Thursday, October 27, 2011

Awaiting "Rina"

I'm not a patient person at the best of times, but waiting for a hurricane to make up its mind and get moving is driving me nuts!  Tuesday of this week "Rina" was sitting over Honduras, moving at 3 miles per hour.  She was classed as a category two hurricane with wind speeds of between 96 and 110 miles per hour, due to hit category three status with wind speeds of between 111 and 130 miles per hour as it passes over Isla Mujeres late Thursday afternoon into early Friday morning.  Some reports are now showing it downgraded to a milder tropical storm by Friday.  

Sunshine and boats - calm before the storm

The National Hurricane Centre lists the possible damage for each category according to the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale: Category One serious winds and damage: injury or death due to flying or falling debris, older mobile homes could be destroyed, loss of vinyl siding, and damage to roofs, unprotected windows, or chimneys.  Category Two extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: all of the above plus destruction of all mobile homes, damage to wood frame houses, complete power outages and uprooting of trees.  Category Three devastating damage will occur: all of the above plus roofs, siding, fences, commercial signage, complete and long lasting power outages, glass in high rise buildings will fail. Category Four and Five: Well, heck, think of Katrina in New Orleans or Wilma here on Isla, both in 2005.  Nasty stuff.

Chica and Tommy on the pile of outdoor cushions

We have had things from outside decks packed up for two days; cushions, furniture, and some plants all stuffed inside. The cats are grumpy.  I have been keeping them in more than usual, and when I do let them out it's windy and wet as the unsettled weather is pushed our way.  The beach dogs are hiding in their house in the carport.  Not at all happy about the thunder and lightning last night.

Our upper and lower sliding windows have been braced with pieces of aluminum or wood to keep the wind from pushing them open.  We have extra supplies, candles for the lanterns, batteries for the flashlights, lots of purified water, and soda water for the single malt whiskey (priorities you know).  Lawrie fueled up the car on Tuesday.  We hit the ATM one more time for cash - as that is something that frequently is not available when bad weather hits.  Everyone heads to the banks to take money out, and the ATM's have been known to run out of cash. 
Lawrie's hurricane prep
In the past the electricity was shut off the day before a hurricane was due to arrive as a preventive measure.  Fortunately CFE (electrical company) has not done that yet, however the power line coming from the centre of town to our house is only at 110 volts, making it impossible for things like our water pressure pump, microwave, and cappuccino maker to operate.  (We are surviving, barely, in these primitive conditions.) The power line coming out of the Colonias to Richard and Linda's house, one lot south of us is still at 220 volts.  Fortunately they don't mind us using their showers to clean up. 

Navy rescue boats stashed in lagoon area

We took a drive around Isla a few minutes ago, looking for a CFE service truck and linesmen so that we could tell them our tale of woe, as the main office is boarded up and locked up until Monday.  Eventually we tracked one down, and followed him back to the compound.  He was so delighted to find out that we wanted him to do electrical repairs in the rain.  So very delighted!  As I am writing this the CFE service truck with three linesmen has just arrived at our house!  And lo and behold five minutes later we are back to normal power-wise!  The wire running from the pole to Ronda's house and ours had come apart.  The linesman stripped the wires down to metal, twisted them together, and applied electrician's tape. Voila! Done!
As for the rest of the island, doors and windows everywhere are boarded.  The hotels have removed every chair, sun lounger, umbrella, and table from their beaches or patios.  Schools, government offices, and most businesses are closed.  A few restaurants remain open for the people who either don't want to cook, or tourists who can't cook.  Big boats such as the car ferries, tour boats, the Pirate dinner cruise boats, or UltraMar water taxis are stuffed into the inner harbour.  Pangas, the small fishing boats, have been pulled up a long way onto land and secured to palm trees.  A number of boats in the boat-repair yard are lashed down with multiple lines, anchoring them securely to the ground. 
And everyone is waiting, bored silly, playing with computers, texting friends, watching TV, reading, or napping.  Various island friends have posted on FaceBook: I'm bored. I want to get back to work.  Is it over yet?  Nine months from now we may see an increase in the birth rate on the island.  Hopefully Saturday morning we can wake up to brilliant sunshine and a storm that passed quietly by on tippy-toes, rather than stomping around on thick-soled hiking boots.

PeMex gas station boarded up

Monday, October 24, 2011

Road Trips

We love road trips, short or long, it doesn’t matter.  It’s all about the adventure.  One of our favourite road trips is to a small Spanish colonial town - Izamal - between Cancun and Mérida.

Monastery under restoration

The easiest way to reach Izamal is by driving up the four-lane toll highway 180D from Cancun.  The first time we visited Izamal we turned at the exit that is closer to Mérida.  The next time, we turned off at the exit closer to Valladolid – which made for an interesting trip along a narrow winding road, through three very small pueblos, Kantunil, Sudzal, and Juan Pablo.

We were the subject of much curiosity and gawking as our Canadian car slowly navigated the “topes” (speed bumps) and narrow shoulder-less roadway.  I'm sure our friends were convinced we had absolutely no idea where we were headed as we squinted at the windshield, muttering "I don't remember this.  I don't remember any of this."  We just hadn't realized that there were two different exits off of the main highway.

Marketplace in centre of Izamal

Eventually we arrived at the centre of Izamal, a lovely little town settled in the early 1540’s by the Spanish. During the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatan (1527-1547), Izamal was one of the largest and most beautiful cities on the peninsula. The city was considered by the Mayans to be the home of Kinich Kakmo, a manifestation of the sun god, and of the god Itzam Na.  Following the capture of Izamal by the Spanish, the local population was ordered to dismantle the top of the enormous pyramid in the center of the city. Upon the flattened pyramid, at the place where previously had stood the sanctuary of the god Itzam Na, the inhabitants were then directed to erect the new monastery and the church. 

