El Día de Muertos

This is an appropriate day to return to this blog. I have been sick for way too long. No more.

This morning I wandered through the Panteón, the nearby cemetery packed with graves, small mausoleums and statuary. Today friends and relatives of the dead fill the grounds.

They are there to remember, honor and care for their loved ones.

One group of old men gathered around a monument to a recently departed friend and passed around a bottle of mezcal while they softly sang a song of remembrance to their amigo.

Others worked to whitewash their loved one’s marker and placed on them bright orange marigolds, flores de calendulas.

This is a day people in the US should consider observing. It is a day to remember the good things others, now gone, have passed along to us, a celebration well worth adopting.

 

 

El Día de Muertos es la festividad Mexicana que más gusta!

 

Edward James’ Fantasy Life

June 6th I made a guest post on  fabiolaofmexico ‘s blog, My heart of Mexico. Thank you Fabiola I love your blog.

One interesting comment to Fabiola’s blog about my post was from another blogger, La Potosina, pointing out a video from her blog of the Fantasy Gardens. Check it out.

Her blog, Aculturame is very interesting with several posts catching my attention. One in particular was about Cahokia.

I recently read Native Roots, How Indians Enriched America by Jack Waterford. In the second chapter,  Pyramids on the Mississippi, Waterford discusses Cahokia. I suppose I have driven by it on the Interstate and never knew it was there. So, also check out that post.

***

Here’s a repost of my post on Fabiola’s blog:

The Fantasy Gardens of Xilitla

Edward William Frank James in his fine red bathrobe

This goofy looking guy created one of Mexico’s more unusual tourist attractions.

Mexico has a long history of accepting immigrants, refugees and travelers from all across our world. Republicans fled here from Franco. Communists escaped purges in Russia and Jews hid out in Mexico after their expulsion from Spain. Italians and Germans came running from fascists. Americans drifted south in search of a more libertarian society. To all, Mexico opened its doors—proud and accepting.   

However, sometimes people come to Mexico with bizarre stories.

We encountered the legacy of a most unusual expat near the village of Xilitla in the state of San Luis Potosi. There, Alice and I visited Edward James’ Fantasy Gardens, Las Pozas, The Pools. Our tour of the gardens left us wondering what the hell?

Edward James was the grandson of an American merchant who amassed a huge fortune trading with the British. His father, William, inherited the fortune and married Evelyn Forbes, a Scotch socialite, reputed to have been fathered by the then Prince of Wales—later King Edward VII.

In a curious twist, William’s son, Edward William Frank James, our subject, became the godson of King Edward VII.

Edward grew up in an unusual environment. Around him were the King of England, his court and others suffering serious delusions of grandeur. He was lavished with more money than he could rid himself of in a lifetime of hard spending

As a young man, the “family” gifted Edward a cushy government job. He bungled it such a bad way they sent him away—essentially fired.

He recovered by devoting himself as a patron of the arts, zeroing in on Surrealists. A principal supporter and collector of Salvador Dali, he also housed Magritte in his London digs.

Edward married Tilly Losch, an Austrian dancer, choreographer, actor and painter in 1930. He poured money into several productions created for her.

In 1934 Edward divorced Losch, accusing her of adultery with Prince Serge Obolensky, an American hotel executive. In her countersuit, she accused Edward of being homosexual.

To put it all behind him, Edward travelled to the highlands of the Sierra Gorda Mountains of northeastern Mexico where in 1947 he purchased a coffee plantation near Xilitla.

For several years, Edward used this plantation as a home for orchids and exotic animals he collected. In 1962, he started building his surreal gardens accented with cement and rebar sculptures.

Inspired by the orchids he brought to the gardens, Edward spent more than five million US dollars paying local artisans to develop his concrete fantasies.

In the 1970s, he sold what was the world’s largest and most important collection of Surrealist art to fund further development his gardens.

In 1984, Edward died leaving Las Pozas to his Mexican foreman, Plutarcho Gastelum. However, he left no money for its maintenance. Plutarcho attempted to operate the gardens as a tourist attraction, but the jungle worked to slowly reclaim the sculptures.

Our guide told us that at night, snakes rule the gardens.

