December 2009 - March 2006
December, 2009
Mexico's Anti-NAFTA Rebels Haven't Gone Away

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - How many Canadians remember waking up on January 1, 1994, a little more than 16 years ago, to the news that Mexican rebels had launched an insurrection to mark the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement? I certainly do.

I was in Ottawa at the time, after working with the anti-NAFTA organization, Action Canada Network, a coalition of more than 50 organizations across the country - auto and steel workers, First Nations, artists, farmers, nurses, teachers.

We had tried unsuccessfully to stop the deal from going through. We feared that the trade agreement, signed by blatantly pro-business governments (Mulroney, Bush Sr,, Salinas of Mexico) would wipe out years of legislation designed to control the actions of those who put profits ahead of just about everything else - from workers' rights to the environment.

We knew there were many people who felt the same way in Mexico because NAFTA meant the opening up of that country to cheap, mass-produced, and subsidized farm produce from the U.S. - something poor, unsubsidized peasants couldn't compete with.

The trade agreement also terminated a key clause in the Mexican Constitution which protected land for indigenous groups under the ejido system of agricultural co-operatives. This precious commodity was being thrown into the marketplace.

Yes, we knew there was anti-NAFTA sentiment, but had no idea how deep it ran until shots rang out across the poor, southernmost state of Chiapas.

A hitherto-unknown guerrilla group known as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (after agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata) emerged from the pine-covered hills to occupy the mountain valley town of San Cristobal de Las Casas - the state capital, as well as other towns and villages in the region.

After several days of fighting and too many deaths, the Mexican army pushed the rebels toward the jungle and a fragile ceasefire was declared. But the popularity of the Zapatistas flourished internationally.

That was because they had expressed - with more force than most - the concerns of many, as we watched globalization (under the guise of free trade) exposing country after country to corporate power.

Although the Mexican government eventually negotiated the San Andres accords, allowing more indigenous rights and autonomy, it never actually ratified them - and turned a blind eye as paramilitary groups spread fear and death throughout Chiapas. Thousands of villagers, most of them Mayan, were forced to flee from their homes.

In spite of this, the Zapatistas and their many supporters have managed to create more than 30 autonomous municipalities, establishing health clinics, more than 60 schools, and fair trade coffee co-operatives, along with participatory rather than representative government, which they distrust.

I thought of this history while I sat in a bus a few weeks ago, as it wound its way for several hours up, up into the mountains of Chiapas. We passed small Mayan villages, clinging precariously to the rocks beside the road. I saw cornfields where you wouldn't think a weed could grow and women in bright, embroidered blouses.

On the outskirts of San Cristobal de Las Casas, I shuddered as we passed a military zone with a barbed wire fence which seemed to stretch for half a mile. What was going on now in this almost mythic place?

For the most part, what I found came as a heartening surprise.

Although the colonial town itself was obviously a popular tourist centre, with a well-disguised Burger King on one of the main streets, the influence of the Zapatistas was everywhere.

A pretty shop full of folk art and handicrafts sold pro-Zapatista posters, postcards, artwork, videos, gun-toting dolls with faces half-covered by bandanas, and more.

In a central restaurant, with its floor covered with pine needles for Christmas, there were pro-Zapatista paintings on the walls - folk art done by the "Cooperativas Autonomas Zapatistas". Even my placemat was decorated with quotes from Gandhi to Che to Subcomandante Marcos, the former professor turned Zapatista leader.

Sadly, there has been a Canadian element to the struggles in this area. A tent city had been set up in the town's main square by local miners protesting against a Canadian mining company.

In fact, in December, three men linked to Blackfire Exploration Ltd. were arrested for the murder of an anti-mining organizer. The company has also been charged with bribing local officials.

Many Chiapas communities want already established mines closed because they contaminate groundwater, destroy fragile ecosystems, and make people ill. In spite of this, there is talk of Canada's Mexican "gold rush" - supported by the Harper government, which is eagerly backing destructive mining ventures around the world.

