Welcome to the Jungle

wiley 4 on horseback

Heading out for a day in the saddle near the archaeological dig at Canada de la Virgen. No, we don’t need no stinking helmets, and yes, you can gallop if you want.

Fourth of July fell only a few days after we moved into our house here last year. Not knowing anyone in town and in search of like-minded company on a uniquely American holiday, we piled into a cab with the dogs and the kid and went in search of a party we had seen advertised in the local gringo paper. When we got there things were winding down, so we got back into the same cab and had the driver take us to the main square.

Later in the evening, after a couple of margaritas and some sauntering about town, we headed home only to discover that I had lost my keys. So early in our stay here we had not yet put the house manager’s phone number or email address into our phones, and it took some wheeling and dealing to finally contact someone and get ourselves back into the house. I had no idea where I had lost my keys, the collection of which included not only the house key but also my key to our car and to the locks on the roof-top carrier. It seemed likely that I would never see them again.

the family on horses

The whole family on horseback. We do make a pretty bunch of horsemen, don’t we?

I was stunned when one day, at least two weeks later, a cab screeched to a halt on the street beside me and the driver leaned out of the window and dangled my keys. Apparently he had been keeping an eye out for me so that he could give me my keys back, and although I must have looked like Female Gringo #498, he recognized me on the street. Stunned, I whipped out 200 pesos and gave it to him as a reward, which he clearly didn’t expect but graciously accepted.

This experience set the tone for the level of honesty we came to expect in San Miguel. Of all the things people asked us when we told them we were moving to Mexico for a year, easily the most common one was a variation of, “Aren’t you worried it’s not safe there?”, to which we typically replied, well, it’s not safe almost anywhere, but no, we’re not that worried. In contrast, the mass shootings that occur in the U.S. with frightening regularity are far scarier than the threat of drug cartel kidnappings.

The truth is that I have never experienced even a moment of concern at any time of the day or night since moving here. True, we live in an upscale neighborhood and tend to stay in the tourist-filled areas of the Centro, or center of town, most of the time. And while we do hear of crime, especially in the more working-class neighborhoods, in general this town exudes an atmosphere of safety and well-being.

But those things do happen. I just finished a book that I highly recommend if you’re feeling particularly upbeat about life and need something to depress you and even the playing field. It’s called Prayers for the Stolen, and it’s about a group of pre-teen girls growing up in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, near Acapulco. The story takes place in modern times when drug lords routinely “steal” beautiful young girls from their families and turn them into sex slaves. Almost all of the men and fathers in the town have left for the United States and steady work, and the women are essentially defenseless, except when they can pass their girls off as ugly boys by cutting their hair short and blacking out their teeth with markers, or hiding them in holes when convoys of black SUV’s thunder into town to pluck up their next victim.

The book is a work of fiction by a Mexican writer who lives in Mexico City, but it doesn’t take more than a cursory examination of the headlines to see that the threat profound violence is a routine part of life every day in some parts of this country.

A Mexican woman from San Miguel was kidnapped last May, and was returned to her family this past November. No one seems to want to talk about the details, but her son was a student at Wiley’s school. Reportedly the family was wealthy and owned restaurants, and speculation was that sufficient “protection” money had not been paid. There will likely be no arrests, and the family has since moved to Europe.

concrete bamboo

Concrete bamboo in the surrealistic sculpture garden in Xilitla, San Luis Potosi

A couple of weeks back a few of us – and by a few I mean twenty-five grown-ups and kids – traveled a little over two hundred miles over winding mountain roads with switchbacks and hairpin curves to reach a little town in the state of San Luis Potosi known as Xilitla. Xilitla is the home of a very dear friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday. It’s also the nearest town to a bizarre sculpture garden hidden in the rainforest amongst banyan trees and waterfalls. The garden, created between 1947 and the 1980’s by an eccentric British semi-exile named Edward James, attracts an interesting mix of hippies, tourists, and art-lovers.

We had just arrived and headed out from our hotel, which was in the jungle near the sculpture garden. The group had spread out such that the leaders were about fifty yards ahead of the folks in the rear of the group, which included one of my friends and her two kids. I was just ahead of them by about fifteen yards, when I heard her yelling and saw and heard the foliage beside the road thrashing wildly. Two men wearing ski masks had jumped out of the jungle, torn my friend’s purse and camera from her shoulder, and plunged back into the jungle. One of them had a handgun, or at least something that looked like a handgun.

We ran ahead and herded the group back in and returned to the hotel, while the police were called and a search ensued for the perpetrators. The kids were understandably scared, and a place that had so recently seemed so friendly suddenly became sinister and potentially dangerous in the light afternoon drizzle. The pursuit turned up nothing except for Kim’s camera, which had been discarded and still functioned. The jungle was full of trails and groups of campers, any of whom may or may not have been the thieves; there was just no way of knowing at that point. The police took notes and wrote reports, but of course no arrests were made, and it is highly unlikely that any ever will be.

