Welcome to the Adventure

Living in Mexico is often indescribable...you just have to live here. I have been journaling experiences for a while, and I hope you can get a feel for stupid-ass gringos trying to get it. But I am still here, and that says a lot for those of us sticking it out, as the payback is what makes life so good here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Food 3.0 - Teaching for Food and Drink

Crazy Kraut Cafe

I was thinking of those signs we used to see (and are still there I'm guessing, what with the economy and all) "will work for food". I had been asked many times since I have moved here to teach English. For money. From a local school, to the Universidad del Mar, everyone wants to learn English. The business in Huatulco is tourism. The university here specializes in global business and tourist-related business degrees. English is the language of global business. I'd declined all offers until last month. I couldn't see going back to work full-time (some of you know how pissy that made me before I retired), but enough time had passed, and I thought, ok, now's the time to jump back in. Larry jumped in with me (thank you). But only for food and drink....not money. Fortunately all of our students are in the restaurant business.

Of course, you know we would somehow hook up with the food industry here. It wasn't hard. We started with the Crazy Kraut Cafe staff. The Crazy Kraut is a cultural anomaly here in Huatulco, a "German" restaurant. Owned and run by Marion and Scott, it became, in a very short time, the restaurant for breakfast or lunch in town (soon to expand to dinner). Marion is an amazing cook, amazing! I couldn't begin to even get as creative as she is with substitutions to make an "authentic" German Chocolate Cake. Her Eggs Benedict, are the stuff of legends, in a community that generally doesn't even eat an egg for breakfast. Locals go. Tourists looking for anything non-Mexican go. Anyone looking for a little comfort food, will immediately be rewarded with her meatloaf sandwiches, homemade sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, and the occasional German "special". I've met more people at her restaurant, over a cup of coffee, than I have met in all 2 years here in Mexico.

Her staff wanted to learn English. Marion asked if we were up for it. How could we resist. No money I said, just those Eggs Benedict or the best crepes anywhere, would suffice, upon occasion. A deal was struck. Francisco, Sonia and Danny became our first students. They are between 19-21 years old, and interestingly, are all from Salina Cruz (2 hours south), who came up here to work, and yet didn't know each other before coming here. Francisco is the chef. Marian taught him everything Crazy Kraut. On his own, he is a fabulous cook as well, and does an occasional "special" of his own creation. Sonia is the "leader of the pack" so to speak. The alpha female of the "I'm not taking that shit" school. Love her. And Danny, is the sweetest, most fragile of the group, who thinks nothing of wearing green-metallic nail polish as he serves those Eggs Benedict.

As it was, after the first class, we wandered over to another local fav, the Krystal Rose for a drink. Our friend Juan owns this gem. A kind of high end restaurant (but enough things on the menu for all economic groups) that makes all foodie groups happy. His local Oaxacan dishes are renown, but he is more known for his way with the grill. Juan's brother, a musician at Krystal Rose, asked to jump into the class as we were talking about it with another waitress, Vivi. Vivi is now our "star" student by the way. She takes big risks with language, and is usually right on. And she is so funny. Michael is our "lover". He wants to sing "It's a Wonderful World" with perfect English pronunciation, I think to woo the girls. And when his eye moves to the street, ever so slightly during class, I look to see what woman is getting his admiration, and usually agree, it was worth the look. Great, I said, we have room.....then we called Marion to ask if was OK.

And so our little class grew. About 3 weeks into the class, I noticed another person was sitting in. She just appeared. Rosie, who owns the building where Marion has her restaurant, and runs the hotel there, joined the class. She brings the sparkle. She especially liked the command "come here now", as assorted kittens and children seem to be flitting around us. She truly sparkled as I told her it really was a useful phrase. She practices it with glee. Especially on the other students.

Yesterday we leisurely munched our way through the lesson. Street vendors passed by, selling among many things, tamales, plums and cherries from Michoacan, a cinnamon bread specialty from a local communidad. Our table was looking very close to a feast. We ate, discussed how different Mexican Spanish is from American English culturally. We spent an inordinate amount of time on nuances of words in both languages. And we laughed. We laughed as Vivi got on Michael for his wandering eye. We laughed talking about verbs "to make" and "to do" and the ever hilarious "to come"...they're are far hipper than you would think on that verb. And we laughed some more. We get paid big-time. Who would have thought we'd be working for food and drink, in Mexico.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Help...

I recently read an amazing, thought-provoking book, The Help, by Katherine Stockett. It is about black women working in white women's houses in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960's. At the end of her remarkable book, the author writes a short essay : Too Little, Too Late, recalling her family maid, Demetrie, and how this women contributed to her life. Her sadness though, was in not being able to talk to her about what it was like being a black women, working for a white family, in a time of racial strife in the U.S., as she died when the author was sixteen.

