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.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jaguarundis and getting the coffee

I’ve lived here three years (dang it goes so fast), looking for Jaguarundis. I saw my first jaguarundis this week. The first was strolling across the lot below us. I said something like, “damn that’s a big, long bodied, very long tailed cat”, but likely a more descriptive oh shit! came out of my mouth. So that’s what they look like. Yesterday we went up to Pluma for coffee, because we have sold our souls to that little community and try only to buy our coffee there. Many of you in the next few weeks will be benefitting from this lovely coffee. The trip up is not so easy, as the road is always in the process of disintegrating at a blind curve, leaving gaping holes that are one’s worst nightmare. Lupe went with us, and we howled all the way up. For those of you who have driven that road, it’s not that good anymore. As we started into Santa Maria, there lopping across the road, was my second jaguarundi, heading into the tall grass on the other side.

I am not sure of the size of Pluma Hidalgo, but it is basically the church and a surrounding block of people, but spread out, on the perilous ledges that drop into deep canyons out their back doors. We just about know everyone surrounding the zocalo now. We stopped by our coffee guy, Diamonte, a shack of delicious coffee. I love that shack and I love the owner..... His family has owned a coffee finca for generations, and he has blown up posters of his father leading a horse, out in the coffee fields, surrounded by workers from long ago time. He continues the tradition today, and we’ve seen him a lot, because when visitors come, it’s one of those short road trips that shows off how incredibly beautiful this part of Oaxaca is, and how a 45 minute drive up a mountain can put you into a completely different, Alpinish Tahoe, world. The trip out of Pochutla up to Oaxaca is an even more dramatic drive and view, for those of you who do not suffer from car sickness or fear of heights.

There are a couple of bakeries , a couple of basic needs type tiendas, three restaurants, which tells you a lot about the population, because in Hautulco it’s how many per block, and one of the best churches outside of the one in Santa Maria de Hautalco (lovely homage to the Virgin in all of her manifestations, done by local people). The church in Pluma Hidalgo is the Dr. Jesus church. I wrote earlier about the PEMEX baby Jesus, here, Jesus is portrayed as a physician. All the accoutrements hang about him, and I think he must have a diagnosis and cure for me. I love that church, always quiet, cool, and different yet again from anything you have seen anywhere else.

We always want to stop by the plant woman. A block down from the zocalo, on the corner is a little tienda, that sells a bit of this and that. Small, limited selection. But her true treasure is what is behind her tienda, the most amazing nursery/preserve you will ever see in the area. Her specialty are orchids. I lust for them, but alas they would so die just 45 minutes down the mountain from here. We do buy shade plants from her, and linger to talk of the history of her little nursery. Hurricane Paulina, in 1997, pretty much wiped the coffee plantations, farms, and native plants out by the salt dumped into the soil when Hurricane Paulina hit, ruining many lives in it’s wake. (A side to this hurricane, many, many girls born in 1997-98 were named Paulina). She went on a rescue mission, and started cultivating her own collection, and growing local plants to put back into the area. She knows everything, and is wonderful resource.

Driving back down, I looked for Jaguarundis once again. They are on endangered species lists, and I hope the sightings suggest they are starting to thrive. Lupe always says when she’s out with us, there’s always “something” happening. It was indeed a beautiful drive, even the parts where the road narrowed to barely a lane, as the other lane fell down a few thousand feet, and there is nothing there but air, but oh a lovely waterfall, and incomparable views from the mountains to the oceans. It is much cooler up there, and a perfect drive for a hot day. And the jaguarundi was the bonus....

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oaxaca living....PEMEX, baby Jesus, and such

Living in Mexico is like getting a gift, that takes years to unwrap. Evidence the photo to the left. An altar, with baby Jesus dressed in a PEMEX uniform (we think they used a girl doll), on the lawn of maybe 2 PEMEX (the only gas stations in Mexico, as the oil/gas is a federal government operation) stops before you hit a reasonable bathroom (one that has a seat, although not mandatory in an emergency, and one does not have to carry in a bucket of water to flush or your own TP....). What can I say, most travelers plan their stops around known PEMEX locations. We have them down from here to Veracruz, and of course to Oaxaca. But, by far, my favorite is the PEMEX located about an hour and half out of Oaxaca. We always stop. Always. This is also the only PEMEX on the road that charges you to use their bathrooms. The two peso charge is reasonable, I’m thinking considering everyone, truckers, collectivos, the army, stop by here for gas, and junk food. I'm even thinking of doing a PEMEX guide for southern Mexico.

But it would be so wrong not to stop by PEMEX baby Jesus, just to pay respects. As you go to the bathrooms, there is a little piece of “park” bordering the open, utter wildness of the mountains. Whatever, in the middle of the lawn is the altar, and baby Jesus is there in the PEMEX suit. Immaculate. Everyone wanders over to the altar... tourists and nationals alike. But it does say a lot about Mexican culture, and their sense of humor, and their spirituality and maybe more stuff than I can come to right now, but it is a holy site. It is respected. No one messes with it, it’s been there for as long as we have been driving the road.

One of Oaxaca’s major events, the Guelaguetza, begins next weekend (July 25), (see the website, you can change it to English, but it will give you an idea (http://www.viveoaxaca.org/2011/04/guelaguetza-2011-25-de-julio-y-1-de.html). This is almost like a Pow Wow, at home, as 16 + “ethnolinguistic” groups or “tribes” come together and dance, up on the hill above Oaxaca city, in a stadium dedicated to this event, period. It’s an act of solidarity that is tourist and national oriented alike, and the town parties, and every artisan comes, and it is an amazing few days in Oaxaca. Which I will miss again, as I pound my head, because it just never works out. Just like the Radish Festival in December, where the zocalo is filled with carved radishes of all sorts (not your salad radishes, but radishes on hormones, 3-4 ft tall and lbs, yet still red and white), but mostly of the Virgin de Guadalupe, because December belongs to her here, until the arrival of the baby Jesus.

