Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

 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!

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