded to reset the account, confirm the correct PIN number and reset my password, following which he walked me through the sign in procedure online - which I took (hopefully) complete notes of for future reference.
After thanking him for straightening things out for me I left the Bank and made a few more stops including another first for me in Loreto - getting a blood test!  My Doctor in Canada had asked that I get blood work done while I was down here and send him the results, so I went to the large Medical building that was across from my Dentist's Office, where I had seen a sign that there was a Medical Lab and walked in to the small reception room.  I handed the appropriate note to the person at the desk, who didn't speak English, and she signaled another woman in a back room who joined us and re-read my note.  She quickly confirmed that they could do the required test and after entering some data into their computer, took me into another room where she expertly drew a vial of my blood and I returned with her to the desk where a receipt was printed out for $350 pesos (less than $30 US) and told me that I could pick up the results the next day.  When I asked about their hours later in the week, she offered to email me the results, which I received with a scan of the test document the next afternoon.

As I drove away from the Lab and headed back to Loreto Bay I considered how long it would have taken me to get that test done back in Canada, which would have required usually up to an hour's wait, or perhaps less if I had booked an appointment ahead of time, but here I was the only "customer", I was in and out again in less than 10 minutes and they were going to email the results directly to me - not bad for a "second world" medical system!  Which brings me to the conclusion that while some things are much more complicated and time consuming here, others are surprisingly straightforward and efficient, but in either case the truth remains - things are different when you are "Living Loreto"!