In the summer of 2007, the Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández, the state of San Luis Potosi along with the company Cemex—a most appropriate additionpaid a reported $2.2 million US dollars for Las Pozas and created Fondo Xilitla to oversee the preservation and restoration of the site.

Hello Dali

***

We drove to Xilitla from the city of Guanajuato breaking the trip into two days. We stayed in a Bed and Breakfast within walking distance of entrance to Las Pozas.

The highlight of the drive was the crossing of the continental divide in the Reserva de la Biósfera Sierra Gorda There the hot dry sparse landscape abruptly changed while crossing through a single mountain pass to the lush wet tropical jungle directly influenced by the Gulf of Mexico.

 

¿Pistachee?

 

 

There is a row of beautiful trees lining Avenida Mexico in front of Parque Hidalgo here in Puerto Vallarta. I walk by these trees several times each week and right now they are heavy with a fruit I mistook for olives.

I asked an old man sitting in the park what kind of tree this was—“¿Qué  tipo de árbol es este?

Arrayan,” he replied.

I thought he was wrong. So I took a couple of pictures and pulled down a high branch to examine the fruit.

A short woman from a shop across the street ran up and asked me if I would pull down a branch for her. I did and she began filling her apron with the fruit.

Up close the fruits she picked still appeared to me to be black olives.

“¿Qué tipo de frutos son?—What kind of fruits are these?”

“Pistachees,” she replied, “Hacen una muy buena aguas frescas.—They make very good cool or sweet waters.”

Aguas frescas are common here. They are made with fruits, flowers, nuts, seeds mixed with sugar and water. The result is a light non-alcoholic drink.

Some of the more common aguas frescas are Jamaica—Hibiscus, Tamarindo—Tamarind, and Horchata—a mix of ground almonds, rice and barley in many variations.

Pistachios? Is that what she meant? I didn’t think so. So I bit into one I judged was ripe by its dark purple color. It was sweetish, but was certainly nothing like the hard-shelled pistachio nut I am familiar with. It had a pit in the middle a bit like an olive, but it sure didn’t taste like an olive.

When I got home, I wrote a note to Bob Price at Jardín Botaníco Vallarta. I sent him my pictures and asked for his help identifying the tree.

His reply:

That is a pistashio tree, or as they call it here, pistachee.

 It is not the Mediterranean pistachio but a local variety.  I have never tried the nuts to know if they are edible.  Good luck!

 Robert Price
Curator
Vallarta Botanical Gardens

 That made me wonder what part was the ‘nut’. The seed?

Does anyone out there know what’s what about this tree and its fruit?

Please let me know.

Street Art III

[ngg_images source=”galleries” container_ids=”7″ display_type=”photocrati-nextgen_basic_slideshow” gallery_width=”600″ gallery_height=”400″ cycle_effect=”fade” cycle_interval=”10″ show_thumbnail_link=”1″ thumbnail_link_text=”[Show thumbnails]” order_by=”sortorder” order_direction=”ASC” returns=”included” maximum_entity_count=”500″]Link to Street Art I

Link to Street Art II

A Taste of Vanilla

Layer-cake Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajin

When visiting the archeological wonders at El Tajin in the state of Veracruz, we also explored the nearby city of Papantla. There we found many vendors selling vanilla on the streets in centro, downtown. The price of dried and cured vanilla beans was low—a pleasant surprise. Vanilla is very expensive in the US.

On many occasions we have found something we wanted in Mexico, deferred buying it and later when we returned to make the purchase, it was no longer available. So we try to be more opportunistic. We stocked up. Although it’s been several years since we were in Papantla, we still have a few vanilla beans from there in our larder.

Dried and Cured Vanilla Beans from Papantla

***

To our great happiness we found vanilla orchids here in Puerto Vallarta growing at the Jardin Botanico Vallarta. In addition to their display of several varieties of vanilla orchids, they also sell cuttings and give workshops on their care. My son bought us a cutting there which we now have had for almost two years, and it has survived a move across town. We’re expecting a bloom this year so we attended a seminar at the Botanical Gardens and  we hope soon to exercise our new skill as a pollinators—King and Queen Bee.

