Monday, February 28, 2011

The Mexico Chronicles: Last Days

Walking the Malecon on Lake Chapala, Ajijic

After a few long days of traveling, we were glad to have a day of rest on Sunday in Ajijic. Lake Chapala is supposed to have one of the most pleasant year round temperatures in the world, and we found it to be perfect; not too warm and not at all cold. On Sunday morning we walked next door to a little restaurant where we enjoyed a nice breakfast: fresh orange juice, chilaquiles for some of us, eggs for the rest, all accompanied, of course, by beans and tortillas. With bellies satisfied, we ventured beyond the square to explore a little of the town. Erik was glad to find a cafe where he could get a real cup of coffee. The shop was tastefully decorated in a coffee theme; chairs were upholstered with coffee sacks, and the tables had coffee beans under glass. They had their roaster right in the front of the shop, and Raphael was thrilled to get to “zoast” some coffee! 

Raphi "zoasting" coffee!
    After a bit of wandering, we walked down to the lake, which was just a few blocks from where we were staying, and took a nice walk along the malecon. The kids enjoyed a couple of different playgrounds, and Erik and I relished the fresh air and beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. We struck up a conversation with another visiting family from Ireland who were in Mexico adopting a child. One of the things I love about traveling is meeting people from all over the place. 

The old church in Ajijic
We found a little restaurant where we could get some lunch. It was just the kind of place I like; no menu, just a woman who is happy to tell you what she’s made. The special that day was enchiladas, which we all enjoyed. Siesta followed lunch, as is fitting, and then we had to deal with the problem of a dead battery on our rental van. Now, at home a dead battery isn’t much of a big deal; there’s always someone around who can help out. But there we weren’t really sure who to turn to. Erik called the rental agency, which was supposed to get back to him in 15 minutes and send someone out to help. I’m glad we had a plan B, because we never did hear back from them! While waiting, Erik called Alexsi, who got in touch with a friend of his who had a car and was willing to come and give us a jump start. Anastasia and I took the kids over to play in the plaza while the men did their car stuff. We bought some snacks for them , twice fried french fries and hot dogs with Mexican ketchup (yuck, yuck, yuck!) and refreshing watermelon. There had been some sort of a celebration in the square earlier that day, and the ground was littered with egg shells and brightly colored confetti. Apparently the custom there is to break these confetti-filled eggs over one another’s heads to during festivals like this. There were still a few vendors selling eggs, so I bought a bag and let the kids have at it!  It was fun, although I think it took days to get all the confetti out! 

Even Pearl got in on it!
    We enjoyed some inexpensive tacos at a nearby stand, and then said our goodbyes to Alexsi and Anastasia. It was a real pleasure to meet them, and we hope that our paths will cross again in the future. We ended the evening with ice cream, and then turned in to our hotel. Erik went out later and bought me a snack of roasted fresh garbanzo beans, still in the pods. They were delicious; smoky and salty and satisfying. 

Our family with Anastasia and Alexsi

The Ajijic Square by night
On Monday morning we revisited the little restaurant next door, and then were “on the road again”. We took the more direct route through Guadalajara back to Bucerias. The toll highways, while expensive, are well maintained. We drove back through the mountains, the Sierra Madre Occidental, and past fields and fields of agave - this is tequila country. 

Agave fields
    We stopped in a small town for gas and tacos, and soon found ourselves driving south along the coast once more, through towns we visited last year; Rincon de Guayabitos, Sayulita, Lo de Marcos. We stopped by the side of the road where I paid 35 pesos (less than three dollars) for a papaya and a pineapple; I just had to eat a little more fruit before we left! We arrived back in Bucerias by mid-afternoon, in time for a swim before dinner. That evening we found ourselves eating again at Lucy’s; it seems we often find a little place where we really connect with the people, and this time it was Lucy. She had a sad sweetness, and was very kind to us. She gave each of the kids a notebook one evening, and always remembered their names. 
Raphi loved the mariachi bands!

Tuesday was our last full day in Mexico, and we decided to visit the beach one more time. Even though we were pretty close to it, we really only went a few times; it’s just a lot of work to haul everyone and the gear down there and back again. With a pool right outside the door, it’s easier just to do that. When we got down to the beach we saw what looked like a snake washed up on the shore. Upon closer look we realized it was an eel, and it was pretty interesting to see it up close. We watched it for a while and then Erik threw in back into the water. I had fun building a sand castle with the kids, and also swimming with Peregrine. 

    The afternoon was mostly spent packing and trying to get things as ready as possible for the next day’s departure. We walked into town for a little last minute shopping and dinner at one of the nice restaurants on the beach. It was the only time we did that, and we really enjoyed watching the sun set over the top of the bay and eating our dinner to the rhythm of the waves lapping on the sand. Peregrine kept saying that he wished he could make that day last for a week, and I had to agree; it was hard to leave.

Sunset on our last evening in Bucerias

On Wednesday morning we walked down to get some breakfast. As is often the case, the nearby place we planned to go to was closed and we ended up walking a lot further than we’d anticipated. We enjoyed our breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice, chilaquiles, and eggs, rice, and beans, and then took a taxi back to our place. The kids went for a swim while I did the final packing. I kept wishing I could jump in the pool too, and then realized that I would regret it if I didn’t make time for one last swim with them. I was glad I did; it was refreshing, and I had so much fun paddling around the pool and playing with them. Erik cut up some mangoes and pineapple for a snack, and then the taxi van was there for us around 11:15. We all piled in, along with our luggage, and headed south towards Puerto Vallarta. We stopped to buy a roasted chicken to eat at the airport, having been stuck last year eating at Carl’s Jr. (It was our most expensive meal in Mexico last year, and by no means our most enjoyable. I didn’t want to repeat that!) We had a long day of travel ahead of us; fifteen hours until we got home if everything went as planned. With all the kids in their own seats in the van, Erik and I sat together and held hands, enjoying our last few minutes there. 

