Spanish Study and Guided Travel in Mexico

spanish teacher in Yelapa and Sayulita, Mexico observes the culture

On the Road – October 2007

On the Road

For several years I’ve been watching my students “graduate” from weeks or months of Spanish and go on a trip  throughout Mexico. I’ve been much more sedentary maintaining the school program and moving between my home in Canada and Yelapa. This year I took the time to travel and to recharge myself with the thrills and experiences that only travel offers. As a result of my summer roaming, I developed my Spanish on the Road courses – classes and conversational coaching while travelling.These will be offered on occasional weekends in the Puerto Vallarta region, with a few one week trips planned. Please check out the details on the website and go to Courses.

Here are the exploits and diversions from my summer in Mexico!  I hope you enjoy.

Pizota – On the Grid

Yelapa used to have no electricity. December 2001 my house was connected, and little by little, the lights on the hillside lit up at night like fireflies. Well, we’ve all adjusted but when the electricity goes out as it can for an evening, there are the sighs from the villagers ah, como el Yelapa antigua ah, like the old Yelapa.  I live with candles for an evening, love the mood created, and vow I’ll revert to candles even when the electricity comes back on. That lasts about a day, before the convenience of good lighting and refrigeration sabotage my romantic desires.

Pizota is a little fishing village of 26 families just around the southern point of Yelapa, 10 minutes by boat. The workers were blazing through the jungle towards it with the posts in, when I decided to see the “old” Pizota one last time in May.  I met friends who had already kayaked there for breakfast. At the only store/ restaurant owned by Primitivo, we ate whole red snapper. Primitivo is excited by the new changes, and is in the midst of building a 2 story hotel – another first for Pizota. He brought out various hardcover books given to him with mysterious inscriptions – one purportedly signed by Walt Whitman himself, and another signed by John Huston.  We were excited until I realized that the great poet had died a century or so ago.
Primitivo recommended a tour to the giant tree. His 10 year old son and friend guided us to a certifiably huge higuera blanca or white fig tree, with roots branching from the lower limbs, extending it an additional 20 or 30 feet outward from the massive main trunk. The boys couldn’t date the tree but it doubtless was one their many ancestors would have played on as children too. I left hoping to hold the memory of the simplicity and innocence of that village to fortify me as changes sweep the rest of our “global” megalopolis.


Marine Day – June 1st

I’ve always missed Marine Day in Yelapa. Since it follows so closely on the heels of the Virgen de Guadalupe fiesta in Yelapa (May 4 – 12), I associated it with those dreaded cuetes or bottle rocket bombs that split the air with deafening explosion causing animals to flee into deep dark shelters, our aging hearts to skip a beat and fight or flight responses to activate. This year I attended Marine Day and not only was it devoid of bomb blasts, it was great fun.

One did have to avoid being “egged” in the simulated battles between rivaling pirate boats. A dozen or more boats were out in the harbour, someone racing on board with cardboard flats of 100 eggs each. They sped toward each other, eggs expertly tossed at their villainous opponents.  The egg wars extended onto the beach which was a short step away for a quick wash. Judging by the numbers of fully clad people hanging out in the ocean, there were many anointed in egg yolk that day! At beach side a whole canoe was filled with beer and ice, free for the taking.  Three or four tables of barbecued pig and fish were available to all. The pandemonium could be safely watched from higher perches above the feast where the elderly, the children and the wise, including myself, retreated.

After lots of consumption, the games began. There was a grudge race between the water taxis, Rayando del Sol or Shining Sun and The Beautiful Sea, won easily by the latter – an old military boat refitted as taxi.  And in my view offering a ride as comfortable as one would expect in the military!

The games on land commenced. Many sack racers hopped to glory, downed a beer at the half way, and returned somehow without upchucking. Games and beer consumption continued hand in hand. The pinnacle of the games was the greased pole climb. The whole 6 meters (20 ft) of it was black with a thick slippery grease. Tied by a short rope to 2 crossed studs on top were the prizes – the most coveted of which were bottles of alcohol. The only rule – get to the top and bring the glories down. The first attempt was a teen daredevil, Francisco, who ascended one or two meters and was blackened for his efforts. After the sprightly first round of glory seekers removed a good part of the grease, the wiser crowd started to think collectively. People pyramids appeared, bracing each other and those climbing their backs onto their shoulders, three and even four layers high. The women’s team was undeterred and tenacious until they won their booty!  Spunky 11 year old Izela nabbed a bottle towering above her peers.

If the boat and egg wars, races and pole climb, and endless beer didn’t keep everyone animated the DJ had them dancing to caliente latino numbers spicy enough that it was unimportant who or what your partner was!

The day coincided with the president’s inauguration of a new port in Vallarta, and all boat traffic ceased. We were happily isolated from the lack of marine transport in our own bubble of good fun, food and friends. What a happy life those pirates led!!  I’ll not miss another.

Buying a Car

Although there are no roads in Yelapa, and I really don’t like being in a car for very long, I decided I needed a car for those few weeks and weekends of wandering I’d like to do. I began the search through the Mano a Mano Hand to Hand weekly advertising flyer and visited car lots.  Some cars had quemacocos “burn coconuts” literally translated. I thought it was a technical term for some type of carburetor or catalytic converter. It’s a sunroof. Burn your coco with sun!!

Cars are often brought in from the U.S. especially Toyotas and Hondas.  If they’re 10 years old, they can be sold. They buy them cheaply and sell them for twice the price. The first one I saw I wanted, but the mechanics were closed on a Saturday, and it had no plates, so I wouldn’t drive it. Well, in Mexico you don’t need plates on a car to drive it. In fact, we witnessed a woman park an SUV in a no-park zone in front of a restaurant on the highway, across from the Transit Police station on a Sunday. They came over immediately and took off the plates. I expected a tow truck to haul its prey and the woman to call a taxi home. Instead she got in the car and drove home in front of the police. It’s hardly an inconvenience at all. I wonder how many plates the police have in their collection waiting to be claimed?

I also visited car lots in Guadalajara. To my surprise one car salesman wanted $100 to let me take the car for a test drive. It wasn’t a deposit either. I indicated my astonishment and they expressed indignation that I didn’t accept or understand their system. Some system!

Insurance seems to be entirely optional as well, and no one I talked to had any. I would want a good policy for covering other uninsured motorists.  In the end, I left the car buying to another day, possibly another country!

Corpus – Pátzcuaro, Jarácuaro and Comachuén

I revisited Pátzcuaro, Michoacán (see last BLOG entry). I had worked there 25 years ago, and had just come back from a 2 week visit in May. I returned again for the month of June to study Spanish Literature and further explore this very rich cultural community.

In late March when I was last there, it had been dry, very dry and I met Cresencio and Magdaleno sitting at the edge of their field waiting for the rain to be able to sew (sembrar) their seeds. By June, there was some rain, sufficient to auger hope and the seeds went in. It’s the Purepechan native custom for the farmers to throw a big party “Corpus” – it’s called, where they give away what they produce. The thinking is that if they give away their abundance it will be returned with abundant rains and the harvest. Somewhat similar to the northwest coast native potlatch.

I witnessed the downtown squares or zocalos and streets in  Patzcuaro change overnight to patterned pathways made of died wood chips. But I missed the ritual of Corpus due to an appointment. Can you imagine giving away the product of your labour to a populaton of over 50,000? I thought I’d try again next year for the ceremony.

One Sunday I arrived in the midst of Corpus in Jarácuaro, unaware it was a feast day. It’s a town where they make palm sombreros – many styles and many thousands. There were live bands playing mariachi style music and other bands playing the beautiful ballads of the Purepechan culture. A couple thousand visitors flooded the main square with expectation. Food was sold and eaten – strawberries with whipped cream from Zamora, lots of fresh blue and other varieties of corn boiled, skewered and slathered in cream, cheese, lime and chili pepper, pink cakes and cotton candy, which I thought didn’t exist any more – no doubt linked to cancer and only sold now in 3rd World Countries. At the church entrance was an altar decorated with corn and wheat stooks.

As the crowds flooded the main square, the clouds moved low and thickened to dark grey. In anticipation of the threatening rain, I went to a small store and asked Salvador, the owner, for a hat. Despite initial reluctance, he sold me a beautiful one with lining for $3. I gave him $5. Apparently one cannot sell crafts on Corpus.

Back in the square, people stood in their summer wear, holding babies, elders seated on low curbs, rounds of wood, and a few benches. Men appeared on roofs of buildings, or roamed through the crowd, opening the plastic bags upon bags of hats and other gifts. The crowd surged and condensed. There was room enough for your body and a bit of shoulder room with one hand raised to catch whatever flew your way. Then the hats whizzed through the air, some like frisbees, some floating high and feathering downward. Many fought for the same hat, which somehow survived the mangling. I was glad I had bought mine since I wasn’t up to the fight.

And then the rains began. Phenomenal rain right on cue. Give away your bounty and the rains will come, nourishing your crops for your continuance.  No one ran. We laughed and the bands played on – circling the whole crowd. It was insanely glorious. I’ve never experienced anything like it. When the thousands of hats were newly owned, we had a chance to look around and assess our riches. My booty was the many pictures I took, through the rain drops and with that outstretched arm. Sadly, none of these is really in focus.

That same weekend my friend, Elías Rodriguez went to Ihuatzio for Corpus, about 15 kms away on the eastern side of the lake. A feast that started in the public square went inside to private house parties and extended over the next few days.

Well, now I was in the know and started checking the town’s Corpus schedule. My neighbour, Ivan, came from a little village in the mountains, called Comachuén. It wasn’t even to be found on any local maps I had. He described how they decorated the buey or oxen teams, with cornstalks and flowers in the yokes or yuntas and pulled them in a parade around town.

I imagined Comachuén to be pristine and quaint. Once armed with directions, I headed out by bus. I arrived an hour later in the afternoon of the Copa de Oro Torneo de Futbol or  Gold Cup Soccer Tournament. Mexico was playing United States for a chance at the championship. The bus driver had the radio on and Mexico was winning 1 – 0. I had to watch the game. The town was surprisingly large and especially busy today. I asked for a restaurant, thinking there would be a TV. None existed, claimed a lovely woman, who invited me into her house, assuming I was hungry. When I explained I had to see the soccer game, she set me in a seat in the kitchen where I could see their TV in the next room. It was the largest flat-screen TV I have ever seen. They had obviously received abundance over the years!

The family was hurrying around preparing and loading up their wares for the Corpus festival. The villagers make wooden furniture. This family made wooden serviette holders and other small gift items, as well. Their van was loaded, with more objects tied to the roof, ready to go.  They were just waiting for me to accept Mexico’s defeat 2 – 1 and to leave. They would accept no payment since it was the day to give, but I tucked away a donation for their girls.

I found a spot above street level just as the oxen were being led to the head of the parade. Soon I met the owners of one oxen pair, held by a yoke or yunta that appeared familiar with the dress and the process. They were waiting for the rest of the procession. The next float was an altar of gladiolas with inside a toy-sized ox team and ox-driver. They paraded to the front of the church where the altars were then set down. Women pinned small gifts – bags of grapes, peanuts, embroidered napkins and doilies, little doll-sized embroidered shirts and the very traditional multiply-pleated skirts. Each act of giving would reap abundance.

I made my way past the food stands to the central square. Oddly enough no one sold any corn! Corn sold on the coast has the quality of cow corn. It’s tough and not particularly tasty, definitely not sweet like northern corn. I’d hoped to re-experience the blue corn fed upon at Jarácuaro. For some reason, Comachuén celebrates a cornless Corpus.

Arriving in the central square, I was amazed at the three professional stage assemblies with lighting and sound equipment to rival the best I’ve seen at any music festival at home. Somehow this sleepy “village” without a single restaurant was paying three bands to play – one a nationally famous recording band, and two others that played at international festivals. I puzzled over this for a while, then recalled that Mexico, and in particular, Michoacán is one of the states that receives great sums of money from “remittances” or earnings sent home from the U.S. Many Mexican expatriates pride themselves on throwing the biggest and best parties back home. Not much had changed in the 25 years since I’d worked in this region. They still didn’t have garbage collection, potable water or proper wastewater or septic treatment, but still prioritized fun!

Just as the band members were making an appearance, someone began firing off the cuetes , those rocket bombs from hell. They were numerous and low.  The results were surprising. The clouds that had hovered sparsely, moderately high above, now descended and in 15 minutes dumped their load. It was quite dramatic. NOW, I know why they love their cuetes – they “spark” the rain. And rain produces abundance. Somehow understanding this reason for them, made me go away with an acceptance, and a lesser resistance to them.

I left as the bands dueled for our attention with the thunder and rumble and ferocity of the rains. I didn’t wait to see how they would distribute the wooden chairs and tables and wooden knick knacks manufactured here. I was almost a little worried they might throw them to the crowds!

Mexico City and Teotihuacán

I lived briefly in Mexico City 25 years ago. Back then I worked for the Environment Ministry of government, and knew just how polluted the city was. Much of that problem was due to the 2.5 million cars that moved in and around this mountain valley daily. In spite of its congestion and contamination, I left marveling at the beauty of the city. I returned now to see the ancient ruins of Teotihuacán north of the city, to see the Frida Kahlo exposition of her paintings at the Museo de Bellas Artes, and to re-acquaint myself with the city since my last brief visit 14 years ago.

Teotihuacán is an hour north of Mexico City.  In Nahuatl, Teotihuacán means “birthplace of the Gods”. There is debate as to who built the ruins; once thought to be the pre-Aztec Toltecs, now it’s realized there were even earlier Olmec influences, believed to be the “mother” civilization of Mexico. Earliest buildings date from 200 B.C. and the largest Temple of the Sun was constructed around 100 B.C.  The culture collapsed around the 6th or 7th Century. Some believe this was due to invasion by the Toltecs, others note that only the noble’s buildings were sacked which might have been caused by internal uprising, others note there were extreme droughts due to climate changes.

The site today covers a massive area of 83 km2, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It was populated at its zenith with an estimated 150,000 to a maximum 250,000 people. It had no military fortifications, although they conquered throughout Mesoamerica. It was a centre of industry, with jewelers, potters and other craftsmen.

I arrived late in the day after winding through the mountains for 8 hrs from Pátzcuaro, feeling sick and tired. As soon as my feet hit the ground, and I got past the multitude steet vendors, I was energized by the size and magnificence of the site. I sat back and assessed how different these people appeared from the nations of indigenous people I knew from elsewhere in Mexico.

At the entrance lay the steep almost 200 stairs up to the top of the Temple of the Sun.  It was not so steep that anyone who attempted it could not do it. Poco a poco – little by little –  the daily adage a Mexican lives by, and one I’ve adopted with great results! At the top, I had the inspiration to call Canada on my cell phone. I was hoping to excite friends with my words from this temple of the Gods. No one was home.

Down below I rambled through the buildings on the outer edge of the Avenue of the Dead, marveling at the intricate detail of construction and the artistry still remaining in colour, inlay of obsidian and statues. I left after many kilometers of walkings at closing time, knowing my return visit must be a full day.  Mexico was lobbying to make Chichen Itza in the Yucatán one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the Internet sponsored process; it has so many marvelous sites I’d have trouble making that choice.

I spent Saturday night downtown at a very conveniently located YWCA two blocks off the Paseo de la Reforma, which is the busiest downtown corridor. The next morning, it was quiet. Ever Sunday the 12 or so blocks from the Angel of Independence to Juarez is closed to traffic. There were police at all the intersections to control through traffic. It was, however, open to non-motorized traffic – bikes, roller blades, joggers with and without dogs running alongside. I was in tears at the changes. There was a lack of smog! The air was breathable – no tears, no sinus attacks. This was unimaginable 20 years ago, and probably is not the case any busy mid-week morning!

Along the route, on foot I enjoyed the grandeur of the statues and other monuments. The National Lottery building had white angel wings painted on the side “wings” of the building – extending 200 ft on both sides. The Angel of Independence has stairs one can scale from the inside to a viewing platform. I talked to one biker who never misses a Sunday, and he spoke of the bike trails on outskirts of town that are used by those commuting to factories.  The city and its people are transforming.

Viva la Vida! – Frida Kahlo

What drew me into the city was the 100 yr anniversary of the birth of Frida Kahlo – Mexico’s painter of international fame for the feelings she painted, mostly in portraits of herself – with thick eyebrows almost joined and a slight moustache on ever portrait. She claimed there was no subject she knew better. In her short 47 years, only 30 years as a painter, she was the first to convey her raw emotion and pain in the surrealistic images of her experiences.  Around her she painted a Mexico she loved. She had two accidents in her life, she claimed – one was a tramway collision with a building which caused a metal rod to skewer her spinal column and uterus, breaking her column and one leg in several places. The other was Diego Rivera, her husband, the famous muralist.

Several movies have been made about her life (Frida! by Roberto Rodriguez starring Salma Hayek 2004, Frida by Paul Leduc starring Ophelia Medina 1994, Frida by ___ a retrospective mostly of her art 1983). Books are numerous – the ones by Raquel Tibol, a Chilean/ Mexican art historian who lived with Frida in her later years, perhaps the best.

The Museo de Bellas Artes devoted two floors to her art, and another to photography of her. It was a Sunday morning crush to view the work, but worth it. Her skills had evolved in a spiritual dimension way ahead of her time. Her artistry promoted her as one of the world’s great by the likes of Pablo Picasso. Her personal charm was also notable, as were her many affairs with men and women. Despite her pain and struggles, she loved life.  My favorite work – The Love Embrace of the Universe, The Earth (Mexico), Me and Señor Xolotl (1949) shows her mothering Diego in her arms as she and her world are embraced by Mother Earth (see at

For those of you who have missed her exposition, the house she was born in and she and Diego lived in is a museum in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. This year a previously unknown hidden inner chamber or room was opened after a letter from Frida was opened on this anniversary. She was a true enigma and gains warranted reverence as her audience grows.

Summer in Yelapa

I love returning to the coast after time in that other-world of interior Mexico. There’s a different magic, an excitement or expectation, an anything – goes kind of attitude, an acceptance and tolerance of many different influences, an easy going culture. And there’s a casual beauty of the Pacific coast that’s so inviting. It’s home most of the year and a great “reception room” to the rest of Mexico for travelers. I look forward to receiving you there sometime!