***

An interesting thing happened when we contemplated moving this plant to the other side of town. As epiphytes, air plants requiring little or no soil, our vanilla plants have strong tendril-like roots. These grab anything in their path and latch on. Where we used to live, our plant had grown to the top of our rooftop palapa and was hanging upside down gripping the bottom of the roof and rafters. We were unsure of what to do. How should we move it without breaking it apart?

Alice to the rescue! She found a YouTube video posted by Richard May about growing vanilla in Costa Rica—see it here. 

The narrator explains that vanilla should be moved or planted only on a waning moon, three days after the full moon. He demonstrates how easy it is to break the leaves and vines on the waxing moon and yet they are rubbery and flexible during the waning moon phase. We followed his directions and were successful in moving our plant to our new home.

Vanilla at our Old House had hit the Rafters

Our Vanilla Orchid in its New Home

I’ve always heard about farmers planting by the moon, and now we know.

The moon! Vanilla!

The Rooster/El Gallo

It’s been a long, dry winter in Puerto Vallarta. I’ve been sick with gripe, flu. We’ve moved across town to a much quieter place—except for this rooster.

Pesky Rooster at Dawn

He’s a really little guy and has a harem of just one little hen, but he’s extremely vocal. He starts his quiquiriquí, crowing, at 4:30 am, then again at 5:30, 6:30 and finally signs off around 7:30 as daylight breaks.

My landlord tells me he is una mascota, a pet, of our next-door neighbor. He told me to get a slingshot and pelt the little strutter.

I’d be afraid to hit him with a rock as I might badly injure or kill him. So, I’ve decided to embrace this particular noise and the soul currently inhabiting this little rooster body. And I determined to learn to live with him.

Except—I woke up a couple of days ago in the grip of the gripe, fuzzy-headed and cross. It was 7:30am and the little rascal was rocking out with his screechy crowing. I couldn’t take it.

God, he’s on the terrace just outside my window—trespassing! I’ll teach him.

I staggered out of the bedroom and onto the terrace, flushing him and his concubine to the adjacent rooftop. Quickly, I grabbed the garden hose, turned the water on full blast, and shot him. Well, maybe not shot. The water pressure here is not all that good and the distance was such that I had to lob the water in a lazy arch. But I hit him dead square!

Instead of fleeing the area, the rooster began to dance—alternately twirling, shaking and adjusting his position to get the optimum shower. And his girlfriend immediately joined him. For as long as I held the water in their direction, they followed and luxuriated under it.

Yep, it has been a dry winter. And I guess I really do like this little rooster. 

 

Godzilla versus Big Red

Bits and Pieces of Iguana Life

 

Godzilla

The two huge iguanas charged out of the jungle from opposite directions—heads furiously bobbing, tongues flicking and dewlaps extended to create  enlarged, intimidating appearances. Behind the two five-foot-plus male iguanas—looking for-all-the-world like dragons—were the armies of each of the Iguana Kings.

A pick-up truck full of vegetables had just arrived and two lizard teams from either side of the farm had come to compete for food.

From the east, Godzilla led his forces, and from the west, Big Red marshaled his unruly pack. There were iguanas everywhere! Little iguanas scurried over the backs of larger iguanas, joining the stand-off before the feed.

The door screeched as an old man hobbled out of the truck and swung onto the bed behind. He began tossing heads of old lettuce, cabbage and over-ripe fruits onto the grass between the competing forces. Both sides charged and clashed.

***

We were visiting Islas de la Bahias, the Bay Islands, wedged between the Gulf of Honduras and the Caribbean Sea off the Honduran coast. After we landed on the lush island of Roatán, we asked around about places to see and heard about the “incredible iguana farm.”

Sherman Arch’s Iguana Farm is located near French Harbor on Roatán. So, we rented a tiny Suzuki car and drove from our hotel in West End to French Harbor. We ate lunch there at Romeo’s—a highly recommended Italian restaurant. Who could have guessed?

Well, Romeo’s was so good, I didn’t think there would be room for the day to improve.