The incident shook everyone up, and for me I had to push down the urge to get my kid and get back on the road to San Miguel. But at the risk of sounding flippant you have to keep going; you have to get back on the proverbial horse and not give in to the bad guys. I don’t know if the adults communicated with something akin to telepathy that we needed to remain calm and normal for the kids, show them that we deal with these things through the proper channels, but then we move forward. But somehow we did just that, and soon enough we were making jokes about the incident in the way well-adjusted people do.

wiley 4 rappelling

Why yes, that is my son rappelling off a 150-foot cliff

In general there seems to be a slightly more fatalistic view of living life down here. Maybe that’s not the right word for it, and maybe that’s a completely inaccurate statement made by a casual observer. But lots of people here, gringos and Mexicans, ride motorcycles and ATV’s without helmets. Mexicans routinely pack a family of 3 or 4 onto a scooter. It’s very common to see babies riding behind the steering wheel in the lap of the driver.

You undertake a lot at your own risk in Mexico, and it’s also extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pin liability on someone else for an injury you incurred pursuing an activity voluntarily. At the sculpture garden we visited in Xilitla, there were staircases leading two or three stories in the air with no handrails. We went horseback riding and rappelling back in January, and no helmets were provided, not even to rappel off a 150-foot cliff.

christie rappelling

And that’s me doing it, after him. He begged to go first.

On the other hand, you almost never see children under the age of 15 alone, or in unsupervised groups. Parents walk their kids to school every morning, and pick them up in the afternoon. And if you could protect your child from any possible outside threat by bundling them in blankets, hats, scarves, gloves, and ski masks when the mercury drops below 65 degrees, Mexican children would be the safest kids on the planet. This extends to small dogs as well.

christie and delicado

Gratuitous end-of-story picture of me and Delicato, my horse. He said I was the best rider he’d ever had.

I guess you never know what might happen, regardless of where you are. Sometimes you get your keys returned to you, and another time you might be a victim of (possibly) armed robbery. You can live in fear and stay at home, or you can flaunt your nose at potential dangers. Or you can try to be reasonable and educate yourself regarding your surroundings to the extent possible. You can trust your instincts and know that ultimately, you can’t mitigate every risk. There are typhoons and tidal waves, car crashes and crazed gun-toting maniacs in movie theaters, leaking nuclear reactors and life-threatening sicknesses. Where you go and what you do is a personal decision for each of us, but In the end, I make the choice to live life and embrace the beautiful experiences it promises.

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My Big Fat Mexican Wedding

rings

Our most successful joint venture, our son, holding our wedding rings.

Somehow, Wiley and I have been married for twenty-five years. There was a time in my life when I thought only old people had been married that long. Long enough to struggle through those years of the banal giving of wood, paper, and clocks, to the promised land of silver. Silver is heavy, and it’s worth something. It holds its value, and it’s durable. It gets tarnished, but it polishes right back up again with a soft cloth and some effort.

Building a life with another person sounds romantic and poetic at the outset, but it’s damn hard work. Not to say that we’ve fought excessively during the last quarter century, although we have and certainly we’ve left tooth marks on each other that have faded over time. But being committed to another human being means that you go through life together. While that may seem like the most obvious of declarations, sharing your life with someone means that what they go through, you go through. Better or worse. No matter how badly you might want to shout, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” as the saying goes, and run far away, you stick around, you dig in your heels, and you deal with whatever comes your way. “Your”, in its plural form. Both of you, together.

kissing in parade

Stopping for a beso in the streets of San Miguel, under the watchful gaze of the mojigangas.

Wiley and I have gone through our share of upheaval and change, and through it all only thing I have known for certain is that he would continue to love me, no matter who or what I became. Well, short of becoming a serial killer, I suppose, although I wager that despite overwhelming DNA evidence and skeletal remains being exhumed from the backyard, Wiley would be still fighting for another appeal on my behalf.

In addition, there has been significant and undeniable chemistry between us since the moment we met that persists to this day. Lots of people have denied the importance of that aspect of a relationship, but they don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about, to put it bluntly. Or they’re lying to themselves.

Perhaps the most important reason we’re still together also sounds the most trite, but here it is: we have fun together. We love adventure and adrenaline. We love going places and doing things that most people wouldn’t consider. We love standing in the front row at concerts and singing along while raising our fists in the air. We love throwing big parties with lots of people and staying up late.

filemon

Filemon doesn’t think too much of marriage, apparently.

So it should come as no surprise that we decided to commemorate our twenty-fifth trip around the sun together with a Mexican wedding extravaganza. We had a personal celebration on the actual day, which was August 26th, here in San Miguel. We spent the entire day together, exploring parts of the town we had never seen, and eating and drinking our way right though the center of it.

A friend suggested a New Year’s Eve party, and to both of us that seemed the perfect idea. In fact, when we initially looked at the house we are living in, we stood on the roof and envisioned what a big party up there could be like, with a live band and fireworks exploding over the town square and the magnificent, Cinderella’s castle-like church known as the Parroquia. Turns out we got exactly what we wanted.

filemon in front of parroquia

The Parroquia and Filemon, ready for the party.

We invited a number of friends from back home, and were pleased when we started getting emails back with flight arrangements. San Miguel is not the easiest place to get to, nor the cheapest, so it was extremely gratifying to know that friends from home would want to make the trek to celebrate with us. Also in attendance were many of our new friends from San Miguel – ex-pats and Mexicans alike – which cemented a lot of our fledgling friendships.

