On the Road Again: Hasta La Vista, La Peñita

La Peñita, I shall return! Well, I would not equate myself with that eccentric WWII general, but I do plan to come back to La Peñita next winter – how could I not? To return to that vibrant little village by the sea has too many reasons to list – most of them too complicated to try to explain here. But I would do it in any case, if only to see Martín again.

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Downtown La Peñita

That reason is complicated too. What an interesting character. Martín is a carpintero (a carpenter/woodworker, builder of windows, doors, cabinets, and furniture of all kinds) in his small shop La Peñita. Some would consider him an anachronism or maybe an inefficient economic actor in a worldwide industrial system that has passed him by. When I met the old man – well, I’m not sure if he’s older or younger than I am – three years ago, I felt an immediate affinity. That little old man with rotting teeth, standing in his flip-flops on the dirt floor of his woodshop, just glowed with serenity. He seemed completely comfortable in his carpintería on a side street a few blocks from the center of town. Martín had worked in the U.S. for awhile many years ago, remembering only a few words in English. We talked about wood and the world for an hour, despite my broken Spanish.

Searching for Huanacaxtle

I had been looking for a source of Huanacaxtle, a tropical hardwood sort of like mahogany, but with beautiful complex grain patterns. It is found throughout Central America and goes by several different names. I had seen some beautiful tables and other furniture made of Huanacaxtle in a gallery in Mazatlán, when we stopped over there, near the end of our first road trip to La Peñita. The grain, color, and figure of this wood are amazingly varied, rich, and muy bonito. After seeing finished pieces in that gallery, I seriously wanted to buy some to take home and make something with it.

Martín is a rare find in this world today, even in Mexico. He’s been working with wood for over a half-century. I might not have found Martin had I not asked a rather unlikely source if he knew anyone in the area who cut or milled Huanacaxtle. Seff Ramirez runs a typical roadside fruit stand on the highway a few km north of La Peñita. He operates a rather nice nursery there too. The man knows how to use a machete. We had stopped to get some of those delicious mini-bananas that are so prolific in the area. I had decided to ask anyone I met if they knew of a carpintería where I could buy some Huanacaxtle.

The Road to Martín

I always try to speak Spanish in Mexico; too many Norte Americanos expect everyone to speak English. That seems presumptuous to me, despite the surprising number of expats and tourists living or traveling in throughout Mexico. Seff surprised me when he answered my question in California English. I asked about that; turns out my guess was right, he’d lived in California for many years. Anyway, when I asked about Huanacaxtle, he said he knew a guy in the local pueblo up the road aways who occasionally cut planks to make furniture for himself or his neighbors.

I asked Seff if he could contact the wood-cutter to see if he had some to sell. It was getting close to our time to depart La Peñita and drive north through the central highlands and deserts to cross the border at Juarez. I wanted to buy a few pieces that would fit in the bed of my pickup truck amid all the other stuff we took with us on a three-month trip through Mexico. I wanted to make something of that beautiful wood in my home woodshop. That did not work out at first. (More, in the next installment of the “On the Road Again” series.)

Not On the Road Again: Missing the Run to La Peñita

Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific coast of Mexico has a familiar comfort for me – and it’s warm in the winter. You can actually get out in the surf in January in La Peñita, a small fishing village of about 20,000 people halfway between Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta. I spent the summer of my junior year at the University of California, Santa Barbara traveling throughout Mexico – by VW van or course. I lived with a family in Guadalajara for two months that summer. In those eight weeks, I learned far more Spanish than in all the classes I’d taken at the university. That is when I first could really speak Spanish. I’ve been re-learning it ever since.

Traveling can provide a perspective not otherwise easily obtained. Of course, if you go from one major hotel-chain location to another, or stay in one “all-inclusive” resort, it would be like stopping at a different Burger King joint in any city in the U.S. – the anti-quality of sameness.

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Overlooking La Peñita

That is one of the reasons we chose La Peñita. It is a real Mexican town, even though quite a few Canadians spend the Winter there. Another is that it’s a small fishing village. We had fresh garlic and herb Dorado that Cynde baked for dinner our second night there on our last trip – caught that morning, bought in the afternoon, cooked in the evening – not shipped from anywhere, not “previously frozen” at Whole Foods, not processed in any way other than being cleaned and filleted, once carried from the boat to the Tienda de Pescado. Mmmmm!

Sometimes, in the midst of life in the swirl of the growing dangers of the climate crisis and post-electoral madness of Trumplandia, a little change in perspective can do wonders, just like a fresh-caught fish dinner. The drive down through Juarez, Chihuahua, Torreón, and Durango, with a slight detour to Mazatlan, was itself an education, each time we’ve made it. So many welcoming and friendly people. Same urban dirt and dense traffic in these cities as you will find in any medium to large city in the world.

But I wonder whether the Mexican violence meme may be overstated. I must look up the comparative crime rates with, say, Albuquerque, which reputedly had the greatest rate of citizens killed by police in the U.S. one recent year, before the Justice Department put the ABQ police department in receivership. The non-stop evening news stories of shootings, drunk driving crashes, domestic violence, and drug arrests reflect a certain U.S. social disorder.

My best perspective on Mexico so far, I obtained by engaging with regular folks in the stores and streets of that little town, La Penita, getting the lay of the land and feeling the pace of life. I will miss the long weeks hanging out there this year; medical issues always seem to complicate life.

On the Road Again: the Run to La Peñita

I was never much of a winter person. I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a coastal desert of Mediterranean latitude that became an urban desert many generations ago. The big seasonal changes in LA were not really that big, but very consistent when I was growing up there. Lately, at least for the last couple of decades, climate destabilization seems to be pushing conditions to extremes of drought, fire, and flood.

