Showing posts with label Mexico. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mexico. Show all posts

What I Learned from Six Weeks in Mexico

 Anyone who knows me personally or reads this blog with any regularity knows that my fiancee and I are currently traveling around the world. Instead of traveling from place, to place, to place too quickly to really taste what life there is really like, we are generally spending multiple weeks and sometimes even months in one location. So far we've spent six weeks in Arizona, six weeks in Mexico and are currently on week two of a month in Vancouver.

In Arizona we lived like royalty in a beautiful desert edged house on the northern rim of a big city. The house was beautiful, spacious and comfortable and our hosts were gracious and generous. We wanted for nothing except perhaps rain and a cool breeze, both impossible requests in the desert in the late spring.

We chose Mexico as our next long-term stop because we both wanted to break up our time in the United States and Canada with a location that felt culturally different; we didn't choose to travel in order to barricade ourselves in familiar places where everyone looks and talks like us, taking comfort in the sameness (though I came to long for some of that sameness during our time in Mexico). We knew that we needed to be in Vancouver for the end of July to attend a wedding and there were also the budget and round-the-world ticket restrictions to contend with; according to the terms of our ticket, we needed to leave the US via the same city we entered, which was Los Angeles.

Unlike many of my friends and family who have spent a lot of time in Mexican resorts as a way of escaping the long, cold northern winter - it was a country largely unfamiliar to me. I knew that I liked Mexican food - or at least the bastardized version of it made familiar to me through the Old El Paso brand of tacos and salsa sold in supermarkets - oh, and the amazing food in London's Mestizo restaurant near Euston. And I speak some very basic, halting Spanish, which I'd learned mostly from Sesame Street and because there are some words that sound similar to their French equivalent and I did French Immersion from Kindergarten until grade eight.

This was my basis for spending six weeks in Mexico: food and the ability to count to ten in Spanish.

In my 20s I read a bunch of novels by Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (technically set in South America) and the colorful towns and people they described informed what I imagined a small Mexican village might be like.

One cold, rainy London day in April I came across some information about San Blas, a small fishing village of about 8,000 people on the Pacific coast of Mexico about a two hour drive North of Puerto Vallarta. It ticked all my boxes: it wasn't particularly touristy, it was on the water, it was cheap, it was supposed to be 'real' Mexico and it had a mythology attached to it in the form of a Henry Longfellow poem called The Bells of San Blas . The place I booked for us didn't have air conditioning, which I imagined would be fine as I shivered in the London damp; a little bit of heat wouldn't hurt us. I also steadfastly ignored all the warnings about the bugs because being from Saskatchewan, I thought I understood how bad mosquitoes can be (I was wrong).

It's taken me a few weeks to fully process my experience in Mexico - and longer still for all the bug bites to heal. I still think about the things I loved, like:
  • the little kitten who adopted us.
  • the salty warmth of the sea water and the way you could walk out forever and it would never get too deep.
  • the avocados.
  • the immense thunder and lightening storms that shook our little bungalow.
  • the quirkiness of places like Billy Bobs Bar and all the leather faced old gringos who had retired there to spend the rest of their days smoking pot; their stories about how a crocodile named Fluffy came to live behind the bar (it's true - we saw him) and the guy who couldn't pay his tab one night so Billy Bob, the owner, took the shirt off his back and hung it from the ceiling (it's still there).
  • Juan Banana Plantain Bread.
  • how affordable everything was, so much so that we got to the point where if we were spending more than the equivalent of $10 for dinner and drinks we felt like it was too expensive.
  • the struggle to communicate, which was both awkward and funny; and the sense of satisfaction when we found that against all odds an understanding was reached.
  • feeling a connection and sense of familiarity to a place; by the end of our time in San Blas we knew every important street, every bar and restaurant and the best market stalls to find the ripest avocados, freshest pineapple or greenest cilantro. Vancouver is lovely but it's vast and unknowable in the way that any city of a certain size is. San Blas was an open book.
  • The badly subtitled Mexican television.
There were plenty of moments of surprise and pleasure in Mexico mostly stemming from the confirmation that life is so unknowable and so big. I knew things would be different there but the extent of the difference still caught me off guard and made me feel the largeness of the world in a tangible way that I've never really felt before.