Once we got to the airport we were kicked into gear; waiting in lines, trying to keep track of kids, getting ticketed, trying to keep track of kids, having bags inspected, rounding up kids, eating lunch, herding kids, going through security, trying to keep kids together, and finally onto the plane. We managed to travel with only one checked suitcase and a pretty good pile of carryons. One blessing was when we checked in at Puerto Vallarta they offered to check some more of our bags for free, so we ended up with less to maneuver through the rest of the airports. Of course when we arrived in LA we had to get all of our luggage in order to go through customs there. I’m always intrigued seeing people from all over the place in the customs hall; I want to know their stories, where they’re coming from, why they’re coming, what they’re hoping for. There was one family who looked like they were from Tibet or maybe Mongolia, traveling with a huge pile of plaid plastic bags like I remember using in India; I would have loved to hear their story in particular. 

    We’d brought some bananas to eat on the plane and not thought to throw away the few we had left before disembarking. Because of this we got “the scarlet letter”, a big red A for agriculture, on our customs card, and were sent into the secondary inspection line where we got to wait some more. (And try to keep kids together!) After sending our bags through the x-ray machines again and handing our food over to the gloved inspector, he kindly told us that whoever sent us must not know that it’s fine to bring bananas in from Mexico. 

We had to go through security again in LA, and I was so, so thankful that we were passed right through without being subject to the scanners or any “enhanced” pat downs. We had just enough time to make it to our terminal and eat some highly overpriced and not so tasty airport food before boarding our next plane to Seattle. One nice thing about traveling with small kids is pre-boarding, and we take advantage of it! The flight to Seattle was smooth, and by the time we arrived there around 8:30 we were all pretty exhausted. (Our bodies were telling us it was more like 10:30, way past the kids’ bedtime. We were thankful to find a nice big play room where we could sit and the kids could play. They had fun, although Raphael was walking around looking like a little zombie, all glazed over and not quite sure what was going on. We boarded our final plane around 10:30. Because it was a smaller plane we had to walk out onto the tarmac to board, and were met with freezing temperature and heavy snow falling. What a change from the sunny skies and warm morning we’d had! We had to sit on the plane for quite a while so they could de-ice it, but we were finally on our way. I expected this last leg of our journey to be a rough ride, but it really wasn’t bad at all. Poppy and Pearl fell asleep right away, and Raphael didn’t take long either. Peregrine finally gave in shortly before we landed close to midnight. We were thankful to be home safely after a very long day of traveling.

And so we’ve been there and back again, to our beloved Mexico. I’m so thankful for these times we’ve had together there, making memories with our children. Can’t wait until next time! 

A Week of Beauty: Fresh

Fruit and veggies on my kitchen counter in Mexico

    My friend Rae, who lives in India, is having A Week of Beauty on her lovely blog. I have been practicing giving thanks, seeking joy, and opening my eyes to the beauty that is all around me, so I thought it would be fun to play along. I took this picture after washing my produce in Mexico one day. I love the colors and shapes of my fruits and veggies just waiting to be enjoyed. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Mexico Chronicles: Further

Banana trees growing beneath coconut palms.
The last several days have been so full and tiring that I haven't made time to write. We spent Tuesday and Wednesday of last week fairly quietly in Bucerias. One interesting thing that happened was that we were standing by the highway one day, waiting for the light to turn, when a police jeep backed up right by us. I was a little alarmed to see the driver was wearing a ski mask. My first thought was that he was a criminal and that we were right next to some bad action! The next thing we knew a red pickup raced by, and then the police jeep followed him, another police car pulled out after him, and we heard what we thought were gunshots. Sirens filled the air as they raced down the highway, and they must have called every other car in the area, because we heard sirens for the next half hour! We never found out what happened, but I did learn that it's not uncommon for the police here to wear ski masks. Maybe they watch too many American TV shows? 

On Thursday morning Erik took the bus into Puerto Vallarta to pick up a rental van for our trip to Ajijic. These things always seem to take a lot longer than they should, and it was around 11:30 before we got on the road. We planned to drive south along the coast to Manzanillo, then inland to Colima, where we would spend the night. We'd been told that Colima was a four hour drive, so we figured we could still be there by mid-afternoon, in time to explore the city a little. After about three hours we stopped in a small town to have our picnic lunch of chile rellenos, tortillas, and beans that we'd purchased the previous  evening in Bucerias. We found the town square, where there was a little playground and the kids were able to run off a bit of energy. We sat and ate under the shade of a tree and watched two huge bees buzzing above us. (They were around an inch and a half long, and we learned later that they are called solitary bees.) 

    We continued to head south, then at Manzanillo we turned east. We must have passed by millions of coconut trees, many of them shading banana trees. There were also many, many groves of mango trees. Fruit stands by the side of the road offered all sorts of fresh tropical fruits for sale, whole or cut up in plastic cups. Piles and piles of fresh coconuts were just ready to be opened and enjoyed, only a couple pesos each. We drove past one spot on the highway where there were several fruit stands on each side of the road and noticed huge jacas, or jackfruit, hanging there for sale. I had fresh jackfruit in Thailand ten years ago and have never tasted anything like it. I couldn't pass up the chance to try it again, so Erik pulled over and I went and bought two cups of jackfruit, as well as a cup of the tiny coconuts that were husked and ready to pop in the mouth. 

