Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Being There

Anyone who spends longer than a week or two vacation in Mexico knows that it's not what you do with your time that's important, it's who you do it with. Connecting with people is what is most important in this country, being there, definitely, for life's big events, but even more important, being present for the small daily stuff that ultimately determines the quality of human life. The guy who shows up each morning to sweep the main plaza in La Penita, Oscar who comes regularly to service the pool and water the plants, Josefina and Marta who arrive like clockwork to mop the floors and keep the cobwebs and dust under control, the man who runs out with the dolly to help the fishing boats over the sandbar into the ocean -- every last one is needed, and if they don't show up, they're missed.

"No one will miss me," is not an acceptable excuse for missing one of life's big events, either. Even if wedding receptions appear to be little more than "sitting around," you can bet that if you're not there, notice will be taken. Far from being a social pressure thing, there's something precious in the importance imputed to each individual. It's nice to know you're valued, an essential part of the social fabric, and there would be a hole if you weren't there. A party at Thomas Bartlett's Hacienda La Penita a few weeks ago is a good example.

The occasion was wishing a friend Godspeed on a healing journey -- to let her know we loved and supported her through the challenge she's facing. A large group gathered under the palm trees, shared pot luck finger food, and circled together for prayers and affirmations for our friend. But most of all, we just "sat around."
The important thing for our friend was for us to be there.

On a more mundane level, a group of us needing an excuse to get out of the house on a regular basis, have started meeting for breakfast Tuesday mornings at La Casita, a local restaurant in La Penita. When the weather gets hot, I for one tend to go into hermit mode. It's good to emerge and make contact with real live people from time to time.

La Casita is run by recently-divorced Irma and her daughter Ceci, and our morning gatherings offer a good opportunity to support these women in their new enterprise. They're always surrounded by brothers, grandchildren, and other family members who drop by.
Irma's ex-husband got the restaurant they used to run together. It was situated in a prominent location at the end of the main avenue right next to the market place. It did a bang up business and was always crowded. Irma's new place is out of the way on a side street. You have to know where it is to find it, but it's slowly being discovered. It's worth the hunt! The standard breakfast of two eggs, beans, tortillas, bacon (or ham or "winis") is 25 pesos. A tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice will set you back another 15 pesos. But I've grown very fond of an avocado sandwich on whole wheat that's not on the menu. They make it up specially. I told Ceci last week they HAD to start charging more than 15 pesos for that sandwich, especially when they add bacon to it. She was protesting the size of the tip the five of us had left, which basically equalled the amount of the whole check. But we want these women to stay in business! We want them to be there.

Besides, you never can tell who will drop in to La Casita for breakfast. This morning there was a Green Angel.
These are the guys who are dedicated to helping distressed motorists on the highways and toll roads all over Mexico. They aren't volunteers; the program is federally funded. They carry water, motor oil, extra gasoline, jumper cables, and all are trained for medical emergencies. The service is free, aside from the cost of oil and gas the traveller may need to replenish his vehicle. Tips are probably welcome, but always optional. Those of us at breakfast agreed, Los Angeles Verdes are just one more example of a society where watching out for each other gets a high priority, where being there is the most important thing of all.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Chocolate? Aaaaah....CHOCOLATE! And coffee, too!

I'm escaping from a hot kitchen for a few minutes and coming into my hermetically sealed office to enjoy the A/C. Thought I'd share with you what I've been doing "out there." I've been playing with chocolate. (This would be the place for a great big emoticon happy face.) Oh, what the heck? :-))))))))

I have been guilty, as most gringos have been, to responding to friends' inquiries of "What can we bring you?" with a vociferous, "CHOCOLATE!!! GOOD CHOCOLATE." It has always been a matter of consternation to me WHY in the country (even before it was a country) which gave chocolate to the Old World it seems impossible to find a decent chocolate bar. There doesn't seem to be even anything on a par with a Hershey's kiss, which is setting the bar pretty darn low. I have hovered lovingly over gifts of San Francisco Ghirardelli's squares, Suchard and Frigor bars from Switzerland, and bags of Dove kisses purchased on sale at Walgreen's in Lubbock. If I exercise self-restraint, I'm faced with the dilemma of storage -- too cold in the fridge and freezer, but getting way too warm to leave them out in the tropics. What's a chocolate lover to do without a local source to satisfy that dark-tinged hunger?

And then I had chocolate fondue at my friend, Karen's, across the estero.

"WHERE did you get this chocolate?" I asked, dunking my second piece of fresh pineapple in a deep dark puddle of almost black chocolate laced with cinnamon, vanilla and almond flavors. It clung to the fruit with just the right consistency. There were also strawberries on the plate, and they were going even faster than the pineapple, but chocolate tends to run off round things, where if you've got a flat surface you can sort of pile it up and get more on.

"At the grocery in town," she answers. "It's those tablets you get in the cardboard cartons, you know the cylindrical ones -- Abuelita, Ibarra, Don Somebody. I just stick them in the microwave with a little cream and stir. That's it."