I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, as much for what it taught me about myself as about Mexico:
  • As much as I dislike it, my capacity for physical discomfort is greater than I would have imagined. Our weeks in San Blas were spent in an uncomfortable, hot little bungalow that we shared with giant spiders, millipedes and a family of chirping lizards; it was about a hundred degrees and the humidity sat steadfastly between the 75 and 100% range. A short walk to the corner store and back and I would be drenched with sweat. The mosquitoes and sand flies were vicious and not deterred much by even the most potent Deet filled bug spray. One morning I woke up with about ten huge welts on my back from something biting me overnight. I desperately wanted to sleep outside of the covers because it was so hot, but was too afraid of what would chew on me if I did, so I slept fitfully in the rough sheeted, hard, sandy bed. And even though I felt filthy, and itchy and sweaty, I managed to adjust - not to the point where I felt good but to where I could mostly ignore my body and find enjoyment in my life there.
  • At least in the smaller villages, Mexico moves at its own pace and you can either adjust to it or spend a lot of time feeling frustrated. I like time lines and deadlines and I like to feel like there is a system in place to ensure that things run smoothly. I struggled against this in Mexico until I came to a place where I could almost give up and just accept that somethings are out of my hands. When I'd feel annoyance bubbling up, a voice in my head would say, "Lady, Mexico doesn't care what you like."
  • My life is one of privilege and although I acknowledged that on an intellectual level prior to spending time in Mexico, I don't think I really understood it. In addition to the physical discomfort, Mexico was inconvenient; I couldn't buy what I wanted, when I wanted it and had to learn to cook using only local produce and make due with what was available. This wasn't an enormous hardship, but it was a new experience for me, accustomed as I was to life in zone two of London - a five minute walk to a Waitrose. I don't think I'll ever take convenience for granted the way I did before. 
  • I could never live in a country without an adequate animal welfare system. The starving stray animals on the street broke my heart every time we went out. I still think about our kitten and hope someone is taking care of her. 
  • It's important to take care of your community and dispose of rubbish properly. Filth accumulates quickly and makes even the most beautiful place feel depressing and unloved. Since being in Vancouver, I am noticing how clean it is and am so thankful for that and for a culture - imperfect as it is - that mostly cleans up after itself.
  • I love cooking and am pretty good at it; I can take a random concoction of ingredients from a little Mexican market and make something pretty wonderful.
  • There are compelling stories everywhere if you take the time to listen. There are so many things I want to write about that are a gift from my time in Mexico.
By the end of week six, we were both desperate to move on but, as cliche as it sounds, I won't ever forget the experience. I think I learned to see my own life a little bit differently, with a new level of appreciation for how lucky I am and how it really is nothing more than luck.

I'll continue to carry this new awareness in my pocket like a smooth, cool worry stone. I don't think I really knew it was there before I spent six weeks in Mexico.

All photos taken in San Blas by me.

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Laundry in Mexico

I love the colourful lines of fabric stung together over ever outdoor surface in this country. It's beautiful. I could do without hand washing soiled clothes though.

The above photo was taken out the back of our flat in San Blas at sunset, right before a rain storm.  On a related note, I've been approved to sell photos on iStock. Yay!

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On Arriving in Puerto Vallarta

Will Smith’s Family, Feeling Queasy and Cursing in Spanish

A few days ago we traveled by bus from San Blas to Puerto Vallarta, which is about a three hour drive south through the mountains that line the Pacific coast of Mexico. For anyone with any penchant for motion sickness at all, it isn’t a pretty journey. Buses here are air conditioned, but they appear to have no shocks and the roads are bumpy and windey. Not fifteen minutes in and we both felt queasy.

The only thing that makes me feel better when I’m nauseas is sleep. The bus was cool, the bus was quiet and at the exact instant that I began to drift away some little kid put on a ripped copy of the new Karate Kid film starring Will Smith’s rug rat on full volume. The sound system on buses in Mexico isn’t good. There’s a lot of static and the bits you can make out sound like they are being shouted through a long, echoing tin can. And of course it was dubbed, quite poorly, into Spanish.

I will forever associate that cocky little Smith progeny with nausea and a wall of fuzzy noise.

I felt sick enough that, with my head leaning on the curtain on the bus window next to my seat, I started to drift off anyway. I could hear the tinny Spanish dub of the Karate Kid but it became part of my dream – my squeamish stomach so far away that I couldn’t really feel it anymore. I felt the bus stop and heard some people get on and sit behind me, toward the back of the bus.

In these circumstances, my instinct is to dread the arrival of children but if I’m honest, it’s never usually the kids who cause a ruckus, but their parents.

“Little Roberto – do you want some chicken?!” the lady yelled in Spanish as though little Roberto was either deaf or on a bus in the town over. The word for chicken in Spanish is ‘pollo’, pronounced “po-yo”.
Little Roberto: Huh? (Maybe he was deaf)

Lady: Pollo! Pollo!

LR: Pollo?

Lady: Pollo!
This went on for awhile until it was eventually determined that indeed LR wanted some chicken. My eyes were closed the entire time, so I am assuming they thought I was sleeping and just didn’t care. Then, about ten minutes later and I really was starting to fall asleep again when suddenly the curtain I was resting my head on, covering the window next to my seat, was wrench out from under my cheek, causing it to slap against the bare, warm window.

I opened my eyes to see a thirty something man – another of the little Roberto clan – standing over my seat trying to rearrange my curtain by roughly pulling it back and forth. I should note that he had his own window and curtain, which he could have arranged without touching mine.

You know when you feel so angry that for a moment you can imagine yourself reaching out and doing bodily harm to another human being? That’s how I felt.

One of the challenges of being in a country where you aren’t fluid in the language is that you need to look things up before saying them. As Roberto senior was messing with my curtain, I’m fumbling in my Mexican Spanish book trying to work out what I want to say to him. Whoever makes these language books should include a section called “Insults to Hurl At Locals Who Are Pissing You Off.”