Fruit stand by the highway. The big fruits hanging up are jaca, or jackfruit.
    The hours stretched on, four, five, six, seven hours, and finally we approached Colima at dusk. We could just make out the outline of Volcan de Fuego looming above the city. The volcano is Mexico's most active, and it's common to see smoke and fire at the top. We headed to the city center and found a hotel where we could stay the night. By this time it was close to 8 in the evening, bed time (for the kids) on the best of days, and we were all quite tired out. We had, however, made contact with a Russian family living in Colima, and tentatively made plans to meet them for dinner when we arrived. She had already prepared a meal for us, and so we could hardly say we were too tired to come! He drove over to our hotel and led us  back to their home, where we enjoyed their warm hospitality and a lovingly prepared meal. Their small home was full of books, in Spanish, English, and Russian. He also had a fine collection of butterflies, moths, and insects that he’s found and preserved. I’m glad that I didn’t have to see some of those alive, but it was neat to see them in acrylic! The kids had fun with their children, in spite of the language barrier. (They only speak Spanish and Russian.) It was midnight before we were all settled back into our hotel room. In spite of the late night, we were blessed by our evening with this dear family.

    We wanted to explore Colima a little before heading out the next day, so after a picnic breakfast in the hotel's courtyard, we spent some time walking around the city. It had a nice feel, people going about their business, not touristy at all. We found a playground in one of the plazas and the kids enjoyed playing for a while. From there we walked around, enjoying the gardens, inhaling the scent of the jasmine hedges, admiring a tree heavily laden with green mangoes, and relishing some fresh squeezed orange juice. We drove a little ways to the Museum of Popular Arts and were pleasantly surprised at how many interesting things there were to see there. Huge puppets, small string puppets, clothing, toys, textiles, pottery, miniatures, masks, and much more kept us all intrigued. Even the kids enjoyed it, which of course made it a nice experience for everyone! There were a number of things that reminded me of the stuff we used to see in Mexico when I was a kid. 

One of the beautiful plazas in Colima.
      We got some chicharrones to munch on, then sat and ate tacos in a small restaurant across from the museum. From there we navigated our way out of Colima and onto the toll highway toward Guadalajara. We drove up, past the volcano, which was covered in clouds as we approached. We were thankful that God answered our prayers and the clouds rolled away, revealing the steep peak of the mountain. There was no smoke or fire to be seen, but I was glad we at least got to see the top! The road climbed higher and crossed many bridges over deep canyons and gorges. We finally came out into what seemed a high flat valley where there was a lot of agriculture, including sugar cane fields. After some time the cultivated land gave way to ranches with cattle, and at last the landscape just seemed desolate for miles. 
About 15 miles before Guadalajara we turned off the highway and headed east, toward Lake Chapala, the largest natural lake in Mexico. We drove through a few small towns and then past fields of huge greenhouses full of raspberries and strawberries. (Arriving soon at a supermarket near you!) The days' drive was only about three hours, and we reached the lakeside town of Ajijic by about 5:30 on Friday. Our first stop was the lodging of our soon to be friends, Anastasia and Alexsi. We had communicated via email and had very much been looking forward to meeting face to face. They welcomed us with cookies and ice cream and it felt very natural to continue our relationship with this dear couple in person. Alexsi hopped in the van with us and led us to the hotel where we'd made our reservation for the next three nights. After getting settled we ate a nice dinner at "Quekas de Abuela". (Quekas is another word for quesadillas, and abuela is granddfather.) The restaurant is run by a sweet older couple from Mexico City and we all enjoyed our dinner. I had a "queka" with "flor de calabaza" or squash blossoms, inside! 
On Saturday morning Alexsi and Anastasia arrived at our place around 8;30 and we all piled into the van and headed for Guadalajara. Our first stop was the airport, where we were to meet Bishop Alejo who was flying in from Mexico City. Well, one thing you learn quickly in Mexico is to flow with things, and this was one of those situations that required a lot of flowing! He was to have been at a certain terminal at a certain time, but he wasn't, so there were a lot of phone calls, wonderings, and driving around in circles before we all met up and were on our way again. From there we followed another vehicle to where we were going to have church. It was very special to get to celebrate the liturgy here in Mexico; one nice thing about the liturgy is that even though we couldn't understand the language we knew what was going on and could take part in it. Raphael was very tired and I spent a good part of it out with him, but that is worship too! Afterward we enjoyed visiting with people and being able to talk a little with Bishop Alejo, a very gracious and joyful man.

Our family with Bishop Alejo in Guadalajara.

      The return trip from Guadalajara to Ajijic seemed to take a long time. We missed a turn and it took quite a while to get back to where we needed to be. Guadalara is one big crazy city! I was squished in the back of the van with Peregrine, Poppy, and Raphael, so it wasn't the most comfortable drive, but... we just had to flow with it! As must as I would have liked some rest when we got back to Ajijic, we didn't think that would be fair to our kids who had been in the van and church all day, so we walked the few blocks down to the lake. There is a nice malecon, or seawall walkway, along the lakeshore, and we found a nice playground. Erik and I were able to talk for a few minutes while the kids played. 
A little later we drove over to Alexsi and Anastasia's, then all went out for dinner together. They treated us to a nice meal, and then we spent a little time at their place before heading back to our hotel. After getting the kids settled down, Erik and I took turns going out for a little walk in the plaza, which is directly across from where we were staying. It was really nice to get out for a few minutes after such busy and long days. The plaza was full of Mexican families and couples, walking, eating, playing, talking. The air was cool and refreshing, and it was just what was needed after the fullness of the day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Mexico Chronicles: Bucerias Days

