Wild, Wacky Utila

I surprised myself when I lobbied for our first Honduran long weekend in September to be to the Caribbean Bay Island of Utila, one of Honduras’s 3 Bay Island. Roatan is the island of resorts and cruise ships, Guanaja is the “unspoiled” one and Utila fits somewhere in between, a haven of backpackers, cheap accommodations, shot challenges and, as we learned, a strange population of Baby Boomer American and Canadian expats who came and never left. Like most islands, it has a laid back, friendly vibe with just enough weird thrown in. Despite my island PTSD after living on the Galapagos, two friends we met there now own a hotel on Utila and invited us to come for a visit. The school also provides bus travel for a few trips for the expat teachers and the seasoned teachers all voted for Utila for the first trip. When I heard that the bus trip was 3-1/2 hours, followed by an hour boat ride, I booked our flights! Another couple from school decided to skip the bus ride so we enjoyed some cocktails in the airport lounge with Kathy and Kendall before boarding.

The plane had a strong fuel smell throughout the flight, which we learned was normal. The copilot was nice enough to crack open his window to try to get some air into the plane. The discomfort was worth it because 1/2 hour later, we landed in Utila, met up with Enno and Jerome and headed off in a tuk tuk to their hotel, Manurii. After some relaxing and catching up, we set off into town for dinner at Funky Chicken.

Funky Chicken is the perfect example of island weird. Its proprietor, Stuart, is a Canadian Boomer who brought excellent Thai cooking to Utila. The menu is based on what Stuart has available and feels like cooking that day. Enno and Jerome’s friend Kristin joined us so we ordered the entire menu to share – two appetizers, one papaya salad and two entrees. The food was delicious and the best meal we had in Utila. Stuart was a combination of friendly and unfriendly – he didn’t bother to greet us when we entered the tiny, 4-table restaurant until he finished his conversation and beer with another table, but then was welcoming and attentive. During the weekend, Stuart popped up all over town – at a bar after dinner on Saturday night, at another bar where we watched the Packers game on Sunday afternoon and later that night at a beach bar at the tip of the island. When Kathy and Kendall joined us at the beach bar and mentioned they had stopped by Funky Chicken to eat but it was closed despite the posted hours, I pointed to Stuart on the bar stool and said, “that’s because he is the owner!” When we told him he had customers wondering when he was opening, he laughed from his perch, raised his glass and said he wasn’t opening that night because he was getting drunk. A Facebook post from a few days ago indicates that Stuart has closed Funky Chicken and now is selling jewelry. A Canadian owner/chef of a Thai restaurant turned jeweler – no one bats an eye. Island weird.

Funky Chicken

Utila has one main drag, which was crowded with tuk-tuks, golf carts and pedestrians. Rarely could you get a glimpse of the ocean from the main drag as the storefronts, bars and hostels packed the shoreline. We spent the next two days relaxing and touring the island with our friends, one day via golf cart. The beaches were pretty and we enjoyed some nice snorkeling and a few beach bars. But as all of the teacher chatter revolved around the “shot challenges” the bars have, I was determined to do one, probably because I never went on Spring Break in college! I gleaned that Casa Dr. John, yet another expat Boomer with a big personality, was one of THE shot challenges, not to be missed. Enno and Jerome had not experienced Dr. John, so we went with them, two of their friends and Kathy and Kendall to visit the good doctor. This man is a marketing genius. He is (or was, the story, like most on Utila, is vague) a medical doctor from the US who came to Utila years ago and decided to stay and work as the first doctor on the island. At some point he ceased practicing traditional medicine (again, it’s fuzzy whether this was a choice and he may or may not still provide homeopathic remedies), but he fashioned himself into an island icon.

We arrived at the Pink Palace aka Casa Dr. John and found the good doctor chillin’ on the porch. He invited us to take a seat in the sweltering heat and we proceeded to visit for about a 1/2 hour. The conversation meandered and Enno and Jerome were able to talk some business and island talk. It quickly became clear that Dr. John was no fool and while interesting, we were more interested in getting on with things rather than swatting mosquitos and shooting the breeze (of which there was none). Eventually he invited us into the house. What a sight – every inch of the pepto-bismol pink walls had graffiti and more than one Dr. John icon was displayed (most complete with phallus). Kendall is an artist and had created a fantastic caricature of Dr. John that had him tickled pink. Dr. John carefully explained his shot challenge – we would each do 4 shots, in time to AC/DC’s T.N.T. (a short, dry rehearsal was required), and a videographer was needed so we could post the clip on his Facebook page. As I said, this man is no fool. None of us were really interested in 4 shots and he assured us that the concoction was weak (it was) and that he would only put as much (or nothing) in our cups (he did). Shot challenge completed, we then sang the required “We are the Champions,” bought our Dr. John attire and were released because another group was waiting for their audience.

Another must-see in Utila is Treetanic “the bar above the Jade Seahorse Hotel” that was created by an American artist. It was impossible to find a good description of the place or to understand what it was and even Enno and Jerome had a hard time explaining it. Matt and I are always up for anything art-related so we walked over to check it out. The site is a Guadí inspired, through-the-looking-glass, hallucinogenic trip. We arrived at the entry and saw a sign that indicated a small fee, but no way to pay it. So we started looking around the mind-bending wonderland and continued up the stairs.