I gave up with the book and settled for a “Hey!”, a nasty look and then I roughly readjusted my curtain to where I wanted it, where it was before. Roberto senior looked at me like I was crazy, as though on buses in Mexico you should expect the person sitting behind you to yank your curtain out from under your sleeping head if he feels like it.

Incidentally, the word for rude here is ‘grosero’.

Mr. Bean Makes an Appearance

Upon the conclusion of the Karate Kid, it looked like a DVD featuring Mexican wrestling was going to be put on but following the opening credits, it was abruptly removed and replaced with a Mr. Bean DVD. I’ve never been a big Mr. Bean fan and generally think the character is a dick, which might explain why the guy behind me chuckled at his antics right until he got off the bus just outside of Puerto Vallarta with little Roberto and the loud lady.

Taxi Drivers and “Geese Hotels” in Mexico

We pulled into the central bus station in Puerto Vallarta and headed directly to the taxi stand. We had no idea where we were going and with our huge backpacks, weren’t willing to spend hours trying to navigate the confusing public transportation system here.

At the taxi stand we walked up to the first car in the queue, which was driven by an old man who didn’t speak English. Before we got into the car, a younger guy who seemed to be in charge of the taxi stand, walked up and asked where we were going. I’d written down the name and address of our hotel and showed it to him.
“Zat de ‘otel of de geese.”


“De geese! De geese!”

“It’s the hotel of the geese? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“De gay-eese.”
Then it occurred to me that this funny, cross-eyed man was trying to tell me that my hotel was “the hotel of the gays”, in other words a gay hotel. This made me quite angry. First of all, I was pretty certain that even if our hotel was ‘gay friendly’ it didn’t ban straight couples; also I’d booked through Expedia and although it was explicit that no one under 18 was permitted to check in (a bonus for us) there’d been no warning about being straight. I was also pretty certain that the taxi driver probably had some deal going with some other hotel in town and received a commission by funnelling tourists to them.

“Well, we’re staying at this hotel and we’re not gay.”

"Done say I dee not warn you," and he gave us a 'you crazy gingos' shrug and walked away but not before explaining to our taxi driver how idiotic he thought we were being and having a chuckle. I had momentary visions of kicking him in the shins. 

Mexico is a fairly Catholic country and perhaps the threat of homosexuality is interpreted to mean “they will ass rape you when you check in.” (Which didn't happen, by the way). After five weeks in San Blas, all I wanted to know was: are there dog size spiders and do the toilet flush.

For the record, our hotel is a little bit ‘gay’. There are mostly gay men staying here and working the front desk; and the neighbourhood is also filled with rainbow flags and well-dressed men having fancy meals with one another on verandas.

Give me a hotel of the “geese” any time over one that is intolerant. As long as it doesn’t have spiders.

Image Credit: Picture by me - this isn't the hotel of the geese (thank goodness!)

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My father gave me a canary and a revolving globe ... I used to open the cage and let the canary go free. It developed the habit of sitting at the very top of the globe and singing for hours. For years, as I wandered insatiably over the earth, greeting and taking leave of everything, I felt that the top of my head was the globe and a canary sat perched on the top of my mind, singing.

- Kazantzakis

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One Night in San Blas

I really need a new video camera - my old Flip is so grainy. Or I need to learn how to properly compress video files for Youtube. Ah well, here it is:

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Things That Can't Be Kept

Travel demonstrates as much as any personal intimacy that we cannot elicit perfect, unmoving loyalty. Writing anything down is basically sentimental, an act of preservation, an attempt to hold a moment or image still. Travel writing wants to defeat the impermanence of being in any one place. In keeping records of the intangible—people or places or experiences –we attempt to forget that the things we love are not, in fact, things, and therefore can’t be kept, preserved, or possessed.
-- From the brilliant The New Inquiry - one of my favourite blog finds of late. 
 I've felt a bit untethered the last few days and this essay on The New Inquiry perfectly captures the sad, futile act of trying to cling to moments. I am desperately ready to leave Mexico but strangely sad about it at the same time. I feel like I am trying to capture sand in a bucket filled with holes. 

The rainy cooler days are gone and the humidity and heat is back up. The storms blow in and the thunder rolls for hours but there's not a lot of relief from the heavy, thickness of the air. And the mosquitoes are trying to drink us dry so we are mostly hiding in our flat, working and reading, which I love but I don't really even feel like doing that. I feel a little bit like a character from a Tennessee William play - Maggie the Cat.

The other night I had a bad dream about my sister followed by a wonderful dream about Paris. I woke up longing for a place I've only visited twice and missing people I haven't seen in nearly a year.
What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

- On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Two nights ago we were walking home in the dark and saw a giant coral snake just outside the gate to our complex. I can't stop thinking about the surprise we felt as we came upon it moving around in the dark; and I am obsessed with all the loveless animals I want to rescue from this heat and loneliness.
He began to feed her pomegranate beads, two or three at a time, and she stopped weeping long before her lips were stained red.

- Last Night in Montreal, Emily St. John Mandel
I'm trying to embrace this feeling as part of the experience of traveling that people don't really talk about. It's not all rainbows and sunsets. And I know I will feel better soon.