On Sunday morning we drove north to La Cruz for another visit to the farmer's market. I was happy to buy some more produce, fresh chorizo, peanut butter, hummus, and more. I bought a small key lime pie from a woman selling baked goods, and it was seriously one of the most delicious things I've ever had. While I shopped the kids sat under the shade of a huge sprawling tree and joined in with activities for children. A couple of Mexican families bring recyclable items like pieces of cardboard, pictures cut out of magazines, etc, and craft supplies, and it's neat to see the creativity taking place there! I enjoyed watching our kids blend right in, not hindered by language or culture, and taking part in this little community event. They even had a story time, and the woman who was reading was kind enough to translate the stories into English as well.
We left the market and sat down at a little open air restaurant for some tacos. Nearby was another massive tree, and while we were waiting for our food, Peregrine started yelling that he saw an iguana in the tree! Of course we got up and looked, but couldn't see anything. He kept insisting that there really was an iguana, and then Poppy said she could see it too. They were trying to point to where it was, but still I couldn't make it out. Poppy said that part of it looked like some leaves hanging down, and I could see the "leaves" but still couldn't see how that was part of an iguana. They also said they could see a striped tail and that part of the iguana looked like a spider. Our kids have really, uh, vivid, imaginations, and I was beginning to wonder if this was just another fancy of theirs. And then I realized that the "leaves" I'd seen was really the large flap of skin hanging down from the neck of a big iguana, who was sitting high on a tree branch in the sun. The "spider" part was his forelegs and claws, and sure enough, he had a very long striped tail. He was kind of peach color with some green, and I'd guess maybe five feet long. We then realized he wasn't alone and that there were probably three or four smaller iguanas in the tree as well. I haven't seen iguanas before in this part of Mexico, so it was fun to see them.
We had dinner at home on Sunday, then walked into town as the sun set over the ocean. At dusk there are birds in the trees around the square, and they squawk like it's the end of the world! Sunday evening is when a lot of Mexican families go to the square together, and there are more food vendors set up. We saw a girl sitting on the edge of the empty fountain holding what appeared to be a dog with a blanket around it. Erik gestured to me and pointed out that it wasn't a dog after all, but a baby goat! I took Raphael and sat down next to her where we could see it better. She was a sweet girl of about 10 or 11, and she said the goat was only one month old and is her pet, Blackie. She let Raphael pet it, and he was quite excited about that. One just never knows what one will see here! One night while waiting in line for fried bananas some girls came by with a little bird. It was a baby parrot, one month old, and they let the kids pet it as well.
Yesterday we'd planned to go to the beach, but it felt like we needed to have a little more of a "down" day, so we stayed around here until late afternoon. The kids got in the pool around 9 in the morning and I think it was close to 1 before they were done swimming. Somewhere in there was breakfast, and once I could I got in with them. We all had a great relaxing time floating and splashing and paddling and wading around the pool. After siesta, we walked into town and gave the kids a little money so they could buy a few things to take home. Peregrine picked out a model ship and a slingshot, and Poppy bought a wind chime and a bracelet for her friend.
We'd had our eye on a certain taco stand we've walked by, but ended up eating at another place on the square. They had a handwritten sign advertising fish tacos, which isn't something you normally see here. It was the kind of makeshift restaurant operating out of the back of a truck; out come the tables and chairs, a canopy, a portable stove, a crate full of ice and glass soda bottles, and voila, a restaurant! We took our seats, the plastic kind advertising Corona (or Pepsi, or Sol, or Coca Cola) and waited for our fish tacos. We were facing the church, and I noticed in its yard the type of palm that instead of large coconuts has a spray of olive sized fruits growing beneath the fronds. Some of them were turning red, giving them the appearance of berries. We learned that they are actually a type of coconut, and one man told us this is the kind used to make coconut oil. Our fish tacos arrived on plastic plates covered with a thin plastic bag. This solves the problem of where to do the dishes, as they just throw the bag away, put on a clean one and serve the next customer. We enjoyed our dinner and Erik bought fried bananas for the kids "one last time". I often buy a few produce items near the taxi stand, and last night I picked up two huge mangoes, some small zucchini like squash, and several guava, which we've discovered we really like. We took a taxi home and were glad to call it a night.
Our time here is going by too quickly. Already I'm counting down the days until we leave instead of how many days we've been here. I'm so thankful for this time we have, making memories together with our kids and sharing this great place that is Mexico.

