Formal Attire

Black-necked Stilts

Candelero Mexicano

Picture a busy business executive dressed in a tuxedo while grabbing a bite in a sandwich shop at the beach. There’s no reason to wear dull clothing even when eating a mundane meal.

Yelapa, a small coastal village accessible by boat on Mexico’s Bahia de Banderas, is where we first found Black-necked Stilts. Then living in Guanajuato, we had fled a cold snap. After taking a bus to Puerto Vallarta, we traveled by shuttle boat across the bay to Yelapa.  Our room overlooked the lagoon formed where a river, Rio Tuito, meets the ocean waters. This was our week to warm up.

On our first morning, as I prepared breakfast while looking out over the lagoon, I was delighted to spot a group of unfamiliar shorebirds. They appeared to be similar to the American Avocets we’d often seen in coastal North Carolina—both with a slight upturns to their thin bills. Watching them forage along the alluvial banks, we noted a most striking difference. These birds were wearing full formal attire.

American Avocet

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Now living in Puerto Vallarta, we have discovered these fancy-dressed Black-necked Stilts are frequent visitors to the mouth of the Rio Cuale, the small river running through the south end of the city. There they parade about the shallows showing off to walkers crossing the river’s footbridge along the malecón, the pedestrian causeway along the bay’s edge. Their graceful motion on long thin red legs is an elegant slow dance. Among birds, only flamingos have legs longer in proportion to their bodies.

Their scientific name, Himantopus mexicanus, points out their home turf. In the morning before the noise level of Puerto Vallarta is too high, you may hear them. They are quite vocal—making sharp yapping calls. Sometimes they make soft cheeps, with deeper contented-sounding intermittent gargles.

While Black-necked Stilt populations appear stable throughout Mexico, the US Fish & Wildlife Service lists their near identical cousins, the Hawaiian Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus knudseni, also known as Ae‘o, “One Standing Tall”, as an endangered species.

Stilts are wetland birds and vulnerable to pollution from pesticide runoff.

These dignified shorebirds often work the waters together in groups of up to twenty, going about the business of their daily lives—corralling tiny minnows. They also eat bugs, shrimp, tadpoles and some seeds and plants making the Rio Cuale a perfect habitat.

And they are formally dressed for all their meals.

A Gift of Color

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Note the white flecks on the blooming nopal

Blue jacaranda petals shower the ground and nopal pads 

 

I rubbed my fingers across the flakey white stuff on the side of a nopal cactus in our jardin, intending to catch for closer examination a little of what appeared to be white powder. I had seen something like this in my North Carolina vegetable garden—little white scaly mealybugs on my tomatoes. Glancing down at my hand, It startled me to see bright red across my fingertips.

Did I cut myself?

Ahhh, this must be the way some Native American discovered cochineal dyes.

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500s, they found the Aztecs  producing vibrant red cochineal-dyed fabrics—far brighter than anything available in Europe. Further, these dyes retained their color for a very long time. The little creature responsible is the cochineal, Dactylopius coccus, a scaled insect native throughout sub-tropical Mexico, Central America and sub-tropical South America. The parasitic cochineal colonies attach themselves more or less permanently to nopal plants and spend their lives there sucking nutrients. Native Mexicans collected the bodies and eggs of the cochineal by hand using deer tail brushes, then crushed and dried the tiny bugs. It takes 80,000 to 100,000 of these insects to make a kilogram of cochineal dye.

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“Indian Collecting Cochineal with a Deer Tail”

by José Antonio de Alzate y Ramírez (1777) (Wikipedia, Cochineal)

Kermes, the nearest comparable red dye available in 1500s Europe, is also derived from an insect. However, it was very expensive—and a weaker dye. Soon, dried cochineal from the New World became a major trade good—second only to gold in desirability.

Much of the color vibrancy that exploded among Renaissance painters may be attributed to the introduction of cochineal reds to their palettes.

Amazingly, the Spanish were able to guard the secret of the cochineal dyes for two-hundred-fifty years. Finally, a French naturalist smuggled nopal infested with the scaly insects out of Mexico.

Today, indigenous southern Mexicans still practice cochineal gathering and dyeing as a folk art.

So, whenever you see carmine, cochineal extract, or natural Red No. 4 listed as an ingredient in food or cosmetics, you will know the product is made from powdered bugs.