Spanish on the Road


I’ve developed some programs to invite students to travel with me while on some of these adventures to see more of Mexico, a way that most tourists would not. I offer two hours of classes daily and conversational Spanish as we travel, and assistance and back-up when you’re conversing in the real world. This Spanish on the Road includes some weekend locations within a short drive of Puerto Vallarta, and some one-week tours that include Pátzcuaro (naturally), San Sebastian to Talpa in the near mountains and through Tepic to San Blas for a cultural tour visiting both indigenous museums and villages as well as natural jewels in the environment (the crystal lake of Santa Clara de Oro and the estuary and river jungle environment of San Blas, renown for its birding).

On the Road Gallery

Please check the Website to see the further details, or join us in our exciting regular program with activities after classes (see ). This year we’ll also offer overnight camping expeditions up the river to the waterfalls (




















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Interlude – Yelapa and Beyond – May 2007

Interlude – Yelapa and Beyond

Spring Review and Ruminations

The winter season has flown by, as does much of my time here in Mexico.

It was a wonderful season of very inspired and inspiring students. But it was time to come out of my absorption for teaching Spanish and for Yelapa. I realized how much I also want to travel to other parts of Mexico. This year I booked some weeks away. I went to San Sebastian, my nearest mountain retreat that is a 70 km drive way. Another few days were spent in “magical” Pátzcuaro in Michoacan., or, as they bill it, the alma or soul of Mexico. This was soon after followed by two weeks there again, and I’m now on the verge of spending a whole month there, for some further travels and adventures.

May’s gone, June’s here. It’s usually very hot and dry, with no breezes. This year it’s been marvelous, cool evenings and mornings and hot mid-day with breezes throughout.. I hear from my friends in Canada that they’re still waiting for enough consecutive warm days to be able to plant their gardens. As I watch a Hermit hummingbird with beautiful long white tail feeding on a hot pink hibiscus, I reflect on how much I’ll miss this tropical haven. It’s wonderful to see how everything has slowed down .Yelapa transforms from a little village busied by tourist demands to a Mexican pueblo resurfacing to its former leisurely pace, with time enough to watch life go by. That’s the pace I enjoy the most, time to sit and just talk about the passing of a burro, or remark on the growth of the newest baby.

Huichol Easter

I booked time to go to the Huichol (wee-chole) homeland for their Easter or Semana Santa celebrations. After years of getting to know Alejandro, the visiting Huichol artist, and buying his beaded carvings, jewelry and yarn art pictures, and learning some of the customs and various words in their language, virárika, I knew it was time to meet his people and explore their homelands of steep mountain canyons and flat tablelands or mesas. I was all the more thrilled to fly by small plane. We arrived at the ceremonial center of San Andres de Cohamiate, northwest of Guadalajara, at an altitutde of 6,200 ft in the Sierra Madre mountains. This story will be told in a later Blog, as it might have addendum at least if not a sequel soon.

· Note to Reader – the accent mark in Spanish, in Virárika and in Purépechan does not change the sound of the vowel it is on, but instead puts stress on that syllable (eg. vi- RA-ri-ka; poo-RE-pe-chan).

Magical Pátzcuaro (PATScooa-ro)


Twenty two years ago I lobbied hard to escape the pollution of Mexico City, where I had been working on environmental impact studies, funded by the Canadian government. I was given a chance to work five hours west of Mexico City on the inception of a program to restore quality of the environment in the watershed of Pátzcuaro Lake in the state of Michoacán (mechoacán is nahuatl spoken by the Aztecs for “place of fish or fishermen”). It was an ambitious program and still is.

The lake was the gathering place for the Purépechan natives, who at the time of Spanish conquest were fishers and farmers. They fought against invading barbarians, and against the Aztecs who fought to extend their kingdom, but were never conquered. The Purépechans were very refined in their social organization, some forms remaining today in religious celebrations, public services such as joint community building. Their knowledge of the environment included a soil classification system more advanced than that used today by international foundations. They used copper for work tools not common at their time. Their artisans were organized under chiefs, and even today each town specializes in a craft.

When Cortez arrived, the Purepechan king, Zuanga, denied the Aztecs the help requested to defeat the Spanish. When Zuanga realized his mistake, later accounts report he either drowned himself or died of smallpox. Shortly after the conquest, a Catholic priest named Vasco del Quiroga, became a greatly admired benefactor and guide for the natives who were previously abused and enslaved by the governing Spanish. He built hospitals and organized the already well-trained artisans by town to produce crafts and arts, that today are still produced.

Pátzcuaro Revisited

I arrived for two days in March and was happy to find the two matrons, Antonia y Marister, still running their Posada de Salud (Inn of Health). They are now nearing 80 years of age, still actively running the show and living up to the name for their hotel! Since I had never had the opportunity to explore the region when working there, I now jumped into taxis and plagued the drivers with questions and commands to discover some of the many towns, with their special craft or trade. I was exhilarated but exhausted when I left and knew I’d be back one day.

Well six weeks later I and the traveling cat, Miette, were refugees from the cohetes or cuetes (bottle rockets or firecrackers) of Yelapa’s celebation of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. We were headed to Guanajuato, to the north of Michoacan. Instead Patzcuaro drew me back as familiar territory, and was close to Guanajuato for a side trip.

I also had planned to do some studies of latinamerican literature and those troubling aspects of Spanish grammar that the books don’t ever explain, and each native speaker, when asked, has a different answer. Well, I didn’t ever go to Guanajuato. I stayed in Patzcuaro, happy with my studies and constantly stimulated with the town and the villages and their artisans around the lake. In two weeks I spoke English with one person. Quite a contrast from the language use on the coast.

A Village A Day

Each day I went somewhere. It took much of an evening to figure out which towns had what crafts and art forms, and much of a morning practicing how to say them – try Erongarícuaro or Cucuchucho or Ucazanáztacua (oo-ca-sa- nas-ta-kwa)!!!”.

Taxi drivers are inexpensive guides in Patzcuaro, and the first ride was to the famous copper crafts town of Santa Clara del Cobre only 24 kms away. Here their historic use of copper has been put to great economic gain. Everything almost can be made of copper. From a key chain, mirror frame, candle holder, huge bathtub, to roofs. You can even go to their workshops to view them in action.

One Monday I went only 10 kilometers to Tócuaro, the town of wood carvers. The town seemed very closed behind high gates and concrete barriers, with no evidence of life. I guess artists like their privacy. I called through one fenced yard and met Jaime and his daughter, Maricela, son-in-law, Freddy, and his wife – all of whom were carving figures of ducks from reeds stacked, bound and dried. Since I have a real bond with marshes and ducks as a former biologist who used to count them in duck surveys, of course, I bought one. I had plans to return with gift ducks for everyone.

I was then directed to another door, marked with a carved moon. Gustavo Orta lived here, Jaime’s brother. He’s a master carver, although it took 20 years away from his home town, and a dream of a tree on a mountain at home that wouldn’t leave him, to figure this out. He’s now well renowned for his masks featured in various magazines such as Mexico Desconocido (June 2005), with a history of expositions in the United States. He works with one piece of wood, often copalito, and can carve complex figures usually representing the devil, a popular theme in Purehepechan celebrations, the dark side with which to contrast the good, life and death. Gustavo likes to speak of the spiritual message and researches ancient traditions. It was clear he felt deeply what he does. It made it all the easier to connect with the artwork. My favorite mask was the devil, horned, with an owl representing protection and snakes surrounding the devil’s head. His prices are very reasonable considering his skills and probable collector’s price in the U.S.

I knocked on another door, just about any one of which would likely be a carver. This one yielded Felipe Horta. No relation to Gustavo. He was very voluble and had many works. Every new question resulted in another corner of the room being presented and new masks uncovered. He started with some older original versions, and the later more advanced work that seemed to show a drastic leap in the quality of work he created. He, like Gustavo, has sold in the United States and is no stranger to self-promotion.  He paints the masks with intricate detailing, like car art and tattoo design. His spiritual connection was not as apparent as with Gustavo, but his works were skilled, blended with modern tastes. I left both wondering how to carry any purchases home by bus.

Another village, Jarácuaro, 2 kilometers down the road from Tócuaro, used to be an island. Sadly, they petitioned for a causeway to be built to link them with the lakeshore. Someone did, and poorly. The road was built right on top of several of the main spring sources (manantiales) of water for the lake. The lake levels dropped drastically. The lake is now a marsh, but the plus is that it’s one of the best places to watch birds. I saw several “firsts” here, such as the glossy ibis – large, deep velvet maroon coloured heron family member and tons of water- walking jacanas – a brown and yellow “coot-like” bird that walks on very long-toed feet on the lily pads over the water

The government sold the newly created land to the farmers, possibly another plus. However, they have been allowed to unwisely hack back the reeds and have plowed right to the water’s edge. The lack of vegetation along the edge of the lake allows sediments eroded by water from throughout the upper levels to flow directly into the lake. The lake is filling with sediments and drying up. These sediments are full of toxins from farm chemical use (fertilizers, etc.) and other sources. The many fish that once thrived here have been drastically reduced in number.

Economically the village is doing well, since it’s served by local transit now every 10 min. bringing tourists and business It’s renown for making sombreros. I didn’t have to walk far to find the first home “factory”. A family business owned by Gloria, with a showroom of hundreds of hats in more styles than I could ever have imagined existed. There were the traditional cowboy hats of the western movies, the traditional Mexican cowboy hat. I found a new hat that all the Mexicans in Yelapa are coveting and people follow me in Puerto Vallarta just to ask where I bought my hat!!.

Gloria showed me how they braid thin strips of palm leave into very long braids. These are then sewn together in very narrow concentric circles or rings. The more circles, the higher cost of production and price. She even modeled a decadent summer fun hat for ladies that I can’t imagine many seriously using since its very wide brim hung down to one’s chest, unless pinned up. I of course left wondering how I could buy a car load and get them to Canada for sale. More curious was the fact that I hadn’t seen very many of these styles before on the coast, and resolved to help with their marketing if possible. Down the street I met María who made nothing but strips of palm used by the hat makers. The townsfolk were very friendly and there was lots of life in the streets.

One day I spent visiting the ruins of the former cities of the Purehepechan empire – Ahuitzio (a-wee-tsee-o) and Tzintzuntzan (tseen-tsoon-tsan). The first ruler of the natives of this area established Pátzcuaro as the seat of the kingdom. He subdivided the rule to his nephews to three zones: Pátzcuaro (shortened from Zacapu Hamúcutin Pátzcuaro (where the stones are found at the entrance of paradise) , Ihuatzio (Place of Coyotes) and Tzintzuntzan (place of the hummingbirds). The rulers of the latter two shifted the ruling center to their towns and built temples.

Ihuatzio is on a flat plane with great views of the lake and surrounding hills. I went with Rogelio, a very personable and knowledgeable taxi driver. It was his favorite ruin site, since it was more expansive and less touristy. We were the only ones there, except for the admissions attendant. He worked out of a small cabin, which had a cedar shade tile roof. The first evidence of this type of roofing I’ve seen in Mexico. Coming from the cedar-infested wet west coast of Canada, I wondered if there was some equivalent wood here that was similarly resistant to bugs and waterproof like cedar. It is used in many wooden cabin in the region.

The site was first occupied by nahuatl-speaking indigenous peoples, then from 1200 to1522 occupied by the Purepechans. Only a small portion of the total 50 ha site has been unearthed, primarily the Plaza of Arms. Today it consists of two 50 ft monuments of rectangular shape. Like many other temple sites it was used to concentrate soldiers, as a meeting place for the tribes in grand assemblies, for games and ceremonies, and some suggest as an astronomical observatory.

Tzintzuntzan was the ruling site of the Purepechan empire at the time of conquest. It’s located only 17 km away from Patzcuaro along the lake, less than 10 kms from Ihuatzio. It is located on an steeply banked hill with views of most of the lakeshore. It is constructed with five circular mounds budded off a long rectangular structure, that stretches a few hundred meters in length. Today there’s a nice museum with information available. The several sources of information I checked vary their views on whether the royals inhabited, whether priests were buried, whether sacrifices were performed. More digging required to unearth the truth?

Both sites are impressive. Ihuatzio has a feel of being more of an outpost in a rugged wind-swept environment. Tzintzuntzan has a more cultured setting suggestive of easier living conditions in a more hospitable environment.

Outside Ihuatzio I stopped the taxi to take a picture of nopal cactuses in full bloom, although this was the driest of seasons. Nearby sat two men looking more like something the wind blew against the stone fences than campesinos (farmers) surveying their fields. They presented themselves with the most beautiful names from antiquity. Cresencio and Magdaleno. They were also very simply beautiful in their manner. Magdaleno tried out a word or two in several languages he had picked up from tourist contact. A little German, only a bit less French than I knew, some well pronounced English, and of course fluent Purepechan and easily understood Spanish. They sat waiting for the rain, to sew the seeds in the fields, and by the looks of them, for a good scrub in the tub. They were relics and the sense of where they came from, who they were, what they represented is etched deeply in my being. It was like I had visited 100 years past with the knowledge, priviledge and comfort of the present. We shared some sense of the collective spirit.

Another day I set out in the VW van public transport or “combis” for an afternoon to the same area to explore the village of Ihuatzio and get to the lakeshore. As the numbers of passengers dwindled, I explained my objective and the driver proposed for a little more money he would be my guide and take me further north along the lake to where one could get to the lakeshore. Most of it was privately owned and not accessible. José Alfredo Pablo Silvestre (“wild” the last name translates) came from Cucuchucho (koo-koo-choo-cho), the last public stop along the lake shore. The name came from cucucheo, the name for the rounded stones which are hollowed out and used to water the cows. On closer inspection, I believe these were the layers of usually igneous rocks that concentrate around some mineral or ore concentrate – like rings of an onion. They fall off.

We drove a bit further north to Ucazanaztacua (Oo- ka-sa- nas-ta-kwa), where a public path led steeply down the banks to the lake edge where cows were given access for drinking. It was not the wild marsh or lovely lake for dipping I had hoped for. The neighbour had chopped reeds to the edge to give his cows a few more feet of possibly edible swamp grass. José Alfredo spoke with great love for the lakeside life and history of his people. He showed me the gray water treatment plant built on a pilot basis in his town by government. One stage used marsh plants that filtered the polluted water and restored it to a higher quality. More of the region needs to be assisted to build such structures.

He spoke of other development problems – the recent invasion of foreigners and nationals who have bought up areas of the lakeshore and built mansions. This was not the “magic” of Pátzcuaro that people came looking for. His town had solved this problem. No one was allowed to sell to an outsider. One man needed money desperately and did. The buyer was ex-militia from Mexico. He brought in machines. The people stopped him from progressing any further. He was given his money back, and the precedent was reversed. The villagers want to maintain the village lands for their families in the form that they collectively choose. I truly hope they can keep this form of socially conscious land planning alive and keep the low-life politicians from selling quality of life in exchange for higher economic value.

Volcán de Paricutín – There’s a Volcano in the Cornfield

I read a children’s story about a farmer in a little village in Mexico, who complained that nothing ever changed. One day while plowing the field with an arado or plow and ox, the plow got stuck in a hole, and then sunk into it as the hole grew, with smoke billowing out. A volcano was growing. This story turns out to be true. The man was Dionisio Pulido and the village was San Salvador Paricutín, about 70 km northwest of Pátzcuaro. I visited the nearest village of Angahuan. As I stepped off the bus, a small wiry old man with a chewed up hat and a dirty white bandage wrapped diagonally over his head covering his left eye, asked me if I needed some horses. He was a guide. I asked if he remembered the volcano. Luck was with me. He was 13 then, and remembered all the details like it was yesterday. Francisco Lazaro Ramirez is now 76 years old. Aside from the knock on the head and an injured eye from a roof caving in on him, he had the vigor of a man many decades younger. I opted to walk to the edge of the lava flow with him. I’m a quick walker, but I was scurrying to keep up.

The smoke from the volcano began at 3 p.m. on February 20, 1943. By 9 p.m. fire was shooting upward and the lava began to flow. Both the village of Paricutín (pop. 40) and the larger San Juan Parangarícutiro (pop. 2000) had to evacuate. By 1952 the lava field had covered 20 sq km. Amazing that there was not a single death.

The lava flow to the north stopped just after it buried the cathedral in San Juan. We covered the distance there in a half hour. It was an eerie spectacle. The church date of 1618 remains visible, and one tower complete with bell, and there’s still access to the altar. Many left offerings and flowers here. The volcano itself is visible in the distance, at least a two hour walk away. There’s a new San Juan (San Juan Nuevo) now located to the south, or due west of Uruapan.

We walked back to town, him still striding along, me still scurrying but fatigued. We watched the village women, all in full long skirts, rebosos (shawls) over their heads, with several kids in tow, headed to the church, all carrying flowers. In the month of May, they pay homage to Guadalupe, the patron saint, with daily flower offerings. There are cabins for rent at the edge of town en route to the volcano where mosaic tile murals depict the Virgen Mary wearing the same local reboso (shawl) as the local women.

We parted just in time for me to catch the last bus. I paid him well for his generous time and history, and left him my new hat. I hope when you get there, he’ll still be there to greet you. The chance is very good. He told me of an aunt who reached 136 years, and another in the family attained 145 years. Sounds like a place where legends are made!

This was a glimpse of a region rich in history and a very unique culture, even for Mexico, full of uniqueness. I am headed there for the month of June to continue to study, explore, meet new people and to write a book. The weather on the coast is truly marvelous, with breezes to cool the days, which are normally very hot this time of year. I hate to leave, but am drawn on by all those things in life I want to do. I’m extending again my return ticket to Canada for another month or so.

In this blog, I’d also like to introduce two features that I hope to run continually – Artist at Work and Yelapa’s Elders.