The Mexico Chronicles: There and Back Again

I'm rarely as ready as I ought to be when it comes time to leave, and Friday morning was no exception. It was close to 11:30 before we were ready to leave on our overnight trip to San Sebastian del Oeste. We visited there last year for a day and were enchanted with this little mountain town. There was no question that we wanted to return there again.
We were finally all in the rental van and ready to go. Our first stop was the convenience store on the corner where Erik planned to get some money out of the ATM. Unfortunately the ATM there wasn't working so we drove downtown to where he knew there was another one. After a couple of tries he came back to the van and said that there must be a problem with our bank account as it was being denied. We drove back to our condo where I checked our account to see if I could figure out what was going on. There didn't appear to be a problem, so we left again, stopping this time at Mega, where there are several banks. I waited in the van with the kids and he came out again and said it still wasn't working. He finally tried yet another ATM and got money out with no problem! We still don't know what was going on.
By this time it was past 1 in the afternoon, but finally we were on our way. The poor kids though had already been sitting in the van for an hour and a half and we hadn't even left town! We headed south into Puerta Vallarta and from there turned east toward the mountains. I love getting off the main highway and out of the touristy areas and seeing more of "real" Mexico. We drove through little towns that gave way to ranches, then up, up a winding mountain road where frequent signs warned us that we were in a "zona de derrumbes", or landslide zone. Piles of rubble on either side of the road confirmed that we were indeed. The mountains are covered in thick jungle; orchids grow in the tall trees and yellow and purple blossoms stand out against the green. Although the road is what we would have called a "scenic route" (scary at times), it was very beautiful. We crossed over a high bridge, past fields of agave, a row of mango trees, innumerable banana and coconut trees, and to the tiny town of La Estancia, which is where you turn off to get to San Sebastian.
We didn't stop in La Estancia last year, but the thing I remembered about it were the large piles of pumpkins that seem to be in many of the yards. They're the ones we call "cinderella" pumpkins in the US, paler orange and fanciful in their shape. Well, they must grow abundantly there, and they also grow huge! I even saw these pumpkins for sale in the little "aborrotes", which are like mini convenience stores. One of the things they do with them is make a kind of candy, and I was very curious about it so I tried some. I think I prefer to keep my pumpkin and candy separate, but it was interesting.
We decided to stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant there, and we were pleasantly surprised. We sat outside in the shade where we could watch the woman cooking on their traditional clay oven, mixing masa with strong hands, pressing tortillas, flipping them deftly with experienced fingers. We drank freshly squeezed orange juice, some of the best I've ever had, and ate a delicious meal of carne asada, frijoles refritos, and hot thick tortillas.
After our late lunch we walked across the road to the "candy stand" where a man was stirring a thick mixture in a huge cauldron over a fire. I believe he was making "rollo de guayaba" which is a thick jelly like guava roll. There were two Mexican Grandmas who doted on Raphael and gave the kids samples of dried myrtle berries that were crystalized. They explained what the different types of sweets were, which was very interesting as we've seen these candy stands before with no real idea of what the different things were. They're traditionally made Mexican sweets, many made with fruits, coconut, and nuts.
It wasn't too much further to San Sebastian. You know you're getting close when the narrow paved road gives way to cobblestone and the trees grow close to the road. We passed by the coffee plantation where we'd stopped last year; it was wonderful then to walk among the coffee being grown in the shade of huge citrus and avocado trees. We hadn't booked a hotel ahead of time though and our first stop needed to be arranging a place to stay. We knew just the place; Hotel del Puente, or Hotel of the Bridge, a charming little place we'd scouted out last time. I'm not sure why we ended up there last year, but we'd gone in and seen the rooms surrounding the most delightful courtyard. Small paving stones make up the floor, set in patterns, and in between them grow tiny plants, forming a mosaic like "carpet". Scattered throughout the courtyard are rustic leather couches, chairs, and tables as well as other bushes, flowers, and plants including poinsettias, azalea, and bougainvillea.
Thankfully they had a room available for us, a large room with three double beds. (Hooray for Mexican family style rooms!) There were two large windows looking out onto the street and over the bridge. There was no glass in the windows, rather there were heavy wooden shutters and iron bars. The door to our room was a heavy wooden one and was opened with a key such as you might imagine would open a medieval dungeon! It was heavy iron and about 7 inches long!
After getting settled we decided to walk around town a little since we didn't have a whole lot of daylight left. It's a very quiet little town; we peeked into the church and wandered around the square. We walked up and down a few different roads, admiring the tidy houses with their lovely gardens. In one yard there was a poinsettia that must have been ten feet tall! There were pots of geraniums, profuse bougainvillea, bananas, avocado, lime and orange trees, succulents, and flowers. I love to see how people beautify their homes, and this town really exemplifies that. The town was very quiet; there were plenty of hotels but it didn't appear that there were many people. We passed by many restaurants but had a hard time finding one that was open. We ended up eating a late dinner at a little, overpriced restaurant on the square, simply because it seemed like our only option. The place was filled with the familiar smell of roasting coffee, and Erik and I shared a bowl of delicious tortilla soup. We were a little dismayed to walk out of the restaurant to find that someone had set up a taco stand just down the street and was selling tacos for 7 pesos each!
It took a while to get everyone settled down, as it always does when we all have to sleep in the same room. I was a little concerned about staying wam enough, but there were heavy blankets on the beds, and it didn't get as cold as I thought it might have. I guess the thick concrete walls serve as good insulation. The pillows were lumpy and the mattresses were hard, roosters crowed (all night long) and dogs barked, and babies woke up several times throughout that long night. It was one of those nights where I just wished morning would come so that it would be over and I could get on with my tired day. At last sun began to shine through the cracks in those heavy wooden shutters and children began to stir. A new day had begun.
We packed up our things and sat in a sunlit courtyard for our picnic breakfast of hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and chunks of papaya and pineapple. We headed out of town, hoping to stop at the coffee plantation, but it wasn't open yet. Instead we made a quick stop in La Estancia so Erik could get a cup of coffee. It was nice to find that it was real coffee and not Nescafe as is so common here.
From there we headed south toward Mascota, another town we wanted to visit. I'd read that it's famous for horses, and that people come from all over to buy horses there. Having a horse loving boy in the family, we figured it would be a good place to explore. The road was narrow and winding as we climbed further into the mountains, passing several more "zone de derrumbes" signs, as well as a number of interesting animal crossing signs: there were cattle, as you might expect, but also armadillo, rattlesnake, fox, badger, rabbit, and mountain lion! Erik has a good Spanish-English dictionary on his ipod and I kept busy looking up words we was on the road signs as we drove. There's no education like the moment!
Having reached the top of whatever mountain we'd been ascending, we began to wind down, down into a sprawling valley. As the land flattened out we drove by many cattle ranches. We also passed one place with what must have been thousands of open a-frame type structures about two feet high. Upon closer inspection we realized that there were beautiful roosters tethered to them, so that each one had his own little shady spot.
We arrived in Mascota and made our way to the town center; the square was full of benches and orange trees. We walked a little, then found a small restaurant where we had tacos. I get more adventurous all the time and tried some lengua, or beef tongue. (Last year I tried cabeza! What next? Maybe tripe.) We'd heard that in Mascota were the ruins of an old church, and it turned out to be right across the street from where we ate lunch. We walked across the street and entered the ruins of what must have been a huge church in its time. Some of the walls were still standing, but the only part of the roof that was left were great curved arches, silhouetted against a bright blue sky. Magenta sprays of bougainvillea spilled over the remains of walls built of volcanic rock. Where there must have at one time been a stone floor was now a grassy lawn, and we walked peacefully among the ruins of this ancient place of worship. I do not know the history yet of how the church came to be in such a state, but am curious to learn it.
We left Mascota around two, somewhat disappointed at not having found the horse paradise we'd envisioned. Personally, the ruins of that church were enough for me, and even Peregrine didn't seem to mind too much. On the way home we bought a roasted chicken from a roadside stand; we often make a meal of one of these. For about seven or eight dollars you get a delicious roasted chicken, tortillas, rice, sometimes beans or potatoes, and salsa. We got back to Bucerias by five and enjoyed our chicken dinner before driving to the town center where we got some fried bananas for the kids. We waited in line for what seemed like an age, as the fried banana guy is also the churro guy. I enjoyed a churro, which is one of those things that takes me back to childhood and our visits to Mexico. (Eating churros at La Bufadora!)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Mexico Chronicles: Part Two

