[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
August 2000

Seven Reasons to Stay Where You Are

Good friend Gerardo recently reminded me that life is a balancing act. Offsetting the good with the bad is not only natural, but also desirable in that it encourages life-asserting activity. In the wake of last month’s column listing ten reasons to move to Paradise, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of imbalance over the cheerful report. After all, the heights have a down side; negativity is part of nature. In order to level the scales of Venus, this month I’d like to submit seven reasons not to move to Paradise.

(7) Lizards, spiders and snakes, oh my! Before my sister came for a visit a while ago, I had the house fumigated, not only for cockroaches but also to eliminate a variety of house spiders that thrive in our warm climate. As luck would have it, a robust eight-legger survived the holocaust, hiding out in the guest bathroom. My sister caught its creepy crawl out the corner of her eye and became hysterical. I had never seen her naked until the moment she threw open the door and ran out screaming in her shower shoes. Tearing off my shirt to shield her with, I bounded into the shower stall and killed the intruder with my bare fist, but the damage was done. Sissy and her husband immediately transferred to the Holiday Inn for the rest of their vacation.

Since then, I’ve moved to a home with a garden out back. The setting is tropical: flowers, fruit trees and climbing vines. However, the nearness of nature means not only do spiders cross the threshold, but also centipedes, snails, lizards and once, a tiny garter snake, which proved very hard to crush on a thick carpet. Having lived in South Florida, I am used to seeing bugs and creatures in a residential setting, but others may be less prepared for nature’s diversity. I suggest you borrow a book on insects and look closely at the photos. If they give you the shivers, Paradise may not be for you.

(6) Shaking earth. In 1990, I experienced my first temblor. The harmless rumbling made me laugh. How na´ve. Little did I know the magnitude was about 1.5 Richter, a mere taste of shakes to come. The next time the earth plates shifted I was jogging down a street that ended in a cul-de-sac. The house at the end of the street was vibrating so hard it looked like it was under a waterfall. My first thought was, Wow, they’ve got a serious electrical problem in that place. As I slowed to watch, I noticed the asphalt undulating in front of me. Now this was a tremor; strike that -- an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale. I felt like I was riding the back of a giant serpent that could buck me off with fatal results. From that moment until now, shaking earth has given me the sweats.

North America is certainly not immune to seismic activity. Californians, especially, would feel quite at home here, if stark terror can be regarded as a homey sensation. But living on a nationwide fault line, we experience shaking on a steady basis. Although mostly imperceptible except to seismometers, the earth’s vibrations subtly affect the sound of one’s hi-fi system. At least, I think it does. For this reason, I read with great interest of Srajan Ebaen’s experience with the Aurio MIB isolation devices. In order to see whether minor shaking is a hindrance to good sound, I plan to install eight sets of MIBs en mi sistema. Since the Aurios retail for $300 a set, I’m rooting that constant tremors blur the notes. Then, I hope to convince dozens of others that their systems are out of focus and that buying MIBs will bring the sound into sharp focus. This exploitation of misery is called marketing. We audio dealers nobly ply the trade.

(5a) Motoring conditions -- potholes. Although Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have some of the worst pavement in the Western Hemisphere, not even the harshest of mid-western winters prepares one for the bomb-craters pock-marking Paradise. I’m told that manufacturers of mobile compact disc players test anti-skip technology by driving the highways of Brazil. Those cowards -- they should come to Paradise for a real torture test. I once hit a pothole so violently my neck compressed when my head banged into the roof of the car. The crack of bone on bone was nauseating. Thought I broke a vertabra. This occurred on a city street in broad daylight at low speed. Driver was sober at the time but spent a week drinking away the pain.

The insidious thing about potholes is they make people drive erratically, steering their cars into your lane in order to dodge a crater. On a daily basis I stare directly at oncoming cars that swerve away like broken-field runners at the last moment. I’ve become inured to this practice and, in fact, engage in it myself. As a consequence, my hand-eye coordination has improved to video-game standards. One learns to be blasÚ about near sideswipes from automobiles, although trucks and buses still command respect since they never chicken out. Ironically, my road-going reflexes have developed to the point where I am unfit to drive over waffle-iron highways to go to the beach --might kill someone or myself while avoiding suspension damage. As a result of fear of potholes, I never have fun in the sun and am whiter of skin than the day I arrived.