But then the feeding show at Arch’s Iguana Farm started. It was downright overwhelming. This farm is fully fenced and has government cooperation for protection of the island’s stressed iguana population. Arch’s didn’t seem to be a farm as much as the home of a very serious iguanaphile. Everywhere we looked we saw iguanas—on the driveway, in the trees, under bushes, everywhere. More than 3000 iguanas were living a coddled life of luxury in this private reserve.

The old man feeding the iguanas told us that the smaller ones liked to stay in groups to share the job of lookout—more eyes looking out for danger. And then he told us iguanas have three eyes.

We were taken aback.

Surprise, surprise, I checked. It’s true.

Their parietal eye is a tiny, transparent scale on the top of the head that detects light and dark. Iguanas use this primative eye to alert them to aerial predators when their shadow passes overhead. It is referred to as the third eye.

***

I assume humans are serious predators for wild iguanas because so many people have told me, “Iguana tastes just like chicken.”

Here in Mexico, there seems to be a robust trade in iguanas. At Playa Guayabitos in Nayarit, we encountered a policeman holding a beautiful emerald lizard. I asked if I could take a picture and why he was holding the creature.

“Por supuesto puedes tomar una foto,” he replied. Confiscaron este lagarto de un vendedor en la playa. Es ilegal para venderlos.” Of course you can take a picture. This lizard was confiscated from a vendor on the beach. It is illegal to sell them.”

“What will you do with him?”

“Te lo libero en un lugar seguro.” “I’ll release him in a safe place.”

Beach policeman in Rincón de Guayabitas holding confiscated lizard

Here in the city of Puerto Vallarta, there are lots of iguanas.

One day in the parking lot of Lans, a department store, we encountered a traffic snarl precipitated by a big hissing iguana that had bull-charged the attendant and sent him jumping over a low wall between the lot and the adjacent creek.

 

Iguana feroz threatening folks in Lans parking lot in Puerto Vallarta

The trees along the three rivers running through Puerto Vallarta are popular hangouts for iguanas to sun themselves and eat fruits and flowers. Tourists often stop, then ooooh, ahhhh, and gaze at the prehistoric-looking creatures. The iguanas appear undisturbed—they’re simply comfortable in the city environment.

Lurking in a tree next to the Puente Cuale on Calle Vallarta

In Puerto Vallarta, the iguana’s status as tourist attractions lends them immunity from the rigors of the wild.

 

Way Down Yonder in the Pawpaw Patch

Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.

– Charles R. Swindoll

I suppose my first grade teacher deposited this one.

 

My son recently sent me a note with a couple of photos he took of Pawpaws he picked “in the wild” from an island in the Potomac River near Washington, DC.

When I looked at his pictures, a flood of memories from the public elementary school I attended hit me. And this song we sang magically reappeared:

                         Where, oh where is my dear sister Bethy?
                         Where, oh where is dear sister Frances?
                         Where, oh where is my dear Mother Mary?

                         Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket
                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket
                         Pickin’ up pawpaws, puttin’ ’em in a basket

                         Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

After working through the words and melody, I realized I really never knew what a Pawpaw was—except that it’s a fruit, maybe like an apple. I’d never knowingly seen one.

So I Googled it. I read about them, and then thought, Maybe I do know what these are.

I looked out of the window from the room where I write here in Puerto Vallarta and there—directly in my sight-line—is a tall evergreen tree. Right now, near the end of February, it is heavy with ripe and ripening Guanabanas. They look suspiciously like Pawpaws, just not smooth-skinned.

Back to Google.

Guanabanas, I found, are native to Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America. They are called Soursop in English. Their dark green to whitish-green speckled skin has a diamond pattern with each diamond sporting a soft, curved spine. The white to yellowish interior pulp is full of large seeds surrounded by soft juicy flesh with a unique sweet flavor. I drank a big cup of aguas frescas made from Guanabana and Chia at my favorite fish taco stand yesterday. 

Aha! Now I see. The Pawpaw is the smooth northern cousin to the bumpy delicious Mexican Guanabana. Both  belong to the same plant family, Annonceae

 

Guanabana from the tree outside my window

Camarones Gigantes

“The term Jumbo Shrimp has always amazed me. What is a Jumbo Shrimp? I mean, it’s like Military Intelligence – the words don’t go together, man.”      George Carlin

 

Driving east from Papantla, we first hit the Gulf of Mexico at the Veracruz beach town of Tecolutla. It was an early summertime Friday and it seemed as if everyone in eastern Mexico had the same idea—let’s go to the beach. We found a small hotel and quickly joined the crowds cooling themselves in the soft breezes and inviting waters.