Yes, Chiapas 16 years later is still a volatile region of Mexico. Two years ago, human rights groups reported an intensification of military activity in the area.

Little wonder that an important aspect of the Zapatistas' efforts to survive is to maintain a public profile. They probably realize that, if they become invisible, the Mexican government might quietly and systematically destroy them.

After all, they have seen other governments around the world deal murderously with rebellious elements (both internally and externally) - and get away with it.

March, 2007
Portable Screens Will Negatively Affect Our Society

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - I've recently undergone a minor conversion. After much sneering at the wee things, I have become an iPod - or MP3 player - aficionado. They are quite handy.

My attitude has certainly changed since last winter when a friend came to visit me here in Mexico. For a week, she sat by the pool or ocean reading - and listening to the 1000 or more songs she had loaded onto her iPod.

In order to get her attention, I had to wave my hands in front of her lowered eyes. She was deaf, oblivious to me, and to the sounds of Mexico - the birds, animals, and local music, for example. I swore I would never have one.

My negative attitude toward modern conveniences like iPods is not new. I once spied a woman sitting beside her five-year-old son on the Metro (subway) in Paris. She was engaged in animated conversation, and I was touched by the closeness of the two - until I noticed a small wire leading from her cell phone to her ear.

She was chatting with a friend, ignoring her child.

Such contraptions are not only anti-social; they can be downright dangerous. I was appalled when Walkmans first came onto the social scene. After all, ears are important tools for survival.

I cringed as people whizzed by on roller blades, headsets attached, with no ability to hear the important noises of urban life - cars honking, people yelling. Ignorance isn't bliss when someone is trying to warn you that a truck is coming your way!

So why the conversion? I have discovered the joys of learning Spanish while lying on my back, listening to my MP3 player. With this little white box and a pair of tiny earphones, I am free. No need to hire a language teacher. No more school language labs, sitting in front of a machine in a bleak room with others.

My little pod with all its knowledge can be carried from bed to lounge chair to hammock with ease. There is only one real disadvantage: I keep falling asleep. The last half-hour of my listening is usually unconscious, after I've been lulled into a blissful Spanish dream world.

According to a recent article in The Miami Herald, I am not alone in my new method of learning. The market research firm, Harrison Group, questioned 1000 teenagers over the Internet about their use of portable media players. Although 85 percent use theirs for music listening, like my friend, five percent are like me - hooked on audio texts (and podcasts, whatever they are).

The remaining 10 per cent watch videos, but I will get to that.

The number of audio learners is growing. With half of American teens owning portable MP3 players, textbook publisher McGraw-Hill has expanded the digital products it offers by 50 percent over the past four years.

There is also a new service called iTunes U, launched by Apple a year ago. This allows professors to post their lectures, so students can download them for free. And, at least one university has begun assigning students the onerous task of listening to, rather than reading, literature.

I realize I can't disapprove of this trend now that I have discovered the joys of horizontal audio learning. However, I do have some reservations.

There are those who envision a world of students, both mature and otherwise, doing laundry, shopping for groceries, and so on while wired to their iPods. I certainly can't imagine going this far.

For one thing, as I noted, I find the drone of audio lessons to be very soporific. I can easily see myself walking along a busy street gradually losing my equilibrium, careening, and bumping into others. Not fun.

Harkening back to my earlier comments about the anti-social aspects of the various listening devices, there are other dangers creeping up on us in this Brave New World we live in.

For the past couple of decades, our children have been raised in front of even more screens than those of us over 25. Personal computers with their various options have been added to televisions and cinemas. This means that many young people spend a lot of time sitting silently, mesmerized by the virtual world. It's what they are used to.

Now things are getting worse. Those addictive screens have gone mobile with palm-sized video players, BlackBerries, and cell phones. There is no longer a logistical reason to be without one! They can go anywhere.

Telling children to turn off the computer or TV and go outside to play has become futile - when they can take a screen with them.