Suddenly, a man popped up from behind a small wall. “You need to pay me,” he said in English. We readily agreed, despite both thinking he may just be a squatter, and handed over the equivalent of a couple of bucks. His eyes narrowed as he checked us out, “You’re from Colorado, aren’t you?” “Nope, Wisconsin,” we replied. He didn’t let it go. “Huh, you look like you are from Colorado.” “I’ll take that as a compliment because you think we look sporty,” I joked. “Nooooo,” he replied, in a way that made it clear he didn’t think much of Coloradans and wasn’t so sure about us. We turned to explore the crazy wonderland, but he was having none of that and began a meandering monologue. Being Wisconsin nice (despite his skepticism as to our origins), we politely listened and I tried to glean his story. He wasn’t too forthcoming, but we learned that Neil was from L.A. and was a former art teacher with rental property in L.A. that allows him to keep this property and practice his art. The entire time we spoke, he was surrounded by enormous spiders in their webs, which was fascinating and unnerving. At one point he politely noted that we were standing in the blazing sun and we both thought that he was finally going to let us wander, but he merely suggested we move into the shade and kept talking. Our release came when some other tourists (not Coloradans) arrived and Neil scurried to take their fee.

The site used to be a hotel and its meandering paths and bridges led to fairy-tale cabins, each with an art-related name and unique design. Above the cabins was a bar area that is still occasionally used when someone rents out the space. Everything is made with natural or repurposed materials and there are countless mosaics, nooks and crannies to explore along with gorgeous gardens. It was fascinating and we were awed by the creativity behind it.

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The next day, we got up early to fly back to San Pedro Sula. While islands still are not my top destination choice, my guess is we will be back to experience the weird and beautiful Utila again!

Sun, Sea and Palm Trees!

If you want to stay at Enno and Jerome’s amazing, remodeled hotel, contact them via their web page: https://www.manurii.com/

A Most Unusual Deity

Today Matt and I experienced a god that I feel certain both of our dads would have loved: Maximón*, the cigarette smoking, booze swigging Mayan deity.

Maximón and his Buzzed Keepers

We are on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, which is an amazing place due to the surrounding volcanoes and chill vibe. Our hotel is near Santiago, the largest town on the lake, and we walked along the local paths to get there. This was an experience in and of itself as we passed tiny garden after tiny garden, evidence of the locals scratching out a sustenance existence. Everyone who passed us greeted us warmly and with a smile.

We hit the town and after a few minutes of browsing the amazing handicraft shops, we were accosted by a “guide” who offered to show us the various sites. We had heard of Maximón and knew the experience would be easier with a guide, particularly because many people in this area speak Tzu’tujil and not Spanish, so we agreed to pay an overpriced, gringo rip off price for a tour with Francisco. We set off winding through back alleys farther and farther off the tourist path. I was having flashbacks to a horrible “tour” in Morocco that ended with my friend and me locked in a rug shop, when we suddenly arrived at a nondescript private residence that is Maximón’s current abode.

We entered and were met by a smoking Maximón, with his two handlers flanking him and candles on the floor in front of him. We paid a gratuity and photograph fee (about $15 total). These offerings were accepted and secured on the top of a stack of bills beneath Maximón’s tie. We hovered awkwardly in the small room and looked around, trying not to gawk. The room was crammed with Catholic artifacts – saints lined the perimeter, all dressed with ties or scarves and a large prone adult Jesus was swaddled in a case, draped with flashing lights and honored with lit candles in front of him. There were benches around the room with males ranging from preteens to old sitting around in various states of drowsy intoxication. After a few minutes, a place in front of Maximón opened up and we snagged prime seats to observe the action. Maximón moves every year, and it is a great honor to have him in your home. Francisco explained that the current homeowner of Maximón’s shrine chooses the house for the next year. There are 24 shaman each year: 12 men and 12 women. They each conduct different types of ceremonies and select their successors for the next year. At night Maximón is put to bed in the rafters.

We had arrived during a ceremony, so a shaman was seated on a plastic crate in front of Maximón. He was praying in Tzu’tujil, but there didn’t seem to be urgency to the matter. Sometimes the shaman would indicate that it was time to buy more beer and a bill would be taken from Maximón’s stash and a boy sent to buy a bottle, which was shared with many of those present. At one point, a fire truck passed with its siren blaring. This generated great excitement and broke the moment as the crowd speculated as to what had occurred. Some of the younger boys and men rushed out to investigate and returned with the full report of a car accident. Occasionally the shaman would indicate that the handlers needed to serve some liquor to Maximón and they would carefully remove the cigarette and pour booze into his mouth, dabbing his lips with a towel. The cigarette was otherwise a perpetual fixture and the handlers carefully tapped ash into one ceramic bowl and collected spent butts in another. In front of Maximón was a wooden structure and these ceramic bowls were placed in their wooden holders while additional niches held a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of liquor.

