Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

Think Again Before Trying to Change Mexico

Before Trying to Change Mexico, Let Mexico Change You

I’m stressed living in paradise. The summer has been very hot, and the summer has been stressful. What could stress you in paradise? It’s been a slow summer and I was hoping to take advantage of this and do lots of work on the computer, some fun projects, and some  that I’ve dreaded or were difficult , but must be done.

As I sit here a few days before my imminent return to Canada, I fret that things haven’t progressed well in my summer business plan. My best laid plans really went sideways; deviated by various acts of God and Politics (and God has nothing to do with politics, especially not here in Mexico). Yelapa’s power lines were robbed, many kilometers of them, for the copper. CFE, the electrical company, worked to replace them with aluminum cables. Then a lightning bolt badly placed, took out most of the town’s phones, but worst of all, destroyed my computer, two printers, and fried the router and phone connections. Surprisingly the electricity still worked. I still perservered, bought a new computer, etc. etc. etc. And I’m frustrated by not being able to produce what I must before leaving.

As I got up to begin supper, I was hit by the irony of it all. I borrowed off of two credit cards and used all my savings to live here in the winter of 1999-2000, just because there was no electricity! I wanted to experience a season of that before the town changed with power and all its trappings.  And now, I’m here complaining about how I’ve brought my work to this world, and it can’t be done here due to lack of that of that harbinger of change that I avoided in the first place.

This place should NEVER have had electricity introduced. By nature and design it’s meant to be a tranquil, sleepy little piece of heaven. Undisturbed by outside pressures. I’ve been thinking alot about this this summer. I remember well the peace,harmony, fun and community cohesion that existed then, that defined Yelapa back then. I just yesterday reminisced with Seguín, the town comisario (justice rep) about bringing back the old baseball team, and the fun we had back then. A few years ago, when the electricity went out, I remember sharing with Ana, at her little store, the comment, “Ah, just like the old Yelapa”. Some things are better left alone.  There’s no sense in trying to drag a place like this into the 20th Century, let alone the 21st and its challenges.

As I reflect on this, there’s scratching sounds on my palapa roof. I glance up as a crab pokes it head, tentacles first, through the palm ribs that form the side wall. I think it’s offering its agreement. And the mottled owl that lives in my big tree offers wise words, “ow,ow, ow, ow”, seconding this thought.

A Tourist Visa in Mexico or Hell – Another Perspective

I like to meet other Spanish teachers in Mexico, and I like to learn about the culture and language in other language regions. This year I spent a week in Guanajuato and checked into two Spanish Schools. One was the University of Guadalajara. Twenty six years ago, the last time I was there, I fantasized about studying at this University. It’s such a beautiful town, rich in history, art, music, architecture and cuisine. I spent a class wtih Martín. He had lived in Toronto for a year and wants me to arrange meeting a Canadian woman who will take him away from the problems of living in Mexico. He’s the second Mexican I’ve met recently that expressed surprise that I’d want to live here, not just for the weather.

He had a story to tell. A man was taken to heaven after his death, and met St. Peter who was happy to show him around. It was tranquil, with mellow music, every comfort provided to make life blissful. He enjoyed it immensely. After a while, he had “un inquietud” , an itch he had to scratch. He asked St. Peter about hell, and could he go there just to see it for a day. With surprise, St. Peter questioned him, but since it was for a short while, he made the arrangements, processed the papers and next the man was escorted out and directed to go to hell.

He was more excited than worried. He arrived at the gates under the brightly lit signs, knocked and was greeted by a beautiful woman. She was happy to see him, and took him around to all the best sites and places. It was beautiful. Not at all his conception of hell. Everyone looked happy, and lived well.  They went to the bar and had a few drinks, ate the best barbecued ribs and everything he couldn’t get in heaven. He danced with many beautiful people, laughed, shared lots of fantastic stories and jokes, and definitely had too much to drink. He requested a woman he could spend some intimate time with. The woman of his dreams just floated his way and as he reached toward her,.. he heard an alarm ringing. It was the end of his day in hell. Well, he’d enjoyed himself and guided by his hostess, he said farewell to all and headed back through the doors of hell, to the pearly gates of heaven.

Things continued as they had before in heaven for the man. Life was perfectly blissful. But over time, he was discontent yet again. He asked if he could in fact live in hell instead of heaven, remembering the many pleasures he had enjoyed there, that were just not available under God’s watchful eye. St. Peter was surprised, but again processed the papers and saw his charge back to the gates, and wished him well in hell.

Upon arriving at the doors of hell again, he was a bit taken aback. There were no beautiful neon lights announcing his destination. There was no exciting music. When he opened the door, there was no welcoming committee and definitely no beautiful babe to greet him. He walked along the dark path, and didn’t see the inviting lights of bars, restaurants and lively dance scenes he’d had so much fun at before.  In the distance he saw people who were not enjoying themselves much at all; digging in the hard earth, carrying heavy loads, perspiring with their chores. It was not a scene he hoped to see. He looked around for someone to ask what had happened. How had hell changed? The crew boss led him to the person in charge. “Where did it all go?” the man asked. “What’s gone on, since I was here last?”  The Devil’s helper asked for papers, which the man provided. “Oh,” he explained as he examined the papers. “Last time you were here on a Tourist Visa for 24 hours.”

Martín enjoyed embellishing the story and the parallels to be made, so that only a tourist or an idiot could miss the point. I had no questions. I went away thinking how many people in Mexico think like he does. That life in this hell might be fun for  us visitors but not so much fun on the inside. The country is in a fine mess. Many do well. Many more do not. Most live an enviable life (to us) surrounded by their families who are everything to them. They have cultural roots that bind them to the earth. Solidly. But many aspects of the system that governs them doesn’t govern them in a benevolent way, the way democratic societies are (were) supposed to do (I have strong Canadian biases about this). Many struggle.

Are we naive tourists on a 24 hr pass? Unable to fathom the complex web most are trapped in?  Many Mexicans come back from the United States, some with money, to set themselves up to live, work and retire here with their families and childhood friends. What’s heaven and what’s hell? Depends on your perception of the two, I guess.

So as I turnoff the computer, I plan to put on some blissful music, eat a nourishing and tasty snack, followed with some wine I’ve been saving for a special occasion, and thank the sleeping crab, still lodged in the palapa roof, for his angelic interrupton of my heavy cloud of self-pity, and more to the point, thank the divine forces, for giving me the choices that I have.

Crab in myYelapa palapa roof overlooking my situation

An angelic interruption in my heavy cloud of self pity

Juanita in Yelapa Mexico toasting the lifestyle of summer in two countries

Heaven or Hell; Cheers to the choices that I have available to me.


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Mother’s Day,YESI Student Weds, Yelapans Return Home, Trees Embraced

Mother’s Day May 10, 2012

I happened to be reading after waking in the middle of the night; Wade Davis’s “Light at the Edge of the World” about vanishing cultures.  I was in Sayulita escaping the cuetes , bottle rocket “bombs”  that are a big part of most Mexican major celebrations. They’re an especially big part of every annual Guadalupe Festival, Yelapa no exception, occuring every year from May 4th to 12th. They blast above the village at 5 a.m. calling all to go to church and sing Las Mañanitas, the morning serenade, to the Virgin Guadalupe. She appeared to Juan Diego, a humble man crossing the snowy path near Tepeyac, Mexico state, in 1531, and in exchange for a chapel built at the site of their meeting, she would be the patroness of all Mexicans forever.

Just about every woman I talked to went every morning at the tolling of the bell to church. Then most reported they went back to sleep.  The men were not so forthcoming about their devotion.  That’s “ungodly” early, even for a saint. At about 7 p.m. the cuetes are launched again, echoing from the mountainsides rising steeply above the village.  This goes on for nine sleep-less days,  a fevered crescendo of frightening noise in ever decreasing intervals with each day.

The priest in 2001 called them a “spiritual shot into the air”, and told me that I should respect the traditions of Mexico. I complained in defense of the terrified pets, specifically mine, fleeing to the hills.  I viewed these closer to an act of terrorism, rather than God’s doing. But he was right in that traditions hold community together. But there are some ugly traditions holding the world together, we could do without!  Our  “melting” pots or cultural mosaics have lost much of their roots; I’m here enjoying theirs. But what  I can not respect, understand, withstand or harmonize with, I flee from.

So this particular night I was in Sayulita, in blissful silence.  It was 1:30 am. I had gone to bed very early, but had woken up and was reading. Their was music from what appeared to be a very loud school band. It stopped suddenly. A few more pages, again I heard a much louder  band on the march. It belted out a very charged version of Las Mañanitas, the birthday song. “Whose birthday?” I thought, “It must be some young people from a school band playing for a friend. Who would wake anyone up at this hour?”  Then it was quiet.

Another page or two, and the band moved to the west side of my hill, unmistakably playing Las Mañanitas. I reviewed the date. May 10th   the early morning of Mother’s Day , Las Mañanitas is also day-long serenade for moms. In San Sebastian three years earlier,  the school band played from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. when the last member, the tuba player, staggered onto the pick-up truck.  That school band was very new; such novices that they were moved their practice hall from the plaza to the village entrance, far from the public ear. School Bands plays for Mom

Tuba player in San Sebastian plays for Mother’s Day



This Sayulita band was very good. Besides  Las Mañanitas, they played other tunes. The tuba played with gusto and experience, the clarinetist played pretty tremolos and the drummer had undoubtedly mastered  reggae at some point in his life.

As I lay there after the “aha” moment, the question arose. “Who would awaken their mother at this hour of the night, and think they would be doing her a favor?” I laughed at the idea that mothers would be happy listening to this band.  This must be like a son’s coming of age attempt to attract mom’s attention. Or engineers on university Initiation Day  where look for the thrill of being caught and praised for their ingenuity in parking a Volkswagen Beetle at the top of the highest bell tower, or such awe-inspiring feats.

Another ten minutes, the band started up again even closer. I was amused. Perhaps the mothers were too.  It would be hard to imagine Moms getting the kids ready in the  morning after a sleepless night.   It seemed like a carnival with tricksters running around the crowd, men wearing women’s clothing leading the way. I had just been reading about the Peruvian  “mujonamiento”, the annual running of the community boundaries, led by the strongest fleetest youth, dressed in women’s wear, carrying a white banner, leading the pack of all the village’s men who ran behind “her” to mark the boundaries.  But no woman would do this to another woman. To those keen on sleep, it was an obnoxious prank, although a beautiful sentiment. Mexico is all about tolerance; moms more than anyone!

I had the urge to get dressed and see who these boys were. It occurred to me, these  young boys were also sacrificing a night’s sleep too. How loving the tradition now appeared.  I closed the computer, I clicked the “sleep” button with a little laugh.

Dress over nightgown, I followed the music down the other side of my hill.  A tabby cat ran friskily past them and under a truck, as if it too enjoyed the revelry of this nocturnal jaunt.  The band finished their tune as I approached and piled onto the pick ups of three trucks.  There was a young girl in her teens with a big smile at the house they had just left.  She told me, as she waved them, and one renegade girl, off, that they played often at their own houses or those of their families. I commented that it seemed hard to believe that mothers would want to be woken up at this hour.  “Yes, they do this every year.” She said, adding, “Si, tenemos unas costumbres raritas”  Yes, we have some customs that are a little bit odd!  When I told Amaranta, at Café El Sofa in Vallarta, she said, “Oh, yah, in Guadalajara when I was young one band would stop and another would start up and we’d be kept up all night” with bands vying to honor mom. Una costumbre muy rarita!

Well not having been a mother, it’s hard to understand just how joyous it might be to be awoken on such a morning.  At three a.m. I went to bed with a greater understanding of just how unusual a woman without children would seem in a culture so completely devoted to motherhood. Perhaps learning tolerance is the part of motherhood training that I missed and that makes me so intolerant of the cuetes!

Back in Puerto Vallarta, there were special Mother’s Day meals at various restaurants, festooned with innumerable balloons and streamers. Every place in town was brimming with family. Vallarta’s sea wall, or malecon, which has been doubled in size in its newest redesign, was bulging until past midnight. There’s no end of friendliness and celebration in Mexico, and especially on Mother’s Day.

Would I ever relax and enjoy cuetes in Mexico, given that there is always some celebration and accompanying noise in Mexico? Is there cultural merit that binds the community that would be lost with phasing out or diminishing the cuetes? I don’t have these answers yet. But I do know that sleep in Yelapa would be so much more difficult during the Guadalupe Festival , especially on Mother’s Day, if someone started a school band!

Pups and Kitties for Adoption! May 19th

Yelapa has a wild cat problem. It is also cat-saturated where homes are cat-friendly. I feed four extras, from whom I receive reluctant acknowledgement that I’m at all their patron. You know cats. This same goes for dogs, but they’re more conspicuous and are well-fed beach dogs if they’re lucky, and learn quickly to attach themselves to tourists and even sleep on their door stoops. If you’re ever able, they can be rescued and the process is this easy.

I inherited a mangy starving kitty from a good soul who hadn’t the money to feed it or care for it properly. For ten days, “Feisty” fit in very unassumingly and just hung out by my side playing or in his wooden crate while I worked,  just pure white fun and love. He became so healthy so fast, with a few injections from the vet, Pamela, some multi-vitamin supplements, good food and care, and a small cash injection by student, and new friend, Katie.

I put out a call to Yelapa Friends on Face Book to see if a temporary home could be found as I was headed out of town for a week. Erin, a new part-time resident living upriver near El Manguito Restaurant, was happy to care for him. Soon she was hooked and I was advised that she might be able to convince her husband, Patrick, who arrived for a weekend trip from Chicago, that Feisty/Dude/?  could go home with them. Being a very cool kitten, it only took one day and he was booked on board Patrick’s flight for an additional $125.  Patrick’s only condition – that he be able to name him.  Martin at Vetmore Animal Clinic in Vallarta came to his clinic on Sunday, his only day off, charged only forty dollars for multiple vaccinations, a vet inspection and health certificate, and  Cuate (for Cuahtémoc) Blanco,named after a famous Mexican soccer player and his white coat, didn’t whisper even a sigh of discontent as he was carried in a hand bag around PV. He’s now the newest Chicano in Chicago.

cats for adoption from Yelapa Mexico para ti

Cuate Blanco cat from Yelapa makes his way “home” to Chicago, loved by Erin and Patrick

Kitten Cuate Blanco adopted in Yelapa

Newest Chicano Kitten Cuate Blanco is adopted and moved to Chicago



















Mexicans are getting off their Butts – Vallartans on Bikes!

The news headlines starting a few years back stated an astonishing “news bite” if not fact.  Mexicans have an obesity problem much larger than the United States.  Canadians haven’t quite tipped the scales as severely as we’re burning off reserves in the winter cold, trapping animals, building log cabins, hunting moose, playing hockey and making baseball bats (a somewhat true but skewed perception of Canadians in an American survey I recall).  The tacos after midnight are taking their toll on the Mexicans, especially those who now have office jobs and especially kids sitting at computers and televisions. This is not so evident in Yelapa where kids walk a couple of kilometers from the village to school, and don’t spend much time reading or other sedentary activities. Most don’t have a computer in the house.

Another difference in this epidemic, is that in places of extreme poverty, a bag of potato chips or other junk food (chatarra) is cheaper than real food and filling due to high fat content.  A national health campaign has kicked in to stem this epidemic and to wrestle with the prevalent diabetes. This last year I noticed exercise machines on the boulevards in the community of Ixtapa, a large town of twenty six thousand, north of the airport. I glanced at the runner’s track at the Puerto Vallarta stadium the other evening, now with new exercise machines beside the track.  There were impressive numbers of Mexicans jogging, stretching, utilizing the new exercise machines, and running the track.  I headed there this early morning in late May, before I could change my mind, and was determined to do my best to keep up. It was a marvelous experience. Everyone was active, friendly and courteous. No dogs. No charge.

I worked on the machines I had the patience for, did some yoga stretches and poses (to the thumbs-up approval of some gentleman watching) and then headed to the track. I haven’t run for a couple of years. Not seriously anyway. The dirt trails of Yelapa with rocks are a bit tricky for two strained knees. I initially easily paced off one lap, keeping a young woman just ahead as my “buddy”.  Soon, I was winded, and began walking fast and watching all the regulars shoot past at their regular rate.

So much is happening all at once, it seems, to aid Mexicans in their quest for fitness. This rapid dissemination of information was apparent to me twenty six years ago, when I worked in Mexico City in environmental planning. The Director of the office, Mauricio had adapted Canada’s federal regulations in environmental impact assessment and patterned a Mexican equivalent. Their program didn’t take years to phase in as I’d expect such an innovation to do in Canada.  New ideas here can spread like wildfire, especially if there’s political will and a bit of capital. When Yelapa got electricity, everyone seemed to be an electrician quickly. Some people in town got computers. Suddenly there were “experts” at the few cyber cafes. Undaunted by a challenge, Mexicans quickly overcome them.

When I left my favorite internet coffee shop, Café Canela in Colonia Versailles, the other night at 11 p.m.,  I was surprised by a thick stream of bicyclists who had taken over the main interior two lanes northbound following a police patrol car.  As I tried to photograph them, one young man stopped his bike to tell me what was going on. Every Wednesday they ride from the Marina to the Malecon (seawall) and back, I would estimate about 15 or more kms. I jumped in my car (alas not my bike) and headed to the Marina to wait for them, vicariously enjoy their extraordinary experience,  and cheer them on.

One early bird, Carlos, a very fit young man, I guessed in his early twenties, stood by his bike and told me the story. For four months now, every Wednesday a group has left at 9 p.m. and returned by about 11:30 pm to the marina. This includes little kids, moms and pops, young and old. It’s not a race, but a ride. Every week the two main traffic lanes of the main “highway” are blocked exclusively for the event.  Everyone makes it. This week there were two hundred and eighty bicyclists! There were old bikes, cruisers with upright handlebars, sissy bikes (the small wheeled, long handlebar ones). A number of riders had impressive mountain bikes with all the best riding gear, all the bells and whistles included.

Bike Ride from Marina to Malecon Wednesday Nights Vallarta

After Dark Bike Ride Every Wednesday Marina – Malecon Return

Bicyclists ride Marina to malecon every Wednesday in Puerto Vallarta

It was fun being the greeter, celebrating their individual victories and getting their stories.  They didn’t linger long due to fatigue, exacerbated by the late hour. Most had trucks to put bikes in and they left, none that I noticed, by bike! As I stood by my car to leave, still watching, I spied a familiar face in the darkness learning over the handlebars of an old bike. “Luis?” I asked. “Mauro”, he said. As long as I’ve known Luis and Mauro, the two sons of Luis and Angélica of El Manguito Restaurant in Yelapa, I’ve always confused their names. What a surprise to have a representative cyclist from a non-roaded rocky, hilly village! He’s been doing the ride regularly since the beginning. It made me proud. Wait till I tell his dad and his grandma, my friend, Hortensia!

You do not see any bicycles on the roads on a normal day; not in Puerto Vallarta and only occasionally bike racers on Sundays on the road to Las Palmas. Why? Carlos told me it’s too hot during the day. Well, the “winter” months of December through to February are not really hot. However, not many work facilities would have showers. It’s too dangerous? That would be my guess. There’s very little consciousness about bicyclists in this busy city of fast traffic and warrior bus drivers.

Back in 1987, I used to bicycle in downtown Vancouver to work to the Sea Bus terminal daily. It was dangerous to be there; the single rare rider was an easy victim. Even bike couriers tended to cluster,  in the downtown. That has fortunately changed and bicyclists are common, and mass bike rallies common in the downtown of Vancouver. It’s one of the friendliest bicycling cities I know of in Canada. Hopefully this change will occur with numbers and training of riders and drivers in Vallarta.

If you’re in PV, join them from Plaza Marina, where Poseidon signals the entrance of a shopping complex and guards a breaching humpback whale. Or come out to the track and exercise machines at El Estadio(The Stadium).

Here’s a novel story of a bicycle touring band: A band of friends in Northern California playing a song “Ride to Believe” when someone shouted, “What does that mean, ‘ride to Belize?’ The drummer yelled, “Ride to Belize! Let’s ride our bikes on tour all the way through Mexico to Belize!” and they did. The fifteen Ginger Ninjas rode by bicycle for seven months and it became a spiritual story of “spectacular success and heartbreak” An Argentinian film director, Sergio Morkin, found the band playing in Baja California and followed them around for three days, loved what he saw, and made a feature movie.  In Spanish: Los Ginger Ninjas, Rodando México (“rodar” translates here as roaming), English: The Ginger Ninjas Ride Mexico.

It premiered March 3-5th at El Festival Internacional de Cine in Guadalajara as the feature documentary to sold out audiences. They’re putting together a list of festivals where it will play soon, hopefully with commercial release soon thereafter. Here’s the link with bit of the movie:

Everyone Is Coming Home

The stats cited in Geo-Mexico: the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico, (Rhoda and Burton, 2010) show that over $25 billion was sent from Mexicans in the United States to their families in Mexico in 2008. In terms of foreign exchange earnings, this was behind automobile and oil exports, but well ahead of tourism.  Rumour has it, this flow started to reverse in 2010 to help out beleaguered family members in Mexico. At present, many Yelapans in the U.S. are investing in new construction here in Yelapa. With a tricky world economy, there’s no better time to invest in your future home.

Despite the slow-down, many in the construction business are being buoyed by money sent primarily by family members building new houses, many as family homes, some as rentals.  Many are beautiful, two storey plus homes. One couple is building ocean-front townhouses right on the water behind a beautiful cobble-cemented wall. Some have already returned to live here full-time, and are investing more in building other new rental houses.  Some are building now and planning a return in two or three years. Many have been away for at least five years, some ten or more.  The former jungle parkland I lived amidst is changing into a subdivision of lots for family houses. My landlord’s Angel and Irma’s second oldest son, Luis, has a beautiful new home.  Their nephew, Moi, is building a large house. Another niece is planning a house in front of mine.  My little jungle palapa is becoming very out of place on this hill. Further upriver, Hortensia and Jose’s grandson, Orlando, just had an engineer approve the second storey of his beautifully designed home. I hear he’s even putting in a pool; a rare sight in Yelapa. I recall when he left, he explained they wanted to earn enough to build a home.

At this Mariner’s Day party on June 1st, we saw many family members come back for the best party of the year. Many were looking at their homes in progress, as they pay for it brick by brick. It will be some homecoming when many of them can return to Yelapa to live!

Yelapa Remembers its Mariners and Parties in Their Honour!

The 31st of May happens to be my landlord’s birthday. I talked to him earlier in the day. He didn’t mention it was his 69th birthday. He forgot! It was attended by half the village. The other half of the village were having a pre-party for the wedding planned for Saturday night.

At midnight the partiers showed no sign of slowing down. They were dancing beautifully to the band playing norteño music (accordions).  DJ David, Angel’s nephew, played very danceable music. All his primos and primas, (cousins) were dancing like they were all competing on Dancing with the Stars. The girls with long legs with impossibly high heels, and short shorts. Everyone had a cold beer in hand on that very muggy evening. As I made my way up the stairs that seemed very steep that night, I passed the little girls, children of the cousins, who were playing together showing no signs of fatigue. It was a typical Mexican family party and the children train at a young age! While laying in bed in my palapa on the edge of the jungle, I heard the  call “oh, oooh…” long drawn out. Again “oh, oooooohh….” Two syllables, rising intonation. It’s the warning that cattle, in this case, bulls are being driven through town.

June 1st  is the celebration in honor of the mariners, Dia de los Marineros. After mass at 8 a.m., boats of people then head out to the head of the bay, where Maestro Pedro says some words of tribute to those captains who brave the seas daily, and remembrance of those who’ve sacrificed their lives in fishing, transport and cargo on these sometimes very rough waters.

yelapa tributes mariners in special service in boats in yelapa Bay

Maestro Pablo leads tribute to Mariners in Yelapa at head of Yelapa Bay

Then bouquets of flowers are ceremoniously dropped in the sea. On completion of this tribute, the boats all speed in a loop around the bay, followed by the “Egg Wars”. Usually boat loads of the youngest mariners compete in pirate fights with flats of eggs. Pelting friends and rivals with eggs beats computer games hands down! Others gain pleasure in smashing eggs on friends’ heads on the beach. The festivities on the beach carry-on day long; for many the highlight is the greased pole climb. Last year’s conclusion: pig lard is greasier than engine grease, as no one succeeded in climbing the pole! Few boats leave town until later in the day, and none of the regular boats from Boca bother coming in. The village is left to celebrate.  Drinks and barbecue all free donated by the village!

Yelapa's mariner's Day a great annual event

Greasing the pole for celebration in honour of the mariners, past and present of Yelapa!

The bulls which were herded through the village were for the after-party, the charreada or rodeo; primarily riding of bulls. Everyone dresses in best cowboy boots and goes to the night rodeo with a live band.

To take advantage of the large family crowds already assembled, Saturday night was also the wedding of Hortencia and Roberto’s daughter Yure (Judy). Since so many family members come home for Mariner’s Day, other parties tend to cluster around this June 1st Feast Day.

The question in my mind as I listened to the “oh, ooooohh… ”  as they herded bulls through town on Thursday around midnight,  “Will the drinkers, especially tourists, who are out wandering the streets, be quick enough to move when the bulls come through town?”

Yelapa tributes flowers in honor of deceased mariners June 1

The will to live – Embracing Trees

I was very saddened on returning from Canada in October that all but a couple of the trees on the adjacent lot had been cut, cleared from the land, … but not from my memory.  Some guayaba (guava in the U.S.) trees which grew from this lot, hanging over my sidewalk, were tightly knit within the weave of various lianas(vines), including passion fruit vines that blanketed branches of the taller trees. All provided shade for the rest of the undergrowth, all nurtured shade-loving plants. One tree was chopped at its source, where a house foundation now lay, and its dead trunk and limbs were left in the mat of growing vines. Another was almost entirely separated from its base but was still connected by a thin strip of bark and bit of cortex; left to live or die. It chose life. After months this same tree miraculously has sprouted new leaves, and better yet is blooming, and producing fruit.

Still thriviing Guayaba Tree hangs on by a bit of bark

Guayaba tree in Yelapa over YESI path grows and blooms despite near fatal injury.

The tragedy is that this had to happen at all. I see continually in Mexico, trees that are left in place and all architectural or civic structures such as roads deviate around them. Numerous trees are worked into the wall of Brazil Steak House in downtown Vallarta, and grow through various stories of the building amidst the diners. Traffic detours around a tree in the middle of Calle Libertad in Sayulita, and the town cemetery has a tree through its peripheral wall. The main highway #200 just south of Rincon de Guayabitos passes through an arch of green limbs in a perfect hemisphere. With some consideration, trees can not only be built into the scenario but also be the central feature. It’s hard to forget a tree that has that much will to live!

Guayaba still blooms over path to YESI Spanish school

Guayaba tree still flowers after being cut to make way for houses

Parota trees in Mexico extend their limbs, like wings of a mothering chicken.

Not Just Another Yelapa Wedding – La Boda de Ashley y Eve

Well it finally happened. One of my students came for six months, at nineteen, very sweet and seemingly innocent.  I was impressed by her vision and her drive. It’s not often someone young knows what they want.  I don’t think she knew her reasons for coming. Studying was not easy for her; she’d always had some learning challenges she admitted. But she was determined and came to class, and improved when the class was moved to the afternoon.  Until one day she didn’t show up, and no word was sent. She’d been hiking and got sick. I didn’t ask with whom she hiked.

A month or so later my associate teacher, Verónica offered Ashley congratulations on her new boyfriend, Eve. My jaw dropped. Shows I need to come down from my hill more often.  A few months later, as planned, sorely missing her friends, she left for home in Portland. Unintentionally she had to leave her much-loved dog, Dragon, behind with Eve (no room on the plane; space hadn’t been confirmed beforehand). She emailed asking if anyone might be coming north to Portland and could carry a dog with them. I checked around. Her decision was to leave the dog with Eve and come back in four months for her birthday for a week.

Ashley and Dragon in yelapa after Spanish classes

She did come back in August. One week turned into a life sentence. Her father wrote to ask what I thought of her staying in Mexico, and that there were possible plans to marry. And who was this man? Well, I showed support for further language study “She’ll be bilingual, and very marketable in both countries!” I offered.  “His mom is really nice.” And “Seems like a very nice guy. Takes great care of the dog. He’s very religious.” I had somehow gleaned that they shared a spiritual connection, too. Eve made her a crucifix of macramé waxed thread. It was her favorite jewelry.

Was she too young? Was she naïve? Dad’s concerns continued. I could think of 50% of the population of the American people who had picked poorly. She was brave enough to live life and not fear the consequences.   She’d fallen in love instantly for this lean wiry man who impressed her with how hard he could work (and I would guess his very good looks too!). When partying one weekend early in their relationship, both had been drinking, he asked, “Will you marry me?” She said , “Yes”. He said,” I”ll ask you again when I’m not drunk.” She said, “It will be the same answer.” A woman who knows her mind, drunk or sober!

Well, I heard of the wedding plans in early December, set for  June 23, 2012. Then at the end of January, I commented on what looked like a FedEx package. “Oh, it’s the lab tests. I’m pregnant.” She smiled her most brilliant smile. Nothing like upping the ante, on a life-changing decision!

