Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Few Things I've Learned in Zihua. This Time

Mangos are sort of kidney shaped, and hang from the tree's branches. You know they're ripe when they turn from green to a rich, golden yellow. Papayas are usually bigger, are shaped more like bombs and hang around the trunk of the tree, just under the branches. You can tell they're ripe when they give when squeezed.

Diarrhea may be the result not of eating tainted food, but of too much sun and too little water. In addition to rehydrating, restoring one's electrolytes can help turn things around rather quickly.

Yellowtail jacks (jureles) and most other saltwater fish like lures that are reeled very fast—faster than you might think a fish could swim.

Geckos (called cuijas here in Guerrero) chirp like so many chatty birds. On our villa's rich golden walls they turn a thin translucent yellow, which accentuates their big, jet-black eyes.

The half-inch-long red ants sharing our villa are immune to the kind of ant poison we use in Minnesota.

The limon is kind of a miracle fruit. It's acidic juice can "cook" fish and other seafood (as in ceviche) and is also known as a decent disinfectant. The oil of limon rind makes a delightful, readily available (around here anyway) cologne.

It's fairly common some days in early spring to hear this area's usual whisper of surf turn thunderous.

Helado (ice cream) made from vegetable oil isn't half bad. Of the four brands carried in the big supermarket here, three subtlety disclose their non-dairy status; the fourth is about as dairy as it gets: Haagen Dazs.

The shockingly-loud, hollow, throaty, rasping sound often heard in the woods around here is the call of the West Mexican chachalaca, a common hen- to turkey-sized wild game bird.

The water in Mexico is not deadly poison as I'd once thought. Everyone washes their dishes in tap water and lets them air dry. Apparently any bacteria cannot survive long once dry.

In some parts of Mexico, if you have enough money, or if you know and/or bribe the right people, you can grab just about any parcel of land you want, even if it already belongs to someone else.

There's a very good reason why people here take siesta between about two and five PM – no one wants to be going anywhere outside under this brutal midday sun.

At the movie theater here, the snack counter serves Ramen Cup-o-Noodles, made to order—as is the popcorn—in the microwave.

My gift to mixology, a cross between the margarita and the paloma (tequila with grapefruit soda) is quite good: one part each tequila and Jose Cuervo tequila mix; two parts grapefruit soda; squeeze of limon juice. I call it the margaloma.

Sally can make one of those trough-shaped, red clay roof tiles by hand—I saw it with my own eyes.

The mouse droppings we've been finding on the counter top in our kitchen stove nook are really those of a bat (sometimes two) who roost there every night after we turn out the lights. (Guess that's one reason we have no bugs.)

Bats' sonar isn't as foolproof as I'd thought. Night before last several flew through our bedroom as we were going to bed and one grazed Sally's arm.

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is nuts around here. Sounds like just about every available housing unit in town will be taken in the happy rush of everyone in west-central Mexico to the Pacific coast to celebrate spring and, I suppose, the waning of Lent.

Just because you're standing in a nicely-paved street in a high-rent neighborhood doesn't mean you can take even one step while looking up at a spectacular bird flying overhead. If you do, as I nearly did, you'd fall into a yawning three-foot by four-foot, four-foot-deep manhole rimmed with jagged teeth of concrete where it had overflowed its forms.

It's true what I've heard and read: No matter what your expectations, no matter how well you've prepared, no matter how insistent you might be, a project in Mexico will not go your way.

The heat and intensity of the sun begins to coax one into a daily schedule like that of most people in hot climates: light breakfast, main meal at 2 or 3; siesta until 4 or 5; light dinner at 8 or 9.

Except for the ubiquitous ones covered with advertising, there are few white exterior walls. First of all, Mexicans love color. Secondly, the sun's glare off of a white wall is just too blinding.

Traveling in Mexico costs less when you speak Spanish.

The sobering checkpoint manned by automatic-weapon-toting soldiers between here and the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport is there to make sure neither the cab drivers nor their passengers are being hijacked.

The trunks of coconut palms are used extensively for lumber here. (We'd always imagined the wood not being very strong.)

Before coconuts are ripe, the milk is light and less cloudy—in fact, it's called coconut water. And the meat, soft and sort of mushy, can be eaten with a spoon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Day in the Mountains

We'd met William Mertz at a party—an in-person gathering of folks who frequent Zihuatanejo's popular internet message board. He's a nature photographer and graphics designer who, with his wife Belem and daughter Ruth, live and work in the little beach town of Troncones, about 20km north of Zihuatanejo.

Turns out Wil's a good guide to some of the back country up in the mountains northeast of here, where he often goes to collect samples of the snakes and lizards he prefers to shoot (with his camera). So we hired him for the day. He picked us up in his creaky 24-year-old 4-Runner and off we chugged.