Artist at Work

Deimoz Rojas Nuñez is 40 years old, born in Santiago, Chile and a resident of Mexico for 32 years, mostly D.F. (day – e- fay for District Federal), and six years here. He was trained in private schools and in art colleges in Mexico City. As a sculptor, he has works spread throughout Yelapa’s gardens and terraces. He has a rare talent to make found objects like rusted machine parts into innovative art. In recent years, he’s turned to painting, with wonderful results. He’s had shows in Taos, New Mexico and Yelapa. Marketing is no artist’s strength. He has a pile of highly original and expressive paintings under his table in Yelapa waiting to be bought and an agent in Taos with a supply. Contact Deimoz for a showing when you’re here or in the U.S., Taos, New Mexico. He’s using his creativity now as a teacher with YESI spanish program and having fun with his students.

Yelapa’s Elders

Primitivo García – under revision

Summer Program -Yelapa English Spanish Institute (YESI)

Should any of you be interested in studying in Pátzcuaro, I will be teaching this summer in June and also in August. Courses are also offered in Yelapa throughout this period, with Deimoz and others assisting. We’re also offering San Sebastian in the mountains east of Vallarta as a summer location.

Please view the website for details – and note under Courses – Summer Program. Courses are offered year round in Yelapa. Please consult by email or follow the signs from the red brick house on stilts above the village..


Photos Interlude – Yelapa Beyond

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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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Slowing Down in Yelapa – Dec 2006

November Hot!!

It was so hot in October and most of November. This followed the hottest June to September period reportedly known for at least 30 years. One of my students, Nicola from Saltspring Island, B.C. announced, “Now I really know why we have eyebrows!”. One hot day in November I witnessed a group of boys, who couldn’t give up soccer on a hot day, adapt an odd variant – river soccer. For weeks the Mexican greeting was “Cuándo va a cambiar el clima?” When’s this weather going to change?

Then one day it did. The night was drastically cold on Nov 20th – thank God! Gracias a Dios! I brought out the down quilt. Now in mid-December the colder weather begins in earnest and it’s hard to believe it was ever that hot. Nicola now tells me she wears everything she’s got and climbs under the covers to keep warm in the evening, since it’s too cold to work (at her art). Last night at the open mic jam at Mimi’s restaurant, as the temperature suddenly warmed, she went to remove a layer or two and realized she’d be stripping down to her pyjama tops if she did.

The contrasts of hot and cold season, and daytime heat (bikini hot) and nighttime cold (flannel pyjama cold), is hard to believe in Mexico until you experience it. I’m sure Nicola never did when I told her about “winter” in Yelapa. I’m sure even fewer Canadians will sympathize.


Slow Down, you Move Too Fast!

I have decided to not work as hard this year. That’s fortunate, since as you’ll read there are not as many tourists in Mexico. To ensure I keep my promise, I’ve fallen, twice, on my right hand. Hard. So hard, I’ve made the students get up and write on the board. So hard, that I couldn’t type for a month. So hard, I hired a gardener to do the digging. A mason to tile my floors. I like this new life.

Just as I began to think I could accelerate a bit, I hit my left ankle on the ladder coming down from the loft to answer an early phone call. I hit it very hard. I had a very sore and swollen left foot. I recovered a bit, but a few days later I fell in my new shoes and almost broke my right third toe. I think my life is supposed to be mellower than my almost youthful self believes I want to live.

Years ago Byron, one of the oldest Americans here, would shout at me “slow down” as I sped upriver or down to make it to a class I was teaching. He seemed angry. I ignored him. I continued to move quickly in my long, purposeful stride. Well, this year, eight years later, I saw a woman beetling along the path in the village, moving almost painfully fast. She didn’t look comfortable at all. I began to get it! Then one day as I ducked out of a class I was teaching at Ana Rosa’s in the village, to buy some coffee for the class, I heard Jeff, Myra’s American husband, shout “You’re not late!” I laughed and I think now I might just be getting it, maybe. These injuries plaguing me are definitely causing me to tread more carefully, maybe even slow down … I’ll still ignore Byron out of habit.

The Coco Connection

Cocos are diminishing in Yelapa. Or is it Mexico. The drink of the Gods is not margaritas or piña coladas or some alcoholic beverage, but rather agua de coco. It’s pure, slightly sweet, thirst quenching and has health benefits, including healing for sore stomachs and a cure for parasites. They are only sold at the Coco bar/restaurant on the beach in Yelapa. They cost 30 pesos each! That’s almost the price of a mixed drink here with alcohol. In Vallarta agua de coco costs 12 pesos, almost one third the price of cocos in Yelapa

Cocos in the trees aren’t scarce here. No one wants to climb the palms to get them anymore, I was told. Someone broke their leg a few years ago, and since then it’s been a hard profession to sell. The trees are very dangerous to climb. Although I have watched at least one veteran 50 year old Pablo, Galdino’s son, shimmy up in no time, using no protective or climbing gear of any sort.

In Vallarta I asked the vendor at the little store there, where they get cocos from. They bring them from Tomatlan, about a 3 hour drive to the south. He says the palms along the coast in PV are on property owned by the resorts and can not be harvested. Here’s a hot stock tip – invest in cocos!

Enter an American with a good idea. Charlie is a tree limber from Tucson. He has the gear to go up trees. He can climb the highest trees and get those cocos like no one else here. This could be a great job for any local boy. Or for a number of locals going up and down the coast. Coco-busters!

Save the Trees

Three students, Dalia, Marta, Dan, and myself joined Alejandro Díaz for a naturalist’s hike. We focussed on the trees, most of which had poetic native names like huatapil, trompeta, guaco, and pochote. The pochote’s large almond-shaped seeds explode into a puff of cotton fluff the size of a grapefruit. Locals used them to stuff pillows, but it’s much easier today to buy new ones, says Alejandro. We gazed in awe at the largest of the jungle giants, the parota tree. One fills the field near the high school. Each tree has a history that unites people. “You know that tree in the field up near San Sebastian?” I asked Alejandro. Sure enough. When a tree dwarfs almost everything on the horizon, they are apt to be legends.

Philippo Lo Grande, local artist and magician, told me about the recently ousted mayor of Puerto Vallarta. The city and new council are suing him for selling off two shady parks to developers to construct two underground parking lots. The citizens protested to no avail. A block away from one of these construction zones, I saw graphically the importance that locals had given to trees in the past. There’s a multi-storey building of red brick with a tree right through the middle of the brick wall, still healthy with lots of growing room left for it!


Dance it Up!

Pedro came from Ashland Oregon where he teaches Latin dance. He offered his services to the schools. The director of the Secundaria (grades 7 – 9) was glad to have his help but thought we should start with the Mexican cumbía. The 12 year old students were not impressed. They wanted regatón, a rap-salsa-hip hop new beat dance I’d never heard of. At 12 years of age they didn’t get the romance in a couple moving too slowly around each other. This group was composed of those who didn’t join the regular “ballet folklorico” that wins all sorts of high school folk dance competitions. Dancing wouldn’t be their first choice. “But it was fun and a good cultural exchange. Pedro from Ashland returned and exclained un fracasón – a great failure!! Thanks Pedro for trying to motivate a class of unwilling teenagers to try something new.


Jan from Vancouver did a home stay with Ana Rosa and Ronco. Ana Rosa is a marvellous cook, and Jan was telling her so. Or so she thought. However instead of saying una buena cocinera she told her she was una buena cochinera. A cochina being a swine, in the derogatory sense of the word when used with humans, this was a good laugh. Ana Rosa loved to talk to Jan and her friends since many such gaffes continued to amuse her all week.

Beware the Resaca

Betina and Roberto from Vancouver, raised on opposite coasts, are experienced swimmers who swam at the main beach as much as they could, even despite very high waters and abnormally rough surf. They were both bounced around cruelly one day. They both had a very difficult experience coming out of the water one day, and were dragged back in a few times by the undertow or resaca. They realized fighting the resaca was not the best plan, and conserved their energy for another successful attempt and got onto dry shores. The very high oceans except at full moon are not typical . Even very experienced swimmers should take caution and not underestimate the seas. No one has drowned here, but don’t leave your survival instincts at home!

Shoes in the Jungle/ The Optimal Jungle Shoe

I found my shoe today. It’s a leather sandal, one broad strap across the toes, easy to slip into and very comfy. I last saw it a month ago. I had looked everywhere in the house. I either dreamed it or I actually threw it at some marauding racoon or feuding cats. So, I looked outside in the yard. Although the jungle in my “yard” had been cut back in mid October, it was rapidly becoming a jungle again. Yesterday Eddy hacked it back viciously for an hour or two. While herding the chickens away from my compost afterwards, I thought about my shoe. If Eddy hadn’t come across it, it was gone, I concluded. I glanced along the edges among the weeds. There it was, slightly deteriorated, but with a little tea tree oil rubbed into the leather to fight the fungus, looks new again. I have vowed not to sacrifice any personal items or body parts in my further feuds with the wildlife.

Wherever you go in Yelapa, you need a good pair of shoes. There are concrete and cobblestone paths in the village, but mostly the trails are dirt, dust, rocks, sometimes animal droppings, and in the wet seasons or very high tides, water and mud. Shoes are to survival here what snow tires are to winter drivers. I’ve been trying to find the perfect pair for years.

Some like Bev, my massage therapist, swear that shoeless is the only way to go. Other published professionals also rave about natural posture and no footware. However, the roving veterinarian, Roberto, told me he saw signs of parasites in the feet of children in the next village carried from dog feces. My instincts have always warned me to wear something.

I have tried flip flops, and thrown them away quickly as they’re made for casual wear, not serious trecking in a mountainous village. I’ve tried the various tevas and teva knock-offs and seen the blistered Chaco crowd pass through. I thought, I’m in Mexico, I’ll try Mexican huaraches. You’ve seen them. They’re the leather braided sandals, usually soled with rubber tires. The leather stretches to the feet. But they lack any arch support or heel support and a day spent on concrete in PV is almost debilitating.

I went to my chiropractor last week. He has worn Crocs for 1.5 years and wishes he had a commission for every one he’s referred to the shoe shop. They’re made of some synthetic plastic resin that moulds to your feet. They’re usually bright and quite goofy looking. They’re worn losely, remniscent of toddlers trying on their parent’s shoes. This is so there are no pressure points anywhere. They have a very cushy feel to them. Even the die-hard barefoot Bev has shown me her new Crocs. Last January my friends from Vancouver all came down sporting the newest colours in Crocs and swore by them. So after the Dr.’s words, I went straight down to Vallarta’s Croc shop, and paid 33% more here than in Vancouver. They’re bright lime green, they’re splashy and everyone asked me about them as I strutted. They seemed envious.

I had them less than a week before I slipped on a rock on a path I walk everyday. I’ve never fallen before. The spill was so spectacular and so unexpected, I’ve revisited the site to figure out how I could have survived that fall with my spine intact. Perhaps that’s where my chiropractor receives his payback. Crocs have no treads, or little to speak of, and I find them sometimes hot. I have now retired them for house wear, or just standing around on my patio, or beach parades. I have a very purple third toe, that is fortunately not broken. I’ve had fun painting all my toenails deep purple to match. Should anyone have any great ideas for foot wear (sandals) that have arch support, sturdy materials for soles that don’t wear down quickly, good treads, breathable, don’t cause blisters, please send me a line. URGENT.

Where Are the Tourists?

It’s the week before Christmas and all through Mexico, … we wait for one of the principal engines driving the economy – the tourist. Or better yet, many tourists. A flood of tourists. There are no tourists in Mexico, or relatively few, or certainly fewer than hoped. We’re hoping that changes by Christmas. Mexicans have given up their self-sufficiency and let the tourism industry determine their fate.

First of all, I should not belittle that first wave of Canadians. The Canadian exodus is as reliable as snow in Canada. I once was part of that front of defectors as we drove from Calgary on October 31, 1999 toYelapa. The same B.C.and Alberta licence plates leap-frogged past each other through several states. This year there’s an obvious Canadian population passing through and lots of news from home.

Some thought with a change in American politics this fall, there’d be more euphoria in the populace that would flow south with the new feelings of optimistism. Not so. The streets of Vallarta have been only slightly touristed. Some claim it’s the fault of all-inclusive vacation packages which trap the tourist in one resort and no one leaves to spend any money elsewhere. I had heard about travel advisories issuied by U.S. State Department. Carolina at Tortilla Flats in Vallarta read one and it’s because of the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca, the terrorists in Michoacan and the ongoing Zapatista revolt in Chiapas. These incidents are sporadic and very restricted. To cross a nation off the holiday destination list suggests to me that someone again doesn’t have other news to report or needs a new boogie man to deflect negative attention to matters at home. Please tell EVERYONE you know that Mexico is muy pacifico – very peaceful.

Thanks to all of you especially for coming here!! Spread the word – Mexico is as friendly and safe as it always has been, or more so. Come on down – better yet – bring a friend or a family!

Santa’s Here

“When did Santa Clause arrive?” – ¿Cuándo llegó Santa Claus? – I asked as I stood in an unbearably long line-up to re-connect my phone. There were big and small Santas everywhere in the centro commercial and radios blaring “Jingle Bells” and songs about snow. I thought I had escaped that Christmas commercialism – one of the huge attractions of Mexico. Years ago in Yelapa there were several Nativity scenes in front of homes. These were assortments of sheep, camels, burros and barnyard scenes in miniature with baby Jesus in a manger, shepherds,etc. Now only a few are ever displayed. I only hope there are still some inside the homes. Christmas gift buying and that scene are really reduced here relatively speaking. As more Mexicans return home from the U.S., they come with new customs and possibly more disposable income. Kids even go out trick or treating on October 31st in Vallarta! The discussion in the line up was lively. Most could not quite put a finger on it, but Santa Claus has arrived in Mexico. Guess what? He looks very gringo.

Work in Mexico for Mexicans

The Mexican emigration dilemna. Most Mexicans don’t stay home to make their fortune. They’ve always been sold the belief that they must be in the United States to make money. I’ve been asking friends here about their families. I would estimate that almost every Mexican I know comes from a family that has lost 50% or more of it’s members to immigration or alienation to the United States. Enrique and Emma had 10 kids, seven are in San Jose. Irma and Angel have three of four there. Ana Rosa’s son, Nelson, and daughter-in-law left their three year old daughter with the grandmas. It’s been a year already. My friend, Estela in San Sebastian has nine brothers and sisters, five are in the US. Of her four kids, three are there. Even her father moved there. Her husband is there half the year. She said if I knew I would be alone as a wife, I would have stayed with my mother!! There are many tales of such heartbreak.

Now the newly inaugurated president, Felipe Calderón, made an election speech where he pledged his commitment to making jobs to keep Mexicans home working. A brilliant idea. How? We’ll wait and see.

I see many foreigners in Mexico trying to figure out how to stay here in this tropical paradise. There are many, many hungry time-share salespersons in PV. Others are starting obvious businesses that are lacking. In Yelapa, no one had a hardware store, even a small one to sell nails, until Robin, an American woman, began one. Angel, my landlord, had always talked about it, but … There are many people who could start a Spanish school in Mexico. I should be working for them!

What’s missing? I think the obvious is a lack of money to invest. I know my personal small successes have been due to a credit union in Canada that gives all sorts of breaks to small businesses. The Nobel Peace Laureate from India who started a bank to advance loans to small business deserved that prize. I’ve seen many Mexican families get computers and very quickly become wizards in their use. They’re bright and very open to innovation, so lack of training would be easy to overcome.

I guess one New Year’s wish would be that many of the young people who leave will return and guide the way for Mexicans who do want to stay in Mexico. I’ll certainly do my best to help them earn a good living.

Have a great New Year 2007 and peace and happiness to all! Thanks for all your support in 2006 and throughout. Drop a line if you’ve ideas, comments and news (on shoes, or such like….)


Photos Slowing Down in Yelapa


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Mid-summer’s Tropical Experience – Sept 2006


August 22, 2006

The summer of 2005 I played and worked in Yelapa for three weeks, when July was one of the coolest, friendliest on record. This summer, friends tell me it was the hottest in at least twenty five years. It started with no rain for over 8 months, and the humidity built up daily as the air and ocean heated up. There was no relief with the much-needed rains until late in July. I now know hot humid. But for all the challenges of the climate, it is quite exceptionally beautiful in the summer. Part 1 is the previous entry. Read on.. for Part 2 of my summer in Yelapa.

Las Lluvias Torrenciales (yoo-vias to-ren-sial-es) – The Torrential Rains

There is now lots of rain. The highest daily rainfall I recorded so far has been 60 mm (about 2.5 inches). The waterfalls in the village deserves now to be the major tourist destination that it is. They ride horses from the beach here daily. When I arrived on the 6th of July, the restaurant owners sent their well-practiced adult sons to climb up the rocks to the top of the approximately 50 ft falls, where they channeled more of the water from the upper pools to cause a temporary greater flow over the lip. The falls would otherwise have been somewhat of a disappointment. NOW there’s NO need for “padding” the falls. We’ve had classes here daily, and enjoyed the fresh cool water in the pool, and the very low-key non-commercialized restaurant at its edge.

Espiridion, or Piri, the gray-haired patriarch of the family who runs the restaurant, has not changed it much over the last 20 years, since I first came here. Most others would have made it a tourist trap, but to his credit he’s kept the restaurant operation small and very family-run. All the family stop in to eat. We practice Spanish with the family over the remains of their daily fish meal during – la comida – the big mid-day meal. Lunch at noon and supper at 6 pm don’t register as important eating occasions. They eat big mid-day and light, if anything later in the evening.

A large group of us rode and walked to – Las Cascadas -the upper waterfalls one hour up the Tuito River with Alejandro Diaz, our naturalist guide. There was more water than I’ve ever seen in the falls. It wasn’t possible to back into the falls and behind the curtain of water, as we’ve always been able to do. It was still lots of fun for all, especially the young kids, Leonora and Sam, who had lots of help swimming upstream.

One Gringo’s Rainhat

Not many tourists and very very few “resident” gringos live in Yelapa in the summer. Chris Moses, artist, loves the summers, contrary to some gringos who find life here hot and dull. He grew up in Los Angeles but lived until last summer’s hurricane in New Orleans, and now resides in Alabama. He misses the beaches of the west coast.

