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.

Nothing to fear??

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Another take on elections from Mexico.

Richard Grabman writes a blog, The Mex Files. I find it most interesting and recommend it to all interested in Mexico.

The following is a post from the Mex Files on the US election.

https://mexfiles.net/2016/11/09/nothing-to-fear-but-fear-itself/

 

In an obviously divided US, I hope Trump can find his Becket-Self and govern in an inclusive way.

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.

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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.

***

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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Playa Naranjo Turtles

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Santos

While strolling down the beach at Rincon de Guayabitos in Mexico’s Pacific state of Nayarit on a Sunday morning, a man approached us. He introduced himself as Santos and offered to take us to a turtle camp. At first, this seemed funny to me. A camp for turtles? But, the man was so sincere and positive. We listened and were glad we did.

The turtle camp, he explained, was not at Rincon de Guayabitos, rather at a nearby beach called Playa Naranjo. We would need to go in a small bus in, maybe, two hours. He would arrange the transportation and would get a group together to defray the cost for all. It would cost about one hundred pesos each round trip, and the whole visit would take two to two and a half hours.

As promised two hours later, Santos appeared with six other interested people. We rode in a van north from Rincon de Guayabitos then turned off the highway onto a sand road that went through a swamp. We crossed several creeks without benefit of bridges and less than twenty minutes later we arrived at Playa Naranjo. There we enjoyed the sight of miles of unspoiled beachfront—protected by the Mexican government.

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Our Turtle Group

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Observation Tower at Playa Naranjo

At the camp, volunteers and staff from Los Grupos Ecologistas de Nayarit explained there are three types of sea turtles lay eggs in this area, the Hawksbill, Leatherback and the most common, Olive Ridley. All three are endangered species.

Workers monitor this beach and several others in the state of Nayarit at night during the times for mature female turtles to lay their eggs. When located, the eggs are collected and taken back to protected nursery areas—the camps. Forty-five days of incubation later, the baby turtles hatch.

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Nesting records

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Temporary Protected Nesting at the “Camp”

The workers examine the hatchlings, record statistics from the many groups and then hold them in the protected areas until ready for release into the Pacific. They liberate the babies at night to avoid disorientation, to eliminate the risk of burning in the hot sun and to increase their survival rate by reducing daytime predation from birds, crabs, dogs, etc.

Olive Ridley turtles hatch between August and mid-January.

During the camp technician’s explanation of work at Playa Naranjo, I realized the young man describing the work processes was Santos’ son. Santos had hustled up a group to be educated about this important work. It was clear he was proud of his son’s involvement. The experience was a gift we all appreciated.

Gracias Santos!

As with many wildlife preservation efforts, money for these projects in Mexico is in short supply. Donations are welcome to help fund the turtle camp and releases.

Contact

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Los-Grupos-Ecologistas-de-Nayarit-AC/129156655364

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