Today dawned bright and clear, and in spite of our late night last night, none of the kids thought that sleeping in was in order. Erik fed them some yogurt and took them out for a swim, and then we decided to walk into town. Since we normally eat breakfast and lunch here, then go out in the evening, we thought it would be fun to switch that around and go into town earlier in the day. It was after ten when we left in search of a place to eat breakfast. Our first stop was Delices de France, a bakery run by a French pastry chef named Guillaume. We met him last year and greatly enjoyed his fine quiches, pastries, and croissants, as well as his friendly manner. It was good to see him again and he shared a cup of espresso with Erik. We purchased a few little treats to eat later in the day and bade him farewell.
We walked further on to Lucy's "comida economica" where we'd eaten dinner a few nights ago. We were greeted warmly by Lucy, who even remembered some of the kids names. There we enjoyed a filling breakfast of freshly squeezed orange juice and "huevos mexicanos" (eggs scrambled with tomatoes, onions, and peppers), refried beans, and chilaquiles (day old tortillas lightly fried and smothered in red sauce). I was told by "the coconut lady" at the farmer's market that the little carnicerias (meat markets) tend to sell better quality, local, and more naturally raised beef than the big stores, so Erik asked Lucy if she could recommend a good one. She pointed us around the corner to where she buys her meat, so we made that our next stop.
I guess I've come a long way since my vegetarian days, because I was sort of excited about finding a good meat market, and only slightly grossed out by the large slabs of meat lying around. While I fumbled my way through asking in Spanish for a kilo of hamburger, Erik picked out some chicharones for the kids. In case you're not fortunate enough to have experienced them for yourself, these are fried pork rinds, or "piggy skins" as my kids called them. They were a hit with the kids, and while this certainly won't be every day fare, it's a traditional Mexican snack, and hey, we're in Mexico, right? I was impressed with the cleanliness and lack of flies in the carniceria, and only wished that the man who handled the money wasn't the same one cutting away at the meat without any hand washing. He did sort of wipe his hands on his apron at one point, which has got to count for something, right? Ah, well, at least the meat will be well cooked before we eat it!
We walked a little further up the street and found a little general store, for lack of a better description. We'd stopped in there last year and bought a number of inexpensive little items we needed for our kitchen, and had looked for it the other day but not found it. I wanted to pick up a couple of little notebooks, and I also let the kids pick out a coloring book. Across the street was a "fruteria" and I wanted to get a few produce items, but first I needed to find a bathroom. I was in luck, as just a couple shops up the street there were some nicely kept public banos where for only three pesos one could use the toilet! (Hey, it's a very small price to pay for a clean bathroom and toilet paper. I've seen the alternative and it's not pretty!)
Back at the fruteria Erik stood outside in the shade with the kids while I picked out some squash, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, as well as some cheeses. There are so many varieties of cheese, and we're starting to learn which ones we like and how to tell the difference. Today I got Queso Oaxaca, which is sort of like string cheese, only it comes in a big ball and you "unwind" it. I also got some panela, which reminds me a little of fresh mozzarella. It feels like a small accomplishment to be able to look at the various unmarked cheeses in the case and recognize a few of them!
While we were exiting the carniceria, a man walked by with several bags of coffee beans. This, of course, piqued Erik's interest, and so he struck up a conversation with the man, who was a roaster and had a shop right around the corner. So after filling my market bag with produce, our next stop was the coffee place where Esteban let Erik smell different beans, roasted and unroasted, and sample some of his brewed coffee. I spied a pile of poblano peppers, roasted, stuffed with cheese, and ready to be made into delicious chiles rellenos, sitting on a table in his little restaurant. I think we'll need to return there for a meal as well as some coffee.
By the time we headed back home the sun was pretty hot, but I was glad to have discovered some new places. I much prefer that kind of shopping- a few days worth of veggies, a little meat, supporting the smaller shops- to the "Mega" experience. It feels so much more "real" to me.
When we got home it was time for siesta, and Erik left to go into Puerto Vallarta to pick up a rental van which we'll have for the next few days. We plan to return to the little mountain town, San Sebastian del Oeste, that we liked so much last year, as well as visit another town "out there" somewhere. We also have plans next weekend to meet up with some friends who are spending the winter over in Ajijic on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara. Adventuring we will go!
Picking up the rental car was, as might be expected, a bit of a runaround. Even though I'd made a reservation through Orbitz, Erik ended up going through a different rental agency that seemed a little more above board and up front about their costs. Three hours after he left, he returned with a van. We went for a swim in the pool and decided it was a lovely time of day for a swim. The sun wasn't so hot, but the water had warmed up a little. After our swim we decided to drive into town for dinner, and that was that. I'm feeling mighty tired this evening and think it's nearly time to call it a night. Until next time...