Huatulco locals/those born and raised here, (pre-Fonatur and development, just about 30 years ago it all started) reflect the dual spiritualty part of Oaxaca, as seen in things like altars and dances. I know I’ve mentioned this book before, The Edge of Enchantment: Sovereignty and Ceremony in Huatulco, Mexico, Alicia Maria Gonzalez, author; Roberto Ysais, photographer, produced an amazing book, a history of this area and it’s people. People who live here usually have a copy around, and I see on Amazon that it is running $139. and I almost choked (like maybe we spent $20 new). It is a wonderful, articulate, beautifully illustrated book that looks at some of those ethnolinguistic groups, centered in the Huatulco area. When you visit, glance through it, you will get a sense of a spiritualness that reflects European POV with native sensibilities. Let's just say it isn’t the Catholicism some of us were raised with. Mingled with the beliefs of local Indian groups, it all makes perfect sense, and certainly showed the canniness of those Catholic missionaries who came and oppressed people who were perfectly happy in their belief system if not their lives, I’m sure. (It’s that history teacher thing that tweaks my view by the way). So it isn’t lost, but has been infused with indigenous symbols and beliefs.

The Guelaquetza, like the shrines along the highways, like Jesus in a PEMEX suit, blend two cultures. We have watched altars put up on a road, then seen elderly women burning herbs, saying prayers and moving about the altars, in a tradition long in place here before the Spaniards had their way. In traditional clothing, you see a reflection of the Spanish culture of the 1800’s, a combination of a baroque, almost Victorian tinge, mingled with indigenous designs and handiwork. The dances reflect the cultures as well, with European courtly styles of dance, woven into traditional dance and music. Layers and layers to unwrap.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Huatulco rain

They're back and hungry

We don’t get those wonderful White-fronted or Lilac-Crowned Parrots all year round, but June here is different. One day you hear them coming, as they are the loudest, most talkative birds out there. I just read an article about how only a couple of species have that talk gene down: humans and a few birds! The parrots are born in April, and the parents literally kick them out in June. They sweep into Conejos, and our trees, already a rich lush green, come alive with brilliant red wings, yellow or purple head tops, glistening green bodies. They are big! No doubt! We had a great show for about 2 weeks, although some are still lingering, the rest have moved on. I didn’t remember it being this intense in Conejos before, whereas we would see 30-50 together, we are talking hundreds these last two weeks, flying together. Friend Kathy was properly dazzled. You couldn’t have had a more spectacular bird watching time than this.

It is as if mother nature decided this is the year for profound fecundity, as we have been over run with baby iguanas (sparkling green and so cute), red and blue land crabs (all over the house, clicking and scooting sideways as fast as claws will allow, they are fast littler suckers), baby flickers trying to peck their way through a bit of cactus for that delicious something, flowers blooming we haven’t seen before, butterflies drawn by the lantana plants, and the hummingbird babies the lantana seem to also draw. I have a new respect for lantana.

We have been busy with guests, Adriana, Rene and their two little ones, Renecito, 6, and Diego, 2, just left. The pool was a hit with Diego and little Rene. Diego would go to it first thing in the morning, diapers and all, and Adriana would pick him up out of the pool with diapers that exploded to an unbelievable size (just goes to show how much water they can hold), and we watched as he tried to waddle around before we took mercy and relieved him of his burden. On the morning they left for the drive back to Oaxaca, there he was again, sitting in the pool, all dressed in his traveling outfit..... It was a lovely time, and we so enjoyed them, as well as Kathy, and even Scott and Marian (old Krazy Kraut friends), stayed by us for a week, while they settled in.

I have been keeping busy with Huatulco Eye (huatulcoeye.com) magazine, in between guests, but now have time to go back to blog for a few entries before we head up to Wisconsin and Canada, and the East Coast. We have made so many Canadian friends here (because that is all who seem to be able to afford to take a vacation these days), that we actually have places to visit, with friends to show us around. Of course, they will all be heading down here come November anyway, but I am looking forward to seeing them in their home turf.

Reading, a passion, has led me to two fab books, The Map of Time, Felix J Palma (translated from the Spanish), where the hero, H. G. Wells and his “time machine”, in this fantastical novel save the world so to speak, with mystery and fun. I had to follow it up with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and brief so it is (there’s a mercy), although in terms of understanding what you are reading is a different matter. I manage a chapter every few days, because after you read a chapter, it takes a few days to process... Thank God I’m retired. Even when I was trying to teach this stuff to Jr High kids, it was a tough sell, from a history teacher no less. But together, these books give one plenty of food for thought, and makes me wish I had paid more attention in my Physics and Astronomy classes from 40 years ago... of course that was the dark ages in science anyway, so it goes.

The rain is what has kept me at the reading. Tropical rain is different from Northern California rain. The thunder and lightening alone differentiate the experience.... but it is the 5 inches in two hours that does one in. We have had drenching rains since last week, and today is the first day of sun. It gets down right cold, like 70 degrees, we are putting bedspreads back on the bed, to keep warm. I had to dig out long sleeve shirts and long pants. I know you in California laugh, but when you are used to 85-87, almost all the time, this is cold. Centa, as you notice is no slouch in the rain, this is power nap time. Larry has been running around clearing gutters seemingly hourly, as the water can back up, then flood, in minutes. The potholes are astounding, and the workers cannot keep up. La Crucecita has streets where they are just dumping in stones in the holes until they can get to it. Ah, nothing like the rainy season in tropical Mexico.

The morning glories are starting to climb the trees though, and we expect an explosion of blue flowers, like Christmas ornaments, any day now. The ocean has been very rough, and fishing has slowed considerably, oh how we suffer.... But it is back to being lush, green, and colorful, once again. Oaxaca is truly lovely in the rainy season.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

On the road..Puerto Escondido

In the past two weeks we have hit the road twice to Puerto Escondido. An hour and half away, we might go up twice a year, and but definitely not twice in two weeks. I don’t know why. Actually I do. Larry does the driving, and it ain’t an easy drive. It will be soon though, because hot damn, progress and a four-lane highway are coming to Huatulco (any year now). But Highway 200 has already been widened in parts and so now we know it’s really coming.