I can't pretend to be enthusiastic about this fact, given the importance of verbal communication in all aspects of human activity. Sadly, it appears that we will increasingly be making our way through life concentrating on audio or video toys, rather than on those around us.

If so, the silence of our wired civilization is about to become deafening.

December, 2006
Vietnam Vets Comment on Iraq

Barra de Navidad - For a long while, I have wondered what veterans of the war in Vietnam think of their country's latest military nightmare in Iraq.

Recently, I had an opportunity to find out while vacationing in a place populated by several seasoned-looking American men with a certain, indefinable "I was there" quality.

I approached three of them and, after learning that they had indeed fought in "Nam", asked whether they would agree to an interview.

Their reactions revealed much about the state of the United States.

Although two agreed to speak, they did so on condition that they remain anonymous. Call them Veterans A and B. The third refused to have anything to do with me.

"That kind of political stuff can get you in trouble," he said. "I don't think you'll find anyone interested in talking about that experience."

Veteran A was also quite nervous. He claimed he had taken part in secret missions in Vietnam in 1960, and would get into trouble if he spoke out about them.

However, after I had gained his confidence, he was ready, almost eager, to talk.

What did he think about Iraq?

"Every war is evil," he said. "We should have left yesterday."

Veteran A argued that the same interests behind Vietnam had pushed for the war in Iraq and are once again making lots of money.

"They are all helping each other - from oil to selling weapons and bombs to Dow Chemical and Halliburton."

He saw Iraq as another effort "to advance business, industry and trade around the world for the U.S."

Veteran A told me he had volunteered for the army because he was 17 and "it was the quickest way out of town." He was soon shipped to boot camp and special training schools - learning to jump from planes, becoming a demolition expert.

He then found himself acting as an "advisor" in Vietnam. His assignment: "to start a war".

Veteran A said he and his fellow marines would blow up villages during the night, while people were sleeping, so that their superiors could blame the Viet Cong.

When I asked if the basis of the war had been that manipulated, he answered: "So was Iraq!"

Not surprisingly, the dirty work Veteran A was required to do in Vietnam didn't appeal to him, and he requested to be shipped home.

"I asked myself why I was in their country calling them enemies. They weren't going to rise out of their rice paddies and attack L.A. They weren't bad people."

Once home and out of the army, Veteran A took his horror of what he had

seen and done and started helping draft dodgers escape to Canada - until Interpol warned him to stop, which he did.

"When Interpol tells you to stop doing something. You stop."

Today, Vet A doesn't hold much hope for his country's future in Iraq.

"No occupied country has stayed occupied forever," he argued. "If you pay attention to history, you'll see that what we are doing doesn't win wars."

Veteran B was equally passionate, but his concerns were quite different. So was his reason for remaining anonymous.

He didn't want to alienate the powerful V.A. - the Veterans Benefits Administration in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It could be detrimental in the future," he told me.

Veteran B said his first reaction when he heard that his country was about to invade Iraq was based on his worry for the soldiers.

"I was disturbed knowing more young men, and women this time, were going off to something they would never comprehend," he said. "I knew they would come back like we did, separated from their society because of what they'd experienced."

Veteran B knows what he's talking about. He spent a year in Vietnam, 1968-69, as a cargo handler in the Air Force.

Like Veteran A, he soon began questioning what was he was doing there.

"It was obvious that the average rice farmer didn't care who won the war, they just wanted to see it over with."

His experiences, including being buried alive after an explosion, made it difficult afterward.

"I left the U.S. to go to a foreign country and I came home to one," Veteran B remembered. "I no longer belonged."

Although Vet B did put his life back together with some success for almost 25 years, he finally fell apart, verging on the suicidal, and was hospitalized not once, but twice.

"I was missing a piece of my soul."

Some of this could be avoided, he confided, if those returning from Iraq are better "debriefed" than he was.

As for the present war, Veteran B wasn't optimistic.