There was a point where I wondered whether this was all an elaborate hoax on the tourists. It seemed so surreal to have a cigarette smoking, booze swilling god (or saint as he is sometimes referred to). The origins of Maximón are somewhat obscure, but he predates the conquistadors and Santiago’s first Catholic church, whose building began in 1545. As in most Latin American countries, while the Catholic church did its best to convert the locals, they often retained their own traditions and merged them with Catholic beliefs and rituals. That is why it makes perfect sense to have Maximón surrounded by Catholic saints and Jesus. The belief in Maximón is as real as the belief in Jesus or any saint.

About 20 minutes after we arrived, there was a changing of the shaman and the first shaman gave up his seat as the second shaman began setting up. First, one of the young men (not Maximón’s handlers) tidied up all of the candles in front of both Maximón and Jesus and scraped up the wax that had pooled on the floor. Then the new shaman spent about 5 minutes carefully setting up the thin white and orange tapers in two rows in front of Maximón and one row in front of Jesus. Next, a woman who was the person receiving the shaman’s intercession for her health was seated on the plastic crate in front of Maximón. The shaman began pulling clothes out of a chest and purifying them with incense. He dressed the woman in two shirts, a suit coat, a blanket for around her legs, shoes and one of the two hats and scarves originally on Maximón when we arrived. Then the young man spent about 5 minutes waving incense around the small room. At one point it was handed to the handlers and they each waved it under their armpits, which probably was just good manners at that point.

The ceremony began in Spanish and I recognized an Our Father, Glory Be and Hail Mary. I wondered whether we were going to recite the rosary when the shaman transitioned into Tzu’tujil. At that point we had spent about 40 minutes with Maximón and decided to take our leave. We walked with Francisco to the first Cathedral, and were amused to note that Maximón has a domed shrine kitty corner from the church and spends a night there between his annual move. We then hiked to the other end of town to a pleasant overlook and a very sad “peace park” which is actually a memorial to 13 locals who were massacred by the military government on December 2, 1990, during the last chapter of Guatemala’s civil war, which targeted the Mayan people and left 200,000 dead.

After some shenanigans with Francisco over the bill, we left him and walked back through town and to our hotel where we lounged for the rest of the afternoon and evening and contemplated the mysterious Maximón.

Cocktails by the Pool

* Pronounced “mah-shi-mo”

A Wine and Cheese Weekend

Wine and cheese in Mexico – who knew?! We are cheeseheads, after all, and were thrilled to find there is a wine and cheese route just a few hours away from Mexico City. We checked it out with our friends Josette and Scott during Tequisquiapan’s wine and cheese festival.

Matt was the tour director and Scott was our accommodating designated driver (he’s a beer guy) for the weekend. We started out at a reasonable hour on Saturday with our only goal to arrive at the Freixinet winery by 2 pm because we had tickets for its paella festival and we were told the paella could run out. First stop was the Neole cheese shop for a tour and tasting. We were joined by a tour group and headed behind the cheese shop for the simple tour that doubled as our daily Spanish lesson. We checked out the cheese making area, had the process described to us and then enjoyed our first cheese tasting of the trip. We would learn at our second cheese tasting that orange slices are to cleanse the palate, sweet is to temper the taste of the cheese and salty is to intensify the cheese’s taste. I used this guide as my excuse to eat the sweet pieces of “ate de membrillo” or quince jelly every time I tried a bit of blu or smoked cheese.

Even though we were full from breakfast and our subsequent cheese tasting, next stop was another cheese shop. Except we couldn’t find it and even Matt had to concede that despite its presence on his GPS, it didn’t really exist. No worries, it was time for some wine instead and we stopped at Viñedos Los Rosales. The grounds were beautiful, the servers were friendly and patiently described the wines we could taste and… the wines were terrible. So terrible that while we only had tiny 1-ounce pours, we still furtively dumped them out on the ground instead of finishing them. Driver Scott could rest easy that he hadn’t missed anything as he had taken a pass on the tasting, and we could all be confident that our $2 wine tasting fee was worth knowing never to drink Los Rosales wine again.

To get the bad taste out of our mouths, we quickly turned into Viñedos La Redonda for our second tasting. We opted to skip the tour (as we had done at Los Rosales) and headed to the tasting room at the front of the property. While the attendants couldn’t have been less interested in explaining the wine to us, the view was great and the wines were good.

La Redonda

After enjoying our wine and the view, it was off to the paella festival at Finca Sale Vivé by Freixenet. What a great time! After the usual ex-pat confusion (we had advanced tickets but had to stand in a ticket line anyhow), we got our glasses and our complimentary wine and were off to enjoy the fest. We started with a review of the entries into the paella competition. The entrants were gastronomy schools and the offerings looked amazing so we purchased from the friendliest group who told us their special ingredient was mezcal. Next up was a tour of the winery including the underground wine cave, which the winery claims is the only one in Latin America. It was a refreshing break from the sun and nice because we could wander about at our own pace.

Fun in the Cave

Back outside we checked out the hot air ballon, refilled our glasses and continue our wandering. The entrepreneurs who were supposed to be signing people up for rides the next morning were running a little side business taking pictures of people inside the balloon. We admired the effort and stepped inside. The festival crowd was laid back and family-friendly (despite the occasional passed out over indulger) and there were several seating areas with music. We headed through the vineyards, found a seat at the outdoor tent and enjoyed a mariachi band and then a band playing tunes like Stand by Me. I don’t think I have ever been in a vineyard surround by cacti before.