We were up there last week in one of the communidades, Cozoatepec, with Piña Palmera participating in one of their outreach days. This is a lovely community, nestled into the foothills of coastal Oaxaca, maybe a half hour from Puerto Escondido. The outreach program brings about 25 adults and children with disabilities, together with family members and community members to work on social and life skills in general, as a group. About three hours are devoted to team-building activities. One thing I did notice, in the group sing-off throw down, the Mexican peoples know way more songs by heart than I bet anyone else in the world. It was great! I hadn’t laughed and had this good a time with kids, since the retirement. I’d be talking away in my very poor Spanish to someone, they would nod, laugh (a lot), and look me dead on, until Pilar (a treasure of a born to be teacher) whispered in my ear they don’t speak Spanish. Oh! Zapotecan. At the end of the activities, there was a celebration for Day of the Children (gotta love Mexico). All the families brought something to share for like 50 people. We had etole (a drink made of corn - served hot) made with peanuts, tamales of various kinds, lots of vitamin drinks (as there are failure to thrive babies, who are only nursing - at the steps of malnutrition, hard to believe....)

This is how cool this community is: Larry left his (very expensive) camera there. A community member picked it up, passed it back to Piña, and we picked it up Thursday, when once again we headed up to Puerto Escondido. I’m writing a road trip piece on that drive. There is a serious reason though to now embrace that drive, a chocolate dude has moved to Puerto, a Belgium who makes chocolate in the European style, and has brought a bit of heaven to our already near paradisiacal life. Plus we found a beach community, La Escobilla, an eco-tourist cooperative of environmentally minded people, who are working to ensure all those baby turtles that make a run for it in June, July, August (full moon best time they say) when thousands hit the beach for the run to the ocean. If this were California they would have closed this stretch of the beach off for life, with posted guards (if there was any money left in that state’s budget).

The La Escobilla community rents cabanas on the beach for about $20 a night, and you too can participate in the turtle run. The turtles lay their eggs from December to February, and thousands come ashore at that time to lay the eggs. The babies start their journey back in summer. We are checking moons as I am typing this now. So what with the chocolate guy, and the turtle beach, and some semi-decent food on the beach there, the trip up is not so bad.

We did check out a development that I had seen on House Hunters International (addicted). Just to see. Puerto Escondido is a rapidly growing city, and I am sure it will hugely benefit from the new highway down from Oaxaca city that will cut a 6-8 hour drive (depending) into 3-1/2 hours. We in Huatulco know it will bring huge changes, but hope not. Puerto Escondido may have less constrictions in building and is undoubtedly going to get bigger - I fear shades of Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Escondido used to a hardcore surfer town, with serious surfers from all other the world, finding their way there. In the last few years it has been gentrifying up, and attracting Canadians and Americans who want to live on the beach, in a nice house. It still has a hippy, surfer, ganja vibe to it, and is far more “European” in their community, with people from all over the world opening up coffee shops, vegetarian-natural food restaurants, and hanging on the beach, retired hippy surfers (with hair long enough to tell a story), and the usual cast of characters who only come to Mexico for the “season”. It attracts a different crowd from Huatulco (which is yet to come up with an “identity” like say San Miguel de Allende)....but it is different from here. For one, when Fonatur (government tourist agency) is involved in a developed area, they tend to keep the place to a certain level of pristineness, that is actually enhanced and maintained. Plus Huatulco has most of it’s land set aside as national park, so it’s development was unique to other Fornatur projects....anyway.

Puerto Escondido has way more “hip” places for sure. Not just the chocolate shop, but there is a solar energy store up there, selling solar and self sustaining type stuff, a great beach and harbor, and some good food. It also has started to install solar street lights, now that’s hip. It’s got character.

The trip back goes quickly, we pass beaches we say we will visit next time. We see little restaurants that beckon us on for just a taste, and the coco frios at every curve are offered to refresh us until the next curve, but there will be four lanes between here and there soon enough, and I'd hate to see too many changes on this road.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dia 7 and very warm nights

Sunset on a warm evening.

Dia 7 is this rock and roll band here the other night at the El Charro. El Charro is one of those kinds of places here that one could get used to going down to every Saturday night, for the music, of course. Dia 7 rocked the place. It’s been a long time since I have heard this kind of music, live, and in of all places Huatulco. We so rocked. Our good friends, Melissa and Kristen, came down for 4 days (they’re young) and we ended their last night there at the bar. Obstensibly we were going to hear a friend, Gabby, sing with the house band, but upon arrival was told the night was switched up. When we were hanging out front for a second, so was that night’s band. They looked like Huatulco wasn’t thier home, they had that sophisticated swagger to their grungy - sweaty - laid back look, that was perfect on an evening where at 11PM it was still 90. Hot.

Grasshoppers (crunchy - typical bar snack)

We had just come from dinner at La Finca near us in Bocana. Those of you have been here, I’ve dragged you to that BBQ place. But the guys who own it sing. Like angels. Ballads. They are brothers and nephews who sing and run the restaurants. If God was handing out gifts to families, these guys got the voice and BBQ rub, I swear. They are well known in southern Oaxaca, and sing at their two restaurants, and private events. We dragged along friend Shirley, an expat from England. It was a change up for her too. We had ended a very fun 4 days with them, in a whirlwind of catching up, seeing and doing things here, scuba diving, horseback riding and sangrita with shots of tequila, well, it was busy.

Not feeling the crunch

Melissa and Kristen have come in the throes of the “hot” part of the year here. Where from 3-6 PM everyone goes home and lays under the fan, then goes back to the business of living later. As in most warm, tropical countries, businesses are open well towards midnight, commerce is conducted only in the early morning hours or evening hours. Even doctors and dentists work evenings here. So sensible.

Anyway, it was such an opportunity to see/hear some great Latin rock. Dia 7 even did a little rockabilly thing, an old Elvis number - so gooood. It was great fun to be able to spend time with the women from SF. Makes me miss San Francisco when they talk about where they are eating, what happenings in The City keep them busy. But, they are so busy. This retired life tends to slow your ass down a bit. In the end, I’m soooo glad I am not in the working world anymore. Although an Iphone would be lovely, “but to what purpose”, I hear in the background (ahem, husband). But it is fun to hear about their world, I know they are havin’ fun.