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Mexico Chronicles

Here is a long account of the last week of our lives:
Our traveling day dawned long after we were up and gone. It was, of course, a short night; I think I probably got less than four hours of sleep. We set our alarm for 3:30 in order to make it to the airport by 4:20. The first leg of our journey was just the little "puddle jumper" flight to Portland, and from there on to San Diego. Even though our flight continued on from there, we had to get out, along with our carry-on luggage, and reboard the plane. Even though it was a hassle, it broke the flight into two nice segments and gave the kids a chance to stretch their legs a bit. (Raphi and I "marched" around the airport in San Diego.) The kids did great on all the flights; I was so proud of them all. One thing about traveling with a pile of kids, other than getting to pre board, is that I no longer have to pack things to keep me occupied! Gone are the days when I used to sit on a plane with a book and my journal.
We landed in Puerto Vallarta right on schedule, and were surprised by the overcast skies and relatively cool day. Of course compared to Oregon it was warm, but it wasn't sweltering hot like we'd expected. We'd planned to rent a car for the first few days, but the property manager, Christy, offered to give us a ride to our place since she had to be at the airport at the same time anyway. We were glad to take her up on that offer, and enjoyed visiting with her and her husband on the ride back to Bucerias. Not surprisingly, they're a Canadian family who lives down here. (It seems the majority of the gringos here are from Canada.) The surprise was that they are a Christian homeschooling family with four kids! They've lived here for over seven years and now just have two kids at home. It was interesting to hear a bit of their story; interesting, and inspiring. (If they can do it, then maybe we could do it too?)
We arrived at our condo, in the same complex where we stayed last year. We're renting it from yet another Canadian Christian homeschooling family we met down here. (Makes me wonder how many more there are.) After a bit of settling in, the kids were happy to get in the pool, in spite of it not being particularly warm. After a swim we walked down the hill and ate dinner at the closest little Mexican restaurant we could find. It wasn't the best food ever, but we were tired and didn't want to walk the rest of the way into town to find another place. We've often found that our first night in a place can be very hard, but thankfully the kids all settled down well and had a decent sleep.
The next day, Friday, started out cool and overcast again. We saw a news report about unseasonably cold weather in other parts of Mexico, and hoped that the sun would come out before too long. After settling in some more and another swim for the kids, we walked down to the highway and caught a bus to Mega, a large Mexican supermarket. After a quick lunch of tacos we each grabbed a shopping cart and wandered the aisles, stocking up on the things we'd need to keep everyone fed, which is no small task these days. We all squeezed into a taxi- Erik in front, four kids and I in the back, and groceries in the trunk- for the ride back home. That evening we walked into town, and it was so fun to watch the kids rediscover places and things they knew from last year. Peregrine was most excited to find that "his" parrot was still in a cage in front of a restaurant we used to walk by. He's quite convinced that "Slim" recognizes and remembers him. We were glad to see the clouds breaking up a little and to feel the warmth of the sun.
On Saturday we decided to walk down to the beach. Even though the day started out cloudy, the sun came out a lot earlier and it finally felt like Mexico; warm, sunny, bright. We loaded up the double jogging stroller, left here by the owners, and made our way down the hill, across the highway, and to the beach. We decided to walk a while before settling in somewhere, although we could hardly stop the boys from stopping to dig or wade in the waves. We were surprised at how many more people seemed to be out and about compared with last year. We learned later it was a long weekend so a lot of people come over from Guadalajara for a holiday. We found a place to "park" our gear and I had the hard job of sitting under an umbrella, sipping orange juice, holding Pearl, and practicing saying "no" to wandering vendors wanting to sell me bracelets, bags, hats, braid my hair, etc. Erik played with and watched the other three kids. Raphael and Poppy were mostly content to play in the sand, while Peregrine tried out some boogie boarding. It was fun to sit and watch them having such a great time. We hung out on the beach for a good long while, then walked into the town center where we ate dinner before heading home for the evening.
Sunday was another lovely day, clear and warm, but still cool in the shade. I'd read online about a farmer's market in the next town up the coast, La Cruz de Huanaxatle. After walking down to the highway, we caught a bus heading north. It's a pretty short ride, maybe just 15 minutes, and from there we walked down into the center of town to the plaza where the market is held. Each town seems to have a plaza with some nice open area, sometimes a fountain or a playground, and always a "bandstand", which looks like a large gazebo. We'd visited La Cruz a year ago and it seems they'd done a lot of work to improve the plaza there. The best feature about this particular one is the massive spreading trees that provide welcome shade.
While the market was quite crowded, I enjoyed it very much. I'd say about a third of the vendors were gringoes, and there was a nice array of handcrafts, baked goods, and produce. They even had some activities for the kids, and Erik stayed with them so I could browse a bit. I was very happy to find some organic veggies, as well as honey, coconut oil, and fresh peanut butter. In the bandstand was a lone fellow with a keyboard singing Queen songs; not quite what you might expect, but there you have it. I bought some tamales, a chile relleno, marinated vegetables, and some coconut macaroons, which made a lovely little market lunch. We sat on a low brick wall in the shade of a huge tree and enjoyed every bite.