What does this have to do with living in Huatulco? When I first moved here, I was not going to have Mexican "help". It was too demeaning to hire someone to do your dirty work. I had visions of white Europeans going to India and Africa, and turning the people into servants; oppressing them, disabling them from more productive lives. Growing up poor in Berkeley, California, puts things into a different perspective, especially for a person who grew up in the 50's and 60's and being involved in the hurricane of the civil rights movement. I had visions of the Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" thing going on in my head. And so, I never had a housekeeper. I couldn't even imagine hiring someone to clean my house or cook my meals (honestly though, there were days).

In fact, I spent several years working as a maid in a motel, and didn't much like being thought of as a maid. You are treated differently. As soon as you mention you are maid, at say a cocktail party, suddenly the atmosphere changes. I had a college degree, and I felt different. I loved the job though. You are on your own, almost self-employed. You can see the end result of your labor and be proud of what a great cleaning job you just did. I was tipped well (in a community where tips ran to alternative types of "tips"), very well indeed. But that fact is, I didn't want to make anyone else ever feel inferior because of their job, and so resisted hiring help.

Now that I am older, and living in Mexico, I had to reconsider this position. My friend Susan was horrified I did not have "help". I was not helping the economy of Huatulco. It was my duty to have help. For the first few months, Larry and I handled the housework, and garden. We always had a pool specialist, Feliciano, who is such a great guy. Feliciano and his family lived in our house for seven months before we moved in. They knew everything about the house, and walked us through the idiosyncrasies of living in it when we finally came down. He's still mentoring Larry on the subtleties of living in Mexico, and Huatulco. We consult him about everything Huatulco.

Feliciano and his wife, Karina, take care of the house across the street from us. After much soul searching, I approached her about finding someone to come help for maybe 6 hours a week. She considered it for a few minutes, saying it might be hard, as it wasn't enough hours for someone to have an opportunity to make a living, but she would be glad to do it. Karina, one of the busiest women during the "season", does get months of leisure, and a nice house to take care of. She is also the Jafra Rep, Avon Rep, and handles a catalog sale-style clothing business. We struck a deal, whenever she had time, she would come do our floors, windows and kitchen. She comes at odd hours, granted, but in fact she cleans house just like I clean house. This room today, the kitchen tomorrow, the floors in a couple of days, the windows next week--just the way I like it. When I hurt my back, this turned into a blessing. I thank Karina everyday for just existing. She has made my life sooooo much better. I consider her our Life Coach, along with Feliciano. She actually, in her 6 hours a week, runs our house. Thank God she lives across the street.

We also have our good friend Juan. He is our garden consultant. He comes by once a week, to work with Larry, on garden development. We are surrounded by incredibly beautiful plants, trees, and flowers, mostly recommended by him, if not planted by him or Feliciano. He and Larry discuss good dirt, plants, trees, and life. He has been our friend since we first came to Huatulco, and his innate sense of horticulture is coming together as our garden starts to mature and look like something almost exotic. It was Juan's wife who taught me how to make Oaxacan tamales. And when my sister came she repeated the lesson with such pleasure, to show off how badly I failed at tamale making.

To the horror of other gringos here, we invite our "help" to dinner, take care of their kids, tutor their children, celebrate their family's good times, share in the sadness of bad times. We respect their knowledge and expertise, and try to show our appreciation every day. They connect us, and gave us an entrance into communities we otherwise would never have had an opportunity to become involved with. My sister and friends have made friends with our help. They bring gifts for everyone when they come to visit.

As I look at the flowers, the pool and the house, I feel blessed to have help. We couldn't live (well) here without them. They look after us. They laugh with us and at us. Our very foreign gringo ways sometimes puzzle them, but we are soon enough set straight. Help, I have learned doesn't mean having servants, it means having help. The Karinas, Felicianos and Juans of the world are considerably more important to us than their "job" title. They have given us far more than we can ever repay.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mezcal Road (think Silverado Trail in Napa Vally) to Oaxaca

On the road to Oaxaca

We just got an email from friends in Oaxaca, they want to come down to Huatulco for a visit in early June. Rene and Adriana run a B&B: Casa de los Milagros, and we have had the pleasure of staying there countless times, and they have become very good friends of ours. We will be going up to Oaxaca at the end of June, with our nephew Will and his friend Danny. And I'm thinking they are going to enjoy that ride. The road to Oaxaca is mezcal tasting country, a Mexican version of the Silverado Trail in Napa.

Let's just say it is a significantly different drive, and a potentially more dangerous one, for many reason, least of all mezcal. But the mezcal places on the way beg for us to stop and taste, and we do. You have to. When we pull in, the owners exude pride and enthusiasm. We are always treated like honored guests. We marvel at how they get that "delicious" mezcal out of that maguey plant. Everyone's mezcal tastes different. Que sopresa. Yet, there is still that lingering flavor that distinguishes it from tequilla.