His hat tells a story of ingenuity in the tropical rains. He uses Cuban cigar labels, easily acquired here, and Pacifico beer labels, even more easily acquired, weaves them in the gaps in his straw hat, and lacquers the works. Is it art or eccentricity?

La Virgen de Abundancia

Although I had no students who wanted to study in the cool, tall, green mountains of the Sierra Madres at San Sebastian this summer, I did make the trip a few times myself. It’s a short 70 km from Vallarta. It has colonial architecture and is distinctly Mexican devoid of foreigners.

At the church, there was a mango tree full of pendulous lush mangos. To see them reminded me of my friend, Maria, who was told 20 years ago that she was a – mango madura – “ripe mango” by a Mexican admirer of all women. The mangos here in Yelapa are infected with some bug or fungus that make the mangos fall off before they’re ripe. I have a yard full of fallen guavas and mangos most of the year, not edible and full of insects. So to see this tree in San Sebastian begging to be eaten was too much of a temptation. But of course everything hung too high to be picked. I scavenged below it. No luck.

After a cruise around the main square, I came back to take a photo of a statue of the Virgen, with the mangos in the background. “La Virgen de Abunduncia” the Virgen of Abundance, I dubbed her. Just as I was about to leave, she threw a huge mango from the tree at my feet. Well, that’s my imagination, but the mango was real.

Cakes – Tortas or Pasteles

I had bought a recipe book of cakes or pasteles, that I thought might give Rosita, the town cake baker, some new ideas. She baked a small “test” cake one night. It was flavourful, but dry – definitely not her usual magic. We met again at Rosita’s for another celebration. It was the end of the week, and the first Friday of their new satellite dish – any excuse for a cake. I recalled a low-fat low-sugar pineapple yogurt upside down cake Rosita made last summer. – Dicho y hecho – (dee-cho ee ay-cho) Said and done. She redeemed herself as I knew she would when left to her own instincts. We ate many, many large pieces.

I ordered a “Tres Leches Cake” from Jaime at Pollo Bollo. It’s a rich treat, often served at weddings. Tres leches means “three milks”. It’s a 5-egg white cake which is, after baking and cooling, soaked in 3 cups of 3 different milks (whole milk or evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and cream). Then topped with another cup of whipped cream. Add a bit of rum for fun!

The origin is uncertain, the end result divine! Although it’s very popular in Nicaragua, where some believe it originated, the recipe might have come from a label of evaporated milk. Or was it a local tradition usurped and made popular by good old Carnation? An easy recipe found at:

The group around the cake grew at every house I visited. We all had at least 2 pieces, I quit counting at three. It was a nice send off to one family study group – the Holmgren parents, Patti and Jorge, hijos “sons and daughters”, Travis and Terra, and friends, Nan and Ina, from Seattle, and Merrianne from Montreal. We sang lots of songs, ate lots of great food, even studied some Spanish and I waved them off loaded down with calories for the boat voyage out with “buen viaje” (boo-en vee-ah-hay) – have a good trip.

Now in Spanish a cake is “una torta” except in Mexico. Here a torta is a sandwich made with a “bolillo” or bread roll. In Mexico, a cake is “un pastel”, which elsewhere is a pie. Here pie is “pay”. We’re witnesses and culprits to the Spanglish that evolves here.


One of my students, Ina, arrived with a spider phobia. She was ready to check out first day. But she was working to overcome this fear. Her partner wore a huge spider t-shirt. I thought it best NOT to show her the spider in my kitchen cabinet with a body that measure 3 inches long, with a leg span of 12 inches!! I’ve been told recently that this “scorpion spider” which kills scorpions, in not truly a spider at all, but a relative of the crab. I’ve never heard word of them biting humans.

I have no phobias but I freaked upon seeing a very wooly, thick large spider on my bathroom floor. I instantly killed it with a broom. I thought it was a Tarantula. Wrong – they have smooth bodies. Mine had enough “fur” on its big body to make a Canadian trap-happy. I left it out to identify later, but the fire ants got to it first. I had my chance again Friday night as I prepared supper. As I stepped toward the radio an even larger one blocked my path. The 2nd spider fatality of the week. This one I stretched out and photographed. It was unbelievably big, the length of a Bic lighter. I could see how one might develop a phobia.

Knitting in Mexico

They can embroider and crochet up a mean doily or a border on a tortilla cover cloth, and even an enticing see-through bikini. But when Christina arrived with a simple knit pattern for a scarf and worked some simple stitches with her needles, they were totally perplexed. It would be an interesting project for any of my future students to bring some yarn and needles to teach them to make some winter sweaters for kids, which really ARE needed here for the chilly December nights.

The Mother of all Storms- maybe – August 15, 2006

A really big storm moved through last night after 3 days without any rain. I got up to the raucous sound of explosions and a light show that would easily put any man-made pyrotechnic event to shame. I draped plastic over my new door to the balcony, and put a wash basin where the one known leak was from this balcony to my downstairs desk. I surveyed the downstairs and placed a few more pots. Miette, the cat, was very wide-eyed and edgey, so I held her through the loudest thunder. I convinced her that the safest place in a thunderstorm was a dry bed, and without fuss we headed under the dry cotton sheets.

I turned off the lights, lay my head down, and “SPLAT” big rain drops smacked me hard on the forehead. The palapa roof could not handle the volume of water of this storm. A meter of the crown above the bed was dripping steadily, and solid thick drops fell, splashed on the bed, on the bed supports above, slid down the electric wiring, and dripped horrifyingly from the bare light bulb. So much for my shelter from the storm. I raced for more tubs and plastic sheets to drape over the bed.

When I stemmed the tide, I joined the cat for a comforting snack – in my case a taco from Ramona’s movie “theater” – a double car-port sized concrete bunker where locals can view two movies a night. In my minimal night wear for this heat, I was soon a target for the tiniest no-see-ums or “gegenes” (hay-hay-nes). In the column of light below the bulb (not still dripping water, gracias a Dios), there were hundreds of these microscopic vampires hovering above the table. Draping a pareo (pa-ray-o) or shawl, around my shoulders, pulling up my knees into my shroud, I sat and read Joseph Conrad’s the Heart of Darkness. I could see how someone could be driven to madness in the depths of the jungle. There’s one summer insect, a cicada perhaps, that cheeeeeerps SO loudly, that the eardrum buzzes. It hurts. Can you imagine thousands of them at once?

Palapa Insulation

I finally broke through the roof of my house. Really, it was the side of the upstairs topanco or loft. The palm leave roof is very thick, so it’s a great insulator and resistent for many years of tropical rains (except for the crown, see above). Each rib of each compound palm leave is split,and then each rib is stacked tight against each other. The leaves of one row go right, the leaves of the next row go left, etc. So that there’s great breathability, and yet immense resistance and insulation. It took an hour to saw through with a hacksaw – not easily destroyed.

From my new door, I have a little patio on the bathroom roof, with stars to count when I can’t sleep, whales and birds to watch during the day. The raccoons haven’t yet discovered the new playground. Miette, the cat, is still surprised to have a new door, since for years she’s been jumping up on the “window” and walking on a narrow rib ledge to jump down onto it.

Gato Amarillo (Yellow Cat) or “Extra”

I’ve had a cat living on my patio for over four years. She arrived when I first opened the school on the hill. Maulliando (mow-yan-do)– or mewing mucho (a lot!). I had many cats in Canada and didn’t want another. I tried placing her to many new homes, but she always made her way back. I reluctantly named her, not wanting to form an attachment. Extra. She has sat in on every class and should be the best trained Spanish student. She certainly has the best attendance record. When I go away for a few months at a time, she suffers terribly. No one else will chop up pork chops, or feed her tuna, or homemade eggs and brown rice and she doesn’t like dry cat food. This spring she refused the fresh fish and chicken Irma and Angel fed her! She was a skeleton when I returned.

Enter the hero – the new travelling vet, Roberto Alvarado, comes almost daily from Vallarta. He has been filling the gap left by Pamela, who is working in Vallarta for the summer. I told him my starving summer cat dilemna and he graciously adopted her. He named her Ripley, after a horror movie about aliens. Those of you who know Extra might wonder about the comparison. She’s charming, playful and very suitable for adoption. She’s always had some skin or other condition to make it tough to export her. So Extra fans will be happy to hear she’s getting top of the line Science Diet food and the best of care. She even lives with a puppy who she has trained to stay in line.

Hiking Adventures – A LONG Short-Cut to Las Juntas y Los Veranos

I’ve been visiting some of the local communities nearby these last few weeks. One is Las Juntas y Los Veranos. Las Juntas are the union of two rivers. Los Veranos are the alluvial plains along a river. The word actually means summer. It doesn’t exist as a geographical term in any dictionary. It’s another traditional word that Rosita and other locals who grew up in these mountains seem to know. And coincidentally lots of local Mexicans spend much of their summers cooling off in the river here. I approached Ramon, my friend and YESI guide, about a hiking trip from Yelapa. He claimed it would take about 4 hours. I added another hour at least to his estimate to be safe.

Ramon and I and Beverly headed out early. She’s another intrepid Canadian who has lived in the wilderness of northern Canada (I don’t mean 1 hour north of Whistler, either!) with boat-in access only, eating moose meat as a staple. The trip to Las Juntas is incredibly beautiful and not difficult since it’s mostly gently rolling river banks and only one stretch of uphill. There are endless crossings of wonderfully cool rivers to soak in. We saw chicle trees, the tree which produces the sap used to make rubber, and saw evidence of past tapping or “milking” of the tree. No surprise where “chiclet” comes from. All went well, very well, even the one uphill climb to the height of land between here and there. But the hours wore on. After we broke down a few times and lay in various pools and snacked on all combined food energy treats, we finally made it to Las Juntas and Los Veranos – 7.5 hours later. Not a casual hike.

Bev, who I credit as having the only pair of truly happy feet I’ve ever seen, walked the whole way without shoes. Ramon and I put shoes on for the long stretches of upland. But these were very few and far between. I have not been toughening up my feet. At day’s end, my feet were very sensitive, mostly at the tips of the toes and the heel,where my feet and shoes collided against each other. I might go totally descalzo “shoeless” the next time. I soaked my feet in hot water, poured the rest over me and massaged arnica cream into my knees. I happily survived with great memories. Ramon chose an hour massage from Bev over cash as payment for his guiding services.

The Orcones River in Las Juntas offers several great swimming holes, jungle surrounding, the town has a few nice restaurants, and two canopy tours or “zip” lines. For those of you not familiar, these are cables hung from platforms suspended from the trees, fairly high up. They were developed to do tree canopy research by biologists in Costa Rica. The recreational use was quickly marketed and there are now several in Vallarta. “Canopy Tours de Los Veranos” has one cable that’s 1/4 mile (about 400 m) and at least 30 m above the river bottom. Muy emocionante. Very exciting. The designer who laid out the course was an extreme skiier and it’s built with thrills.

I’m not a thrill seeker. The course was fun and exciting, and handled with such expertise and precise timing by the professional guides that we were finished before I had any time for doubts. Christina and I enjoyed the experience, including the handsome guides, and followed it with play time with the numerous monkeys in their “petting” zoo at the restaurant afterwards. The river is super swimming and basking in the sun. A great place to spend the day.

Yes, we have Frogs and Crabs

I had one student arrive during a power failure. She switched accommodation thinking to go for the “luxury” at the Hotel Lagunita. She booked out of Yelapa on the first boat the next morning, with a brief explanatory note; “There are frog and crabs in Yelapa”. Yes, there are frogs. The toads are on the road. They aren’t a disincentive to most people. I arrived home the other night to have something hop onto a garbage bag on the floor. I pulled the bag, something hopped on me. I jumped and threw the garbage bag. The cat raced for the exit. The greenest bug-eyed frog flew onto my bright blue wooden chair and hung there for most of the night, mistaken in his concepts of camouflage.

The Crab Migration

The onset of the fierce summer rains bring on the crab migration to the sea. The many thousands that annually head downhill didn’t appear this year; some say because of the long dry spell. To hear the story told by some summer visitors, the crabs cover everything – the roads, the walls of your house, and drop off of buildings. Apparently it’s a Hitchcock movie to be made.

This year it didn’t happen, but there are certainly still crabs everywhere. Daily I chase at least one from the sink with my soup spoon. One morning I went to grab a hair clip from inside the mosquito net where I line them up nightly – a red, blue and a brown one. I realized too late the brown one was a crab, waving its angry tentacles at me. I knocked it off its grasp of the net, and it fell on the sleeping cat, Miette, who raced out of the safe shelter looking back at her – poca loca – “little bit crazy” human companion.

Fireworks and Thunder

For years I’ve run from loud noise. Yelapa’s perfect – no cars, and other than roosters, barking dogs and mules and loud Mexican music occasionally, all of which is balanced with the masking noise of surf, insect and bird calls. EXCEPT for the “cuetes” (coo-ay-tes) or firecrackers. Actually, they’re rocket bombs that violently explode. They’re meant to be alarming. The Priest is the culprit. Five years ago I first heard the announcement for morning mass and thought we were in the middle of a war zone. One cuete, after another. The priest was relentless. At Christmas and New Years, we were treated to a half dozen or more.

Everyone’s cats and dogs vanished into the hills. It’s common to see – Recompensa – or Reward signs posted for lost “gringo” animals. This could be a fund-raising technique if the priest wanted to get more church building money. Scare the dogs, find the dogs, collect reward money.

In 2001 the priest and I conflicted on “this charming Mexican tradition”. My cat, Miette, fled to the hills and didn’t come back for 5 days and nights. I went out searching day and night, until I found her – very weak and sick with a respiratory infection that was fortunately cured. I subsequently went to the priest and told him – no es un acto de Dios, es un acto de terrorismo! – It’s not an Act of God, it’s an act of Terrorism. He was surprisingly unsurprised by my announcement. – Tienes que respetar las tradiciones de México– You have to respect the traditions of Mexico, he said. The battle went on for the season. If people didn’t respond to the two rounds of about 300 peals of the church bells, I didn’t think they really wanted to be in church. But he insisted the rockets were needed to wake up those accustomed to the bells. I promised I’d buy an alarm clock for everyone in the village. I was desperate. Some villagers actually said they were not bothered by the noise, a few admitted they liked it.

My objections were even discussed at a Friday evening mass. The priest’s intentions were good obviously – he wanted people in the church, especially the young teenagers and young adults. Drugs were becoming a problem and he wanted them to rally around the church. He even brought a live religious rock bank and had them play one weekend in the church – full volume. At least he didn’t use the rockets that weekend!

My situation was discussed by the dear old ladies in town. Eva at the little “hardware odds and ends” next door to the church would greet me with – Juanita, va a estar cuetes hoy– “Jeannie, there’s going to be rocket bombs today,” she’d taunt me and laugh. And I’d go ballistic. All the ladies downtown then knew how to goad me. I learned to laugh about begrudgingly.

Now other to town have begun to react. There’s a 10 day Virgen of Guadalupe fiesta here in May that is non-stop morning cuetes from 4:30 a.m. on and at various times throughout the day. By all accounts it’s not a restful period. Tourists stay away in droves.

This summer I was witness to some wonderfully amazing electrical storms. The thunder was so loud, my cat of course wanted to run. But it came from everywhere at once. There was no clear direction for an escape. I’ve come to believe that perhaps the Mexican love of loud noise (this extends to much more than cuetes) comes from their indigenous roots and their close ties to nature. The amazing thundering noises of the storms, imitated by the thundering noises of the drums, imitated by the thundering noise of the cuetes.

So, today I read in the Puerto Vallarta Tribune – “Mexico Wins International Fireworks Festival in Vancouver, Canada”. My home town hosts a competition of pyrotechnic wizards “The Celebration of Light” . This year it was Italy, China, the Czec Republic and Mexico. One evening per week for 30 minutes, a country lights up the skies, and sets the show to music. It’s phenomenal. Some might wonder how China, the inventor of dynamite might possibly lose to Mexico. I personally am not surprised at a Mexican victory – all the priests were probably behind it!

Election Results

New developments daily on the Mexican election results. The votes from over half of the election polling stations are being recounted. Many of them are in Mexico City, which has about a third of the population of the nation. Lopez Obrador and his Partido Revolucionario Democratico is staging a one day manifestacion (ma-nee-fes-ta-tion) or protest demonstration for the 16th of September – Mexican Independence Day. Many Mexicans are digusted with electoral fraud, many don’t want any trouble. Some locals I have consulted want Felipe Calderon under PAN to rule, as was decreed after the initial count, simply to allow the country to move forward. My friend, Piri, who runs the Cascadas Restaurant in town, says that Mexicans have grown used to democracy under 6 years of PAN leadership and now will not accept fraud. It’s a growing nation of people and I look forward to see how they resolve the split situation. What’s very interesting is that they are NOT accepting a stolen election.

A lesson learned.

Hope to see you for the next winter season beginning November. Mimi’s teaching classes for YESI school until then. I’m headed back to Canada to lie in the first snowfield in the alpine I find.

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Politics and Pests in Paradise – July 2006

Politics and Pests in Paradise

If you’re expecting my regular uppish blog about life in this paradise, I’m afraid you’re in for a surprise. I try to avoid mixing politics and teaching, but this is an exception, since I …. I guess I’m political! (which in Spanish means polite – I don’t know that politicians are).

Also I’ve written about scary biting critters and awful heat, all of which are truly manageable.

As I sat on my patio with an ocean view tonight, listening to the glorious insect sounds, smelling my night flowering jasmine bush, watching the beautiful fire flies (I’d forgotten how excited I was to see them as a child), and catching any stray puff of wind, I realize just how good it really is here. There’s always something to adjust to in any environment, and the first week is always mostly joy to be back and a bit of a trial. Read on for the details.

Mexican National Elections July 2, 2006

I arrived back in Puerto Vallarta on July 5th. Most important was to find out the results of the presidential election, which had occurred 3 days earlier. I walked the streets, read the headlines. It was a race too close to call for the serious contenders, the very left-wing Partido Revolucionario Democrático, led by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, leading a coalition – Por el Bien de Todos – For the Good of All, and the PAN conservatives led by Felipe Calderon. The old guard PRI Partido Revolucionario Institucional who trade marked and institutionalized corruption were a not so distant 3rd. I asked the people. Who do you want to win? Obrador “he’s for the poor people, like us” said one small corner store owner. The taxi driver, – Calderon, he’s for the working people -. A newspaper stand owner, -PAN, a growing economy is good for everybody -. Yelapa voted PRI, hard to believe! Mascota, a little village in the mountains 100 kms from here, voted Green Party.

