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!

 

¿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

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!

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

 

 

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

Whale Walk

When living on Calle Ecuador in Puerto Vallarta, our view of Bahia de Banderas from the balcon stretched wide—an awesome vista. We could see Punta de Mita across the bay to the north. South from Punta de Mita, straight in front, lay the Islas Las Tres Marietas. Scanning the open water further south, our eyes met land again at Punta La Iglesia on the south side of the bay.

After moving there, we watched the sun swing from behind Punta de Mita in the north at the summer solstice to inland of Punta Iglesia in the south at the winter solstice. Every day at sunset, we noted the apparent solar movement. In mid-January, the sun has moved north from Punta Iglesia enough to set on the southern end of the bay.

One morning looking out at the bay, we spotted whales. The whales were here.

Whales, ballenas!

A quarter-mile offshore, a catamaran and two pangas were dead in the water within a hundred yards of three wallowing whales. The people in those boats were getting a real close look.

I had a morning meeting in Old Town, Colonia Emiliano Zapata, so I kissed Alice goodbye, hurried down to the street, and scrambled down the steep Calle Panama to reach flatter terrain. I zigzagged across the cobbles of Colonia Cinco de Diciembre toward the north end of the malecón, the shoreline’s broad walkway.

There they were—the whales. They had moved further south, even closer to shore—now just a few hundred yards out.

I could swim to them from here.

As I eased into a comfortable pace weaving through strolling tourists and locals, the whales seemed to move with me. They would sound and gain a few hundred yards, then dawdle together for a while. I was so pleased my pace synched with the whales’ movements it took a while to realize most of the people on the malecón were oblivious to the whales. Every hundred feet or so, I met a person whose gaze also had locked on the whales and we exchanged smiles.

It was like walking along with a dog—until we arrived at the south end of the malecón and they turned west—out to sea—untethered—free—wild. 

A high-five tail-wag. Gone.

Whales. Humpback Whales.

Forty-thousand Flamingos

Ria Lagartos/Rio Lagartos

You don’t pass through the little fishing village of Rio Lagartos, Alligator River, going anywhere. Unless you intend it as a destination, you will never come upon it. The village is remote—at the end of a road in the middle of the northern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. However, it is a place rich in wildlife and natural beauty, the home of Mexico’s Reserva de la Biospera Ria Lagartos.

Alice and I drove from Merida to Rio Lagartos. Once there, we hired a guide to take us on a birding adventure. We wanted to see some of the hundreds of species of birds living in or migrating through this reserve. We understood very large numbers of Flamingos were the main attraction, and we were not disappointed.

Our guide, Roman Fernandez, was a gifted naturalist well versed in the life histories and habits of the creatures we saw—birds and others. He told us Flamingos weigh 2.5 kilos for females, 5.5 kilos for males. They may live for 20 years, have few if any predators, lay and incubate one white or green egg per year and mate for life.

With Roman, we stood on the dikes of a huge salt works bordering the reserve and looked into the very salty water. It was pink-colored from thousands of tiny brine shrimp and other small carotene-loaded organisms. Roman, scooped a handful to show us the pink-orange squiggles thrashing about in the water.

“This,” he said, “is what makes the Flamingos pink!”

When you see the huge population of wild Flamingos there, sometimes as many as 40,000 in the reserve, they appear little changed from their earliest appearance on this earth. Gawky looking with their upside-down bill, yet graceful, they glide across the vast flats.

Roman also told us, 56 to 34 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch, the dawn of mammals, Flamingos were wading about here. They are gregarious birds in the genus Phoenicopterus and family Phoenicopteridae. Worldwide there are six different species. One of these, the American Flamingo, lives in the Caribbean Islands, Caribbean Mexico, Belize and the Galapagos Islands, with the greatest numbers in Mexico frequenting the Ria Lagartos area.

Although we had traveled to Rio Lagartos to see the Flamingos, they were just a part of the great show we experienced. Among the birds we saw were:

American Flamingo / Flamenco Comun
Great Blue Heron / La Gran Garza de Azule o Garzon Cenizo
Great Egret / Garzon Blanco
Boat-billed Heron / Garza Cucharon

Boat-billed Heron

Snowy Egret / Garzita Nivea
Great Black-hawk / Aguililla Negra
Osprey / Gavilan Pescador
Wood Stork / Ciguena
Roseate Spoonbill /Espatula
White Ibis / Ibis Blanco
Magnificent Frigate Bird / Fragata
Brown Pelican / Alcatraz Pardo
White Pelican / Alcatraz Blanco
Neotropical Cormorant / Corvejon
Anhinga / Huizote
Ruddy Ground Dove / Tortilita Rojiza
Scaled Pigeon / Paloma Escamosa
Yucatan Parrot / Loro Yucateco

And many, many other birds.
We also saw:
Crocodiles / Cocodrilos

BIG Croc hiding in mangroves

We saw several. One was huge, and we saw it up close!! Roman said it was nesting. I later read nesting crocodiles are the most dangerous!

The once-numerous crocodiles gave the town its name as the Spanish mistook them for alligators, el lagartos—the big lizards.

It is interesting to note the name of the village is Rio Lagartos while the reserve is Ria Lagartos. Roman explained that Ria is used to describe an estuary where salt and freshwater meet and mix. Spanish explorers mistook the narrowing of the estuary, ria, for a river, rio, and the crocodiles for alligators.

The Maya knew the place as Holkobén and used it as a rest stop on their way to Las Coloradas, a part of the vast estuary stretching east almost to the border of Quintana Roo. There they extracted precious salt from the waters, a process that continues on a large scale today.

***

Less than 1km east of town, on the edge of the estuary, is a beautiful natural freshwater spring, ojo de agua dulce. The locals called it a cenote, although it didn’t look at all like the cenotes we saw farther inland. There was no cave or lake, instead, the spring bubbled water up to sea level where it mixed with the salty water of the estuary. It is the town swimming hole.