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. 

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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Sunrise at the Piramide del Sol

A Morning Hike up the Pyramid of the Sun

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The idea of watching a sunrise from the top of one of the world’s largest pyramids had grabbed me, and I wasn’t going to let it go.

I planned to climb the Piramide del Sol, Pyramid of the Sun, in the ancient city of Teotihuacán north of Mexico City. This site was established a hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

I had read the placement of the Pyramid of the Sun was over a lava tube thought to be sort of an umbilical cord connected to the gods of the underworld—perhaps the place of human origin.

Just who built the pyramids and surrounding city is a matter of continued debate. Yet, it is clear a cultural mix, Otomi, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and Nahua people inhabited this multi-ethnic city over an extended period—maybe seven hundred years. Perhaps what held this once vibrant city together for so long was its multi-ethnic nature.

***

We arrived from Mexico City in the late afternoon, and I planned to be the first person on the site when it opened before dawn. I wanted to be at the top of the tallest pyramid as the sun rose. Perhaps in doing so—alone, with no distractions—I might feel the spirit of this monument of early civilization, the place where Gods were born.

***

In the darkness, scrambling up the pyramid’s narrow steps, not made for my size-thirteen shoes, I overtook a young woman ascending with a large backpack.

Guten Morgen,” she said between deep gasps for breath.

“Good morning to you, Buenos Dias,” I replied, surging past.

***

I had counted two hundred steps as I approached my goal. Just as I was feeling sure I would be the first to arrive, I spotted movement above me. I stopped and looked again. Over the edge of the summit—through first light—peered a friendly face.

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A handsome, yellow-brown dog, wagging his tail, greeted me as I stepped onto the top of the pyramid. He rubbed against my legs and then nuzzled my hand, looking for a treat. I opened my shoulder bag, pulled out a Snickers Bar and watched it vanish.

Now he’s my buddy.

While waiting for the sun to rise above the mountains to the east, I walked across the one-hundred foot wide flat top. Then in a flash, the dull, yellow-gray light disappeared, replaced by blinding gold—the sun, full glare.

I looked back toward the steps. The German girl arrived and plopped down on the stone surface. She opened her huge backpack, searched a bit, and began feeding the dog.

Later, as I descended, passing groups of visitors on their way up, I stopped and looked up as the first large group arrived. They all paused, started going through their bags, and fed the dog.

***

My spiritual takeaway?

It seems dogs, like people, may or may not have a fortunate birth. Yet, they too may adapt and discover how to position themselves for a rewarding life.

 

 

 

Chickens in Mexico

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On my first visit to our little neighborhood grocery, tienda de comestibles, I carefully requested in Spanish, “Quisiera una docena de huevos, por favor.” I believed this to mean, I would like a dozen eggs, please. I was surprised by the reply, “¿Te gusta blanco o rojo? Rojo? I was stumped. I thought rojo was red. It is, of course. Yet, it took me a minute to realize the patient shopkeeper referred to what I have always called brown eggs.

When it comes to chickens, Mexicans have viewpoints different from most US citizens. Actual contact with chickens for most in the US generally consists of buying chicken parts wrapped in plastic. Mexicans, on the other hand, are not fazed when a flock of hens and biddies strut down a public street—even in the middle of a city. They don’t find it unusual if roving chickens poach a couple of bugs from their gardens, or if a rooster crows at any time of day or night.

Perhaps the reason for their higher tolerance of live birds is Mexico’s long history of tending chickens.

It had been widely thought that the first import of chickens to the New World arrived from Europe with the early voyages of Columbus and others. However, recent scientific investigations have revealed that bones found in Chile followed the same DNA sequence as prehistoric Polynesian chickens from Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Hawaii and Easter Island indicating an earlier introduction of Asian chickens perhaps via Polynesian explorers. Radio carbon dating of recently unearthed Chilean chicken bones indicated a date of between 1321 and 1407 AD. So, introduction of the Asian chickens to the New World must have taken place at least 100 years before the arrival of European chickens on the continent.

Likely, the arrival of chickens came much earlier as evidenced by language references. Also, Gavin Menzies’ book, 1421, suggested another introduction of Asian chickens may have taken place when the Chinese undertook to map the world from a huge fleet of junks around 1421. He believes there is evidence of the Chinese sailing into New World harbors including Acapulco. He also notes the easily discerned difference in crowing by European and Asian roosters—both heard throughout Mexico today. Menzies believes the Chinese left behind Asian chickens as well as other strange animals.

Here in Puerto Vallarta, we see chickens on roofs, chickens in yards, chickens in the neighborhood and chickens on the table. Mexicans love chicken. Chicken eggs are an important protein source for many Mexicans.

Neighborhood tiendas sell unrefrigerated fresh-that-day eggs by weight—not dozens by size. These eggs vary wildly in size—ahh, that’s why they weigh them. The yolks are a rich orange color and don’t break when you crack them into a pan to fry.