About 50 kilometers northeast of Ixtapa, in the Sierra Madre del Sur, is the tiny settlement of Vallecitos de Zaragoza. Near it is one of the very few creeks that still flows during this dry, increasingly torrid season of the year, and along it, Las Cascadas de Mesas de Bravo. With little rain since February (and that quite an anomaly) the cascades themselves were actually something less than impressive, but the scoured grey granite pools and undulations of the river bed gave credence to the stream's venerability.

The place is in the early stages of development as a regional eco-tourism destination, with the local authorities building a welcome center, cabins and more easily accessible trails. A couple of shaky cable bridges are still in place, but we decided to avoid the longer one, with many of its stick cross-pieces dangling by one end.

Among the interesting things Will pointed out to us were the many trees playing host to other plants. These included the bromeliads one would expect in such a place, but we were struck by the several types of cactus that also had a foothold on the trees. Other fascinating plants included what the locals call the paper tree, covered in a coffee-brown onionskin, which peeled off in small leaves.

And another tree—I've forgotten its name—that reminded us of our magnolias back home, with its lack of any foliage to compete with its scattering of spectacular large blossoms.

William seemed to feel responsible for the reluctance of the resident parrots to show themselves today, but made up for it by pointing out the splash of iridescent blue fluttering up the stream bed toward us. The striking blue and black, hand-size butterfly, the Morpho Guerrerense, kept flying right at us, passing our faces within arm's length.

Wil explained that the parrots we weren't seeing that day might be holed up in the huge dark brown termite nests looming here and there in the trees. Apparently, they're able to dig their way into the solid, woody structures and carve out cozy nests inside—surrounded by the still-active termite nest as a handy source of food.

We saw a big, yellow-and-black swallowtail and several other types of butterfly, as well as the impressive white-throated magpie jay and several other birds. We also spotted several of the distinctive long, sack-shaped nests of the cacique, a feathered clash of jet black and bright yellow common to this area, including Zihua.

As we hiked around the site, the broad masses of granite radiated the sun's heat, making even the timid waterfalls awfully tempting to us, but, alas, we'd decided not to bring our swim suits. Pools of shade and the cold water Wil had brought for us helped quench the heat.

On our way back to the coast, we passed a number of fish farms where pools, large and small, teemed with talapia. Wil stopped once, thinking he'd heard some of those parrots, but they were only toying with us.

By three-thirty we were bouncing along the only street of Troncones, chased by a choking cloud of blond dust. After a very nice lunch at the restaurant Belem manages (and where Ruth also works), Wil drove us back to Zihua and our villa.

On our way up the long flights of stairs to our place, Sally and I stopped, as we often do, to dangle our feet in our lovely, usually deserted, pool, comparing notes about a very rewarding day. We'd enjoyed the scenery, learned much about the plants and critters of Mesas de Bravo and, perhaps most importantly, made some new friends.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Birthday in Coacoyul

Today I turned 65. I don't feel 65. In fact, I don't feel any particular age at all.

The historical novel I'm reading depicts education in the ancient Aztec culture as having divided students into classes not by age, but solely by ability. So a class might include a few teenagers, some 30- and 40-somethings and a couple of tottering grandparents. I figure if I keep learning—rather than acting like I already know it all—I'll always belong in that class.

Today my wife told me I could do anything I wanted. (Not that I ever have much trouble doing that, but I let her think this would be a special treat.) Since we're spending a few weeks here in lovely Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico, I decided I wanted to see the town and its environs in more depth than we'd done before. I called Señor Carlos García, a cab driver highly recommended as a guide, who's known for introducing visitors to some of the area's more out- of- the- way places.

Carlos picked us up at our villa in La Ropa and did just what we'd hoped for. He drove us through some of Zihua's poor, squatter neighborhoods up to the top of the city's highest hill for a sweeping view of the city and Zihuatanejo Bay.

We went south to lovely Playa Larga and had a Coke and some totopitos at a beach restaurant frequented by the locals.

We went north, past Ixtapa and its big, ritzy hotels, to Playa Linda, even more a place for Mexican, not Norteamericano tourists. There we saw yet another of this area's gorgeous beaches, and also a modest wildlife preserve featuring, among other critters, lots of iguanas and huge crocodiles with their locally- famous, eccentric handler who feeds them garbage bags full of putrifying fish carcasses.

Carlos speaks very good English, which was helpful for Sally, but when he learned that I speak very good Spanish, he seemed delighted, and we spent much of the day helping each other with our respective quests to master the other's first language.