(5b) Motoring conditions -- anarchy on the road. Last week the transit police caught me running a red light. I richly deserved to be punished. However, the $30 fine was hardly just reward for the countless times I have been stupid and dangerous on the highway. Of course, the idea to flaunt traffic laws occurred to me after watching the vehicular disobedience of my fellow motorists. Everyone breaks the transit laws, so maybe it’s taught in driver-education classes. Except as far as I can tell, there are no driver education classes. Here, it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. Despite knowing better, I’ve proven to be as ape-like as the next guy.

Speaking of bad manners, it’s a wonder we don’t have more road rage here, especially at traffic lights. It’s common practice for the driver behind to beep his horn simultaneously with the changing of the light to green. Many times I have revved the motor, edging the car forward to indicate to the person in the rear-view mirror that I will be off in a flash, the instant the light changes -- please don’t beep me. This semaphore seldom works. Even while popping the clutch, I hear the horn. Once, I jerked to a stop to remonstrate with a hair-trigger honker. As I leapt from the car, a barrage of beeps blasted away from a line of vehicles, indicating I should re-mount or face being lynched. Only a Thompson submachine gun with 100-round canister would have evened the odds against the queue. In the face of a mob, John Dillinger would have climbed back in the car. I drove off unfulfilled. At least repression of murderous desire gives one a rich fantasy life.

(5c) Motoring conditions -- unsafe vehicles. Before you think I’m grousing, picture this: You are driving at night, obeying the 80kph speed limit on a divided highway when you round a blind curve and there in front of you without taillights or reflectors is a wheezing, over-laden truck doing 20. If you have poor reflexes, bad brakes or simply nowhere to go you are going to wind up dead or worse. Scenarios similar to this happen all the time in Paradise. Motorcycles are even worse hazards. In daytime they tend to be invisible to motorists. At night, without running lights on a dark street, they are part of the geography until one’s car is almost upon them. As a consequence of several near-accidents, especially when driving while impaired, I spend most of my nights at home.

(4) Restaurant choices. It’s just as well I don’t go out nights. The restaurant selection is limited to national fare or a Central American version of arroz Cantonese. Good ethnic chow is hard to come by. For instance, there are no Indian restaurants here. Can you imagine? Natives of India peddle fiery, mouth-watering dishes all over the world but not in Paradise. The only curry available is a Thai version at a restaurant owned by a Chinese/American couple, patronized by foreigners. For some reason, the French have bypassed us as well, although the French maintain an important school here. Pizza restaurants abound, but classic Italian renditions of pasta and veal dishes are unavailable. My favorite of all, Brazilian cooking, is lamentably absent. In fact, except for two tiny Peruvian bistros, no South America restaurants survive.

The paucity of comida from other Latin American countries is hard to understand. We eat rice and beans. They eat rice and beans. We eat beef and seafood. They eat beef and seafood. Why the non-participation from other countries? Spices, I think, make the difference. Garlic, onions, oregano, basil, red pepper, all the olores that give food its panache are used sparingly here. The national condiment, fresh culentro, is an appetizing marvel, but even that isn’t used with heavy enough hand to suit my taste. Small eateries serve food that is fresh, plentiful and inexpensive. My expanding waistline attests to its charm. But in flashy, expensive restaurants one finds similar food at ten times the price. For those with adventurous palates, may I suggest taking a cooking course before deciding to relocate. Please consider Brazilian cooking. Then you could invite me over. I’ll bring the cachaša and fresh limes.

(3) Topless bars. Forget it. There aren’t any.

[August 1, 2000, 2:30 a.m. Stop the presses! Tonight an audiophile pal took me to La Caja, a topless bar in the University area. I couldn’t believe my eyes: For the first time, right out of the box, a North American custom has been transferred to Paradise with unusual fidelity. At the aptly named La Caja (The Cash Register), bikini clad girls take turns tending bar until the call comes to perform on a tiny stage. Since the table seating area is limited, the nubile young ladies "dance" first for the reservation holders, then they are lifted off stage and passed hand to hand (by bouncers with fans trying to help) and placed on top of the bar. There, because of the low ceiling, the dancers crawl around on all fours amid the drinks. Most of the girls wear high boots; some have brush burns on their knees. Occasionally, they stop to perform various low-level gyrations at extremely close range. I’m told such close-up shots are breathtaking to anatomy fans and readers of Hustler magazine. On average, the ten girls who infused the crowd appeared to have been old enough to drink (18) but who was checking IDs? Since this is a family magazine, which requires me to tie the discussion to music and audio, may I add that the sound system was one of the worst I’ve ever heard, although it pumped out plenty of bass.]