From Huatulco it is about a 5 1/2 hours to Oaxaca. We go the "long" way, down to Salina Cruz and up to the mountains from that direction. The other way is about 4 1/2 hours and unless you have ever driven to Shelter Cove, California, you have no idea how curvy a road going up or down from 10,000 ft can be. There is a super highway coming down from Oaxaca that they have been working on for at least 10 years (its coming along), and ends in Puerto Escondido, almost an hour west of us. That will cut the trip to 3-4 hours, depende. I think though, we will always take the Mezcal Road route.

Enough of that story. The road up is a beautiful drive. Even my favorite check-point for the inevitable search of our car, bags and belongings, has its charm. As the check-point is below a mountain checkered with caves, and from the road we see these stalagtites and stlagmites in the mouth's of these caves, we always hope to get pulled over. They are truly a vision. Beckoning you in to explore, but nearly impossible to get up there. From there we start moving into the mountains, and we begin to see the maguey cactus (a form of agave - think tequilla) in the hillsides and valleys. The first time we drove up, it was hard to spot a maquey cactus farm (3 years ago), and now it's like every 100 yards or so there is another "boutique" mezcal tasting room and maguey farm. Everybody is making mezcal. It is the state drink of Oaxaca. They scorn tequilla, that's for wimps.

I can't stand the stuff myself, but I am acquiring an appreciation of fine mezcal. It has a smoky peaty taste, with a strong white-lightening back, that can knock you on your ass after one shot. Everybody wants you to taste their mezcal these days. Tasting rooms are now even in Huatulco! Early on the mezcal road, mexcal stands tend to be traditional, that is a lean to, with tree stumps for sitting, everything done out in the open, and the oven is always going. The donkey is outside a circular pit, walking around turning a large stone wheel that is crushing the maguey and getting the juice out. Much like the crushing of grapes. Except that the bulb (pina) has been roasted in an oven (brick, underground); the wood they use for charcoal contributes to the flavor.

They usually serve the mezcal from a used tequilla bottle (?), or soda liter bottle. They tell you what they do to get that flavor, we nod, of course it's all in your dedication and secret something that makes this one better, I always think. It is nasty. Nasty. I choke and sputter, Larry laughs and makes a face. We thank them very much and never buy a bottle. But the interesting thing about the Mezcal Road, is that the mexcal improves the closer we get to Oaxaca. And thats when we might buy a bottle, might.

The high-end mezcal tasting rooms are cozy, beautifully built, designed, decorated places. Chairs, tables, a bar, some live music. There's usually a demonstration area out back for those who haven't seen how mezcal is made yet (hard to believe if you have driven this road even once). They have clear mezcal, golden mezcal, mezcal cream with flavors (think Baily's Irish Creme), aged, fresh, they have it all. Now the creamy mexcal flavored with coconut or pineapple is pretty good. Over ice, on a hot day, you get a nice buzz. It doesn't have that pure mezcal kick, from drinking it straight. And that is how you drink it. By the shot. They don't use it in any mixed drinks down here. What's the point, you'll only get the mezcal flavor, and it is not a good flavor mixed with anything else, trust me. Straight shot.

Mezcal is embedded in the culture. People even go house to house selling mezcal; there is always a mezcal person in the communidades. On of our favorite places, La Finca in Huatulco, after a great BBQ dinner, starts pouring the mezcal, and then the party begins, or continues, depending on when you jumped into the mezcal course. Crazy. So, I'm sure the nephew and friend, will enjoy that drive. We'll let them sample.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

P.S. Still with the Birds...it's short guys

Larry caught an incredible moment this morning, when the parrots swooped into the cactus and caught a mother feeding her baby after she stopped by the cactus. Had to share.

Larry about 16 swooped in..this is a rare sight!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

This is for the bird watchers...I know you are out there..

Whistling Ducks

This morning's coffee lasted two hours. Blame it on the birds. The cactus in front of our house has turned into a rookery or an open-to-the-world aviary, if there is such a thing. It is a combination of mating season, a giant garambullo cactus available for nesting, and the cactus fruit (much like pomegranate crossed with blackberries, juicy and very sweet inside, enclosed in a prickly, long spiked bulb). Like a cataclysmic "perfect storm", this combination of events has turned our cactus into a circus of birds.

The Golden-cheeked Woodpecker (or Golden-fronted, sometimes can’t tell difference, and is on an endangered species list) or is it just an ordinary flicker?, raised the alarm to the rest of the bird world that the fruit was ripe for eating. They, along with the Great Kiskadees, assorted flycatchers, White-throated Magpie Jays, Rufous-naped wrens, the glorious orange Altimira Orioles, Great Tailed Crackles and the Yellow-winged Caciques were already around the cactus, munching on the insects. But the woodpecker, with their wonderful long bills, hit the fruit first. It has been like Grand Central Station in NYC, during commute hours since.