"You can't win a guerrilla war unless you are ready to totally annihilate your enemy, and there's a term for that: genocide."

And he was quite cynical: "Maybe the original intent was to create a civil war!"

But he was also hopeful.

"It would be nice to see people so disgusted by this war that they are ready to invest in alternative energies and get away from the concept of blood for oil."

If only the wisdom of these and other vets were more widespread.

March, 2006
Issues Surrounding Water Are Clearer in Mexico

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - In this village, which I adopted this winter, it doesn't take long before you begin to appreciate - and want to know more about - water in all its forms.

That's because the community is parked between two extremes - the Pacific, the world's largest body of water, and land, which is dying of thirst

It's the dry season. The only rain we've heard falling since late November was a five-minute shower early one morning about two months ago.

So, rivers have turned into streams; leaves on parched trees have curled up; the landscape, with some exceptions, is a dull brown - while we tourists bask happily in the uninterrupted sunshine.

However, we newcomers are not totally naive and protected from the realities of nature - and civilization's impact on it.

Because of the suspicious state of our tap water, we are completely dependent on the bottled water trucks, which cruise through town playing jingles to make their presence known.

(It's best to keep your 15 pesos handy, so there is no problem when purchasing one of those precious, life-sustaining, 10-gallon jugs.)

Not surprisingly, therefore, in Barra, unlike in the wet, wealthy north, water is often the subject of conversation.

Recently, I spent quite a while at a cocktail party discussing the art of teeth brushing with one man.

Did we dare use tap water?

My courageous friend told me that he did and had for some time. I, on the other hand, had to admit that, after a bout of Montezuma's Revenge when I first arrived, I certainly did not.

Because of this newborn interest in things liquid, there is little wonder that a dog-eared copy of Canadian Marq de Villiers' book "Water" is making the rounds. (Books, too, are a valued commodity - English-language books.)

In Canada, a country of vast, freshwater supplies (the fourth largest on the planet with 5.6 per cent), I might have bypassed the book, not considering the subject terribly intriguing - even though the tragic lessons of Walkerton, Ontario, are still very present.

But in dehydrated Mexico, I can't put it down!

Did you know, for example, that if the world's estimated supply of water were placed in a 5-litre container slightly less than one teaspoon would be fresh - and available? That's about 3 per cent of the total.

The adage "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" suddenly becomes frighteningly imaginable.

De Villiers, who refers to nature's varied water supply as a "superb and precious ecosystem," also points out that experts in the field of water - hydrologists - suggest that humans need at least 1,700 cubic metres of water annually to meet their basic needs.

The good news is that in 1998 there were approximately 8,000 cubic metres available for each and every one of us. The bad news is that water consumption tripled between 1950 and 1990 - and is expected to double over the next 30 years.

Even worse is the fact that this "blue gold," as water is considered by some, is so unevenly distributed - and what there is becoming less accessible. Lakes, rivers and wells are being pumped dry, subterranean aquifers are diminishing, water tables are dropping, surface and ground water is being depleted.

More reprehensible is the fact that available water is so abused - with the addition of everything from silt to chemicals to algae - with the result that a child dies every 8 seconds from water contamination.

Equally dangerous, though more from a political stability perspective, is the fact that there are many sore spots around the world when it comes to water - especially rivers.

One glaring example, de Villiers points out, is the fact that the United States has "literally 'stolen' the Colorado from Mexico, much of it to irrigate the deserts of Arizona and California, but a good deal of it to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles and fountains in Las Vegas."

Unfortunately, even though the country I have temporarily adopted has its problems, they are easy to ignore in what on the surface appears to be a paradise.

As I write this, I can look across the pretty, but low and polluted, lagoon a couple of blocks away to the enormous, castle-like Grand Bay Hotel with its impressive swimming pool and lush 27-hole, water-dependent, golf course.

Later today, I will take a dip in our own condo swimming pool.

It's not that bad - for some of us - when you are "between the devil (drought) and the deep blue sea!"