We left the festival and headed back to enjoy the pool at our lovely hotel. Afterwards, we returned to the main square of Tequisquiapan and went to La Vaca Feliz (The Happy Cow) cheese shop. It was crowded and we were a bit overwhelmed when the gentleman behind the counter took an interest in us and began describing all of the cheeses and giving us samples. We must have tasted 15 kinds of cheese! The man (if we got his name, I forgot it) was actually an optometrist who loved cheese and was eager to practice his English with us. We bought  couple of kinds but assured him we would be back on Monday before we left town. We did, in fact, return, and while we were disappointed that many of the cheeses we intended to buy had sold out over the weekend, we found plenty of other kinds to buy instead. And while our new friend wasn’t working, the woman who assisted us also generously gave us about another dozen samples.

Day 2 was as exciting and wine-filled as Day 1 and once again began with cheese. We went to Bocanegra – the companion cheese shop to Neole where they have a cheese cave. It looks like a winery – a gorgeous building with cool art in a beautiful setting. Wisconsin cheesemakers should take note.

It wasn’t all wine and cheese (and the occasional beer) – we were headed to the Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) of Bernal to see the Rock of Bernal. Mexico designates certain towns as “Magical Towns” to promote tourism, protect traditions, provide jobs and highlight the towns’ cultural or natural significance. 83 towns or villages throughout Mexico have the designation, and Tequisquiapan is also one. I was game to explore another Pueblo Mágico, but I was confused by Bernal – a big rock was all it took? My first glimpse of the rock did not impress me.

Rock of Bernal

I did some quick internet research and learned it was the 3rd highest monolith on the planet. What the heck is a monolith? The Merriam-Webster definition, “a single great stone often in the form of an obelisk or column” didn’t do much to enlighten me.

We got to Bernal, parked the car and wandered around the cute town. The rock grew on me – the town was in its shadow and it was cool to see it looming above. We wandered in and out of shops on our way to the main square. We were admiring the church when we noticed a bunch of kids hurrying to stand before the door. They were eagerly awaiting something, which I didn’t think it was for mass to start, when the door opened and a guy started throwing coins to the kids. They scrambled for their share and then resumed the wait. What the heck? We saw a family come out with a newly baptized baby and Scott surmised that the tradition must be to throw coins to kids after your child is baptized. Sure enough, we entered the church and saw the set up for another baptism. Later research confirmed that this practice is called a “bolo” and the baby’s godfather throws the coins to ensure a prosperous life for his godchild.

Pueblo Mágico

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We went to a restaurant called El Negrito, which is a little disconcerting to an American as it translates to pickaninny. (Peru had a restaurant in the airport called La Negrita.) The terrace view was lovely and we enjoyed our lunch before heading back to Tequis for a cool down in the pool before going to the Wine and Cheese Festival.

Terrace View

While I think Matt, Josette and Scott would have been happy to stay at the pool and skip the wine and cheese festival, they humored me and we headed to the park, paid our entry fees, bought our glasses and started tasting. There was a pavilion set up with several rows of wine and cheese stands and a stage in the front of the grounds with several benches. I think there also was a food area, but we never made it there as we arrived with only two hours left of the festival and were focused on the tastings. While it was the last day of the festival and you could tell some of the vendors were ready to pack up, most were very friendly and happy to explain their wares to us. Like the paella fest, the vibe was relaxed. We left with several bottles of wine and cheese, so it was a worthwhile addition to our busy day.

The next morning after our final stop for cheese at La Vaca Feliz, we left Tequis with 9 bottles of wine and about the same number of cheeses. My only disappointment – no cheddar!

* In addition to Matt, as usual, photo credit for this post goes to Josette and Scott. Thanks, friends!

Day and Night Visits to the Ancient City of Teotihuacan

I love visiting archeological sites. I drive Matt crazy because I want to read and look at everything, but I find it fascinating to see the remnants of ancient cultures. Equally fascinating to me is that we often know little about such cultures or sites but that doesn’t stop the experts from positing all sorts of theories that they later retract. It’s like being a meteorologist – no one seems to care whether you are wrong. In 2001, Matt and I visited the Iceman of Bolzano and I was cracking up over the tale the experts had developed about the noble origins of ol’ Ötzi and told Matt that it was equally probable that Ötzi was a criminal and killed a nobleman for the fancy breeches in which he was found. Guess what became a prevailing theory a few years later? I’m still convinced that some researcher overheard me and stole my completely made-up theory to add to the mix. But I digress.

Ötzi – our first mummy

Teotihuacan is ripe for stories: an archeological site about 40 minutes north of Mexico City, no one knows who built and inhabited the city. The name is a Nahuatl one given to it by the Aztecs long after the city was abandoned; similarly, the names of the buildings were given by the Aztecs. The major buildings were constructed between 100 BC and 250 AD and it is believed that by the 4th century somewhere between 85,000-150,000 people may have lived there in an area that covered 8 square miles. (Note the huge variation in the population figures – The official site says up to 85,000 inhabitants while others claim up to 150,000 people. Ahh, to be an anthropologist!) If this is true, it would have been the largest city in the Western Hemisphere at that time, assuming there aren’t some other hidden cities we haven’t found yet or that were completely demolished. By 900 AD, the site was mainly deserted and many of the structures were burned. Differing theories attribute the demise to a class uprising or a war with outsiders.