The tallies daily changed in favor of one or the other. The election results would be determined only when all the polls were counted. Obrador was winning onWed p.m. the 5th with 400,000 votes. On Thursday at 5 p.m. Calderon won with 200,000 votes . Obrador claimed fraud and is taking it to the courts. Calderon’s very close win is based on votes in the conservative last-counted northern and western , mostly industrialized areas, modeled on their northern neighbour. He offered to include Obador in his cabinet, knowing he’d never join.

The newly elected leftist government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was among the early callers, claiming PAN estaba – al servicio de la oligarquía y del imperialismo – “was at the service of the oligarchy and imperialism” and with the further criticism that no government should be able to win an election based on 0.6% difference in the vote. Calderon diverges from the stance of former PAN president Vicente Fox in that he promises to maintain constructive relations with Cuba and Venezuela. Calderon further promises to invest in programs in Mexico to help avoid migration to the United States.

Just a couple of notes on the accomplishments of the previous 6 year term of the PAN from the July 8th newspaper “Publico”. The price of the tortilla, the staple of the Mexican diet, in some places the only food eaten daily with a little salsa, rose 80% in 6 years compared to the 5.38% inflation rate. The first plane that arrived back from the United States with 68 migrantes under the voluntary repatriation program for Mexicans without citizenship documents, were told who won the election. All stated that after a rest they would try again to enter the U.S.

A Party Primer

A fascinating primer on Mexican politics, by Andres Oppenheimer “Bordering on Chaos” relates horrific stories of government mis-spending by PRI, the non-stop ruling party since the revolution until 2000. He’s a Pullitzer prize winning journalist for his account of the Iran-Contra Affair, and the Mexico correspondent for the Miami Herald. In one chapter, he tracks the history of the mistreatment of the Indians in the state of Chiapas that lead to the Chiapas Revolution of January 1st, 1994. It’s one of the richest states in Mexico in resources with the poorest people.

Rather than real solutions to the problems be put in place, money was given to political friends by various governors to mollify the people – an $11 million second airport so far out of the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez as to be virtually useless, a state of the art hospital situated in a jungle community at a cost of several millions, for a community of few people. Shortly after opening, with great political pomp, its staff basically vacated it due to lack of use. There’s a multi-million dollar theatre built in San Cristobal with all the best of modern technology for 100,000 of mostly indigenous people who could never afford a ticket.

The Hard Lessons Learned at Home

Here in Mexico the stories are legendary. I lived and worked 20 years ago in Patzcuaro and Morelia, Michoacan. The highway to Mexico city hadn’t been completed (a 2 lane paved highway) in over ten years of generous government contracts to their families and friends. Twenty years later, not much has changed despite what the campaign ads claimed – Méjico ya cambió -“ Mexico now has changed”.

In Yelapa, in spring of 2005 they built a new dock on the north side of the bay to replace the one destroyed by the hurricane of October 26, 2003. It’s a lovely new dock. However, the dock is at least a meter too high. It’s NEVER used except in unusually high tides – twice this last 6 months. Mexicans don’t seem to be indignant at all. They’re used to generous contracts for political friends and useless projects.

Over the 17 years I’ve been visiting Yelapa, I’ve seen the “Water Project” worked on, with sporadic bursts of spending. It consists of 6” plastic pipe laid down in a shallow trench from the village to the first river crossing about 3 or 4 kms upriver, to where a pump house has been built. These pipes have been replaced 3 times now. You can still see vestiges of the old pipe used by the locals to make corrals or feeding troughs.

In the village where the pipes are above ground and solid steel, sections where they’ve rusted have been replaced. The whole above ground portion has been painted bright blue. Each 5 gallon pail of the paint costs $200US. About 1.5 kms of electricity cable run from the last house upriver to the pump house (approximately 25 poles carried by man and horse-power from the beach). A reservoir 8 meters in diameter, several meters high, has been built uphill from this pumphouse to receive and store the river water. It was completed last spring, a year ago. None were connected to any of the houses to this system along the way. Not a drop of water has flowed through the system. I think the pipe would be a great children’s art project for the Casa de Imaginacion – to paint flowers and animals on the bright blue pipeline.

A comical, political satire on Mexican politics by the brilliant Mexican director Luis Estrada, “El Ley de Herodes” or The Law of Herod recounts the story of a small time PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – the ruling party by every imaginable ploy for 74 years) politician, who is appointed the mayor of a small town. There’s no money left in the budget due to all previous corrupt mayors. He’s told to interpret the constitution to be able to impose taxes, fines and fees. Originally a kind-hearted honest man, he becomes a political monster in the span of less than one short movie year.

Viva la Revolución!

Apathy is the anathema for change. In Mexico they expect corruption. – Hay un dicho – There’s a saying — un politico pobre es un pobre politico –. “A poor [no money] politician is a poor politician!”

Fidel Castro triumphantly stated – “Yesterday we were a handful of men; today, we are an entire people conquering the future”. Marcos, spokesman for the EZLN, Zapatista National Liberation Army that fought for indigenous rights in Chiapas, claimed that in the case of Mexico’s modern day revolutionaries…“Yesterday we were an entire people conquering the future; today, we are a handful of men.”

Some days it’s hard to start a revolution. I keep haranguing the Americans I know not to join the diaspora of Americans fleeing their country to Canada and Mexico and the rest of the world in fear of persecution for their views on democracy. Start a revolution! The feedback amounts to a mediocre “oh” and a few “you’re crazy. We’re too comfortable.”

Back to Reality – Hot and No Rain

Upon my arrival in Mexico July 5th, I phoned my students in Yelapa, who had been left in the charming hands of Mimi, my summer teacher, restaurateur of Mimi’s Café Bazzar, and mother of four. Alan from Kansas immediately announced it was very hot with no wind, and 100% humidity. “If it was 100% it would be raining.” I chirped encouragingly. That’s what was needed. Rain. Only one storm or “tormenta” had occurred in almost 8.5 months. The afternoon showers and overnight storms with spectacular lightning displays, usual for this time of year, had NOT begun.

I thoroughly enjoyed the shower we had in Puerto Vallarta. Unfortunately it had NOT occurred in Yelapa. Yelapa was drying up. The good news was the Water Project was amounting to more than dollars spent. Workers were digging trenches to lay water lines to each house to connect the upriver reservoir constructed almost 1 1/2 years earlier. This “support the rich” project spending dollars politically was almost a happening.  The pipes are in. I asked my friend Ramon Díaz, "Do you think we’ll have water?" and he said –
– Nunca –  Never.  It was his corral that started the popular blue water pipe fence fashion years ago.

Miette the cat was panting – jadeando – and I wished I could. I was front, back, top and bottom – soaked through all my clothes from sweat. I thought about a shower, then realized I’d be soaked again by the time I reached my class. We needed rain. There was thunder in the hills, clouds piled up, then blew away.

Saturday 6:00 a.m.July 8th Reprieve

It’s almost always the first thing people say “no llueve todavía” It’s still not raining. Hard to imagine that since early October only one night of rain has fallen. This should be a sand-swept dessert. It is anything but, remarkably. The trees are verdant green and blooming. Their roots must be stretched to earth’s other side, or they have evolved to maximize use of moisture in the air. The air is heavy with moisture but mostly still. Perspiration runs off a body like rain water. The air is expectant with the promise of rain.

Last night it sounded like a lot of rain fell, with lightning and the noise of thunder. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. I checked my rain-meter – a brown plastic tub sitting on my patio – a rejected idea for a warm water bath that could never happen given the size of the water heaters here. Only 9 mm fell in truth, but it felt like the floodgates from the skies had opened.

Saturday July 8th, 5 p.m. –Shopping in Puerto Vallarta was horrible due to the incredible heat. It even felt hot in the air conditioned buildings. I guess my body was not cooling fast enough. The Yelapa 4 p.m. boat departed on time for Mexico, 15 minutes late. Rita in the seat ahead put on a coral pink raincoat, and I peered into the distant gray. It was raining ahead. I had hundreds of dollars of books and papers as cargo. Fortunately I had packed a garbage bag. I donned my survival garb, and wrapped it around the books as well, and bore down for the horizontal rain we drove straight into. Most of the youngsters lay on the bottom of the boat. I felt like abandoning decorum and sliding down amongst them. I clutched my garbage bag around my head, surely less noble in appearance than I hoped.

The seas were calm but we sliced through a lot of water for 30 minutes, meant only for the stoic. As I trudged up the hill, wet but for a change, cool, I was cheered by the thought that I didn’t have to water the plants and we could talk daily now about other things! I measured my bathtub water meter – 55 mm, most of it (46 mm or about 1.75 inches) in a short downpour. IT RAINED!!! Thanks for all your prayers. Now try concentrating on my current Lottery ticket!

Enter – the Insects

The cat, Extra, who lived on my balcony, returned home screaming for food. Despite daily feedings left for her, she was skinnier than I could imagine a living cat. She would only eat Tuna, not the kibble that was left for her all summer. I went to get another flavour of dry cat food I’d stored in the storeroom. Turkey and vegetables, something perhaps more delightful to her palette. As I carried it kitchenward, I felt the first sting – an invasion of ants was living INSIDE the cat food bag. Although all taped up, these tiniest of ants, fire ants, had laid claim to the whole 3 kg bag. Having saved the bag in the first place, only to be found in one store in Vallarta, I wasn’t about to give it up. How to salvage it? I pulled out the red handled strainer with holes that probably would permit these tiny ants to pass through. Success- Exito! – I strained and stored the food in the largest of yogurt containers in the fridge, and crushed or drowned the ants.

If that seemed less than yogic of me, I was about to receive my karmic due. I was preparing to tuck in and up to the loft or “topanco” I went. As I prepared the bed, I realized the mosquito net had not been tied down for who knew how long. A blanket was thinly spread over the mattress. Miette, the cat, stretched across the middle of the it, very cranky from the heat, and hissing her dissatisfaction as I moved her off the blanket. At the same time as heeding her warning and avoiding her claws, I kept my eyes open, wondering where I’d be if I was a scorpion. Sure enough, a small yellow one was waving its barbed poisonous tail menacingly as I lifted the blanket. It was situated about where I’d have laid my head, if I’d been too exchausted to think and check carefully. These are the most toxic of the three scorpions known for the area. I chose “ A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving for my weapon, and slid the scorpion inside and pressed hard.

This in fact was the 2nd scorpion of the day. The other favorite hiding spot for them in my house is on the bathroom fabric curtain dividing it from the kitchen. This one was a BIG yellow one. I chased it with a broom handle and big stone until we connected. I lay the specimen out for new students to witness. Coincidentally its old suit, a perfect replica of skin, lay beside it. The armies of red ants didn’t leave it alone for very long.

To allay the fears of my readers, scorpions are NOT that commonly witnessed. The fact that I’d seen 2 in one afternoon is testimony to the fact that no one had lived in the house for months. They had moved in, and not far enough out of the way for my liking. The one in the bed has unnerved me sufficiently to send me to my computer, rather than to enjoy that relaxed, welcomed and deserved sleep I’d planned. The curtain will be changed to plastic and the mosquito net will always remain properly in place.

I didn’t have a fire ant problem last summer. However, Irma and Angel probably sprayed and I haven’t let them near the place with pesticides, even the one friendly to plants that Angel offered me. Tonight after picking up a chicken bone off the floor, and receiving many nasty bites from these little horrors, I’ve decided to see Angel first thing tomorrow about that can of nasty chemicals.

Insects Rule 

Other insects are also fully present in the summers. Any light or flame draws multitudes. Only the mentally afflicted dare wear a Petzl head lamp. Some of the beetles are so large that when they collide with you, not an infrequent occurrence near any light source, it genuinely causes pain and definitely shock. Many beetles remain stranded on their backs on the floor. Here’s where those fearless tiny red ants and their unstoppable columns come in useful. The smallest insect down is immediately surrounded and devoured. The bad news is it’s impossible to put down a plate of cat food for more than a minute. Everything has its place in the jungle. Except perhaps we humans.

World Cup Soccer Finals – July 9, 2006

Football mania is on the rise. The big headliner FIFA World Cup Football (soccer) Final is Sunday at noon. Italy and France. Who would miss it? The vote from Lalo, Octavio and Jorge at the dock in PV was for Italy. Ana Rosa’s family with whom I watched the first half were all for France. For the 2nd half, Merriane from Montreal, Quebec and I headed to the billiard hall with the huge TV screen. Never a woman inside, so we broke convention.

They couldn’t have been sweeter – offering chairs, and even putting a curtain on the bathroom, previously unnecessary. They all seemed fans of Italy, I found out as I let out a “whoopee” at some French moment of glory. It was all but glorious to see France lose after 2 overtime periods and a 5 penalty kick shoot out. Especially not glorious to see Zidane, their captain, resort to a vindictive head butt of a player in retaliation for a yet to be determined oral offence, and then kicked off the field. Even Guanajuatan David’s dog was recruited in Italy’s cheering section – paws clapping after each brilliant move.

The Kinder Grad

As mentioned in previous entries, they celebrate just about everything here in Mexico. The kindergarten students had a huge graduation celebration. In Canada I worked as a teaching assistant in a K to 3 one room school house, and we would get most often the regular few moms who weren’t working come to activities and a rare dad. This event was very well attended by just about anyone who was a parent of any school aged child AND the others interested in seeing such cuteness!! Check the pics! There were lots of photo ops and they were decked out in beautiful graduating class whites.

The most amazing thing is how well behaved Mexican children are. There was no screaming, fighting, crying or chasing each other around. Imagine 25 kids, aged 5-6 years sitting without parents at a table patiently waiting at least 20 minutes for food, with 3 beautifully iced cakes sitting on the tables in front of them. No little fingers in the icing. At one point they let out a chant of – Pollo, pollo, pollo – “chicken, chicken, chicken” knowing they all were waiting for Jaime’s famous barbecued pollo from his restaurant Pollo Bollo (chicken bun? – makes no sense, but rhymes). I’m always amazed at Mexican patience. At 6 they’ve already developed it. I might have it mastered at 60!

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Spring and the Cycle of Life – May 2006


For those Canadians who won’t leave Canada because they love the seasons, I say “bah!”. There are NO seasons in Mexico???? Tell that to those who froze to death this winter. On a happier note, spring in Mexico has all the magic and hormonal jump-start that northerners feel and see. The hills here are a patchwork of colors. The dry season or ‘winter” here leaves the landscape mostly brown or greyish. Leaves drop from deciduous trees. Then, even without a drop of rain, the trees bloom – yellow primavera (first green) and pink amapas, bright orange tulipan, various unknown-to-me yellowish orange blossoming trees that attract the most bees I’ve ever seen – the “bee bush” for lack of a better name.

The soundscape is already congested with bird calls – many more come; some of them Canadian birds heading home, reminding me of my journey to come. Birds I never see frequently, such as the Citreoline trogon which likes to sit obscurely, almost demurely, in the low branches, are openly and quite publicly courting, cooing, bobbing. The female of this species actually presented the male with a downy feather in her bill (or am I just a romanticist?).

Kittens appear everywhere. We were bottle feeding 12 young kittens from 2-5 weeks of age one weekend. People were leaving little boxes of them in the front gate and even throwing them over the vet’s walls, for Gods sake!! Mapa Jeff was feeding and caring for 7 kittens of 3 different litters, and was last seen carrying cat kennels with two adoptees headed for New York. We’re facing a crises of feline proportions. We’re working on catching and neutering them but very tough when most are stray. Any donations for a proper animal trap or someone who can bring one would be very welcome. The vet has somehow “tamed” the explosion of dogs, but cats are a beast of another colour.

Jessica’s Quinciñiera

Every man’s heart skips a beat when a pretty young girl enters the room “She was just 17-een, you know what I mea- een, and the way she looked was way beyond compa-are.” In Mexico, every 15 year old has an opportunity for a “coming out” or coming-of-age party – a quinciñieras from quince (15). To most appearances it’s a “trial” wedding, as it were – without the groom. The “doncella” or maiden is presented to God at a religious ceremony, and to the community dressed as a princess at a dance and meal in her honor.

She is fabulously decked out in ornate dress and jewels and a crown. At the ball, there are various rituals enacted from indigenous and hispanic tradition. The mother changes the shoes of a maid for those of the heels of a woman. The first dance is a waltz with the father. Some exchange a doll carried for a bouquet of roses. The girl is escorted by a troupe of courtiers “ “ who take care of her and accompany her to the dance, usually quite junior to her. At the end of the evening, she opens some of the gifts bought and holds them up for all to see.

This last month in April, Yesica, the beautiful daughter of Felipe, the butcher and rodeo hand, and Cheli, the most popular ice cream vendor, had quite a party. She is a very rare beauty with almost Egyptian or nilotic fine features, long neck and svelte figure. Her entrance to the village was especially grand. She rode in on horseback in full length white gown, hair combed back. You couldn’t miss her; she was followed by a mariachi band, serenading along the way, headed for the church.

This “coming out” can be taken a bit too far since numerous girls are pregnant and a mother before they know what’s going on! The good news is they are not seemingly ostracized, and the community all pitches in to raise that baby. To the surprise of some non-Mexican mothers, your baby may be snatched out of your arms and carried around, played with by all, and its cheeks (“mejillas” or in Mexico “cachetes”) tweaked quite red, all the better if they tend to be plumpish. I remember Tracey‘s baby, Yasmin, who was a 6 month old blonde blue-eyed butterball who they couldn’t keep at their table during dinner hour. All Mexican babies are raised with such love, they grow up very well socialized, happy and with great self-esteem as a result of all this unthwarted love.


