Tuesday, September 27, 2005

More from Mexico

This post garnered a lot of comment. I was accused of racism, being an ugly American, etc. etc. People seem to have a great deal of difficulty in discerning the difference between truth and unwarranted racist attacks. One does not have to go out of one's way to be critical of Mexico. All one has to do is report what is happening and the criticism is pretty self evident. Take this latest, for example, from the NYT. A typical story of corruption and incompetence from the border. Police torture, innocent people in prison, bodies returned to families that may or may not be family members, political pressure to throw someone, anyone, in jail for crimes they didn't commit in order to fool the public into thinking that the authorities were actually performing their duties. The usual stuff. Racist type criticism, don't you see.

There was a big article in the local newspaper Sunday about the newpaper's investigation of heavy metal content in a very popular local product, mezcal. Now, this stuff has a bad reputation. The worm in the bottle is not supposed to be in tequila, as some may think. Good tequila has no worm in it. That's mezcal. Mezcal is made about the same way and with the same ingredients as tequila. However, by Mexican law, it can only be called tequila if it is made in the state of Jalisco (Guadalahara) and from 100% blue agave cactus (not really a cactus, but it looks like a cactus so we'll call it a cactus). There are several different species of agave cactus as well as many states where this stuff is made. Good mezcal tastes about the same as good tequila. If you make the booze from 100% blue agave but in the state of Oaxaca, you can't call it tequila. You have to call it mezcal. By the same token, if you make the stuff in Jalisco but not from 100% blue agave, you can't call it tequila, you have to call it mezcal.

Anyway, a lot of the mezcal, in fact, the majority of its production, is in mom and pop backyard distilleries. Hence, it's an artsy, indigenous thing. They use the old methods, copper pots, lead pipe, etc, thereby imparting dangerous heavy metals into the hooch. The newspaper tested 30 different local brands here in Oaxaca and found as much as 300% legal limits of zinc, copper, lead and arsenic in the firewater. They also ran 3 tests on 3 different lots of each brand and found wide variations from lot to lot. Well, that's dangerous, wouldn't you agree? So what brands should the wary tourist, restauranteur and bar owner avoid? We don't know because the newspaper didn't have the guts to actually name any offending brands. If it had, it would now be under withering attack, castigated by federal, state and local government as well as a myriad and mind numbing assortment of indigenous and artsy type organizations for endangering their livelihoods. Screw the ignorant gringo tourists as well as any locals who didn't catch the newspaper report.

When Vicente Fox was elected el presidente, he appointed one Victor Lichtinger as his Secretary of the Environment. Mr. Lichtinger, educated at Stanford (just like Tiger Woods), reviewed data from his field inspectors that showed almost every resort beach on the west coast of Mexico was poisoning its water (raw sewage, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, chemicals). He went to the prez and a lot of money was sent to various state governors to clean up the mess and upgrade, replace, install new waste treatment facilities in places like the Cabos, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa (Zihuatenejo). A year or so went by and Secretary Lichtinger's inspectors continued to point out that the situation was getting worse, not better. In fact, there were some beaches that, if you spent too much time in the water, you developed lesions and open sores on your skin. Bad. 16 of Mexico's most popular beaches suffered from pollution (and still do). For instance, in Zihuatenejo, the inspectors found fecal coliform levels in the marina, near the sewage treatment plant, at 1,500 parts per 100 milliliters of water, far beyond health standards. Untreated sewage and wastewater from Acapulco's 1 million residents and hundreds of thousands of tourists, was identified as a major source of contamination to the surrounding bay and coastline. Official reports in February, 2003, estimated that 30% of the city's beaches were not fit for human use.

So Secretary Lichtinger went public. "People and tourists have a right to know this," he foolishly stated. He went to the only newspaper that has shown a decided lack of fear of the feds, the states and the locals, Mexico City's "Reforma". Reforma sent its reporters and photographers out to the resorts and published a horrifying expose, complete with photos of skin lesions and open running sores, garbage and trash floating around, dead fish floating belly up, laboratory analyses of the water, etc..

And the government's reaction? The governor of Guerrero state (Acapulco, Ixtapa, Zihuatenejo) blasted Lichtinger and the federal government for endangering the tourist industry, of which he no doubt gets a big cut. Enraged state politicians insisted the pollution was caused by runoff from rainfall in faraway villages in the Sierras that lack plumbing. But the map suggests that the rivers that run through them do not flow into Zihuatanejo. "This one piece of data from five months ago could destroy this entire community," said Zihuatanejo's former mayor, Armando Federico Gonzalez. The opposition chimed in from the various affected state and federal congresses, also accusing the federal government of endangering the tourism fat cow. And Fox's response? Lichtinger was fired. He's now writing a book about the Fox government in collaboration with Aguilar Zinser, formerly Fox's ambassador to the UN. Zinser is the one who said that the US treats Mexico like it was our "back yard", a true statement. It's not only, "Don't drink the water," but also, "Don't go near the water."

When I play golf here, and I mean anywhere in Mexico, I carry three towels. If I hit a ball into any water - pond, lake, creek - I retrieve it with a ball retriever or a club, NEVER by hand. I pick up the retrieved ball with a towel, dry it completely and then drop it for the next shot without touching it with bare hand or glove. I also dry off the club or the ball retriever before they go back in the bag. You absolutely have no way of knowing what's in that water but can safely assume that it ain't nice, whatever it is. Towel number two, incidentally, is for cleaning the usual debris off of clubheads and towel number three is for face and hands. All 3 towels are white and washed after each round with bleach. Do I take the same precautions on a golf course in the US? Hell no.

Although, once when playing the Blue course at Doral, I hit a ball right to the edge of a little pond or stream guarding the first green. It was too close to the water to get a shot at the green so I reached down, picked it up and tossed it back a few feet, penalizing myself one shot for the unplayable lie, of course. The course ranger just happened to be driving by on the cart path and saw me do this. He stopped his cart, got out and walked across the fairway to me and told me not to do that. He said, "Don't reach down with your hand or foot so close to the water - snakes and the occasional gator." He gave me a wink and then went on his way. After my heart attack had subsided, I vowed to play all Florida courses in the future with a shotgun.

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