The crackles had already started to build their yearly communal nest. Several crackles nest together in this species. Fortunately, they have a sweet song, and so the little guys are charming, not annoying. Last year we watched as they left the nest one at the time. It was touch and go for us, as well as for them. I wanted to run down and catch any that fell, because as the babies rocked back and forth, it didn't look like they could get those big bodies, with baby wings, up in the air, por nada.

Ground Doves found a spot to nest, as well as the kiskadees. The kiskadees have chased off the Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, but Larry says they sneak back at night to roost. Now they are a sight to behold. Large, lovely reddish brown color, pretty faces, they have a sweet, distinctive, whistling sound. Grooved Billed Ani hang around, reminding me of little all black penguins, and they tend to bother the Rufous-naped wrens, as they try to build a nest in the cactus. We have a Rufous couple building a nest in our patio/dinning room area now.

Altimira Oriole

When did I learn all these names. I could barely recognize a blue jay in California, as some of you may remember. It started when we moved here, eating in front of the cactus, and watching life evolve as we enjoyed breakfast. The bird book is almost always on the table. As we spotted a new bird, we looked it up. But honestly, we noticed the obvious iguanas that roosted in the cactus first, doing their up and down dances, reflecting a variety of colors they happen to come in, before we noticed the birds. Birds would chase away each other, but never the iguanas. The cactus this year has a plethora of fruit (we haven't figured out why yet, as it doesn't seem to be connected to amount of rain or lack of rain). Thus, we have a bountiful harvest of birds.

Oaxaca is a world-famous bird watching mecca. The parrots come during the cooler months (80's), and this year we spotted a pair that should have been further south, lovely, large red-headed parrots. The parrots are talkative, we hear them coming and going. Yack, yack, yack. The pelicans have just finished their migration north for the most part, and I miss their diving beauty as they hit the ocean straight on, to catch their fish. A few are still hanging out though. The Magnificent Frigatebirds, and Great Frigatebirds have started to come in more. They are ocean birds that hug the coast, and look like ancient pterodactyls. The White-throated Magpie Jays have just arrived, beautiful with their top knots and long tails, so the rains must be coming. The Ground Doves have just hatched their young, and like the baby quail we have in California, they are running all over the place in the yard. The Ferruginous Pygmy owl is annoyingly hooting all day and night long right now, looking for that mate. And the Northern Cardinal has just shown up and we are treated to flashes of brilliant red in the sky and surrounding trees.

Our breakfasts tend to be long-lasting these days, as well as dinner. As the sun sets, the birds hit the cactus one more time, and then go off to settle for the night. One cannot help but notice birds here. There are so many beautiful, colorful, variety of birds, we have been drawn into the bird-watching world, reluctantly at first, and now enthusiastically. We have bird tours here, and many bird-watchers pass through Oaxaca to increase their counts dramatically in one trip. I see why. I look forward to breakfast everyday. Who cares what we eat, when, while sipping my cappuccino, we get a show that is incomparable.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Vela

Oaxaca wouldn't be Oaxaca without the vela. As it happened, while sitting at Azul, a local hangout on the zocalo in La Crucecita yesterday, we were honored to view one of these lovely velas, as women in traditional costume, parade through town in their embroidered dresses. The dresses are a works of art, partly based on early colonial influence and taken over by the Mixtec/Zapotecan locals, and raised to brilliantly colorful heights.

May is vela season in Oaxaca. Velas usually come together to celebrate a community's saints day, or just for the fun of it, as in Juchitan, where later this year, muxes (men that dress in these incredible outfits, parade and have a dance, drawing hordes of tourists from all over the world) will throw one of the biggest velas in Oaxaca. But yesterday was a local celebration. Hundreds of women and girls come together from the communidades , attend a blessing at the church, and then take to the streets in something that is awfully close to a Mardi Gras parade. Instead of beads being tossed out, the women throw household items, candies, fruit, fans, cooking spoons, spatulas. I came away with two lovely blue glasses, a candy dish, a tupperware storage bowl, a dishtowel, and a ton of Mexican candy. The women and their families then gather at the end of the parade to eat and dance. Everyone brings a dish to share or trade, and live bands perform for the dancers to show off their dresses with traditional dances.

We were sitting in Blue, with two of our students, for conversation practice. Larry and I practicing our Spanish, Miquel and Vivi practicing their English. This could become a tradition in itself, meeting up at the local pub, order a couple of margaritas, and talk. Humm. Towards the end, when we were considering food, a military band came into the zocalo, signaling an event in the making. Next from the side streets came women moving towards the church, carrying baskets of goodies, walking gracefully in their voluminous swaying dresses, looking regal. They receive their blessing, and as they leave the church, the parade forms up.