A recent Facebook entry of her at 16 weeks pregnant, received a comment about the beach backdrop, “living in paradise!” friend sighed. Her reply, “Ya, but I’m trapped here!”  Reality strikes. I know Ashley well enough to know that she’ll continue to figure it out, fearlessly. There’ll no doubt be ups and downs, after the wedding and when baby arrives in late October. (Oddly Yelapa is full of Scorpios, the most common sign of the Zodiac here.)  Life is a steep learning curve, especially for those who step up to the plate at every opportunity. She and Eve have both a strong bond in their faith in God. She goes to church regularly with him, although the language must still be a challenge, and to spiritual retreats. She’s taking it all in stride.

Who’d have thought that someone would come to study and stay for life?

Ashley weds Eve in Yelapa and is growing her own little "cria"

Ashley grows her own little piña!

For those of you who studied with her from mid November 2011 to late April 2012 and want to extend your congratulations, or are just happy to know that someone has found their “Príncipe Azul” (White Knight except theirs is Blue!), please check her wedding site, and send her a note on her Contact page.

Summertime and the Living is Easy

It’s slow always in summer; this year slower than usual. Meanwhile the sunsets are magic with a big orange or red sun hanging over the ocean and then being seemingly squashed into the other half of the earth. The weather is hot and humid, the ocean crystal clear, salty and warm.  A few students are making their way south, here to Yelapa and soon some Austrians are coming to Sayulita to study with me before heading to Guadalajara for an intensive Business Spanish course.

I’ve started a new website for summer studies in Sayulita as well as as Yelapa. I hope this will help fill in the business roster for a busy summer season or come to a verdant green paradise of Yelapa, or come for a guided Spanish tour of neighboring villages

Should you need a mellow week or two in the tropics, when the rates are the lowest for flights, accommodation and for Spanish classes, everyone will be at your service and guarantee the best times. It’s really Mexico at its best – lush, green, relaxed locals, beautiful sunsets, birds and turtles nesting, the sounds of the jungle … it is paradise!

sunsets over Yelapa Bay

summer sunsets over Yelapa Bay

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 Winter Season – Coastal Vallarta and its Mountains Jan-May 2012

The Power of One – You Can Do It

The Spanish language doesn’t use the “You” as suggested in this title, which points the finger at YOU!!  But they use “se” in front of a verb in the he/she conjugation: “se puede” one can”  or “se vende” one sells – the impersonal one, which in English we say “you can”, “you sell”.  But in this account I really am talking about YOU!  There are many  works done in this community by selfless individuals. People with an idea that might further a social cause they feel strongly.  If you think you can do something, YOU can. Here’s some inspiring examples from Yelapa.

For years Bob McCormick has brought T-shirt, garbage picking tongs and staged a large barbecue for the high school kids and various volunteers. They hauled out 60 large garbage on one occasion, and 90 on another one day blitz!

Yazmina, former restauranteur at Chico’s Restaurant (2009/10) baked and sold a lot of pizzas from her home on Sunday events to buy ten computers for the primary school, and raise funds for books for a library.

Pamela, the veterinarian, has a daughter in Grade One in the Primaria and a toddler at home. She takes time out from being a vet and a single mom of two to prepare and teach English to Grades 1 to 6. She knows the way to improve the system is to do it. Last year she single-handedly painted the two rooms of the kindergarten school,  gave English classes there daily, and assisted the teacher.  Her vet responsibilities she takes on extremes too: in November she brought in two vets from Vallarta for one day for a “by donation” spay/neuter clinic. Sixteen dogs done in one day! Donations didn’t even cover the medication costs, so any spare funds at the end of your vacation, you know where you can drop them off! At Cafe Shambhala or adjacent vet clinic. For the health of Yelapa’s animals.

About a month ago, Pedro the Secondary school director, and teacher at both the Secundaria (middle school) and the Preparatoria (high school), who works from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 pm. one hour off for lunch, began collecting pineapple tops for planting as a school project. Now there are just under five hundred plants growing there, some already with sizable pineapple fruit. The kids are happy to be involved. Maestro Pedro is a happy gardener just to be watering the plants daily.

Aside from the pineapple grown for the local families, Pedro’s idea is to teach the children to grow things.  Pedro has also started growing parota trees – the grandfather of all trees here, the largest trees with the greatest area of shade. Every farmer’s field in western Mexico has one to provide shade for the animals. They’re also commonly used for furniture, as they’re insect resistant. If you drive from the airport east to San Sebastian, they drape over the road, forming a tunnel of artistically interwoven limbs and light only nature could have arranged. The only downside is that all shadows cast on the road hide the unmarked topes (speed bumps), but that’s another story.

Trees are one of the major causes that drives me. One of my peeves, although permits are required to cut trees here in Yelapa, no one is consulted. The only mention of a fine being meted out was a recent case of one foreign tree-trimmer working for another foreigner who was paying him to trim the mango tree of the neighbor. The 3,000 pesos fine was threatened, but not enforced; the lesson was learned.

I’ve been consulting with viveros (nurseries) to find an affordable abundant supply of the pink blooming amapas tree. This river valley was lined with amapas decades ago, but they’re used for furniture and main supports for palapas. They’re sparse now.  I thought it would be great after teaching children English through nature walks and activities, to send them home with little amapas seedlings. The kids would be their life long guardians, and  we’d see the rivers lined with their beauty once more.

The idea has come to a few of us to start a school library, and a public library in the village.  I would like to get a time and the perfect spot for reading to kids in the village and upriver in the rural El Paso community. I’ll start it, and hope to get volunteers to follow-up and expand it to various neighborhoods. For the larger community of you out there planning a visit to Puerto Vallarta area, we needs books, children’s books for the Primary, and junior books for the Secondary school, English or Spanish, or dual language. Bring them or donate a few dollars by Paypal and we’ll  use them judiciously for fun reading times. I’ll meet you to pick them up anywhere in the region.

Please write with stories of your own unsung heroes, here or elsewhere in Mexico or the world. And please continue working on your cause. I mean You!

Tuito – Virgen of Guadalupe PilgrimageJanuary 12, 2012

My friend, David, from my “home” town in Pemberton, Canada, Yelapa friends Cindy and Del from Penticton, B.C. , Ron and Sue from Tofino, B.C. and Vera and Michel from Vancouver were headed to Tuito, about one hour south by car from Puerto Vallarta. (Get the idea there were a lot of Canadians in Mexico this winter?)  It was January 12th  the last day of the Guadalupe festival there. Each village has their fiestas patronales; Yelapa’s are May 4rd to 12th.  No, we don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I haven’t been anywhere in Mexico where they do; it seems a distinctly American celebration of a Mexican historic win/loss (They won the battle against the French in Puebla, but lost the war, and the French installed an emperor of the Hapsburg dynasty. Another story.) The bus was slow in coming to Boca de Tomatlan (port) and we trusting Canadians found another Mexican with a big heart and a bigger truck to pile into. Cindy communicated in three languages to keep the driver and herself amused for the half hour trip there.

Why the rush? We wanted to see the peregrinacion (the pilgrimage) of our village, Yelapa, to the iglesia (church). It’s rather pretty seeing the devout singing the traditional “La Gua-da-lu-pa-na, La Gua-da-lu-pa-na, …..”  in homage to the virgin of Guadalupe, who swore to take care of the people of Mexico forever since 1531 . ( For lyrics and song: )

It’s not an overly arduous pilgrimage for Yelapans to Tuito as they  slowly stroll a kilometer or more, in the late morning sun.  They carry a rose in hand, dressed in pink or white, followed by a short mass and a sumptuous lunch prepared by the ladies of the villages. While some pilgrims run or walk many miles from Puerto Vallarta or further, our lot do have  social as well as religious motives in mind.   For us “extranjeros” it’s all novel and wonderful to observe. Cindy kept drinking tropical margaritas just for the earthenware mugs, and almost had more fun than the rest of us! 

The First National Charro Championship – Puerto Vallarta January 26- 29, 2012

Charrería is the word for rodeo in Mexico. The roots are tracked to 16th century Spain.  The sport began early after the conquest on one hacienda, owned by a saint. Despite restrictions against letting natives ride horses, he allowed his workers to learn horseback skills and soon they developed their brand of competitions on working ranches. Since the horse was key to the conquest, Spanish rulers feared the natives would revolt with their new knowledge and skills. The sport developed and the first professional charrería was formed in 1880. It’s been declared the National Sport of Mexico.  Every September 14th is National Charro Day!

There’s a new Arena Vallarta on over ten acres with capacity for 5,000 people and 600 cars. It’s impressive, even beautiful in its structure aside from its magnitude. It’s found off the road near Las Palmas, en route to the mountains, east of the airport. Here they staged the first national charro (the person) championship .

Yelapa has its variant of charrería – the charreadas; every little mountain town has them. The little town or “ranchito” of Algodón (cotton) of five houses has a corral just for their annual event. They amount primarily to bull-riding, and horsemanship displays of “dancing” and in roping the feet of calves. This is usually the interlude while waiting for the bulls and riders to be prepared.

I was able to attend the national Charro finals on the Sunday event. Coincidentally, this was also the day they would premiere the national champion escaramuza riders. This word means “a skirmish” in English. What does this conjure up?

My friend Francisco from the Spanish school in Pátzcuaro, who is one of a league of my cultural gurus, had spoken to me excitedly about the old time female riders from his youth, who did musical rides, wearing long dresses in traditional “revolution-era” dress. That sounds all very pretty, but not that exciting.  Until you know they’re riding side-saddle, with one leg wrapped around the saddle horn! This experience I’d long awaited.

For an impressive short video of some highlights here’s a peek at an exciting day!

Many of these events are unique to Mexico or of Mexican origin. See which you can spot in the video:

Cala de caballo – galloping horse and rider, stops by braking with back legs within a designated area

Piales en el lienzo – exercises done by the horse, including turning one direction on a spot, other direction; jumping 180 degrees one way, the other way, walking backward

Coleadero – grabbing the tail of a bull from horseback while running full speed, twisting its tail on the leg of the rider on horseback, and flipping it!

Jinete de toro  – bull riding

Jinete de yegua – bronco riding

Lazo de cabeza – lasso the head of bull from horse back stationary position

Pial de ruedo – on foot, lasso work around body of horseback rider, catching bull from stationary position

Manganas a pie – lasso work on foot, jumping through etc. , catching galloping horse and stopping by wrapping rope around waist

Manganas a caballo – lasso a horse from horseback  after fancy round the body lasso work, stopping it on gloves and horn

Paso de la muerte – changing from one saddled horse while galloping, onto the back of another galloping horse bareback.

Finding the Broom and Catching Some Trout : February 25- 27, 2012

I was on a break and wanted to fish at a lake at 7,000 ft that existed above Mascota according to my Moon Guide to Puerto Vallarta and area.  I had finally brought my fly rod this year from the mountainous area north of Whistler B.C., regionally renown for its trout lakes. I received a lot of happy smiles and thumbs up on the flight south from Vancouver. That alone almost made it worth bringing.  I even forgot it at the airport gift shop.  Despite the fact I was the last passenger boarding, the flight attendants were nice enough to let me run back and retrieve it.  Anything else might have not merited such special permission. So it was late February and I had to head to the near alpine (in my mind) lake with some trout to tempt with my fly rod. Just launching the line  rhythmically from 2 p.m. to 10 a.m. position repeatedly and watching the fly settle on the water with little radiating concentric circles is enough therapy to reset my mind from helter-skelter to nirvana.

I found some other willing travelers, not surprisingly other Canadians looking for a distant mountain peak, Vera and Michel from Vancouver. We spent a night in Mascota (Nahuatl language means place of deer and snakes). It’s the only town regionally to have voted in a Green Ecological  Party member in the federal election of 2002. This party has a platform to improve treatment of pets (mascotas), coincidentally. There we visited the Museo de Pedregal, Stone Museum, which is owned by my friend, a mildly eccentric writer, artist and former bar tender in Pasadena, Francisco Rodriguez or Pancho. He’s created art from stones, pebbles and grains of sand on everything in his house. Really! It’s a great experience, not to be missed, and always amusing no matter how many visits you make. It’s hard not to be charmed by the man, as well as his art, and his humor.

We were also tipped off by Pancho that there was an “energy center” along the drive up to the lake. When we got to Yerbabuena (mint in English), we were drawn right into the center, it seems. We didn’t have to try to find it, we just arrived there: El Centro Magnético read one hand-painted street sign. It is located in a private yard, and was unattended. We read the signs that told us how to conduct ourselves: to pray to God and in God’s name to St. German to heal us. “With your hands elevated, facing the sun with your eyes closed, My God I put myself in your blessed hands, to ask you for my health. Jesus, I trust in you. St. German I ask you for my health.” Then touch the parts of your body that you want to heal with your hands and elevate your thoughts to God and the Virgin. The information refers to this discovery as a “tubo de luz” a tube of electricity or alternatively, light. It further states that this has existed for over two thousand years.

The discoverer of this site is a spiritual healer, Sr. Martin Gustavo Flores who had come to visit his friend, Father Salcedo on February 9, 2009.  This healer sensed the energy and walked out a few blocks away and found its center. Today it’s minimally developed, with a circle that is about 5 meters radius, of a low brick wall, and bricks on the ground, except for a bare earth one meter circle at its center.

I was the first to repeat the magic mantra of prayer suggested on the signs posted. I was facing the sun also as suggested. Almost immediately as my body energy settled, I could feel a very strong energy circling in my chest area. It seemed to have a directional pull for me, as if I was one charged end of a horseshoe magnet. I stayed the recommended ten or more minutes and held my sore left elbow to channel the healing energy. When I spoke to my friends about what I was experiencing, I was delighted to find I was “echoing” regardless of the direction I faced.

I experimented a bit to see if there was a distance from the center spot where the echo ended. It was contained within an invisible chamber that was a meter in radius from the center spot. Michel and Vera entered separately and together and experienced a flow of energy that was vertical radiating from below. They experimented within the echo “chamber” in various interesting ways. We spent an hour just enjoying the beautiful sunny morning at the center, with no other visitors that sunny Sunday morning. So  far it’s little developed, but they are building a wall with a roof overhang for shelter and seating areas.  One brother in the family has brought tours from Mascota. No payment is asked, but there’s a donation box near the Guest Book.

I was reminded of the power of the magnetic healing treatment I’d received a year earlier for a persistent kidney infection in Puerto Vallarta. Salvador, the therapist, placed thirty or more magnets all over my prostrate clothed body, according to consultation with his computer program. During the session I felt the energy circling throughout my central body. After an hour or more, I came back to a conscious, very relaxed state. I was “recharged”  or possibly balanced.  After the magnets came off,  I asked if I’d have to come in again. “No, just one should do it” said Salvador. I was doubtful since a few rounds of antibiotics, lots of water and careful diet hadn’t rid me of the infection. Well, the lab results before and the next day showed that sure enough one treatment healed me. I’m one who has seen the light, and am a believer!  Did my elbow heal? I felt some relief of the pain for a week or more, but the healing took a few more months, and is still sensitive.

After pulling ourselves reluctantly from the magnetic center (pun unintended), we drove up another fifteen or so kilometers to one of the quaintest little villages in Mexico.  Navidad was founded by Francisco Buenaventura, Hernan Cortes’s nephew, on Christmas eve. It became a mining town, with not enough employment in recent years and sparse arable land. The citizens have mostly left for the U.S. The town has been abandoned largely by its citizens, at least for ten months of the year. There are possibly two hundred residents full time. One has to knock on doors to get stores opened in the middle of the week. But in the months of July and August, the Mexicans return from the United States with money to invest in repairing and building their town. Everyone celebrates the patron saints of Joaquin and Santa Ana, the parents of Virgin Mary. The town swells to nearly two thousand people.

When I first heard of Navidad six years ago, the rumor was they allowed  no foreigners to buy in the village. When I ambled the foot paths above the village on my first visit, I was greeted by curious livestock, with open friendly stares as if there was nothing to fear. It was a Garden of Eden experience of innocence where tourists had not trod. On this visit, I noticed a larger improvement than in previous visits of more buildings, more re-tiled roofs,  new additions, and one new building that looks like a fancy hotel or a posh house or resort. Martin, the husband of the baker I’d met on my last trip three years earlier, asked if I wanted to buy a beautiful new house just a few blocks off the main square.The times they are a-changing.

A Grass Roots Sustainable Skill – Another eight kilometers up the road is Juanacatlán.  I knew my broom came from here, although I bought it in San Sebastian in a corner store. I thought I’d go to the nearest store that sold them, I assumed in abundance, and find out how to repair mine or buy another. Well, there was no store, and there’s only one man who makes them. We found Ramon Arrizón in a pretty little two bedroom house on the hillside with a big covered front verandah, In the back were a couple lovely little cabins for family visitors. He doesn’t make brooms commercially anymore, he said, because he doesn’t have helpers. His son and daughter of twenty and eighteen years work for the resort of Sierra Lago at Lago de Juanacatlán about 18 kms further along (where there really is a lake). Although a woman from Zacatecas called him wanting a hundred brooms,  he couldn’t fill the order due to lack of assistance.

Ramon, with the help of his charming wife Rosario, made us a demonstration broom, with no previous contact and without any hesitation. It took about twenty minutes, with the dried roots already prepared. This included whittling the 2×2 stick down, and wrapping, nailing and binding with a thick metal wire all the roots, then chopping the broom bristles blunt. The end price was sixty pesos ($5). The one source of brooms in San Sebastian (two hours away, or probably fifty kilometers as the crow flies) is his sister-in-law who sells them for 180 pesos! I think this is the beginning of a good cottage industry, if he gets some assistance.

Looking for another sustainable skill?  I’d like to set up a volunteer program to place Spanish students/volunteer workers in  the Mascota to Juanacatlan corridor, where visitors stay with families and learn local skills, including broom making.  Or if time is short come on Study Tours to lend a hand for a day or two. Nobody speaks English up there; what a great cultural opportunity. You’d be the only person you know who makes brooms, right from digging the grass roots, and whittling down the pine handle.

Alas! There was no fishing here. The lake noted in my Moon Handbooks guidebook with map, shown as Little Juanacatlán, either dried up or didn’t ever exist. It was described with depths of a hundred meters and bass and trout, and camping space. It was an oral account that needed some grouth-truthing. The locals I asked denied its existence. If you find this illusive lake, let me know.

Next we were off to a real lake at the resort called Sierra Lago at Lake Juanacatlán another eighteen kilometers away. We drove the badly rutted road there, passing only a pair of riders and a few cows. We parked and walked to one end of the lake furthest away from the resort buildings, which no one wanted to see particularly. I thinking we were pining for a pristine alpine lake. I left Michel and Vera to explore, while I worked to assemble my fly rod. The twist assembly for the reel got stuck. I rubbed my hands raw trying to work it loose. The water looked pretty green, and the lake level was low, since it’s a drought year. There was no evidence of anything biting, except a few mosquitoes  as it was now late afternoon. I gave up and looked to find someone who would help with the rod. 

I walked about two kilometers right around the lake, passing a field of unicorns along the way (it was the perfect habitat). Vera, meanwhile, was posing as a nude statue on tableaus set into an open-air chapel styled with Greek columns and arches. Michel was taking pictures willingly.

After I walked around the lake admiring the bronze statues of nature placed strategically throughout the cemented walkway in front of the accommodations, I found Vera and Michel at our starting point. He did assist with the rod, but I concluded the fishing adventure will have to wait for a more pristine lake.  We had been warned by two riders, Joaquin and Joaquin (our traveler’s joke), that the short cut straight down to Mascota had very bad due to topes (speed bumps) and my Toyota Corolla would not do well. We chose the same scenic return as it was approaching dusk with views of the intercalated distant hills and peaks.

Study Spanish on the Road  – Mountains to Mangrove Swamps : March 10 – 18, 2012

I think the beauty of a road trip is always the unexpected. Sometimes through the people we meet, or our thoughts as we reflect on the situation and our experience. At times, it’s just not knowing what lies ahead and the thrill of any new adventure. I am a junkie. I started these trips as a Spanish teacher, knowing that the trips are why we study Spanish, to be able to understand the culture and enjoy the time spent with people conversing. We do that in abundance on my trips.

This March three seasoned travelers came first to Yelapa, then we drove to the mountain towns east of the airport. John installs electricity at the world’s American embassies. His wife Joann, a teacher retired to enjoy accompanying her global village husband. Don, one of the world’s foremost caribou biologists, was working up data while in Yelapa on the global warming effects on caribou populations. It was a match made in Yelapa. We seemed to always be laughing. A simple Spanish sentence delivered to a shop keeper would take a half hour in preparation, and have us in paroxysms of laughter and tears.  This was without alcohol. Might have been the mountain altitude or very funny company. Don Donaldo, as we called him (the “don” in Spanish is a respected elderly gentleman as well as a “gift of God”) was always cracking jokes and Joann couldn’t help pulling his leg. John added his wry humor and I was usually cracking up. The trip was a combined three nights in the mountains, four nights on the coast (eight days). A great combo.

Our first town was San Sebastian del Oeste, 70 kms from Vallarta.  We walked the small Río San Sebastian to Hacienda Jalisco, a short hike of a flat two kilometers. At the gates we meet three of the friendliest guard dogs. The regular guide, Joe, was moving, so his son, ten year old Max led the way. It’s now a haunted Bed and Breakfast; a blue lady graces the upper floors, while some spirit with a sense of humour reportedly shakes your feet on occasion.  Joe has heard shouting mobs at the front gates on occasion. There’s lot of history here and lots of deaths were inevitable.

The hacienda was a center of economic activity, primarily as a ore-crushing and processing plant for gold and silver, and as a bank for lending to all including governments of the region. Outside are the remnants of the foundry. Inside are the accounting documents, mining paraphernalia amid the host of letters from the famous John Huston, friend and frequent visitor of the last owner, Bud. All this amidst the regal fourteen foot ceilings and the still original wood, fireplaces and painted walls of the hacienda. From the perspective of a ten year old, the world view is a lot lower than ours. I saw holes in walls I’d never seen before, roots of trees. I’m not sure how much my companions learned about mine processing in the mid 1850s but it was an entertaining stroll.

Real del Alto  – One of the earliest mines was located near the current village of Real Alto at 7,000 ft, and hour’s bumpy ride above San Sebastian. Now only forty six people live there, twelve school children. They almost all play in one or the other mariachi band. They produce liquor punches made from mountain fruits, membrillo, capulin (quince or gondo berry), and make one kilo blocks of sun dried fruit called cajeta. The most common is tejocote which is a very small apple-like fruit. This time I tasted my all-time favorit, the perón – a green small apple that tastes like a pear.  The industrious eighty-five year old Hermalinda Dueña who makes the cajeta, was unfortunately in Mascota recuperating from a bad fall, hopefully not from picking the perón. While John, Joann and Don checked out the 18th century church with Ramon, I talked to the matriarch’s family while drinking some cold ones.

The talk in the village and in San Sebastian is that the Canadian mining companies who have a contract to drill samples for ore content, are likely to strip mine the mountain and move them out.  Many mining companies are moving fast through the country, and are being protested from small village to the federal courts.  Here near Real Alto, Endeavour Silver has posted signs to save the jaguar. Don’t hunt. Don’t capture. But it doesn’t say it will save it’s habitat and not bring in people who will threaten them further.

One currently famous case is the plan to mine silver and gold-mining region of Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí state. It’s about 500 kms (300 miles) walking distance from the center of the Huichol Indian’s (Wixarika in their language) traditional territory, and the eastern portal to the Gods. It was a rich silver-mining region historically.  It’s been in process as a UNESCO world heritage site, municipal and state governments signed to protect it. Within weeks of the President himself signing similar protection, he also signed to allow mining to occur. The Wixarika have had injunctions to stop progress. Here’s a blog site with news and views from the Wixarika, and a presentation of the mining company intent in the Washington Post This June 1-2 there’s a conference in Vancouver bringing together people from the Americas adversely effected by Canadian mining interests, to address the threats and determine strategies to retain lands within liveable environmental standards or total protection.

Mt. Bufa – The slow climb up the mountain by truck takes one hour to the microwave  and telephone towers, from where a ten minute walk leads to the peak of Mt. Bufa at 8400 ft (2560 m). It’s the best vantage point to see San Sebastian, with incredible views to the north and west. From here you can see the hotel zone of north Vallarta to Bucerias. Pirates sited off this peak.  It’s a beautiful view and a great place to picnic, and with a little support accessible to almost everybody.  En route we stopped to view mine shaft that were cleaned from one diagonal shaft the top of the mountain.

We headed on 68 km further inland to Mascota, a the town of 13,000, an agricultural center with friendly people, lots of historic buildings, great restaurants and a good launch off spot to smaller mountain villages higher uphill.

Centro Magnético in Yerbabuena – John, Joann, Don and I also visited the magnetic center I’d first been to two weeks earlier.  This time the land owner Gidilberto, led us through the prayer. It was distracting, but I did sense the energy I’d felt previously, but not as strongly. None of my friends felt much if anything. I feel the receptivity to the energy might have been some blocked by the guided prayer.  We headed nearby to Father Salcedo’s museum. The healer who found the magnetic center stayed here and sensed the nearby energy and found its center.  Father Salcedo is a retired priest, who used to roam around in a beat-up jeep, now part of his other museum at the village entrance, on the left side. Similarly much of his collection in his home museum would otherwise have made the junk yard, but he’s the best recycler of his generation. Car parts figure prominently, including in the entrance gate. Nonetheless, his message comes through clearly – he’s a lover of nature and God, little niches of shade trees, plants, water, carved column of cantaro (carved rock) – all sacred spaces created with what God sends him. He promotes and lives love and peace. Everything about the place is inviting, but also a little scarey. He’s never been there when I’ve visited, and I’d be a little awed by the man who could create such a space.  He’s also a notable historian who has written four books of history available at the Mascota Archaeology museum.

The Brooms of Juanacatlán – We drove another eleven kilometers up-road, to meet the broom maker Ramon and family who I described on the earlier visit above. He knew I wanted one broom for friend, Michel, and I hoped to have another demonstration for my friends. However, after making that one broom ordered, he continued making brooms until his grass root supply was depleted, the day before. Well, they scrounged, seeing our disappointment, and found a small armload of grass roots, already dried. With this we suggested making two small brooms. I wanted one for sweeping out the trunk and floors of the car. John needed a broom for around the fireplace.  We were thrilled with their adaptation and our new little brooms, and enjoyed immensely the novel experience of seeing them made. They also took us out to land of theirs with the grass and trees, knowing I miss living in the pines.

In the process we befriended a family we’ll surely visit again, Ramon and his wife, Rosario, their daughter, Camila aged two.  If you’d like to visit and learn the art of broom-making, learning from scratch, or literally digging the roots, please be in touch, as this is the missing link in Ramon’s prosperity, that is, assistance in the process. Rosario can put you up in a small cabin with valley views with meals for a reasonable cost.

Our mountain adventure was completed, but not before running into friends Jim and Maureen, both Canadians who are return visitors to Yelapa. They had been up visiting a Canadian friend who has bought land and built a cabin very near Ramon and Rosario, and who were also coincidentally staying in the next room to ours. Small world. The distant corners of Mexico seem to call those who want space and nature in abundance.

Destiladeras Beach – Joann’s request for an optimal tour was to never be away for very long from the beach. She wanted to swim, collect shells, be in the sun, and walk. I offered her the best beach I knew of, and for free, no time share or private or exclusive club involved. Not far from Puerto Vallarta, a short drive past Cruz de Huanacaxtle on the north shore of Bahía Banderas is the beach of Destiladeras.  Distillers of what we can only imagine. The sand is fine, white, the waters clear, the waves on most days I’ve visited have been gentle and the walk out to swimming depth is fairly long, so a nice zone to play in. A quick swim had a pay-off for Don. Bills floating in the water. Mexican new bills are highly plasticized and take a good soak with no damage. John claimed them quickly. We collected shells for Joann’s art project and walked a kilometer of lovely sand, shells, crystalline stones and rocks. There’s even a great small restaurant that prepares a seafood plate for 600 pesos (about$50US) that is sure to feed several people.No life like the beach - happy at last

Sayulita Magic – Something has happened in Sayulita that wasn’t there ten years ago. I visited only three times since 1999 until this winter. And I never liked it because it was too full of tourists and I couldn’t get through to the Mexican population with their stories and traditions. This year I arrived and noticed that there was lots of integration, lots of Spanish spoken all around by the non-Mexican community, and I loved the energy.  Either the place has evolved to where I not only appreciate it but get caught up in the excitement of the place, or that I have changed with the years. And you think you know yourself pretty well by my age!!

It didn’t hurt that Sayulita received a huge injection of cash from the federal government to pretty up the town. There was an international tourism expo planned for March 25 to 28th, 2012. It was happening in Puerto Vallarta at the new International Conventional Center, and they were featuring the Riviera Nayarit.  For twenty four years it was hosted in Acapulco, however, it’s been declared number four on the list of dangerous cities in the world, number two falls to Ciudad Juarez.