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Dan and Amy go to Tepic

My old Flip camera is rubbish and the Internet is slow here so I had to compress the heck out of it, but here is a little movie about our trip to Tepic, the capital of the Nayarit region of Mexico. We went primarily for the Walmart because San Blas doesn't have a lot of creature comforts and we realized that there are a lot of things we would need to stock up on to make it through all six weeks. The bus trip costs about $8 USD return each and takes about two hours. We've been twice and this is the time when I didn't feel like puking the entire way.

Oh, and my hair is really bad. I need a haircut. Quite seriously. Yeah, and not so good with the iMovie and not sure how to fade out music. Apart from that, it's wonderful!

Taking the bus in Mexico is an experience. People get on and off constantly with things to sell. In the case of the guy with the nuts (in the video) he came on, gave us all nuts, told us what I'm guess is a sad story about his life and then came around expecting either money or his nuts back. The last time we went to Tepic, on the way back we'd dozed off only to be awoken by buskers who got on and decided to play a rousing mariachi for twenty minutes, and not well. It was funny and a little bit embarrassing - like watching a really bad American Idol audition, two feet away and it goes on for a really long time. I wish I'd had the Flip for it.

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Live Where You Fear to Live

Yesterday the rain started in San Blas, the temperature dropped and the breeze picked up just enough. After six weeks in the heat of the Phoenix desert followed by nearly three in Mexico with very little reprieve from soaring temperatures, the relief we felt at the shift in weather was tangible. As we walked into town for dinner last night under a light cool mist of rain, the streets were filled with glowing puddles and, maybe it was just me projecting, but a sense of relief - a slowness for once not precipitated by the imposing heat and humidity.

Last night, I slept under a sheet for the first time in weeks and I even woke up once at dawn to turn off the fan and cover myself up because I felt a bit too cool. The amazing pleasure of feeling cool - I cannot tell you! Happily the weather has held and after a long dozy sleep-in, we've spent the better part of the day inside the flat reading and writing to the cacophony of birds who seem to be singing more persistently today. It feels like a quiet celebration.


There are a few authors that I've been obsessed with over the years; some of these have stuck and others have fallen away as I find new sources of inspiration. I've loved Sylvia Plath since her Ariel poems and journals sustained me about ten years ago. I had embarked on a misplaced romantic adventure to Northern British Columbia to go to university in a town that literally made my lungs close up from the pollution churned out by the local pulp mills. I'd imagined it would be like living in a Margaret Lawrence or Alice Munro book but instead it was a strange kind of nightmare; we were poorer than I've ever been in my life (or ever hope to be again), I was constantly sick with sinus and bronchial infections and the town and university held a deep hostility towards women and girls that I'd never experienced before. The town was located along the highway of tears and we were always aware of the young women who disappeared - some of them found, their bodies mangled alongside the highway like discarded refuse, others just vanished. Within the town and even the university, women were afraid. I worked in the Women's Centre and so many Monday mornings were spent listening to crying women who had been drugged or raped over the weekend; on one occasion a girl had been chased into the woods behind the school by her boyfriend who was wielding an axe he'd broken out of an 'In Case of Emergency' container in his dorm. She hid in the woods until he finally gave up looking for her or until the police came, I can't remember which.

Over the Christmas holidays that year, I was called at home by a representative of the student's union. He wanted to know if I would participate in a search of the isolated woods on campus for a Russian exchange student who had been missing for over a week. We set out under a cold, steel December sky and finally found her, hanging by her neck from a tall fir that had been felled and was leaning over a big rock. It was declared a suicide, but I've never been able to work out how she managed to get herself up there.

It was a dark, long year. For weeks the sun barely came out and most days, it was through a thick cloak of fog - partly natural and partly pollution from the nearby pulp mills. Sylvia Plath got me through that winter.

A few years later, back in Saskatchewan, I came across Rumi . I think my interest was piqued by the Kate Winslet film Hideous Kinky (story of a young mother played by Winslet who moves to Morocco in search of something meaningful in life), which had a few scenes with whirling dervishes. I've never been a religious person and definitely don't relate to the tangible Sharia laws of traditional Muslim society, but here I was drinking in the words of this mystic poet and completely transfixed with the notion of whirling dervishes - dancing their feet off in ecstatic celebration. I haven't thought about Rumi in awhile, and today I came across this poem quite randomly, on a blog I've never visited before:
…We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.

Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.
I feel like I've been trying to find ways to live more fully for years; even though romance has been the excuse for so many of my adventures (to Northern British Columbia, to England), it has really been an excuse for tumbling, albeit a bit naively and blindly, into the world. When my lovely fiancee and I made the decision to begin this around-the-world trip months and months ago, we were on a train between Cardiff and London. We were exhausted and unhappy with so many things and ground down by unkind acts by a few negative, ruthless people (at the time it seemed like there were so many of them, but with distance, I can see that there were actually only a small handful); as it became a real possibility, this journey became a way of finding places and experiences to remind us of how exciting and fresh life can taste - to reconnect with the possibility of life as an ecstatic and slightly crazy celebration.