Teotihuacan Model with a View of the Sun Pyramid

The model sets out the town and includes buildings that haven’t yet been excavated. Regardless, the accessible parts are a marvel and we had great fun on our first visit wandering about with Beth and Chris. After a quick browse through the museum, we started at the Sun Pyramid. I had read horror stories about climbing it and while it was steep, it only took about 10-15 minutes to make it the 213 feet to the top. We appreciated the overcast day as we huffed it up the stairs.

We meandered down the Avenue of the Dead to the Moon Temple. Along the way we checked out the Puma painting and the various buildings. We were short on time so we skipped the Citadel with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Templo de Quetzalcóatl), but Matt and I had seen a replica at the National Museum of Anthropology.

I persuaded everyone that we needed to climb up the shorter Moon Temple, so up we went. The views were wonderful and we weren’t even allowed to climb the entire 141 feet, so it was a breeze compared to the Sun Temple.

Avenue of the Dead from the Moon Pyramid

Our last stop was to the Palace of the Quetzalpapaloti and Patio of the Jaguars where we saw more frescos and some carved columns.

Matt enjoyed Teotihaucan, but wasn’t eager to return (because I would make him climb everything again). But when his school invited us to enjoy the nocturnal light show, even he was in.

Light Show

It was a spectacular night. They severely limit the number of tickets and keep everyone on a schedule. First you have a guided tour of the site and walk down the Avenue of the Dead. All of the buildings are lit up with changing colors. While you can’t climb any of the structures, it was an equally impressive experience given the lights. It was easy to imagine the area flooded with candlelight for some ancient ritual. After about an hour, we were all ushered to sit on the stairs to watch a light show projected on the Sun Pyramid. It told the story of Mexico and had some beautiful images and sounds. Unfortunately, not much could be captured on film.

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Teotihaucan is an excellent day – or night – trip from Mexico City.

Give My Mom a Gun?

My mom was 5 feet tall. In December, 1993, she was 56 years old and struggling with her grief over my dad’s death the prior year. She worked in the library at Wauwatosa West High School. She was one of the last people to speak to Vice Principal Dale Breitlow before he stepped out of the library and was murdered in the hallway by a former student.

Boston, Thanksgiving 1993 – 1 week before the shooting. Note the glasses in my mom’s hand!

I was in school out of state at the time and oblivious to the tragedy that struck my community until my mom called me that night to tell me she was fine. Close family friends had insisted she stay with them that night as she processed the ordeal. She had herded the students in the library into her office where she locked the door and huddled with them. This was before social media and cell phones, and my mom and the students had no idea what was going on or what had happened as they waited to be released.

When the killer was captured, my mom said it was no surprise to anyone at the school. My mom described the former student as an odd kid, who appeared to be mentally ill and was often in trouble. But she was mystified as to why he would attack Mr. Breitlow, who she said did everything he could for the kid and was always kind to him. In her grief over my dad’s death, my mom had adopted a “woe is me” attitude and lost some of her empathy, but her heart went out to the Breitlow family. She bemoaned the fact that his wife was suddenly widowed and his young sons without their dad.

As school shootings became mass school shootings, each one reminded me of Dale Breitlow’s death and its effect on my mom. She was horrified with the rest of the nation with the Columbine shootings, but it was also a personal horror that reminded her of her trauma. She died in 2000 so has not had to relive her experience with each successive school shooting, a small blessing.

Oddly, throughout all of this, it took until now, the Parkland shooting, for me to connect the dots. Mr. Breitlow’s killer used a revolver, not an assault weapon. His ability to gun down innocent people was limited. I have no doubt that if that tragedy occurred today, my mom and those students in the library likely would have become physical, and not just psychological, victims. It would have been an easy few steps from the hallway to the library, a thought that makes me sick.

So now let’s get to the proposal of arming teachers and school workers. Are you fucking kidding me? My mom loved books and technology. She was so opposed to violence and guns that when my brother asked for a GI Joe doll, she got him a “Big Jim” doll instead. (Look it up, it’s a real thing.) She had terrible eyesight. She was already traumatized by a shooting. Do you really think the answer to Mr. Breitlow’s shooting would have been to arm her, someone who probably would have quit instead of carrying a weapon? And what about when she continued working after her Parkinson’s diagnosis? Does it make sense to arm someone who doesn’t have full motor control? Would she have lost her job because carrying a gun would have been viewed as an essential job function of a school employee?

It’s time for America to get its head out of its ass and solve this problem. Not with platitudes and  prayers or ridiculous ideas like arming teachers, but with real action. Resources to address mental illnesses and gun control legislation. Matt and I get asked how we can feel safe living in Mexico City. Matt is an elementary school principal – how can we feel safe living in the United States?

