Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

A Hot Winter’s Tale – March 2007

Birding in Spanish or “Bird Conjugations”

I came back to Yelapa on the 1st of November and there were no birds on my hillside grove of trees. I was concerned. The winds from the October cyclones blew down various old trees over the path up the hill, so Lupe had them cleared away and a few others cut down. The bird perches are gone along with the old snags, and the many flowering vines climbing to the treetops where birds fed on insects, seeds and fruits. I’ve since witnessed small flocks and occasional sightings of some of the many birds I know are winter residents here. But by mid-December I was getting very concerned. Don “Capomo”, a committed birder, also complained one day “what birding? There are no birds” when I mentioned I was going upriver.

I teach a birding course in Spanish. I call it “Bird Conjugations”. I researched the family traits, summarized the bird-related verbs (to perch posar or even perchar!), summarized the family, English, Spanish and local names. I initiated it with two students from Toronto, Enriqueta and Jaime. He’s an avid birder and she wanted to study at the same level and would learn the birding terms too, just to be a good sport.

We spent one afternoon learning river birds. The estuary here has just about every heron family member in the North American and Mexican bird guides. It was a great afternoon. Jaime was reading on tropical flock and feeding behaviour and shared his knowledge.

During classes there can be many birds singing or feasting in the trees, or flying by and sometimes right through the class on the patio. Pointing them out to students can be quite a distraction so I have to gauge their interest and the infamy of the bird. But the scheduled birding tour of El Cerrito, the little hill where the school is, with Jaime produced rather poor results. After combing the hill much further up and longer than normal, we saw one bird. Mind you, it was a brilliant red one – a summer tanager. As explanation, the locals posited something about the cold evenings. My nephew, Jason, a big fan or aficionado wrote about my Bird Conjugations premiere, “Perhaps you are saying that the singular bright red bird was, in and of itself, really quite something. How about tree conjugations, bet there were plenty of those.” Yes, it was, and …Ahhhh! It’s all in the marketing!

The birds appeared more plentifully by mid-January. One pale billed woodpecker (same large size and similar appearance to the pileated back home in the northwest) was working away at the wood of my patio post one day, 10 ft from my office. Brazen but shy of the camera, of course. Nicola, my neighbour, left a message one day after feeding the cat. “At 11:30 a pale billed woodpecker was happily hammering away, upstairs in your bedroom at the structural beams.” It had possibly discovered the army of ants (hormigas) eating my house. Rather than be alarmed, I should reward and encourage him as a natural insect pest solution. Although an overzealous woodpecker might cause more damage in the process, such as one in Canada which fed on my telephone post. It had stripped all the brightly coloured plastic right off the copper wires, making it non-functional!

Fish Story

I learned to scale a fish today. No wonder I never did it before. There was blood and a mess. It was my blood. The fish was pargo, a very nice white fish (top feeder) but its fins had these nasty two-inch spines that made scaling a kamikaze task.

I live on the coast and I decided I must eat fish more often, so I have to learn to cope with the obstacles to preparing them. At least they sell them gutted! Friends David and his partner, Susan, a reputable chef, invited me once for a fish dinner. When I arrived, he looked a little apologetic when he told me, “Susan’s naked at the sink scaling the fish.” I knew her to be somewhat dramatic and it suited her style. As I emerged from the kitchen after my first attempt, with scales in my hair, scales stuck to my neck, and scales stuck to the kitten playing on the floor, I realized my only mistake was not to get buck-naked!

Trees in the Buildings, None in the Parks

I wrote last journal entry about the treed parks in Vallarta being converted to underground parking lots. One old building nearby, however, had a tree right through the red brick wall, leaving lots of room around it for growth. I was impressed. I returned to get a good picture and couldn’t find it anywhere. Fred, my Irish student from Winnipeg, and I walked many blocks until I finally saw the building and the tree. It was becoming an art gallery/crafts store. The owners cut the side limbs, leaving the main trunk intact, in the two weeks since I saw it last. The adjacent building is the Brazil Steak House restaurant, which is responsible for leaving three full-sized trees growing right its middle.