I don't know where we are going to end up or if we'll find any answers this year, but more and more, I am beginning to believe in this notion of reckless abandon mentioned above by Rumi. Even in the darkness of my year in Northern British Columbia, I came away with experiences that continue to change me, in ways that I couldn't have imagined or planned for.

Here's to a little bit of madness, with gratitude for the rain fall, the birds songs, this quirky small Mexican town, and for the sighs and keyboard tapping of my love working away in the adjoining room.

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Where I Am Right Now

"The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you." Hafiz

I am generally not one for inspirational quotes or God talk but I read this quote today on the lovely Meg's blog and it jarred something in me. I've been fighting Mexico a little bit; the physical discomfort, the strangeness and the inconvenience of so many things compared to what I'm used to. But today, I'm feeling really good about being here. It's the first truly overcast day we've had since arriving so the weather is cooler, there's a sea breeze making the curtains next to my bed float up and down and I've discovered some beautiful, strange things about this town in the last 24 hours that have my brain buzzing with ideas for creative writing and photography projects.

I feel really grateful for a lot of things today and for the first time in nearly a month, in this moment, I feel like I am pretty much exactly where I belong.

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Guacamole and Grilled Cheese

I swear that this isn't becoming a food/cooking blog but lately I've developed a bit of an obsession based mostly on the fact that, for maybe the first time in my life, I am in a situation where it's hard to find the things I'm used to or want to eat. There are wonderful meals to be had here - like the amazing corn on the cob grilled over charcoal on the plaza with chili oil, salt and lime - but few things are convenient, familiar or reliable. We'll decide on a restaurant for dinner and head into town only to find that it's not open - there isn't any reason and no sign to explain the disruption; it's just that they've decided to stay closed. Or, after finally finding a store that does decent cheese, they'll suddenly stop carrying it and we'll be back to Kraft Singles.

In the grand scheme, none of this is a big deal and I've had some amazing food here not least of which is the local seafood, which is probably the freshest I've ever had. But it means that I fret and think about food in a way that I don't do when it's just available and abundant. I'm a bit spoiled by a culture where anything is available and in London, it's also available nearly 24/7. I recognize the impropriety of this along with the environmental and social impact of consumption - but it's my reality.

This new food reality in Mexico has led me to some interesting combinations of ingredients that would probably never have occurred to me anywhere else. It will be interesting to see how all the different places we visit over the next year will change how I cook and think about food. So, because I am having a love affair with the beautiful Mexican avocado, here's my favourite new lunch dish: 

Guacamole and Grilled Cheese Sandwich (pictured above)

One medium avocado
One small onion
One clove of garlic
Splash or two of hot sauce
A few sprigs of Cilantro
One small lime
One small tomato
Two pieces of bread
A small pad of butter, margarine or some anti-stick spray
Two slices of Kraft singles (or any other kind of cheese - I've only used singles because they're all I had)
  1. Fine chop onion, garlic and cilantro and put it in a bowl. 
  2. Cut open the avocado and remove the pit. Put the 'meat' into the bowl with the onions, etc.
  3. Squeeze lime juice into the bowl and add a few splashes of hot sauce. Use a fork to mash the avocado and mix everything together. I like my guacamole chunky, but it's up to you. 
  4. Fine dice the tomato and mix it in with the guacamole. This is an optional step - I just like tomato. 
  5. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat and put a bit of butter or non-stick agent in it. 
  6. Make a sandwich with the cheese and bread and put it in the skillet. Keep an eye on things so that it doesn't burn. Once it's browned on one side, flip. To help the cheese melt you may want to cover the skillet for a few minutes towards the beginning of this process - but make sure you end with the lid off so the bread crisps up. 
  7. Once the cheese is melted and bread is toasted, remove from heat. Pry open the bread and put lots of guacamole in there. Close back up again and eat. This recipe makes more than enough Guacamole for two or even three sandwiches, if you aren't selfish like I am.
So yummy!

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Recipe - Mexican Melting Pot (AKA Vegetarian Chilli with a Twist)

We purposely sought to rent a place in Mexico with a kitchen so that we could save money (and sanity) by cooking in on occasion. It's about as far from fancy as I've ever seen - a tiny little space with a fridge, a small stove and a sink - but everything is in working order and as long as we remember to wash the plates and cutlery before eating to get rid of the little ants everywhere, it's actually relatively clean.

The biggest challenge with cooking in is that it's hard to find most ingredients here and I don't know what to do with a lot of what is available. I also refuse to cook meat here because the butcher shops put me off. I suppose it's a good dose of reality to snap me out of my hypocrisy about eating meat - instead of the sterile aisles of Safeway, the butcher shops here are bloody in smell and appearance and there is a little more of the animal around than I can cope with. It actually surprises me how few vegetarian options there are on most menus here; fish is usually an option but often the choice is limited to chicken or beef and a lot of the meals don't actually come with beans or rice so there isn't a lot of filler if you forgo the meat.

Despite my culinary challenges, tonight we made dinner in and it was actually pretty delicious. It's a bit of a mishmash (or melting pot) of ingredients that I cobbled together into a hybrid vegetarian chili/stew. It was cheap to make, we had lots of leftovers and I actually think it might be something I make again - even when we are back in the land of Safeway and Waitrose.