The Lunar Landscape – Uyuni Trip Continued

Day 2 began early in the dark and cold. Breakfast was terrible and the hostel workers were hostile, so we were on our way without delay. The theme of the day was rocks and more rocks. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was magical to drive for an hour or more seeing this:

Sandy Expanse

And then suddenly to see this:

The Rocks Await

The magic of nature! It was fascinating how the elements and time combined to plop down these rock playgrounds at random intervals. We had a blast exploring although the rest of the group was definitely more adventuresome than we were. Climbing is not among my skills.

“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call”

Go Ask Alice was my mental soundtrack often throughout this surreal trip.

This view reminded me of a sand art picture someone had when I was a kid.

Sand Art

Despite the desolate landscape, we saw some animals on the trip in addition to the flamingos and viscacha.

One challenge of the long drives is the lack of bathrooms or shelter for a “natural” bathroom. We were all desperate on the second day, which wasn’t a big issue for the men but a hardship for us women. At one stop we found some scrubby bushes, but when I saw evidence of prior use, I managed to hold off until we hit a store about 2 minutes from our hotel. Not a moment too soon!

Behave!

We stayed in a salt hostel the second night. The tables, chairs, beds, and interior walls were all made of salt. It was still frigid, but the accommodations were slightly better – we had a private, windowless room – and the workers were friendly.

In order to see the sunrise from Incahuasi Island, we were on the road shortly after 5 a.m. on the third and final day. Of course, there was no road; we were driving in the dark across the salt flats. It was disorienting: I felt as though we weren’t moving because the landscape never changed – the salt flat is over 4,000 square miles! I spent the entire day convinced we were on a frozen lake as opposed to a salt flat. I kept expecting to see some ice shanties and snowmobiles.

The island was amazing. It was the top of a volcano back when the salt flat was covered by a sea. Now it is covered by cacti, but you can still see the coral and other fossils. We got there and hoofed it to the top to get perfect pictures of the sunrise. For some reason, I had a hard time getting to the top, possibly due to the altitude or because I am not a morning person, but I managed to get there in time to see the sunrise along with a crowd of tourists. I tend to find sunrises overrated (don’t get me started on the Grand Canyon sunrise trip!) but this one was spectacular.

Morning has Broken

After breakfast we zoomed across the ice salt to get to the “perfect” spot for our photo shoot. Due to the expanse, the horizon is messed up and the shots are surreal. We played around for a couple of hours. Beatriz and Jorge came well prepared  – shots off the salt flat!

After a fast stop at a salt hotel, which apparently was only open for the Dakar rally, and a small town for trinkets, we were on the outskirts of Uyuni at the Train Graveyard. This is always the part of every trip when Matt and I would call it a day, but the tour operators want to give you your money’s worth even if obviously not everyone welcomed tourists.

Uyuni was a desolate, depressing town. While there was plenty of space because it was surrounded by the salt flat, there was garbage dumped on just about every corner. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live there if they had a choice. I asked our guide if he lived there and he spoke with pride as to how healthy it was there and how people never get sick because they have a good quality of life. I was stunned, but to each their own. We checked into one of the nicest salt hotels in town (at about $55 a night) and enjoyed the hot shower and comfy beds!

“What a long, strange trip it’s been” sums up the Uyuni salt flat tour perfectly!

An Out-of-This-World Experience

“We are 20 years too old for this trip,” I protested. “This trip” was a 3-day, 2-night SUV trip through the high plains of Bolivia and ending in the Uyuni salt flat, the world’s largest. The reviews and tour operators were blunt – there is nothing luxurious about the trip. We would be bumping along basic roads, staying in hostels, and paying for cold showers. The basic accommodations weren’t my main issue – I’ve grown more accustomed to roughing it than I ever expected –  road trips are not my thing. No matter how beautiful the scenery, my attention span is short. But Matt was set on going, and our friend Lisa enticed me with some fantastic photos and assurances that the scenery is different at every turn, so I ultimately acquiesced.

Our ride

We were in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and would cross the Chile-Bolivia border at the onset of the trip. We didn’t have Bolivian visas, but the tour operator told us that all we needed were two headshots each, our yellow fever cards and passports in order to get the visas at the border. We had one one photo each, and he assured us that it would likely be fine. We were booked on day tours in San Pedro and when we tried to get new photos in the late afternoon the day before our Uyuni tour, we were out of luck: the store was open, but the woman who took the photos wasn’t working that day. Four years ago we would have freaked out at this news and railed about how inefficient it is to have only one worker who can take a picture anywhere in town, but we just shrugged and hoped for the best.

Sand as Far as the Eye Can See

On the day of the trip, a Chilean driver picked us up in a van early in the morning and drove us about 6 blocks to the Chilean immigration office where we joined the the long line of fellow travelers. After about an hour, and somehow with our group being corralled to be dead last, we had our exit stamps and were free to leave the country.

Door to the Immigration Office – Look Carefully – I Closed Wolski’s!

We set off through the desert to the border. That is, first we hit the Chilean border and then after 10 minutes of no-man’s land, we hit Bolivia.