THAT'S IT??? That's all that's required to reach Nirvana??? When did life get so simple? Those tablets -- and I've seen them for ages in grocery stores in the States -- have always been a mystery to me. Right on the label it says, "chocolate for the table." Hard as a table, I've thought. About three inches in diameter and half an inch thick, they're sectioned into pie shapes. Try breaking them in pieces and they shatter. Bite one, you're liable to break your teeth. You probably wouldn't be inclined to bite one, as the tablets are riddled with sugar crystals and other stuff that looks gritty and inedible. This is a product lacking all the charms of chocolate -- until you MELT it. Ahhhh! Then it gets magical.

There are no paraffin or preservatives in this chocolate. Put some chunks in a teacup with a little water and nuke it for under a minute. It's rich enough you can make cocoa with water or milk. Add Maizena (basically cornstarch), boil some more and it thickens into champurado -- what Mexicans think of when they think hot chocolate, but is more like hot chocolate pudding for us gringos.

Just melted with a little liquid provides you a fudgy paste for scooping up and eating with a spoon. You can drop it in your hot coffee, or add it to smoothies and ice cream. For the last week or so, I've been in search of duplicating George's coffee-shop-in-Guayabitos mochachinno, since he closes from 2-6 every afternoon...and that's when I NEED a mochachinno!!! I'm getting close now, with this chocolate mixture.
I brew cafe de la olla and store it in the fridge. I freeze milk in ice cube trays. When the urge strikes, I pour the cold coffee in the blender, add a scoop of the fudgy chocolate stuff, and dump some milky ice cubes in there. Hit the button and varooom! We are very happy campers indeed. Every recipe needs adjustment for personal tastes, however. And that's what I've been doing in the kitchen this morning. Playing with chocolate and coffee. Hey, I'm good to go....and go....and go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Support for Mexico - Amazing Race

Here's an email I received today. Thought it worth posting here and getting the word out.

Hi; unless you've been living under a rock, you know Mexico needs a tourism boost. In PV, alone, hotels are down 90%, we all know friends and neighbors who are struggling to stay employed or keep their businesses going. So Mexico has a chance to be chosen as a site for Amazing Race on TV which would bring a much needed positive PR shot in the arm to this country.

Go directly to the Amazing Race site and vote:

Non-Spanish speakers - When you get to the Amazing Race sight, it's in Spanish - just look for where it says "Encuesta" (survey), vote for Mexico , then click "Votar"...easy!
Send this to everyone you know who is a fan of Mexico and let's help get Mexico back on it's feet!!!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lucy in the Streets with Dancing

For those of you who have followed this blog, you've heard about Lucy. Maybe you've even met our young British writer friend who has compiled a group of minimalist stories about her life in the funky beach towns of Guayabitos and La Penita. Now you can see her, courtesy of Xaltemba.TV, the creation of our film-maker friend Juan Gonzalez, who was inspired to start putting some of these little stories on tape. Follow this link to get the first taste. Set against the real backdrop of Semana Santa and the spontaneous revelry that takes place in our streets, Lucy meets and dances with a mysterious stranger....who looks a LOT like Sergio the waiter from Xaltemba Restaurant and Gallery! (And surprise! Xaltemba.com has this video featured on its homepage! Lucy, you're a star!!!!)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

SOMEBODY needs to spend money in Puerto Vallarta

So we did. Not exactly a weekend at the Westin, but we left the economy considerably pumped up after three nights in San Javier de Marina Hospital. Kidney stones. Larry. You really don't want to know the details. Suffice it to say we're back home again, the stones are pretty much gone or going, and he's looking forward to having his life back. For people in Puerto Vallarta, it's going to be a bit longer. Caught between very diligent goverment efforts and horrific foreign press, tourist activity-- almost any activity -- has come to a screeching halt.

It's been two weeks since a cruise ship has docked. It's strange to see the marina without at least one floating city at anchor in the harbor. Usually there are two or three. Every car coming into the city is stopped for inspection. We were when we came in Friday. The guy in uniform was appeased when I said we were headed for a hospital. Then he asked me what the English word for tos was, illustrating his meaning by imitating a cough. If you don't look healthy, or have even a little tos, you are turned back to where you came from.

As we came into town, we saw lines of yellow cabs sidelined along Avenida Francisco Medina Ascensio, the long main thoroughfare that leads into town, waiting for non-existent fares. Hotels are experiencing their lowest occupancy rates ever. Most airlines have cancelled all but one flight a day. Westjet has suspended their flights altogether. Bars, movies and nightclubs have shut down completely. Restaurants might as well be closed. On Saturday afternoon I took a break for a couple of hours and visited my friend Char. She had gone to Vitea's for breakfast/brunch earlier by herself at 11:30. It's a popular bistro, oceanfront on the malecon. An easy place for meeting friends, it's usually crowded, especially on weekends, even during the hot summer months. She was their FIRST customer of the day, and the ONLY customer during her whole meal. As if she were personally responsible for the solvency of her favorite restaurant, she ordered a huge meal and left a ginormous tip.