Trucks and cars that have been turned into floats, move into position; the women carrying banners representing their local group, head up teams of women and girls. Extraneous men get in position (mostly driving floats and throwing candy), and a local marching band leads the way with the queen of the vela. The women glide in precision, showing off their magnificently embroidered dresses, often in fantastical colors, to the music of the band. These dresses can represent a family fortune, an investment, and are turned into heirlooms as they are passed on to daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and friends.

Suddenly, a sleepy Saturday afternoon, turns into a festival. People came out of nowhere to fill the streets, children eagerly following the candy baskets, as everyone lobbied to be in the best place for catching the gifts that are thrown. In a moment's time, joy and laughter surrounded us, as everyone is taken in by the beauty of this event. We joined the crowd, cheered the floats, applauded the bands, and scrambled for those chili/tamarind suckers that the kids love, just like everyone else.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Food.2 And so it starts...Thai Food

I am not complaining, but....why are there no kick-ass Thai restaurants here? Every single ingredient that goes into a Thai dish (ok, lemon grass is not here) can be found in the market in La Crucecita. We have wonderful chefs in town, and Japanese food is well covered here. There is even a sushi bar, and many restaurants have Japanese dishes on their menus. There is a TV show: “Asialatina”, a truly amazing cooking show, taught by a Japanese chef, in Spanish, teaching us how to use what we have here to make these great Japanese dishes in our homes. I am encouraged. And when I asked local friends what food they liked best outside of homegrown, it was chinese food, if they had the opportunity to try “foreign” food. Imagine when they discover Thai food.

There is one sorta Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz. Run by a lovely woman, from Russia, who fled her way to freedom, (that whole Russian revolution thing) through Shanghai before WWII, on to wherever, and now runs the Chinese restaurant. I only heard this story 3rd hand, but I live to have a sit down with her and hear that story. My sorry ass would appreciate her more, if I hadn’t just come back from a trip to South East Asia, through Hong Kong (lovely trip), and had Chinese food there. But, in an emergency, she's here, at least for the season, to help us out.

What we noticed up in Oaxaca City (absolutely one of the marvels of Mexico), were a few, high-end fusion restaurants: Japanese/Mexican; Thai/Mexican; and SE Asian/Mexican. So they know. Oaxaca has attracted the young-blood chefs, mostly out of cooking schools in Mexico City, Guadalajara, as well as Montreal, Switzerland, Asia. They are taking huge risks with some innovative dishes in this notorious foody region, and blending what is unique about traditional Oaxacan food with a touch of Asian fusion. We love going to Oaxaca.

So here’s the pitch. If you happen to run into anyone talking retirement, who has owned a Thai restaurant, and wants a little hobby, here is the perfect place. They can train a few locals, and guarantee someone knows how to run a Thai Restaurant for future generations. The weather is mostly good, except for May, and no one’s here from May until November anyway, so you get extended vacations. Now all we will have to do is find a nice white wine from Chile or Argentina (our main supply for wine, cheap, not bad), which is really not their thing, at least by the innumerable tests we have done, innumerable. Of course, I have resorted to cooking my own, and Larry is getting quite good at several dishes. So we continue to thrive, against all odds.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Food.1, because you know I’m going to write a whole lot more on this topic, because there is a reason Mexican Cuisine is moving up gourmet ally.

I admittedly am hooked on a novella (a soap opera that lasts maybe 3-4 months, and has an end!). They are a great way to learn nuances of the Spanish language. Novellas are so so intwined with the culture of Mexico. I pay attention in the food scenes, because you all know how I am.. The sheriff of Zacatillo in the novella Zacatillo...gets a delivery of take out. Tacos, green salsa in a baggie with a knot so not to spill a drop. He treats the salsa as if if were liquid gold. Why is the sheriff eating out? Well he was cheating on his wife, she found out and started “altering” his food. He doesn’t eat at home if he can avoid it. This is a comedy by the way. But food is central to this relationship, as it is central or the heart of Mexican culture. We should have listened more closely to Diane Kennedy, Susan Trilling or Rick Bayless even.

We had lunch today at El Tac’ntento. Es verdad! And you most certainly feel contento when you finish eating there. Four tacos, two drinks. But the FOOD. OMG! These are the tacos that in real life, in your kitchen, with help, would take you all day to make. Several choices of chicken or meat, or other traditional fillings, enhanced with the sauces/spices used to obtain THAT flavor. Fresh salsas are on the table, all sorts, a little cilantro, a twist of lime, are added, and two icy cokes (the national drink of Mexico, but that’s another story). The couple that run it are only open from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM, at which time your window of opportunity shuts. And these little street restaurants are all over Huatulco, all over.