Bolivian Immigration Office

We headed inside to immigration while our Chilean driver transerred our stuff to the SUV and our Bolivian driver. We were a little nervous about the one-photo issue when we got to the front of the immigration line. There were two men working: a policeman and the immigration official. The policeman took our documents and asked for our color copies. Ummm, what? We had passport copies somewhere in our luggage that was now strapped down on the SUV, but no copies of our yellow fever card. Matt let me do the talking and I played the stupid card – because we were. I apologized profusely, asked what we could do, and explained that no one told us we needed copies. The policeman feigned concern for us, explained they had no copy machine in the building (obviously, I’m not sure there was electricity!), and told us how much they needed the copies. We danced the dance, both knowing that the universal finale was inevitable – cold, hard, American cash. When the policeman pulled out his phone and started taking pictures of our documents, I knew we were in. He told us that he would drive to San Pedro on his lunch break to print off the photos and a small tip would be appreciated for his effort. I knew I had $30 in one pocket but also knew that there was no way to surreptitiously separate the $10 from the $20, so I pulled out the $30 and asked if that would compensate him for his time. No surprise: it would.

He passed us over to the immigration official and explained how he would come with our documents later. I believe this to be true in that everyone else had copies that were attached to the paperwork, but I suspect that no special trip was made and that he simply printed off the documents when he went home for the night. The immigration official was friendly and didn’t raise a fuss. The fee was $320 and I handed him 4 hundreds. He peeled off 3 twenties and handed them to me one-by-one while complimenting my Spanish, showing me the 10-year visas he gave us and urging us to return many times to Bolivia. I knew, and he knew that I knew, that he was ripping me off but after about a 10 second stare down, I smiled, said thanks and we skedaddled with our visa stamps.

We lucked out and had a great group – Beatrice and Jorge from Puerto Rico and Eilidh and Justine from Scotland. While they were all at least 20 years younger than us, we got along well and had good laughs. The fact that Beatrice and Jorge were bilingual was an added bonus as our driver only spoke Spanish and they could translate as needed (although Matt and I understood most of what he told us). We were not traveling in a caravan, but all the SUV tours were going to the same places along the way. We ran into a few groups and they all seemed crabby compared to ours, so we felt fortunate. Although our food was so terrible that a stray dog wouldn’t even eat the cake I offered it. One day I traded my pâté and stale bread for another traveler’s cake. Both parties considered themselves to have received the better end of that bargain.

What a great first day! Who knew that sand came in so many colors?! Or that pink flamingoes live at 15,000 feet above sea level on a red lake in a desert? We were delighted at every turn.

Dalí Desert

How Did Those Rocks Get There?

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We settled into our hostel for the night – all 6 to a room! Our companions gave us the “matrimonial” bed – two twins pushed together – but it was so cold in the unheated hostel at over 15,000 feet that Matt and I snuggled into one twin bed to keep warm.

Next Up – Rocks, fox and more!

Mexican Cooking Class

When we arrived to Mexico in August, the restaurants were advertising chiles en nogada, a seasonal dish that also commemorates Mexican Independence. There are variations to the legend of the dish’s origin, but it is generally believed that it was created in Puebla for the military commander Agustin de Iturbide, as he passed through the town on his way to Mexico City after signing the Treaty of Cordoba, which freed Mexico from Spanish rule. The prevailing legend credits the Augustine nuns of the Santa Monica convent with creating the special dish that used local ingredients and incorporated the colors of the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada require fresh ingredients, and the season runs from August through September although we found that some places continued serving the dish throughout October.

Chiles en Nogada at the Azul Historico

The first time I ordered the dish, I had no idea what to expect. The stuffed chile was roasted, battered and fried and covered in a sweet, creamy sauce. The chile was lukewarm and the sauce was cool – was this how the dish was meant to be served or had it sat too long under a heat lamp before being sauced and brought to the table? I wanted to make sure that I was tasting the dish in all of its glory, so we called the waiter over for clarification. He assured us that the dish was served properly and I got down to the business of enjoying every bite. I loved it! It was savory and sweet, crunchy and smooth – each bite was perfect. I resolved to enjoy the dish weekly throughout the season.

Love at First Bite

Once my culinary quest began, I noted that no two chiles en nogada were the same. They all started with a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a meat, fruit and nut filling that was covered in a creamy walnut sauce  and festooned with pomegranate seeds. But only my first one was battered and fried, the fillings varied considerably in the meat to fruit ratio and, at one restaurant, you could order sweet or savory sauce or both. I had both, naturally, and decided that the sweet sauce was definitely for me. Similarly, discussions with locals confirmed that every family has its recipe that it swears is the best. One of Matt’s co-workers was delighted that I loved the dish so much and sent home some of his family’s batch for us – delicious!

I met Chef Paulina at an event in early September, and when she told me that she was teaching a chiles en nogada cooking class, I was sold. The class was postponed a month due to the earthquake that rocked the city, so I was suffering from chiles en nogada withdrawal by the time the class was rescheduled for late October. This was my second Mexican cooking class and both started the same way – I showed up at a stranger’s house and was instantly made to feel welcome by the assembled women. The first cooking class was as equally wonderful as Chef Paulina’s class, but it included stiff margaritas, so no blog post about that one!

Fun with New Friends!