They sealed up gaping holes in the wall with cement board, bricks and cement snug up against the tree leaving no room for growth. So much for the value they give to trees for the cause of Art in modern Vallarta. Since the politicians don’t care to preserve them in the parks anymore either, we might have to hide more trees in the buildings!

The Crabs are Hungry, very Hungry!!

I have a beautiful baby blue lambs wool zipper-front cardigan sweater, with intricate red crossed design across the chest. When it’s cold, like it can be in late December, it’s the best thing to crawl into late evening or chilly morning. One such day I looked under the blue pareo (shawl) covering my clothes hung on a pipe. The sweater was missing a few inches of collar. I blamed the moths. Isabel, a resident of nearly 40 years here, assured me a moth couldn’t do that much damage, it had to be a crab. I planned to remove the collar and make the best of it.

A week later, I again sought the shelter of this lovely blue sweater. This time I was aghast at the damage done. One whole shoulder was missing. That was one very big, very hungry crab that had been working away at the sweater, and it ate a huge hole through the pareo to get to it, as well. I haven’t even seen any crabs on the ground to get my revenge. They’ve all gone far underground with the cold, having fattened up on my sweater. The skunks burrow deeply to get at them nightly. I should pay them a bounty!

The sweater has gone on to a higher use – it’s a mama cat surrogate to little foster kitties who love its cuddly warmth while being nurtured to kittenhood.

Policing Yelapa

Three years ago the community requested police to control a growing theft problem. The robbers were crack-addicted kids. There were five of them. We knew who they were and we watched them. But they watched us too.

The police came, three of them. We grumbled that they were the ones we had to be afraid of, not the robbers. Instead of controlling the robbers, they seemed to patrol the disco, and enforced a two a.m. curfew. They invaded houses of various foreigners in an effort to arrest or perhaps extort pot smokers, but did nothing to alleviate the robberies.

To be able to arrest any robbers, they had to be caught red-handed. If they were, they were sent to prison. However, the families of the arrested paid very hefty fines and the addicts would be back in town within days. The good news is that one day the fathers said “no more”, and the robbers stayed in jail. It’s been a theft-free year.

The police roamed the town, watched movies at the taco stand and seemed to be unaccounted for any time there was a crime. Every once in a while they would round up Marcos, the known beach pot vendor, and he’d be free the next day. A not very convincing sham.

This New Year’s eve, one American was home in bed having convulsions. His concerned landlady gave the police access to his home. He witnessed them taking his rent money left on the table. How many others who had been robbed had been victims of the police? Kind of ironic, isn’t it? His landlady reported the crime. The police were instantly fired.

The Search for the Perfect Shoe goes on!

In my last blog I reported the great need for good sandals here, and how hard the task of walking everywhere in Yelapa is on shoes, and the feet. I’ve tried the molded foam Crocs which were highly unstable and led immediately to two harrowing incidents resulting in an almost broken toe and a twisted ankle. I tried the traditional Mexican huarache with high quality real rubber tire soles. Too flat.

I requested a search for specific brands and models of sandals from afar. Morgan, returned to Santa Cruz for a week, hopefully to return a week later with some sandals for me. But winter had come to Santa Cruz and there were no sandals. Funny, I called several outdoors stores in Vancouver, B.C. Canada and each had several styles, several models. This winter the incredibly stormy weather in B.C. made the top news story in Canada for the months of November and December. There in Canada where snow is paramount, I found a wealth of sandals. One would think Canadians never stayed home, ¿verdad?eh?

The sandals from B.C. arrived. Gabrielle, fromVancouver, picked up a sturdy, pricey ($70) pair of Columbia Interchange with a back strap. The instant they arrived, I put them on, excitedly looking forward to good arch support. As rapidly, the Velcro back strap tore from its base. They went back to Vancouver on the return trip .