Sayulita is being groomed as the jewel in the crown of the Nayarit coast. One day the federal government announced about six million dollars to be used to bury electrical lines downtown, cobble streets, add new lighting, redo the plaza, add an entrance portal to the community, among numerous other upgrades. The next day the crews were working. It even caught the president of the community off-guard. They had six weeks to make the place look great before the Tourism Tianguis (fair). And they pulled out all stops. This dusty little community was going to get dustier, but result in the face-lift of the century.

My friends were warned of the construction mayhem and considered not visiting, but I assured them it was well worth enjoying, if even just for a beer on the main beach. We stayed the night. I introduced them to my friend, Fausto, who writes beautiful short vignettes of his life of the last thirty five years living on the beach at Playa Escondida and working as a fisherman, fish vendor, and now in the organic food retail business. I’ve been translating his writing or “poetry” as I call it, for El the online newspaper. It’s beautifully phrased, visual like good poems are, and evokes emotion. Anyway, I asked him to talk to my group to give them a first hand cultural view of the place.  He said he could best do that through music and song. So our Tuesday in Sayulita after a fantastic day at the beach, was spent being regaled. He sang my favorite song, “Gracias a la Vida” by Violeta Parra, a political voice of the protest in Latin America. (here with words sung by the equally powerful political voice of Mercedes Sosa). We had just bought Mercedes’ record and listened on the drive. If you’ve not discovered her,  this Argentinian has another song El Niño en la Calle which has been mixed with Calle 13, another phenomenal Hispano group (winners of nineteen Latin Grammys and two Grammys)

Interesting the power of poetry. Leonard Cohen turned to Nashville and music to popularize his words. Dylan was hailed as a poet first. When I wrote to my students by email before arriving what their options were for activities on the road, they wrote back that they’d especially like to meet the “poet” in Sayulita. Fausto was so amused, he wrote to his wife, family and friends in disbelief, and felt humbly the tribute was not due. The audience gets the last vote.  When I asked my students what was the most memorable experiences of the eight day trip, John instantly cited the night of Fausto, song and poetry, and the others agreed. This weekend in Puerto Vallarta there’s a four-day international poetry festival Las Letras de la Mar, broadcast by Guadalajara University radio, CUC Radio 104.3FM, running today. The headline today in El Informador newspaper was that with all that’s going on in the world today, what is lacking, and what the world needs is poetry.

San Blas, Nayarit – It’s only two hours up the coastal road from Sayulita, but a world away. Without a doubt this is one of the greatest places on the Mexican coastline to view birds. It was our next stop on our road tour. Two kilometers from the town of San Blas, just at the turn from the coastal beach road, immediately on the left is a pull out.We could not, not stop, given the variety of bird life amassed in front of us. There were blue-winged teals, shovelers, coots, lots of shorebirds including killdeer, semi-palmated plovers, salmon-colored avocets, marbled godwits, the prehistoric looking wood storks, roseate spoonbills, lots of herons, including snowy and great egrets, as well as white ibises, and even rarer finds such as long-billed curlews and cinnamon teals. It was birding at its best …. and worst, only because of the jejenes (the biting sand fleas). John and Joann had been bitten by everything in Yelapa and had swollen arms and legs to prove it. San Blas has that reputation, although in all my visits I’ve only had the good luck to experience short periods of intense biting; overall I’ve felt occasional mild discomfort. But our first day of four spent in San Blas was by even local accounts an onslaught of bitiing jejenes. When the locals say it’s bad, it is. Fortunately the worst passed, and even with the jejenes, we had a fabulous time in San Blas.

Given Joann’s penchant for beaches, we went next morning to La Isla del Rey, about two minutes across the Estero el Pozo, a freshwater channel that wraps around the north and west side of town. La Isla is a peninsula, a long spit that protrudes from the northern sandy coastline. It’s of major importance to the Huichol Indians, to whom it represents their western cardinal point, where they peregrinate to honour the Goddess Aramara. We crossed on the boat with a couple dressed in their traditional regalia and a non-Mexican woman. They stopped at a small temple of rock and straw thatch, and a nearby cave , remniscent of the one that was obliterated by government in the 1970s, where they left offerings. They continued to the water’s edge where he performed a healing ritual for the guest.

We headed to a large flock of birds at the shore – cormorants, gulls and other seabirds. The beach was endless shells, driftwood, bones and other treasures. Don had informed me sometime earlier he didn’t like beaches. The good news is he liked walking and we could talk “birds” enough to convince anyone we actually were biologists.  We all concluded it was one of the that had it all – fine sand, shallow waters and receptive surf, bird life galore, shells, bones, and no one else was there.

The following day  we booked a launch to take us along the Rio Tovara to the Crocodile Farm and then to the Tovara Springs pool and restaurant. The Rio Tovara trip is always a highlight for the beauty of the mangrove swamp, the dark clear water and the bird life, which is abundant verging on incredible. The animal life amounts to thrillingly large crocodiles and many basking turtles but there’s always a promise of seeing a jaguar, which your captain will assure you is a possibility. The birds kept us hopping from book to binoculars and up and down in the boat. By the time we’d reached the Tovar Springs restaurant, we’d tired of the joke: “Oh, yeah, there’s another rare Limpkin, one world species”. The limpkin’s range is reported as southeast U.S., Mexico, W. Indies to Argentina. The captain, Chencho told us they were unreported in San Blas until about thirteen years ago. They certainly now conform to the book description “locally common in wood swamps” or we’ve hit on their peak dispersal period.  The total species count for a one a half hour trip to the Tovara springs was twenty six species. My favorite was the Bare-throated Tiger Heron for it’s patterns of fine stripes, white throat stripe, elusiveness and master of camouflage. If any readers are interested in the complete list, I will comply (and post pics to Flickr or Facebook).

The Tovar springs is the source of water for San Blas and a low key recreational spot for swimming with one restaurant.  Best to experience the spot on a weekday as it’s the place to go for all visitors, and better in the mornings. The water is crystal clear, fenced off fortunately from the crocodiles one sees not infrequently on the main channel. The swim is divine; soft smooth water, but I kept checking over my shoulder for any logs the crocs could navigate over if really hungry.

There is a crocodile farm that was being renovated.  It was sadly in need. As all such places that serve the purpose of accepting abandoned and injured animals, it’s not how we’d choose to see them. It left my troupe of one biologist, two remote wilderness mountain dwellers from Washington state a little sad at the life of captive animals. I was keen to see how the jaguar fared since taken from a circus a year ago. Initially as it waited its fate,  it was a cuddly young cat who purred while rubbing against the cage bars, against my hands. I knew it had no claws so I was braver than usual. A year later, it slept with the remains of chicken feathers on its lips, and bones scattered in its concrete building. Possibly dreaming jungle dreams.

We extended our stay a day and decided to visit Tepic, specifically the Museo de Cinco Pueblos, find some “milagros” for an art project of Joann, and visit the Huichol community at Zitacua, an outlying suburb. The Museo used to be for “cuatro” pueblos but decided in its move to a new building, to add the mestizo population which comprises a large part of Mexicans. Past studies state 97% of Mexicans are mixed blood. The new museum is right downtown on Avenida Mexico near the Museo de Antropologia. It has new dioramas of clothing, crafts, activities and music for each of the “pueblos”.  It was a modern story told using new media forms, but I recall the old museum had a huge collection of oddities and interesting artifacts. They’re stored at present, and it would be of interest to see them again, hopefully at some future date.

The religious “milagros” are the little legs, arm, eyes made of mixed metals that are used to leave with your prayers for healing or other miracles at various churches, especially where the virgin has been sighted. We’ll wait to see the results of Joann’s inspired art work.

Zitacua, a community of about one hundred fifty families on a hill donated by the son of an ex-governor, is one primarily of artists. It is on a number of bus tours, is at the end of a bus route where visitors come to see the art work – special yarn art placed with sharp objects into waxed substrate and beaded jewelry or moulded forms (eg. jaguar, iguanas or other images). There’s a healer named Rutilio Benitez who has a store open to the public. He buys local art. We toured through and bought many cuadros or picture at great prices. Given what he asked for them and what profits he made, the artists must have been pretty desperate to clear their inventory. It’s testimony to the incredible collection of art produced at this and other local Huichol communities.

We went in search of a few masters I knew. Saul Eleuterio Carillo produces art of great merit and fame. He now works in the mountain communities teaching art, when he’s not producing his own. Our meeting was a lucky coincidence given the demands on his time. The pictures following are 60 x 60 inches, for sale at $80US – an incredible deal.  He’s one of Zitacua’s masters, who seems to constantly find work and interesting experiences as an artist to be involved in.  Should anyone be interested I can assist and package them for export.

Ramon Medina – Another great local artist who has displayed and sold works in Seattle has fallen on hard times with the death of his American friend and patron. I went in search of him, and asked a young girl about the directions to his house on Venado Azul (blue deer and the name given to peyote). It was his daughter, and she said he was next door at “el taller” a workshop. My group who I’d dragged around for a while that hot afternoon, agreed to go on, and were we paid off in our efforts. The workshop was owned by Fidencio Benitez Ribera, son of famous artist Jose Benitez, recently deceased whose house is now a museum. There was Ramon and Fidencio working on a figure that was about seven feet high, with equal width and depth. It was the head of a dog. It was covered in bees wax and had sketches throughout its massive size. This was being covered painstakingly in estambre, a thick thread in various colors to fill in the desired shapes. It was an unbelievable project.

Fidencio told us it was commissioned by the Tianguis Turistico that was being held in Puerto Vallarta and had to be finished by March 25th, a week away.  It did not seem humanly possible even for an army of them. They had another artist coming, he said. Then he told us that this was less than a third of the room-height Xoloescuintle dog (the Mexican hairless dog) that was the finished artwork. Now I was certain they were joking or crazy. Well, it turns out it was very true. We didn’t take pictures of them working. I wouldn’t believe it could ever have been done. Two weeks later, just after the opening, I phoned and he assured me it was at the Tianguis for the opening, that it was a well paid project, and that he would let me know where exactly it was to be located. I checked the media coverage of the event, and sure enough, in the first five second of the clip is a huge colourful dog. It’s now located in a museum in downtown Tepic. This picture from Fidencio’s Facebook.

In conclusion:  Our eight days was intense, and amazing.  After our week (turned to eight days by popular vote) together was complete, I asked Don, Joann and John what were the most salient experiences for them. Joann answered Fidencio’s beaded art dog. John’s best memory was time with our singing poet Fausto, which the others were quick to agree on. Music and art are always the winners in my world too.

The Power of Light – April 27, 2012

The electricity has been out for most of five days. That’s a long time even for Mexico. The first three days were hard, as the ice in my very frosted non-defrosting fridge finally melted.  We had a brief interlude of “luz” or light as they say here, after one day. The story told around town as to why this happened: someone stole 500  meters of the electric cable AND one post. Then there was an evening of light, and I hurriedly looked and answered emails, and planned an all night work session to get caught up. Then Friday morning, it was down again. I spoke with Piri, a respected senior who CFE (commision federal de electricidad) deemed worthy to call, who stated the electricity would be out for two days. Susan, an American chef and owner at Cafe Bahía, overhead me sharing this news with someone waiting at the dock. A loud, indignant and horrified “WHAT?” came from inside the cafe. I found her pulling off the skins of hundreds of roasted garlic. She had forty five kilos of beef on ice in the fridge for a wedding to cook the next day, with staff arriving for a full day of cooking and serving for a hundred people, with no power.

I stopped at the seamstress, Rosa and had the same lament. No work could be done for most of the week by anyone who needed a machine or a computer or an electric drill. What happened this time? Again, someone stole three kilometers of cable.  I don’t know about the posts!

The outage both times cut off only Yelapa’s power.  Why? So, the best reason I heard posited was that Sunday was a big election campaign day in the municipal head, Tuito. Yelapa is known to vote PAN, the party in power since 2000. It’s a pro-development, pro-business party. It’s believed, the ploy behind the electricity theft is to send strong warnings by those who can control Yelapa’s destiny, that PAN is not the right party to vote for. Only in Mexico you say? It’s a unique plot.  At press time, the outages continue. We look forward to the end of elections, or to apprehension of whoever is stealing the cables!

Future plans for Yelapa English Spanish Institute

As always I’m always inventing ways to make Spanish learning fun while learning and participating more in the culture. I’m up for short or long trips, beyond what I have developed as offering on my website .

Summer classes will routinely have activities as part of two or three hour classes, as a way to see new things, practice and find cool (climate and figurative) places to experience.  This summer YESI will offer classes in new locations:  Sayulita, San Sebastia/ Mascota, as well as Yelapa. Mexico is still as stimulating as always with some of the nicest people on this planet.  Summer is a great time to see it at its greenest, when the warm is warm, clear and salty, and the rains include fascinating electrical storms in the outdoor theatre. For me, the best part is everyone has slowed down to a pace to enjoy daily life at its traditional best, with lots of time to talk and share stories. Come try it; I guarantee you’ll like it. If the coast is too hot and humid, we’re only 70 km away from the mountain classes with very unique features as described in this very long blog.

Thanks for your support and readership!

I look forward to hearing from you. For Class Information please see:

For Study on the Road information, please see:


So this is Christmas!

So this is Christmas! Changing Times

One night on the new malecón (sea wall )in Puerto Vallarta, I walked the beautiful new pedestrian pathways, and enjoyed the relaxed setting now closed to road traffic for half its length.  Many of the numerous statues  had some or many adults and children climbing them and interacting without being spirited off by NO TOCAR(don’t touch) signs or policemen. The only flaw in the landscape was a giant green plastic Christmas tree that had no resemblance to any magnificent evergreen I’ve ever seen. It didn’t match the good taste applied elsewhere on the malecón.  I cut it out of all my pictures. In the daylight I was appalled to see it was a giant Coca Cola ad! Each two dimensional ball, measuring about a foot in diameter, held a picture of Santa in some compromised relationship with one to six bottles of Coca Cola.  There were smaller paper balls also hanging, saying, “Mi malecon, el orgullo de Vallarta” , my malecon, the pride of Vallarta.  But it’s a stretch to see how anyone could be proud of this artless unnatural Coca Cola billboard!  According to Bay Vallarta magazine’s editor, Juan Espinoza Lozano, the Christmas tree is a symbol that reminds us of the tree in paradise, the fruit from which Adam and Eve ate, and were banished with original sin. Jesus came as the promised Messiah to reconcile man with God. In some regions in Mexico, “el niño Dios” brings toys to the children who have behaved well throughout the year.  All this, he points out, is slowly disappearing because of a person in red named Santa Claus who has taken his place, clear proof of the marketing influence of the north. This disappearance hasn’t seemd slow to me, but alarmingly rapid.

some of Mexico's best sculpure on Vallart's new malecon

the Malecon, el orgullo, the pride of Vallarta!

The message: Santa = Christmas= Coca Cola is outrageous. How boldly they are undermining the traditional images with the same false idol that was offered in the US and Canada in the 1930s. It’s what drove me and many others away from Christmas. I’m not trying to be the Xmas Grinch, but conspicuous overconsumption of plastic Christmas gifts and the marketing of a happy = material Christmas is not what the world needs. No more than it needs Coke!

Coca Cola sponsors Christmas on the malecon

Coca cola is not the pride of Vallarta

I have not spent many Christmases in Canada in the last 25 years.  The commercialized aspect of Christmas has never sat well with me.  I would usually go away to Mexico to enjoy the peace and the more traditional aspects of Xmas. One year, my first on mainland Mexico, I was at the Posada Cañon del Vata, in Puerto Angel, where my hostess Susana, brought out a carrot cake iced with cream cheese frosting, topped with a beautiful fuchsia shade of bougainvilleas and candles. We celebrated Christ’s birthday.  I was thirty years old and honestly had never really experienced that connection with Christmas prior. Since then I’ve celebrated with families on the twenty-forth of December, la noche buena, the night of Christ’s birth. After  a big dinner , lots of laughter, and lots of stories, the kids happily swing at a Star of Bethlehem piñata or two, long into the night.  At on dinner I recall their weren’t enough forks for people to eat more than six at a time, but we couldn’t have been happier.

The traditional nativity scenes of animals surrounding the barn and manger of Christ’s birth, with wise men, and other players, used to be created under the Christmas trees of many homes here in Yelapa, which were barren of gifts. It’s less common now, but a welcome sight. Rosita at Casa Playita by the dock, still takes great pleasure in lining up the animals, and adorning the scene with moss, little plastic trees. A six year old girl I met this weekend in La Hermita in the mountains, added crocodiles to her nativity scene which were eating dogs in the scenario, an interesting twist by this budding action film director!

Puerto Vallartan’s created their nativity scene on the malecón, at a great distance from the Coca Cola tree, a few weeks after Coca Cola’s early grasp on its spot. It really shines in contrast both in meaning and in originality. There are the three wise men, the baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary along with the expected cows, sheep and burro, against the backdrop of the Bay of Banderas. As one couple pointed out, there was even a chicken, complete with real eggs on a wooden crate on a bale of straw, enjoying the ocean view.

Nativity scene on the malecon

First breakfast for the Holy Morning!

I delight in gift giving, and constantly pick up things for loved ones wherever I am, and give them whenever.  I appreciate the spirit of gift giving. I fear we’re exchanging the message of Jesus’s birth  for the message of consumerism, and we and future generations will lose what grounds us.  Traditions and myth are what hold us in place, culturally and spiritually.   I’d love to hear from you about what is special about Christmas; what are your traditions.  In whatever way you celebrate, I wish you spend time in meaningful relationship to your family, friends, creatures and place!

Ringing in the New Year! With or Without a Calendar

I actually escaped the coast this year on December 31st, so I could recover from a few intense weeks of classes, and get a good nights sleep – not something anyone in Yelapa would have had.  Tucked away in the tiny town of San Sebastian in the mountains where no restaurant was even open after eight p.m., I was guaranteed a quick recovery! Today, January 1, the school band is shaking up the earth with a rousing tuba, trumpeting, drumming  greeting of the New Year for all the docile dwellers, in case they missed the changed of date and year!

San Sebastian Street band greeting the New Year

For the rest, there’s a calendar free from every hotel and business. I went out a week ago and scoured Vallarta looking to buy some Spanish language or bilingual wall calendars to give out as gifts. They don’t sell them, they told me. “Unbelievable,” I said, wondering at the impossible task of navigating the days of the year without one. They give them away. Well, no one was giving them away anywhere I went in Puerto Vallarta. I did finally buy three, the last three, from a book store, that shipped them in from another gringo haven, the Lake Chapala town of Ajijic. By the time I left San Sebastian on Jan 2,  I had picked up one free calendar and been offered two more!

Katherine from Nanaimo, Canada on her way home from Vallarta, asked where she could buy a calendar. I had sent her already to the best souvenir store, Lucy’s Cucu Cabaña, and when I stopped there I was thrilled to see the very famous images of Jesus Helguera on an advertising calendar – much more advertising area than the tiny bottom strip of calendar area. But it was a calendar, and better yet, it had the stunning images of Jesus Helguera, with romanticized depictions of Mexicans in dance, life and work. In later years he painted natives and warriors  pumped on natural hormones, ample muscles flexed in the act of hunting, praying or carrying off their scantily clad maiden rescued from harm’s way. In the 1940s hardly anyone had a calendar that didn’t feature his work. For more on these images, see .  Check out Lucy’s Cucu Cabañas on Basilio Badillo 195, Zona Romantica (Colonia Emiliano Zapata).

Calendar Art by Jesus Helguera on calendars Lucy's Cucu Cabañas

See the following Post for description of my new offerings at the Yelapa English Spanish Institute  – Group Class discounts to match prices of  ten years ago, to boost the economy and bring you to Mexico. Also Classes are also offered on Skype for those who can’t get to Mexico and want to charge up their Spanish skills and keep developing them for the next trip you can afford to take!  or get in touch via: for study tours with your language teacher and guide!
or phone: 011 52 322 209 5220


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Changes in Yelapa Dec 2011

 YESI’s Tenth Anniversary People write to ask if I’m still here in Yelapa and teaching Spanish.  Not an odd question given that I started this idea with a few credit cards, a princely mortgage to pay back home,  immediately after 9/11 when  few were willing to fly, in a village with no electricity, phones or  internet!  These were not signs of one who meticulously prepared a business plan for financial backers.I realize that my first hand-painted YESI sign is still with me, while many other fancier ones have gone missing (I’ll flatter myself that they may be collectibles), were chewed or otherwise destroyed by the jungle. We’ve come a long way together! I started out small, pinching every penny; was flying to keep up in the mid-2000’s boom when doing all the work was impossible. Now that things have slowed down, it’s like old times  when there was time to visit friends or read a book on the beach and look like a tourist,  and otherwise enjoy Yelapa.

“We’ve come a long way” seems these days like only the physical distance of the couple hundred meters up the hill where YESI is now located off the main trail.  The tourists climbing up the stairs to look at the coastecomate tree, with big purple flowers on the trunk of the tree, instead of the branches, and the hundred and fifty school children streaming through my outdoor class en route to the primary school above it, all led to YESI moving to a quieter setting uphill. But that sign also reminds me of all the people I’ve met here in classes; students conjugating nouns (“dinero” became “dineramos”, my favorite blooper),  students thrilled in their second week that they’re dreaming about Spanish, translating for the newcomers and having the confidence to converse with their host families.  It brings back memories of the many trips together to the Marietas Islands when exploring the caves was possible; the many, many hikes up to the waterfalls and Eric’s treehouse. I recall the first summer program for families when battling bugs, crabs, and hoping my palapa would stay together  in storms, were new challenges. Like every challenge faced, it’s been  hard at times,  but overall the ten years have been truly marvellous in ways I couldn’t ever have imagined. It’s obviously gratifying to see students learn a language. Not having been a mother, I cherished the fact that I got to experience some part of each student’s development. And I expanded by “family” to include over those ten years, more than five hundred people.  Obviously the community has benefited economically too. I estimate very conservatively, that the approximately five hundred  students spent at least $500 per week in accommodation, meals, gifts and other services, contributing at least $250,000 to Yelapa. Pretty much all I’ve earned has also been spent in the community too.  Can’t imagine a better example of win/win!

Am I still here? Well, where would I ever go from here?  In some wild,wacky way it’s my training program on my path to “bliss”. And if you’re wondering if you too could live in paradise, I only have to say, “Don’t be afraid to dream”.  As they say in Mexico – Todo es posible and  Poco a poco! Everything is possible, Little by little.

This year being a slow year, with little tourism anywhere, I’m going to offer for bookings made in January only, the class prices I offered ten years ago!! I’ve always kept prices low, but this should be a boost to you, hopefully and a boost to YESI and Yelapa.  If you miss this discount period, please ask about couples and seniors discounts.  Please say you read it here, when you write in!   Hope to see you this year.

YESI’s first hand painted sign 2001-2012

YESI class 2004


High Speed Internet – Welcome to the Real World –  Spanish Classes on Skype!!

Internet was only available as dial up until last Febuary 2011. The year prior, only a handful of locals had paid a private server a great deal of set up cost for broadband but thankfully Telmex stepped in. After several months of trying to get the operation of the  system working, it was online for everyone at an affordable price. In fact it became cheaper with the simplest package for phone and internet, than it was for just the phone.  This quickly spread throughout the community. Imagine not having watched any YouTube or even ventured onto Facebook for the last ten years! It was exciting to see how messaging, and catching all forms of video, music, and television had become readily available, and we were now able to check in. The year of 2011 therefore, vanished in those moments when I was doing administrative work many times faster, and therefore doing more of it. If there’s a downside, I guess it was that I didn’t get to clean my house or attend to small errands while waiting to download as in previous years. I was definitely caught in the World Wide Web. I’m learning to control it now that I feel somewhat caught up on the last decade’s cyber-revolution. 

With this little revolution in Yelapa, and knowing not as many people are travelling, I’d like to offer Skype classes to any of my readers who have studied Spanish with me before. I’m  teaching currently a handful of students after they suggestd it.  I realize what a great tool it can be, and how efficiently it can be used. There’s a notepad, it’s long distance communication free, and it can be a group class also. It certainly is much less costly than a trip south, although admittedly a little less fun!  Or if you’d like to communicate otherwise by Skype, please ask for my Skype name.  Hope to hear from you and/or see you on Skype.

Please offer coments, and should you be able to come to Mexico, please check us out by email:

Yelapa English Spanish Institute , or come on a Study Tour with a language coach

or by phone  011 52 322 209 5220.

Muchos Restaurantes!!!

In a little village isolated without a road, only boats bringing in supplies, you can imagine that life would be somewhat restricted.  In the past, restaurants in Yelapa, Mexico had sometimes limited days open, and like the T-shirts “No More Stinking Tacos” seemed apropos by the end of the tourist season. Now there’s a great new slate of restaurants and more variety.  As a wanna-be carnivore, but diet restricted to mostly vegetables, I’m thrilled this means there’s more options than just beans, rice and quesadillas for vegetarians too!  So enjoy this NEW YEAR and all its offerings! Feliz  Año Próspero y Sano 2012!!

A. The Beach  (from north end to south end)  Most have much of the same offerings with prices going down further away from the hotel; fish, seafood and mexican plates. Few outstanding or notables: – Hotel Lagunita (always lots of variety, service to your beach chair), Angelina’s Gardens Elena of the Yacht Club’s  very funky beach restaurant, lots of variety, very comfy local hangout; Marlin (pie lady Chelly manages it, so if Pies are your objective, and she hasn’t found you, track her down here.  Coco’s – only real coconuts for agua de coco on the beach, Vortex Café (bottom of the stairs to the beach, great view of the lagoon and river mouth) – A long list of great healthy smoothies (licuados) and juices (jugos),  and the best chicken soup.

NEW –  Juanito’s  (under new management; only the name remains!) Eduardo and Esperanza of El Norteñita Tortilla Factory are opening with the freshest and best tortillas in Yelapa! Great folks next to paragliding landing area, to open soon.

B. Upriver – The rural Colonia El Paso is always a photographer’s delight and a relaxing day for those combing the river for pools to dip in, birds and animals and country life to watch! Few places to eat; nice scenic spots.

El Manguito – Angélica and Luis are upriver 10 minutes at El Manguito (under the Mango tree), with a great deck over Río Tuito; full fare,all day,  great local river crayfish (langostinos), with lots of vegetables);  Cenaduría Janet (evenings Wed, Sat – Sun), super prices! great grilled chicken, tacos, flautas, sopes), Passion Flower Gardens – April’s American homestyle Mondays (movie/dinner),  and Italian for Thurs (Live music, open mic/dinner). Christina’s Riverview Cafe way upriver; vegetarian fare thoughtfully prepared. Order and dine after going to the waterfalls.

NEW – Yelapa Oasis on the River (Hotel, Café & Bar) – Beautiful parkland on the river- New management, new menu.  Local produce, fresh ingredients, great salads, soups, fish cooked wrapped in banana leaf, etc. New upstairs dining and lounge area.  Live music Wednesdays/ Friday open mic night.  Menu  online ( ) and delivered.

C.  Yelapa Village – There never seems enough restaurants in the village. The new ones are very welcome and add new exciting foods!

Café Bahia – Open 9 to sunset. Susan continues to invent new treats. Creative cocktails (eg. Tamarind margaritas), homemade ice-cream (caramel and pear, double vanilla, chocolate coconut) and sorbet.  Fresh-from-scratch meals. Great breakfasts, lots of friends made at the community table. Sunday brunch (the only Eggs Benny in town), afternoon tapas. Brisa’s Restaurant and Lupis’ Bakery – fresh fish, Chicken Catalina, crisply sautéed fresh veggie sides, big cheesy flan. Best (and only) cinnamon buns and banana bread in town.  The Cascada Restaurant at the village waterfalls, 9 to 5 pm.  No place better for a beer, fish dinner and a plunge in the natural pool. Traditional Mexican. Tacos y Mas – lots of good meat, seafood, fish and chicken tacos for cheap, and feature meal specials at reasonable prices. Very social scene.  Great avocado pie! Pollo Bollo – great barbecued fish, chicken and ribs. Made a pork eater out of me after a twenty year abstinence!

NEW – Next to the Yacht Club, Fabian Lorenzo’s fabulous new Taquería Los Abuelos, (the grandparents)  specializes in seafood tacos, burritos, and Yelapa’s only empanadas and chimichangas. Fabian is the chef at Casa Verana, and a real master of divinely created food. His tacos are awesome. He`s back at his day job, but famous Aunt Aurora (master baker – cake take-outs) and mom, Lusina, are dishing out his concoctions and filling his shoes superbly. Great tastes; best deal in townSmall and homey!

 El Cerrito (the little hill) –Owners Fernando Garcia and Sergio Garcia built a big deck with a fantastic view of the whole village and bay, open to the sea, the sky and stars.  The  “Mexican-infused international food” menu has lots of variety, creative seafood and fish menus, chicken-filled with goat cheese, pesto pasta, tenderloin steak and ribs, salads – even soups – covers the gamut. Reasonable prices for very special meals.

El Cerrito best view of bay and village

This place has a special meaning for me as it was the very first location for the YESI school ten years ago, and I always imagined a patio where they have it.