March 2006 - December 2005
March, 2006
Mexican Culture Alive and Well in Spite of Globalization

Barra de Navidad - Even in this world of globalization - which basically means the spread of U.S. financial and cultural interests around the world, backed in some cases by military might - some countries have managed to maintain their own identity.

Mexico is one of them.

At least, it appears that way in the small towns along a section of the Pacific known as the Costa de Alegre or Happy Coast. (Larger cities are more susceptible to things American.)

Yes, in spite of its poverty - or perhaps because of it, this developing country compares favourably with more foreign dominated and compromised nations like Canada and even the culturally proud - some would say vain - France.

Take music, for example. In my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, most local musicians make their living performing "cover" songs - American hits from the 60s, 70s, and so on.

This comes as no surprise, since we have all been raised on a diet of Top 40 hits, American Bandstand, MTV, and so on.

In France, too, there is an obsession with U.S. music to the detriment of its own cultural expression.

Several times while living in Paris, I confronted the owners or managers of stores and restaurants asking why they insisted on playing music that wasn't their own. I didn't come to France to listen to American songs, I would say to unappreciative ears.

It's not like that here in Mexico.

Loud, heartfelt Mexican tunes pour out of homes, stores, cars - and even soccer fields during outdoor, late-night fiestas. Individuals and groups roam the streets proudly offering ranchero, mariachi and other forms of music.

The result is a wonderful, authentic backdrop to daily life.

And, it is good to see that many of the musicians are young, ready to carry local, regional and national traditions into another generation.

But Mexico's cultural identity isn't just expressed through its music. Other activities - everything from cockfights to rodeos, fiestas and siestas, cowboy hats, and the delicious food, based on the versatile tortilla, are also very present.

They all combine to make a clear statement that Mexican culture, bombarded though it may be by its northern neighbour, is alive and well.

Recently, I attended a combined rodeo and concert that left me breathless because of the dynamism of things Mexican, even among the young.

As early as 6 pm the Plaza de Torro (bullring) in the town of San Patricio began to fill up with young men and women, many of whom were wearing cowboy hats and boots.

Although there were indications that these young people are far from oblivious to northern fashion trends - the young women wore their pants well below their navels - they were Mexican through and through. (I counted half a dozen tourists in the audience.)

Sliced mangoes, watermelon and cucumbers smothered in ground chili peppers were sold by young boys carrying trays through the audience. Even the potato chips, a more American food, came drenched in chili sauce and lime juice.

There was a hot dog stand, I noticed with dismay, but it was outnumbered by the taco stands. Shot glasses of tequila were sold by strolling vendors as young men in beautifully decorated chaps rode bulls for our entertainment.

After the last bull had been carefully hustled from the ring, metal stairs were put in place so that the crowd could spill down onto the dirt and dance to the music of the first live band, which appeared around midnight - when most Canadian concerts are over!

The crowd - aged three to whatever - was appreciative, moving individually or in couples to the rhythm, often singing along with the words. Young women climbed onto the stage to kiss or dance with the musicians - a definite no-no in our more structured, security conscious society.

When we left at 1:30 am, two other groups expected to perform that night had yet to appear. There are no time constraints in this land.

Language, too, plays a key role in protecting culture and traditions.

In spite of the presence of France's Academie Francaise, that country's language guardian, English words are everywhere - from storefronts to billboards to radio stings.

The word "stop" is used on traffic signs instead of the more suitable "arret."

I haven't seen one example of that phenomenon here. Spanish, pure and simple, is the method of communicating. When you come to an intersection in this country, you are met with the word "alto."

How does Canada, the northern equivalent of Mexico in relation to the United States, compare?

Not too well.

For a long time, our identity was based on our admirable healthcare system, too long starved for funds, our reputation as a neutral peacekeeper, presently being demolished in Afghanistan, and our favourite sport of hockey, now American dominated and ridiculously expensive.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, when I asked my 17-year-old nephew if he thought Mexico was more Mexican than Canada was Canadian, he responded immediately: "For sure!"