Despite our propensity to chit-chat, Chef Paulina put us to work. In addition to chiles en nogada, we were also making tinga de pollo, agua de tuna and a salsa. First up was a chat about the fresh ingredients and how to peel those pesky walnuts. Not crack, people, peel! Thank god that Chef Paulina had already done that step. She then dropped a chicken breast in a pot of water and added salt, garlic, onion and, later, a cinnamon stick to prepare the chicken and a stock for the tinga. The chiles were placed to roast on the open flame and we peeled, diced and sautéed the ingredients for the filling.

With the exception of the acitrón, the candied flesh of the biznaga cactus, the ingredients for chiles en nogada were not exotic, just numerous. Even with her purveyor connections, Chef Paulina made a few substitutions from the written recipe due to the quality of the ingredients this late in the season. The first big test of our skills came when we were each provided a roasted pepper for us to seed, remove the membrane and peel off the charred skin. It became obvious why restaurants merely roast the pepper quickly so it doesn’t char and leave the skins on! We all managed to end up with fairly intact peppers.

While we were struggling with our peppers, Chef Paulina casually tossed a few tomatoes, slices of onion, garlic and a serrano chile in a frying pan. We students panicked, looking at our recipes – what was this?! She laughed and told us it was just an easy salsa to use to top the tinga tostadas. While you can prepare a salsa with the same ingredients without roasting them, it gives the salsa more depth if the ingredients are roasted before blending. She also started sautéing the onions, garlic and chipolte for the tinga. Ultimately, Chef Paulina would add a puree of tomatoes, chicken stock, raw onions and the sautéed chipolte to the onions and now-shredded, cooked chicken and allow it to cook down until the liquid was absorbed. The blender got a workout as the sauce for the chiles en nogada was easily made by tossing the ingredients into the blender and processing until smooth (but not too smooth).

Lots of Notes!

After a quick lesson on agua de tuna – which has nothing to do with fish as “tuna” in Spanish means prickly pear, or cactus fruit – we were ready for assembly. Chef Paulina explained that the tinga de pollo could be made into a taco or a tostada. If made into a taco, only the chicken tinga would be added to the soft tortilla shell. As a tostada, the tinga was topped with crema (a less-acidic, more liquid sour cream), panela cheese, lettuce and salsa. She laughed at our Tex-Mex ways of overstuffing a taco and explained that it was not done here.

Tinga de Pollo

As we enjoyed the tostadas, Chef Paulina prepared the chiles en nogada for us to take home to share with our family. It was a great class: Chef Paulina was a patient instructor, everything was delicious and I met some new friends in the process.

Lest you think only a professional chef can pull off these recipes, a few days after the class, I gave chicken tinga a shot.

The dish came together easily. I was pretty excited when I learned that fresh corn tortillas at my local grocery store were $.67 for about 40 of them! Of course, we ultimately gringo-ized our tinga tacos and added panela cheese and lettuce. They turned out great! Maybe next year I will have a chiles en nogada party… or maybe I’ll just keep eating them in restaurants.

Día de Muertos

Several years after both of my parents had died, they both appeared in my dream one night. The dream was nothing special: we were milling about doing normal things in my final childhood home. No words of wisdom were spoken or cryptic message divulged. I woke up so happy as though both had visited me after so many years apart. That is Día de Muertos.

Final Christmas

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is actually celebrated on 2 days in Mexico – November 1 and 2 – and is when the path between life on earth and the afterlife is open. This allows the dearly departed to return to earth to visit their living family. The living entice their dead relatives to visit by setting up altars (ofrendas) in their homes dedicated to their beloved – their pictures, favorite foods, mementos, sugar or candy skulls (calaveras), pan de muerto (sweet bread with a cross of “bones” on the top), candles and flowers. Or you can try to entice the famous – we were told of ofrendas for JFK, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, among others. Marigolds provide the dead a path back to the living and are everywhere in the days leading up to the holiday. November 1 is the day for departed children and November 2 is for adults. Families will celebrate in their homes or in the cemetery where their loved ones rest. Unlike Halloween in which the dead are feared, Día de Muertos is when the dead are welcomed. And who wouldn’t want to see their deceased loved ones, if only once a year? Matt and I did not make an altar this year as we didn’t fully understand the holiday, but next year we will be inviting our deceased loved ones to pay a visit.

Catrina on Our Door

A new tradition for Día de Muertos in Mexico City is a fantastic parade. Spawned by the James Bond movie, Spectre, which (apparently) begins with a (staged) Día de Muertos parade in Mexico City, the municipality now sponsors a parade. Matt and I headed into the city early on Saturday to check out the scene and get a good spot. We were rewarded by happening upon the staging area and getting a good look at the floats before the parade began.

After wandering around for 3 hours, we secured our spot an hour before the parade and were not disappointed. What an amazing spectacle! It began with a moment of silence and a moving tribute to the earthquake victims and rescuers.

The next part of the parade, “The Living Dead,” was a walk through history and began with Mexico’s pre-hispanic roots.

Next up were the Spanish Conquistadors and the Widows’ Altar.

The colonial period was represented with some great dancing and costumes.

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A devil chasing an angel provided some comic relief and some interesting, but inexplicable (to me and my Spanish teacher) costumes followed.

Revolutionaries put on a show and then the press got a nod.

The next part of the parade – Carnival of Skulls – continued the fun.

Carnival of Skulls

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A wonderful introduction to Día de Muertos and a great celebration.