We’re ready for the heat. Our routines for survival have been established. We keep an eye on the thunder/lightening storms over the mountains, and ever so slightly wish they would just move over a little bit more, for say, us. It’s coming. The rivers are starting to pick up content and speed in the last few weeks, it’s raining in the mountains. All tourists and most snowbirds have bailed. Nice. We’ll muster on, just rearrange our hours.

A friend is coming down in June. We’ll be doing a little mezcal tasting trip to Oaxaca. This should be fun. I’m working on an article about mezcal for our local rag, Huatulcoeye.com, that will be in one of the summer issues. I am also working on a project for Piña Palmera, a brochure (and this is a slow process for me), so I’m thinking I’m filling time efficiently, but not stressfully, enough these days. Melissa and Kristen where great company, and they reminded us how much we like living here, just for how it goes, riding horses through a river, eating at the local dives, running into friends and catching a rock band at the local bar....

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Piña Palmera - an oasis and opportunity for people with disabilities on the southern coastal Oaxaca

Piña Palmera, an independent-living program, based in Zipolite, for persons with disabilities including children and adults, has been a major resource in our area for over 20+ years. Adults and children from the rural communities that dot our coastal area have an opportunity to become independent, develop skills to facilitate their independence, and promote the acceptance of people with disabilities with dignity and respect. Clients are referred to Piña Palmera by doctors, outreach workers, families, communities and word of mouth. They come as outpatient or live-in clients, for education, vocational training, and learning independent living skills. Many clients have mainstreamed into their communities, living healthy, active lives, creating their own families, raising children, and earning respectable livings from the skills learned at Piña Palmera.

Using a wheelchair myself, it has been interesting/frustrating to experience accessibility throughout the world, and getting around in Mexico has been a challenge.... Ignorance, lack of publicity and enforcement of disability laws are all components that hold back opportunities for many people with disabilities in Mexico, especially in the rural areas, including Oaxaca. Anyone who has traveled in Mexico can attest to the challenge. In Oaxaca this is compounded by the very fact that it is still a very rural state, with little infrastructure to facilitate people with disabilities. Inclusive schools are haphazard at best, as a result many children are excluded from an education. Job opportunities in rural areas are almost nonexistent, and typically, many disabled workers are self-employed or do not work.

Piña Palmera’s mission statement says it all: “Our mission is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families in the southern coast of Oaxaca.” Our tour guide, Helen Heule, a volunteer there for four years, spoke to us at great length about Piña Palmera’s programs and their clients. They serve over 400 individuals right now, from communities including Puerto Escondido, Rio Grande, Morro Mazatan, Candelaria Loxicha, Tierra Blanca, Zipolite, and Cozoaltepec. Founded by Frank Douglas in 1984, it was initially built as a shelter for children with disabilities, and in the early days, many children were abandoned there. There are still four clients there from those days, and you would have to be very tough at heart to not want to reach out and do something for them and all of the others that come into Piña Palmera. In 1997, Piña Palmera was completely destroyed by Hurricane Paulina. It has since rebuilt into a what feels like a small African village, with round houses (brick) with thatched roofs, set in groves of palms and mango trees. Both the Swedish and Japanese governments have made contributions to the rebuilding and continuation of Piña Palmera after Paulina. Pina Palmera does not receive any funding from the state or federal government.

The day Larry and I visited, we had an opportunity of observe an early intervention session, with therapists working with toddlers in developing their physical/cognitive skills. Our tour led us through the lovely, park-like campus, and we visited the wood shop, paper making shop, and various therapy rooms. We met several volunteers, most of whom have been there for more than two years. Their enthusiasm, integrity, and skills have created a unique, compassionate, experience for their clients. The wood shop and paper making shop are run by former clients, now responsible for the business of creating beautiful handcrafted products and running the businesses. Francisco, himself a former client, was supervising the paper making process the day we visited. These lovely pieces of art are sold in Piña Palmera’s gift shop, run by Patricia, also a former client, which winningly displays the beautiful (and famous) flying wood birds, in brilliant and subtle colors, and diaries made of the homemade paper (colors are all natural dies including the reds from almond shells, and flowers and leaves are often in the paper). They also sell artisan crafts made by other persons with disabilities, artists in the area, allowing an outlet for many of these talented people.

Piña Palmera, though needs help. The world economy has hurt their funding tremendously. Flavia Anau, the director, indicated they are succeeding by a fragile thread, and are greatly in need of an infusion of money and volunteers. The money issue is obvious. It is expensive to pursue the dream of independence and acceptance in an area like Oaxaca. Of their many needs, a carpenter with machine experience would be greatly appreciated. Their woodworking workshop needs a leader that can teach others to work in wood, and maintain their machinery. A perfect fit for a retired carpenter!

Piña Palmera has started up an internet cafe as a way of funding the facility (minimally) , and they could use a computer tech type person to troubleshoot the computers, and train others in maintenance and solutions to the myriad small problems that come with computers. On Saturdays, one can have a massage ($250 peso donation) or a temazcal and massage for $300 peso donation, another fund raising project. After your temazcal and massage, there is pizza served (included in cost) made in their new brick oven. The brick oven is also used for their fledgling ceramics workshop, as they just made a pottery wheel in their wood shop, and are using the oven for their ceramic projects (along with the pizza!). They are also selling used clothing once a week, to help acquire more funds, but at this point it is all too little.

Volunteers come from all over the world, Europe, the US and Canada. They ask volunteers to stay at least six months for obvious reasons. Relationships are built slowly. Working with families, communities, and schools takes time. Volunteers come with credentials such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists,and medical doctors, but this is not required to volunteer here. All they ask of volunteers though, is their willingness to do what needs to be done, and learn Spanish if they do not yet know the language. Volunteers can live on the campus for a slight charge of $150 pesos a month, which covers room and board. Meals are cooked in a community kitchen for both clients and staff.