January, 2006
Watching Canadian Election as a Snowbird Frustrating

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - It was quite an experience following the Canadian election while living in a Mexican fishing village thousands of miles to the south.

Keeping track of news from home wasn't easy, and, as I heard snippets of information about the campaign and election results, I couldn't help but ask: What's going on up there? What's got into them? Is it the cold?

Few Snowbirds here have satellite TV with that ultimate luxury - Canadian news rather than CNN - and the only paper readily available is the international edition of The Miami Herald.

Of course, anyone really wanting to keep up with what's happening in Canada can go online and read the daily papers. However, for me at least, time at the Internet cafe is best kept to a minimum and writing to loved ones comes first.

Nevertheless, by Election Day, I and other political animals were keen to be in the know.

One Canadian, who had predicted a Liberal majority, was so desperate for election results that he stood outside his neighbours' condo - and watched the numbers flashing across the screen. His neighbours were away, but, like most of us, left their lights and electronic toys on to prevent a break-in.

When I went to the Internet cafe to read the papers online the next morning (post-Election Day is an exception), I told the Mexican owner's nephew that Canada had just elected a right-wing government.

Shaking his head sadly, he told me he knew what had happened because another Canadian woman had been in earlier and was very upset with the results when she read them.

On January 23rd, The Herald's front-page headline cried: "Tories favored in today's Canadian election" with the follow-up on the 24th of "Voters push Canada to the right" and "Closer ties between U.S., Canada expected" on the 25th.

Although it was fun to see Canadian news achieve such a high profile in this little village, I cringed when I read those words. You don't need to be anti-American - I'm spending the winter with many of them - to abhor the idea of cosying up to the Bush government.

Ironically, on Election Night, many of us living in Barra de Navidad were in a nearby town for a Street Party and Music Festival, held to raise money for children with special needs in the region.

This event has become popular because, until seasonal residents began helping these kids, their school didn't even have running water. The government pays only for teachers' salaries.

Several North American musicians donated their time and talent and a local restaurant - owned by a Canadian - provided the outdoor space and food.

Mexican performances included a daring fire dance and an even more daring machete dance. People held their breath as the dancer slashed two machetes between his legs while squatting and kicking his legs. Would he survive?

It was well into the evening when someone announced that the Tories had won a minority government - and that there was a TV inside the restaurant.

However, by the time I got there, the TV had gone black - a malfunction that, after two months in Mexico, I accepted without question, although one person said it was probably Mulroney's appearance that ruined the reception.

As the music continued, those of us interested in politics began to assemble in small groups. Generally, we were shocked and disappointed, although, typically, it was hidden behind Canadian-style humour.

Would Harper make Mulroney his Integrity Commissioner?

I said it was ironic that we were attending an event - necessary in Mexico because of its minimal social programs - to raise money for a school that should be paid for by the government.

Would Canada see a further weakening of its social programs under a party that has espoused increased privatization of our healthcare, pensions, and more?

I also pointed out that Harper would have to rely on the Bloc Quebecois to maintain power, and this was dangerous since the BQ has no love for Canadian social programs or institutions.

(BQ leader Gilles Duceppe told me years ago that he couldn't understand why Canada doesn't have a national education system. He sees the value of central co-ordination to maintain national integrity. However, he would oppose any such thing being instituted in Canada - because it isn't the country he wants to build. Quebec is. )

As I warned my fellow Canadians about a Tory-BQ alliance, I noted that it was also ironic that the very people - former Reformers and so on - who loath the Separatists have just given them power.

This was met with silence. No one had thought of it before.

Unfortunately, I have found the days since the election frustrating. Canadians here are either deeply political - which is rare - and upset about the new government, or sadly apolitical, not really knowing or, in some cases, caring what is happening back home.

How, I wonder, can a democracy function with such ignorance and neglect on the part of too many of its residents?