Mexican weddings are legendary for their extravagance as well as their length. Not that we wanted to pretend that we were in our twenties again and have an honest-to-goodness wedding, but we did want to co-opt some of the more festive aspects of a boda into our celebration. Party-planning reached Olympic levels of difficulty as several of the vendors I dealt with had no English, and I had only my marginal Spanglish with which to arrange details. In addition, given the cash-based economy of this area, I had to max out my ATM withdrawal capacity over several days leading up to the event and walk around with envelopes full of pesos cryptically labeled “MARIACHIS”, “ARMANDO” and “MOJIGANGAS”.

christie and wiley and mojigangas

Parading through the streets.

I planned things in something of a flash-mob fashion, having everyone meet in front of the Parroquia at 5PM on New Year’s Eve. My stomach clenched in a sickening way as we stood there at ten until five and I entertained what-if-you-threw-a-big-fat-Mexican-wedding-and-no-one-came thoughts. I let out the breath I had been unconsciously holding as I started seeing familiar faces in the crowds of people on the square, along with mariachis, our friend Armando and his wedding burro Filemon (more on this later), and the traditional ten foot tall mojigangas, or wedding puppets. Let’s get this party started, y’all.

christie and wiley 3

Arriving at home, high over San Miguel, gang in tow.

It’s traditional in San Miguel for the wedding couple to parade through the streets following a burro festooned with flowers. They are accompanied by hoards of well-wishers and a mariachi band, along with the wedding puppets. Small ceramic cups with ribbons through the handles are passed out among the crowd and are filled with tequila, as it’s considered auspicious for the couple to receive toasts from the hordes of followers. Our party swelled in numbers as we passed through the streets of town on our way to our house for the party. Over sixty cups were passed out and we went through the better part of two large bottles of tequila in about 45 minutes. There’s no telling how many people were filming us and taking photos of the parade as we made our way home.

Once at our house we adjourned to the roof-top for cocktails. The bartender hadn’t shown up yet, but luckily our friend Lacy, who came all the way from New Zealand for the festivities, knows her way around a bar took charge of the situation. Then our friends Ann and Sam, who have been married even longer than we have, led us through our wedding vows for the third time.

mirador at dusk

View from the roof, shortly after sunset, New Year’s Eve 2014.

It could not have been a more perfect evening, with the sun setting behind the mountains as we finished, and dusk casting a soft orange glow over everything. After dinner we danced until the wee hours and then chowed down on pozole, the traditional Mexican soup of pork and hominy, before falling into bed near 3 AM.

Word Up

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Wiley and our neighbor Armando, and Armando’s burro. Armando speaks English like I speak Spanish. We have many confusing conversations in Spanglish.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, September 27, 2014: I’ve thought about it for a few days now, and I’m not sure there’s anything more humiliating than learning another language. After years of living life as a polished, articulate speaker, one able to even orate in front of large groups with apparent casualness (and CLEARLY plenty of humility), one is suddenly reduced to two- and three-word sentences, often containing incorrect verb conjugations and improper pronunciation. It’s like being a baby all over again, only instead of adorable and charming you are deemed pathetic and annoying.

When we moved here in July I had what I thought was a passing comprehension of Spanish. I’m well past Menu-Reading 101, and have for years been quite accomplished at getting another margarita or beer or asking where the bathroom is. Although I can ask where something is located, I often have no idea what the person answers back, so frequently getting somewhere on foot involves asking for directions multiple times. The man or woman who invented Google Maps deserves something akin to the Nobel prize, because more than the mapping of the double helix or peace in South Africa it has changed my life for the better.

This level of Spanish will serve you well if you never plan to venture outside of Cancun. Everyone in Cancun speaks English, except maybe for the maid who cleans your hotel room, and that’s probably true of Miami or New York also. Outside the coastal resort areas of Mexico, or certainly in Central or South America or Spain, it’s nice to know more. And definitely, if you’re going to be living somewhere for a while, like us, it just seems appropriate.  Respectful, if you will. Even though I can make myself understood in most situations, and if I couldn’t I know many fluent speakers of both languages I could call on for help, I want to speak more Spanish.

One of my reasons for wanting to master Spanish is that I’ve never seen so much preventable infectious disease as I see at the shelter here, where I volunteer one day a week. I want to be able to walk up to someone and say, Gosh, your tiny daughter and her tiny Chihuahua puppy are adorable, stumbling down the sidewalk together, but did you know that there’s basically a carpet of parvo virus all over Mexico? Haven’t heard of parvo, you say? It’s like canine Ebola, that’s what it’s like. And I’d rather not see your one pound dog dying an agonizing death next week when I go into the clinic.

But I don’t want to be so fluent that I fall victim to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are thick on the ground here. Someone has scribbled something in chalk on our front door, and I believe it’s a secret code they share which means something like, don’t bother, heathen gringos live here, I’ve heard their devil music as well as the lascivious clink of tequila bottles in their trash and you’ll never communicate with them anyways. So right now they don’t knock on our door, but if our Spanish gets too good, that could change.

Sometimes I think I should just get a Mexican friend to write up a little testimonial about parvo for me, and have cards printed that I could hand out. Then I realize that makes me look an awful lot like a Jehovah’s Witness.

Because lots of people come to San Miguel to stay for a while, there are several Spanish language schools here. We looked into classes at a couple of them, but with Wiley continuing to work every day it quickly proved difficult to find something that we were sure we could commit to every week. Someone mentioned having a Spanish tutor, and this seemed like a fantastic idea. Our friend Erica accepted the challenge one day in a casual conversation, and it’s likely that her alcohol consumption has increased since then, with the shear weight of the task of trying to teach me her second language.