Sushi Gohan and Cafe Shambala – Since being a mother of two and being town vet isn’t busy enough,  Pamela began her own Cafe Shambala at the side of her home three seasons ago.  Last year’s Friday Sushi nights were a hit and this season friend Roberto opened a Chinese and Japanese restaurant on the garden patio facing the bay, open 4- 12 midnight.  He’s trained by Juan Carlos who had Yelapa’s first Sushi Bar at Las Piratas bar, now closed ten years ago. All in the family! Swing shift to the daytime run of Café Shambala,  with second floor ocean views. Chef Martina’s special sauces on burritos,  great Mexican eggs, Pamela’s muffins and the famous smoothies draw the breakfast and lunch crowds.

Medical Clinic Back on Track

Two years ago the workers were renovating the medical clinic, adding two new consulting rooms, separate washrooms, an indoor waiting room and another outpatient observation room. Their work stopped when the contractor made off with the money in late summer 2010, and they were left unpaid.  The clinic then operated out of the two downstairs rooms normally used as the interning doctor’s residence.  However, a year and some months later someone found some money, and it’s been full steam ahead this fall.  A team of albañiles or masons have been working seven days a week on all the finishing work on the clinic. There’s a mammoth ramp for disabled in wheelchairs, built with three switchbacks. That ramp is going to be every kid-with-wheel’s dream, and backed up by medical experts within meters of their inevitable crashes! Memories of 1998 when the dirt trails were first paved and Band-aids were imported to Yelapa.  The supervisor claims the job will be done for early January. A very nice Christmas gift!

Medical Clinic Renovated, disabled access ramp Dec 2011

Borrachos X Renta – Drunks for Rent!

It’s a very slow year with tourism way down. Some are adjusting with new products for consumption. A few Mexican drinking buddies came up with this novel entertainment idea to liven up your party. David ran ads on the village bulletin board near the hardware store, very near the unofficial outdoor “beer gardens”. He appeared today at Susan’s Cafe Bahia at the pier, with a Telethon Box looking for donations for a worthy cause (disabled children) to which we gave generously. Someone asked how we book his “drunks for hire for your party”.  It’s self explanatory, basically.  He also offers just one drunk  for when you don’t want to be alone and you just want to drink yourself stupid! It’s another first for Yelapa!  I think this could be a booming growth industry if there’s anyone left sober to do the hiring!

A few days later he had raised 1924 pesos for the Telethon, a princely sum given the slow economy and his limited marketing efforts. With this announcement on the bulletin board by Leticia’s store, he wrote “y no olviden rentarnos en sus fiestas navideños! Borrachos x rent. Tel. 209 525$” And don’t forget to rent us for your Christmas parties. Drunks for rent. Tel…..


Another Tree Has Fallen – Ode to the Primavera Tree

Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
~ Kahlil Gibran ~

God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!”
~ Joseph Campbell ~

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
~ Joyce Kilmer, “Trees,” 1914 ~

A sad memoriam to the Primavera tree that was felled right at the Yelapa center.  It provided shade, a living community of insects and animals, the most amazing yellow billowing blooms in the otherwise concrete village environmeent, all that is might in a tree and all that is right in the world! It’s being replaced by a tiny building – more concrete on the way to prosperity !

May its spirit and beauty be preserved forever in our collective memories, past and future!  If there’s a way to plant new trees to replace these ancient mothers felled in the name of progress, and to create a more aware new generation, I vow to work at it.  My 2012 pledge!  Help if you can. If you’ve any photos of this tree, by the old basketball court, that blooms in late winter , I’d love a copy, please! I’ll laminate it and post in its place!

The last two primaveras in village at old basketball court/new plaza

I look forward to hearing from you. Check us out at or

Study tours to recommended destinations, and/or others you may interested in going to and need a guide/ language coach:

Or call to Mexico 011 52 322 209 5220

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Saved by the Little Virgin – June 2009

Index: Pineapple plants, Yelapa´s water quality, Vegetarian Tacos, Pygmy Skunk Video, Green Party, Monarch Butterflies 2009 and the Magic Pueblo, Our Lady of Ecology, Mother’s Day, Juanita the Chicken, Miette  the Travelling Cat – Lost, Human Swine Flu, The Rainy Season

Pineapple Plant Blooming in my Garden

I’ve been gardening on a piece of rock sloping down el cerro or hill that has barely broken down coarse particles of granite. Where there’s a finer substance, its clay. Not great for gardening. There’s one thing that grows almost anywhere; it just needs lots of water and lots of sun – pineapple. I’ve been watering for over a year and low and behold – a fruit. It wasn’t there and suddenly was one day, about the size of a baseball. But better than the fruit was the flower. The big surprise was that the flowers look very unusual; nothing tropical, bright, and brassy like the big red columns of leafy flower heads of the ginger, or the bright orange with a blue centre of the heliconia (or bird’s bill). The pineapple has delicate little purple flowers that look like a mint plant that grow right off the fruiting body itself. They lasted only a few days, then vanished about as quickly as the fruit arrived. Since I’ve added pineapple and nopal cactus to my morning’s repast, I’ve been watching it slowly grow. Three days ago the fruit broke on its stem on the plant. Nothing to do but cut it and I let it stand to ripen. It was small, maybe six inches high, green and far from ripe. I’m happy to report it ripened in a few days and was very sweet and delicious. I might plant the whole yard in pineapple and call this place Casa de Piña!

Water in Yelapa – an Engineer’s Approval

In February Andrea arrived to study from Whitehorse, Yukon Territories; that’s Canada, by the way. She’s an engineer with the federal government checking water supply and quality for northern settlements, which largely covers Indian communities and the three larger centers, Whitehorse, Dawson Creek, famous for its summer music festival, and Haines Junction, totaling to about 20,000 inhabitants.

She arrived with an expert’s suspicion of the water quality in Mexico. Her survival kit included a ceramic filter bought for $40 at Mountain Equipment Coop. I trust bottled water, having used the alternative here 25 yrs ago which was bottled soda pop. For me, this is SO much better and now ubiquitous. We strolled one day on the beach and met the water factory’s American owner, Les. I wanted to give her a first hand chance to find out what comprises Yelapa’s water.

He had billed the water as high quality with the latest technology for treatment. It starts as spring source water about three kilometers up the mountain. It’s chlorinated to kill the organics and then run through a series of filters to get out any solids. It goes through a bed of activated carbon filters of decreasing size of pores to remove everything, including the chlorine. It’s then treated with ultra-violet radiation, which also kills any bacteria.  It’s quality is lab-tested every four to six weeks. Les has all the equipment to treat it also with ozone, however, the quality tests have never shown a need to do so. “Besides which it adds a flavor,” he stated. “In the end, the minerals remain as close as possible to the natural state.”

Les was under the gun, but it appears his system was approved on the beach under the hot sun in Mexico, where most everything appears just perfect. No alcohol was consumed or bribes or payoffs accepted to get a clean bill of health for Yelapa’s bottled water.

New on the water scene – helping to reduce plastic waste. Finally, Les has introduced ½ liter bottles for sale for $2.75US which can be refilled in a few of the stores for very little. The five liter size can also be taken in to the water factory and refilled for great cost-savings.

Now if I can just get Les to spell the name of his company properly, Las Tanquas to Las Tancuas. The letters qu are never followed by anything but e or i in the Spanish language, although he insists it’s a native word. What language Les?

Tacos Vegetarianos – Almost – in PV

Tacos are without a doubt the favorite food in Mexico. My friend, Edmundo, the pastry guru of Pátzcuaro. recently switched to tacos. There’s money to be made in tacos. From the time they get up to the late, late nights in town, people love to eat their tacos, from basic stand up dining at street vendors to high end taco restaurants. Mundo now works four days a week and doesn’t get up at the crack of dawn to watch dough rise.

Now after a few months or years of eating tacos, they seem to boil down to the same flavor on my palate. Meat of uncertain species, fried and refried, and tortillas, sometimes fresh, sometimes also refried in suspect oils or manteca (lard). By March or somewhere mid-season I begin to appreciate the humor in the T-shirt that has a Chihuahua with its tongue hanging out looking very nauseous saying “No More Stinking Tacos”. I’ve usually had enough and want more veggies or some other varieties of flavors.

In Yelapa, the Rodriguez family opened Tacos y Más (Tacos and More) three seasons ago. Youngest son, Javier, started out with al pastor style pork on a vertical grill topped with a chunk of pineapple to give you mouthwatering tasty pork. Then he put lots of meat on the freshest lovely little double tortillas. He couldn’t feed all the hungry crowds on his patio. That’s when the rest of the family moved in. Sister, Dickie, quit work at the Rosewood Carving Factory that dad, Javier, started decades ago and began to head up the kitchen. I had returned to Yelapa excited to tell them about the incredible avocado pie I had tasted in Canada, only to find that Dickie now served its equivalent in Tacos Y Más.  Sister Livier also joined the kitchen team with her special skills and better yet, started raising a pig or two on a few acres on the mountain next to Aunt Antonia’s Casa Milagros. These are optimal pig raising conditions; no 5,000 pigs confined to cages for these folks! It’s nice to know where your taco comes from!

They’ve expanded now to lots more taco options, including fish, shrimp and chicken, special entrees, often featuring local seafood, fresh fruit water and of course the desserts. Now, unfortunately, I’ve become a vegetarian due to some health issues, with occasional protein support from such places. After months of beans, rice, maybe some cabbage and often onions on my tacos, I’m crying out for a decent veggie taco.

Well, imagine my delight when I stumbled upon a new taco stand in Puerto Vallarta. It’s called Huel Huelic, mayan for muy sabroso or “very tasty”. Instead of the beans on a taco I was prepared for to fill the gap, they offered me a host of variable stews, most with meats, some with veggies, and flavorful broth. I ate rajadas de nopal (strips of stewed nopal cactus a little bit spicy – un poquito picante, and green, red or white rice as a side dish. Memelas (not sure about this one) served with shredded gouda cheese – another first.  Then there’s a large sampling of condiments with cucumber, radishes, cilantro, carrots and of course a litany of salsas. These salsas were obviously home made with chunks of real fruit and veggies in a range of picante or spiciness. All these were in separate see-through closed containers with their own special spoons that fit inside.

The owner, Carlos, had situated four or five palms about eight feet high to shade patrons on the sunny side of the stand. Too many taco stands are dangerously obstructive of traffic and very “man on the street”. These palms also offer a line of defense. To one side was a wash stand, with aluminum sink and towels. Variety, prices, fast and fresh, green ambience and shade afforded by the palms, hygiene and sanitation and great and tasty food. In fact, muy sabroso!

I would like to tell you that next time you’re in Puerto Vallarta, stop by Huel Huelic on Francisco Madero Street, between Insurgentes and Constitución near the Rana Sonido Music store and tell him Juanita de Yelapa says gracias.However, due to the swine flu media epidemic, there’s only a for rent sign. Hopefully, he’ll be back on his feet when the tourists come back!  Maybe I’ll invest some money so that this really happens. Other investors interested?

Skunk’s Out.

I’ve written before about the little pygmy skunks in Yelapa that visit almost nightly in my house. I hope you can view this little video of this little fatty eating out of the cat bowl, until along came the cat. No chemical warfare or violence was used by either side in the making of this video.

Green Partya la Mexicana

In the last federal election I was thrilled to hear that the little town of Mascota in the mountains not far up the River Cuale from Vallarta had voted mostly Green Party. I thought “how progressive”. Nice to see a big environmental and stewardship role of the earth and its resources is happening so close to where I live. What I didn’t know was that the Green Party name, Partido Verde Ecologista or The Ecologist Green Party has been appropriated by a group, or mostly, one family,  that is definitely right of center on some issues. Here are some current ads on billboards in Vallarta to show what they represent:

Temor es saber que alguien puede matar o secuestrar uno de tu familia Fear is knowing  someone can kill or kidnap someone in your family.

Partido Verde. Pena de Muerto. Si estás de acuerdo, manda sí a 29999.

Green Party. Death Penalty. If you agree, send a “yes” to 29999.

Coraje es para saber que el asesino de tu hijo es libra. Rage is knowing that the murderer of your child is free.

Dolor es recibir una llamada del secuestrador de tu hijo. Pain is receiving a call from the kidnapper of your child.

All are followed with the “Death Penalty” send us a “yes” if you agree. Capital punishment is not where the Green Party has gone in other countries. The green party logo here is a toucan sitting in the middle of a yellow square; an image of ecological interests.

Check this link to see how twisted this family-run Green Party is!

It’s an abomination that this image has been stolen from the environmental liberal thinkers in Mexico. What will the Green Party use when it does develop in Mexico? The Greener Party? Wikipedia reports that the International Green Party umbrella organization just recently nixed this group due to this death penalty campaign..

Their most recent web site has four pillars to their philosophies. Better Quality of Life – Recommendations for Care of Pets; Better Health – Recommendations for Better Food, as well, a statement “La Secretaría de Salud estima que alrededor de 38% de las 2.3 millones de muertes que se presentaron en México entre 2000 y 2004 eran evitables”. The Health Ministry estimates around 38% of the 2.3 mllion deaths between 2000 and 2004 were avoidable. Better Education – demands for vouchers for medications, English and Computer classes . Better Security – here they go on about kidnappings and the death penalty.

I’m with them on their needs on three of the four issues.  Maybe there is some hope that this single family interest is grabbing the spotlight with the death penalty on one issue, and then working on changing the party to address some real issues. Green or not really green, this might have some beneficial end result. Let’s hope this is an interesting evolution to something really green and substantive.

Spanish on the Road Trip – Monarch Butterfly Hibernation Sanctuary

I went to the Monarch Butterfly sanctuary at El Rosario, east of Morelia, Michoacan with Andrea from Whitehorse, Yukon Territories as my witness to another miracle. There were many thousands of butterflies flying in the heat of a hot late February day. It was great taking someone with me to see the milling masses of monarch. This year was a hotter year than my first visit last year, and there was much more activity. The monarchs were pairing early this year – apareando. The contortions during mating were most novel and often amazing, since it can occur while flying, linked while going in different directions. Nonetheless, it works. By the time they get to southern United States, they’re ready to lay eggs, which hatch and soon after the adults make their way to Canada. I’ve written about this migration in my Blog of last spring, 2008. Also a note for those who don’t like climbing stairs. They will carry you in a stretcher or a chair all the way up. You might have to pay them for the coca cola, too!

Just north of the El Rosario Sanctuary is a little town billed as El Pueblo Mágico, Tlapujahua, just 2 hrs east of Morelia, Michoacan. Upon our arrival, the first bit of magic noted was the sign that said “no loudspeakers for advertising”. No obtrusive noise by vendors hawking wares from a car. Like the gas truck shouting “gas” literally every six seconds, (I counted) in the village of the Virgin of Talpa from six a.m. on. We did see, however, signs everywhere se vende esferas, “spheres for sale”. Very mysterious.

Buildings were painted in earthy to bright colours, and well maintained. We stopped at a restaurant with a rooftop café serving cappuccino. It was a pleasure to climb the two flights of stairs and taste civilized coffee. From here we could see the setting sun lighting up the already rose-coloured cathedral.  We descended to find a hotel and solve the puzzle as to what kind of spheres were for sale. The owner of our hotel, Fernando, told us there was a factory right next door. Esferas were Christmas tree balls!

Next morning the factory was not open to visitors. Andrea and I headed in different directions with cameras trying to capture the beauty of the place in early morning light, with a rendezvous planned at the Christmas store at the café.  Markets are usually picturesque, but in keeping with the good taste throughout the village, this market was truly impressive. One walks down stairs to view the artfully arranged produce stalls in a golden yellow painted backdrop with lots of morning light. I also found a gift store next door, where I hoped to find a handcrafted teapot or tetera, not a commonly used item in Mexico. I found not just four teapots to choose from, but a 10 cup giant tea pot in solid earthenware or barro cocido. It came with a complete set of six mugs, saucers, and a creamer and sugar pot in a distinctly unique Mexican style of eclipse (sun and moon juxtaposed). The price of the six-place setting was less than the cost of a regular tea pot from a potter in Canada.

Finally I made it to the Christmas store below the great rooftop café. Andrea had already begun loading up a box of tree ornaments. I don’t like the commercial aspects of Christmas, and began my visit here thinking I didn’t like Christmas, but who could pretend to not like dressing the tree? I recanted and got my own box for “just a few – sólo unos pocos”. Well, I have one small or pequeña esfera for just about everybody I know, and I mean – muy, muy pequeña, some smaller than thumb sized.

The store owner, Juan Manuel Ruíz, told us the origin of the idea for this craft in his town. About 60 years ago a Mexican man, Joaquín Muñoz Orta, worked in the U.S. making artificial Christmas trees. He witnessed lab vials being made of blown glass, and when an accidental ball or esfera was made, things clicked for him.  In 1965 he set up a factory with his wife. Now they make an estimated 50 million Christmas ornaments, with 15% of this sold to the Mexican market. Now in Tlapujahua there are 150 workshops or talleres employing 70% of the population, mostly women. Juan added that the sales are dropping off now because of the Asian factories.

When my young friends say they don’t know what to do for a career, I tell them always, “Go travel and find out who you are, and what you like. See things that may inspire.”  Here’s a great example of the benefits of travel and bringing home new innovations.

Nuestra Señora de Ecología – Our Lady of Ecology

In early January, signs appeared around town – nicely crafted painted wooden boards, neatly lettered, all with a message to reduce, reuse, and recycle garbage. Who better a person to spread the word than Mexico’s patron saint Virgin Guadalupe? She appeared in her familiar shroud surrounded by her golden aura, but transfigured for the occasion into Nuestra Señora de Ecología. The first I noted was hanging with a globe of the world outside the church from the roof of Gloria’s Restaurant over the public trail.

It had a message from the Virgin in English, Spanish and Latin. There was at least one Lutheran priest I expected to be involved. And someone was fluent in Spanish. I suspected a collaboration. It was a great work of art. I wondered who was selling this work.  Who would leave valuable art on the street? Was using the patron saint to deliver a socially moral message relevant to today, and this life, not the afterlife, sacrilege?

Well, Nuestra Señora didn’t hang on that street corner for long. Alas! Next there was a sign outside of the stationery store la papelería near Ramona’s Taco and movie restaurant. “El Mundo tiene pocos recursos naturales. No contamines. Reuse, Recicla, Reduce The world has few natural resources. Don’t pollute. Reuse, recycle, reduce.”  There was still no public statement as to what radical environmental sect of Yelapans was behind this growing menace to our polluted, garbage-filled existence.

Again, the rebels struck – it was hard to resist posting the best work on a bright pink wall at Ramona’s Video Taquería. Nuestra Señora de Ecología came to rest. The message, subtle and clear from Mexico’s patron saint, now, of Ecology. At the top: “Piedad para un planeta tan pequeño Pity for a planet so small”. At the bottom: “Reduce los detergentes Reduce detergents”. On the left side. “Reduce, Recicla, Reusa. Respeto al mar Reduce, Recycle and Reuse. Respect the Sea”. Right Side: “No quemes plástico No. Paz. Alegría. Don’t burn plastic. Peace. Happiness Come sano. Come frutas y verduras, así no tires basura de paquetes. Eat fruit and vegetables. This way you won’t throw out packaging waste.”. Below the Virgin’s robe: No tires basura. Aunque no la veas, Existe! Don’t throw out garbage. Although you don’t see it, it exists!  She was really on her soap box –  as much as she was painted on a soap box!

Another one showed up even more recently at the Eclipse Cyber Cafe. The painting and lettering matched the other signs. She was the same robed Virgin surrounded by her aura. This time called Nuestra Señora de Ecología y Paz. The campaign had pushed up the rewards of the campaign a notch to grant Peace. Scribed was the heartfelt message – “Yelapa es un paraíso. Hazlo tuyo para mantenerlo así. Yelapa is a paradise. Do your part to maintain it so. Evita la basura, come frutas y verduras. Avoid garbage, eat fruit and vegetables”.  The protagonist had also lettered another sign with a simple human figure, oddly female, leaning over in a potty arch – with a slash through the figure – No Public Washroom!

Izabel, the fire dancer at the Eclipse, was my principal suspect. She confirmed her culpability. “What can I do to make people realize. I’m tired of not doing anything.” Her approach was brilliant. I think it needs to be followed up with a campaign in the schools. Or some such rebel initiates who would like to follow up with more folk art, perhaps at the elementary school level. I’m just starting an English class for kids, at their request. What they don’t know is that I’m focusing on the outdoors and making them super-environmentalists!

Keep an eye out for Izabel’s street art campaign. She’s making life-sized Virgins now, so she’ll fill the visual landscape with her message. At press time, she produced another Virgin in the night sky standing on the horizontal crescent moon, with a prayer printed on the back.

“Oh, little Virgin of the Green Valleys. I ask you to make me conscious of the damage that I do with my garbage.

I promise you I will recycle, reuse and reduce all my packages, containers, detergents, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, diapers and other inorganics.

Make me feel the benefits of a healthy life, doing exercise and without eating junk food that creates garbage.

Make me see beyond the television to understand that you, Mother Earth, give me food and oxygen in order to sigh before your greatness.

Make me understand overpopulation. I promise you to take care of myself and to prepare myself to have a child to whom I can give the opportunity to improve himself.

Make me recognize that the less I need, the more I have.

Places like Mexico there are not two, but there’s only one planet and one life!”

I loved the poetry (it’s far prettier in Spanish) and the little Virgin in the night sky. So I bought this piece. We’ll be reproducing and disseminating it as postcards or bookmarks. It will also help her continue her campaign. I suggested she speak to the priest about including her life sized virgin in the church. This might seem radical, but I went to a baptism here and the priest talked about saving the environment! I asked Rosa, whose granddaughter was baptized, if I had heard correctly. She said they’ve added care of the environment to the Second Commandment. It looks like God and the Church are officially Green!

I bought a notebook for teenagers at Office Depot with the Virgin on the cover, and under it, “Virgencita, plis jelp!” If you’d like to volunteer with some activities on the environmental theme, especially if you can contribute energy to finding solutions to our recycling problems, please help!

Juanita the Chicken.

I am more than a little embarrassed telling you friends about Juanita the chicken. I’d noticed over several months, a single white chicken in my yard, but didn’t pay it much attention. Then one day in February, I really watched her. She was on her own, as always. She made no noise, since there was no one to communicate to. She was very neat and clean, quite pretty in fact, in her clean little white chicken way. She was very industrious, rushing from plant to bug to compost pile. I admired her hard work in finding her food and making her own way.

No bossy rooster herding her around with the others. That flock of hens from down below, with their big white rooster, beautifully white with rusty feathers in the head and as a collar, did come up frequently; since I began putting out food for the wild cats, a little too frequently. His hens didn’t compare. One of them looked like she was far past being of service and should be in the geriatric home for chickens. None really looked in great shape, except him, oddly enough. I’ve always been a skeptic about benefits of being part of a herd.

Well, that one white hen was doing very well without the pack. She didn’t need a rooster to show her where the food was. She didn’t need his protection. And she probably was having a very good time out there with all the food she found on her own. Probably slept well too without all that crowing!

I suddenly realized I really related to this chicken. I actually liked this chicken. She wasn’t just a chicken anymore. She was ME, in the chicken world. I started calling her Juanita. I realized how much I myself had strayed from the pack and how much I cherished my independence.  At last, freedom and liberty from roosters and the pack. Oh, my God. It all boiled down to that. There I was … a chicken, a very valiente, independent, well-fed, good looking chicken, proudly making her own way among the grubs.

I guess I should try talking to her. She might be a little lonely, at times, like me. I must be lonely, especially if I think I should be talking to the chicken. I’ll have to learn “chicken”, I suppose. Probably in Spanish.

I could be on the fringe like my friend, Paris. She lives happily 10 km off the hydroelectric grid in British Columbia, with no telephone and few visitors. She once told me her tale of isolation. She admitted that in the mornings she’d put a chair in the chicken pen and sit and talk with the chickens. That stopped when her husband found her one day and sent her to work two days a week to socialize a bit more.

You, my friends, I hope will tell me if I’ve really gone too far out there in my chicken thinking and will bring me around, if necessary. Check me into a “get well” clinic for people with animal disorders or tendencies. When they ask ” Why don’t you straighten her out?”, please don’t say “Sorry, we’d really like to, but we need the eggs!”

Mother’s Day In San Sebastian

The local school band has been practicing all week here in the little mountain village of San Sebastian del Oeste 70 km east of PV. They’re youngsters and it was obvious they were still learning. Last night I found out what for. At three a.m. there was a pounding, banging, cacophony of noise or ruido outside my hotel window. The band was playing with lots of spirit. Las Mañanitas, little morning songs, was the song, usually a serenade in the early morning for birthdays. But it’s also used for Mother’s Day. They added some very energetic other marching band tunes and a popular one called chameleon that I recognized. They didn’t go away as hoped for after the first joyful novelty was over.

It was a few hours before they had finished marching all corners and the many alleyways of this small town. Then they crisscrossed the town once more with gusto or pleasure just for good measure. Just as I was getting used to their distant echoing presence, hark! Another band. This one was a mariachi band with real musicians. By now it was 5:30 a.m. the roosters were wakening, as were the barking dogs, and from somewhere church bells were pealing.

There was nothing to do but get up. I put on several uncoordinated layers over and under my night dress, and with a final 2 shawls over the shoulders went to find who was being serenaded. On the way I saw the tuba player of the school band in back of a pick-up headed home exhausted.

Three blocks up the street I found the mariachi band on the patio of a lovely old adobe house – not a wealthy family as seen by the old 1960s car at the side, the tin patches over holes in the rough, unfinished adobe. They and their audience were blocked from view by a border of ferns, geraniums and impatiens plants. There was lots of laughter and the mother’s voice was clearly heard making song requests. Their abundance was obvious.

I sat outside the house on a border of rocks looking up at the patio. The full moon lit the house with color from the garden, with purple bougainvillea hanging over most of the cobble fence. It was achingly beautiful, while sitting there amidst such happiness, to hear the songs sung in reverence of beauty and love in those lovely old ballads– “alma de mi alma, que linda eres tú” soul of my soul, how pretty you are; “hermosa querido” beautiful beloved one. I sat enamored of the beauty of this night on the cold stone, worried only that I’d be spotted and then they’d surely welcome me in. I did not want to be an intruding presence in such a naturally wonderful scene. Even the family cat came out to bask appreciatively near me under the moon’s aura .

They sang another round of Las Mañanitas, a song even the youngest Mexican learns at an early age. I recalled listening to five year old Danielle in Pátzcuaro, last Mother’s Day, sing all four verses and the chorus, with three melody changes all alone without music to his glowing mother. As I reflected, the band surprised me on my perch as they noiselessly departed. I thanked them for playing so beautifully and wanted to know if they were local. “I am one of five brothers in the band from Real Alto,” one said as we walked homeward; that’s from a family of thirteen, none of whom have studied music, nor do they have musical parents. Real Alto, a village 3,000 ft above here, has only forty six people, all of them with last name Arredondo. Turns out there’s also a junior mariachi band from there with the youngest at ten years old. Almost every Mexican family has a priest, nun or musician in its fold. This band comes highly recommended. You’ll have to arrange your own sublime setting.

At ten to seven a.m. I was in bed with the roosters crowing, the earplugs firmly in and my travelling cat, Miette, warming my feet. I send a beautiful song to all mothers, present and past, as well as want-to-be-moms, by universal Mariachi around the planet.

Miette The Travelling Cat

I spent a great ten days or so in the old mining town of San Sebastian del Oeste, some of these with Samantha, a student and friend from near Guelph, Canada, who hiked, ate and took lots of pictures with me, and won many hearts. Also along was my Canadian cat, Miette. I don’t always travel with my cat. The Guadalupe fiesta from May 4 to 12th every year in Yelapa includes a morning ceremony of blasting off several cuetes in succession, bottle rocket  noise at 5 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. No animal does well with this assault. Miette is particularly terrified and flees for the hills. So, every year we are absent from Yelapa. This year I also had my roof replaced, so were doubly refugees.

This year on the eve before my planned departure back to Yelapa, I allowed Miette an unsupervised stroll in the garden in the inner courtyard of the Hotel del Puente in San Sebastian. She had spent several nights so, and always returned to sleep through the open door to my room by early morning. Not this night, however. I suspect she had noticed that we were packed to travel and it’s not her favorite thing to do.

That morning I started my Lost Cat campaign. It included ads with photos of Gata Perdida (female cat lost) and where to find me. I have a history of short visits here, and now a 10 day stretch so I certainly introduced myself in the community. Well, a fast way to meet everybody and immerse yourself in the local language is to lose an animal, although I would not recommend it. I based my operations out of Leonora’s Lonchería a stone’s throw from the hotel.

I was quite distraught. This cat has been my constant companion for twelve years, ten of these travelling in Mexico. She was a wild kitten found under my back patio in Devine, British Columbia, when I had three adult cats and no desire for another. But the moment I saw her terrified face, she put a little hook or arrow in my heart, andI knew her name. She was mine. She reciprocated, adopting me as her sole human companion for life. She remains wild to all others, hates all cats and is definitely a cat with special needs or as Mexican put it, “es muy especial”, which means very problematic and difficult. She can purr and hiss at me at the same time! Like the Saint Exupery’s Little Prince and the one cranky rose on his planet, what made the rose most important was the time he had dedicated to it.