I fear we Canadians are about to perform our own kind of political machete dance. Will we survive?

December, 2005
Tourists Should See the Real Mexico to Understand Our NAFTA Partner

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - Over the past month, my partner and I have learned that there is a big difference between vacationing within the artificial confines of an all-inclusive resort and "going native" in a genuine Mexican village.

Sometimes, we have found this out the hard way!

To begin with, when you rent your own place, there is no one to cater to your needs, buy and cook your food, mix you drinks by the pool, or protect you from the real world.

Instead, you must fend for yourself and every day is a crash course in appreciating the huge gap between the comfortable, efficient world you come from - and the one you have adopted.

This is especially true in a less developed country like Mexico where the standard of living is generally low and small-town life, for the most part, can only be described as basic.

Perhaps, the key thing we have noticed is that, out of necessity, people here live closer to the land - whether slashing coconuts open with a machete for the juice and meat inside, shaking limes from a tree to flavour and disinfect their food, or combing the ocean for various sources of nourishment.

Mexicans are closer to other sources of food as well.

On the first day we moved into our relatively upscale condo, a herd of goats ran past our front door, chased by a Mexican family. Days later, several cattle followed the same route - although they were much more intimidating with their long horns.

(The absurdity of our new lifestyle is often accentuated by weird tales of tourists who have fallen in the past. One man was supposedly killed on the street next to ours when a steer rushed his car and gored him in the head!)

Mornings begin with the crow of roosters, running freely in yards around the neighbourhood. Dogs prowl grazing on whatever food comes their way. Wild cats sneak around our condo courtyard and we are told not to adopt them.

Animals abound, as do barefoot children playing in the traffic on dusty, unpaved streets, riding battered bicycles, often two or three at a time, or piled precariously in the backs of old trucks. Helmets, seat belts, and such are rarities in this survival-of-the-fittest land.

However, poor as they are, the children, some of whom have been working selling trinkets to tourists during their Christmas vacation, seem to have a sense of freedom and joy unknown to Canadian kids.

And they are tough. As we tourists wait eagerly for the bottled water truck to tour our neighbourhood and have doubts about the suitability of the tap water for washing our dishes, the local children can be seen drinking from garden hoses.

But if the tap water is of dubious quality, so is its reliability. Indeed, whatever infrastructure there is seems a little worse for wear.

During our short stay so far, we have already experienced a temporary loss of running water when our water main burst. Although seasoned tourists warned it could take some time to fix the problem and we would have to rely on our swimming pool, the main was repaired in two days - by men wearing neither hard hats nor shoes. They finished the job in the virtual dark using the headlights of a truck.

We had no sooner breathed a sigh of relief as we ran our water again when workers upgrading the electrical wiring we depend on, tugged too hard on an old pole and it fell across the front lawn of a gorgeous home. As before, we were warned that this would take ages to replace, but efficiency somehow reigned once again.

Other services are meager to non-existent.

On first arriving at our condo, located in a wealthy mainly-tourist area, we were shocked to see what passes for the neighbourhood garbage pails - two 45 gallon drums emptied every few days by three or four happy, chattering men riding around in an old dump truck.

And there is no fire station. When the palm frond roof of a local restaurant caught fire after a gas tank blew up, neighbours had to form a human chain passing buckets of water from a nearby hotel swimming pool.

Gas, by the way, is supplied not by underground pipes, but by a truck with a loudspeaker offering to refill empty tanks.

Yes, it is impossible to appreciate how a country works or doesn't work when you are limited to a comfortable resort. You have no idea that those brave tourists beyond the walls of the hotel must wash their fruits and vegetables with Microdyn to kill parasites and other hidden dangers, or that they have to lock their windows and leave the lights and radio on to prevent theft.

And yet, I wouldn't think of trading my admittedly privileged vantage point near the front lines of Mexican life for the relative safety of an all-inclusive. Here, I am getting a taste of the real Mexico, not a sanitized version.