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Erica and her daughters Maya and Ella. I think she should be called “Santa Erica”, for the enormous amount of patience she displays despite telling me the same thing four times in five minutes.

Erica moved to Mexico after getting a degree in Spanish from the University of Texas (Sorry Longhorns, I’ll never be able to call your school “UT”.) and promptly fell in love with and married the son of the mayor of the small town to which she moved. She’s been here nearly fifteen years, and to my ears her Spanish sounds completely fluent and colloquial. She is a fantastic teacher, combining instruction in the necessary rules of construction and grammar with the important slang and curse words, such as the very helpful “chingona” (a female badass), and the most useful forms of the f-word.

Maybe you know this about Spanish, but nouns have gender. This includes very obviously non-male-or-female items, such as cups (“tazas”, feminine) and telephones (“telefonos”, masculine). So right off the bat you can make yourself sound very stupid to a native Spanish speaker by asking for “el taza”, since “el” is the masculine form of the article “the”, but as you can imagine it’s pretty challenging to keep the gender straight on a bunch of stuff that doesn’t look sexy, or sexual. After a while you start thinking you’ve got it figured out, and things start making sense, and then someone breaks it to you that the word for dress (“vestido”) ends in an “o”, which should make it a masculine noun, but it doesn’t, and you really just want to go sit on the floor in a corner, grasp your knees, and rock gently back and forth.

My current nemesis seems to be sentence construction. In our lessons Erica will ask us to make up a sentence describing the other person, and I will be struck mute by this challenge. In English, you might say, “he said”. In Spanish, this gets combined into one word. You use the appropriate form of the verb to indicate who the subject is, and it becomes only, “habla”. In addition, in most cases the adjectives come AFTER the nouns, so there is no more “pretty woman”, it’s “mujer bonita” (And please note that “bonita” ends in an “a”, because if you were talking about a really good-looking dog, for example, it would be “perro bonito”, because dogs are all masculine, even if they’re not. People say this to us on our walks, which makes me laugh, since my dogs are far from beautiful. Perhaps “perros chingonos” is more appropriate.). Overall, I think it’s likely to be a more straightforward way of speaking, but you can see how again you can make yourself sound incredibly stupid and unintelligible to a native speaker.

Luckily, the locals around here are incredibly tolerant of the gringos and their attempts to speak what was once a beautiful language. Unlike the French, especially those in Paris. I remember getting off a plane, after basically being awake all night in the comfort of a coach-class airline seat, only to be made to cry by the clerk at the front desk of a hotel, who responded to my meager attempt at French by shouting, in perfect English: “WHAT IS IT YOU ARE TRYING TO SAY???”. I’m guessing she had just been turned down (again!) for the job as the face of Chanel or Yves St. Laurent, because not only are all Parisian women mean they are also beautiful and wafer-thin, so perhaps it wasn’t about me. But the reaction of the person on the receiving end of your efforts goes a long way towards determining how long you will keep up with your struggle to speak their language. And as many of you no doubt know, you can study a language in a book for years, but until you live amongst those who speak it, you will never truly learn it.

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Wiley and some of his buddies from 6th grade at one of the local hot springs.

And as my man Shakespeare said, there’s the rub. Living here we hang out mostly with native English speakers. Wiley IV has lots of Mexican kids in his class at school, and gets instructed half of the day in Spanish, so he’s making real progress. Me, I hang out with the other moms and dads, and even though lots of them speak Spanish, it would be absurd for us to all stand around speaking it, given the differing levels of skill. So I have to make an effort to practice, and hopefully I will start to get the hang of things. And one day I will be a chingona de Espanol.

Dog Days Are Over

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Being a veterinarian certainly isn’t all puppies and kittens, but times like these make the tough ones easier to bear. Me and Magnus the adorable bull terrier puppy.

San Miguel de Allende, GTO, MX, August 22, 2014 – For the past several weeks I’ve been spending some time at the local animal shelter.  I usually go on Thursday, and I see cases and do surgeries with the vet there.  She thinks I’m some kind of surgical genius because I can spay a dog that’s in heat with minimal bleeding; I’m not telling her otherwise.  On my first day I successfully suppressed an overwhelming urge to run into the street and away, never to return.  I’ve had my share of rough days in my seven years as a vet, but seeing three dogs die in the space of 30 minutes was almost more than I could take.

The vet on staff there is a very nice woman, who cares a lot for her patients and their owners and is doing an admirable job considering the facilities and supplies that she has.  I am fairly certain the x-ray machine was built by Marie Curie herself.

They taught me lots of things in vet school, many of which I promptly forgot right after national boards, including the twenty-three causes of diarrhea in neonatal pigs.  But I very well remember being told that there is no such thing as “safe” anesthesia.  You are giving dangerous drugs that depress the respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, and even in healthy patients things can go wrong.  Your training is focused on how to administer these substances at what we know to be the safest dosages in the safest combinations, and what to do if the animal’s body reacts aberrantly.