There’s a tree of some growing fame that we have here in Yelapa. It’s called capomo (Brosimum alicastrum ). By late winter/ early spring it produces a fruit that has a seed that’s a pure protein, that locals for unknown millenia have roasted and drunk. It was used by the Mayans! It’s a delicious hot drink, much like a coffee in flavor, but NO caffeine. Why drink it? It’s good for you and tastes good. It puts me RIGHT to sleep. I have one at Mimi’s Café on a Friday during the music nights, (sometimes after a couple margaritas, I confess) and I’m out with the lights.

According to Don Strachan, the American writer and marketing maven of Harbin Hotsprings and Yelapa, Yelapa is about the northern border of its range. He’s been nicknamed Don Capomo by the locals, for forming a cooperative and trying to sell it in the US for 3 years. To date his 50 50lb sacks are still sitting at the Tijuana border waiting to clear Customs. The Japanese apparently are looking to corner the market since not only can it be drunk, it can also be used as a flour, given to lactating cows to produce more milk, and used as a vegetable protein in meals. It tastes delicious as a chocolate substitute in cakes, as experienced at the Don’s birthday (“don” is a title reserved for respected elderly gentlemen and doña for women.)

Next time you’re in Yelapa, try some at Mimi’s Café Bazzar, the only place that serves it in town. Her mother-in-law is one of the local distributors. Our upriver home stay mother and friend, Hortencia, is quite the business women, as well. Casa Hortencia, used for her home stay and private rental, is surrounded by this elegant tall dark green evergreen tree, apparently the tallest tree in the Banderas Bay region. Every season, she collects, roasts, grinds and delivers usually several kilos to my school, to introduce students to it, and entice a sale. Many go home with this special, probably illegal, unique hot drink. Probably illegal because it tastes SO good. Add a pinch of cinnamon and a bit of cocoa and it’s extra fine….

Gorgonia’s Tienda

Gorgonia is 69 years old. She owns a little store that isn’t obvious. It’s hidden behind a wall of ever-blooming pointsettas (called nochebuena en español, which literally means good night, and refers to the night before Christmas) and a varied assortment of plants intermingled in the curtain of greenery and scents that one passes to enter “the window” – the window counter that is as far as you get to enter. An ancient balance scale with brass pans tips you off that you’re in a store, along with the hanging wares, one of everything. It’s a tiny store. But the word on the street is that if no store has it, go to Gorgonia’s. I’ve promised to paint a sign “La Tiendita de Gorgonia – Que Tiene Todo” – Gorgonia’s little store that has everything! I’ve put her through many tests with seemingly unbelievable requests. She pulls through for me, almost always. Or she’s just out. She sells baking powder (here called “Royal” – which is the brand I buy at home) and weighs out small amounts, using brass weights to calculate the price. And bakes fantastic nut cookies (gorditas de nuez).

Looking out over all this activity always has been her mother, Flavia, regally positioned at the door, in her chair. I never knew her name until she died, but I always greeted her. I was away for a week, and in that time, quite unexpectedly she had heart failure. It’s always a pity and a surprise when the silent and aged pillars fall. Like every grand old tree, we do sense their absence. The mood was dark at Gorgonia’s. The custom in the village to assist in the grieving process is for everyone to sit at the home of the deceased. Not for one night, but for nine nights. They recite the rosary, nine times over nine nights, called the “novenario”. It’s very consoling for the immediate family to have people sharing their grief. Meals are brought and the family is seldom alone.

I’ve witnessed other novenarios. One in recent years had a most unusual twist to it. On the first night, the villagers plugged up most of the main trail outside Polanco’s house, sitting in chairs they brought. Suddenly, at midnight, a big black bull came seemingly out of nowhere and charged right through the middle of the congregation. Then vanished passing through the village. There are no pastures in the village, or very near, and no one was herding any animals. Polanco wasn’t known to be very religious. The rumour spread quickly that this black bull was the devil himself. “Possibly Polanco returned from the dead as a black bull” some thought. I heard the rumour and asked my very solid rational friend Ramona, of Ramona’s Tacos and Videos, who had witnessed this event. She simply smiled and said – ¿Qué piensas? – “What do you think?”

Huichol Healing

A friend, Anna, who lived in Yelapa for 5 years until recently, received a healing treatment from a Huichol shaman, Julio ….. Carillo. She testifies that he healed the sinus infection and she felt the results as early as mid-treatment. The infection has never recurred. I had had sinusitus for 5 months and was ready to try anything. Julio was available a few days before my departure from Yelapa in late April.

I went to Isabel’s of Casas de Isabel (lovely jungle cabins for rent), where he sat looking very shamanic in a hat hung with dangling beaded figures and a feather hanging from the crown. He confessed he came with a baseball cap, but Isabel said no one would believe he was a shaman dressed like that! He was very young, although already a grandfather, and very kind and gentle. It was very easy to like him.

I told him about my sinuses and mentioned my knee injury of 1.5 years ago – a hyperextension injury from the dangerous sport of baseball. He held his “muwieris”, an empowered wand from which hang eagle feathers, and intoned some incantation that ended in “…ana” at every other word. He held my joints. I felt a heat rise from his hands.

He used a potion of alcohol which had the healing powers of peyote which had soaked in it up until its use. This he rubbed into the knee joint, and I was to follow this up morning and night. The knee did feel strangely “light” – like a pressure had been removed. This sensation continued throughout the day.

After the session, my sinuses felt no different – I was disappointed, but he always advises a follow-up visit. The next day, the obvious facial swelling from the sinuses had decreased somewhat. After a 2nd treatment, with much the same procedure and a bit more money, I was told to use the peyote tincture until leaving the country, since it would be unlikely that I could take it home with me.

I do not believe what happened. The pain in that knee vanished. It was like it had been peeled away. The results were fairly immediate. I remarked throughout that day and the next, that there was little pain or none. I even walked up the 200 stairs to Casa Milagros twice in one day without hesitation. Recovery continued while I packed and hauled bags and parcels up and down hills, as I prepared to leave. The journey home was effortless and painless, and even pleasant due to exceptionally great neighbours on the plane. The immigration officials ignored my smuggled peyote tincture. I’d like to say I’m cured. I’m not. But I REALLY DID experience immediate and appreciable relief from the knee pain that lasted for several days. Believe it or not. I’d like to have a scientific explanation for that event! My sinuses as well feel MUCH better, however, a change to the dry climate of home, might account for that.

Isabel has collaborated with an anthropologist, Peter R. Collings and produced two books: The Huichol of Mexico and The Huichol of Mexico: The Shaman. Both are attractive black and white soft cover picture books with simple descriptions based on over 40 years of contact and work done by the authors.

Medical Class and Donations and Stretcher

The medical clinic in Yelapa operates on a shoestring from a limited supply of pharmaceuticals, with one paid doctor and another interning doctor fresh out of University of Guadalajara. No payment is received for services in-clinic. Visitors/ patients can make a donation for services or for charity. Supplies always run out, and the doctors have been doing a marvellous job without even some of the rudimentary tools – a laryngoscope, opthalmoscope, etc.

Since the first medical course offered by YESI in April of 2005, a subsequent 2 courses and 6 total students (Heather McDonald, Barbara Wyr, Mary Barquest, Chris Stabler, Cailin Doyle and Mary Ellen Biggerstaff), and other donors have raised $250 for the medical clinic. This went to the purchase of a stretcher or “backboard” (una camilla) with some left over. Patients like my friend, Jules, with a broken femur joint to the hip, have been strapped into lawn chairs, and various others have been harnessed to wacky wilderness ware to get them to the clinic or to Puerto Vallarta. We’re now looking to have one of the carpenters make a mini version of this one for children.

In addition, 3 glucometers, 2 AMBU (artificial respiration suport) and a huge duffel bag of bandages and dressings were delivered directly by students to the clinic (Muchísimas gracias to Laura O‘Connell, Bill Gorishek, and Carol Wood). The local community also responded recently to the need and we raised another $500 from a dinner. An oxgen tank and various other essentials were purchased. Donations are being accepted which the doctors hope to use to buy an electrocardiogram, a fetal heart monitor, the outstanding scopes as mentioned, and to manufacture the children’s stretcher.

San Sebastian del Oeste – Mountain Miracle

By late April as the coast heats up, I dream of the cool mountain air. I miss mountains. For a prairie girl, this is unusual, but true. Last summer I headed to the fabled San Sebastian del Oeste, 70 kms east of Puerto Vallarta in the high Sierra Madre mountain range. Fabled because of its once highly urban and decadent society that numbered 30,000 people, brought to this remote mountain area to mine silver. For years I’ve been trying to get there. In late July 2005 I rented a VW bug (un bocho, they call them) and with student Jennie, we headed for an adventure. It had rained and I heard there might be some slides. Well, we were intrepid. At least until the first derrumbe (slide). Although it wasn’t impassable, it was for a bocho. We fled back to the coast.

This late April I again rented a bocho with the same intent. The paved road was clear and the only frightening stretch was the steep descent to the valley floor and climb back up. The bridge to replace this stretch of daredevilry is soon to open. The stories of the OLD road are horrific. On some turns, the public bus would have to stop, back up, turn a bit more, etc and negotiate the corner in several stages. Since much of the worst part was one lane, if a bus and truck met, someone had to back up or down until they came to a passable stretch. I salute the pioneers and drivers of these mountains!

San Sebastian oozes history. It was settled as a silver mining town in 1608, with a peak size of 30,000 people. Now it has 600. There are huertos de frutales “orchards of fruit trees”, dripping with peaches, and almost more avocados than all of Mexico can eat. Well, maybe not. Locals don’t even use them, although I did see them making green mango candy squares. The orchards are remnants of the past regal estates that once were bordered by meter high cobble fences. The village square is surrounded by pillared outdoor verandahs around the central zocalo “village park”. Mount Bufa – named for the sound of the wind hitting the peak – lords above the town like a canine of a wily predator. The roads are all cobble. Even the poor quality sand and gravel highway is being cobbled to capture and maintain that historic feel, whereas all other roads are being paved.

One old man I watched was bent over in the hot mid day sun, with a pick in hand, digging out the old stones around misplaced or missing ones. I had time to kill and it appeared he must have too. He was removing and re-seating each one. Painstakingly. He seemed unnerved as the garbage truck lumbered close and the few cars in the square drove around him. He didn’t wear the identifying uniform of a civic worker, and seemed highly under-equipped and somewhat over-aged to be the best man for the job. However, “do what you do, do well” and with patience he restored those sections of the square that probably had long needed replacing. He had that look on his face, “I’m going to fix that road if it’s the last thing I do!” Fortunately, it wasn’t.

I lucked into an acquaintance from Yelapa who was venturing higher by 4 wheel drive, another 3000 ft to Real Alto “ royal high” or a real high! And it was. We visited the old chapel where an original oil painting of La Virgen del Rosario – the Virgin of the Rosary painted in 1794 is still hung. The original Virgin statue was brought from Spain. The story goes the mule carrying this precious cargo from Mexico City fell down a ravine. One version is – by divine intervention the mule was stopped by a tree before crashing to its death, the locals hauled it up and the Virgin was unscathed. The second version, the mule was lost in this deep ravine and no search party could find it. However, weeks later it made its own way to Real Alto, delivered its sacred load and died on the spot. Today exactly here, a HUGE white rose bush grows with thousands of flowers. There is never a time when there are NOT roses blooming on this bush to honour this deed. ¿ Un milagro? a miracle?

Perhaps due to the sacredness of Real Alto (population 55 people), the local “moonshine” or raicilla is as good or better than some of the best tequila I have ever sipped (different cactus used). That’s right, sipped, not shot back with disgust, to get that burning acrid taste out of your mouth. In Yelapa local raicilla smells like kerosene and tastes like smoke and cigarette ashes. There’s nothing to commend it except it is pure and will wire you like nothing else does. HERE’S a raicilla that will change my opinion forever. The incomparable local tequila was SO pure and delicious that it was already bought by an exclusive buyer before it came from the still. The locals here had great reason to look proud. It was a great day in Real Alto.

Summer Classes at San Sebastian

I had a dual purpose in visiting San Sebastian – enjoyment of the mountains and this lovely quaint traditional village, and a reconnaissance for a cool mountain location in the hot summers for my Spanish school. So my mission WAS successful. I have established a summer language “camp”. The manager at the Posada del Sol on the main square, Jesus or Chui (choo-ee), is our “agent” in town and very pleased to help and facilitate the program. It will be run in August and possibly longer based on demand, on the same proven Monday to Friday class schedule as in Yelapa. (Classes meanwhile will continue in Yelapa under the capable hands of Mimi and other assistants.)

The “home stay” program will be modified for this first summer. Students will stay in the Posada, one student per room with private bath, and staff of the Posada will prepare meals, and spend time talking with students during the meals and during free time. Chui is not only hospitable, but a very gregarious tour guide and has legions of legends to share. Chica (a name which means young woman) keeps the place looking fabulous and has time to “platicar – to chat” between tasks especially while embroidering – the Mexican equivalent to meditation. I’m sure the students will appreciate this very distinct mountain community and enjoy exploring its many cobble paths, making new friends, and speaking a new language as much as I will.

Please check out the details on the Course Page and tell a friend, or better yet, come join us for a week or two. Due to late notice, we’ll take applications right until the last week in July! Returning students get 20% off at this location.

Reflections on Another Year

Well another school year is over for the winter. It’s always surprising to me how quickly students CAN learn to speak. I was a unversity student with lots of words and grammar rules, but no real language skills before I began working in Mexico, 20 years ago. I almost fainted the first time a room of people turned to me with a question.

I applaud ALL of you who are brave enough to reduce your world of communication to the 3 year old level, and motivated enough to come to a tropical paradise and be able to sit in a chair for 3 hours daily. AND ask for homework. AND even do it! Most in a few weeks can engage in an appropriate exchange with the locals AND even translate for toursts (as Marie and Lane excitedly announced on day #9 after doggedly working early mornings, with afternoons drinking piña coladas on the beach). The joyous thing about Yelapa is that you CAN work when it’s possible, find anyone to practice with, and then spend vacation time hiking, swimming, chatting, drinking.

I’m also always surprised at how much more I learn, every year. What’s “proper” and what’s said – at least in Mexico. As Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas) said in the movie of the same name “We don’t speak Spanish here, we speak Mexicano!!” And that was in 1910 or so. Imagine its evolution since.

New words appear out of nowhere – the Mexican equivalents (official and slang) for some of the many Spanish words I’ve already learned but elsewhere. New translations of local traditions. Rosita has been an invaluable aid and friend, with ever a saying from the mountains – hay un dicho – “there’s a saying” she starts, followed by a wise adage. The birthday song “Las Mañanitas” “the little mornings” that I try to teach most students so they can sing at parties, has several versions, she says. One that is sung in the mornings, one in the afternoons, and one in the night “la anochecita”. The last one is very romantic – si el sereno de la esquina, me quisiera hacer favor, de apagar su linternita, mientras que pasa mi amor – “if the nightwatchman on the corner, would like to do me a favor, of putting out his lantern, while my love passes by” and –Qué bonita mañanita como que quiere llover, así estaba la mañana, cuando te empecé a querer – “How pretty the morning as if it wants to rain, as it was on the morning, when I began to love you.” Now THAT’s some birthday song!! What a pity that in Yelapa it’s becoming more common place to sing the English birthday song – Feliz cumpleaños a ti, Feliz cumpleaños a ti, etc. “Happy Birthday to you, etc.” – The sentiment is lovely, but the song almost a durge of 3 notes and only 5 words.

I’m back in Canada now. It’s a huge shock, at first. It’s amazing that too soon we forget the reality of “cold”. I’m one to complain about it in Mexico. Imagine that! The coldest night we had in the last 6 months in Mexico, was many degrees warmer than the warmest day in Canada those first weeks in May! Then as I stare out my office at the white peaked mountains and the thick barked Douglas fir trees in my forest, I realize that I am quickly slipping back into this reality. Mexico becomes a vague dream after 2 weeks. I forget how much I want to be back there. July summer classes can’t come too soon! Hasta pronto!!

check out the school and adventures in Yelapa at

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Life is a Celebration – March 2006

After publishing my October “Celebrations” entry, I realized that it just doesn’t stop here in Mexico. LIFE is a celebration and they’re doing it all the time here. Celebrating each day. SO, not only is there magic in every moment, but they appreciate it and rejoice in it.

The Guadelupe Festival in Puerto Vallarta is 12 days in December of continual nightly celebration and “peregrinacion” – a pilgrimage from the surrounding towns to the main cathedral in PV. Complete with marching bands, dancers, singers, costumes. And every night there are fireworks (as there is at 9 p.m. every night in PV anyway, but BIGGER). And the “malecon” – the sea wall promenade is full of art, performers, music, sculptures, lovers and friends have a great time.

For those unfamiliar with the Virgen of Guadalupe, in Mexico she is BIG, bigger than any other saintly apparition. She appeared in a cloud of light to a man, Juan Diego, going to mass one December winter morning in 1531. She was dark like a native Mexican and claimed to be the Virgin Mary. She wanted a church built on that hillside, north of Mexico city and wanted Juan’s help to petition the bishop. Why she didn’t appear to the bishop is unknown, except it would be a much shorter story!

The bishop didn’t buy it, and asked for proof. En route to see a deathly sick uncle, Juan saw her again. She told him that his uncle would be perfectly well, and to pick the roses (growing in December!) at her feet and take them to the bishop. Furthermore, she would always care for the Indians of Mexico. He gathered the roses in his “tilma” (poncho) and dropped them at the feet of the bishop. Imagine their surprise when they saw a portrait of the virgin painted permanently on his tilma – to this day, in fact, in colors bright as ever! There’s a chapel at the site, and a basilica lower down the hill. The things a girl has to do to get a house built!

Consecration of a Nun in Yelapa

Sara Rodriquez Lorenzo, son of José and Marisela, told them when she was 10 that she wanted to be a nun. They told her she was crazy, she recalls. Her friends told her so, too. At 17 she left to study to become one. Ten years later she came back to Yelapa to be consecrated as a nun in her home town, something never seen before. José was especially proud and impressed that a representative of the Pope was present from Rome! More rewarding for her, I can imagine, was the chance to administer the “host”, the body and the wine or “blood” of Christ, to the parishioners, all of whom would likely be relatives here.