It's an education I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand the ups and downs of this globalized world of ours, especially Canada's poorer NAFTA partner.

December, 2005
Democracy and M16s Don't Mix

Barra de Navidad, Mexico - Can democracy truly exist in a land where the government appears ready to use weapons against its own people? I don't think so.

After all, democracy is based on the ability of all citizens to fully participate in the ebb and flow, the various developments, of a society. Its pillars, as we know, are freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, and the press.

How can these rights be anything but empty rhetoric when citizens are afraid of getting their heads blown off?

Sadly, this is the case in many of the world's countries - even those endorsed by the "democracy"-loving United States.

Indeed, the much-touted ability to vote every few years is just a token gesture - a public relations exercise - when all other freedoms are negated by the threat of force.

I raise this issue not only because of events in Iraq, but also because of a recent altercation here in sunny Mexico.

The trouble occurred in a small, Pacific Coast community, which originally grew as a fishing village, but more recently has become popular with tourists.

Wisely, those in charge of planning several years ago decided to turn the village's main street over to pedestrians, so they could enjoy the out-door cafes and browse through the craft shops without the danger of traffic and the smell of exhaust fumes.

It had become a place where children could run and play without care - until the present municipal leaders, located in a nearby town, decided to bring back the cars a few weeks ago.

Early one morning, the authorities sent in a backhoe to remove the potted trees blocking the roadway. They also sent about 20 troops armed with M16 automatic rifles.

In spite of the intimidation, brave citizens tried to stop the outrage and destruction. Many wept and pleaded; some stood in front of the trees - but protest was futile and the backhoe did its work.

Since then, several courageous souls (even some tourists) have signed petitions against the street change and a delegation presented its case to the "mayor." However, the various adjustments required to accommodate a flow of traffic are underway.

Needless to say, even as I read about the campaigning for next year's presidential election in Mexico, I can't help but ask how actions like those I just described can be tolerated in a democracy.

Invariably, the end result is no real debate, no genuine citizen involvement - just arbitrary decisions backed by guns.

(I have even been warned by friends here not to write this article.)

Coincidentally, just before I left Canada, my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, went through a similar controversy.

In our case, the mayor and his supporters wanted to construct a large entertainment center in a ridiculous, downtown location. Their plan would have diminished a riverside park, disrupted a neighbourhood, and dislocated a viable local business.

As with the Mexican experience, the Kingston mayor was adamant. This was his dream; it would be the jewel of his tenure. He defied all naysayers.

However, Kingston citizens were equally determined. They wrote letters to the editor of the local paper, presented independent studies on the chosen location's numerous inadequacies, and held public meetings.

Finally, just before I left the country, city councillors - even some of the mayor's former allies - voted against the favoured site. They are now looking at more realistic alternatives.

My point is that, during those months of stress and animosity in Kingston, there wasn't one gun in sight. There wasn't even a hint of violence. Citizens were able to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal.

Frustration yes. Disagreements certainly. But no weapons.

That should be how democracy works.

Unfortunately though, Canada isn't faultless. There are certain occurrences, even in Kingston, against which I would be afraid to protest without fear of personal harm. For example, opposing the takeover methods of a local business by a large American corporation has people living in fear of job loss and possibly more.

And, I have attended peaceful demonstrations in various Canadian cities where the police have been out in force with more than the necessary defensive weapons at the ready.

In fact, since 9/11, gun waving by the authorities is being seen more and more frequently in our part of the world.

An American tourist I met here was telling me about a recent event at a local school in his town in Washington State. The pilot father of one of the students landed a Black Hawk helicopter near the school. It was a case of show and tell by Homeland Security for the children.

What frightens my tourist friend is that young people in the U.S., and to a lesser extent Canada, are equating democracy with flak jackets and weapons. They, too, are being raised to think M16s - even those aimed at harmless citizens - are a normal aspect of how government works.

Needless to say, they aren't and never will be.