Volunteers and clients interact with the ease of family. We felt it even upon our arrival, being welcomed warmly, and introduced around as seemingly old friends. Helen greeted everyone with a touch, and show of support and respect. She represented the very best of one of their major goals “to generate social acceptance in the region towards people with disabilities”. This is one of the major thrusts of this organization. They have been particularly active in the communities, especially in the schools and municipalities, in sensitizing people to the acceptance of people with disabilities, and to facilitate the goal of independence through accessibility. But it has been a mixed bag at best. Some schools/communities embrace students with special needs. They are supported by Piña Palmera, and train not only teachers but students in practicing inclusion. (Sign language and brail are taught at the facility by former clients. Families, teachers, and community members are encouraged to take classes.) Other schools will not take these children, who obviously then are left out of any opportunity of attaining independence and dignity, except through the programs at Piña Palmera.

If you are in the area, visit! If you can help by lending a hand, do it! Go to their web site:
http://www.piñapalmera.org and read their extensive information regarding their history, purpose, and progress reports. If you care to donate money, information is on their web site. Donations of educational toys and developmental tools would be helpful, but if you have a skill you can teach others to facilitate independence, all the better. We all can do something during this time of economic struggles, to lessen theirs. It is a worthwhile, admirable project.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"I think it's hot in here..."

Maggie cooling off....

It is hot. If the snowbirds haven’t left by now, they are packing up and getting out as I type. We are getting the heat about a month early. Usually this is the windy month, then we get the heat, then we get the rain. Rain. Let’s hope it comes a month early too. But, this is not an excuse! I have been busy. Friends are coming and going, as my head spins. We have languid days swimming, sipping, and long lovely sweetly scented evenings with friends eating and laughing. The flowers that let out their aromas at night surround me with memories of childhood summers in the Sacramento Valley. The owls are mating and damn they are loud suckers when on the hunt. I remember last year, when nephew Jon was here, they were keeping him awake with that beep that just touches the nerve. I’m more sympathetic this year, I agree, at times they might be annoying.

I am writing for our local expat paper “Huatulco Eye”. I just wrote an article about a place that needs help here, Piña Palmera, a center to teach children and adults with disabilities to live as independently as possible. They are taught skills that will financially support them and their families. Or at the least, live independently, with dignity. Go to their website: http://www.pinapalmera.org/index_en.htm. They could use money, volunteers - especially carpenters who aren’t afraid to teach others how to work on projects with wood, i.e., their flying birds are famous, and maintain the wood shop machines and teach others how to maintain them as well. I’m thinking, for you Cali peeps, a Dave Alt would be perfect! They also have a start-up internet cafe business going, and they need a techie to maintain and teach others to maintain this business. Everyone who works there is a volunteer. They come from all over the world. Mostly youngish, but some retired folks as well. All they ask is that you stay for 6 months, and try and learn some Spanish. The clients will melt your hearts.

Twenty-five years ago it was a place that families/communities just “dumped” their children with disabilities and so started as a specialized orphanage. There are just four clients left from those days but they service about 400 from southern coastal Oaxaca. You can choose either residential or outpatient therapy, or a combination, as some of these people live in communities that aren’t so easy to go to, or get out of, on any given day. I’ll put the article up on my blog when it is published here, but I urge you to check them out. They make incredible handicrafts including bird mobiles that are breathtaking, and they have their own paper making shop, that does fine work. They have a little store on their campus that sells to tourists/visitors. Amazing handicrafts are found there, all done by persons with disabilities, not just from clients of Piña Palmera.

Now, to change the subject, the condos on the beach below us are more than half done. It has been so noisy this year, and although we protested impotently, I now cannot wait until they are done. This development was our first real taste on how things go in Mexico, but we knew already, before protests even had time to make an impact. The one big lesson we learned is that truly one government agency does not know what the other government agency does (much like what goes on in the US), and there, as they old saying goes, “but for the nail in the shoe” it was a done deal. Let it go.....

But for all that, and aside the every so slightly awful rise in temperature, and this walking issue, life is good. We are having a very rich life here. Not everyone gets an opportunity to learn a new culture and language as intimately as we have, it has been such a powerful experience. Plus the cats are lovin’ the lizards and snakes. Great stuff!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mexico City in a Taxi, Pt 3

“I've been everywhere, man.
I've been everywhere, man.
Crossed the desert's bare, man.
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.” Johnny Cash

Thought of Johnny Cash’s song, when Karen said to me “I’ve been everywhere, but never seen traffic like Mexico City”. Amen, Karen! Never have we seen traffic like Mexico City. Closest to it was in Bali, when 100 motos cut in front of us to get through a traffic light first, and maybe Italy’s roundabouts where getting off the roundabout gets standing ovations from observers and passengers alike, but they have nothing on Mexico City. We taxied everywhere, because we wanted to see everything...

We took our first big ride out to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The hotel recommended a guide with nice taxi rather than just a taxi, because in the end it would be cheaper...hum.... What could we say? Our guide picked us up, and weaved his way through city traffic with such ease in face of chaos. He drove on the dirt roads like he was racing a street car on a dirt track, but we got there in one piece. He took us to a stone carving business on the way to the pyramids, as is custom, when you get into a taxi, you will be stopping by businesses that sell to tourists, no matter if you want to or not. Of course the workshop was amazing. The artists do the most incredible pieces of stone work we have ever seen. The prices were higher than we have ever seen as well. But we did learn to tell the difference between a "manufactured" artifact, and a true carving by hand.... But after our visit to the pyramids, it was the ride back that did us in.

Forty years ago the Basilica was out in the middle of no where, trust me, and is now surrounded by a city still growing, really growing. In front of the Basilica our car nearly kissed a bus, passionately, but our man was steady, calm, did not bat an eye professional, and with the hand of Mary surely helping, the bus yielded. I took my cues from the driver, and didn’t move, nada... In back of me were white-knuckled, ashen-faced, heavy-breathing husband and friends. We bought a rose petal rosary right where it happened, just to keep the juju moving toward positive. The Basilica itself is the most-visited shrine in the Americas. This is where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. The original church was built in the 18th century, but there is a spectacular new church, where the tunic of Diego with the Virgin’s body imprinted on it (as in a miracle), is displayed. I found it other worldly, and spiritual. Thank you tour guide/driver for that day.