Mexican Melting Pot Recipe

1 can of black beans
1 can of tomatos
1 avocado
1 medium onion (white, red, yellow - doesn't really matter)
2 large cloves of garlic
1 small hot pepper
1 medium green pepper
1 small carrot
hot sauce
1 small-medium size lime
Olive oil/butter (something to use to ensure things don't stick to your pan)
1 cube of chicken or vegetarian broth
1 cup of rice
A few slices of whatever cheese you have laying around
(We didn't have access to any other spices, but this would likely benefit from some cumin and freshly ground pepper. It doesn't need extra salt though - the canned good have more than enough.)
  1. Put about four cups of water on the stove to boil and add your cube of broth stock. Once it reaches a boil, turn it down to simmer so that it stays hot but doesn't evaporate.
  2. While you're waiting for the water to boil, melt your butter or heat a small amount of olive oil in a non-stick large pan over medium heat. Once it's hot add nearly all of your roughly chopped onion and peeled roughly chopped carrot. Fine chop the remainder of the onion and set it aside.
  3. Once the onion and carrot have started cooking, add approximately 3/4 of your garlic. Fine chop the remainder of the garlic and set it aside with the onion. 
  4. Let this stuff cook until it looks soft and the onion gets translucent, then add your finely chopped hot pepper. Depending on how sensitive you are to spiciness and how hot your pepper is, you may only want to add part of it. It's good to remove the seeds before chopping it up. 
  5. While all of this is happening, if your vegetables start to burn or darken too much, add a few ladles of the simmering stock. 
  6. After a few minutes, add the can of black beans and the can of tomatoes, the roughly chopped green pepper and a few dashes of the hot sauce. Bring this mixture to a boil and stir in a cup of rice. There should be a lot of extra liquid in the pot at this point from the beans and the tomatoes but if there isn't, add some of the chicken stock. 
  7. Continue to stir and add in stock until the rice is cooked - the time will vary depending on the kind of rice you've used but it took me about 20 minutes. Make sure you babysit it or the rice will stick to the bottom and burn.
  8. While the rice is cooking, cut open a large avocado, take out the pit and add the 'meat' to the onion and garlic mixture you've set aside. Cut your lime in half and add the juice, add a dash of hot sauce. Smash up the avocado and mix it all around until you have a slightly chunky version of guacamole. Add the other half of the lime to your cooking rice/vegetable mixture.
  9. A few minutes before the rice is cooked, add some roughly chopped cilantro to the rice/vegetable mixture, keeping a bit aside for garnish. 
  10. When the rice is cooked, dish the food up into bowls, put some cheese on top along with some chopped cilantro. Finish with a dollop of guacamole on top. 
Good on its own or with tortillas. Obviously you could substitute black beans for any bean you want.

It was really very good and extremely filling.

PS: Thankfully the above is not a picture of our kitchen - it belongs to someone else in San Blas.

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One Night in Mexico

Last night in the dark of 10 pm, we were walking home from dinner and drinks down the dirt road behind our flat. A car goes by and we see a dog in the headlights. We assume it's one of the dogs that lives at the complex and keep going.

As we pass him (her?) in the dark, I offer it some bacon, which I've saved from dinner to feed to the stray cat that has adopted us. Dan shines the flash light at the dog and, well, it's actually a coyote.

But it didn't eat us. Or the bacon.

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Whinging About Mexico

I know it sounds like I hate it here, but it's actually pretty okay; it's weird and a bit uncomfortable but every day I see something beautiful. Like last night on the way to dinner, we passed two wayward horses in our back alley and I got to feed them apples; that kind of thing doesn't really happen in a big city. It's also a good place to do lots of reading, writing and thinking - there aren't a lot of distractions with the exception of bug bites, heat and noisy American neighbours (seriously, these people do not speak to one another - they yell).

But this isn't going to be an "I love Mexico" and all it's quirky loveliness kind of post mostly because today my mosquito bites are so itchy that I feel a bit like someone with Tourette Syndrome - flinching, and ticking and swearing when that bite on my little toe (or any one of the 200 others) starts flaring up.

Yesterday, we went swimming a little later than usual and just as we were heading back to shore I was stung by a jelly fish. I didn't see it so it was probably pretty small and luckily, I was able to jerk my leg away the minute I felt the sting; but it still really hurt. As we pushed against the tide back to shore, Dan very kindly offered to pee on my leg, which is what you're supposed to do to take away the sting. Happily, it wasn't that bad so we were able to skip that step and go directly to the liquid Nurophen, which has been my saviour on this leg of the trip. It's amazing - works on bug bites, jelly fish stings, sore muscles. If I could work out a way to bathe in ice cold Nurophen, I would.

On top of all of the heat, the bites and the bugs, I did laundry this morning. Doing laundry here consists of scrubbing clothes with a bar of laundry soap over the kitchen sink, rinse, repeat, wring the crap out of them and then hang dry on the buggy patio behind our flat. I remember whinging about the lack of clothes dryer in our London flat but now I realise how good we had it. Bring on the clothes horse as long as I don't have to wash towels by hand in the sink!