I tried to think like her to find her. I had just read two of Isabel Allende’s youth adventure series, City of the Beasts and The Kingdom of the Dragon of Gold. It espouses “listening with the heart” to be able understand, beyond the restrictions of language. I was listening, for any guidance. I searched the roof tops, the attics, the neighbors’ courtyards, their woodpiles, even under their upstairs beds in one house. No Miette. I went out several times a day. Mexico is loud and if Miette responded to my calls, I wouldn’t have heard her during the day. So I woke in the late night or middle of the night to search. Every shadow from my flashlight looked cat-shaped.

After many hours and miles I lost weight, but I got to see some really beautiful parts of the village. The rivers are not littered with garbage as is the case of many in more populated places. People had adopted sections of it and made stairs down and little foot bridges across it. I checked the caves for the cat. I confess I was so delighted by the sights, sounds, birds and vegetation up and down the river, I often forgot that I was looking for my dear lost cat. After one such trip, I came back with the thought “Miette was not, in fact, lost, she was on a two week vacation”. She was probably hiding out, ignoring my voice, thinking “I’m just not ready to go back to the hotel or the hot, humid coast and the house where the neighbors are hemming me in with barbed wire!”

The second day of my search, people saw her just three buildings from the hotel. She came out of a drainage channel from an abandoned billiards hall; then raced through an old orchard. By the time I got there an hour later, she was no where to be seen, however, I spent the day combing the vegetation along a small stream and the back gardens along it.

I sent to Yelapa for a live trap, which arrived the next day by bus. I wanted to set it in the courtyard of the billiards hall. I told the owner I thought his place might be el refugio de mi gato the refuge for my cat. I asked his name. “Refugio,” he replied. I looked at the sign over his head at the billiards. It was called Don Gato. Señor Cat. The coincidences were too auspicious. However, the trap caught only one very loud fat cat, and the next night a very furry tlacuache or opossum. On the coast they’re ratty scaly-looking animals.  I told friends if I didn’t find the cat, I might take back a furry possum for a pet.

On the fifth night clouds loomed overhead. “It’s not the rainy season,” people said. “It never rains in May.” It poured. For two nights. Poor Miette. Thereafter, at the sight of any cloud, they all said, “yes, it’s going to rain!”

It was not easy to stay positive. This was one of my worst fears – to lose Miette in a village of people. She is terrified of people. I would get dressed and head out the door and stand at an intersection not knowing which way to go. I thought she’d be in old orchards, up rivers, in the wilds somewhere. I walked the streets mostly on the outskirts of the village calling “Meeeeeeee-yettttttttt”. No answer. I was becoming La Llorona, The Crier, of San Sebastian, the Mexican legend and haunting song of a distraught mother who lost her children and her ghost was heard forever more wandering and calling up and down the river. I even bought a megaphone on Day Eight to call her in from the surrounding pine forests.

I awoke on Day Nine with an idea to make small photo cards of Miette with my numbers to call. I planned to talk with people on the periphery of the village. The second person I talked to said he and two others saw her the previous night at the Butcher’s, La Carnicería, not far from my hotel. The butcher told me she shot out from a drainage channel and up and over a 3 meter high fence. Amazing what adrenaline will do to a twelve year old cat! I talked to people up that hill. One lady saw Miette in the village zocalo or plaza the first night of the rains. Miette was looking for me in all the busy parts of town, and I was dragnetting the outskirts!  I stopped at a hotel near Don Gato’s Billiards. The woman had seen her five days earlier in the back garden. I thought, “It’s maybe too late, but I’ll try calling her.” I called. She replied instantly – from the end of the garden, possibly from an old backyard dump of old stoves, tables, chairs, all covered with years of vegetation. We called back and forth. Then after I stepped on a stove to get closer, she replied no more. Two more hours of looking along the back creek and calling were futile. At 9 p.m. I got the trap, a blanket for me to sleep out in the yard next to the scrapyard, food for me and a tin of tuna for the cat. Just at dark, she walked up to me with a quiet “meow”. She had given up being the town renegade and has been purring ever since!

What impressed me most about that whole period was how positive the townspeople were and how helpful they tried to be. I never had anyone suggest the town was overpopulated with cats and I could take any of my choosing. Or that she was just a cat. In subsequent visits they all wanted to know how Miette was doing. I took a picture for them of Miette lying in “her” lounge chair under a sun umbrella on the sunny patio off my bedroom where she faces the ocean breezes and sleeps away her days and only dreams of such adventures.

Human Swine Flu

In mid-April I heard from a Canadian friend that there was a flu in Mexico. Yelapa is off the beaten track and I don’t listen to the news here. But in another week that’s all that was talked about in the news, certainly on the internet. Once revealed, the Mexican government responded swiftly. In Mexico City where the majority of cases were, government offices, schools, any meetings including church masses, were cancelled. At first schools closed until May 6th, then extended until May 18th when a case was reported in Guadalajara. That meant a three week closure. By then there had been 1112 cases in Mexico and 42 deaths, 642 cases in the US and 1 death, 201 cases in Canada, 73 in Spain, 28 in Great Britain.

Is there a pandemic? TheWorld Health Organization met June 5th in an emergency meeting to discuss this. At that time, there were nearly 22,000 cases worldwide and only 125 deaths. In the U.S. the human flu normally results in over 36,000 deaths and over 2,000 in Canada per year. .

There is at least one dissenter concerning the reality and severity of the swine flu. Dr. Mercola ( states this is not the first time of a pandemic warning. In 1976, the swine flu produced a panic. Tamiflu anti-viral vaccine was brought out. More people died of the vaccine than the flu, and worse, a further 1,800 people were left paralysed from it. The vaccine side effects produced the same symptoms that the flu did, but only shortened the duration of the illness.  His contention is that that US has a stockpile of $2 billion dollars worth of over 20 million doses that expire this year. Great Britain has 15 million doses. The boost that sales of this drug will provide to the economy would be significant.

The cost to the nations affected – economically Mexico is being devastated. Flights were cancelled, cruise ships were cancelled (the first to come back June 25th).  There are jobs lost in the low season; however, this has started earlier and is more far-reaching than normal. Streets are empty in Puerto Vallarta.  Foreigners in the Puerto Vallarta area are working with the Social Services department to provide food packages to the needy. If you can provide, ask and I´ll send the address and email. Students returning late in the season told me horror stories of how they or their family were treated on their return – James from Boston was quarantined and kept from work for three weeks. Susan from Toronto told me her grand-daughter was photographed at the airport and became the poster child for returning Canadian from Mexico, maybe with swine flu. Then she was unable to go to school because of irate parents!

How to protect yourself without taking the Vaccine? Dr. Mercola, who has studied influenzas over the many years, recommends keeping your immune system in optimal working order by:

1. Optimize your Vitamin D levels – the best strategy to avoid infections of all kinds. He suspects vitamin D deficiency is likely the true cause of the seasonality of the flu – not the virus itself!

2. Avoid sugars and Processed Foods

3. Get Enough Rest

4. Have an Effective Tool to Counter Stress – meditate, pray, etc.

5. Exercise

6. Use Animal Based Omega-3 Fats

7. Wash your Hands

8. Eat Garlic regularly

9. Avoid Hospitals and Vaccines. Hospitals are where new bugs are likely to be found first! Vaccines for this will not be available for a minimum of six months and can have side effects.

The June 5th meeting of WHO determined the world remains in Pandemic Influenza Phase 5, with requirements:

  • “That all countries intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia.
  • Not to close borders and not to restrict international travel. It is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following travel to seek medical attention.
  • That the production of seasonal influenza vaccine should continue at this time, subject to re-evaluation as the situation evolves”.

The Center for Disease Control reports that it is not yet clear how serious this new virus actually is compared with other influenza viruses. On May 26 they stated that new cases in the U.S. had probably peaked, and most cases throughout the world have so far been mild relative to “seasonal flues.” But because this is a new virus, most people do not have immunity to it, and illness may eventually become more severe and widespread in different demographic and population groups as a result.

Vallarta has decided to hold an open air free concert with some of their nationally performing songsters, Alejandro Fernandez and Enrique Iglesias  among the big names today, June 20th to let the world know we’re open and alive. The latest report was there in fact are six cases of H1N1 (swine) flu in PV. No doublt there will be more.  They’re expecting 65,000 people to attend the concert. I’d really like to go, but … I’ve got a flu.

Witnessing the devastation to the economy here in Mexico, we can all hope that this virus continues to be mild, and that rational minds prevail in terms of cancelling travel plans and closing the borders..

Come visit us here in Yelapa, Mexico

Yelapa English Spanish Institute offers Weekly Classes, 15 hrs over five days, Monday to Friday, also Weekend Courses, and Spanish Study Tours to Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Monarch Butterflies in Wintering Areas in Michoacan, Mountain villages near Puerto Vallarta, etc.   Check the website for the details. I look forward to meeting you or seeing you again, and come visit Juanita the Chicken!!

Photo Gallery Saved by the Little Virgin


Wandering on the Road – August 2008 to Feb 2009

Owls – Danger Lurks in the Superstitions

I heard an owl late one night in August. I had wanted to identify that owl for two seasons from December to February. It would hoot for weeks, sporadically, and then go unheard for months.

In August, one night about midnight, I heard two owls calling back to each other , it seemed, right over my house. The fact that there were two doubled my chances. But to find an owl in the dark in the jungle takes some doing – there’s the hilly terrain and thorny vegetation, barbed wire at night, not to mention snakes and scorpions. My neighbor, Nicola, fell off her four foot stoop on the rocky ground cracking a rib on the same mission a couple of years ago. Nonetheless, I jumped out of the shower, slipped on a pareo or sarong, and into the humid jungle night I went. I grabbed the best tools I had quickly available – flip flops on my feet, a battered and heavily taped $3 flash light with half-charged batteries and my Nikon Travel Lite binoculars. The latter were now uni-oculars, one lens having slipped out of place, the first day of my Birding in Spanish class; I was defending the merits of basic binoculars against the Swarkoski $1500 model sported by one of them when it happened. The irony!

Somehow I managed my way through the vines on the semi-paths now created by my neighbors who had cleared their land. With the weak light beam and the one good eye I got a long look, if not a good look, at a mid-sized dark owl sitting in one tree. Its brown eyes were glaring red back at the light. Its round facial disks, the absence of “ears” and vertical streaking on the breast and belly were clear markers. After it got fed up with my light and flew a bit of a distance, I pursued the other, which seemed smaller, and was more clearly seen on a lower branch. After consultation with my books and the web, it best fit the description of a Mottled Owl, a woodland bird.

I mentioned the owl to my friends, José and April the next night. Jose, who is a native from Nayarít, the state to the north said, “I’m scared of owls. I don’t know why.” There’s a saying, if you see an owl, another Indian will die.  Well, it’s not a mystery to have such a myth and to grow up frightened of them. Twenty years ago I took an owl that had been injured to the veterinarina. I was told it was hurt because of this myth. It is a mystery there aren’t more owls hiding in the obscurity of the jungle darkness.

Leaks in ParadiseMy Palapa Roof

I’ve been ruminating for quite a while on the status of my palapa roof. It’s seven years old, full of must, termite runs, various shades of  mould and a section laden with leaves from the neigbouring tree which is in an accelerated stage of decomposition. And it leaks in the fiercest downpours at all parts but the central column, which was patched a couple of years ago.

A palapa is an open-air structure with dried palm leaves as a roof on wooden support posts. They are common in coastal areas around the world since palm is heat and wind resistant. Some claim palapa construction in Mexico followed a wave of Philipino immigrants in the 1700s, since the word palapa meaning pulpy leaf is from the Philipines. Others claim more ancient farm origins of the use of local materials. The thick palapa roof (mine is about 12 inches thick) results in a very noticeable cooling inside. They can even survive hurricanes or typhoon force winds in certain cases. In the October 2004 hurricane that hit this coastline, only one palapa roof in this village was lost, while a few other buildings including concrete ones, collapsed.

I took note of the summer architectural modifications to palapas this past rainy season. Many were draped in colored tarps – blue, silver, white. It did not attest to the weather worthiness of a palapa. Either they don’t make palapas like they used to, or they didn’t have tarps to cover the holes back then!

My palapa roof is now near the end of its life. The smell of mould was so bad during the mid-October hot, rainy season that I could not sleep in the upstairs topanco (loft). I removed everything organic and strippable – mosquito net (pabellón), palm leave mats (petate), cloth dust catchers, etc.  and waited a week or so while the rainy weather stopped and the dry season transformed it into a livable habitation.

I am trying to redesign my roof so that I can still keep the palapa, but have some sort of inner layer that will not deteriorate or be eaten by relentless termites (comejenes). These voracious consumers spit out the cellulose part of the roof in thousands of little round pellets (polilla or termite crap, for lack of a better term). Most residents use various sheets of fabric judiciously to keep the bits out of sensitive areas such as the kitchen. Had I kept the daily sweepings of this stuff for the last seven years it would amount to a pile the size of my house.  I should have saved it all, added glue and … had a new house! Except the comejenes would no doubt be back at it, eating it once again, synthetic binders and all!

Why keep a palapa? They are becoming uncommon as people turn to more resistent materials. While the materials, palm leaves and right species of wooden poles, are natural, they’re not easy to get, as they are increasingly distant from the villages, and increasingly costly. Furthermore, few people are trained to construct them. On the other hand, they are remarkably cool and insulative, and aesthetically they blend into the palm jungle landscape like no other material. Many architects have created beautiful unique variations on the typical dos aguas (inverted V) theme. There are conical, rectangular, pyramidal and odd shaped ones like Le Kliff restaurant in Boca de Tomatlan. It looks like the Flying Nun’s hat and somehow stays grounded, fully buffeted by the winds along the coastline.Given these considerations and the fact that the dry season is upon us, and sure to last for a few more months, I will ruminate more on my palapa roof.

Bridge No. 2

In 2006, the first bridge in Yelapa was erected over the Tuito River to enable the school children access to the new primary school. Its one meter vertical section of concrete was hit broadside by high river waters of the flash floods of the September cyclone season in 2007. Luis, of El Manguito restaurant next door, reported an incredible loud groaning as the bridge split in half, opened like a gate and then fell to both sides. Within 2 months they had another bridge up. However, it quaked as one walked across it. It didn’t seem a very permanent structure. A year later its sole central support column was washed out, again by the flash floods. By Christmas 2008, they’d again repaired this foundation. Maybe this time it will last, or maybe there isn’t a design that can withstand the Tuito River’s hydrological might. As a precaution against heavy loads they put in pedestrian-only railing to prevent ATVs and even horses from crossing.

Passion Fruit

During my first visit to Yelapa in 1989 I discovered passion fruit – yellow vesicles of exquisite taste, highly recommended as a nerve relaxant and a cure for insomnia, great in a margarita. They are everywhere in November; little yellow balls hanging from so many trees, collecting in piles along the public paths for all to enjoy. All one needs is the knife to cut one in half, and a fork or tooth pick to pull out the gelatinous deep yellow mass, full of seeds that look like frog’s eggs. Down the hatch and don’t chew the seeds.

As I began to spend more time in Mexico and less in Canada, I had time to do some landscaping. Passion fruit was among the first things planted in 2006. The vines were very slow growing at first; then bolted to the heavens draping over and connecting trees in a blanket of leaves. I waited and watched, but there was no fruit after two years of waiting. Early this summer I complained to April, owner and creator of Passion Fruit Gardens about my fruitless passionless existence. Then about mid July the first green fruit appeared. I got to taste a few ripe fruit from my own trees the last week of August.

I returned from Canada on October 13th to find these vines still producing fruit – I estimated over 50 glossy orbs, high in the neighboring trees. An added bonus was their most beautiful flowers.  I left for a week and assigned the task of cutting back the jungle growth to Pituch, who came recommended and assured me he knew the local plants worth protecting.  I tied little colored bows on the wild shrubs I wanted to stay. I cleared around the base of the passion fruit on my side of the barbed-wire fence. Upon my return, I felt my stomach knot when I realized that the two vines cut at about head height on the other side of this fence were my beloved passion fruit. I sadly watched the fruit dry up and die. Full payment for Pituch is contingent on an alternative supply of passion fruit from some source upriver, but I still await the first shipment.

The leaves are resurging from one root with frequent watering. The vine is now 12 inches. I impatiently wait the necessary two years for the next harvest.

Spanish on the Road 2008 – Pátzcuaro – Night of the Dead – Coast to Mountain Tour October 28 – Nov 4, 2008

I’ve taken two groups in 2008 to study Spanish and see Mexico with me for a week. My first group was two women, Connie, a previous student two years ago and her best friend, Elaine. Our destination: Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Our mission: to explore the cultural treats available from the Purepecha culture – a race of people who were never conquered by the Aztecs and some might say have never acquiesced to the current Hispanic culture. We also bore witness to the nightlong vigil at the gravesite that is their celebration of the Night of the Dead on Nov 1st.

Pátzcuaro – Night of the Dead

If you’ve never experienced a Mexican Night of the Dead, the Lago de Pátzcuaro region is one of the special places where the traditions are still kept and the spirit of the spirits is still very much alive. My students, Connie and  Elaine were the perfect companions; they were keen to study and grew quickly in courage and confidence, inspired partly by their love of the culture and the other part, shopping.

We toured the ancient ruins near the east side of the Pátzcuaro Lake at Ihuatzio and nearby Tzintzuntzan with local anthropologist, Miguelangel Nuñez. He trained at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and has lived in the area for thirty years. His insights, information and stories were truly the type of material you can only pray for from a guide. I’m still processing what he revealed to us about the pagan views and lifestyle – a stark contrast to modern Christianity and Catholicism. Connie asked whether they had confession and absolution in the pagan beliefs. They didn’t need to confess. They didn’t sin. They just stayed positive. Imagine a life with no guilt. As a failed Catholic riddled with guilt, this was a huge step toward sanity and enjoyment in life.

We also spent an afternoon with Alicia, a native Purepecha from the village of Nocutzepo, and a short distance from Pátzcuaro. She’s unique in her village in that she works outside the home, and her husband shares in the care of the children. We visited the cemetery at the side of the church, visiting her dead relatives. There were literally generations above generations of them in the tiny plot of land.  The cemetery was presided over by her current ancient “abuelita” (little granny) of 94 years who sat at the entrance in the hot sun – possibly reflecting alone on her lost loved ones. We also visited Alicia’s family home and met mother, nieces, great nieces and finally father who returned from the woods where he collected pine to make carved figures of Los Viejitos (the little old men). These figures are made famous by the local dancers, usually young men mimicking the very old men, always white men with pink skin – mocking their shuffling walk and stooped posture.

After ordering a few of these carvings, we went to find Alicia’s husband at his work place. Fernando makes clay bricks. He leases land not far from the village, uses the local red clay underfoot, waters it, forms it in a mould, dries and fires it, all on a corner of the large property. He, his brother and cousin worked tirelessly at the backbreaking work, digging, carrying and stacking They seemed happy at their work. Both Alicia and he are building  a lovely house, brick by brick, probably their own, living the poco a poco (little by little) reality.

Tócuaro’s Mask Carvers

One afternoon we visited Tócuaro, the town of mask carvers. It was Elena’s desire to acquire something unique and affordable. We stopped in on Felipe Horta’s workshop (taller). Felipe was in the U.S. at an exposition of his work. His son, Fernando, showed us the collection. They design not only masks but also costumes for dances at various ceremonies. He exhibited a cape that was an eagle, complete with feathers sewn by his mother. Elena and her mask had almost picked each other but she hesitated, and we went on to another family of carvers.

Juan Horta Castillo died two years ago. He left five sons trained to follow him. He taught many carving workshops in the United States and had an international following who mourned his loss. The day we visited, four of them sat side by side carving their works. One of whom was flying out the next day for an exposition in Chicago and another was in the United States. These families are easy to find, and the villages small, so stop by for master carved masks at village prices..

November 1st Night of the Dead – The Night-long Vigil

Knowing the ferry and the Island of Janitzio would be crowded all night, where the traditional vigil has gained commercial notoriety, Connie, Elaine and I decided to tour all around the lake, a distance of about 70 kms. We planned to stop in at various cemeteries in a number of small villages, ripe for an adventure then a good meal somewhere nice.

We started in Ihuatzio, meaning place of the coyotes, the town known for its ruins as the earliest centre for the Purepecha culture. We arrived at dusk as people were finishing the altars and offerings to their loved ones. It was mellow but the expectation was exciting. At the next stop of Tzintzuntzan, traffic moved very slowly just ½ km from the cemetery. It was a scene of very sizeable and expensive decorations at the gravesites; for example, the decorated bicycle and story of one man who enjoyed his life cycling. We met a couple in their late 40s who happily invited us to remember their mother who they brought back to Mexico after a very long stay in the United States, primarily to enjoy the health care benefits in Mexico. She died among her own. Her husband stayed, healthy and content to oversee the construction of this son’s future home. The scale of decoration would bring the world’s TV cameras if it didn’t bring back the dead!

Half hour later at 8 p.m. we battled against the flow out of the cemetery and crept slowly in the traffic, out of town, heading north. We kept vigilant for candles in cemeteries as we cruised through villages. I had been invited by a couple in the town of Oponguio, on the west side to attend their village cemetery. We arrived to find only a few youngsters enjoying the evening parking in a pickup. The graves were largely decorated in plastic flowers and wreaths. This was one of many towns where the Catholic traditions were likely followed in daylight. In most towns that night around the lake, the pagan rituals had subsided.

At last we arrived in the town plaza of Erongarícuaro, where there was no night vigil but there was food. They had an exhibit of decorated gravesites. The winning exhibit of the kindergarten class explained the symbology of items typical for the dead loved one’s return. A portrait (retrato) – placed on the grave to help the soul/spirit (ánima) obtain exit from purgatory, if that’s where it is. A glass of water – for the ánima to wet its dry lips for the long journey to the great beyond. Liquor, preferably tequila – to aid the ánima in remembering the great and agreeable events during its life so it would want to visit its living relatives. A cross of ashes – serves to allow the ánima upon arrival to expiate its remaining guilt. Smaller cross of ashes – to aid the ánima in leaving purgatory if it should find itself their and to aid its journey. Salt –  used as a purifier. Four church candles (cirios) in a cross – represents the four cardinal points to help the ánima orient itself to find the path to its house. The incense – copal – the smoke cleans the place of bad spirits so the anima can return to its house without any danger. Flowers (marigold or cempaxuchil)– serve to adorn and give agreeable aroma for the anima during its stay.

We continued to our next stop at Jarácuaro, a town known for its local musicians and dancers. Groups danced their version of La Danza de los Viejitos (dance of the old men), some with very old to very young dancers. One charming “old man” couldn’t have been much older than three, and was applauded the loudest as he did his best to keep up to dad.

Arocutín has a lovely village cemetery next to a very old temple or church, with walls fortified against age. The night time vigil here was poetic. Candles, marigolds, food left in baskets with embroidered coverings, family members seated adjacent, some were somber wrapped in shawls or rebosos, slumbering lightly, some festive, awaiting the arrival of their deceased loved ones, allowed for one night to come back. I had been here the year previous and still felt the same awe and excitement of being part of an age old tradition that the locals still venerated, that still had universal meaning.  We shared one families’s canelito – hot cinnamon punch. We roamed the grounds under a cool starlit night with the spirits. Back at the hotel by three a.m, Connie and Elaine’s altar to their loved ones on their dresser in their room was our last stop.

The Potters of Huáncito

On our way back to the coast, weighted down with many boxes of treasures bought in Pátzcuaro, I asked Elaine and Connie if they’d like to visit a potter in the town of Huáncito, east of Zamora. I had already passed by the sign for this village a number of times vowing that the next time I would visit Ilda, a potter whose art and prices I could not refuse since we first met in June 2007. Back then I bought a rose-coloured round vase intricately styled with jaguars, birds and leaves. I subsequently noticed her art in some of the best hotels in Pátzcuaro, among them El Mesón de San Antonio near the Basilica de la Salud where we stayed this year (

The ladies were as eager as I, and we braved bad roads and deviations until we found Ilda’s home. Daughters Guadalupe and Socorro brought boxes of pottery from their various homes and we happily dove in, trying to limit ourselves each to only one or what we thought we could carry out, and fit in a packed small car.

A large two foot tall white vase sitting on a base with a domed lid had just won the grand prize in the Pátzcuaro Dia de Los Muertos juried show. It was painted mostly by Guadalupe, Ilda’s daughter.  Nothing we’d seen elsewhere in the village came close to their skill or resembled their style. The craft was taught by their father’s parents, the Famlia Espicio.

When Ilda returned from a visit to her mom in the next village, the first frenzy of buying had somewhat subsided. She showed us the kiln in the open air patio off the kitchen. Firing of the kiln was boosted to a higher degree by the use of 2 liter plastic coke bottles! Nothing is more abundant in Mexico.  Not recommended for the environment, nor for their health. It would be nice to somehow devise a gas-fired kiln in the future. We left with plans to come again with a bigger car next time. Elaine sat in the back barely visible for the boxes around and on her the rest of the journey. Happy and without a word of complaint!

Spanish on the Road – Mountain Tour – San Sebastian to Talpa – December 7 – 14th, 2008.

My second Spanish on the Road group this year came with me above Puerto Vallarta, to the mountain towns of San Sebastian, Mascota and Talpa, and into the higher mountain villages that still exist in a magical time separate from our own.

Two mothers, Sylvie and Debra, signed themselves, ages 45 and 54, and their five daughters, ages 7, 10, 17, 22, 24, up for a seven day intensive for the second week in December 2008. It was the Las Madres, Las Hijas y Tía Juanita Tour- The Mothers, Daughters and Aunt Jeannie Tour 2008. Throughout the trip our group members were excellent travelers, motivated students and great companions. Both mothers were teachers, both in language studies, so no small wonder their daughters were inspired and inspiring. I had some concerns about the age range. But after the two youngest livened up a game of Verb Charades the first night, they easily passed their initiation. In addition, these close family members had lots of love in abundance – key to our success.

The mountain communities are quite special and unique – San Sebastian is a mining town, once a wealthy local region for up to 30,000 people. Mascota’s wealth is really its agricultural valley, which still produces and keeps the area thriving. From here the steep road leads to villages 3,000 ft higher, isolated and distinct. Talpa is in a secular world of its own. It hosts the Virgin of Talpa – a pint-sized corn doll dressed in elaborate gold thread woven dresses, which/who has performed major miracles as attested to by many a visiting pilgrim.

San Sebastian del Oeste

San Sebastian is a cozy little valley town of 600 today tucked into the pine hills, overshadowed by a canine tooth of a peak named Bufa. “Bufar” means “to snort” and some say the peak is named for the sound of the winds passing through. We settled in for two days at the historic Hotel del Puente at prices unheard of outside of this sleepy village. We took a walking tour with Gabriel, the owner of the El Fortin restaurant that serves regional specialties and peculiarities, like huitlacochi or corn fungus soup. Gabriel has convinced the townsfolk that they have something special and they are now producing organic coffees, preserves, jams, eggnog flavored with almond, walnuts, vanilla (rompope) and dried fruit and candies for sale (tejocote, mango, guayaba), cloth dolls, and other regional treats.

Our tour included the organic coffee farm at the town entrance that produces shade grown coffee, for very reasonable prices. Aside from the historic church, and the many buildings from antiquity with original structures, it still has mines within a kilometer of its periphery to explore, which may be included in the next visit.

We planned a visit to higher altitudes early the next day. We boarded a Suburban wagon and bounced along a rough road with our local guide, Obed. Our objective was the summit of the massif of Bufa. With Obed’s skilful driving and a short, easy hike, our little group was happy to easily reach the peak and peer at the coastline clearly seen at least 50 km away.  We visited the nearby Real Alto, a little village of 49 people (one less than last December, may he/she rest in peace!) of Real Alto. It contains 12 students, one church dating back to the 1600s, an image of the Virgen del Rosario brought from Spain especially for this church, a raicilla and tequila still and a few hold outs able to subsist on selling dried, candied fruit.

Our last stop was the Hacienda de Jalisco, 1 km outside the village of San Sebastian. It has been owned by an American named Bud, recently deceased, for almost 50 years. He used it as a guest house and also allowed public tours in the latter years. It was once a private gold mine and processing company owned by Americans for 150 years or so until the turn of the last Century. There are many reminders of the intense work effort that went into building its own water driven electrical generator, including building a mountain for the water to fall down! Gold ore from the mines was shipped directly by underground shafts to the Hacienda. The company was one of the richest in the area; the ledgers of the day showed the many loans made to other mining interests and even local governments. The houses had been abandoned for a long time and with a great investment of time and money Bud repaired and reinstated them to the natural wood and wall coverings of old. Well worth the visit.

The American caretaker and guide, Joe, lives at the site. Not every guest will want to hear this story, but the most fascinating fact is that the place is haunted by ghosts. He claims the voices at night to those who can hear them, is sometimes overwhelmingly loud. He discovered his first ghost when his wife had spent 15 minutes talking to one in an upstairs bedroom, thinking it was Joe, who was in fact downstairs. Not all visitors are lucky enough to be visited by ghosts. I frankly prefer to hear the story from others.