In the evening, to go anywhere, even if it is in normal time a 10 minute drive, plan on 45 mins, and you may still be fashionably late. But we saw side streets, jugglers, traffic cops extraordinaire (doing that conducting a symphony thing), colonial buildings still standing, streets as old as Mexico, and parks, everywhere. Graffiti, poor Indian women carrying their goods on their heads, people at a Mont Blanc party that looked really, really rich (to say nothing of the cars surrounding that little shop) all danced before us.

Taxi drivers tend to end up being our tour guides, and we have found gems. Larry and I had split from Karen and Ed to go to Costco. (Hello, opportunity knocks!), Martin! We walked (pushed) up to the taxi stand at the Museo and snagged a driver, Martin, telling him we wanted to go to Costco. He laughed, opened up his trunk and displayed a “Costco” sign. Turns out he works there on his days off from taxi driving (because you need a break, truly). Has worked for them for 10+ years, his son works for them, etc. We got to the parking lot (in Sport City, an American-style mall, somehow stuffed between two freeways), and parked by the door. He went shopping too, and hung with friends until we were done. Where else, I ask myself, can you get a taxi driver who works at Costco, and made our experience there a hoot.

We did find the Liverpool, speaking of shopping. Karen and I agree it's a Macy’s (my love affair with Macy's has not ended) mixed with Nordstroms. We shopped. Prices same as in states, but designers from Italy and Spain... nice stuff. Plus we found sun-dried tomatoes, and our favorite, hard to find, tequila. We even tried to get cat treats from the pet department, but alas, cats aren’t so spoiled down here, no treats. We even found a Woolworth’s (when was the last time you were in one of those) across the street from Liverpool, and met the most charming elderly (even for us 60+ year olds and one 70 year old) lady latched right on to Karen, as she spoke English, and was dying to practice. We wondered how many tourists had even found this Woolworth’s to wander into it, but there she was, waiting for the likes of us.

Taxi driver to the National Palace was an educational ride. He pointed out buildings of interest, district names, and gave us our easiest ride in Mexico City. The National Palace is where Moctezuma’s palace was, then Cortes moved in, and now it is Mexico’s White House. Murals painted by Diego Rivera depict the revolutions, and his own personal take on the revolution. You can imagine, if you are familiar with Rivera’s history, what that point of view depicts. Those were fabulous, but the special bicentenial exhibit was still going on, and that had taken over half of the palace. What an experience. I hope it stays intact if it gets moved anywhere, because it is a very important exhibit reflecting on Mexico’s political history.

When we did finally get back to Huatulco, it was like being in alternative universe. The frantic pace slowed dramatically. We missed our quiet, sleepy little bay, but did not miss the traffic. Can’t say I have been everywhere, but Mexico City, was as exotic as any other city in the world, with much to offer. We had a lot of fun, as we always do with Karen and Ed. A lot of laughing are always involved. I cannot say enough how nice it is to have friends you can travel with, and still like each other at the end of it. We’re having fun back here in Huatulco, seeing the sights, socializing with winter people, and hanging by the pool, and we are still shaking our heads over Mexico City. Five days wasn’t enough to see everything, but it was long enough to want a break, so we already have a list of places to see next time.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mexico City P. 2: Food

Hotel La Casona

There is a cooking revolution going on in Mexico City (and Oaxaca) right now, as Mexico and it’s chefs are turning out world-class, sophisticated, delicious cuisine, where local street food meets innovative chefs. Rick Bayless (guru of all things Mexican food in US), even has a list of stands on the street that are must visits. You all know I didn’t get this body eating salad, and luckily Ed was with me on this trip, but we ate at some fabulous restaurants.

Enrique Olvera, chef/owner of Pujols, gave us a night to remember. He went to cooking school at the Culinary Academy-Hyde Park, New York (the mecca of cooking schools in US), and worked in Chicago (think Grant Achatz if you are a foody). He runs a Mexican version of say a French Laundry (although you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil to eat there, unlike French Laundry). He is famous for “deconstructing” typical Mexican home cooking. From start to finish we marveled how he could get those flavors in every dish presented to us (by 4 waiters, one for each of us). We talked with him during desert, a great conversation about the food revolution coming out of Oaxaca. (The picture of the gourd left, contained the sweetest small corn I have ever tasted....) When we got home, an email was waiting for me, did I want to come back for a cooking class? Larry gave me the look, but I'm thinkin'....

We also hit Izote, a restaurant owned by Patricia Quintana, a legend in Mexico. We had food that reflected the very essence of Mexico. From Karen’s Chile Rellenos, stuffed with a smokey pork, Larry’s corn fungus (cuitlacoche) tacos, Ed’s fish tamale, and my red snapper with a cream/saffron sauce over cuitlacoche, we ate like pigs.....

One of our favorite places was the oldest candy store in Mexico, Dulceria de Celaya. My students have been bringing me sweets from Mexico for years, but really I had no idea. Traditional candies in Mexico are based on fruit, coconut, caramel, peanut marzipan, and sugar. OMG. This little store is in a building that they have been in since 1859, and when you go inside the shop, that is exactly where time has stopped. We bought two boxes of sweets for presents, then shamelessly raided them to try a piece of this and that. We were lucky we got them back to Hutualco at all. And if you received one of those boxes, I truly apologize, because it could have been a little fuller, I know.

We found a local wine bar, and hung out there a couple of afternoons, after a strenuous morning of touring, and talked to the young people in the neighborhood, while sipping wines from Mexico and Latin America. We had some great wines, outstanding being a Cab from Casa Madera (up in Baja), and some lovely Malbec from Argentina. Yum. But our true find was Che Genaro’s Argentine Italian Restaurant!. Owned by a former professional soccer player from Monterey, this gem was across the street from our hotel. Genaro greeted Larry and me on our first night there, while waiting for Karen and Ed to show up. We asked to see the wine list, he waved his hand and said red or white, and brought us out a Malbec, that was amazing. Then he plied us with empanadas (we ordered one, got three) , and finally, when we were nearing the end of that bottle, somehow there appeared before us a steak that could feed the neighborhood, and “here try this of wine” (another bottle, this time the Cab ). Fortunately, Karen and Ed showed up just in time, steak still warm, to help us finish it, and quaff that second bottle.