These Mexican mamas with all their little ones are tough as nails. They must spend half of their waking lives washing shit in the sink. After a few towels, t-shirts and some underwear I was dripping wet and on the verge of a complete melt down. The only way I got through it without giving up was by thinking angry thoughts about the American neighbours and how their yelling ten year old boy woke us up at 7 am.

Yeah, and I would give my left arm for a Big Mac and maybe some poutine.

The above image was taken with my Diana Lens ; it gives a pretty neat effect. Here are a few more: 

Aren't these pinatas scary? Especially the blue donkey with his blood red mouth and freaky teeth.

For more images of San Blas, Mexico (and less whinging) visit my Flickr photo stream.

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Spider Killing Monster

Did I mention the wolf spiders the size of small dogs that we have here in our luxurious San Blas hacienda (yeah, I'm feeling a bit snarky today)? They are huge and look terrifying, even though my reading suggests they are shy and want to avoid us as much as we want to avoid them. If this is true, then why are they venturing into our bedroom and climbing up the walls? Why spiders?!

Our solution is pictured above. She's a kitten, about eight months old, who belongs to a lady in our complex and she has resolutely adopted us while her owner is away on a trip. As you can see, she's ferocious. The other night she chased a giant spider and played with it for awhile before letting it clamber up the wall to our terror; we eventually called in our landlord Chris to capture and release it into the wild.

She's a real warrior when not laying on her back across the bed, tongue sticking out. We're calling her a lot of things, but most frequently she's Pollo (chicken in Spanish), Rattlesnake (she's got a striped tail) and Kitten (yeah, not a lot of creativity there).

Besos chicas X

Photo by Dan.

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San Blas: Acclimatising

Yesterday we had our first taste of stormy weather in San Blas. Since we came here via Phoenix, where it apparently never rains, we haven't seen a storm since our last night in London when we were nearly drowned out on our way home from the cinema. Though the rain can get annoying in the UK, I do like the romance of it - steamy, damp windows, the sound of water tapping against the side of the house, umbrellas ... If you had asked me two months ago whether I would miss London rain I would have said no, but it turns out I would have been wrong.

It's not as hot in Mexico temperature-wise as in Phoenix - instead of 40 degrees, it's only 32 degrees - but the humidity is a killer. Last night as we were eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe, I realised that I was wet with sweat - you could actually see a layer of damp across my arms, chest and brow. We are slowly acclimatising, but after the intense dryness of the desert, the humidity is a lot to get used to.

The storm yesterday helped to cut some of the humidity and there has been a slightly cooler breeze in the air. So on the scale of one being freezing to death and ten being burning to death, we are now sitting somewhere around an seven instead of an eight. Small mercies.

I miss air conditioning dreadfully at times, mostly at bed time when I want to snuggle under the blankets but find that anything on top of my skin makes it too hot to sleep. We found that the small ATM on the Plaza is enclosed in a tiny air conditioned room and I've been avoiding the urge to go and hang out there; maybe get my tacos to go and eat in there ... I am fairly proud of us though. The first few days we were here we were completely lost and fighting the urge to take the bus right back to Puerto Vallarta and the convenience of air conditioning and chain stores. Between the heat, my bug bites and the gigantic spiders in our apartment I honestly wasn't sure if we could manage here. But now, nearly a week later, we are finding our way and although it's not the most comfortable place, I am finding little things that I love about San Blas:
  • The beach and the ocean are the most perfect place I've ever found for swimming. Apparently the sand flies are bad and can bite, but not if there's a little wind and not during the high heat of the day. The sand is smooth and goes on forever and the water in the bay is lukewarm like a bathtub and very shallow until quite far out, which makes me feel safe as the idea of being in the ocean over my head scares me. We go out every day for about a half an hour and jump into the giant waves that crash to shore, splashing and squealing with the locals. It is bliss. 
  • The church bells in the town centre ring at various times throughout the day and I love hearing their echo. They are far enough away to not be grating and so early in the morning and late at night we hear them mixed in with the sound of crickets and the wind. 
  • Everything here is in technicolour. It's so different from the North American communities where you are only allowed to paint your house one out of six approved shades of grey. It reminds me of a collage, how everything is glued together, even when it doesn't really fit. 
  • The children are very friendly, saying "Hola!" and even occasionally "Hello!" when we pass them on the street. They often go by on vintage bicycles, usually four or more clinging to every possible surface of the bike: seat, handle bars, back wheel. Beautiful, nut brown babies with shining black hair and soulful eyes. They mostly seem really happy and, along with their parents, the bugs don't seem to bother them. 
 And now, some pictures:

There are always horses on the beach and our first day there was this lovely little colt who didn't take too kindly to his harness. Happily, the horses mostly seem very well cared for - not too skinny and they don't have any sores or anything that I've seen.

This was our first meal in San Blas. It tasted good, but looking at the fish grossed me out a little bit. I think they serve it this was as a way of showing off how fresh it is. Still, it's hard to believe that Dan ate this.

Not where we're staying.

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Tour of Our Bungalow in Mexico

Sorry about the very bad quality. The Internet connection here is slow and anything that isn't super compressed would take hours to upload. Oh, and after watching it I just realised that I have three mosquito bites on my cheek - thanks Flip camera !

