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

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.

Kiss of the Guacamaya

 guacamaya-1-fs

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.

  guacamaya-2-fs 

 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.

bit-finger-guacamaya-fs