Talpa de Allende – The Virgin of Talpa

Talpa hosts one of the images of the cherished ´Rosario of Talpa´, one of the virgins known as ´the three sisters´ of Jalisco. The story dates back to 1599.  A Spanish priest had an image of the Virgin Mary produced by Tarascan Indians living on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro. One day in 1644 when a priest in Talpa had decided that the rotten and unsightly original corn cob image was too badly damaged to be left in the public eye, he ordered it to be buried with other religious icons. The custodian, a young woman, went to bury the image, but to her surprise it rose up in the air, with a glowing aura. In place of the badly decayed corn cob doll, was a renewed doll in bright colors. The caretaker fainted. Her friends upon hearing her fall, turned to witness also the glowing restored image. This quickly became news in the village. The two wax candles that were lit that night stayed lit into the next day, unlikely for wax candles of that era.

When this Virgin was moved by the Bishop to Mascota where he presided over a larger population, the Virgin vanished overnight. She had returned to Talpa, with her dress soiled, leaving footprints in her wake. The bishop cried foul, especially since she did not have any feet. He brought her back to Mascota, hired a night watchman, who awoke to the sound of running, only to find the Virgin again on the lam. She remains in Talpa today.

Talpa has become a pilgrimage site for Christians; however, the same area was sacred for pagans worshipping an Earth Goddess named Cohuacoatl. Ana Rosa of Yelapa returned this February knowing she had had many cancellations and no shows in her four rental suites, and had many hospital bills to pay. No doubt she prayed. On the day of her return, she had many calls and bookings to fill the spaces vacated.  Many others’ prayers have been answered. The image of the Virgin has attained legendary status. There are numerous letters of testimony and small medals representing a limb or an organ that has been healed by her miracles found in the side halls of the church.

There’s even a museum dedicated to her. It exhibits all the various changes of gold-threaded outfits made specially for her and other religious memorabilia. She’s brought out on three special occasions yearly for a walk around town. The town’s population has been known to swell to an unbelievable million people. It seems every second building in town is a hotel, vouching for this number.

I phoned the Tourism office for advice on selecting a guide for an hour or two. They sent us Luis, a handsome trilingual young man. He was ours for the day, it appeared, and in the end at no cost, aside from the generous tip we bestowed on him, despite his refusals to accept it. Hard to imagine a tourist service for free!

In addition to the history and religious aspects of Talpa, we visited some of the stands in the market across from the cathedral. There are endless rolls of candied fruit, mostly of guayaba (guava). These small storefront factories are abundant and open for viewing. My question how they keep the bees away from the fruit and sugar concoction was never really answered. Maybe another miracle? In addition there are many colorful bottles of tasty rum eggnog, flavored with pine nut, almonds, vanilla, pistachio, and coconut.


A town of 13,000 people, its broad valley is largely agriculture with lots of wild space, hence its Aztec name “mazocotlan” or “place of the deer and pines”. At 4,300 ft (1,300 m) the mild, subtropical climate attracts abundant wildlife, a sparse tourist clientele and promotes growth of oranges, lemons, avocados, apples, grapes and sugarcane.

In Mascota we started our orientation at Francisco Rodriguez’s museum of stone crafts, El Museo Pedregal (rocky terrain). Everything he owns and produces is made with stone and glue – truly. In addition, he has some great historic photos of the region and its many beauty queens.  There are pebbles covering his old TV, the old stand-up bass, the table top with a checker board with checkers apparently made just for our young girls. We bought picture frames, crosses, Hogar Dulce Hogar Home Sweet Home signs all creatively stoned.

“Pancho” then guided us to the ruins of the Temple of the Precious Blood, under construction and abandoned by the Catholic Church at the time of the War of the Cristeros in 1926. It was an impressive church-to-be but the dollars were fading in the empire and the government forces were whittling down the power of the church to a manageable size. There’s a chapel and seminary adjacent, where the seminarians look just like the kids on the street with ears wired to IPods.

Pancho waltzed us into historic courtyards in majestic homes, on the pretext of a social visit. One home, where they sold cookies which we gladly bought, had a huge stuffed cougar on the coffee table. We took pictures of us hugging, wrestling or otherwise offending a poor carcass of a beast that due to the poorest taxidermy I’ve ever seen, looked more like a weasel than a majestic cat family member.

At the Cathedral he showed us the entrances to the underground caves that kept the rich rich by hiding their wealth and saving their hides (unstuffed), when the revolutionaries marauded the town during the 1910-1920 Revolution and the government forces railed against The Church in the War of the Cristeros in 1926.

We also spent the 12th of December, which is the finale of the Guadalupe Day celebrations – the patron saint of Mexico, here in Mascota.  Parades of pilgrims to the Cathedral continued evening long. The odd thing hard to miss, were the youth dressed in black and evils masks, or dressed as women, who appeared as part protectors forcing back the watching crowd. In the Easter parades, in Huichol ceremonies they have the judios (the jews), dressed alike, who are protecting the parading crowds. A very odd convergence of ceremony. The locals had no idea what these men represented other than it was a tradition.

Above Mascota

We headed up into the highlands above Mascota with two very capable and friendly guides/taxi drivers. One was a teacher and since four of us in the group were also teachers, he was delighted to teach us all he knew about the area and its people and let us practice Spanish. We stopped at the small village, Yerbabuena, where Father Salcedo, the Mascota historian with three chronicles published, has two museums of art, history and clerical assorted oddities and memorabilia. He’s a man with an eye for novelty – he’s kept the several jeeps he’s used for his work, owns the portable stairs used for the first plane in the region, and hauled many religious icons and adornments into his back yard and the overflow to a second museum he’s created along the main road.

We climbed higher and higher. Navidad, a small town of now a few hundred, was aptly named as Hernan Cortes’ captain explored the site on Christmas Eve. We were greeted by young women who had just been hired by the village as guides, who were awaiting the tourist bus from Mascota for the 1st Annual Raicilla Festival. Luckily we came first. We met Sandra, our guide, and quickly helped her lose interest in the official version of facts and figures she carried on a sheet to tell us. We soon had her show us her godfather’s house where he sat shucking corn of five different colours, her godmother’s basket work of seven inch long pine needles sewn together (winumo).We also made a long stop at the bakery to meet the grandmother and owner, daughters and some of the grandkids. Of course we returned for the baked goods as they came out of the wood-fired oven. We took great pain to learn the difference between the cactuses and the spirits they produced, the agave which produces tequila, the lechugilla with broader serrated leaves which produces raicilla and the maguey which produces mescal. There’s a wonderfully restored flour mill and Sandra glowed in telling us its operation. I was more interested in the dark purple corn lying in the adjacent field.  We climbed fences and took some dried corn ears home, with permission.

At 3 pm. we sat in the town square to share a feast. Soon the town history and tourism committee, including the priest of 26 years, came out with plates of food for us. They weren’t sure what to do with our largely vegetarian contingent. They tried hard with the raicilla to convince us to stay.

Then the last stop on our mountain scaling adventure by taxi was the Laguna de Juanacatlán at 2,130 m (7,000 ft). Although only 19 kms from Navidad, it’s a steep 2000 ft ascent that takes an hour by car. If the ascent hadn’t convinced me the driving was better left to the experienced, the even steeper single lane descent on the circle route back to Mascota definitely did.

We passed Juanacatlán, the origin town of the unique new hand-made broom I bought in San Sebastian, made of a roughly hewn four foot wooden stick, some wiry thin twigs as the sweeping end and wire bundling it all. The high pastures, corn crops, small meadows, woodlots and small ponds were picturesque and sharp contrast to the hot humid jungle and rich coastal marine environment of humpback whales and dolphins not far below. There was a turnoff somewhere for Laguna Juanacatlán Chico. I’ll be back for that story someday along with fly tackle for the trout and some camping.

The big Laguna de Juanacatlán really is beautiful. It’s clear, has ducks, a bit of marsh at one side, bike and hiking trails paved for a few kilometers around it, and its own church (built by the owner for his daughter’s wedding). All is built for the convenience of the all-inclusive guests of the Sierra Lago Resort ($350 d to $480 d/ day).Our taxi driver told us there is public camping, swimming and trail use. We enjoyed the walk along the lakeshore, delighted at the lack of restrictions.

Lessons Leaned – On the Road

What my companions remembered most about their tours – In Lago de Patzcuaro, Connie and Elena recalled the flowers everywhere – being sold in the streets at our doorway, in the cemeteries and all along the roadsides right back to the coast.

What the students remembered most about the trip to the mountain towns and landscape above Puerto Vallarta –  it appears the stuffed cougar was the hit of the week, and the sights seen on the morning’s jog.

Now when I die I wonder as I look back on my life, what will stand out as a prescient memory – it might be as significant as the taste of the best kiss, the smell of jasmine, the sound of the Irish lass singing Danny Boy, the sight of lavender skies lying over snow capped mountains. Or it might be that stuffed cougar!

I do know that right now these trips make me really appreciate the diversity of biological zones in this region and how very fortunate we are to be here where we have it all.

Future Spanish on the Road

Two further trips are planned every winter; another visit to the Lago de Pátzcuaro area in late February to study the arts, crafts and culture of the various villages around the lake, and then to witness the miracle of the millions of Monarch Butterflies hibernating in the mountains of eastern Michoacán. In late February they are emerging from their torpor as the heating rays of sun stimulate them. Before long they will have mated and be heading the long 5,000 km journey north to start new generations.

In late April, we’ll visit the city of Tepic and the Huichol community there, and tour the coastal town of San Blas with its mangrove jungle and fantastic birds and other animals. Two other stops, Mexcatitlán, the tiny island origin of the Aztec ancestors, and the beautiful crater lake Laguna Santa Maria del Oro will round off the week.

Should you be interested in these trips, or in studies at the Yelapa English Spanish Institute in Yelapa, Jalisco, Mexico please check out the website www.talkadventures.comand hit Spanish on the Road.  For earlier blogs, hit Teacher’s Journal on the same page.

For an account and pictures of my reconnaissance trip to Pátzcuaro in 2008 please see my Blog, dated  Feb 2008 or write for details and photos.

For all those interested in studying or returning to study, I look forward to your emails. I also welcome your comments and your stories too. Write

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Chickens, Chocolate and other Monsters – July 2008


Chickens, Chocolates and other Monsters- July 2008

Chocolate Tortillas

The family Lufkin came this year again. The last three week intensive wasn’t enough for them. And this time mama, Ali, and youngest daughter, Lara, came. She had a recently healed broken hand, and a twisted ankle slowly mending. They wanted the Family Fun Program. It’s all fun, I told them. But we did 1.5 hrs Spanish and an hour or so activity after class. One day we went to the Tortilla Factory to see how the main industry, the other factory in Yelapa is water, runs.

I made them write some questions for the employee, Esperanza. Of course, dad was going to ask questions that would embarrass the two daughters. “What happens if you add chocolate?” Jorge asked seriously (en serio). “Oh, dad, no, no no!” Lara and Hannah blushed and giggled. Well, Esperanza wasn’t surprised at all. She answered, “Everything sticks to the grill which the gas burners heat. We tried it with quesadillas.” So, no questions are too stupid in Mexico. They’ve probably already tried it.  And you can still add the chocolate afterwards, we told him, who responded with a satisfied grin.

We bought a quarter kilo of hot off the assembly line enchiladas and lunched on guacamole the girls had just made in class. When they ask you at the store, “Cuántos?” or “how many?” don’t answer “oh, 12” like my friend, Diana, did. They eat tortillas by the kilo here. She was very embarrassed as Xochitl (pronounced so-chee) counted each one out, and the women crowded around to laugh and tease her. She tried to enjoy the ribbing, pretending her face was red from sunburn.

XocoDiva – Chocolate in Mexico

One hot humid day before the rains this June, craving the cool mountain air, I fled from Yelapa and jumped on the local bus up to the comfort of San Sebastian del Oeste. It’s a pristine old mining village of 600, settled in the 1600s, only 70 km from Vallarta and up at 4,500 ft. It’s a beautiful retreat to just read a book, walk, watch birds and reflect on life.

As I read in my book, “What the Bleep Do We Really Know”, if you want to change your life, do something unusual. At this moment a table of morning-after partiers arrived at the breakfast café of the Hotel Posada del Sol where I had settled in to try to get some poached eggs. A troupe of Canadians, Americans and a few Mexicans arrived for a weekend together.

Saturday’s plans were a chocolate and wine pairing. I had never heard of such a thing. I had given up wine due to gout; the wine withdrawal just marginally less painful than the gout. Chocolate I allowed myself – only very dark chocolate brought in at my desperate request by the occasional student who offered to bring my vital needs and luxuries not to be found in Mexico.

Somehow I invited myself or was invited to the 4 pm. Wine & Chocolate Pairing at the Hotel del Puente – with only a $10 admission fee. About 25 people attended, seated in two rows along many low tables. Serving plates with carefully arranged chocolates appeared in front of each guest, with a tall glass for red wine, and a smaller glass for white wine. An info sheet claimed that the “Alzheimer’s Association has suggested that consuming dark chocolate, wine and nuts can reduce your chances of developing dementia later in life”. I hope it’s not too late for me! They’re good also for heart health, it continued.

The chocolatier, Charlotte, owns a store called Xocodiva – Artisan Chocolates in Puerto Vallarta, very conveniently located one block from the dock to/from Yelapa. I make this my final stop en route home.  Since discovering it, I seldom let my chocolate cravings go for very long. Given Mexico’s wealth of cacao, it was always a mystery to me why there was not a truly special brand of chocolate for the enlightened consumer here. It’s generally very sweet and granular, not a baker’s quality of dark chocolate. As her ad goes, “In ancient Mexico, the God Quetzalcoatl brought the gift of chocolate to the people… now Xocodiva brings hand-crafted artisan chocolates to the mortals of Puerto Vallarta.”

Charlotte truly is a goddess of chocolate. She explained the facts and how her chocolates were special. Mexico supplies only 5% of the world’s cacao, 85% coming from the Amazon basin and 15% from Trinidad. The fruit of the cacao is yellow, ovular, pear-sized or larger, and grows on the trunk of the tree. The membranous, juicy flesh is used in South America for a drink, while the cacao in Mesoamerica is used for cocoa. The pulp and the beans are fermented together. Afterwards, the seeds are roasted, winnowed and “conched” or ground in a granite stone mill.

Charlotte’s chocolates are darker and richer and better than I’ve tasted elsewhere. Her milk chocolate has 45% cocoa, most meet the minimum 15% requirement. Her dark chocolate is 70% cocoa and to this she adds the pure chocolate “nibs” or chips of pure roasted cacao beans. Her hand-rolled truffles are extremely smooth and luscious. I normally don’t like truffles!  White chocolate is really not chocolate, but cocoa butter, milk solids and emulsifiers – not much point in pretending this will satisfy your cravings! Charlotte only began her chocolate factory here in PV two years ago, and only after a very short couple of years in Victoria and in Vancouver learning the trade.

For wine pairing, the wine should be sweeter than the chocolate. We sampled dry red Pinot Noir from Argentina paired with Xocodiva’s milk chocolate with blueberry and raspberry real fruit, followed by a thick California Merlot with 70% dark chocolate medallions laced with pure cocoa nibs, then a Chilean blend of Shiraz and Malbec and  truffles, and finished with an Expresso Chocolate Flavored Vodka and more truffles. I was chocolated out! For someone who can content my cravings just by walking into a chocolate shop and smelling the chocolate aroma in the area and leaving without buying a single one, this was an orgy of chocolate. I was unrepentant. In fact, one more exquisite pyramid of milk chocolate followed the real Italian dinner that followed at Real Y Mina Italian Restaurante. For chocoholics looking for that fix, check out Charlotte’s Xocodiva at the side of the San Marina Hotel, one short block from the Los Muertos dock, open daily 10 to 10.

Safety in Mexico

Is it safe in Mexico? What about kidnapping of Americans?

Here’s one view of Mexico I share, from a man who sends me his travel blog, of his British group’s motorbike ride throughout the Americas. His thoughts from Tapanga, Columbia,

Mexico was everything we expected it to be and more, with the rich and the poor, superb beaches & mountains, wonderful history but also modern cities, as always though the people are its biggest asset who were so warm and welcoming to us, we were warned so much before entering about all the problems and crime but we saw none of it and felt safe everywhere we went.”

I can travel almost anywhere and feel not only safe, but protected. It’s a place and a culture where people will come to my aid, and extend a friendly greeting wherever I go.

Ode to Odile

A friend of mine, met first in Yelapa and known over 10 years, died on January 10th in Montreal.  She hadn’t told many, including me, that she had breast cancer. I knew she had been doing many cleanses and had stopped smoking. She said with typical understatement that she had been “very sick”. She went back to Canada for the summer, rented her house out, optimistic of a return. I called when I returned in October several times and there was no message and no answer.  I’d like to tell her I remember her kindnesses. I also remember her incredible eye to perfection and her exquisite voice.

Once at Elena and Allan’s wedding I looked back at the restaurant to see what music they were playing, not recognizing the stellar voice. It was my friend, Odile, live. On another occasion, she wrote, directed and starred as Josephine Baker in Paris at the Starlight Theater in Vallarta. A French Canadian, a theatre and art school graduate and seasoned actress and chanteuse, she was a natural and she drew many, despite the fact she was singing in French in a Spanish-speaking country to a mostly English-speaking crowd.

She had many talents and rare gifts. She dabbled in the tarot, the I Ching and had trained in healing rituals of the Sechelt Nation indigenous people on the west coast of Canada. When my mom died, she performed these for me and to aid my mother’s soul passing on.

I have been thinking a lot of her lately, months later after the busy season ended. In fact, I’ve been getting messages from her. Two “friend” networks on the internet, that I’m not a member of, keep sending me notices that Odile has contacted me. “Am I a friend of Odile?” they ask. I was walking past the main cathedral near the seawall (el malecón) in Vallarta the other day, and thought of her again. There was a good place in a small chapel off the main cathedral where I had spent moments to meditate on my mother’s passing years ago, and I headed there. I asked the universe if there was a message. I asked Odile if there was a message, a request of some sort. Instantly, my cell phone rang. It was Pamela, the vet, asking for some medical supplies.

Since Odile’s passing, another two friends resident in Yelapa, one from British Columbia, another from Oregon also passed away; the first from a sudden and fatal heart attack, the other from a severe lung infection. Both had wished to pass swiftly according to family, and both were granted this wish. I’m more aware of life and death here than anywhere else I’ve lived. I feel it’s good to be aware of the time that we have and appreciate it.

Professionalism versus Personalism

Teaching has its challenges. Of course every job does. In a small village, where everyone knows your trade, you can never bask in anonymity, away from your trade’s demands. The vet told me that there’s nowhere she can go without an animal being presented to her or someone describing their pet’s maladies. I don’t pretend that running a language school and teaching Spanish has such urgency, but sometimes the help required extends far beyond the bounds of the profession’s definitions.

Students have come to me late at night to rouse me out from the covers to go to the medical clinic. Parents have come desperate to determine which bug might be the villain and how to remove it from their house to stop biting their children. I’ve helped on shopping trips for supplies to outfox the marauding raccoons. I’ve searched for lost luggage and where to track it down once it’s put on a boat. If I had a peso for every travel consultation, I’d be vacationing in Mexico. I helped sort out the problem when a student grossly overpaid the boat ride and other bills by using $200 peso bills instead of $20 peso bills,  among the many needs.

Most language schools are closed after 7, some don’t even open until 10 a.m. and the message machine is the only contact on the weekend. These professionals after hours are massaging their aches and re-energizing their anima or spirit.  I hadn’t till thought of hanging a “closed” sign out.

The setting creates that dependency here. It’s a small town. Everyone knows where you live, probably where you’ve gone for the moment and what you’re capable of doing, besides what you do.  Class at my home can have that “breakfast club” feel to it, not surprising since I owned a Bed and Breakfast in Canada for 11 years. It’s the kind of school I’d like to come to study in. The walk up the hill is a little daunting the first time, but past trees full of swarming parakeets or jousting San Blas Jays versus the Caciques. The school really is a small palm-thatched hut on the edge of the jungle, but how nice to feel included in nature, squirrels and lizards winding their ways through the trees, along with the birds looking in on our presence. La profesora might have fought off raccoons, invading army ants or dispatched a scorpion or two during the night and look a little weary from the battles fought and won, but where else can you get a story and an education?

Late in Mexico

It seems to us gringos that time is of all importance. I can hear from the retirement camp saying I move too fast, and the other camp saying I’m late! It’s hard to be late when you live at your school. Late is a relative concept in Mexico. Especially here in Yelapa, where everything is done on foot and communication is almost all by word of mouth along the same footpath. Most people here do not wear a watch, and it will be one of the first things shed, along with the heavier clothing. I’m one of the few here who knows the time (but not necessarily the date!).

Then there’s tradesmen late, when a plumber can arrive a year later in September of the next year, as has happened to me in Canada, or carpenters come for ½ hr each day and successfully extend a 7 hr job over 2 weeks as happened to me here. One man told me his ex-boss saw him 4 years later here in Yelapa and said, “Your two week vacation is long over. When are you coming back to work?”

April’s Chickens

I don’t get to go to the Passion Flower Gardens to eat April’s excellent home cooked food very often. My classes run in the late afternoon and her guests arrive at 6, eat everything, and by 7 watch a movie. I can sometimes count on a dessert. Now that classes are mostly done, I can pace myself to get there. I actually showed up early, a few minutes before six yesterday. The friends of the cook had already eaten their blackberry pie and smoked some marijuana (they definitely inhaled). Well, I noticed a  brown chicken on the table – very silently seated right next to the 30 “ TV screen, tucked behind various piles of pirated DVDs and videos. I thought April should know and chase it away.

“Oh, yeah. She’s been there a while. I ate the first 5 eggs she laid, and then Jose (her partner) convinced me to leave her to lay and raise her brood.”

They’re into raising chickens. They started a small coop out front, and even have a fighting cock that’s Jose’s project. They have an incubator, and set some fertilized eggs for her grandson, Chandler, who was visiting a short while back. They hatched and he carried them around and doted over them. They had their own little box they would sleep in.

“Richard came over from Pizota to take care of the place”, she continued. “We forgot to tell him what was what here and he said anytime he sat down, there were chicks jumping into his lap, and he couldn’t understand why.”

This was pretty funny, even without the marijuana. The brown hen sat through it all on the table, unaffected, 10 inches from the TV screen, looking in the other direction, not even watching the good parts of the movie.

It’s not uncommon to see chickens running into and out of houses when you visit the rural area of Yelapa upriver. They often dash in after a bug; or are fed a handful of rice on the floor. I always wait for a reaction from someone who thinks farm animals shouldn’t be in the house. It never happens.

In fact, chickens are highly recommended for every household by the national health ministry. They eat scorpions. Aside from sweeping every corner of your house out daily, “Keep Chickens” are their instructions. They’re also by far the most versatile food item in the country. I’m sure many of you travelers who’ve been kept up at night have relished the thought of terminating the neighbourhood rooster or gallo. They’re oblivious of the hour and very competitive crooners. But as in my favorite child’s song, Doña Cocorica, by Francisco Gabilondo Soler (Cri Cri to Mexicans), the hen tells about papa,

A diario temprano se oye su voz

Y es porque ordena que salga el sol

Every day early you can hear his voice,

And it’s by his order that the sun gets up.

The defense rests its case.

The Poor Iguana Had her Eggs

Yelapa is never dull. One Saturday afternoon after hours of notable encounters and events, I retreated home to work that I am still putting off.  Well, there by my YESI sign on the path, was Pamela, the vet, her mom, her daughter, and a small crowd of children standing under a small tree. “You’ll never guess what I’m doing!” Pamela exclaimed. She couldn’t wait to inform me. She was catching eggs. They were falling out of the tree. “The iguana couldn’t make it to the hospital on time. Está echando huevos. She’s having eggs” Sure enough, in the tree about fifteen feet up was a nice grey and green iguana, about 18 inches long, I estimated.

“Look! Look! She’s ready! She’s laying another one. Look she’s contracting.” Then, “The cloaca is opening. Here it comes!” was her running commentary. There were eggs on the street when some kids ran to tell her about the iguana. A horse had actually even stepped on one and it didn’t break.  I won´t bet that that iguana is going to be normal! But the eggs definitely bounce. They’re quite rubbery.

How many eggs does an iguana lay? Pamela guessed maybe twenty. After gathering small crowds to catch the eggs, and placing each in the growing pile, someone asked if anyone had a pareo, or sarong. I had been carrying around two and half meters of lovely black linen for pants I wanted made. We made lots of bombero or fire fighter jokes, and held out the tarp and made the job of catching eggs a little less a heroic feat of athletics. After over an hour, Pamela and those willing to witness this miracle to its completion, reported over 35 eggs were laid. These eggs are only slightly smaller than a small chicken egg. Imaginate! Imagine carrying that many in your body. Small wonder the poor girl couldn’t wait to find a nice place in a sandy forest somewhere. Or maybe this was once her sandy forest?

Andrea, an elder from the upriver El Paso colonia or district told us her sons had witnessed iguanas laying eggs in the woods in the warm sand. She said it would be about three weeks before they hatched. These eggs were warm. Reptiles are not! Hmmm. Pamela has them at home in her garden. We’ll be watching the calendar waiting for three dozen baby iguanas to hatch and will inform you when to hand out cigars.

Family and Children’s Spanish

I’ve learned lots from the families and children who come here to study. Late April I had Jorge and Ali Lufkin and their girls, Hannah and Lara, from Leadville, Colorado. In June, Kara and Henry’s three children, Max and Alex, twin girl and boy of seven years, and younger Ella, at four years of age, came to school four days a week for a month, 3 hours daily. Gil joined us from the neighbouring village of Boca, a rookie teacher but with a father’s experience of two young boys, almost four and five years of age.

It was as much fun planning the classes and activities, listening to countless versions of children’s songs to find the right one, as it was to respond to the divergent interests and energies of three very physical, creative and responsive children. Then we had a week when another young troupe of two, Calvin and Autumn, aged 8 and 6, joined us with their mom, Pamela from near Virginia.

The Activity Hour usually extended long beyond the designated time daily. We had a blast!  We visited the tortilla factory, watching tortillas come off the gas fired assembly line into our basket; rode burros to an upriver swimming hole, went to Isabel’s beach to snorkel and identify reef fish, made a net to catch insects which were quickly adapted to catch the millions of tadpoles in the lagoon; painted rocks and walking canes, buried each other in the sand and built sand castles, visited Kuka’s farm to see, pet and hold the animals we’d sung many songs about: “Los pollitos dicen pío, pío, pío, Cuando tienen hambre, cuando tienen frío.” The chicks say pee-oh, pee-oh, pee-oh, when they’re hungry and when they’re cold. Chicks pío in Spanish, it seems just to rhyme with “frío”.

For me the highlight was the school visit to the Grade One class. We rehearsed a song, “De Colores” about beautiful people of all colors knowing about liberty and shaking hands, and being brothers, enjoying the beauty of nature. And we added one children´s verse of roosters crowing, chickens calling. We also worked on some pretty imaginative questions; “What´s your favorite game? What pet animals do you have? They sang “Pin Pon es un muñeco” (Pin Pon is a doll) and all twenty of them, answered our questions con mucho gusto- with much pleasure.

Pamela brought a huge duffel bag of skipping ropes, sidewalk chalk, colouring materials and many gifts, which along with other gifts brought by other students amounted to a Christmas in June fiesta for the Grade One class.

For those of you with kids, I can send info for recommended picture, activity and games books and some music, if you write. For those interested in making a donation, we’re raising funds to build a playground set – monkeybars, swings, see-saw, etc.

Mexican Beaded Lizard

A season can’t go by, without me writing about some biting insect or animal story.  I sit presently at my computer with the screen coated with a host of various sized unidentified bichos. As the mayates (quarter-sized brown beefy, sticky flying bug) fly in at me, I pick them up and throw them out again through the same window, almost as fast as they fly in. My joy at this game faded fast, when one of them was holding a small piece of paper with some gem of info.

One of the kid´s games we played this summer was a Bingo with insect names and pictures. There were at least 45 insect names in Spanish. The kids had no trouble with the task. Oddly, a bingo game of body parts doesn’t fascinate them as much.

Tonight at supper, I described a big black alacran (scorpion) that was in my bathroom sink this morning. I told my dinner friends that my students are always anxious and ask about the insects, especially after they read my blog. One woman who has lived here many years said, “The bugs are exactly WHY I came here!”  She topped me with her story of “evil critter of the day”. Un escorpion was in her house. Escorpion is the name the locals have for the Mexican Beaded Lizard, which is not commonly seen.  Oddly enough, the other diner, Ron, who lives up the hill not very far above me, saw one on the trail and his landlord cut one up when he trimmed the buganvilia recently.