Until 2009, cochineal fell under the umbrella term “natural color” on ingredient lists. However, cochineal provokes allergic reactions in some people. Now, the US Food and Drug Administration requires carmine and cochineal extract to be explicitly identified in ingredient lists.

Except for its role as an occasional allergen, cochineal has no known health risks.

Synthetic red dyes such as Red No. 2 and Red No. 40 carry far greater health risks. They are derived from either coal or petroleum byproducts and have been proven carcinogenic.

Perhaps it’s time to return to natural colors. Compared with synthetic dyes, powdered bugs seem safe and appetizing. 

Henequén

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In 1984, Alice and I visited Mérida. Then, the people called it La Ciudad Blanca, The White City. In addition to the whitewashed buildings, many residents wore white. Most men wore loose-fitting pleated white shirts, guayaberas, white trousers and fine woven straw hats from the nearby town of Becal. Women wore white dresses with heavy embroidery and bright-colored floral patterns. The city appeared clean and prosperous.

What we didn’t realize then was we were witnessing the very end of the Henequén Era in the Yucatán.

In the 1950s, nylon rope began to take the place of rope made from the natural fibers of the henequén and sisal plants. By 1984, the last viable commercial harvest of these crops had taken place in the Yucatán. The henequén industry which created enormous wealth-producing plantations using slave-like company store labor was over. The natural fiber rope market collapsed, and DuPont with its new synthetic products ruled. Only narrow specialty markets for these natural fibers survive today.

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When we returned to Mérida in 2012, we found a different city. Nikes, t-shirts with designer names and jeans were the standard dress. We only saw traditional dress around the main square, the Zócalo, displayed there for tourists.

Departing from Mérida in 1984, we took a bus and rode all day to Belize passing through many huge henequén plantations. These are difficult to locate today. Many are abandoned, overgrown—reclaimed by Mother Nature.

Henequén, (Agave fourcroydes ), and Sisal, (Agave sisalana), were the two principal plants used for fiber production. Henequén was used for coarse-fiber production—lines for ships, riggings, string, sacks and rugs. Sisal is a close relative to henequén but considered a finer fiber often blended with cotton. I purchased a guayabera and a hammock, hamaca, in Mérida. Both were soft cotton/sisal blends.

The henequén and sisal plants appear as rosettes of sword-shaped leaves. These they harvested in bundles and then stripped them lengthwise, yielding long stiff fibers which twisted together made twine, rope, mattress ticking or coarse clothing.

The names henequén and sisal may refer to either the plant or the fiber. Additional name confusion comes from the Mexican port of Sisal, which shipped much of the fiber product during its heyday. Shippers labeled both henequén and sisal shipped from Sisal as Sisal—indicating the port of embarkation. As a result, many people referred to all fiber products from the port as sisal.

Although now grown in many parts of the world, both henequén and sisal are indigenous to the Yucatán.

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While in Mérida in 2012, we visited some of the remaining vestiges of the henequén plantations. One of the most beautiful was Yaxcopoil.

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Yaxcopoil

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Entrance to Hacienda Nohchakan, another henequén plantation we visited

In the late 19th century, the henequén industry grew to unprecedented power in the Yucatán. The export of henequén products made many local families rich. That wealth is still evident in much of the architecture of the colonial city of Mérida and in the more than one-hundred-and-fifty henequén haciendas spread throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. The henequén industry provided many years of financial autonomy to the isolated Yucatán.

At the height of the Henequén Era (1850-1984, interrupted by the Mexican Revolution), Mérida was one of the richest cities in the world.

Since the henequén collapse, many of the workers from the more remote plantations have moved into Mérida, and since 1984 the city has grown from around a half a million to well over a million people. Today, it is dependent on tourism as its primary economic engine.

The Eye of the Curve-billed Thrasher

Cuitlacoche común

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How is it possible for these birds to fly into such tangles of spikes and thorns unscathed?

Handsome with  intimidating fierce yellow eyes, the Curve-billed Thrasher, Cuitlacoche, is high on my list of favorite Mexican birds. Calling with high-pitched, trilling chirps, they draw your attention while ripping apart ripe tunas on a nopal cactus with their powerful down-curved bills.