There had to be a Mexican sandal somewhere that would work. I went to Lans, a big upscale department store here in PV. There I found Flexi sandals, that were sturdy, comfortable and moderately priced ($50). They fit wonderfully. I wore them for a day on the hot concrete in PV but at the end of the day hobbled to the dock. Two seams on the back strap rubbed my foot raw. Asha, Nicola’s very resourceful daughter, suggested hammering the seams to flatten them. I gingerly struck the strap on a flat surface. The material was vacuno , from the root word vaca for cow, which I took to be leather. It split open – like paper, and peeled like plastic. I refunded these, too.

I resorted to my stable of flip flops of various makes that have been reliable over the years. The Sunday previous, one four year old pair finally broke, and I walked the streets of Puerto Vallarta bare foot (descalzo) looking for a cheap pair to get me to the dock. Another ancient pair disintegrated on this Sunday’s hike upriver, and I hopped as much as ran over the hot sand, retreating home.

The search goes on! I think I will write to Chacos and Keens and see if they can foot the bill for some advertising space in exchange for sandals! I have seen many pairs of blistered feet in Chacos here, and as many greatly satisfied. Keens with the rubber toe appear possibly a hot bake for the toes in a hot environment. The optimal jungle shoe has not been made/found for Mexico. One old Huichol Indian in San Andres Cohamiate, high in the mountains, had on an old pair of sandals that he looked like he was born in.

Passing of Saul

There’s always that someone you know who’s always there. The first person you visit when you return. That first meal back in the village, I always ate at Saul’s El Tule restaurant. There was never any doubt that you were his friend. He had a very ready smile, a huge heart and was entertaining and witty, and very forthright with his opinions. My kind of people. My brother-in-law Joe and his friends, Alan and Stan, arrived from Winnipeg, Manitoba fleeing minus 48o C weather. Their first request was for lots of beer and a shrimp dinner.

We headed to Saul’s. There he was, sitting on a chair, in a pink bathrobe, with his legs scarred and blistered from the effects of diabetes. He was ill, but had rallied from being very ill a week earlier. He was very kind and inviting, and welcomed us, and called the cook from home to prepare our shrimp. We chatted. He was distressed by his condition. He had several boxes of medications, but had no clear idea of how much of what to take, and no doctors could be reached. We spent a wonderful afternoon over dinner and wished him the best, since he’d finally reached help by phone. Two days later he died.

I never had any tangible momento of his life to fondly remember him by. I never took a picture of him. I always take zillions of pictures of people. Saul was eternally effervescent and omnipresent, and I never doubted that he’d be there for that future greatest of pictures, that I would inevitably take of him.

The funeral was quickly accomplished the next morning. His coffin was placed in the family tomb next to his mother of 83 years who had passed a few years previously. Many, many people came to grieve and pay respects. He was incidentally gay, and in this community of family and friends, there appeared to be little overt prejudice.

Isabel and Karina, gringo residents of nearly 40 years, and I briefly chatted, lamenting Saul’s passing. We also pondered our own place in this village. More specifically we realized our own space in this cemetery might have to be a vertical column rather than a plot. The bodies are piling up in the small panteon.

Life continues in this small village. But there’s a decided lack of lively energy, good humour and good will with the passing of Saul. He was painted once in several poses by a French artist, and T-shirts were made. I’m trying to track down the source and re-print the shirts for all his friends. Put your orders in!

Medical Contributions

Lafaunda and Mark Curtis arrived with two couples of friends from Salt Lake City, Utah to visit recently. They were bearing gifts for the medical clinic. Mark is an MD, who specializes in women’s midlife health- a topic very current and forefront in my life.

They wanted to know what the medical clinic lacked. I read off a list of several items given by Dr. Rafa Real. Some of the items had been on the list for two years.

Dr. Carlos Ramirez, right out of medical college, doing a year of social service here, showed Dr. Curtis’s group the clinic and answered questions. “I’m going to cry,” he said, very sincerely, in very good English when the top of the line opthalmoscope (estuche diagnóstico) was presented to him for the clinic. The two doctors had been sharing one private scope. The clinic was also allowed to retire the “tin egg cup” that was used to listen to the fetal heartbeat. Dr. Curtis and wife, Lafaunda and friends donated a digital fetal monitor. They also heard my call for some water bottles and hot/cold compresses. The former are expensive here, as I found out when I loaned my own out on several occasions to families. The cold compresses are nearly impossible to get in Vallarta, and those few are short-lived with leaky seams and other imperfections. The donations were all very happily received.