There are food carts. There are the trunks of cars that produce complete meals. There are street restaurants like El Tac’ntento (where they have a stand, and a seating area where sometimes you have to bring your own chair) generally attached to the living quarters or are close to one, because it is a family affair. Then the “restaurants” with indoor seating, fans or air conditioners or both. Liquor. Maybe even good food, and entertainment. Depending. While Larry was down here building the house, he became a huge fan of the “Taco Bus”. An old school bus (old) converted to a taco stand. The tacos were sublime. Sadly, we heard they pulled up to Puerto Angel a few miles up the coast of us. Think Woodstock, moved to Mexico, to the beach, so baby boomers of a certain age can be found there as well as the low budget traveller (backpack with one change of clothes only), who wants a great beach, icy beer, maybe a joint, and a hammock for the night is just fine. Remember those days? The food was good then too.

When shopping for food we go to specific streets for specific items. We probably go to four to five stores before we even head for the supermarket, Super Che. We call the streets by what they sell, not their “given” name. Because when you say you are going down to fish street to see what’s come in today, everyone knows where fish street is. The same with the fruit and vegetable street, chicken street, and even flower street. The fresh fruit and vegetables (that you don’t nab from your own backyard) come in on Tuesdays, and Fridays. So those are must shopping days for most inhabitants of this region. Mexicans truly believe in fresh chicken. Fresh! And so if you insist, you go to chicken street. The chicken here is sooooo good. Juicy. Grills and roasts to perfection. A little yellow, from the corn, but locally grown. We see our favorite chefs in the market every week, and ponder on what delicious outcome will come from this trip to the market.

Meat street we avoid. It has to do with the 1910 Revolution. A very entertaining history, The Sausage Rebellion, tells the tale. They also believe in fresh beef, and their cuts are widely different from those found in the States and Canada. They hang it in stalls, drying. But, they do know how to cook meat, and they grill beef marinaded in secret sauce, carne asada, that can be a revelation. We are adapting. But every now and then a rib eye steak does call our name; we found a good butcher (who knows his market).

Everyone cooks. Generations of moles are still made in the traditional ways of the first mothers. Never ever make mole unless you have the time, ingredients (which are numerous, but you can taste everything in there), and patience to go for it. A friend took me through it twice. The second time was a remedial session she thought I needed. When I asked the why of some ingredient or step in the process, she would just laugh. Ok. I promise not to skip a step or even touch my food processer, that’s what my mortar and pestle (molcajete) is for. And that is why it tastes so good, and is far more sophisticated than many other cuisines of the world.

We are seemingly blessed year round with limes. We are in the middle of mango season right now, and who knew there were that many kinds of mangoes. We have two different kinds of bananas in the front yard (we could feed the entire region on what these trees produce), and a star fruit tree just getting going. The beautifully, sweet, ripe, specially arranged strawberries, in wheelbarrows pushed through the streets of La Crucecita, are sadly done. The honey people come down from the mountains to laddle honey into liter bottles for you, or bring your own container. I’m not complaining. The respect that is given food here speaks volumes. We are thankful. We know what it takes to bring these amazing foods to market. Thank you for letting me buy it, I say...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Life's speedbumps

Tope (speedbump) culture is one of the more fascinating elements of living here in Huatulco, and Mexico in general. I don’t think I have experienced a country more into their topes than Mexico. Fat ones, where you have to slowly roll over them, almost flat ones, where your rear end, or a tire can be fried if you didn't see it, with a warning sign, or most often not, topes are a fact of life here. But from the corn and juice thrust through your window, to the informal collection of charity monies for the fire department or a children’s park, to the tire, and auto mechanic’s shops conveniently located at many topes, it is a microcosm of daily life here in Huatulco. A 6 hour trip to say Acupulco is bumped (literally) to 9 hours, as there are easily over 270 topes between here and there!

My theory is that these speedbumps were meant to slow down bank robbers from speeding off with the loot. Or they are meant to slow one down to notice the town that isn't there. Or, actually what it really is, is another economic opportunity. Here in Huatulco recently, all the topes on a bicycle race route were removed days before the race, but the day after the race, those topes were back. I mean they chiseled and scrapped that cement off, the race went “smoothly”, and those topes were cemented back in. (Everyone has a job.)

Off to Salina Cruz (2 hours south of us) the other day, our first tope encounter was the fresh squeezed OJ stop. As we gently rolled over the tope, with window down and passing out 10 - 50 pesos in change, we’re handed a tall fresh squeezed OJ, iced (a mystery to us as they only have coolers and how long can they last in 98 degree weather), without even stopping. It’s so great! The fastest drive-through in the world. Five or six topes later, was our first food tope pick up. These enterprising women have about three bags of corn in each hand (3-4 ears) hot, with a little baggie of fresh squeezed lime juice, and some chile salt. This is a little trickier than the OJ hand off, as these suckers are hot. Nonetheless we managed 2 bags. Tope No. 12 (?) was our first rope across the road (oh shit we’re being robbed!), held by the cutest girls from the local elementary school, and their mamas. Cans in the hand, pay up, the rope gets dropped. It is so effective. And all they have to do is smile, and we’re digging between the seats for lost change.