The male can be up to 40 inches (90 cm) in length, half of which is tail, and usually weigh no more than 10 lbs (4 kg). They bite, and the lower ridged teeth have a venom gland. Although rarely do people die from the venom, it can be extremely painful.  They are so unique, people breed them for sale. Every zoo seems to want one, and there are even websites selling the venom! They are found on the Pacific side of Mexico from Sonora state south to southwestern Guatemala, and in two drainages on the Atlantic side. They are reported to be active only one hour per day and usually at night. They’re also only seen from April to mid-November. They are called “beaded” since they have a tiny piece of bone in their skin that gives them an armor-plated exterior. They are carnivores but only feed on small animals and eggs, usually below the surface. They attack humans only defensively when humans molest or capture them.

The lady in Yelapa killed the escorpion in her house after a real struggle, and left it dead on the path without a front foot, back foot and head. When she asked the two passers by afterwards what they thought of the escorpion, they said they hadn’t seen it. Mexicans say you have to kill it at its “centre”, which is the hip region (la cadera). Hard to believe that without a head, it could be mobile. (” It’s only a flesh wound!”)  It appears that in true monster fashion, it slunk off into the jungle, and may be back looking for revenge.

Mexico´s Women Need a Strong Back

This title is not news. A handmade tortilla is so much better than a machine made one even with the same “masa harina” or corn flour. So, with the homemade-is-best attitude and poverty dictating life, any houseware conveniences are still antiquated. The washing machine used by my mother was a wringer type – top loading with a central pivoting column in the basin and two rollers up top to press the water out. They sell them here, but without the wringer. Imagine. You load the water and detergent and let the clothes swash around for a while. Then you take out all that clothing, the heavy jeans, the huge sheets, and wring them out by hand!  For this, one pays a price of $250. One could just as easily fill a tub and ask the kids to jump around in the tub with clean feet for 10 minutes and it would do the same. Just hold the chlorine bleach! An updated machine with electrical controls and a spin cycle costs $500. The women buying these cheaper models are the ones who have ten kids at home and could really use the help and labor-saving, but can’t afford more.

I asked why the stores don’t sell the top wringer type. One store owner was angry and nearly threw me out seemingly threatened by a women’s liberation movement I might start. Another store explained that they used to sell them but the women didn’t like the buttons getting crushed. Better a button than a vertebra, I say!

Well, you’ll also find the treadle sewing machine still for sale along side the wringerless washing machines –with the foot pedal, totally mechanical, still in common use today.

Welcome to Tijuana! – Luis’s Tale

Many Mexicans have the dream of living and working “al Otro Lado” – on the other side. An illegal crossing of the border is involved with its risks and difficulties. Many use a “coyote” – an agent- to smuggle them across. My landlord, Angel, has crossed a few times, the last time at least ten years ago. Until recently it cost $1,000 to $2,000/person.

Our friend, Luis, is originally from Tijuana and still has kids there. From the famous Tía Juana – Aunt Jean who sold sandwiches on main street. Must have been pretty good sandwiches. The Manu Chao song goes, “Welcome to Tijuana, Tequila, Sex y Marijuana!

Luis has lived here for 5 years. He just returned to Yelapa, very happy to be back. He had decided in March to go to the U.S. to be with his American sweetheart. Texas Don told me one day, “I was watching TV the other night and heard about a boat of Mexicans picked up off the San Diego coast. I hope that wasn’t Luis.” Well, sure enough! Luis called from jail with a horrific story. One of many you’re likely to hear from any Mexican entering illegally.

He was on a small boat in the Pacific, with a single motor, with capacity for four people. There were fifteen of them, including the coyotes. They were out in Mexican waters and slowly drifted into U.S. waters, trying not to arouse suspicion. The rendezvous boat didn’t arrive and the motor failed. Luis asked, “Is there a Plan B? Surely you must have some kind of safety plan?” Well, no, they’d never had trouble before. For this skilful planning and execution, they charged $5,000 a head. “Coyote” is a term inferring sneaky and clever, not dumb.

They drifted around the first night in calm waters, the second night slightly rougher and the third night in terrifying waters. No one had any food or water, either. That third night someone removed a part from the motor, not having any real idea what they were doing. They sprung a leak and some one bailed the night away. The next morning a boat was cruising nearby and Luis lit his shirt on fire and flagged it down.

Upon arrival the cops detained the lot of them. The coyotes horrifically identified Luis as the driver, and it took a lot of work to convince the cops otherwise. He spent one and a half months in federal prison since now he was a material witness. He was only released on a $5,000 bond paid by his girlfriend. When they didn’t need him to testify any longer, they deported him – personal service to the border where they took his picture and said “adios”.  He went to the bus station and bought a ticket on the midnight bus.

“Sorry, sweetheart”, he said to his gal, “But I live in Mexico and I’m going back to Yelapa.” He thought she’d say “adios” too, but it turns out they’re planning to buy a house, and she’s moving to Vallarta come December. Love conquers La Aduana – Department of Immigration .

About seven years ago I read a Latin American paper in Vancouver that claimed 400 people died each year crossing the border. Those were the official stats. The number is likely quite a bit higher. This story has its happy ending. Many aren’t so lucky. Welcome to Tijuana, Tequila, Sex y Marijuana. Bienvenido a tu pena , Welcome to your pain. Bienvenido a mi suerte. Welcome to my luck. Bienvenido a la muerte. Welcome to death. Por el  pan Americana. For American bread. (= $).

The inequality and conditions that drive so many Mexicans north looking for something better, caused the Chiapas Revolution and will possibly arouse others. Hopefully we can stem that need and that exodus by changing things here in Mexico.

Study Spanish with the Teacher on the Road

Please check out this year’s Yelapa English Spanish Institute offerings at If you have some Beginner level Spanish, bone up with a review and then come study on the road with us and apply it on a guided tour to one of several destinations  – Tepic, San Blas, Laguna de Santa Mario de Oro Patzcuaro (Day of the Dead and the Monarch Butterfly hibernation site), San Sebastian, Mascota, Talpa. (also view at the new (under construction).

Chickens, Chocolate and other Monsters



A Potpourri Christmas to Easter – March 2008

A Teacher’s Blog – Yelapa English Spanish Institute

A Runner’s Inspiration

Kipp studied with YESI in November. She was inspiring since she’d get up at 6:30 or so, in the dark, and run upriver and back before breakfast and an early class. On these journeys she saw a fledgling group of Mexican women running. While Kipp was very seasoned in running and dressed for it, the women had excess cargo and wore flip flop sandals. ¡Imaginate! Imagine! When Kipp knew she would be back for a 2 day visit with husband, Phil, she asked if the women might want some lightly-used but in good condition, running shoes. I asked the doctor, Princesa, and a couple of runners what they thought. They were very happy and excited. Most mothers in Mexico don’t typically have the luxury of spending money on themselves that could be better spent on the family. They suggested maybe 15 pairs of shoes would be needed. I thought this a high number, since I hadn’t seen that many runners out a couple months ago. Also I didn’t think Kipp would be able to carry so many, in addition to regular luggage. Kipp put the word out to the community in Albuquerque. The response was immediate and generous. In early March, Kipp and Phil transported 24 pairs of track shoes in very good condition – many of them top of the line Nike, Brooks, various classy cross-trainers. They were also freshly washed and looking brand new! And some men’s pairs were thrown in for good measure.  Now thoughts are going into what commitment the women need to make to running to be rewarded a pair. Kipp’s already working on the Albuquerque sister donors hosting a run in their city – at 5,280 feet. I’ve put out to Cruz, the one Mexican male runner here, and the jogger’s fitness coach, Princesa, the idea of sponsoring a Yelapa run on Marine Day, June 1st.  Runners, keep in touch on this one!

Garbage Collection – Gringo Style

Well, less than 50% of the local townsfolk are estimated to recycle and send out their garbage on the weekly garbage boat. There’s a lot of traffic through Yelapa and most of it collects in some nook or cranny. Bob McCormick decided to do something about it. He’s made his contribution to the various charities, recycling groups, hospital projects, etc. Now was time to take action. He ordered a few dozen  T-shirts, Luchadores Contra Basura de Yelapa, Fighters Against the Garbage of Yelapa, bought a number of handy garbage retrievers so there’s little bending over required and inspired a dozen or so high school students. Of course, they were motivated by a barbecue, turkey sausage dogs on the barbie, afterwards. The students were not expecting to have to work hard, but they did. In the end there were 70 big black garbage bags sitting on the dock which were carried out by boat (private booking with a truck arranged at the other end) the same day. And that only cleaned the downtown core, which is very small. I could see a few hours weekly as a school project for all classes would be what it would take to clean the river valley along the trails.

A month passed and the town needed another facelift for Easter. Bob again organized a clean up – 8 gringos signed up, 3 actually came. Ani, Bob’s wife, said this time they weren’t scouring the earth picking up every cigarette butt, but just the obvious most annoying and most disgusting people waste. Sixty bags again were filled with garbage. The bottom-line is: garbage is endless, take yours with you or Re-use and Recycle as much as possible. Fill that water bottle again, and again!

Making Soap

In January when I visited Chacala with Sergio and his wife, Chena, Hortensia’s youngest daughter from Yelapa, we stopped to see some of the plants growing in gardens in family homes. We collected seeds, plant cuttings and roots. At his aunt’s house there was a big aluminum tub full of bubbling ashy yellow thick liquid. Under it was a small wood fire. Beside this was a pail full of ashes, with a well of water in its centre. Below this was a pail to collect the drippings. When asked what was in progress, they explained the pork fat was boiling, the ashes with water produced lye, which when added to the fat, and boiled non-stop for three months produced soap. This in the stores here in Yelapa is sold as laundry soap for eight pesos. It was nice to see a sustainable practice in operation. It was also easy to see how we’d deviated to the easy option of store bought items.

Mariposas Monarcas

As a child in Canada I knew that the Monarch butterflies migrated south in the winter. To where it was a mystery, but I recall that these were special butterflies. I did somehow know that they ate milkweed plant leaves and somehow became poisonous to predators. Amazingly, other butterflies will mimic their colours and predators which have learned that orange and black will make them sick if not dead, will also leave them alone. I also worked in Morelia, Michoacan near where the monarchs migrated to back in 1985 without ever going to see them on their winter grounds.

Now was the time in my life to see this compatriots. After all, we Canadians weren’t really “snowbirds”, as the Ann Murray song goes, we’re really “monarcas”, since we hibernate 5 or 6 months here and then go back home miraculously changed, with new life and in a new skin.

The Monarch butterfly (mariposa) has 4 life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The length of each stage varies with the climate.  Eggs (huevocillos) are laid on the back of milkweed (Asclepias) and hatch in 3 to 5 days. The larva (oruga) is brilliant black yellow and white rings in contrast to other larvae which blend in to the environment. Since there are poisons in the milkweed, these are present in the larvae. Predators eat this and are warned to find something else to eat. After 14 days, and five changes of skin, a conical green sack envelopes the pupae stage (capullo). This becomes transparent later. After eight to thirteen days the orange and black adult emerges feet first, extends itself, dries and hardens. The orange and black patterns differs between male and female of the adult; the female has wider black veins.  They mate in the air, lay eggs and die. Such is life for a butterfly.

Usually adults live four to five weeks. For the monarch once the fall arrives, a migratory generation is born (la generación matusalén) that last seven or eight months. These adults have lower quantities of sexual hormones and their sexual organs do not develop initially. This doesn’t happen until the weather warms up at their hibernation grounds in Mexico, a little before their northern migration. The adults mate in the air, the male clutching the female with its back feet while flying. Even how they mate in Mexico differs than how they mate in their northern region, being more forceful in the tropics! This pairing (apareamiento) can last from a few minutes to 16 hours, while the male transfers both the sperm and nutrients to produce the eggs. These fly back and once they reach the United States, the voyage is continued in a relay race of consecutive generations born each four or five weeks, until they return to Canada.

Studies of their migration only began in 1937 by a Canadian pair of biologists, Dr. Frederick Urquhart and his wife, Norah Patterson. They tagged monarchs and had thousands of volunteers join in tracing their route.  In 1973, after 35 yeas of study, they finally advertised in a Mexico City newspaper asking for help finding the hibernation area. An American businessman responded and rode around Mexico on his motorcycle until in January of 1975 he found the first known sites in the state of Mexico, near Michoacán. Dr. Urquhart published his findings in National Geographic in 1975. That recent date explains why I didn’t know about this amazing migration as a child, nor even as a student biologist in the early 1970s.

Las Monarcas in Mexico – While in Canada and the U.S. the monarchs live in rural agricultural areas where the Asclepias or milkweed grows, usually open fields with a great influence of winds and often drastic temperature and humidity changes. On their hibernating grounds, in contrast, they live in closed forests protected from winds, and changes in humidity and temperature, at more than 3,000 meters altitude. They specifically target temperate forests of oyamel, a type of eucalyptus introduced from Australia. They appear to be headed to the dense forest cover offered by this specific species.

Fall migration begins in September and beginning of October. They use the sun and tiny bits of magnetite in the thorax to use the magnetic fields to guide their path. One biologist, Dr. Orley Chip Taylor has mapped the routes use on his web page . By the end of October, the monarchs are on the hibernation grounds in the east of Michoacán and western border of the state of Mexico. There are some migratory routes and monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains that hibernate on the coast and center of southern California. Some also go via Florida and via the Yucatan into Central America.

In Mexico, from mid-November to mid-February the monarchs remain relatively stable. They populate the southwest slopes of the oyamel forests (a type of eucalyptus) from 2800 m and higher. In the second half of February, with warming temperatures and lower humidity, they move down in altitude along the drainages, searching more humidity. At the end of Feb and during March they initiate their pairing and then begin the migration north.

The population of monarchs has changed over the years. They estimate this by photo images of the surface area they cover in the months when they are most stable. Coverage has changed from 2 hectares to 20 hectares. These estimates show an almost 77% drop in populations in 10 years.  Threats occur in Canada and the United States to their breeding grounds due to urbanization, use of pesticides, especially Roundup, toxic to their host plant, milkweed. Other threats occur on their hibernation grounds. Monarchs have a hemolymph or “blood” that can withstand low temperatures to -14 degrees Celsius without freezing their wings, if there is not excessive humidity on their bodies. If winter rains wet their bodies and temperatures drop, a large part of the population can freeze. This happened in 2001-2002 and in 2003-2004. Scientists feel this is increasingly occurring due to the reduction in size of the forests which makes it hard to maintain an adequate micro-climate to protect the butterflies.

I drove a long way to see these monarchs, and hoped I wasn’t being propelled by advertising hype nor would face a disaster on the hibernation grounds. The countryside of eastern Michoacan was hills and forests only on the mountains, farmlands, river, lakes, and some ecotourism resorts. Of the two butterfly sanctuaries open to the public, Chincua and El Rosario. I chose the latter since it was closer, it had abundant butterflies and I liked the name of the town, Angangueo (an-gan-gay-oh). It was a mining town recently closed, with a prosperous funky feel to it; some nice hotels and restaurants but still not “touristy”.

I arrived in the early evening. Most tourists stay closer to the town centre, but I chose the simple Hotel Mary, that had seen grander days. I tend to like local colour. Across the street was a Don Juan type who had a thing about Marilyn Monroe and posted numerous posters. Two doors down there was a whole band of five musicians rehearsing. The room was not much wider than their loudspeaker. They blared out great salsa hits and I salsa-ed up the street to see the sights.

Next morning I asked opinions of whether a regular rental car could do the journey up to the sanctuary. “Sure. No problem. Go slow. Follow the signs”. About 2 km up there were two men keeping each other company, collecting 35 pesos to direct you to the right. A simple sign would do, but this was a form of full employment! Another kilometer further in another little pueblito (little village) four young boys besieged my car wanting to guide me. “Only one,” I said. I instructed the chosen boy to hop into the passenger seat. His name was Adrian, eight years old and the oldest of five children. “Why aren’t you in school?” I asked, realizing it was Wednesday. Mi maestro es un huevón. “My teacher is a big testicle”, he replied. Porque es un huevon? Why, I asked. Porque no quiere enseñar clases siempre. He doesn’t want to teach classes always. He was either pretty astute or listened carefully to his parents!

We rode to the entrance of the park. I left my car and him waiting to return with me, although I warned him it would be much, much later. I was not here for a quick peek. The climb was probably difficult for most, but not for one who lives in the hills of Yelapa where walking is a way of life. The dust on the trail and the constant sweepers keeping the dust in the air is a problem. Bring a simple face mask, if you come.

At the top of the stairs, in open meadows with large blossoming shrubs, there were foot paths, some going in various directions.  And there were butterflies; a moderate number, flitting between flowers. It wasn’t the spectacle I was expecting. The path led on to where a small crowd gathered, eyes upward. Here was a miracle. Countless thousands of butterflies stuck to the trunks, covering every branch. It was difficult to discern any one butterfly. They sat thousands-thick, side by each, on top of whatever foothold, with their wings folded up as they matched the brown tree trunks or covered the branches. I cry when overwhelmed by miracles. Naturally, I cried.  Then sat and watched for hours.

As the sun warmed the butterflies, they opened their wings to dry them and they recharged. As slight breezes wafted through the trees, those able would fly, others drifted on the wind. The skies were orange and moving. Some would land on the ground, many doomed to be stepped on, some already exhausted and damaged by the winter’s harshness. Others would light on a bush, or on a head or arm. Imagine four busloads of children shrieking and trying to catch or be the host body for a pet monarca.

I returned from my visit in awe. I prayed the young Mexican students could influence their governments and the local townsfolk to stop the destruction of the forests. I prayed also to stop the destruction of their northern food sources; a message we Canadians and Americans need to take home.

Mexican Music Night in Yelapa

Neti and her mother Henny, and her niece, Esme, came for a week to study. Henny was of Dutch descent but raised in Indonesia, interned by the Japanese as a teenager in the World War. Her story is an inspiration. Neti is a professional musician from New Orleans, also a survivor of catastrophe. She practiced while here, and one night promised to play for Irma and Angel, their hosts. We were joined by Irma’s sister, Abelia and her husband, Lucio, and the postmaster, Margarito,  and wife. With other YESI students, Anne and Marie and sons, we had dinner on the rooftop terrace. Then out came the violin and guitar. Soon Irma was singing along to La Cancion Mixteca – Mixtec Song, one of my favorite “blues” ballads from Mexico.

O, tierra del sol Oh land of the sun

Suspiro por verte I sigh to see you

Ahora que lejos Now so far

Yo vivo sin luz y sin amor I live without light and without love

Y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento On seeing myself so alone and sad like a leaf in the wind

Quisiera llorar, quisiera morir I want to cry, I want to die of nostalgia.

de sentimiento

Neti and Esme sang other numbers, mostly in Spanish, some originals, often joined by one or both of the sisters. Soon we heard other music and song wafting upward from the house below. It was nephew Eric and friend Rangel, on bandoneón and guitar. Angel quickly called them up to join our voices and it became a great party; the sort of spontaneous celebration that happens often in Mexico. From higher up the hill came the sounds of saxophone, more violin, and guitar and voice, mostly in English, from another get together. I secretly longed to ask them down too, but reneged on the thought. Too often Mexicans will sit back and let us take over. The mix was just right at the moment.  Everyone left contento – happy; Esme and Rangel made dates to study songs together. Two happy moms, students Ana and Maria wore broad smiles, and woke up their sleeping sons to reluctantly tread home. I am still trying to figure out how to transfer these songs to my computer for you to listen to!

Guadalupe en Tuito

For many years I’ve wanted to get to the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrations in Tuito, the municipal centre of the 13 villages that makes up this municipality of indigenous reserves. This year I took Joy and her four year old daughter, Anne Marie, now repeat visitors for three years from Calgary; and Dalia, a second year returning student and adventurer who also accompanied us into the mountains in December. Tuito is small despite the 13,000 residents. We checked into the one hotel, a testimony to the few tourists that ever come this way. We went to the church, la iglesia, where all the pilgrims (peregrinos) from each village had ended their pilgrimage (la peregrinaje) (some actually walking the whole or most of the way).  Everyone from Yelapa seemed to be there this year. Irma and Ana Rosa dressed in unbleached manta, raw cotton, with pink pareos (sarongs), led the procession. Everyone had somewhere to stay in Tuito as they were all one family.

The town was filled with vendors of a variety of trinkets, dinnerware, hardware items, jewelry, hair fashion accessories. One vendor demonstrated, using a wig, the 40 different ways that a woman could use a plastic-coated pliable wire to wrap her hair. He showed smooth-talking salesmanship that I didn’t think existed outside of TV commercials. Another enthralled a crowd of 30 or more people with his version of the ideal natural diet for Mexicans – making light of the pure carbohydrates and meat diet most had grown up and plump on. They were entertained. He convinced them that his recipe book and diet solution of reverting to the old traditional meals grown from the garden would make them svelte. They bought all his copies. I was drawn to the collection of beautiful machetes and knives (navajas). I found one from Sayula, in an engraved leather scabbard that I had planned to pick up if ever I got to that distant mountain town, not on the way to anywhere. Dalia bought a machete (a long broad blade and handle usually under two feet in length, common in every household in Mexico) which had etched figures of a hunting scene on the blade, for her son. We obviously are women to be treated with respect, if not caution!

Of course, there was food. The hit late that cold evening was the hot chocolate with a local orange liqueur. And for the children there was cotton candy at the mid-way with carousels, bumper cars, trampolines, and other rides that looked like they’d been used non-stop since the 1950s. The surprise to us northerners is that Mexican children don’t go to sleep early, almost ever, and never seem to be cranky. None of the mothers I know even dare to try it! I swear Mexican genes allow for late-night partying.

The highlight everyone gathered for was the castillo. A fireworks, unparalleled in the north, and becoming rare in Mexico. The last time I experienced one was twenty two years ago. A castillo is a bamboo and wood structure, possibly 30 feet or more, of various wheels holding pyrotechnics. As each fuse is lit, one wheel, or usually all matched pairs of wheels, sometimes on all four sides, is set to blast and move in circular brilliance. When one set completes, the next is lit. These continue in patterns, increasingly remarkable for the noise, shooting rockets, and colours. The final sets of blazing wheels at the top actually dropped horizontally from their vertical position to reveal a religious image of the Virgin. Miracles never cease in Mexico! It was followed with a finale of ground launched fire rockets. A friend had complained years ago of the dangers of the fireworks rocketing into the crowd. But from my vantage behind a stone statue of the Virgin I was happy to report there were no accidents.

Then a man who looked as amiable as Yogi Bear arrived playing the tuba, leading his band, gesturing directions with his eyes and his eyebrows, all happy face and nods. All of the wide-awake procession followed in a trance into the church. After a chorus of hallelujahs and continued music, the band played in reverse, or at least walked backwards with the same up-tempo um-pah-pah on the way out.

Easter in Huichol Country

Travel day began with ominous storm clouds, high winds, and even a drop of rain or two. It was Tuesday, time to make a trip to San Andrés de Cohamiate, the Huichol high country and canyon lands they call their ancestral home in the Sierra Madre Mountains northeast of Tepic. I went last year and with patient guides, began to understand their culture through the experience, but wanted to learn more.  I was willing to fly for an hour in a small plane over canyon lands and wilderness to get the message. But the Gods were not so willing.

The storm passed, but left strong winds and white caps that by mid-morning stopped most boats and water taxis from going out again. In the ten years I’ve lived here, that’s not happened before. So fierce were the waves, that one of the larger tourist boats, the Santa Maria, was beached in Quimixto and flooded to the second deck

Since the Huichol government does not allow visitors into San Andrés after noon on Wednesday, it was going to be nearly impossible to get there. Rather than abort my experience with the Huichol natives, I headed to Tepíc, where there was a community of Huichol, including my friend, Alejandro Severiano Carillo, a frequent visitor who sells his native art in Yelapa.

The ex-governor of Nayarit donated to the Huichol natives a small hill over-looking the city only a short city bus-ride from downtown, now called Zitacua. I had a dual purpose in entering the village. I wanted to know how their citified life differed here and what their Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations were like, in contrast to the mostly pagan rituals at San Andrés. I also wanted to study the yarn art for a friend for his gallery near Toronto. I briefly sketched the events at San Andres in my blog of  June, 2007: drinking fermented corn tejuino all-night, returning from a pilgrimage to wirakuti where the peyote grows, taking peyote to commune with the gods, all-night singing and dancing processions in and around the village, and on the very last night they dancing and praying around the cattle which were sacrificed in place of deer.

We arrived at the vendors’ stands at the entrance to Zitacua. There was a twenty foot image of a traditionally dressed Huichol with shaman’s hat. Under its shadow were about twenty young boys and teenagers, blackened from head to toe, wearing black, some in wigs, with bags, amulets, some in drag, many with dolls, teddies, bejewelled, some with clubs.

Then I remembered the Huichol version of the police over-seeing the procession that was the equivalent of the Stations of the Cross that I witnessed in San Andrés. These were the judios. The Jews. They enforced the laws. Their version of the enforcers at Christ’s crucifixion was unique in that they were part jester, or clown, and part crowd control. Could it be they were making fun of the dominant culture by dressing so ridiculously? They ran around the village, At one point they had some of their own tied to a stake in the center as punishment. I recalled a few friends spent a few hours in the jail in San Andres, for violating some rules. Well, we befriended these overseers, who unlike the normal military in any country, allowed photos!

Through the village gate we came upon an art store and a small plaza with a thatched roof ceremonial house (a caguli). In front of the store, a band played several Huichol tunes on bass, violin and guitar.  Here a few men wore their traditional embroidered two piece tunic and pants, and a few women wore the long, voluminous gathered skirts that billowed out from usually comfortably round mid-riffs. In contrast, in San Andrés last year, few were not in customary dress.

I entered the store to view some of the art. There are many exceptional artists who make their craft and sell them at various tourist locations along the coast and in the cities. I was pleased to see the variety of yarn art, as well as an abundance of beaded pictures and jewelry.

For those unfamiliar with yarn art, or arte de estambre, the medium used to paint the board is coloured yarn, a moderately thin thread, thicker than embroidery thread usually. The board used is typically a fairly dense plywood made of a hardwood called coabilla. Occasionally a type of cedar (cedro) is used. More recently they’ve begun using a pine  (pino) plywood, which is much lighter to transport and for their foreign markets, much cheaper to ship. The board is covered with  beeswax, treated to make it pliable but not fluid. A pointed instrument, traditionally a porcupine quill, is used to push the yarn into the desired designs.

The designs usually depict some scene in the spiritual life of the Huichol, often as seen under the influence of their peyote God. Each image is symbolic of some act of healing by the gods, communication with their gods, cleansing of illnesses or negative energy. Their gods include peyote, corn, eagle, deer, serpents, and the sun among other deities. Shamans preside over most depicted ceremonies using their healing wand, the muwieris, of a couple of feathers tied to a stick. The art looks like you had to be on pretty good hallucinogens!

In Zitacua the Huichol had fasted for 23 hours and by Thursday noon offered us a communal lunch in the caguli, the thatched adobe ceremonial center. The ladies warmed up food and served it quickly and efficiently to the hungry masses. Dana and I had eaten a huge breakfast with meat and eggs and endless tortillas. The ladies brought out every form of carbohydrate in their culture – spaghetti, tortillas, beans, rice milk, atole (corn meal drink). It was rude to say “no”; one could only say “gracias”. We ate to bursting, and planned to smuggle food out to any waiting dogs.

We met an Irish woman who introduced herself as Marianne. The locals called her “madre” (mother). She was a Catholic nun. She claimed that all the people in Zitacua were Catholic. This occurred in only 16 years since they emigrated from the highlands.  Another surprise to me was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses soliciting house to house on their way through the town. In the caguli, they buried their statue of Jesus under palm leaves. He was to be resurrected on Sunday. I didn’t stay to see which of the major religions won, or how much of their ancestral religion remained. Whatever was certain to be less dramatic than the sacrifice of animals!

I was impressed last year in San Andres by their innocence, caring for each other, friendliness and openness. It was like stumbling into a Garden of Eden. Zitacua’s community was still very welcoming and sharing and caring. However, they were old hands at dealing to a non-native market and were more distant from visitors.

Zitacua is a social experiment that still stands the test of time to see if the benefits outweigh the costs. We’ve seen integration before and to my mind, what is lost is incomparable in value.

In my quest for authentic Huichol art, I didn’t see a great difference in the beauty of their art, but some newer renditions of older themes. The young artists with their renewed interest in old traditions expressed their excitement clearly in their work.


Spanish nouns have gender – masculine or feminine. My thanks go to Marie, who has studied over the past with me before, for forwarding this story. Is it sexist?  Masculine or feminine?

A SPANISH Teacher was explaining to her class that, in Spanish, unlike English, nouns are designated as either masculine or feminine.

”House” for instance, is feminine: “la casa.”    “Pencil,” however, is masculine: “el lapiz.”

So, a student asked, “What gender is “computer”?

Instead of giving the answer, the teacher split the class into two groups, male and female, and asked them to decide for themselves whether “computer” should be a masculine or a feminine noun. Each group was asked to give four reasons for its recommendation.

The men’s group decided that “computer” should definitely be of the feminine gender (“la computadora”), because:

1. No one but their creator understands their internal logic.
2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else.
3. Even the smallest mistakes are stored in long term memory for possible later retrieval.
4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.