On my first day at the rescue I was putting my stuff away and I saw an injectable drug bottle on the top of the refrigerator.  The manufacturer’s label was somewhat obscured by the hand-lettered word “ANESTHESIA”, and this is how the clinic staff referred to it, as in “give me ½ ml of ‘anesthesia’”.  The bottle actually contained a combination of two drugs.  The one that truly provides anesthesia is xylazine, a drug that I have almost never used.  It’s very widely used to knock out horses and cows and other such creatures but we have drugs in this class, known as alpha-2 agonists, that were developed especially for small animals.  In this combination the xylazine was mixed with another drug similar to Valium, which provides some sedation and muscle relaxation.  The rescue typically gives the drug combination in a muscle, and is used for everything from mild sedation for an orthopedic exam on a painful patient to abdominal surgery and dental cleanings.

Not to get too geeked-out on the veterinary stuff, but the majority of American vets would never perform abdominal surgeries using injectable anesthesia only.  It’s unreliable, and frequently patients start to wake up during surgery and have to be re-dosed.  This means if the patient starts to wake up five minutes before you’re finished, once you re-dose them you can expect them to be anesthetized an hour or so longer.  Gas anesthesia is by far the preferred method, as it provides a rapid way to change the depth of anesthesia, i.e. how asleep the patient is, as well as gives you a way to deliver oxygen directly into the trachea via the tube that is placed there to deliver the gas.  This tube also occludes the airway, so that fluid cannot get into the lungs.  This can easily occur during dental cleanings, or if the animal regurgitates stomach fluid during recovery.

But machines that deliver gas anesthesia and the assorted accoutrement that goes along with them are expensive, and it is unlikely that most vets in Mexico have them, much less any rescue organizations.  In addition there is a definite shortage of skilled veterinary technical staff, so most staffers probably wouldn’t even know how to use these machines if they had them.  So, they’re using injectable drugs to anesthetize patients.

OK, xylazine.  I’ve known small animal vets who used it and were very comfortable back in the day with it.  It’s a good drug when used properly.  The main reason vets use alpha-2 agonists is because they provide deep, reversible sedation.  Reversible, meaning there is another drug that is given once the sedation is no longer desired, and the act of giving the second drug makes the animal wake up.  We use drugs like this in my clinic to do things like suture lacerations in otherwise healthy animals.  Give the first drug, dog goes to sleep.  Fix up the mess.  Give the second drug, dog stands up and goes home.  It’s a beautiful thing, and in a healthy animal with a good heart it’s a good choice.

But the rescue doesn’t have the reversal agent, for reasons I’m not yet clear on.  I don’t know if it’s not available in Mexico, or if Mexican vets just aren’t trained to use it.  This is especially surprising in a situation such as this, where there is limited staff of varying skill levels and less-than-ideal monitoring capabilities.  And by “less-than-ideal” I mean “none”.  No heart-rate monitors, no pulse oxygenation levels, certainly no EKG or blood pressure.  We can see that they are breathing, and look at their gums to see that they are pink.  If we’re not performing a sterile procedure we can certainly listen to their hearts and lungs, and feel their pulses.  So our patients wake up when the drugs wear off.  At least, we hope they do.

But the vet seems extremely comfortable with using this drug combination in many circumstances.  On my first day at the rescue we started to see patients shortly after I arrived.  One was a puppy with parvo (a highly contagious gastro-intestinal virus that causes vomiting, severe diarrhea, and decimation of white blood cells) that’s had been in the hospital all night.  He was supposed to be getting intravenous fluids but his catheter failed.  Overall he was doing pretty well, though.  He was being cared for in the shelter’s isolation ward, along with several very loud cats and kittens with ringworm, who clearly felt fine and wanted out.

Later in the morning a teenaged boy left a middle-aged poodle-ish dog with us.  I understood from the vet’s explanation that she saw the dog last week, and that at that point he had just returned home from being missing for three days.  At the time his tongue was black, his mouth full of ulcers and abrasions, and he wasn’t eating.  She had given antibiotic and anti-inflammatory injections, but the dog was back today, still not doing well, not eating, and clearly not feeling well.

We were able to examine the dog and see that the entire end of the tongue was black and dying.  This looked extremely painful and infected, and was very likely the primary reason why the dog wasn’t eating.  We speculated about the possibility of electrocution (dogs will bite onto electrical cords and get these types of lesions in their mouths) or chemical burns.  There didn’t seem to be any fractures to the jaw or any pain elsewhere.

The shelter vet  felt that we could anesthetize the dog, remove the dead tissue from the tongue, and this would help him to feel better and hopefully start eating.  I couldn’t disagree with this theory, since there were no other diagnostics to support any other troubles.  He went quietly down with his anesthesia  dose and we cleaned up the mouth.  Throughout this procedure his heart rate was stable and his breathing was normal.

Noting that he still had his testicles I wondered aloud if his owners realized that he would probably stop running away and getting into trouble like this if he were neutered, and the rescue vet agreed.  She laughed and said they probably wouldn’t even notice if we neutered him today, and I laughed too, until I realized that she was serious.  Before I knew it he was given more “anesthesia” and was shaved and scrubbed for surgery.

Now, this would likely never, ever happen in the U.S., or at least not at my practice.  At home, this is malpractice plain and simple; performing a surgical procedure without the owner’s knowledge or consent.  But clearly, I’m not at home anymore, and the vet in charge believed that this was reasonable.  The clinic doesn’t obtain informed consent for anything they do; they are providing free or very low cost care and basically the owner provides information about what is going on with the animal and leaves it, hoping to get call later that its better.  The clients seem to trust that the vet knows best, and it’s up to her to do what she thinks is necessary.