No “New Normal,” just No Normal!

This year, huge fires caused havoc in Northern and Southern California. Just wait, some winter torrents just may wash away more Malibu hillside homes this year. In the past, we had the occasional forest fire and flood. But today the scale is unprecedented.

Typical LA seasons went from hot and smoggy September and October to rainy winter to spring and summer coastal fog. The high deserts of the Great Southwest, where I now live, are very different. Droughts have come and gone for centuries. So have heat waves.

But things have changed here too. The bark beetle extended its reproductive cycle with global warming and it has killed off most native piñon trees and now threaten the mountain Ponderosa forests. The Rio Grande barely keeps flowing as western states puzzle over water allotment agreements much greater than available water. There is no “new normal.” Normal is gone.

I’ve always like the desert. It has a certain stark beauty that changes seasonally much more than most people realize if they have not lived in a desert, especially a high desert. Of course, the urban desert doesn’t change much from season to season, even though the seasons grow increasingly erratic.

The high desert of Northern New Mexico experiences distinct seasonal changes. Yet its beauty remains as it is transformed each cycle. The monsoon rains of late summer turn the landscape quite green in the Santa Fe area if the monsoons do not fail us as they did last year. Winters are relatively dry, except for the snow, which varies considerably from year to year.

Several years of drought have resulted in part from such a small winter snow-pack that little water is available to store or recharge aquifers. In fact, most of the snow evaporates before it ever has a chance to melt into a runoff. This year looks better so far, but it still seems a struggle to reach “normal” snowpack.

The New Familiar

But after ten years away from Southern California, well, I miss the beach.

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Santa Fe is famous for its sunsets as well as art galleries and high-end restaurants, but the sunsets at La Peñita are serious contenders.

So, for the past few years, we head south for the coldest months of winter. After all, jubilación (retirement) allows a certain freedom of movement. Besides, a good laptop and

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Copper loves to run on the Beach and swim in the surf.

an adequate Internet connection will allow me to write and post my Mad Jubilado rants and also my climate and society posts here on TheHopefulRealist.com. And, I love to take my dog for a good run on a deserted beach.

The road trip from Santa Fe through Central Mexico to a little town, La Peñita, on the Pacific coast an hour’s drive north of Puerto Vallarta takes a few days. But it offers insight into the contrasts and parallels in how people in Mexico and the U.S. live in this era of unrecognized transformation. Each fall now, I look forward to experiencing the wonders, charm, and rough edges of Mexican culture, economy, and those warm sandy beaches over these three months or so of warm winter on the Pacific coast of Mexico. What will the contrast tell me about how we live in the U.S. Southwest? I’ll let you know in coming posts…

Escape from L.A.


I’m returning this week from a 4 month sojourn in Mexico to the oldest city in the United States, Santa Fe, the capital of the  North American part of the Spanish empire over 400 years ago. Shortly thereafter, I will make another quick visit to the Ultimate City – LA. I go there a couple of times a year for my oncology checkup. This trip I’ll combine with some pro bono consulting for Children of the Night, which rescues children from pimps and drug pushers on the streets of cities across the nation.

I’ve supported Children of the Night’s work since Lois Lee started it nearly 40 years ago when she was my student. My how time flies ever faster the older you get. So, I’ll be reviewing with Lois the big changes she is making with the program as facts on the street change ( a complex story involving smart phones, gang violence, and some misguided policies of the FBI). We will also do an analysis of all the data on kids and the program since it began. We will review progress on the project for reports and proposals to the private foundations that help fund the programs. Children of the Night is in some important ways a child of the Ultimate City.

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Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with L.A. – I’m referring to the entire metropolis, not just the much smaller central City of Los Angeles – founded in 1781 as “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula.” In 1821 it became part of México when “New Spain” gained independence from the Spanish Empire, until the Americans took control from the “Californios” in 1847. There is nothing like a discovery of gold to motivate conquest. So, who are the “illegal immigrants,” anyway? Certainly not the native Chumash, who mostly died off under colonial rule and the oppression of empire. History is ever rewritten. But I digress.

I grew up in the L.A. metro area and later worked there for decades. So I know well many of the short cuts a modern native uses to drive from one sprawling suburban cluster to another without spending hours parked on the San Diego Freeway – the I-405. The drive in a shuttle returning to LAX from the San Fernando Valley gave me pause to reflect on “urban development” – remember “China Town” with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? A classic of intrigue in regional empire building – I sat back and checked my email, occasionally glancing out at an old familiar setting. It was an uneventful 45 minutes in the early afternoon. You don’t get the same feeling of massive urban sprawl in a car as you do when flying over it all.

Contrary to news reports following the recent severe draught, there are still some green lawns in the suburbs – more behind the gates of the “McMansions” of Encino than in the flatlands of Inglewood or Van Nuys. However, it is hard to not call it all the City of Denial, as everyone seems to go about their business as if they had not experienced the greatest drought of California’s history. So many still treat each piece of evidence of the catastrophic changes wrought by global warming as an incident, never a trend. Under it all, the Los Angeles basin remains the coastal desert it always was. But I’m not sure most “Angelinos” realize that.

After my last visit to Children of the Night, I had to catch an early flight out of LAX. The driver took a circuitous route through the residential streets of the Encino hills to transition over the I-405 on Mulholland Drive, then back over to an onramp to beat most of the traffic heading south over the hill to Westwood and Century City, LAX, and the South Bay beyond. We were in a long line of commuters taking the same short cut. I was surprised at how early we arrived at LAX. But I wondered: why are all the car-service drivers in the Valley Russian immigrants?

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.