Char's condo is in a building just off the malecon, opposite the ladder statue. When I drove to her place, I was able to park right around the corner from her entrance-- a feat unheard of on any normal day. But at least she's been able to sleep at night, with Senor Frog's, Hilo, and performances at the Arches all closed and cancelled. Even though Char was full to the gills, we stepped catty-corner across the street to Maria Gallo, where I got the one full meal I enjoyed the whole time I was in PV. Comida corrida -- or plat du jour if you were in France. It was an agua fresca, soup or salad and choice of plato fuerte, all for 55 pesos. Char wrapped hers up and took it home. I scraped every delicious bite off the plate.

As in the States, when the going gets tough, the tough go to Walmart. I headed there before going back to the hospital. I think this was the busiest place in town! Why not? It's cheap and it's air conditioned. The staff there were all wearing masks. The busiest personnel were those using squirt bottles to sanitize the handle of each shopping cart as it was returned, and then once again before offering it to a new customer. I suppose this would be an ideal time for masked bandits to pull off a job....but I haven't heard of any. Believe me, nothing exciting is happening in PV right now.

Things will change. They always do. Business will pick up again, tourists will return. The first ones back will be welcomed with open arms and phenomenal deals. Think about coming down and shoring up the economy of a country that's been really hard hit from bad press and caution. Puerto Vallarta has so much to offer -- and you're sure to have a better time than we did whereever you stay!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Huichol Bead Work

(Double-click on the image above to get a really detailed view of the work.)

I spent several hours this morning with Eduardo, a Huichol Indian from the village of San Andrés high in the Sierra Madre northwest of Tepic. The only way to get to the village besides a very long hike is by air. Eduardo spends the tourist season down in our area selling his beadwork at the Thursday market (which is now cancelled because of swine flu fears) and on the beach near the all-inclusive Los Cocos resort at the far end of Guayabitos. He is getting ready to return to his village for the summer months (much cooler up there!).

He was not happy to return without fulfilling a promise to a friend of his – to sell a piece of artwork she had created, and which would provide the major source of funds for her family this year. She is one of the elders of the tribe, and was one of the first to begin using the colored beads about twenty five years ago. Prior to that, Huichol beadwork was done in earth tones.This kind of beadwork is not sewn, but the little glass beads are embedded in a beeswax surface one at a time. There is no space left between the beads. This particular work took her two months to complete.

It is of a size and value that is beyond the budgets of most of our local tourists, especially this year. She was asking the equivalent of about $350 U.S. dollars. I told Eduardo I would take it to a party we're going to tomorrow, and try to sell it for him there, but I would need to know something about what the picture meant. "It's the story that will sell it," I told him, and this is the explanation he provided as we sat in my kitchen this morning.

In the center we see a ceremonial house which is where all the rituals and prayers take place and are participated in by the jicareros. These are like priests, and the marakame or chaman is like the high priest. Directly below the house, looking like he's carrying a chain saw, we see the marakame who is in charge of ordering the deer hunt for the ceremony.

In order to have a ceremony, Eduardo told me, it's always necessary to have a deer present. "A live deer?" I ask. "No," he says, looking at me like I'm a little slow. "We kill them. All that's necessary to have is the head of the deer." The deer is always "invited" to be present this way because each Huichol considers the deer as his or her older brother. "Interesting way to deal with sibling rivalry," I think. Anyway, for this reason we see to the right of the ceremonial house several invited older brothers who probably have no idea what's in store for them.

The picture seemed to me to be divided not only in three tiers, but in two distinct halves, the left half being feminine, and the right masculine. Eduardo agreed that this was the way it was meant to be. So to the left of the house balancing out the older brothers, we see the corn girls. According to Huichol legend, one of the beautiful daughters of the goddess (who is kneeling just to the right of the six girls) was carried off by a man and installed in his house. When he returned to "claim" her, all he found was a corn plant which grew and flourished. So legend has it that all her daughters were converted to corn plants, which would be a way of not only protecting them, but turning them into objects of reverence. They are depicted in the six colors of corn: yellow, white, blue, purple, brown and pink.

What this picture really deals with, says Eduardo, is the time when the world was lost and covered with water. On the right hand we see the canoe with the man who saved all the animals. "Noah?" I ask. "He could be." "Is this a story the Huichol got from the Bible?" "Well, who knows?" Eduardo shrugs.

(The Huichols and the Kora, which are the indigenous tribes of Nayarit, never were converted to Christianity, and their ferocity in resisting the Spaniards caused the Spanish conquerors to move the capital of "Nueva Galicia" away from Compostela to Guadalajara. And so our adopted home state has remained a remote Mexican backwater for centuries.)

On the left is the woman responsible for the flood. Yes, a woman -- Takutsi Nakawe who is the goddess of rain and water. That's also her in the upper left hand corner taking care of the corn, with her own little "canoe" filled with animals. Just to the right of center on the upper tier is another marakame bringing Takutsi Nakawe an offering of corn from the field behind him.

Having the story definitely made the difference. Right after Eduardo left, I got a visit from one of our neighbors. They bought it! Happy ending and I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the Huichols and their legends.