During the neuter, the dog’s vital signs again stayed in the normal range, although the heart rate came down a little more, and afterwards we placed an IV catheter and started fluids.  I gave him to the technician to continue his recovery in the isolation room.  Final check of his vitals: still good, but he was still completely anesthetized.

Are you outraged at me?  Because I’m fairly outraged at myself.  Why didn’t I speak up and say you can’t do this procedure on this dog, you don’t have informed consent?  Why didn’t I stop everything and go look up appropriate dosing guidelines for xylazine, like how soon after a first dose can you give a second dose?  Why didn’t I say that I didn’t think it was a good idea to give an obviously dehydrated animal more anesthesia than necessary, especially not xylazine, which is contraindicated in animals with cardiovascular compromise?

I don’t know why I didn’t say anything.  I suppose the vet seemed very confident in her actions, and I am certainly a stranger in a strange land is so many ways, that I just didn’t feel right saying anything, and I was really hoping everything would be alright.  And quite honestly I did think the dog would be OK; he was doing well the entire time we were working on him and based on the information I had to hand I had no reason to think it wouldn’t be alright.  But in the end it wasn’t.  It went completely and horribly wrong.

I’ve got lots more to say about my experience that first day, and on those that followed.  Since Google tells me the optimal blog post is 1900 words long, I’m going to end this post just over that, and continue tomorrow.

Reconnected

 

2014-07-06 18.29.20

Beauty shot of the Parroquia. No real relation to anything in the post, just gorgeous.

San Miguel de Allende, MX, July 23, 2014: In 1989 we went on a thirty-day honeymoon through Europe, armed only with a hotel to start at, a hotel to end at, $3000 in American Express travelers checks (it was a long time ago, kids, before you could walk up to any ATM in any country and have it spit money at you) and two Eurail passes.  In 2000 we went on a year-long trip around the world, having only plane tickets connecting each of eleven countries.  Now we’re gone for a year, staying mostly in one place but living full-time and fully-committed in a foreign land.

Certainly the world has changed plenty in the last twenty-five years.  The bombings of 9/11/01 happened roughly six months after we returned from our big trip, and no doubt they changed travel forever.  Yes, we’ve been pulled aside for questioning at Heathrow airport because Wiley had grown a pretty decent and apparently identity-altering beard since his passport picture was taken.  Yes, we’ve had Scotland Yard summoned to politely question us in Edinburgh because we arrived without a reservation and paid cash for a hotel room.  And yes, we’ve bribed a Peruvian border guard to let us into Bolivia twenty-four hours after our visas had expired.  In today’s environment I’m not sure how any of those situations would have played out positively for us.

Probably more importantly to the individual traveler, communications have changed dramatically over this time.  In 1989 there was no Internet, and no email, and no cell phones that anybody could actually carry anywhere for any period of time.  We left home with plans to check in with the American Express offices in Rome and London knowing that they held messages for card holders.  You’d think it would be easy to find the American Express office, but Rome is a big place, and I remember spending an entire day trying to find it.  Ironically, once we got home all of our loved ones confessed that they had forgotten that part of the plan anyways.

We left on our “big trip” armed with the first incarnation of the Sony VAIO, by far the smallest and lightest laptop produced at that point in time.  We had Microsoft FrontPage, a full-on old school web site, written in HTML and maintained by me, and a digital camera.  There was no Wi-Fi in 2000, so every time the web site got updated, it was via dial-up connection.  We accomplished this by stealing long distance phone time.  There’s really nothing else to call it, and I probably had a hand in MCI Corporation going down.

Don’t remember long-distance kids?  Ask your parents about it, and about how phones that were once bolted to the wall.  MCI was a large phone company that used to issue long-distance cards to all of its employees, which allowed them to call anywhere in the world for no money, presumably for business  reasons but I think they generally allowed them to be used for personal calls as well.  I suspect they didn’t really care one way or the other, and apparently, long-distance minutes didn’t cost them much of anything.  So when a friend of ours left MCI shortly before we left for our trip, he handed over his card to us, and no one at MCI bothered cancelling the card.  We used this card to update our site on approximately a monthly basis from all over the world, checking into a hotel room nice enough to have a phone in the room, and connecting the computer for hours while our stories and pictures crawled over the phone lines to a server in Atlanta, Georgia, from points such as Kathmandu and various islands in Greece.

While I’m glad we have a written record of that time in our lives, I’ll not deny that the web site was a source of constant, low-level stress.  It became our only link to home, and the only way my mother maintained sanity for a year.  I felt like I had to keep our loved ones at home updated on our whereabouts and condition, and if I didn’t, they were worrying, and I was failing.  We checked into Internet cafes regularly and answered emails, but the web site was a way to keep hundreds of people apprised of our situation at once.

Fast-forward to 2014, where we have a myriad of communications options open to us.  This blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all open to anyone who knows how to type and has an email address.  And these days no self-respecting vacation home owner would leave out Wi-Fi in the list of included amenities, so we’ve been connected to the Internet pretty much since we walked in the door.