A week later, Patricia, who has visited before from Calgary, and her husband Lane, arrived with a nebullizer or vaporizer for medications, with masks for adults and special sized ones for children. She also carried a host of additional necessities such as bandages for sports injuries. Dr. Rafa Real was overjoyed. In one week, his wish list had almost been cleared. Remaining on the list are an electrocardiograph and a defibrillator. Donations in lieu are gladly accepted!

Don’t Brush with Tap Water

Three out of three nurses (and naturopaths and homeopaths) here for the medical course used tap water for brushing their teeth. Two out of three were sick. It could have been the 24 hr virus, but … Tap water is creek water with no chlorine, and possibly a few salamanders living in the water reservoir, hopefully still alive. Tap water shouldn’t ever pass the lips! Dr. Rafa Real was wonderfully helpful in allowing observations of patients and in inviting the nurses’ input. Although it was only a short week, they had made a contribution and learned a great deal.

A day on the plateau – Rodeos and Hot Springs

The road out of Yelapa rises steeply to the next mountain town of Chacala. It has lots of hairpin bends and even a few turnouts where you back up and forth to negotiate the turn, and then proceed upward. A bunch of us headed up one Sunday morning. Joy, a returning student, arranged the trip with Aldo, paragliding tandem flyer. I came along with a sudden burst of last minute energy instead of a rare Sunday sleep-in. The first stop was the paragliding launch site at 2500 ft or so. The views of Yelapa Bay from here are truly awesome. Aldo dropped off his tandem fare and himself, and Uncle Luciano spent the day with us continuing upward and onward. It’s a very different environment with the altitude. There are lots of oak forests before too long and open savannah with grasses and fields where brahma cows fed. One stop announced a twinned coconut palm, a rare sight indeed!

The nearby town of Chacala was the source of the original six or seven families that today have produced Yelapa – the progenitors of today’s over 1000 people. Chacala is tiny. There was someone grinding coffee in his back yard. An old brick well, with rope and pulley spoke of olden times. A huge buganvilia bush draped over the yard of one family, covering every shrub and tree in the yard, as well as the house, the horse, the dog, and colouring everything a beautifully iridescent shade of magenta.

We headed on to the Aguas Calientes hot springs on the river. The natural pool was cold and very deep. The small trickling falls was warmer, but not hot. The lower pool was man-made and a hose piped in hot water from a natural spring uphill. We enjoyed thoroughly the 10 peso beers (20 in most places in Yelapa, rarely 15) and the lovely contrasts in landscapes. It was a great day in the sun and the rocks, and all went well but for the fire ants which found our picnic. Pretty fierce when they even carry off the bits of onions!

We headed to the Charreada or rodeo in Algodón, back toward Chacala. The village consists of 7 houses and one very large rodeo corral. We arrived about 2 p.m. but very early on rodeo time. They had danced and celebrated until 4: 30 a.m. I had witnessed one Saturday night dance there years ago. I remembered how achingly beautiful and exquisitely Mexican everything was – the coloured plastic streamers bordering the dance floor, the fiercely loud music, hot tacos and a moonlit sky.

This early afternoon, the mariachi band members were just tuning their instruments, and went ceremoniously playing from house to house. They were then led in a parade by dancing horses to the main corral. The horses ‘dance’ with a high step, alternating left front and right back foot at the same time, and the right front and left back foot. It’s a rocking dance step to the music. The music was typically loud, too loud for us to talk, so we picked up the tables and chairs we had in the ‘dance square’ and moved about 30 meters away under a tree, all of us feeling the need for shade and less intensity. We then noticed the a few bulls tied to the other side of the trees, relaxing before their gig.