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Red nopal tuna fruits, ripe for a meal

Curve-bills are as comfortable around thorn brushes, cactus spines and scrub as Brer Rabbit was in the briar patch. Their diet of insects, seeds and berries, draws these birds into improbable places. It is quite a show to watch these fearless birds land in spiny, well-guarded spots. Their careful landings often appear to be downright miraculous.

I once observed a Curve-bill fly into its nest in a Cholla cactus, a true snarl of sharp points.

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Cholla

Although these birds are common throughout Mexico, loss of habitat to urban development and agriculture continues to cause their population to decline.

The Many Voices of the Zanate

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Every day from the vantage of our roof terrace in Puerto Vallarta, I see a shiny purple-black male zanate lord over his kingdom of a great mango tree. That tree—more than sixty-feet tall—is the largest in our neighborhood. It towers over all the houses around and anyone looking toward the tree can likely see the big bird strut about the topmost branches. This puffed up garrulous creature points his head up, gapes his mouth, cocks back his wings and squeals his wild songs. His sounds surpass the mimicry of any mockingbird.

Cars drive by on the street below blaring mariachi music and the bird adds trills to the ends of trumpet accents. Other cars play US rap music and the bird attaches wild scats between pauses. This mastersinger comments on almost any stray sound—from raucous to melodic.

In México, the bird commonly called a Zanate is what I supposed to be the Boat-tail Grackle, a handsome bird found in my former home on the salty coast of North Carolina.

I find I was wrong. The Zanate, is a different species of grackle. It is the Great-tailed Grackle, Zanate Méxicano. They are the largest of the grackles and they often hold their tails fanned in flight—magnifying their apparent size. Other distinguishing characteristics are big bills, flat heads, long keel-shaped tails and an amazingly huge repertoire of songs.

***

One day I had carried laundry up to the roof and after washing, pinned it on the clotheslines. The zanate was busying himself, tending the sizeable harem of brown to bronze ladies he manages in the big mango tree. The bird gave an unusual whistle and I reacted with a whistle—attempting to imitate the bird.

With the bed sheets hanging the zanate could not see me. My re-creation was clumsy but he immediately offered a correction. I tried again—a better copy yet still unacceptable to the bird who returned the original phrase once again. On the third attempt, my offering was apparently satisfactory as the zanate offered a new sound. This time it was guttural—not a whistle. My response was laughable and he replied with a wild multi-sound song—too complex for me even to consider trying to imitate. Instead, I constructed my own complicated reply. I produced a high-pitched whistle transitioning into a low dove-like trill followed by a voiced gargle.

No reply. Then, a shadow passed over me. The bird had flown around to my side of the drying sheets. There only ten feet above me, I saw the hovering zanate’s blazing yellow eyes looking to see just who or what was messing with him.

***

I read a Mexican legend that told of the zanate’s greatest talents, his songs. Those songs are said to be of the seven passions—love, hate, fear, courage, joy, sadness, and anger.

The songs of this bird are awesome, however, I now understand there is another important trait of the zanatecuriosity.

Tamales, tamales, tamales….

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Un tamal rojo y un tamal verde

Every night around seven, an old truck rumbles down our street in colonia Emiliano Zapata in Puerto Vallarta. The truck’s makeshift sound system blares, “tamales, tamales, tamales…tamales rojo, tamales verde, tamales d’elote…tamales, tamales.”

It is a song I love to hear. The chant and rhythm remind me of seafood vendors I heard in coastal North Carolina when I was young.

The word tamal derives from the Nahuatl, one of the core indigenous languages of Mexico, word for wrapper. Tamales is the plural form.

A good argument can be made that tamales are the New World’s first portable fast food.  Anthropologists studying Mayan eating habits believe they were eating tamales as early as 8,000 BC.

Their wrappers are fully biodegradable and their contents are basic real food—plastics and processed food products need not apply. You can put a couple of tamales in your pocket, eat them on a hike and drop the wrapper in the forest with little harm to our environment. Tamales are the perfect food for the traveler, warrior or someone just trying to carry supper home.

The wrappers are usually made of cornhusks or plantain leaves, but may be other things. For example, the Purepecha Indians of the state of Michoacan and nearby areas have a tamales variation called corundas. They wrap these tamales in acelga, chard. Usually, they are served covered with crema and salsa verde—not so portable, but delicious.