We went back on my birthday, and what a hoot. Got the ubiquitous bottle of wine (fab), and ordered. Karen and I went with chicken, Ed went with the pasta, Larry decided gnocchi (being the semi-vegetarian that he is and he had mentioned it to Genaro on our previous night), we were salivating. Everyone got their plate, Larry included, but in front of him was a side of veal, slow roasted all day, a most amazing dish. Where’s the gnocchi? Larry asks. Genaro, laughed and said, “you didn’t want the gnocchi, this is far better”. It was divine....I know all the nastiness surrounding veal, but OMG. A slip once in a while cannot be a mortal sin, can it? So good.

We really didn’t make a dent in the eating opportunities, and are looking forward to going up again to continue on with our list of places we have to try. The food gods truly blessed this country. ...... Ok, to be continued - just one more blog I swear on this trip...

Mexico City Pt. 1

Larry and I met up with our friends Karen and Ed in Mexico City last week. As anyone who has been listening to my slightly excessive rap .. well none of us had been to Mexico City for about 40 years (give and take). We fell in love with this city all over again. And one of the truisms in life, that I embrace these days, is that it is better to have a reasonable chunk of money to splurge, than staying in the local cheap-ass hotel at $1.25 a night located from my Frommer’s $5 a Day book 40+ years ago. But, oh, Mexico is so exciting, beautiful, crazy, richly historic, and just plain fun!

We stayed in a highly recommended neighborhood The Condesa, near the Zona Rosa, Roma, and Polanco Colonel districts. Where Polanco is the very high end neighborhood (sort of like Rodeo Drive in BH, or anywhere in Las Vegas), to the infamous Zona Rosa, where bohemia Mexico used to flock, each of these neighborhoods have a distinctive character. The devastating earthquake of 1985, sadly killing over 10,000 people, almost completely destroyed the city of Mexico. Many of the wonderful old colonial-era architecture is gone, and the late 19th/early 20th century Diaz-era architecture was almost severly damaged too. I cannot emphasis that from this devastation rose again, like the phoenix, an incomparable city.

The surviving buildings have been lovingly restored. The modern architecture that dots the skyline now is world-class in its originality and beauty. Mexico City has always been blessed with their gardens, and tree-lined streets, so most of the central part of the city is green and still has those colonial rock streets, that were there 40 years ago. We stayed at La Casona (highly recommended), a small hotel that bent over backwards to make sure we had a loving family-like experience. Karen wanted a mojito on our last night (it was a very small bar by the way), and our waiter said they had no mint. Next to our table were two men, and a lovely women (lovely), when the woman came to us and asked what it was we wanted again. Mojito. Turns out she was the hotel manager. She sent someone out for mint, and Karen had her mojito in about 5 minutes. So Mexican.

I can endlessly go on about the archeological museum (a 3-day journey to see everything), the Modern Art Museum with their Frieda's, Tamayo’s, O’Gorman’s, Orozco’s, etc, and the pyramids (Larry climbed the sun pyramid with Ed, Karen and I hung with the vendors that flock to the pyramids), but the true surprise was the National Palace (The White House of Mexico). We went to see the Diego Rivera murals depicting the history of “the struggle” here, and found an exhibition on the history of the revolutions of Mexico, and it’s war with the United States. Our one hour mural field trip turned into a four hour journey through the history of Mexico. The American War (as they refer to it) is a paragraph in our history books (and I know, because I taught history), but it was a revelation to see the photos, read the testaments of participants, and get the Mexican perspective on our role in Mexico. Clearly we were imperialist pigs in this involvement, and from this exhibit you can clearly understand the pride Mexico has for standing up to this invasion, and managing to drive the Americans out. It was pivotal in Mexican history. They had been invaded or taken over so many times, and yet pulled it together once again... Amazing.

But what was also clearly on show here in this exhibit, was how complicated the history of Mexico is. It is a country of revolutions, and most likely will continue to be, as indigenous/poor peoples will, we hope, become included in the conversation that moves this country towards a democracy. We also visited the Basilica de Virgin de Guadalupe, Mexico’s holiest site (think Lourdes, Fatima, etc). I know I am so sacreligious here, but I truly believe there is not a village in Oaxaca, that the Virgin hasn’t appeared, more on that later), but the vibes from this site, viewing the robe attributed to Juan Diego (the young Indian youth to whom the Virgin appeared), the new Basilica, and the old cathedral, well, you know you are in a very holy place. Very moving, the whole experience. We even got to check out the Pope mobile that is parked on the plaza next to the church.

to be continued...

Monday, February 14, 2011

Turtles and Valentine’s Day

In Mexico Valentine’s Day is a very romantic day, but it is also a day of friendship, when friends shamelessly express love for dear friends.. Amistad (friendship) is mentioned often on this day -- encompassing more than amigo -- a deeper connection, and is said with such heartfulness. This is also the season of the sea turtle hatchings on our beaches, and Valentine’s Day warns us to be careful when we go to the special beaches that still host these magnificent females. Those little ones will be hatching and heading for the sea any day now.

A few months ago, word among the people living south of us on the beaches had spotted a leatherback turtle. Old timers have said they haven’t seen the likes in 35+ years. Friends out on a boat at the same time, spotted a leatherback as well. She was spotted waddling up the beach and laying eggs in front our friends house. It was such an event that they notified the environmental guys immediately, and now the hatchings are imminent. We are waiting for the phone call. This is almost as exciting as when I was with my sister when she gave birth to her sons. Almost.

The leatherback is the 4th largest modern reptile, and largest sea turtle out there (thank you wikipedia, a forum I once banned from research papers as a source), and is on the endangered species list. Like really endangered. The environmental guys will be there when they hatch as well as the community around the area, to ensure the babies make it back to the ocean. This has to be the most reverent experience I have almost ever witnessed here in Mexico. When you speak of the leatherbacks being back, people get a look in their eye, and a shift of mood occurs, a spiritualness if you will, because everyone knows this is a grand and blessed happening.