I explored the little ranchito, joking with my friends that I was going to find my bag with the bathing suit, wool blanket and book I left here 6 years ago. Mexicans are truly so honorable, I was certain they’d still have it. I came upon two women working in an outdoor patio, making tortillas. I told them about the bag I left behind in one of the houses. They agreed it might possibly be around, since they had just returned a bag of a friend kept for four and a half years.

I watched them make tortillas. They used an ancient grinding board and roller type pestle, called a metate which is typically used to crush the hard corn or elote kernels. In this case they were smoothing the masa or dough. Then they pressed a handful of dough into little tortilla circles in a simple hinged wooden press. From here they cooked the tortilla on a comal, a wood-fired stove on bricks. As I ate these wonderfully smooth and soft tortillas, we chatted and in this small world, discussed mutual friends.

Riding on a Bull

The charreadas in Mexico are all about bull riding, and exhibition of the dancing horses, and a demonstration of lassooing calves. The hardest part of riding the bull, it appears, is preparing to harness it in a tiny stall, which can take as much as 20 minutes. At the last moment, the rider launches on-board, and the gate opens. The last rider of our day was glued to a very large white bull. When the rider would not come unseated, ropes were lassooed over the bull, pulling it from all angles, to a standstill. It was guided gently like a dog on a leash back to the bull pen. The rider’s eyes, however, were still rolling.

Love that Loud Music

Mexico is all about music, lots of it. People singing loudly everywhere as they work or walk. Radios play loudly from some part of the town or another. When teasing one of the neighbours about the sounds of love-making carrying around the hillside Colonia I live in, a friend chided that at least the Mexicans play their music loudly to be somewhat discrete. Odd that I never ever guessed what it was all about! To hear all the loud music playing in Mexico, there must be a lot of loud love-making going on!

Jaguar and Día de Amor y Amistad

We’ve raised a little kitty named Jaguar from the age of one week or so. It’s been a collective effort of the vet’s mom, Ani, and many of my students, and my neighbour, Nicola. He was pretty unique and obviously adorable. He had an orangish gray face, black lynx tufts on his huge ears, and spots on his grey body, that made him look his name. Everyone enjoyed feeding him his bottle. We found a home for him and another kitty, who had similar features but older (also a vet adoption), in Boca, with no streets around, on the other side of the river. Missing him and in his memory, I dressed for Dia de Amor y Amistad as a jaguar.

I went a week later to recover the cage left at the kitties’ new home.They were both locked under a milk crate with rocks on top to keep the family dogs from ripping them apart. Needless to say I brought them back. A few days later, I brought them to a kind vet in Plaza Caracol in Vallarta who gives away free kitties. It works great for him since there’s lot of traffic in his storefront tienda and his clients all want cat food, shots, and treatment. For those that helped raise Jaguar, you’ll be pleased to know, he and his buddy, were immediately placed in homes where the owners bought top of the line cat food and made appointments for vaccinations !

The foster parenting of kitties goes on. Pamela, the vet and I, will start a campaign soon to keep baby kitties at home with the moms (mortality is high away from the mom). We’ll buy bags of food to feed the wild cats, tame and catch them, spay them and release them. Any donations for bags of food and cost of operations would be welcomed!

There’s Something Living in my Copier/Printer/Scanner

I live up a hill on the edge of the jungle. There are relatively few insects now compared to the summer season. I lifted the lid to my copier and prepared to copy a few weeks ago. There in the upper chamber, which appears sealed, there was a wasp and worse yet, it was constructing a nest. It was a very dainty wasp with a rather neat and tidy little nest of only one column. How it got in is a mystery. Where it got its nesting supplies and how it smuggled them in is a bigger mystery.

I needed a special screwdriver to get the top off, which I didn’t own, nor did anyone I knew. The nest grew. The copier light that scanned the page just barely cleared the top of the nest as it grew upward. I finally had Jaime, my genius electrical and mechanical repair guy, come to the rescue. He took it home, removed the screws, removed the wasp and nest, and put new screws with a different head in. Our hero!