Actual mail, printed on actual paper in an actual envelope that made it first through the U.S. Postal Service and then through the Mexican Postal Service to our door.

Actual mail, printed on actual paper in an actual envelope that made it first through the U.S. Postal Service and then through the Mexican Postal Service to our door.

It’s been the more traditional communications, phone and mail delivery, that have taken some more rigorous efforts on our part.  The house gets mail delivery, and as evidenced by the picture someone has found us down here.  But we’re a little hesitant to place our faith completely in the hands of Mexican Customs authorities, having had a laptop replaced with a phone book once when we were here and attempting to get a replacement shipped to us.  As is typically the case in places frequented by tourists, businesses that cater to them spring up.  In San Miguel there’s a place call La Conexion, which provides you with an address in Laredo, TX, and transportation of your mail and packages from there to a mailbox here in San Miguel.  As far as I know there are no drug kingpins involved, but I didn’t read the fine print in the contract.  You pay a flat fee for this service, around $250 per year, and then there’s a small charge per piece of mail and a per pound charge for packages.  Best of all, when you order something, say from Amazon.com, you email La Conexion the packing list (which includes the value of the contents) and they wade through the morass of Mexican customs requirements for you.  We’ve already had a shipment of Wiley’s contacts turned back because, due to the large amount of contacts in the box (he wears the daily variety), the government believed that we were surely importing contacts for sale.  So we’re happy to have professional smugglers mail technicians handling things for us now.

Since Wiley is still hard at work running his business reliable phone service was probably the most important item on our list.  The house has a local phone, plus a “Magic Jack” voice-over-IP line, which lets us make long distance calls over the Internet for practically nothing.  It works, but it’s a little sketchy at times, and we’ve been experimenting with other technology such as Google Hangouts and Skype.  Once or twice a week it sounds like there’s a preteen party going on in Wiley IV’s room, while he chats with his buds back in Fort Collins.

And we’re finally nearly back on line with cell service.  A couple of weeks back we stopped in at a phone store in the mall to talk with them about phone service.  She didn’t speak English, so in halting Spanglish we told her that we wanted to use our existing cell phones with Mexican service.  She barked “San Francisco, numero cuarenta!”, and went back to her vigorous texting.  Luckily I remembered that there’s a street named San Francisco, so somehow we inferred from her I’m-all-done-with-you attitude that she meant for us to leave here and go to San Francisco, number 40.

San Francisco number 40 turned out to be an unmarked store front that contained a cell phone office.  Once again we gamely tried to communicate with the girl behind the counter, but luckily a man came in who worked there AND spoke English.  He explained the slightly scary-sounding process of unlocking the phone, putting in a new sim card, and getting a Mexican number with a Mexican cell company.  For Wiley’s phone the unlocking would be done by some dudes in Mexico City and would take a week to ten days.  For mine, Miguel kept my phone for four slightly anxious days during which I received several updates letting me know that my phone was very difficult.  Ultimately, I got it back a couple of days ago, wiped clean of all my data and apps.  Miguel did tell me that was going to happen.  The data was backed up, so that was OK, but I did have to spend some time downloading apps again.  The end result was the unlocking, the new sim card, a year’s worth of service with 1000 minutes of calls, 100 texts, and 1 GB of data per month, for about $160.  Let’s just hope it all works.  So far, so good.

2014-07-15 12.33.02

The boys being totally available…for their lunch.

So once Wiley’s phone is converted over we’re completely back on the grid.  There’s something to be said for being disconnected, as it seems to happen so rarely in today’s world.  When I worked I went into full blown panic mode if I discovered that I did not have my phone with me, imagining all sorts of veterinary-related disasters at my office and my colleagues lodging formal complaints against me due to my lack of availability.  There’s a peace that comes with not being quite so… available.

Let’s Talk

If we know each other personally, which most of us do, you know that it can be hard to shut me up.  I didn’t need to kiss the Blarney Stone to receive the gift of gab, but hell yes, when I was there I sure did kiss it, regardless, just to be sure.  I’ve got lots to say about our upcoming year in Mexico, and I’m planning a lot of blog posts in the upcoming weeks.  Things like how do we plan to get two chihuahua/terrier mixes to Mexico?  What’s little Wiley’s school experience going to be like?  What types of things are we taking with us?  Are we worried about crime in Mexico?  

Lots to talk about, and I am up to the challenge, trust me.  But I’d love to hear from you.  If you have any questions you’d like me, or any of us, to address, send them my way.  You can comment on this blog post, or email me directly at christielong at comcast.net (please substitute “@” for “at”).

 

Helping Out

So far, the top two questions asked of me when I tell people we’re moving to Mexico are: 1.) where are you moving, and 2.) are you going to work?

I’ve been hedging on the work question.  Seven years after graduation, I still love my job as a veterinarian, but I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that there’s a fair bit of fatigue at this point in my career.  There’s an interesting movement afoot exploring the concept of compassion fatigue amongst health care practitioners.  It started with an MD named Rachel Remen, and it centers on the idea that people who spend much of their day delivering difficult news to people regarding themselves or their loved ones are likely to burn out quickly in their jobs, unless they learn to take care of themselves.  Last winter I helped to teach a class to veterinary students at CSU on this concept.  The class was modified from Dr. Remen’s model, and CSU is the first veterinary school (after many medical schools) to offer the class.  I got involved with the project because I believe giving future veterinarians the tools to deal with the stresses of their jobs will help them to thrive long-term in their careers.