We will be kicking our own butts if we miss this. Larry and I head up to Mexico City next week for the big adventure. I haven’t been to Mexico City since I was 18...let’s not count those years... For Larry it has been about 35 years. We are meeting our dear friends, Karen and Ed, for a week of exploring. They have not been to Mexico City for 35+ years as well. I expect we will have a grand time. We have researched the museums, archaeological sites, murals, and nearly the most important thing of all, the restaurants (and Costco). We’re ready.

But I will be thinking of those turtles, and hope they can hold off until we get back. It would be so amazing to share this with friends. And that is what Valentine’s Day feels like here. Sharing those incredible days when the possibilities are limitless, friends abound, and we are helping the leatherback babies make it back to the ocean. And one day, 35-50 years from now, another will waddle up, lay eggs, and bring friends together once again, to help those babies back to the sea. Amistad.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Living in Mexico

The most frequently asked question, when Larry and I return to the US (and recently even in Costa Rica) is “aren’t you frightened living in Mexico?”. I know all of us who live here full time or part time just want to roll our eyes when we answer ‘No!’. We counter that it is safer here than our home stomping grounds (the San Francisco Bay Area for us). I’m just about ready to start carrying a page of statistics on violence in the US and Mexico, to do a comparison, when the occasion arises (as it always does). It’s a stupid question. Duh. We still live here, does it look like we have a problem with Mexico?

To be fair, Oaxaca, as well as other southern Mexico states, have been spared the troubles of the North. I was cruising through our hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, the other day, catching up on the Mexico Mix forum, just to see what others were saying about their recent experiences. What struck me was that Huatulco was never mentioned. Never. How is it that such a beautiful place is not even mentioned? I have mixed emotions about this: the happy part says “good!” no one knows about this part of Mexico yet (except seemingly the Canadians, and how is that??) , and sad, because the economy of this region could use the boost of those tourist dollars that are going to other parts of Mexico.

I read through the articles on tequila (yes, quite good), the mezcal (an acquired taste to be sure) the chocolate (well, we’ll talk), safe travel tips (those lonely, dark, less travelled roads), medical tourism (for those of us not insured, or looking for cheap, but effective alternatives, this is a plus), and living here. Ah! Living here. How can you not love Huatulco or Oaxaca overall. It boasts one of the prettiest cities in Mexico, and the loveliest coastline anywhere in the world, surrounded by the Sierra Madre Sur. Ok, the roads slightly-to-mostly suck (and the topes don’t help).

We were out at Hagia Sofia (http://hagiasofia.mx/english5.htm) the other day, and were struck once again about how unique this area is. It is 1/2 hour trip up the mountain from the beach, on the road to Pluma Hildalgo (coffee). To be fair, Hagia Sofia is unique, a former coffee plantation run by Germans who bailed 50+ years ago when coffee prices slumped, has been turned into a tropical botanical garden, with fruit trees and flowers from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia. It is a project developed by Armando Canavati-Nader that is meant to celebrate Oaxaca, and provide jobs and economic opportunities for local communities.

It is also such a Mexican experience, in that we were made to feel immediately at home upon arrival there, greeted with a breakfast quesedillas, and fruit and juices from their organically grown trees. We sat around having great conversation with Armando and his staff, and after a hearty little walk through an incredibly beautiful preserve, we were served a lunch that celebrates local cooking, a taste of the local mezcal (because there is always a local mezcal), and a dip in the waterfall pool.

This excursion followed an evening with friends on the beach in El Mojon, where we had a bonfire on the beach, and counted constellations in the most brilliant night sky we have almost ever seen. Astronomy 101 was never so easy. All of this in our own backyards, so to speak. The people of Oaxaca are lovely, warm cheerleaders for their region. There is always something to see and do, new foods to try (because with at least 7 distinct regions in Oaxaca, you have ample opportunities to taste something delicious and unique), music and art to soothe the soul, and the best weather (except we all agree May can be left out of the year here) most of the year. Even the rainy season, which transforms Huatulco into a tropical rain forest, is beautiful, and no one even comes during this time of the year. Just as well. Those of us who live here love to see our seasonal friends come (and go), but we get this place the rest of the time all to ourselves....

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bird Counting (Ode to Phil Sary)

I couldn’t take it. I have been talking birds the last year, and when you see those birds in Costa Rica, well, you suddenly have this whole new world opened up to you, that makes you pay a tad more attention. So of the near thousand resolutions I have for this year, this one is still on track after 5 days. Nineteen birds! I’m astounded, because I know I am missing hundreds, hundreds! But this is a journey, and we do have amazing birds, and so this year is a bird count, a sort of what I saw when thing.

I remember many conversations with friend and former colleague, Phil Sary, as he is a birder. Been every where. Seen some rare shit. I thought this is nuts, keeping track of birds. Hey, here I am, Phil. I’m looking for some tips. Binoculars are impossible first thing in the morning, let me tell you. But I can identify 19 birds as of today. Not bad, I’m thinking. Phil, if you read this, will laugh. I know. I know.

The comings and goings of the pelicans are an amazing time here. The osprey, frigates (pre historic beauties), the citreolin trogan, my head spins. I have to get up earlier. This is the worst of it though, I’ll live. When the parrots are here, we wake up to noisy, gossipy, screeching, early anyway. Those pygmy owls could put a serious dent into someone’s insomnia, those suckers go all night long, for weeks. But I am not remembering when these birds show up, disappear, and never leave (age?), so I’m checking it out - I'm keeping a journal. All the local Mexicans have it down. I have consultants, who know when birds should be here, or are here now, and will be coming. My friends, of course, impart to me the Spanish name for the bird, as I cruise my bird book looking for something to give me a hint, they know them all.

The Humpbacks are here right now, speaking of nature. The babies have been spotted, they are on the move north or where ever they go from here, on those incredible journeys. Caryn and Micah were here for the holidays, and we didn’t get a chance to do a boat thing, but I hear that’s what we missed. Next time. Gotta save some stuff for next time. We have seen the beginnings of the pelicans coming in, so know they are getting out of the cold north. They are a sight to behold, as they spend the day diving for food, we watch from our living room. Sometimes Mante Reys come in and do a flopping thing, and with the pelicans trying to get just a little fish please, it is a sight.

Anyway, I should have paid more attention to Phil.