Look What’s Coming …

Another interesting critter crawled in one day, unannounced. Barbara, who lives with nature in the Northwest Territories of Canada, high above the Arctic Circle announced with a laugh one morning, “Look what’s coming over your board!” A multi-legged caterpillar with unbelievably furry extensions like a shag carpet hanging from its sides, boldly nosed over the top of my whiteboard. It looked like a float in a parade with a skirt of fringe hiding the wheels of the trailer!

One caterpillar I tried to pick up years ago looked like it had many tiny lime green pine trees branching out all over its body. When I consulted the local insect expert, Gail, she informed us of the highly toxic tips to those barbed pine branches. She even demonstrated with a prick to the tip of her finger, the resultant pain. It went immediately numb.

I didn’t plan to get close to this new little fuzzy beastie but it was worth a million pictures. You never know what’s just over the other side of your board, ever!

Cine y Cena Movie and Dinner Night

So far after 5 months, we’ve staged many dinner and movie nights and we have been so engrossed with the other members of the group over supper, that we haven’t yet seen a movie. One Friday evening Irma was cooking lots of Castel, or Amberjack filets for 18 of us. Somehow the invitation list just grew and grew.

One afternoon on the beach, I heard a couple of young guys playing guitar and mandolin and singing. I asked if they’d come to our dinner and play for us. The temptation of a good home cooked meal and some payment worked an instant deal. Pablo from a Chilean family, resident of Colorado, and Miguel, a best friend, and musicologist entertained with a great blend of new latino, old traditionals and a variety of 60s to 90s folk and a bit of rock. The highlight was Irma singing Las Mañanitas, the birthday song, with Pablo. I’d never actually heard the proper tune for the verses. Everyone was beaming. I’m sure the tequila, wine and beer helped. We might just give up the movies, and keep singing.

Don’t Just Do Something

I’m trying to minimize the stress and effort involved in the biannual migration back and forth to Canada. I’m pretty fixed on the alpine snows, pure glacial lakes, the beauty of the mountains, the kindness and humour of my friends and the culture in Canada. Not to mention a medical system that provides for my future needs. I might try just vacationing there.

I’m seriously addicted to both countries. I thought I’d look at buying in Mexico while here, and look there when there. The process would trigger some decisions, I was sure. I’ve been exploring and waiting for the right answer to appear while I process the options. As one friend quoted the Buddha: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Well, I’m constructively sitting, then.

Another Mexican is Born

Jeff, my neighbour, from San Francisco came back from a trip through the cities in the mountains north of Mexico City. He was so enthralled with the depth, majesty and grandeur of Mexico and its peoples that he wanted to immigrate immediately. He would put up with the loud music, and learn tolerance and become one with something this great. He came over to get the immigration officer’s phone number. He was so humbled and euphoric, that he waxed on and on – about how great it would be to live in a country that he felt this strongly about and that stood for something. Well, he left without the number, but I’m sure he’ll be back… forever. It was bound to happen.

Easter Week – Semana Santa

The winter has flown past, and Mexicans have descended on the coast for the Easter week. Many come for two weeks. The holiday is bigger than Christmas here. I retreated to the high Sierra Madre mountain town of San Andrés de Cohamiate – home to the Huichol Indians. The ceremonies are a spectacular blend of ancient pagan worship woven into Christian history. It was fueled by peyote, brought by peyoteros recently returned from a 300 mile hike to the desert east near Real de Catorze, and tehuino, a beer made from corn. The shamans led processions of Jesus on a cross around the town stopping at the stations of the cross, and into the temple. Outside they tied about 80 cows, bulls, sheep and goats. Saturday morning they sacrificed them in public. This was the blood of Jesus flowing, which was used to bless the gathering. Jesus looked on from the cross, embraced by a tourist, who seemed very much a natural part of the scene. Hope your Easter was as memorable and as thought-provoking.

For future students, past students and others browsing the courses offered at the Yelapa English Spanish Institute, click here. Options for a fun summer program are under development and will be posted soon.

Photos A Hot Winter’s Tale

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