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!

 

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.

 

Motmots at Uxmal

In 1989 while working on a business venture in Belize, I took several days to look for wildlife around the Coxcomb Reserve.

I am interested in birds and was lucky to see Scarlet Macaws near the village of Red Bank. One dark night on a mountain trail I saw a small wild cat, a Margay, exposed by the headlights of our jeep. Also I saw some huge snakes, boa constrictors—locally called Wolas, and one aggressive venomous Fer de Lance—a serpent Belizeans call a Tommygoff.

One bird I was particularly interested in seeing was the Motmot. These birds have long ‘paddle tails’ and electric coloring. They are easy to identify. For me however, finding the Motmot in the wild proved elusive. After spending a good part of three days looking around the edges of the Coxcomb Reserve and adjacent banana plantations, I gave up and decided that Motmots were just not destined to make my list.

***

When Alice and I were driving around Mexico looking for a place to settle, we spent six weeks in Mérida—trying the city on for size.

After a couple of weeks, we discovered there was a bus that left from near our apartment and traveled daily to several archeological sites—including Uxmal. I have to admit Uxmal was not on my radar, but I can say now it is one of the “don’t miss” places in Mexico.

Because we were traveling with an old beloved dog, suffering from the summer heat, Alice and I decided to take the bus to Uxmal on different days while the other stayed in Mérida dog sitting.

Alice went first and came home bubbling with happiness about her day at what she thought was a most impressive site—and, she was effusive about the amazing birds.

“They are emerald and blue and have incredible long tails with just a bare quill in the middle.”

Couldn’t be Motmots, they are too elusive to hang around a tourist site. 

***

The following day, I had my turn. I decided to hire an English-speaking guide as Alice felt the history and significance of the site weren’t easily understood from the few informational placards in English scattered throughout the grounds.

I talked to a couple of bored looking “old hand” guides at the entrance, and balked at hiring any of them. Then, a very small man, who I at first took to be a kid, approached me.

“Hola, my name is Puc.”

It turned out that this tiny Mayan man was twenty-nine and had three kids. He had attended a University in Mérida where he majored in Mayan Studies.

Pyramid of the Magician

Puc and I entered and came first to a most unusual pyramid. It is smooth-sided and elliptical at the base—the Pyramid of the Magician, El Adivino.

Puc told me a story of how a dwarf, el enano del Uxmal who hatched from an iguana egg, had built the structure in a single night.

Then he looked me in the eye and told me that the Mayas transmitted much of their wisdom through allegory and metaphor. He said Uxmal’s huge libraries of codices, the folding hieroglyphic books, attested to the Mayan quest for knowledge. Then he told me the site had been a university, a center of great learning.

“Where are all these books now?” I asked.

View of the courtyard of the Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal

“Many volumes were kept in what is today known as The Nunnery Quadrangle, el quádrangle de las monjas. There the Spanish threw most of them into the middle of the courtyard and burned them—somehow believing they were saving the indigenous people by this horrible act.”

***

We turned to walk toward the structure named by the Spanish as House of the Doves, In the first small grove of trees we walked through, I saw them—the Motmots. Seeing my attention shift, Puc smiled.

“Blue-crowned Motmots—they love the grounds here at Uxmal. The Mayan people revere them. They believe Motmots are the most beautiful birds in their world. But, they also believe these birds are self-aware and arrogant.

Mayan lore tells of time when a great hurricane headed to the Yucatán. All the animals could feel it. They knew it was coming and all sought shelter. Except the proud Motmots, who disregarded the signs.

Terrible winds buffeted the Motmots and they lost parts of their tail feathers, leaving a partially naked quill with its distinctive paddle shape at the tip. The Motmots were humiliated and to this day are secretive and hide from view.

But here on the grounds of Uxmal, they are proud and open for all to see.” 

Motmots in the Trees at Uxmal

The Tell

A Tell is what is demonstrated when a poker player, grifter or salesman—some person who wants to know something about his subject’s future—discovers a clue that enables him to predict whether a person is sincere or not—lying or being truthful.

Sometimes, A Tell may be delivered by a third party. For instance, in an old I Love Lucy episode, Lucy sees Desi’s poker hand and her big facial exclamations telegraph to the other players his great hand. Of course, the other players fold leaving Desi disappointed.

***

In January, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is an almost perfect place to be. Christmas is over and the weather is sunny with a fresh light breeze blowing every day from the ocean. Humpback whales cruise around the protected waters of Bahia Banderas, Mexico’s largest bay. They are busy with mating and birthing their calves. And, the city is full of grateful refugees from the frozen north.

One day while walking from our apartment on Calle Ecuador down the steep Calle Panama, I looked up from my feet as the cobbles levelled out and caught a glimpse off to my left of a bright colored bird in an alcove. The bird’s perch was a young man’s shoulder. He was working on cleanup of the demolition of a small building. I turned in and asked the man if I could take a picture of his bird, as I had never before seen a parrot like this one. The red blaze across the bird’s forehead distinguished it from other parrots I’d seen around Puerto Vallarta.

perrico-2-fs

Si, por supuesto!” he said flashing a huge open-faced smile.

I took several pictures as we spoke.

“You have a beautiful bird. What kind is it?”

Perico.”

“Did you raise it?” I asked as I took another picture.

I understand it is illegal here in Mexico to possess wild birds. Yet, I’ve seen many for sale.

“Ah no, lo encontré en el bosque,” I found it in the forest.  “Se había caído de su nido,”  It had fallen out of its nest.

I do know most parrots live and raise their young from tree hollows, huecos en los árboles, no en nidos.

As the words exited the man’s mouth, the bird made a deft move toward his ear and bit it.

“Pinche perico!”

After a quick examination of the red trickle exiting his wound, he calmed and in English asked me, “You like to have a perico like this? I can get you one.”

I’ve since compared my photo of the bird to various illustrations and texts I found online as well as my own bird identification books, and I believe this bird is a Lilac-Crowned Parrot, Loro Occidental or  Cotorra Frente Roja. In 2006, Birdlife International classified this species as Vulnerable. In 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature uplisted this species to Endangered.

These birds are very intelligent. They are often taught to speak and they know how to Tell.

perrico-tell-1-fs

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

***

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.