The last few days we've fallen into our typical Mexico routine; breakfast and lunch at home, swimming somewhere in between, siesta in the afternoon, and then a walk into town for dinner. I think the kids would pretty much swim all day if we let them! Even little Pearl is loving splashing around in the water. It takes about twenty minutes to get to where there are restaurants and shops, and the walk is a pleasant one. Pearl happily rides in the Ergo, and this year we have a small stroller we bring for Raphi, who also does some walking. I'm amused by the looks we get as a family with four kids; I think people are a bit surprised, but also pleased to see it. After dinner we often walk a bit around the square. In the evenings there are various food carts set up, and it's always fun to see what people are selling. We waited in a long line one night at the churro truck where we got some fried bananas. While waiting, some girls came by with a baby parrot, just one month old. It was so little and cute; the kids got to pet it. I got a crepe from Luisa, "the crepe lady" who we remembered from last year. I was surprised that she recognized us as well, so it was a happy little reunion.
Most nights we just eat at the inexpensive little taco stands, but last night we tried something new. At the recommendation of Lionel, a Frenchman who has a little crepe shop, we ventured further than we've ever walked to find a little bistro run by another Frenchman. Usually our walk into town goes no further than the artisan's market that is just south of the plaza, but last night we crossed the bridge over the river bed, which is dry at this time of year. This took us to a different part of town that we had no idea existed! It is much more upscale, even uppity; fancy shops and restaurants, and a completely different feel than the laid back little Bucerias we thought we knew! We found the bistro and enjoyed our dinner, but I have no desire to cross the bridge into "that" part of town again!
I'm really enjoying cooking here in Mexico. We usually eat some sort of eggs scrambled up with vegetables for breakfast, and I even got some nice chorizo at the farmer's market. We're all enjoying the abundance of fresh fruit; pineapple, mango, papaya, bananas, and I bought some guava last night, which gives off a most lovely fragrance. It's both a challenge and a joy to cook with just a few fresh ingredients, without an array of spices, and with very limited gadgetry. Thankfully there is a blender, and I've been making Pearl purees of avocado, yogurt, papaya, and cooked vegetables. She's not too excited about "carrots and squash" but she seems rather fond of "papaya and yogurt". We've also been drinking smoothies and eating lots of spoons full of delicious fresh peanut butter.
This morning, after a kefir-banana-peanut butter smoothie the kids went swimming for a good long while. We had a "brunch" of broccoli fritatta and pineapple followed by a bit of a rest. We left shortly after 2 and caught the "wild bus" into Puerto Vallarta. That's how Raphael describes it and he's not too far off. It was very crowded when we got on, and Peregrine and Poppy marched together all the way to the back, where I think someone got up to give them a seat. There were so many people standing up that I lost sight of them as I tried to guide Raphael along before the bus lurched off. I knew that Erik, wearing Pearl and carrying the folded up stroller, had gotten on behind me, so I was just trying to find a place to sit and get Peregrine and Poppy back in my site. We were almost to the back when a Mexican man who was sitting in an aisle seat, picked up Raphael and seated him next to him by the window. He was speaking to me in Spanish, and I don't know what he was saying, but I reached over him, grabbed Raphael, and said that I will hold him. I think he was just trying to be helpful, but this mama bear would prefer that strange men NOT grab her children thankyouverymuch. I squeezed into the back seat with Peregrine, Poppy, Raphael, and my backpack, all of us scrunched up, but together at least!
The back of the bus is the worst place to sit, and it was a very bumpy and wild ride; there were several times that we were all bounced right off the seats and jarred back down again. I was holding Raphael tightly on my lap, trying not to envision anyone really flying out of their seats. It was a long time before the bus cleared out enough that I could see Erik, who had found a seat at the front. After about 45 minutes we transferred to another bus for the last leg of our journey. We drove my the marina, where there were two huge cruise ships docked. It was amazing to see them up close; the kids and I were pretty impressed with how huge they were.
Finally we arrived at our destination and began our walk on the malecon, the seawall with all the sculptures that are so often featured in pictures of Puerto Vallarta. The kids were excited to walk along and see the same odd, funny, and whimsical creations they remembered from last year, as well as the ever changing sand sculptures. We enjoyed our walk as well as some snacks along the way. We got some mango in a little bag; it was seasoned with salt, chili, and lime. I wasn't sure if I'd like it, and didn't think the kids would, but it was actually really yummy and even the kids enjoyed it. We also got a fresh coconut and all took turns sipping the refreshing water inside. After we finished it they scraped out the flesh and gave it to us in another bag with salt and lime. The other interesting thing we had is called tuba, and it's a drink made with the nectar of the coconut palm flowers. Apparently it originated in the Philippines, but has become popular here. After collecting the nectar it's lightly fermented, and then (I think) mixed with a sweetened water. It's served with chopped apples and pecans and was quite delicious.
We spent a few minutes walking around the naval museum, which was interesting. Peregrine, of course, enjoyed seeing the model ships, guns, and cannons, and also the uniforms. There were three people working, in uniform, and one of them taught Peregrine the proper way to salute. Another one, a woman named Erika, took Pearl out of the stroller and oohed and aahed over her! From there we walked up to the little restaurant we enjoyed last year, right by the big church. They were cleaning and going to open in "ten minutes" so we wandered around a little more, waiting. We enjoyed a nice dinner of tamales, tacos, enchiladas, and sopes, before catching a bus again. Thankfully the second bus, the one that is the long ride back to Bucerias, was a very nice one; soft seats and a driver who actually did things like slow down and avoid potholes. Other than a man selling potato chips, one might have almost forgotten that one was in Mexico.
It was almost nine by the time we got home, and now the kids are all sleeping and bed is calling my name too. Buenos noches...