Sara joined a congregation that works in Ciudad Juarez, a border town serving the “maquiladores”, the American factories fueled by Mexican cheap labor. There’s lots to be done there, by all accounts. It has a shockingly high number of young women who “disappear” – the number I last heard was over a 150! Sara looked very relaxed and very happy to be serving God! In the song “Dichosa Mujer” sung by the choir of nuns, a few powerful lines resonate “Today I sing to God from the people …., a song from a woman who liberates herself. God joins with my cause and consecrates me as a spokesperson of hope. God hears the clamor of our people and alleviates the impoverished and exploited and liberates woman from chains imposed with cruelty for so many centuries. You will do justice to all you sign up, they will not fall under the yolk. You give us liberty and recovery” , etc.etc

Pretty powerful recruitment message! I know a lot of you women out there are probably wondering ” Where does one sign up?”

One priest, who was the representative of Rome, an American judging from his accent, interjected near the completion of the day, a plea from all Mexicans to Americans witnessing this sainted event, that we are all one people, with the same hopes and dreams. That if we can in any way influence our governments, the barriers and pressures should be lifted to allow Mexicans easier passage, opportunities to work, and greater assistance while in the United States.

The day was even blessed with the presence of Charlie, the newest “angel” of Yelapa – a basset hound formerly seen living upriver in Journal Entry in August, that stirred up quite a lot of people, before he chose to lie under a pew and just soak up the alpha waves in the Godly presence.

Dia de Amor y Amistad – Day of Love and Friendship

For 20 years, the Yelapa organizers of the Cross Country Croquet Tournament, hosted the Valentine’s Costume Ball. I’ve never played in the Croquet Tournament, so decided to at least try a practice round. I concluded unless I could run, throw it or kick it, it wasn’t quite exciting enough for me. It’s a 4 day event with as many as 70 entrants yearly at $20 a person. Most of this money goes to winners and to Costume Ball category winners.

Lore and Kenn (students for a month from Saltspring Island,B.C.) and Colibrí (Brian) and Nathan from Vancouver entered the St. Valentine’s Day Costume Ball contest. Their entry – “Lamé Flambé” – very colourful and very unique. We were all more than a little disappointed when they didn’t win in any of the group, single, humorous or other categories. Until the clincher – the finale”Best of Show” category was announced. They clearly did deserve the best overall award. The next day everyone on the beach applauded them or called out, “I know you guys”. They enjoyed their day of glory so much, they even briefly toyed with the idea of wearing their costumes their last day here.

An other very honorable mention should go to the most cherished Angels in Yelapa – Pamela, the veterinarian and owner of Vortex Cafe, and her 9 month old Nai’a. Clearly divine. Another personal favorite was the Tourist Survival Kit – Judy and Cody with a mosquitoe net hung with the survival essentials, including a Spanish – 10 Minutes a Day! I was a black widow spider, and kept tripping over my own web all evening. Didn’t catch a thing!

Camila’s 3 –Year Birthday:

Birthdays are very big here, especially for 1 year old babies, 3 years and for 15 year old girls (coming of age, “quinciñeras”). The first year has to be the historically toughest for most young infants, and as a result, those that reach the age of one today are fêted. I attended a number of such parties in the last year. A photographer’s dream. No cuter audience to be sure.

Home stay family, Ana Rosa and Ronco, had a party for their 3 year old grand-daughter Camila. Don’t know what’s so special about 3. Camila was the worshipped princess, in yellow chenille, but didn’t seem too happy about it. She swung without any gusto at the piñata – of a girl in the same yellow dress,no less! She watched the mad scramble for candies from the piñata unenthused.

If you’ve ever seen one in Mexico, you realize the risks these kids are taking to get any sweets at all. The treats are put in an earthenware pot, and paper-mached and painted into some party animal, girl, etc.and then cracked open by wildly swinging sugar-crazed kids. The pieces definitely come down with gravity. At Camila’s party, young Eliza grabbed the pot as it fell, mostly in one piece,and ran. She was tackled and the pack of 10 year old-plus boys descended on her. Mother, Elisabet, dragged her out to safety, still fighting and screaming for her candy. Oh, the injustice of it!

Camila is normally a bright charming princess, but she had been woken up from a nap for this celebration. She went along with it all, sat for a few glum pictures, and was carried around mostly by grandparents. Grandma Ana Rosa even got her cooperation, after the candle was blown out on the cake, to lean down and take the first bite,no hands,head-first. “La Mordida” The Bite, they call it. As the kids chant “Que le muerda, Que le muerda, ….” – let her bite it, let her bite it.,,, – someone always pushes the child’s head into the icing. Queen Camila was incensed. But shortly after that screaming ordeal and enough cake was eaten by her and everyone else, she did even manage to crack a smile or two.

She could have been a bit glum since her parents had left at the beginning of the week forever, or possibly what would seem like forever to a little girl who doesn’t understand. They crossed the border at Tijuana after paying a $1000 each to a “coyote” – a human smuggler – and arrived safely. There are an estimated 300 Yelapans living in northern California (of a possible 1200 at home), mostly young couples or single people looking to make a “stash” to be able to return and build a house, buy a boat for a business, or invest in the future here in Yelapa.

It’s often a very difficult passage into the United States. I read a Latin American monthly inVancouver that reported that in 2004, there were 400 deaths of those crossing. Last night at a local theatre production in Puerto Vallarta “Recuerdos del Paraíso” – Memories of Paradise – the two elderly ladies recounted their family members and friends shot at while running across the frontier, or nearly drowned swimming in the middle of the Rio Grande. Almost all the young folk here make an illegal trip. Everyone has a story; it’s a cultural tragedy or trauma they all share. Irma’s husband, Angel, was laughing at his own joke one day after returnng from fishing in the rain – “wet back ha, ha, ha, I’m a wet back” and I joined in. He’s got lots of his own memories of “paradise”, having crossed more than a few times.

Camila’s party was a hit for most attendees, particularly because of the young dancers. One of the dance contestants. Eliza, the spunky piñata pirate, was the uncontested dance winner. She had all the moves of a twenty year old. She grabbed a dance partner, and she was in total control. The highlight was the backward swoop – her poor unsuspecting partner had no choice. She just leveraged him backward over her knee, and yanked him back up again. Several times. The crowd was delirious with laughter – every time just as amusing.

Cats in Trouble, Too Many Cats in Need

It wouldn’t be a journal entry without some mention of some critter. The cats of Yelapa have been a concern of mine for many years. There are SO many of them. Everyone has at least two, whether wanted or not. They wander from food source to food source. Patio cat, Extra, has chosen to stick to this patio and learn Spanish with us, rather than re-enter that fray, even when she isn’t fond of the day’s rations.

Last spring I rescued from the wild and raised for 2 glorious weeks a couple of abandoned beauties – Paco and Pepe – and after offering them, clean, neutured and cute to everyone, I had to have friend, Sarah, take them to Puerto Vallarta and give them up there for adoption. There was an American lady here who collected a great number of them, wouldn’t spay them, and instructed her Mexican staff to kill the kittens. They left them in the hills instead, and the hills are alive with the sound of “maulliando” mewing.

Hats off to the local vet, Pamela, for starting a cat campaign. Free spayings each Tuesday. It is that time of year again. Little kittens are routinely dumped. Again this year she found some in the water,and rescued them at barely one week of age. Many bottle feedings later, they are hopefully soon to be placed in good homes. Saludos y bravo! to the many who have stopped by and fed the little kitties. Two of three of Pamela’s newest kitties made it. Pamela is spaying and healing animals out of her great love for them, and will continue to with or without money. If you’re ever in Yelapa and want to donate time, money or encouragement to the cat campaign, please drop in at the Vortex Café and say hi, and if you can help with a donation, or other help, please sign up!.

By the way, pets are easy to import into Canada and the United States. There are many puppies named Yelapa, that I know of. A rabies shot and health certificate are all that’s necessary.

Things are Cooking in Yelapa

There’s been a lot of cooking going on around here. Along with the many fiestas, there’s all that delicious food to consume.

First, Joy, a student from Calgary, treated her friends to a cooking class with Rosita – tamales and atole. The tamal is corn flour dough, stuffed with vegetables or chicken or pork in a tomato sauce, or even sweet coconut, wrapped in a banana leave or corn husk and boiled. They’re delicious and NOT low carb. The atole is a drink derived from the liquid when corn and lime and water are mixed and brought to a boil. This liquid (nijaillote – nee hi yo tey) is then sweetened and LOTS of finely grated coconut is added to the thickening, boiling mass. Copious quantities of this thick sweet drink are drunk with a meal. In the old days, it was traditional to make it as chocolate and drink as a dessert. Definitely NOT low carb. Very traditional feast for special holidays.

A few days later, Carol from Minnesota, made fast friends with the Yelapa ladies (my good friends, Gorgonia, Rosita and Irma) by showing them how to make cinnamon rolls. She even talked in great but slow Spanish about yeast and all its implications. The ladies nodded and smiled. No doubt they’d never baked with yeast before! Tortillas rule here. Carol has been baking daily – various pastry feasts. Even the day she was sick in bed, she got up to bake cinnamon rolls for class, and sent them up. I pray this is a standard that all other students will aspire to!

More in the future on Gorgonia’s “Tiendita que tiene todo!” – Little shop that has everything! owned by Gorgonia, 75 years old. Rosita is famous with many home stay guests, and loved by all in the village as the lady that bakes cakes by the kilo. She started a few years ago, as a small side thing, and now she’s up very late and very, very early baking, and icing, etc. Irma, of course, is the dynamo at her home near the YESI school, which has almost become YESI Feeding Central. Everyone is welcome to come to “Cine y Cena” – Movie and Dinner night to sample her great tasting abundant Mexican meals, that are the reason that many keep coming back and others want to crash the home stays.

Bueno, the ladies learned very quickly. The next day I came for a visit to Irma, and there was Irma and her sister, Avelia, staring at the miracle of rising bread dough, there in the centre of the patio table. They looked cast in a spell. When I returned they were celebrating, by the mouthful, the excellent results. Rosita and Gorgonia similarly reported positive results. I’m the only reluctant baker, given my past history, but will report back later once I get my oven fixed, and can keep the raccoons out of it.

Booby Babies

We went to the Marietas Islands, two consecutive Saturdays, since the weather is great, the seas are calm and it’s always a marvellous trip to take. A must do, if you’ve a day and $40 (a super price compared to every other service or consumible in the area). See previous entries for the full day activities. Aside from pristine beaches, islands of grasses waving in strong ocean breezes, spectacular cliffs, caves to explore, whales playing, snorkeling,etc., there are the Brown and Blue-footed Boobies. Right now they’re nesting, and the young are unbelievably cute – like little fluffy Gund toys.

I’ve been counting nests in the last 4 trips and was mortified at the mortality of the young and numerous nest failures. This last trip the numbers of young seen had increased and we even got to see a courtship dance of the blue-footed male, goose stepping and waving his bright blue feet, enticing his bride, who prepared the nest. Although the numbers are still drastically reduced since the 1998 island fire started by foreigners illegally camping, there are some encouraging signs of a build-up in numbers.

Everyday in Paradise

Went upriver today, still looking for the military macaws to take photos of. Only one seen high up. Walking back, I heard the most incredible loud squeaking like some large bulldozer was coming up the narrow trail. I saw a horse and wondered about its age and whether it was arthritic. Then I saw the bags. White “costalillas” – nylon bags – tied to the horn of the saddle on both sides, with a hole in the corner, and a little snout sticking out. “To market, to market, to buy a fat pig!!” They were highly opposed to the mode of transport. Some little kid’s going to be happy!

A bit further, and there round the bend came a horse and lady rider, with one hand holding up a beautifully iced cake, high in the air. Despite her willing cooperation to be photographed, dead batteries ruined those chances, but not my day. It’s always picturesque and it’s always the combination of all those little things that makes life here an unbelievable blessing.

Life is for celebrating every day, every minute.


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Critters and Friends – Feb 2006

This winter, the nights in Mexico have been cold, the coldest season since the last short cold snap of 1998. Meanwhile Canada has had the warmest winter on record. Every morning Radio Romántico tells the grim death-by-cold statistics. It’s hard for us northerners to imagine that you can tan daily with highs around 30 C -86 F during the day but the nights can plummet to around 15 Celsius – 20 (61 – 68 Fahrenheit) on the coast, an unbearable contrast. I live in a palm-thatch roofed house,open to all the breezes, and the socks, fleece jackets and down quilt replace the bikini nightly. Even fluffy Miette, the cat, with her winter fur has crawled under the covers. Not what one expects at all in the subtropics.

One friend, Ana, tried a novel approach to home heating. She put rocks heated in an open fire, wrapped in a towel into bed and enjoyed a warm night. The next time she was lucky to have escaped her burning bed as her partner dragged her out, and all the bedding and mattress as well, to save the palapa. In the process she tanned her feet a very dark brown that didn’t wash off. Don’t try this at home!!

I’ve had a  great time observing animals. In the hot humid months of October and November, the new streetlight posts nearest the jungle edge were densely interwoven into literally hundreds of spider webs. These are not your average apartment sized spiders either!  Many are easily the size of a respectable thumb. Their webs were the thickest and most prolific in the hot humid months. One building that spanned two street lights was a massive cloak of webs, difficult to describe and photograph. Not uncommonly I have walked into an almost inpenetrable web. There’s a kids Spanish song: “un elefante, se columpiaban, sobre una tela de araña. Como veía, que resistía, fue a llamar otro elefante” – an elephant swinging on a spider web, saw that the web resisted his weight, so he went and called another elephant, and another, and another….

My house has been plagued with raccoons. You’re probably aware of their incredible agility and cleverness. I was impressed when they learned to open the stove door where my dry goods were stored. Of course, I had to prop a chair weighted with my heaviest books, and tied a rope from oven door to the kitchen bamboo windows. Their response to this obstacle was to take apart the elements on the top of the stove, and turn on the gas! No other dry storage was available, so I loaded my Bran Flakes, flour, pasta and cat food into the fridge. You guessed it; it took about a week of prodding with their very human hands for the little rascals to open the fridge and eat ALL the cat food and make a mess. That left me no choice but to tie up the fridge. Not good enough! They stripped out the rubber seal and reached inside for anything available.

My landlord was willing to shoot the rascals, but I had seen too many Walt Disney movies, and had raised too many young raccoons in the Zoo to want to resort to that strategy quickly. I spoke with an American who I heard had live traps. I planned to catch my villains and move them to the next town. The traps weren’t big enough. He had likewise tied down his fridge with bungee cords, but finally resorted to shooting one. But that wasn’t the end. The final count was 11 raccoons. He was raccoon free – for a year, and now a new population has moved in. It was definitely not worth decimating the population of an entire hillside, I concluded.


I now keep the cat food in containers that don’t transmit odours, IN the bottom of the fridge, keep any possible food stuff or compost stored away safely (also IN the roped fridge), and leave a nightly offering of compost outside. And with ear plugs to shut out their nightly debauchery in and out of the kitchen, I am happy to report a peaceable armistice.

One evening in October while cooking at the stove, I wondered if I’d see my friendly, funny little “horron” again who used to live under the stove the previous April. This is a black and white striped weasel, very skunk-like in appearance but smaller, and not stinky. Since he appeared harmless and seemed to co-habit well with the cats, I enjoyed his foraging and visits. Well, as I cooked and thought, I felt something brush against my feet, and sure enough, one very small horron walked right over my feet and dashed under the stove. I almost thought I’d imagined it, it was too coincidental, and there were no repeat appearances for months. On a January night time visit to the bathroom, with Miette, the cat, for company, I saw her staring into the shower stall. I’m always on the lookout for scorpions. I spotted a large spider and when I checked with my foot if it was dead, an “horron” dashed from behind the curtains and squeezed it’s kitten sized frame through an impossibly small hole under the storeroom door. It had been foraging for insects and was clearly not my imagination this time.

Very closely related to the raccoon is the coatamundi, in Spanish a “tejon” (tay-hon). They’re generally larger, have a much longer tail and a much longer nose. They’re more aggressive, if threatened, and there are many scarred and dead dogs to prove it. They’re abundant here, but not often in the same habitat as the raccoon. They work it out.

The sunny southern slope of Yelapa’s valley seems thick with them. My friend, Larry, who stayed at the Hotel Lagunita last winter reported that he thought he was robbed. His money belt with passports, money and travellers cheques, other valuables, was missing overnight. Before sounding the alarm, they looked outside around their room. There it was in the underbrush, and the documents and money surrounding it. The only thing missing was the granola bar they unknowingly had stashed there. These bandits were specialized!

I hadn’t had the pleasure to see any tejones for perhaps 10 years and those were far upriver. One afternoon while on a birding trip with students Keeyla and David from San Francisco, I spotted one in the tree upriver 10 minutes near Cuca and Galdino’s farm. I rushed over with my camera as it started to descend the tree. Cuca is a lovely and lively woman who has raised 9 kids,and many grandchildren. Her farm along the river is like a compressed Old MacDonald’s farm with every domestic animal imaginable around the house, and often, in it. She loves to sit along the river washing clothes with her daughters-in-law and there she was, watching me and the tejon. She laughed and approached the tree, calling it with clucking noises. It’s her pet tejon that someone had brought as a little pup. It lives free to roam and often comes back for the treats she offers. Keeyla felt brave enough, with Cuca’s urging, to offer it an almond on a leaf, as Cuca had done without problem. Keeyla got a little nip from the enthusiastic tejon, while I got some great photos. We greatly appreciate Cuca’s love of animals.

Another mammal that’s not so unique to us Northerners is the squirrel, but the one here people keep mistaking for a monkey due to its size. At least two to three times larger than our red squirrel, this gray one is so formidable that my cat doesn’t give it a passing glance. It even taunts her by coming into the palapa roof and racing through the house, hanging upside down along the crown. The one in my yard enjoys Aqua de Coco (coco milk). An adult human with a sharp machete uses several vicious blows to open the head of a coconut. I’ve listened to squirrels scraping with its teeth through an almost inpenetrable husk for 3 days or more to reap its rewards – Piña colada a la natural!