The Isthmus area is quite interesting geographically, and Salina Cruz is the big oil port here. This is oil country, and refineries rule. It looks like an oil town, smells like an oil down, and I always think of those 1930‘s/40‘s film noirs being filmed here when we visit. Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, sneaking around corners, smoking, looking for a safe place to stall the bad guys. Mexicans use the word “feo” , ugly, when they talk about Salina Cruz, but this area does have it’s hidden charm. . Aside from Salina Cruz, there are towns here, including Juchitan, which have a unique charm and history. This is the heart of the indigenous peoples here. You see it in their markets, on the street, in the women dominating the business scene here, and the beautiful embroidered clothing unique to this area. This is were women rule, like no other place in Mexico. Women dominate the economy here. Not to say men don’t do anything... but the women here make it clear who is running the show. And so, the charm in this drive is the pristine beaches, salt farms, and utter emptiness, knowing that you are about to embark on yet another adventure.

These topes were a wonder to me when I first moved here, I cursed them like a sailor (as many of you who know me, my language has always been an issue), and now if there is no one on the tope to fuel me on to Salina Cruz, or Veracruz, or Oaxaca city, life is so not right. And so it goes...

Good Day Huatulco

About 6:30 this morning the chachalacas (a relative to wild turkeys, but so much more graceful, prettier and smaller) cranked up their starter motor-like calls to their mates and friends and that was our alarm clock today. I heard the orioles song rising above the kisscades, wrens, cardinals, and casiques. To me these orioles are birds that must have originated in China, as that is the language I hear when they sing their beautiful, plaintive songs, thinking to myself, “How did they get here?” I peaked out the window to see the pygmy owl peeping in the tree by my window, and wondered why he or she wasn’t heading for bed yet. It’s seemingly has been peeping day and night for weeks, as we are in the throes of mating season. Nests are being built like condos on Waikiki Beach. One is even being built on our patio. I pull on my swimming suit, as the cool morning air is the only time I don’t have to struggle to put the suit on in the 70% humidity that magically comes on by noon here. It is already about 85 degrees. I wander out to the living room, and check the ocean. Waves today are minimal, and the pelicans are diving for breakfast already. Wonderful, full-on dives. Lots of pelicans.

After looking to the mountains and a slight spy search on neighbors to see who else is up, I do take a few minutes to catch the news from the US. After I have made sure that all is still mostly intact with the world I head down for breakfast by the pool. And as the yellow-headed woodpeckers are trying to get to the delicious ruby read sweetness inside the prickly cactus fruit, I have the cup of coffee. We discuss what’s on the agenda for today, and as it turns out, today is the day we teach English to wait staff, chefs, and singers. Twice a week we go into La Crusicita to the krazy Kraut Cafe for classes. Thanks be to our target students, class doesn’t start until 4:00 PM. Plenty of time for my 40 laps and exercises in the pool so I can get my ass out of the wheelchair permanently and with confidence.

English class is two+ hours of raucous learning. These students are almost as bad as my jr. high students were, although they are all “adults”, albeit young adults. They pick on each other, call each of other endearing names (burro), answer questions someone else is to answer, a bit of pouting, a promise to study vocabulary, the usual. A lot of laughing though. Lots of laughing. By the time the class ends it is nearly 7 PM, and does anyone want to go have a beer or margarita! Hell ya! Off we go to a local place (today krystal Rose). Air conditioned just right. Great margaritas. And two of the staff are in our class, Michael the singer, and Vivi, a waitress. Michael starts up playing his keyboard, we practice our English/Spanish, and meet and great friends and friends of friends, as they come and go, during this “cocktail” hour(s). As the clock closes in on 9:30, we have got to go, we have to cook the chicken we pulled out of freezer, TODAY, or else. Back at the house, as the huge, bright red, full moon rises over Tangolunda Bay, Larry is frying the chicken, I am feeding Centa who has been wondering where they hell we have been since 8 PM (her usual “dinner” time). I take the nagging, and reassure her she is still the duena of the house, we are so sorry to be so late.

Heading down to the kitchen, I look at the stars and think to myself these aren’t the same constellation it took me 30 years to identify in the Bay Area, and take educated guesses as I look out over the bay and try to figure out if that is Mars over there or Venus. We settle down to juicy fried chicken (fastest method) and fruit, a glass of wine, and watch the bats swoop into our patio, helping us rid the world of the dreaded mosquitos. Centa wanders down, rubs against the legs (what?). Can it be 11:30 already? Larry shuts down the kitchen, as I head back upstairs to ready for bed. As we settle down, finally, in bed, we hear the music from one of the hotels across the bay from us, a ballad tonight, and Centa crawls in between us (where else) and we are done for the day.