Mexico abounds with chicken restaurants. There are chains and Mom ‘n Pops. Pollo Feliz—why is that chicken happy?—El Pechugón—the Bustier, huh?—are examples of chains. In addition, the US, thanks to NAFTA, has introduced the Colonel’s contribution to chicken in Mexico—KFC/Kentucky Fried Chicken. Some Mom ‘n Pops offer awesome hardwood-fire roasted chickens. You will see them along the streets. They are relatively inexpensive and well worth trying.

Perhaps it is time for us to all embrace chickens in a more natural way and adjust our history books.

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Institutional Public Art I

When Alice and I traveled to the city of Vera Cruz, we found a beautiful sculpture in front of the PEMEX building, Torre de PEMEX, just off the Malecón de Puerto de Vera Cruz.

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The scale is heroic and the work awesome. We liked it, but despite asking dozens of people who the artist is, no one could tell us. We’ve since found that Francisco Zúñiga, Costa Rican born Mexican artist, was the sculptor. The name of the work is La Riqueza del Mar, The Wealth of the Sea. We think it is probably sculpted in clay.  Do you know?

Slideshow of our pictures gives an idea of scale, texture, and detail. Alice, viewing the work in one of the pictures, is 5′ 11″ (180 centimeters) tall.

There is a nearby sculpture also by Zúñiga named La Cosecha, The Harvest.

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The Silence of the Birds 

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Tenochtitlan rises

From the great lake of life

Shines like a jewel

Shines the natural light

*

The causeway is lined

With the birds of their world

With their colors so vivid

With their songs so pure

*

Symbols of beauty

Symbols of grace

Hernan has seen them

He knows their power

*

Now the silence has come

He has burned the birds

There is a new order of power

Of power without grace

*

The illness of the heart

That is only cured by gold

Is Hernan’s  obsession

Is Hernan’s shame

A Dare?

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 A tiny Inca Dove, Tortolita Colilarga, flew into the casita where I was writing today

He landed on an interior windowsill and we studied each other for a moment

I see this bird and his mate side-by-side in the jardin every day

I glanced outside and there she was—his companion—waiting on the stonewall

I moved toward the dove and cupped my hands around—no resistance

The dove turned his head back and forth eyeing me—first from his left eye, then the right

At the doorway—openhanded—I watched him fly the short distance to the wall

The couple touched bodies then flew away

Chorizo Almendrado

As a trained lifetime recreational eater as opposed to a refueler (you know the type), I like to eat, drink, record recipes for food I enjoy, and poke fun at food pretension.

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A chorizo is a fat spicy Mexican pork sausage. There are many variations to the spicing mix. Most feature a lot of paprika.

When we were living in Ciudad de Guanajuato, Alice taught English to school teachers in the nearby city of Silao. During that time, we had an opportunity to get to know that beautiful city. It is about the same size as Guanajuato, around 150,000 people, but there are some major differences. Due to the remarkable history and iconic landmarks of Guanajuato, it is more a national museum and tourist destination than Silao. Silao is better known as a manufacturing center anchored by a gigantic General Motors plant. The city is also flat! Bicycles abound. Guanajuato is only a pleasant half-hour drive away, yet it is up and down, hanging onto the sides of a bowl on the edge of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Many of our friends in Guanajuato went to shop in Silao each week as the price of high quality food there is cheaper than in Guanajuato. One day, our friend, Poncho Medina, introduced us to a carniceria, butcher shop, in Silao where he goes to buy a special chorizo, Chorizo Almendrado. What a gift! These sausages are unusual and delicious. We became addicted.

The name of the shop is La Unica, Carniceria y Tocineria. The operators of the shop, Luis and Diego, are incredibly patient with Gringos struggling with Spanish. Further, their meats, bacons and sausages are all awesome!

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Luis is very serious about his trade. He told me his chorizo has a complicated list of ingredients. They are stuffed with pork, lard, several kinds of chiles, garlic, Mexican oregano, cloves, pineapple vinegar, dried fruits, almonds and more. The mixture is stuffed into cleaned intestines, la tripa, and tied off into individual sausages with strips of corn husk.

We like them best grilled over charcoal. The fat bastes them and the slight sweet and sour flavor is punctuated by the dried fruit and almonds.

I highly recommend this shop with one caveat; call before you go to buy Chorizo Almendrado. Once I made the drive but didn’t call ahead. I got no chorizossold out! All was not lost. I bought a beautiful custom-cut (leaving the fat on) pork shoulder and a rack of the prettiest and best tasting pork chops we’ve ever eaten. Taking a cue from Luis, we grilled the chops with a pineapple/vinegar basting sauce.

We have purchased enough Chorizo Almendrado there to sink a boat.

La Unica
Luis and Diego are located in the back left-hand corner of the Silao City Market. Their phone number is 01 (472)722 2366