As you can imagine, the butterflies here are fantastic. I haven’t begun to study them. On my birding trip with Keeyla and David, we headed upriver to visit Gail, the long-term resident entomologist, very well informed on butterflies. Keeyla feels her animal spirit guide is a butterfly, so it was a mission of the soul. Gail keeps an impressive exhibit of mounted specimens under glass in a proper display cabinet. How she got it 30 minutes upriver is, I’m sure, a long story. After tea and a chat, Keeyla left with a purchase of 3 butterflies displayed in a wood frame, one of which I had photographed in October and entered in my last journal entry. Prepona, a brilliant deep blue underside and a startling iridescent light blue above. Another is the Morpho polyphemos, named by the locals “servilleta” since it is huge and white and looks like a flying paper serviette! .

Keeyla had received a healing treatment earlier that day from a Huichol native, Alejandro, who sells his family’s art in Yelapa, to help remove the heaviness in her heart – a depression she felt due to the effect of living under the unique form of democracy offered by the Bush regime in the United States. Perhaps it was her recently gained light heartedness, or simply her loving heart, but she gave me the cherished butterfly display. Gail’s displays of butterflies accompanies her displays of scorpions and other arachnids, and she has gripping stories of wildife encounters after 22 years here.

Now snakes invariably come up in conversations when visiting the tropics. There are snakes here. I almost never see them. The things you fear present themselves, and I’m mostly oblivious to them as my head is in the trees watching birds. They feel the same about me. I hear other people’s report of deadly Coral snakes, green venomous vipers, even a patterned snake about 4 inch in diameter and longer than a meter made it’s way across my yard last year without us making acquaintance. The one I did witness alive was already in a bag.

Julie from Alaska was studying Spanish, but as a biologist working in the national parks of Alaska, and a traveler, was truly more interested in talk about animals, birds and the environment. I’m a biologist and I knew she’d rather see the “snake in a bag” that was hanging from a tree below my school on the public path than study that hour. It was abour 4″ in diameter, a golden tan color with dark patterns on the back. Someone had found it in their kitchen, and knowing it was only a boa, picked it up behind the head and packed it in a mesh onion bag. It brought back my early career at the Calgary Zoo. I was shown how to handle a boa to take it to schools to talk to the children. As they draped it on my shoulders, my hands supporting each end of it, its strong muscles  hugged by neck, and …. I almost passed out. I was taken off the boa exhibit, thankfully.

My landlady, Irma, told us when she worked at the hotel kitchen as a girl 40 years ago, she refused to go into the storeroom since they kept this snake species there to eat the rats. If I could just train one for the racoons! Boas constrict or squeeze the breath out of an animal, so it can’t fill its lungs again, and then swallow their prey whole – chickens and the like. I’ve heard more than a few cat rescue/ cat fatality stories to want one in my community. This bagged snake in the tree was released somewhere away from the village.

This January I was priviledged to teach a host of old Canadian friends and made some new friends. Some of these bonds were cemented at Federal election “party” over many margaritas. One day, we headed upriver about an hour away to play in the pools and to catch the river shrimp “camarones” which really are a crayfish. They reside in deep pools and the only way to get them is to lie in the water, or bend over and stretch your arms, and corner them under the rocks. They almost always escape. They’re very fast, and they startle you by jumping in your bathing suit top or bottom, find your ticklish spots or just surprise you by their sudden movements. There’s lots of shouting and jumping, both you and the crayfish – until you finally catch one.

The most impressive gatherer/harvester is Cuca, who stands among the aquatic plants, always dressed in a dress, laughing while catching several in one attempt with her nimble fingers, to the embarassment of the many men and boys in the family group clad in masks, carrying contrived harpoons and other kitchen-fashioned weapons, but with empty buckets. If you’d like to learn her skills, and collect your own supper, we can arrange a trip with her. Manuel, her brother, sets traps and catches the big ones that are on the menu of a few restaurants on the beach as “langostinas” (little lobsters).

Last trip with dumb luck I managed to catch a few. My French friend, Fabrice, fried them up and satisfactorily declared that they met the standards of his refined French palate.

The jungle has been alive with birds in the last few weeks, more so than in a typical winter. I’ve sat for a half hour on my patio (an especially great treed hillside, open sunny glade birding habitat) and had numerous first sightings, and several species crowded in each tree! It has inspired me to offer the obvious class – Birding in Spanish, all contents related to birds, and an hour of exclusive bird watching off the patio daily (See “Courses” under ).

On one of my last walks upriver for shrimp, we also had some great views of flocks of military macaws at eye level. A rare treat, since they usually fly squawking very loudly, at very high altitudes. I was showing Mardel and Sandy one day the reason they gather down by the waterfalls during the late afternoon. The Abia tree grows a green fleshy fruit, segmented much like an orange. The macaws feast on this fruit. When the fruit dries in early April, the dried segments which are quite hard, torque or twist just slightly. When all the segments have dried and twisted, the entire hard dried fruit explodes with an alarming gun-shot like report, and the crescent-shaped segments scatter over a large area releasing the single hard seed within.

Another birding expedition involved a trip to the Marietas Islands. They’re about 45 min boat trip away, and often humpbacked whales, sea turtles and manta rays are seen along the way. The island is a sanctuary created to protect the rare Blue-footed Booby and other island nesters. Darwin first brought them to fame in his studies in the Galapagos Islands, where they number around 20,000 today. The estimates for the rest of their isolated arid island habitat north to California is only 20,000 birds.

The three Marietas Islands jut about 40 meters (130 feet) above sea level. In addition to offering the birds feeding vantage points and roosting and nesting habitat, they provide us a fine sand beach, crystal clear waters and many large caves to explore on top.

We were lucky to have Fabrice, a geologist, explain their origins. The islands were created by sediments being deposited in an ancient shallow sea. They later faulted or cracked by internal pressures numerous times. Water seeping through the cracks dissolved the lime and formed huge underground caverns. After exploring the above ground ones, some were brave enough to swim into a cave (Playa del Amor – Lovers Beach), open to the skies (a “cenote” commonly seen in the Yucatan).

The boobies were nesting when we arrived, and we were careful to avoid any close approaches. These birds are named boobies, after the Spanish “bobo” which means stupid fellow, possibly due to their clumsiness on land, or the fact they exhibit little to no fear and will stick tightly to their nests. They are expert fishers, though, and are reported to be so agile as to catch a flying fish on the fly! The booby’s feet are really bright blue – a big plus during courtship when the male exhibits his feet in a high stepping strut to the female, among other displays. One of our team, Brian, showed off his want-to-be-booby feet, too!

We arrived in late January to see only 6 nests between the beach area and the furthest large cave, where in 1998 there were hundreds. Some young tourists, camping illegally, set the whole island ablaze, including all the booby young. The eggs take up to 45 days to hatch, and then the female balances the young on top of her feet for a month. Those blue feet are hot, despite their ice blue appearance. Both parents feed the chicks through regurgitation of fish for about two months. The species is threatened by other birds, human disturbance and starvation. We saw three bird skeletons that weren’t there a week earlier. Our Captain, Gellin, pointed out the Frigate birds circling above the islands that are notorious pirates of any fish catch.

Speaking of catches, a day on the Marietas is not complete without a “ceviche” or fish marinated 20 minutes in lemon juice, caught by Gellin. Kenn from Saltspring Island showed the benefits of living on the coast by bringing home a “big one” too! Lore brought sea shells for show and tell to Ann Marie, our youngest adventurer. After an exhilerating day, Gellin drove us home, while Brian scouted and played “panga (native word for boat) boy” at the helm, and Ann Marie slept the sleep of the innocent.


It’s not ALL play here at YESI but we do try hard! A bunch of Canadians together for a national election party on the 23rd ofJanuary couldn’t have proven that point more, as we shouted “Viva Canada” at all the wrong moments, like as the Conservatives snuck ahead (the poster Elect Bush, Vote Harper was posted mysteriously on my  bulletin board). We had celebrated the traditonal Yelapa way, with many well-made (I made ’em) Margaritas, and no result short of a full environmental platform would have made one biologist and one former Green party candidate totally happy. The Green member is a total optimist and you have to be these days.  ¡Viva la Revolucion Verde!


Come join the revolution celebration next November!

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Celebrations in Yelapa – Dec 2005

I’ve been back in Yelapa since October 21st when I learned, after scrubbing mould off my patio for a day, that the sun is very hot here, and sunstroke is very possible even when you think you’re being careful! It’s great to see Yelapa at its greenest after the rains. And even sunstruck, it’s great to be back. I launched immediately into Spanish classes, but given the great warm weather and the wonderful pool at the waterfalls, we held classes at the prettiest cafe and enjoyed a dunk in the cool waters daily. There couldn’t be a better job!

The Hallowe’en party at the Club de Yates and the costumed partiers attracted a lot of interest in the very young Yelapans who stood in the village centre. When Hallowe’en was explained in brief, they quickly accepted the part about asking for candies and ran into the streets to ask the passers by for treats. ah … Candy – the universal language!

I had mouthed a few words about Alejandro, the Huichol artist from Coamiate, a village high in the Sierra Madres about 20 hrs bus ride away,  who had 7 months earlier left an unfinished work with me, prepaid, and I wondered if I’d see him again. The next morning at 9:00 there he was. I told him I’d just been talking about him and he said he knew because he’d dreamed it. I believe him.

He unpacked a huge box of carved wooden figures and jaguar heads, all covered in beaded designs, inspired by visions from the spirit world while on peyote jouneys. My students tried on colourful  woven and embroidered bags, beaded bracelets, and embroidered Huichol costumes. I replaced my unfinished jaguar head for a new one. Students asked questions and found it easy to get the gist of much of his simple clear 2nd language Spanish, laced with a few native words, possibly more easily understood than the rapid fire local Spanish dialect. It was a rich cultural experience to learn about the customs of the young Huichol and their initiation quest for peyote. After a small feast, he departed. I wonder if I only have to mention his name to see him again?

The Dia de Los Muertos visit to the cemetery to pray for the souls of  “los difuntos”  – the deceased – was held at noon, not the traditional night time vigil where skull cakes are eaten and many stay to pray and feast. High noon was when the priest could do the service, so everyone who knew anyone deceased was there. The priest had much to say about all of us wanting to live in Heaven in the after life, but none of us really wanting to go now, if we had a choice. Most people agreed with a show of hands to the first idea, and a few nebulous hand wavers confused about the point, gestured with hands half-raised to the latter proposal. This was a modern priest with a cell phone, with modern metaphoric ways of expressing himself. He kept the mood fairly light, considering the solemn location. For most it was a day to reconnect with their loved ones beyond, a day to weed and plant or at least leave flowers and vases. The children and dogs playing in the dirt seemed to enjoy the day the most, being oblivious of the gravity of the mission. We helped Irma and Ana Rosa put flowers on the monument of their father, Andres, who had passed away recently.

It seems there’s never a long period here without another reason to celebrate. Each little village everywhere in Mexico celebrates “la revolución de Mexico” called “Parade Day – El Dia de Desfile”. It was Sunday, I wasn’t teaching, and I am all for a country that celebrates and idolizes its revolutionaries.

An account of their history shows they had endless reason to revolt. The country was ruled by the colonizing Spaniards who were mostly interested in accumulating vast sums of wealth, and keeping pretty much everyone but the Spanish-born out of power. A champion of native rights, Father Hidalgo led the first rebellion in 1810, with the clanging bells of his church called the Grito de Dolores (the shout of pain). Killed quickly, he was replaced by other priests and revolutionaries leading to the proclamation of independence in 1823. Military rule then opened the country to foreign interventioin. War with the United States led to loss of much of 6 current U.S. states. Then the Reform Movement focussed on separating the power of the Church from the State.  Under Benito Juarez, a brilliant native, likened to Abraham Lincoln, a new Constitution was written.  Between periods of his presidency, Civil War erupted between the Liberals and Conservatives, then France moved in and appointed an Austrian emperor, Archduke Maximilian. Fortunately he went quickly bankrupt, and left only the oompa – pa – pa blasts of the tuba as a current sign of their presence. Juarez was able to get financial backing from the United States, since the Civil War there was done. Mexico now had a democratic government in 1867. After his death, however, one of his generals, Porfirio Díaz, ruled as dictator for 34 years. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer and eventually bellicose. Revolution led in 1910 by Francisco Madero led to his presidency. His assassination soon after  led to power battles and presidencies that continued the civil war;  armies recruiting men, women and young boys..

It’s claimed that 1 in 8 men and women lost their lives in the 10 year civil war. Northern forces joined under Pancho Villa, a gallant bandit and brilliant and charismatic military leader. Southern forces were led by Emiliano Zapata, taking over large haciendas under the banner “tierra y libertad” (land and liberty) to redistribute in the form of ejidos (small cooperative farms). A new constitutioin in 1917 guaranteed land and freedom, and eventually to the strengthening of the Mexican national identity embracing the cultural mix of its people, shunning the domination of, and dependence on Europe.

The “desfile” or parade in Yelapa was held on the beach with each class presenting another aspect of the revolution. The obvious crowd pleasers were the Kinder and Primary grade students dressed as moustachiod Pancho Villas or Emiliano Zapatas wearing double bandoliers and shooting each other with wooden rifles when not “on duty” in the parade. The girls in braids with babies in rebosos (shawls) couldn’t have been more implausibly guerrilla soldiers in a war. Photo afficionados had a hey day. My personal favorite was the Zapata with the “bigote” – moustache bigger than his face! That he could, like Zapata, roam with his miltary recapturing stolen lands and redistributing them to the poor, while carrying a banner “Tierra y Libertad”  – Land and Liberty, was a bit of a stetch, but not for lack of desire.

When the parade made it’s way from one end of the beach to the other and everyone fell into formation by grade, Master Pedro the high school “Director”  had many words to say about the pride felt by Mexicans, about where they had come from and where they were going, and how the young people needed to keep Yelapa unpolluted. He then led the singing of their beautiful Mexican National Anthem  – El Himno Nacional. “Que el cielo tu eterno destino, por el dedo de Dios se escribió” That heaven is your eternal destiny, written by the finger of God. “Que el cielo un soldado en cada hijo te dió” That heaven gave you a soldier in every child.  Beautiful powerful words, and more meaningful as they sang with their hands placed as a salute across their chests, over their hearts.

Aside from the major events in Yelapa, Spanish classes are filled with exuberant students and lots of after class outside activities. A few have hiked the 12  kms uphill with a rapid escalation of  2,000 ft in the first 5 km to the next town of Chacala, twice in a week. We’ve done the trip to the Cascadas (waterfalls) an hour up the Rio Tuito a few times as well.  On my last trip with Drew from Colorado we were treated to the Military Macaws flying at eye level along the river canyon – a rare sight, since they usually fly high in the sky in pairs, screaming haughtily out of reach, almost out of vision. Along the way we encountered a hound dog with dusty ears dragging on the ground, and his young master, who was selling shells and spotting iguanas in trees.  A unique purple butterfly and green banana-like seeds were other marvels on our trip.

Another day a boat load of students went on a hunt for “tiburones”  – sharks,  since there was an unconfirmed sighting by one of them. So off they went snorkeling, and encountered only manta rays to swim and play with, not sharks. Locals report no dangerous sharks reside in the area.

Ten year old Hannah spent  time swimming with dolphins at Splash Aquatic Park in Pto Vallarta and has a very unique tale to tell at home. Her and her dad, Jorge, delighted me one Monday morning with endless speaking in complete sentences after a bit of a struggle earlier in the week with verb conjugations. Like a child learns, there’s a “quiet” period of insight, before the flood gates of coherent speech pour forth. It seems Yelapa had performed its miracle of destressing dad (“I’m a new man”, he proclaimed, looking very bright eyed and smiling broadly) and greasing the wheels of language learning.  Most adult classes don´t have children attend, but in this special case Hannah and Dad, George, were the only students in the class for 2 days, until Drew appeared. Turns out he lives 14 kms away from them in Alma, Colorado; the highest populated location in the United States at over 10,000 ft!! I don´t how it works, but the right people come together somehow miraculously here in Yelapa.

Another small group had a powerful presence. A doctor, Chris and nurse, Mary,  from Kamloops, British Columbia came for a medical Spanish  course for 2 weeks. They were high intermediate students who enjoyed the priviledge of being able to communicate well with the medical practitioners here. Dr. Rafa began their 2 weeks with a talk about the medical health trends in the local area and the Mexican medical treatment system. They enjoyed medical vocabulary training and role playing of diagnostic situations with Josué the new medical intern. He´s here to do his 1 year “service” required of all young doctors immediately after university.  They observed in the clinic several mornings, when the locals permitted observation. One afternoon they accompanied Alicia on a  walk to see and discuss plants used for traditional healing.

On their last evening, they were lucky to spend time with the veterinarian, not offically back from maternity leave, in treating the misfortune of a cat. She had lots to say about the problems experienced in the Yelapa dog and cat population and the problems in servicing them, in addition to various farm animals. Pamela has been a one-vet wonder here and in the neighouring communities in carrying out a campaign against “roña” or mange, and “vacunas” or vaccinations against rabies, as well as treating the endless demands of a 1,000 + population. Her following procession of adopted dogs is long! She now has added to her responsibilities as the new co-owner of the Vortex Internet Cafe on the lagoon.  A second new internet Cafe opened in the village this week – Eclipse Cafe, run by Sandra and husband, Chilo. Sandra is working for YESI as Children’s and Conversation Class instructor.

Another few days later, another celebration; this one superimposed on Mexico by the “gringo” population – American Thanksgiving. Canadians have already given thanks in early October, and we´re even more thankful for an excuse to eat even more turkey! We all came together at Jared´s Los Naranjos – Yelapa Waterfalls Retreat Center – 10 acres of landscaped jungle off the beaten path ( Rosita told me that the village population was quite confused by what they called  El Día de Traje. The priest cleared up the confusion – it wasn´t a day to celebrate”suits” (the noun “traje”, any suit eg. traje de baño = bathing suit) but a day to thank for giving (traje – I brought).  Many turkeys, and other pot luck was shared, and music around a small campfire caused students Jorge and daughter Hanna to proclaim it was a great end to their heavenly 3 weeks here.


Celebrations in Yelapa’s Photos

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