So, yeah, I’m looking forward to some time away from practice.  I’m hoping to do a lot of writing and cooking, and maybe a book will even come out of it.  We have followed the Paleo diet for more than five years now, and I think a cookbook adapting traditional Mexican dishes to be “Paleo-friendly” would be fun, and something others might enjoy.  There’s also the thought that a book that’s about what it’s like to take your family to a foreign country to live for a year might be entertaining as well, assuming it was well done, since that idea has been done already.

But lately I’ve realized that I’d probably miss the practice of veterinary medicine if I stopped it altogether for a year.  Last weekend I made an inquiry in the form of an email sent to a rescue in San Miguel, Sociedad Protectora de Animales, mentioning that I’ll be living there for a year starting this summer, and would be happy to help out if they could use me.  In less than ten minutes I had an enthusiastic reply, stating that they would LOVE to have me.  About an hour later I heard from the organization’s director, who told me that she wished she could get me down there sooner.  So clearly, they could use some help.

The Sociedad has a staff veterinarian, and in addition to running an adoption service they provide low-cost veterinary care.  They do spays and neuters, hospitalize sick animals, provide vaccinations, and even have dentistry equipment.  According to the director I don’t need a work permit, at least for this year, although this is something that I am currently researching.  I had been thinking I would bring some acupuncture supplies and at least do a little of that, but our real estate agent indicated that not having the proper documentation could easily anger the local veterinarians.

So I’m excited about the possibility of helping out what looks like a worthwhile organization, although I must admit to some trepidation regarding practicing in this setting.  I’m used to working in a state-of-the-art clinic, and I’m pretty certain I don’t even remember how to set a fluid rate without an infusion pump.  I told them I’m far from fluent in Spanish, and the folks I spoke with said this wouldn’t be a problem, but from their web site pictures the clinic staff looks Mexican.  Oh well – guess it will be another form of emersion.

Here We Go, Literally, Again

Very nearly exactly fourteen years ago Wiley and I walked away from careers that we had spent more than ten years building to travel around the world.  Reactions to news of our plans varied widely, from astonishment to envy to worry for our safety.  I remember very clearly that when I told my mother we were going to spend the year 2000 traveling around the world, she said, “No, you’re not.”

We arrived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico on February 7, 2000, and returned to the U.S. on March 17, 2001, several months ahead of the events of September 11th that year.  Like most people I well remember what I was doing when I heard the news that a commercial airliner had hit the north tower of the World Trade Center.  The demarcation created by that day is preceded by a naivete regarding our safety, both at home and abroad.  Since then, travel has required that we not only remove our shoes and submit to full body scans, but that we pause and consider the safety of our chosen destination.

For as long as I can remember since our return we have both said that we would do another Long’s Strange Trip at some point in our lives.  Becoming parents did nothing to dissuade us from this plan, but did give us pause to consider what type of journey would be best to have our son safely accompany us.  This led to considerations regarding his academics and his social life, and how we could teach him about what’s outside the boundaries of the United States while disrupting his normal development as little as possible.  Honestly admitting that none of us had the patience for home schooling left us with the realization that we needed to stay in one place, where Little Wiley could go to school.

Armed with this realization, we started looking for our destination.  Places that were more than three hours either side of our time zone were out, since we knew Wiley would need to continue to run his business while we were gone.  Canada was out, since we barely live through the winters in Colorado, so that left Central and South America.  We talked about Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, and Panama.  We visited Panama last year, and although it’s beautiful we were underwhelmed, and more than a little concerned about the school system and the lack of infrastructure anywhere other than Panama City.

I read about San Miguel de Allende originally in the magazine International Living.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was “officially” founded by the Spanish in 1541 as San Miguel, but “de Allende” was added to the name in the 19th century to honor Ignacio de Allende, one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution, who was born there.  The region has a history of silver mining, and San Miguel became a prosperous town because of it.  After the Mexican War for Independence the city’s fortunes suffered, but discovery by foreign writers and artists in the 20th century resulted in the city’s prominence as a cultural and artistic mecca.  Much of the city’s amazing architecture is intact and well-preserved, and it hosts festivals of every kind and size multiple times per year.  With elevation of 6000 feet, a dry climate, and temperatures ranging from lows in the forties to highs of no more than 85 degrees the weather is fine most any day of the year.

We visited there in March of 2013, and at the end of the first day the three of us shared a growing sense of excitement, the feeling that this was the place.  We soon discovered the existence of a relatively new school that is run by an American and is seeking certification in the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum, just like the middle school Wiley is slated to attend in Fort Collins.  On a second trip there over last Thanksgiving weekend we found a beautiful three bedroom house overlooking the center of town, and signed a lease starting July 1.  The only thing standing between us and this amazing dream at this point is an interminable things to do list that includes such trivial entries as rent our house, sell our cars, and find someone to take care of our cats (one of the owners of the house in San Miguel is deathly allergic, so while the dogs are welcome, the felines are not).  Feelings of anticipation and excitement routinely clash with dizzying waves of claustrophobia and despair that we will never get it all done.  So consider yourself warned – if you’re up for being pulled along on what promises to be an interesting and life-changing, yet occasionally uncomfortable ride, climb aboard.