The women’s group, however, concluded that computers should be masculine (“el computador”), because:

1. In order to do anything with them, you have to turn them on.
2. They have a lot of data but still can’t think for themselves.
3. They are supposed to help you solve problems, but half the time they ARE the problem.

4. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that if you had waiteda little longer, you could have gotten a better model.

Peace in the World – Jane Stillwater

A woman named Jane Stillwater arrived in December, and my returning student Jim told me about this very cool, very verbal great lady he hoped he could study with, even though she wasn’t quite at his level of Spanish proficiency. Of course they studied together. She needed to borrow some internet time after classes, and I was surprised that it took hours for her correspondence. Soon she informed me she had a blog and had no problem  raging against the government and its malfeasance. She started her one-woman protest in 2000 with the inauguration of President Bush, and the concomitant war. Since then she’s visited Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan and had a first hand view of what the wars were all about. Her blog has been a big hit. She then wrote a book, which she claims just fell from her onto the page. “Anyone can write a book. Just write a page a day, and in one year you have a book!” It’s called, “Bring Your Own Flak Jacket – Helpful Tips for Touring America´s Middle East”. This can be bought online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

She put me on her mailing list for her blog, and I’ve been reading it whenever I can fit it in. What she’s done is remarkable. She’s articulate, concise, charmingly opinionated and very informed. She attended various Democratic nomination campaigns as CNN correspondent.  Amazing how she has made such a difference just by putting herself out there. I met people on the boat into Yelapa who worked on Democratic campaigns in Texas and informed me Jane Stillwater was highly ranked on the internet, and had read her “Survivor Puerto Vallarta” series while she was here in Yelapa. Others emailed me about classes, and asked if Jane Stillwater, who wrote great pieces for the online OpEdNews, was still here.

When in a fix, as she can often be (eg. stranded at the Baghdad airport at Starbucks since U.S. Military bureaucracy rescinded authorization for her stay and protection at their visitors barracks), she somehow uses that frail granny frame of hers and her cutting sharp mind and wit to advantage and sees friends where others would see foes, and news where others would only see a dead-end situation.  She’s entertaining, personal and astute in her writings and there isn’t a day that she doesn’t have something to tell us, that cuts through the media boggle. I invite you to check her out:  Her objective is peace in the world, and the strengthening of America. I only hope there are more raging grannies who can do as much to spread the word of peace in this world.

Please view the Photo Gallery here:

A Potpourri Christmas to Easter

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From Day of the Dead to Walking Virgins – Feb 2008

Feb 14th,  2008

As I publish this months after the events, I realize it’s too tempting to have adventures, far better than writing about them. Winter colds (yes, even here in the tropics) and blogger’s block have made it even more difficult to publish than normal. As a reward extra fotos. Belated but heartfelt New Years greetings to all! Check out the winter and summer program of my school, Yelapa Englsh Spanish Institute at and note the exciting new Spanish on the Road program (first trip described below).

Día de Los Muertos

The Journey – I finally succeeded alter 22 years of trying to return for the Day of the Dead celebrations in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán where I worked in 1986.  My friends and former students, Jim and Jen, from Santa Cruz planned to meet me. I rented a car in Puerto Vallarta on October 30th and drove the route through the Sierra Madre mountains through San Sebastian and Mascota. Instead of heading to Guadalajara and the autopista (super highway), I veered east along the south shore of Lake Chapala. I drove about half of the trip in the dark, on a narrow, winding two-lane road. Dogs popped out of the tall grasses, scouting for road kill. The moon was rising dead ahead, guiding my mission. The trees arched overhead and I passed through their tunnel. People are warned not to drive after dark in Mexico, but I was seeing it as its best. I seemed to get a glimpse of their underworld. The spirits that dwell in the shadows in Mexico are very much “alive” and integral to their life as much as death.

Due to my late night arrival, I spent a shockingly cold night sleeping in the Renault Elf. The 2,200 m elevation required constant fiddling with my car heater. I awoke surrounded by crowds at seven a.m. There were trucks of flower vendors feeding flower stands that were sprouting up everywhere in the street. I couldn’t imagine that many flowers ever being used for one event. Mountains of marigolds were especially prominent.

The History  – The pre-Hispanic people’s conception of the universe was one of dualities, Life-Death, two aspects of the same reality. Where one went after death was not determined by how one lived, but by how one died. The lowest plane of their world was the underworld or kingdom of darkness and death. For the Purépechan natives of Michoacán, this underworld was the equivalent of heaven. It was considered a place of pleasure, although it was a place where darkness ruled. The name designating that place was “Pátzcuaro” meaning “door to the sky”, where the Gods ascended and descended.

Centuries ago the ninth month on the Aztec calendar was devoted to the celebration of the dead. They thought the cold winds from the north in this month carried the spirits. After the Spanish colonization, the Gods of Death were destroyed, but not the cult to the dead that both cultures shared. The Catholic Church commemorated November 1st as Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day)  and Dia de Todas las Almas (Day of all Souls) on the 2nd of November, dedicated to the souls in purgatory.

The native belief is that in the Beyond the dead are given a license to visit their relatives who still live in the earthly world for these days. The Spanish custom was to adorn graves with flowers, leave food offerings including special “soul’s bread”. Bread, fritters and other foods were prepared and eaten upon conclusion of the celebration. In Mexico today, every village celebrates some form of this pagan-Christian celebration in a variety of ways. Each small village around the lake of Pátzcuaro has its own peculiar mix.

The Altar to the Dead – My hotel, San Miguel, had an altar, and even a decorated grave site, common to every home for the event. There are traditional ways to decorate an altar. First cover the mirrors. Put a glass of water for the thirsty visitor, preferably blue to represent the cold of the dead person. The more candles the better, especially votive candles; gas lamps are acceptable. A photograph should be placed next to a skull cake. Copal and other incense are placed to scare off bad spirits. A ceramic figure of a dog represents the pre-Hispanic animal xoloescuintles who were the only ones who knew the road to the other world and could guide the dead.  All of this should be profusely decorated with the petals of marigold flowers (cempoazxóchitl in Purépechan). The orange color signifies abundance of the harvest, and the sun’s rays which bring light to the souls in the world of the dead. Their scent is to orient the dead person. A little plate of favorite food and other favorite objects of the deceased must be placed at the altar so he can recall the pleasing moments and want to return.

Dia de los Angelitos – In Pátzcuaro and the surrounding villages, the morning of 1 of November is el Día de los Angelitos – the day devoted to communicating and remembering the deceased children. All the towns typically have a very early morning mass and a visit to the cemetery, but each has variations. The entire family decorates the altar, announced with firecrackers during the walk from the godparents’ house, while the procession sings and prays. They prepare traditional dishes such as pozole (corn and pork stew), tamales (corn meal cakes), hot chocolate and the sweet cornstarch drink called atole. They leave sugar candies in the form of angels, and other sweets and toys that their child loved.  In some towns this is done the evening of the 31st. On the island of Janitzio they celebrate in the church in the early morning attended only by the mothers and siblings. My friend, Francisco, told me about a village where only the women and children were allowed in the cemetery, the men watching from outside the walls of the cemetery.

My First Noche  de Los MuertosI had been warned about the hour long traffic jams heading to two of the favorite cemeteries of traditional celebration – Tzintzuntzan and the Island of Janítzio.  My friend, Jim and I headed in the other direction to Jarácuaro on the night of 1 of November. The town is known for its sombreros and for this occasion its dances, which are held in the town square. The famous dances of Los Viejitos (the Old Ones) – bent over, twisted,  but dancing up a storm.  The night was very cold, and probably dancing was the best way to keep warm!  We were dressed in layers of clothing and toques (knit hats) and patronized the vendors who kept boiling pots of hot cinnamon tea (una canelita) on the go. What impressed me most were the ancianas, the elder women, wrapped in shawls (rebosos) seated in front of candles and food offerings on the cold ground, not moving, keeping their vigil.  At 2 a.m. we thought it time to move on to see the less lively participants in the cemeteries.

With my friends, Raul, his daughter and others we crowded into 2 cars and headed to the small neighboring town of Arocutín.  It was a rare site where the cemetery was located at the entrance to the church, overlooking the valley. The long steep road up the hill was lit with torches and there was a big banner, “BIENVENIDOS” Welcome. There were no line-ups and plenty of free parking.

The cemetery grounds were lit by thousands of candles. A huge crucifix of Jesus was made entirely of marigolds, towering about 30 feet above, against the background of the white stone temple. Each tombstone was also decorated with mostly marigolds, and other flowers were placed in various cans and vases. Baskets of food were left at each site. People sat on blankets, huddled around small fires, spending one night with their loved dead ones. No one seemed to mind the flash of many cameras. In fact, the head of one large family, Esteban, offered us una canelita – hot cinnamon tea – and somehow produced enough cups for all. He shared his story of umpteen children, and innumerable grandchildren. Their night vigil was not somber, but surprisingly light. Others were quietly seated at gravesites. We enjoyed the night’s magic, and when we could fight sleep no more and were chilled to the bone, we crawled home through the traffic at four a.m.

Hallowe’en – A surprising twist to Dia de los Muertos is the superimposed newer Hallowe’en concept of Trick or Treat. When dark approached my first night there, the children flooded the town square carrying little plastic pumpkins. Un pesito para mi calabacita? A peso for my pumpkin. A few actually were in costumes and carried authentic pumpkins carved. I couldn’t keep enough pesos on me to fill the demand .As a child, I loved the dress up and the spooky mystery of Hallowe’en above all other feast days. It was truly magic and mayhem out there! So I was only too pleased to give them treats which I learned to keep on me at all times.  I wasn’t expecting Hallowe’en trick or treaters to to be omnipresent throughout my five days there. They never filled up – five days of endless ghouls is possibly more than one tourist can take.

Yelapa Skunks

I was misled by local nomenclature to think the striped little weasel-like animal, the size of a 5 week old kitten that I caught chewing on chicken bones on my counter was a hurón, or weasel. It was not. After one convincing spray in my office, when I tried to shoo it out, I knew it was a skunk. But it had to be a baby skunk; it was so small and cute!  After a little research, and many more photographs, I was able to match it up as a Pygmy Skunk, Spilogale pygmaea.

I’m not the only one confused. The scientific community until recently thought they were in the mustelid or weasel family, but molecular evidence shows they’re in their own family, Mephitidae.  This genus, Spilogale, is the most weasel-like of them all.

Supposedly uncommon, they have a limited range on the Pacific coast of Mexico. They’re definitely not rare here in Yelapa.  Everyone, it seems, has one under their stove, some even popping up into the oven from underneath. In my house, they’re most often seen checking out food on the kitchen floor or cruising along the walls looking for insects. They’re tiny; body length ranges from 11.5 – 34.5 cm (4.5 to 13 inches). They have a wispy tail tipped in white, and held upright, all 7 -12 cm (3 – 5.5 inches) of it. No two patterns are alike, but it has a black coat with characteristic white markings on its forehead and 2 to 6 white stripes over its back and sides.  They typically have young in the spring, and there can be 2 to 9 young in a litter. They’re weaned before 8 weeks, adult-sized by 15 weeks. So in spring these new young are dashing under doors looking for their next meal.

The other local species, the Western Hog-nosed Skunk (Conepatus mesoleucus) is much more obvious. It’s a bigger skunk and you can smell its overwhelming odor almost any night of the week. They have a very white back and tail and a naked snout. This makes digging into holes much easier in their quest for insects and crabs.  I have one tunneling under the bathroom and sharing its odours. Maybe it’s courting the septic tank!  This is a South American species which has extended its range north into the southern U.S., occurring from the coast to 10,000 ft.

Banana Flowers – Las Flores de Los Plátanos

On my arrival this October, I had a banana tree throw a flowering pod a few feet from my patio. The display of fruiting banana is quite unique. The maroon-coloured hand-sized flower shoots out through the centre of the plant, and then with gravity hangs upside down. The maroon pod sheds each petal as it curls up. Under each is a row of tubular white flowers in a row that attract hummingbirds and bees. Oddly these flowers do not produce fruit and are sterile. The bananas are higher up this central stalk, coming off alternate bracts on opposite sides. Fruit and hummingbirds, a double win from where I sit with my students watching from a few meters away.

A few weeks later I saw a second banana plant with its central maroon flower, and tiny bananas further up.This time I saw large flowers from the end of the banana. I had never seen these flowers before. I took photos and asked Irma and Angel, the owners of this land, if they had seen such a sight. Irma was as delighted and surprised as I was. Angel had seen these flowers, but he didn’t make it sound like it was a common occurrence. I showed my Canadian neighbour, Nicola, the photos of one of “nature’s miracles”. She was delighted and showed Gail, who has lived upriver surrounded by her own banana orchard by 25 years. Gail hadn’t seen it either. I guess you have to be looking at the right time to see it.  My review of the banana literature shows my bananas to blossom differently. It’s the small manzano or apple banana; possibly different flowering? Any banana horticulturists out there direct me to a web page, please!

Eva’s Bicycle

Eva and Pedro raised 2 daughters, one of whom lives with them, and her 3 children, Ronaldo 8, Susana or Chicha, 6 and Pedrito, 3. Eva and Pedro have raised them as their own. Homeless children in Mexico are rare.  They are cared for by their family, or the community.

Over the years I’ve watched Eva and Pedro, both in their late 60s, as the primary care givers to these toddlers and babies. It’s a difficult feat for young parents, tough for grandparents. It’s tougher for Eva who has chronic ulcers on her lower legs that never seem to heal. She has diabetes which is a very common disease in the native population here in Mexico. Despite her discomfort, she never seems to complain, and there’s always a stream of the other neighborhood kids playing and other adults stopping by to chat.  Eva jokes with everyone, in between serving the occasional shopper with items they sell from their store-front living -fishing line, rope, candies and chocolates, a few nails and screws. One day last summer she said, “Dr. Rafa recommends an exercise bicycle for me. He says it will help my sores to heal.”

Well, I was able to buy one in early November, from funds that student nurses here contributed. I’m always amazed at what taxi drivers will allow me to drag home! It was quite a fun evening when the bike was stationed in their living room. Everyone wanted to try it, of course. Eva started the next morning, a half hour cycle and then again in the evening. Pedro was also happy to work out, since it should help his diabetes too. Carlos, another grandson who is a bit large for his age, was actually the first one on it. I checked for a few days and they were still happy. One day she reported, in surprise but still smiling, “My vein burst and I lost two liters of blood! There was blood everywhere.”  I was alarmed and called the doctor, who suspected this was an exaggeration. She was fine and continues cycling, but now the bike is set on lower resistance and she does only 15 minutes a session.

She reports at publication that the sores are all healing rapidly and she says, “Estoy mejor” I’m better. I still see the walnut sized blisters on her legs and I correct her, “Estas mejorando” You’re improving. Now she’s taking tablets of Nopal cactus that also work to control insulin levels.

I’ve had lots of students, too numerous to mention who have contributed bags of medical supplies and numerous scopes, autoclaves, blood sugar monitors, etc.. Thanks to all, the doctor’s once long list of urgent needs has been reduced to a few items – the current one is an electrocardiograph. The Yelapa community contributed items for a flea market and raised several hundred dollars. YESI nursingstudents added a few hundred and matching contributions were made by a generous donor. It will take several thousand dollars for the machine, but we’re on our way.

La Posada – Joseph and Mary Search for an Inn

Well, just about any story told by a child is going to be better than that told by an adult. The Yelapa kindergarten kids a week before Christmas staged a live choral re-enactment of Mary and Joseph going door to door looking for a room. Joseph was Alejandro Lorenzo who was supposed to be leading the burro, with the beautiful child-bearing María atop it. He was desperately unhappy for most of their peregrinación or pilgrimage and finally broke down sobbing. Lucky mama was along! There were also some very adorable angels, shepherds and other travelers in their entourage. I was very surprised that anyone could possibly turn these guys away. Although I have to say they could still use some work on their singing!

Then they had a fundraiser dinner and magic show and fire dancer to raise funds for a kitchen to make breakfasts. No one debated the need for a kitchen, and all were too happy to have another celebration with the charming little ones.

Don Capomo’s Quest for Blood

Christmas eve I was called by my friend, Don Strachan, locally known as Bonger Don. (Named thus for the bonger massage balls he manufactures and sells). I had heard he was in California with a very seriously bleeding ulcer. He was now in Puerto Vallarta. The doctors at home misdiagnosed his condition. Instead he had a rare diverticulum of the intestine near the heart. The doctors were going to operate on December 26th.  One hitch – there was no blood in the blood bank. We finally figured out what blood he needed (Type O+ or O- blood). Well, I then spent the evening at the Christmas dance finding out who had O blood. Most gringos had no idea of their blood type, and were all drinking. All the Mexicans I met that night and the next day were drinking or drunk, even though all Yelapan natives are type O.

Some of those few gringos who did have O type and were not drinking, had trouble meeting the requirement to not be on any medications.  Late at night on he 25th, I thought only religious non-drinkers might be our last hope. The Jehovah´s witnesses were out since they didn’t agree with blood transfusions. The evangelical group, Los Hermanos, was also out since I didn’t know enough of them and it was just too late. I had a rented boat for those donors who were able to make it at 7:30 a.m. the next morning on the 26th. At the dock I met three seminarians who had come to worship and practice their sermon. I recruited them too. They wanted to go straight to the hospital afterwards to pray for him. A bonus, I thought.

Once there, our numbers were whittled down further by stricter requirements. A woman cannot donate blood one week before menses, during menses and a week after. That leaves about nine days when women are eligible! Apparently the problem is the hemoglobin count. Fortunately that morning there were about a dozen Mexicans ahead of us who were donating, and were likely the Type O blood Don needed.  Don was operated on that night and talking with me on the phone the next, and discharged the next day.

Spanish on the Road

San Sebastian

December 1st I launched a new course of travel and study of Spanish. The first trip was made into the mountains nearby Puerto Vallarta – from San Sebastian to Talpa. Return students Dan and Martha, retired professional musicians from Vancouver, Dalia from the Georgian Bay area north of Toronto, living at a boat-in/ski-in only cabin, winter and summer, and a new YESI student, Patricia, a retired school teacher and biographer, from Denver.

Leaving the hot, humid Vallarta climate and arriving 70 kms later in the cool, clean air of San Sebastian mid-afternoon was a welcome relief. We had time to feast at the new Arrayan restaurant before our town tour with 16 year old Juan, the museum attendant.  Shortly, our heads were full of figures; the first gold mine opened in 1609 and the last one closed in 1921. At its zenith from 20,000 to 30,000 people lived in the town and 3,000 ft further up at Real Alto, where the first mine was opened. Today they make tequila and raicilla, both hard liquor made from different types of agave cactus, and rompope, rum based egg-nog, dried fruits and jellies. They now do a small trade in tourism, but it appears most wait for their remittance checks from relatives working in the United States.

Saturday morning on our walk along the cobbled streets, I saw my first Green Jay.We met vendors who had stacks of dried sugared guayaba in large pound squares and watched two men making adobe bricks. The men were were using the fine clay soil and mixing it with water and hay on a half-acre field. It was a slow way to build a house. Hours past and only 20 bricks of about 8” x 10” x  4” had been formed. I asked what they needed to build a house. About 2,000 was their estimate. It’s shocking to see that much work done to prepare something we’d so quickly buy – how out of touch we’ve become!

The next day we went up to Real Alto, the first mine site and town, another 3000 feet above, and Bufa the highest peak at 8,400 ft towering above San Sebastian. Our history guide Juan had told us that sailors used to mark their bearings using this peak from the coast somewhere near Walmart in Puerto Vallarta.

We hired a young man in his mid-twenties named Obed Dueña, who was thankfully beefy enough to maneuver his three-ton four-wheel drive up a steep, deeply incised road with many amazingly tight turns. Dan, Martha and Dalia hung on in the back bench seats, enjoying the views, but looking green as that morning’s jay by the end of it.  We walked an easy 10 min from the parking area at the TelCel tower to the top of Bufa peak.  We checked for the coastline of Vallarta. Sure enough there in the distance, were the towers of the Hotel Zone. The pirates had chosen wisely. Bufa was a distinctive and easy sight from the coast on a clear day.

Next we crawled up the tricky road to Real Alto. A church dates way back with an original 8 ft x 6 ft oil painting from 1792. The Virgin of Rosario was the sweet white waif adorning the backdrop of the main altar. She’s an adventurer, so the story goes. After a trip from Spain, she was carried by mule from Mexico City. But along the route, the mule and virgin fell down into a canyon. A search proved futile. Well, darned if that mule didn’t show up at the steps of the church many hundreds of kilometers later to deliver the virgin, then die on the spot. On that very spot, a huge white rose bush covering perhaps an 8 x 10 ft area grows and blooms hundreds of blossoms all year long – a miracle especially in the winter and at that altitude.

There we met a whole family related to Obed, ruled over by the grand dame, Herlinda Dueña, 84 years old. There are only 50 people living there, only 12 students in the school. They were selling their dried and sweetened fruit – cajeta de tejocote. Herlinda proudly showed us the small shiny yellow fruit, the size of a raspberry that tasted oddly like apple. She beamed her still beautiful smile at us and charmed me into buying a kilo or so of the cajeta, and then a jelly or jalea of guayaba (guava) too. It was a fair exchange for photos and stories.  In the bargain we also bought some high country raicilla or agave moonshine. I savored the flavor, then felt my lips go numb from what they claim is 140 proof alcohol.


We crossed a 6,200 ft pass and descended into a very broad plain of the Mascota River valley. Its native Teco (progenitors of the Aztecs) name, Amaxacotlán Mazacotla, means “Place of the Deer and Snakes”. Although the area was first explored for gold in 1525 by Cortes’s Captain Cortés de San Buenaventura, the real wealth of the valley is agricultural. At 1268 m (4,300 ft) it has a mild subtropical climate and abundant moisture for lemons, avocado, apples, grapes, oranges, sugarcane and ubiquitous corn.

On the way in we noticed a field with hundreds of little wooden A-frame “houses” that I assumed sheltered little plants. I stopped the car and looked carefully. These were no plants – they were roosters, gallos tethered by one leg and reared for fighting. The guard was walking toward the car with a very angry looking dog. I got back in the car quickly and put my foot to the floor. I’ve tried since, slowing down the car, still trying for that great photo. That watchman is very sensitive about any evidence of what might well be an illegal activity. To fight roosters isn’t legal, but raising roosters?  Check out the photo of Yelapa’s Luciano, and his rooster carrying cage. Not yet an available item at Walmart!

We took a town tour with Mascota’s historian, Francisco Rodriguez Peña, who had just written the history of Mascota. He didn’t just know the facts; he knew every house, who owned it and what was inside. We stopped at a few private houses; no appointments made, and saw grinding stones from old corn mills, old wooden arados or plows and yuntas or yokes for oxen, and muskets from the revolution.

The town’s pride is the Temple of the Precious Blood of Christ, ruins of a cathedral that was being built over 30 years, but never finished, at the turn of the 19th Century, when the Catholic Church was at the height of its powers. It was abandoned after La Guerra De Los Cristeros (supporters of Christ) in the late 1920s – the war between the Church and the State – Government and the church fighting head to head. Government and the godless people won. It’s an inspiring structure although it remains only arches and half built walls, tucked adjacent to the seminary and its small chapel. It felt like a power spot. Could it have been a religious site of the indigenous Tecos?

The modern cathedral, built in the early 1900s, was next on the tour. Outside is a statue of a saint, the town martyr, José María Roble, who was hung during the War of the Cristeros. Francisco was quick to point out that this was a priest from a very wealthy family. Not only did he protect the church, but he protected the rights of the wealthy. While he was canonized and his statues are found in every town church in the region, outside the cathedral is a single tile inscribed with another martyr for the cause. Although this priest zealously fought for the church, he was poor and only earned that single tile.

The cathedral tour held no surprises, but one. From a large square flagstone in the church, there were tunnels connecting it to other buildings. Today it connects to the pharmacy and the municipal headquarters. Through these, the rich escaped from robbers, probably a common occurrence during the revolution and land uprisings.

We left Francisco with hearty handshakes and kisses. He would not take a centavo for his tour, not even a propina or tip. We visited his museum, Museo el Pedregal (rocky ground), which doubles as his home, the next day. He has decorated it with pebbles, mostly flat river rock. Really, everything is covered in stone. His bed, the walls, the stereo and TV, the glasses at the bar, the frame of many valuable historic photos, pots for plants, etc. It’s really worth a visit to get a sense of its uniqueness and his tenaciousness and charm.

The pre-history of Mascota is recorded in a well presented museum, Centro Cultural Mascota.Museo Arqueológico. It’s a well displayed collection of the digs since 1967 by Dr. Joseph Mountjoy, supported through the National Geographic Society. There was an article written in the April, 2007 edition.  He recorded the petroglyphs in the area, from 3 locations, 2 which are within 4 km of Mascota.  He also unearthed artifacts dated back to 1,000 B.C.  Jade and ceramics found here originated in Guatemala and the Andean area of Ecuador and Peru, close to the coast, a trade link not previously known.

Passing by on our town tour was the Mascota milkman with metal cream cans on the back of his ATV. Yelapa’s milk man rides his horse and carries milk in a large plastic container, from which he dispenses milk brought fresh from the cow a few kms upriver.


We were keen to see the higher mountain villages. We drove up a cobblestone road that climbed steeply 3000 ft  over 20 km, the pastoral landscape, glazed with sunbeams glancing off the voluminous clouds. The tiny town of Navidad was aptly adorned by Pointsettias. The Spanish explorers sent by Cortés arrived on Christmas Eve, hence the name.

The buildings were in great repair, as if newly built.  Every roof tile was on, and the buildings were freshly painted. It was oddly quiet with almost no one in town. We stopped to talk to three men, two under 40years of age, and one who purported to be 78 but looked 60 at max – Senor Ponce de Leon, with clear blue eyes. Like the town he was beautifully preserved. He claimed there were others of 100 or more years.  I had heard tales of the French settling here, but the elderly man claimed only the Spanish established the mines that started the village. We asked for a place to buy some snacks. Well, they said, we have to track down a few people who can come and open their stores. It was about 1 p.m. The town only had 200 people. It wasn’t often open all day, since there was no one to buy much.

Where did everyone go? Well, like most Mexican small towns there wasn’t much work, and mining towns everywhere offer little else. Many had moved to the United States. Once in his youth, there were 1800 people, claimed Sr. Ponce de Leon. I asked why people didn’t grow food. There wasn’t enough land. But he beamed a smile when he retold of the annual month long festival celebrating San Joaquin and Santa Ana, the parents of the Virgin Mary. Émigrés returned and the town swelled to 1000s of people. No one would sell their land or even rent since everyone wanted their homes for themselves and visitors for this homecoming. As I explored the streets, I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was touring a museum – the perfect “specimen” mountain town; all houses tended and in order, fat cows, friendly horses, dogs and cats – all watching us with a trusting demeanor. I couldn’t shake off the feeling I’d been in Shangrala for the afternoon.


Talpa’s claim to fame is a sighting of the Virgin Mary; however, she was a native one, like Guadalupe. The details of the sighting, who and what was said or done, are hard to find. The details of her personal history as a saint are impressive. The Bishop back in the 1600s brought her doll-sized likeness back to Mascota. But she wouldn’t stay. She was found back in Talpa, with footprints tracing her return. The bishop found this odd, since she didn’t even have feet, and retrieved her and hired a guard. He awoke to the sound of her footsteps rushing back to Talpa. Now she’s known as the Walking Virgin.

We arrived in the peaceful village of 7,000 and headed straight for the church. The Virgin is a small little ceramic doll about one foot tall, kept in a case, flanked by Joseph and Mary and a pair of angels. Below her is a horizontal crescent moon, a relict of past pagan worship. Although unimpressive in size, she is known to perform miracles.

The town is visited by hordes of Mexican tourists at certain peak periods, but still enjoys small town quaintness. There are numerous hotels, several for every block in the small downtown. We stayed on the hill near the Loma Cristo Rey, the hill of Christ the King, a town park of sorts with great panoramic views, and residence of the current clergy. Our digs were at Casa Grande just below, the best eating place in town, and far above the hourly tolling of the church bells.

The first afternoon around dusk, I heard a constant pounding, throbbing repetitive piping and drumming. I headed up behind the hotel and saw the most adorable troupe of mostly young girls, and a few boys, at a dance practice, preparing for a big religious parade on the upcoming Sunday. It was charming as the sunset touched each innocent face.

Talpa has a lovely river walkway which joins to the public park at one end, and a bridge. Here Dan, Marta, Patricia and I spent most of a morning identifying and watching numerous bird species feeding in the riparian edge. It’s a relaxing town and easy to get caught up in the miracle Virgin of Talpa as happens to so many. One friend from Vallarta goes every once in a while and claims he’s totally rejuvenated, and there’s nowhere else that does it the same. Talpa offers an interesting environment for many other diversions as well.

Photo Gallery:

From Day of the Dead to Walking Virgins

To search for the Spanish program in Yelapa, or for other locations such as San Sebastian near Puerto Vallarta, or Pátzcuaro near Morelia, or for the options of weekend or week-long Spanish on the Road courses, please check out