Inside the wrapper, there is a layer of masa, a corn mush dough, and a filling of pork, chicken, fish, iguana, or other surprises. The filling may include cheese, chiles and one of many sauces, salsas. They cook in a tamalera, a big covered steam pot, until done.

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Corundas

A Mexican friend and his wife came to our kitchen one evening and made vegetarian tamales. They mixed most of the veggies into the masa with a filling of cheese and strips of jalapeño peppers.

We frequently make big batches of tamales and freeze them in four packs for lunches. We have made our own chicken, pork and vegetarian tamales—all are delicious.

 

 

Día de los Muertos

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Looking at individual altars set up in doorways, on porches and even in yards, parks or other public places during the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, I am struck by an unexpected realization. There is nothing spooky, macabre or sinister about this celebration. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Viewing photographs of those now dead, seeing objects that are reminders of their lives on these altars and offering a little rum, tequila or some of their favorite foods there prompts memories of loved ones. This is a commemoration of lives gone before, a celebration of the continuous nature of life.

Unlike Halloween in the US where trick-or-treating while wearing scary costumes has become a contest to see who gets the most stuff and plays the meanest tricks, the Mexican celebration is a time for introspection. It is a time to take stock of what is important in your life, a time to share traditional foods with family and remember loved ones now dead.

The colorful sugar skulls and displays of marigolds, cempazuchitles, are fun to see, but do not distract from the real point—to make us aware of the natural cycle of death, birth, love and loss.

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Kiss of the Guacamaya

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Guacamayas are the Mexican subspecies of the Military Macaw. They are green, as in an army uniform, yet display wild accent colors of red, yellow, blue and orange. They are large. Adults may reach three feet in length. And they are very intelligent.

These birds are also gregarious and make a wide range of shrieking and kracking sounds whether their conversation is with other Macaws—or humans. They may live for sixty years in the wild and mate for life. Guacamayas nest in hollows of trees. They do not excavate their own cavities; rather they rely on other creatures, principally woodpeckers, to construct their nesting sites. The Imperial Woodpecker created many hollows used by Guacamayas before its precipitous decline and probable extinction. Bees also compete for these hollows creating further limiting factors to their reproduction.

Because of the high price these birds can bring, the illegal trade for them still flourishes. They have a bounty on their heads.

We met one living with a human friend up on the Rio Cuale, east of Puerto Vallarta. This bird was a victim of poachers who cut down the tree where it was born and stole the newly hatched chicks. However, this particular bird was so injured when the tree crashed down the poachers left it there to die. Its present protector picked up and nursed the bird. He has cared for it for eighteen years. Because one of its wings had been broken, it has never been able to fly. As a consequence, it never had a chance to return to the wild. However, it is well-taken care of.

The bird is put in a tree outside its friend’s house every day and it climbs up high. Most days wild birds come by for a visit. They socialize, and then fly on about their way. Every evening, the man caring for the bird retrieves it and puts it into a cage for the night. This guards it from harm by raccoons, mapaches, or other common predators. Despite its rough start, it is beautiful, friendly to people and appears happy.

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This past spring, we met another Guacamaya. We were visiting Rancho Primavera, a must-see birding destination near El Tuito, an hour-and-a half drive south and up into the mountains from Puerto Vallarta. At Rancho Primavera we discovered our hostess, Bonnie Jauregui, also works with a Guacamaya rescue program.

Alice wanted to take some pictures of Bonnie’s chickens, gallinas. It turned out the chicken house was also where a current rescued Guacamaya was residing.

When I came into the building, Alice and Bonnie were chatting about the hens and the Guacamaya was cavorting on a homemade bird gymnasium. It spotted me at once and made some raspy babbling sounds.

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 The bird started doing upside down push-ups and anything else it could come up with to get our attention.

“He’s just trying to be friendly. He just wants to get to know you.”

The bird started chewing on Alice’s ring and Bonnie let Alice know she should move her hand away.

Why’s she doing that? What the hell? I mean, how bad could a bird bite be? I’ve been bit by crabs and children. It’s just a bird!

I stuck my right hand index finger out toward the bird, wiggled it, and foolishly murmured to the bird, “Kissie, kissie, kissie.”

KERWACK! The bird drove its hook-shaped beak hard into my finger striking the bone. Yikes! Blood oozed out from a flap in my skin the size of my little fingernail.

Wow, not what I expected.

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