(2) Crime. Maybe it’s my imagination, but criminal activity seems to be on the rise in Paradise. Petty theft and burglary are major full-time employment fields. Most neighborhoods hire private guard services, which vary in effectiveness. The high-rent district where I live features of a number of armed Nicaraguan ex-Sandinista soldiers patrolling 24/7. I worry they may be casing the joint. At least once a week, in the far-off distance, a warning gunshot or two punctuates the night. I sleep lightly, waking up to small sounds on the roof, which only once was a human. A potshot from the guard, who wasn’t asleep for a change, discouraged the intruder. Sometimes cats get up on the roof and prance and frolic to the sound of my pounding heart. At least the guard says they are cats.

Narcotics peddling, especially of cocaine, is a worse problem since it begets other crimes against property and persons. Paradise is a way station for drug trafficking from south to north of the border. In being moved around, a quantity of cocaine slips through the cracks, so to speak, to find its way onto the street. There the supply is great enough and the price low enough that even people in poor neighborhoods can afford to use it, especially if their incomes are supplemented by prostitution or trading in stolen goods. At a higher level, the serious crooks who manage the transportation and storage of cocaine are giving way to Colombians who have begun to infiltrate in small but alarming numbers. Colombian criminals are about as violent as they get. They bring with them types of crimes we hadn’t the pleasure to experience in the past.

For example, the latest evil practice plaguing the country is kidnapping for ransom, a Colombian specialty. People of middle-class means have been dragged out of cars or places of business and held until their families can satisfy the monetary demands, which usually are quite modest given the seriousness of the crime. However, as ransoms have been paid, the cost of freedom has been going up. A few weeks ago, the son of a meat merchant was held for $1.5 million, an impossible sum to pay, which stalled the negotiations. Finally, the secret National Security Police stormed the gang’s hideout, killing one kidnapper and capturing two others. Unfortunately, the hostage was killed during the mission, but hopefully his sacrifice will send a message to kidnapping gangs that the nation is resolved to deal with them on tough terms. In my case, I hope no kidnappers mistake me for a rich guy. There’s no one here to ransom me.

(1) Language barrier. The major -- some might say the only -- problem with Paradise is that not everyone speaks the language of Shakespeare. Why didn’t the Puritans come here instead of Massachusetts? one might ask. Much better weather and wild turkeys abound. Instead, the followers of Cristobal Colon arrived here and were never challenged. Thus, the country became Spanish-speaking in the 16th century and remains faithfully so. Although most of my customers are fluent in English, as are audiophiles everywhere it would seem, the man on the street speaks espa˝ol only. Sales clerks at Radio Shack, the pharmacy and in the mall are difficult enough to reason with in heavily accented Spanish. I dread to think of explaining my wants in English.

The redeeming feature of espa˝ol (besides the way it sounds) is it is easier to learn than German, Russian, Greek or English. I took up the study of at age 44 and after ten years speak almost as well as a native-born child, the level at which most expatriates mangle the language. That I can converse at all is a miracle according to a Peace Corps member I met here in 1989. The fellow, a young schoolteacher, told me to forget about studying Spanish, that it was impossible to acquire a new language after the age of 40. If I had any trepidation about learning the idioma, it dissolved in the face of such ignorance. Sure, it may be tougher to learn a foreign language after decades of disuse and bad habits have atrophied the brain cells, but it’s not impossible, as your ancient scribe can attest.

For the adamant, Spanish is not mandatory. It is possible to enjoy life in an English-only fog. Price Smart shopping club, cable television and the Internet enable one to make his abode a miniature American enclave. If you must leave the house, people do not cold-shoulder the language-impaired as they do in some countries. If you require a translation during the course of the day, usually someone nearby will be glad to help. Besides, there are plenty of hangouts that cater to tourists and non-Spanish speakers. However, since the prettiest and sweetest girls do not frequent such places, it just means more good luck for Jim. Come to think of it, don’t bother with all that studying -- your English is fine. I’ll be happy to translate on your behalf as soon as I’m done flirting with the object of your desires.

Which concludes a list of reasons not to come to Paradise. However, weighing pros versus cons, I think the balance favors pulling up stakes and moving here. At least come for a visit sometime. All audiophiles are invited to give me a call when in town. I keep the refri full of beer, the bar stocked with hard liquor and fine Chilean wines. The Wilson Watt/Puppy 6es have been playing for a few weeks and sound glorious. Just bring your favorite music and be ready to be impressed -- if not by the system, then wait until you see Monica in her French maid’s outfit. That is if you can convince her to wear it. How’s your Spanish? 

James Saxon


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