***

The following day we wanted to see more of the seaside village. So we walked over to the riverfront where the mouth of the Rio Tecolutla enters the Gulf  and defines the southeast corner of the town. There we found boats offering sightseeing trips to the nearby estuary to view exotic birds, crocodiles, turtles and more.

We hired a boat with a young guide named Hector, and we were off. We headed south toward a wide swamp crisscrossed by creeks.

While slowly motoring across the main channel I noticed men in boats drifting swiftly with the current toward the river’s mouth. They were throwing very large round cast nets. I asked the guide to save time to get a close look at them on our return to the dock. 

“No hay problema.”

In the estuary the water was slow-moving and calm. It was quiet with only bird sounds interrupting. A motionless ten-foot crocodile basked in the sun and where downed trees tipped into the water, long rows of turtles communally enjoyed the warm day. And there were lots of birds—kingfishers, ospreys, white ibis, wood storks, reddish egrets, black skimmers and more.

On our return, I reminded Hector I wanted to get an up-close look at the cast-netters. He obliged and motored about a hundred feet from another boat and then cut the motor. We drifted along beside two men working and watched. The man on the bow of the panga threw the net while the other man kept their boat aimed at the correct angle to the current as they swept toward the Gulf.

It surprised me that the net was so big—more than twenty feet in diameter. It had been elaborately prepared for casting with cigar-shaped lead weights attached in about one-foot intervals around the circumference. So the rig must have been very heavy with that many weights on a wet net.

The bowman cast his net twenty-five feet in front of the fast-moving boat. A perfect circle hit the water ahead and he paid out line to drop the net to the bottom—I guessed about thirty feet. He very slowly retrieved the handline to the net as his partner in the stern back-paddled to hold their position. I wasn’t sure why until he had completely pulled in the net, then I realized these nets do not pull into a bag like the cast nets or purse nets more commonly used in the US. Rather, they depend entirely upon trapping the creatures in the mesh itself. A slow retrieve does not shake them loose.

 

He brought the net to the side of the boat and we could see there were dozens of very large shrimp, camarones gigantes, entangled in it. The man in the rear of the boat quickly moved forward to help bring the net aboard and the two men carefully removed maybe forty to fifty shrimp. We pulled next to their boat for a closer look at their catch—some were so big that one of them would fill your hand. And, many of the shrimp appeared gravid—orange clusters of eggs hung from their bellies.

We bought two dozen kicking shrimp and immediately pitched the ones with the obvious large egg clusters back into the water. The rest we boiled in beer and ate for lunch. YUM

 

 

The Angels of Ek’ Balam

Mayan Angels

Angels in a Mayan pyramid? Surely not Christian angels as we think of angels in a church or pictured in an illustrated Bible with pseudo-Renaissance prints…

No. Although they do look a lot like the kind of angels we think of seeing in a Christian context, I prefer to understand these angels as naturalistic people dressed up like birds.

***

The Mayan archaeological site of Ek’Balam, Black Jaguar, in north central Yucatán is not only home to angels, but also to a monster.

It has a huge mouth ringed by fierce white teeth and its throat opens into a tunnel leading to the underworld.

Teeth of the Monster Mouth

Returning from a road trip to Rio Lagartos, we noted a sign for the Ek’Balam archaeological site. We turned into the parking area, and a short walk from the car put us in the middle of it.

Motmots in the Ruins

The first thing we noticed were Motmots. These birds, Blue-crowned Motmots, seemed as plentiful here as at Uxmal.

 

Ascending the steep stairs of the main Pyramid

The view to the Gulf of Mexico from atop the main Pyramid

And there is more to see at this beautiful site, a ball court, tunnels, bats, iguanas and the incredible view from the main pyramid of the forest canopy stretching to the Gulf of Mexico.

Connecting portions of the site are sacbé roads,  elevated white, stone pathways. On these you can walk in the steps of the Mayas.