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I'm Popular With the Mosquitoes

They've always loved me. We get a lot of them in Saskatchewan, especially in the spring, and I can remember counting one year to find that I had about 200 bites on my hands and ankles alone. Liquid Neurophen is helping quell the itch a bit, but I am feeling a little bit like Will Ferrell in the hideous film Land of the Lost ; every morning I wake up with a few new bites. 

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San Blas or Bust

After a fairly long few days, we arrived in San Blas in the Nayarit region of Mexico yesterday afternoon. We left Phoenix just before noon and as our plane forced its way up into the sky over the desert, I was ready to go but also a little sad that six weeks has gone by so quickly.

Due to a budget flight, we didn't go to Puerta Vallarta direct but went via Dallas and the entire flight I had the theme song from the show of the same name running through my head: "Ba, ba-ba, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba, ba, ba-ba, ba-ba-baaaa!"

I remember watching that show every Friday night as a kid with my grandparents - Sue Ellen, Bobby, JR. Those were the days! We spent about an hour in the Dallas Airport and I am a bit disappointed to announce that the hair was neither terribly big nor the accents terribly Texan. They did have a lot of BBQ restaurants in the airport though.

After arriving in Puerto Vallarta, were immediately and stupidly ushered into a situation I was completely unprepared for. I am a stereotypical Canadian in that when people try to speak to me, I have trouble not stopping to listen. When they talk and talk and talk, I feel rude just walking away - even if they are trying to sell me something I don't want or need.

Walking out of customs at the PV airport takes you down a narrow hallway flanked on either side by people yelling out to you, holding signs and generally acting like they know you and understand exactly what you need.

"Hola! Lady, where you staying?"

"The Flamenco Vallarta." (Admittedly, responding was my first mistake.)

"You go here - talk to that woman. She represents your hotel."

"Okay." (Second mistake.)

From that point on and for about ten minutes we were amiga and amigo'd by a woman who clearly didn't represent our hotel and who was trying to sell us any number of things from a cab ride, to breakfast, to a friggin' deep sea fishing expedition. Finally, Dan got tired of my polite nodding and ushered us the hell out of there only to have me run into the arms of a dodgy cab driver who charged us the equivalent of about $20 (USD) for a five minute cab ride to our hotel. Yeah, I'm a sucker and Dan was not impressed. I'm going to have to get this under control before we go to India, if we go to India.

Our night in Puerto Vallarta was nice once we got over the irritation of being taken for a ride. Here are some pictures:

After one night at the Flamingo, we got up early with the task of trying to work out how to get to San Blas. We knew it would be by bus, but we had conflicting information about where to catch it, how much it would cost and how long it would take. Due to our rip off cab ride the day before, Dan was pretty intent that whatever we were going to do, it wasn't going to involve a cab or any opportunity for me to be suckered in. Just short of putting tape over my mouth and making me promise not to talk to strangers, we set out with enormous packs on our backs. We were originally going to catch the bus to Walmart, where we were told we could take the Silver Line bus to San Blas but after being admonished by our hotel clerk, we headed in the opposite direction to catch a bus to the central station. Did I mention that my backpack weighs about 100 pounds and although it isn't as hot here as in Phoenix, the humidity is insane and probably feels even worse because we're accustomed to the dryness of the desert. So by the time we'd completed the ten minute walk to the bus stop, I was pretty much soaking wet.

There's this thing about city buses in Mexico that the guide books don't tell you - they don't stop unless you flag them down and often, you don't know which bus to flag down because the destination is painted on the front window by hand and isn't always easy to read. After flagging down the wrong bus once and watching half a dozen pass us by we lucked into a meeting a very friendly man who, was originally from San Blas. For a small tip, he accompanied us on the right bus (which he kindly flagged down) and took us to the station where we would catch the Pacifico bus direct to San Blas. He was a really nice man; it was his birthday and he told us how difficult things had been since the recession because tourists weren't coming down as much. He works at the Westin Hotel and seemed hopeful that things would get better soon. We had a two hour wait at the Pacifico station with only one disaster; a bottle of suntan lotion spilled in my bag and got all over the outside of my laptop, peeling off some of the finish. It still works fine but now it has a bit of character in the form of a shiny-looking chemical peel in one corner. It's scary to me that something I rub all over my skin has the ability to peel plastic off a Mac. Some photos from our wait at the Pacifico station:

The bus actually arrived on time and to our relief it was air-conditioned and nearly empty. The journey took about three hours but would have been less except for quite a lot of construction along the road. It stopped every now and again in small towns where little boys would jump on and try to sell us homemade tacos, pop and Doritos. About an hour outside of San Blas, the scenery changed from dense green jungle to one of small, colourful seaside communities. The ocean smells and looks like heaven and these places are filled with colour and food, children running around and people riding vintage bicycles.

It hasn't all been perfect (more on that later): I am already covered in angry red mosquito bites and there's been one slightly ugly bout of stomach upset but I love looking at this place and I love the slow, sleepy pace of siesta and late dinners. More on San Blas tomorrow ...

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