The best thing about our days, is that everyone of them is so different from another, that we are still taken by surprise at the beauty of the country, the warmth and kindness of the people, the rhythms of life that keep us moving; the newness of living in a culture we are only just beginning to get a glimmer of, and have not regretted one day.

Tomorrow always comes too quickly, especially when we still want to linger in today. Yet tomorrow is as much as a gift as today, how lucky we are!

Phone Anyone?

Jeez Louise, if it can go wrong, it will in Mexico. The phone thing has about done me in. It only took us two years to get the thing, and that was just the beginning. Bureaucracy thrives here in Mexico. For Huatulco area residents this issue is compounded by the distance between here and the major metropolitan area that our bureaucrats depend upon, Oaxaca. Worse yet, if they have to go to Mexico City to consult a “higher” authority, I’m prepared to go three months for a result. The phone issues are only eclipsed by the process of opening a checking account, which is another story, but think signing about 45 pieces of paper and you are still not done. But I have learned an amazing lesson from this, I have come to Zen-like patience with a smidge of humor, and bottom line, I’m still here.

Larry ordered our phone line, per a friend’s advice, when the house first started going up, because it will take that long to get a phone, she warned. Ok. That was three and 1/2 years ago. When we arrived I truly believed we had phone! No. Larry went down to Telmex a couple of times. Guys came out. Lots of walking around. Finally they come by to tell us we can’t get a phone, as all the lines on our street have been taken by the other 4 houses. Really, a daughter and sister of life-long employees of the phone company, Larry sic’ d me on Telmex. I went to the office, explained how you most certainly can hook us up, and let me talk to the technician if he doesn’t know how to do it. They freaked. Two days later, a crew supervised by a woman (yes!) with extreme confidence (this is a whole other story also, but she was so right on) worked well into the night to dig those ditches, and run those lines (actually Larry dug the ditch, because they "just run the lines"). This crew was brought in from Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, and it is a two-day drive from where they came from. Which is even more rural and further away yet from a major metropolitan area. This is so Mexico. What!?

We got phone. Then we got the phone number. Great, if anyone ever got a hold of us, they asked who the fluent Spanish speakers were that answered and said we weren’t there. Ooops. Two families in Huatulco got the same number. Guess who one of those families was? We went down to the phone office (once again) and where told it is not possible. I agree, it can't be possible Ok. We live with it for a couple of more weeks, when one afternoon we get a call from a Telmex technician asking “where were we” and we said “home”, and he said he was “sitting in front of the house and there was no one there”. We said “Conejos?”, he said “no, Sector K” (another neighborhood far, far away). Ah ha! Not possible...they never heard of party lines I guess. We did get our own phone number, and no longer share it.

Now this week we were cut off on Monday, because we were delinquent in our bill. We pay on line like civilized people. In fact it wasn’t even the most current bill we were delinquent on, it was the bill from two months ago. We always send it the same exact way every month (1 & 1/2 years now), bank takes it out of account, assures us they paid. No, we didn’t according to Telmex. After lengthy investigation, in front of Larry, on the computer, seems someone changed our account number. Weren’t sure what happened but they will straighten it out right a way. A week, maybe two we said. Turns out our $ went to Telmex limbo. We got our phone back on Wednesday, by the way, they didn’t want to see Larry again this week.

I know it all has to do with moving into a new culture. That no one, not one person, really seemed to think we had a problem (except other expats), drove me nuts. They knew it would resolve, we will have our happy ending, it always does, you just have to be patient. Bureaucracy, is when every one has a job. We witnessed more phone calls and internet communications, and the dreaded “we have to wait to hear from the Mexico City office”, regarding the shut off. There was a contest two years ago, sponsored by the government, asking the citizens of Mexico what the worst bureaucracy nightmare they had experienced. You will laugh, the number one, by far the worst, was the Mexican DMV, I would have voted for the phone company.

It does call up the worst things about Americans when we bump up against these various bureaucratic idosyncracies , doesn’t it? I have seen Americans rage against “the machine” here. What we didn’t know was so freaking easy: take a breath, have a beer, slow down and trust that this will all work out, really. I was so into the now, I realized, I didn’t really enjoy the journey one can have here, trusting the culture. We, in the end, felt such satisfaction and the rightness of this journey. We praised the effort, so valiant; the actual work, so heroic, and we got our phone and internet. Duh. How is it that the richest man in the world owns Telmex? Does he know two families have the same phone number? But I’m cool, I can laugh and roll with it. Sometimes.