This was all great fun, but the highlight of the day was a jaunt to Coacoyul, a sort of southern suburb of Zihuatanejo. We were winding our way through some of the town's dusty, rutted streets when Carlos slowed and stopped in front of a modest cinderblock home. "I have a little surprise for you," he announced, "and for my wife too!" Just then the long metal gate in the fence swung open and he pulled into the yard. "Welcome to my home!" he said.

Carlos introduced us to his lovely wife, his five beautiful children, his cousin—just recuperating from an attack of gastritis the day before—and his niece, all of whom gathered around to welcome us in the patio, or back yard. When Carlos announced that today was my birthday, everyone burst into Las Mañanitas, a traditional Mexican happy birthday song, personalized with my name. It was like we'd become instant members of the family.

After Carlos gave us a proud tour of their house, we said our thank- yous and good- byes, and were off for the rest of our tour, but not before hugs and kisses all around. What a wonderful surprise this visit was! And one that only further reinforces our impression of Mexicans as among the most friendly, generous and proud people we've met anywhere.

Around 6:00 we returned to downtown Zihua. where we settled up with Carlos for his services and asked him to drop us at the zocalo. After all, it was Sunday evening, when the square and municipal basketball court always fill with an amiable blend of local families (by far the majority) and visitors there for some kind of entertainment. Tonight it was a wonderful show of folkloric dance, in full traditional costume, representing various Mexican states and styles.

As birthdays go, this was a very happy one. It was spent with my wonderful wife, going to wonderful places, seeing and learning new things—including sharpening my Spanish—and making new friends. Pretty nice, no? All this and you know what? I don't feel single day older!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Volunteering in La Barra de Potosí

I'd "met" Laura through the Zihuatanejo internet message board. She's an American expat who, some 15 years ago, settled in the tiny seaside village of La Barra de Potosí, about 20 miles south of Zihuatanejo. There she started the town's first library and, working with the school teachers, has been developing interesting learning activities and programs for the kids.
Sally and I had been thinking of ways to be more than just tourists here, and felt there must be some way to help Laura, the teachers and their students. I'd exchanged a number of e-mails with her comparing notes about their needs and possible projects we could undertake with them.
The school and library, in conjunction with the Refugio de Potosí, a new wildlife rehabilitation center near the village, had been working with a young biologist from Mexico City to catalog and study the area's butterflies, so we decided this would be a great starting point and theme for anything Sally and I could offer. We decided on a mural.
Ana Luisa, the biologist, would provide the students with her photos of the butterflies. Each student would then pick his or her favorite and draw or paint it. Finally, we'd help them to superimpose line grids over their images and eventually to scale and transpose them to the wall chosen for the mural. I had designed an overall layout for the mural, as well as a title which I hope would capture a sense of ownership of the beautiful butterflies which the locals tend to take for granted.
Laura had also given us a "wish list" of school and office supplies they needed for the library, so, as we got ready for our trip from Minneapolis, we'd packed an additional duffel full of art paper, notebooks, colored markers, copy paper, scissors, Scotch tape and other essentials.
Monday, accompanied by my brother Dan and his wife Ruth Ann, we lugged the duffel over to the bus station here in Zihua. and grabbed the bus for Petatlán. We asked the driver to let us know when we reached the village of Los Achotes, little more than a dirt-road intersection and a few shops. After escaping the overly warm welcome of a drunk who came staggering out of a shop, we spotted the pasajero (a pickup truck with bench seating in back) and climbed aboard for the ten minute ride to La Barra.
Arriving at what looked like it must be the center of town, we hopped out and started down the hot, dusty main street. The mid-day sun baked us, reflecting up at us from the light tan dirt. Kids played, rolling car tires back and forth; women hung their wash out to dry in the dusty air; and typically good-natured dogs took note of us as they made their business-like rounds, marking each post and car tire.
After a few blocks without any kind of shade, we came to a thick stand of trees—bamboo, bougainvillea and several other kinds. And there was the sign, barely visible: Casa del Encanto, the bed and breakfast Laura owns and depends on for what little income she needs. Laura welcomed us warmly and introduced us to Ana Maria and Sonia and Bibi, the two young German women who help her in the library.
We got a quick tour of the B & B and then walked a block to the library where we inspected the wall where the mural is to be painted and then sat down to plan the project.
The next steps are for the students to make their paintings and for the wall to be scraped, sanded and primed in preparation for the mural. Then Sally and I will return next week and begin the process of gridding both the images and the wall. I may also begin to outline a few of the blown-up butterflies to give the kids the idea. I will also letter the title, as this would be hard for kids to do themselves. Laura has invited us to stay with her at her B & B so we can work in the evening and morning hours and avoid the brutal mid-day heat.
As with most creative endeavors, especially when they involve kids, we can't be sure where the process will take us, but we've already found it rewarding, and look forward to seeing the final result, whatever it might be.