For decades many of the building including the market, colonial buildings and the monastery have been painted a lovely golden egg-yolk colour.  The cobble stone streets, the iron lamp posts, and the clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages give the town a tranquil old-time ambiance.  The site is undergoing a massive restoration with state, federal, and UNESCO money.

Our car, a horse-drawn carriage behind Kinich temple
After visiting the monastery we decided to find a restaurant in Izamal for lunch, as the drive back to the bigger city of Valladolid would take about another 45 minutes and we were starving.  We happened upon the only sign that we could see that said restaurante. 

Wow!  Was it cool!  The Restaurante Kinich (named after the Mayan Sun God Kinich Kak Mo)  is about a block off the city square, with a pretty entrance, and a large cool palapa-covered interior.  Delicious smells wafted out of the kitchen.  Inside the restaurant was a smaller hut with three traditionally dressed Mayan ladies sitting on large rocks, hand-making tortillas over a very hot wood burning fire.  The food was fabulous.  It has become our favourite place to have lunch on our road trips to Izamal. 

Ladies making tortillas inside Restaurante Kinich
After lunch (with much discussion about directions between my navigator and me) we decided to try and find the Kinich Kak Mo temple ruins.  We drove around and around this very small town – only to discover that the temple was right next to the Restaurante Kinich where we had had our fabulous lunch!  It turns out that my navigator was right all along – and I once again was 180 degrees out on my directions!  (Okay, I said it!  You were right!)

We have returned to Izamal several times with friends, and every time it is just as enjoyable as the first time.  Road trips!  Love 'em.

Restaurante Kinich - our favourite place!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Home Deliveries & Small Businesses:

Yummy pineapples for under two dollars each!
Want freshly squeezed orange juice?  Just wait for the beep-beep of the moto horn at your front gate.  Need a 20L bottle of agua purificada?  Two blasts from the delivery truck horn and the squeak of the truck springs – and you know the Cristal delivery truck is outside the gate.  Feel like fresh tortillas for your breakfast or lunch?   Several young kids patrol the Colonias on basic, no-frills bicycles with a cooler chest strapped to the back of the bike - filled with hot, freshly baked tortillas.  Their marketing tool is a series of blasts on the little bulb horns that we probably all had on our bikes when we were 6 or 7 years old.   The cheese salesman has his unique marketing tool.  He sings a short song offering "queso, queso" (cheese, cheese) as he walks the street carrying his produce balanced on his head. 

Sharpening knives and garden shears

The knife-sharpening man has a set of Pan pipes that he plays as he rides his bicycle though the various neighbourhoods.  When flagged down to do a knife-sharpening job he turns his bicycle over and uses the pedals to power the grinding stone.  He did a great job on our pruning shears and garden clippers. 
Yesterday a furniture maker walked past our house dragging a wheeled contraption with his creations stacked on top.  It looked like he had the base of a double bed, a single bed and a complete book case on his cart.  He was headed into town to sell his wares probably along the seawall where most of the locals and tourists are during the day. 
Two blocks away from our house is the start of the Colonias, which is the main residential area for locals.  It is situated in the centre part of the island and is crammed with small homes and even smaller businesses. 

Francisco and Juan recovering our cushions
One of the businesses that we have used is Francisco Avalos’s Tapiceria Isla Mujeres (upholstery).  He operates out of his covered driveway recovering and creating a variety of upholstered goods including the cushions for our downstairs sofa.  We have seen him work on moto seats, golf cart seats, stacks of chairs from one of the hotels, and a dozen or lounger mattresses from a beach club.  He’s good, fast, and very reasonable. 
Another small tienda about two blocks away changes with the seasons or holidays.  In February it is a Valentine’s Day store, a few weeks later it’s an Easter store, in late August a school supply store, or this week it is a kid’s toys and clothing store.  It’s situated out in the front yard of the owner’s house – just a couple of display cases and a table.
A few blocks further on is a Papelería, a stationary store.  The owner was a little taken aback when we wanted to purchase 20 envelopes.  She only had 25 in stock, so we compromised and purchased 10.  Computer paper is sold by the sheet, but if you insist she will reluctantly sell you the entire package.   How do I explain that when I was working I ordered 10 boxes of computer paper at a time?  Ah well, a few sheets will probably do just fine. 

Furniture manufacturer and salesman
Last week Lawrie spotted a shoe store that was so small the buyers were trying on shoes out in the street, and further on a tiny station wagon – stuffed with boxes of shoes– set up as a mobile stockroom.  Frequently during national holidays or around Christmas time a variety of shoe and clothing companies from Cancun will set up tents near the town square to flog their wares to the local people.
It’s the number of tiny businesses that amazes us.  In the one block we counted four grocery stores, a pharmacy, three vegetable stores, two butchers, a fresh orange juice stand, the tortilla factory, shoe store, two video stores, a hardware store, a bakery, a bar, arcade for kids, hair and nails, bakery, the veterinary, a dentist, and Francisco’s upholstery place.   For the most part these stores are around 10 feet by 10 feet in size, and stacked floor to ceiling with goods not displayed particularly well as space is definitely at a premium.  Most of them have owners’ residences attached either in the back or above the tienda, or in the case of the tire repair shop where Lawrie gets the car washed, the kitchen-dining-living area is next to the air compressor.
The juice guy ran out of bottles!

It's amazing what these resourceful people will do to make a living.

(PS: I had 'font size challenges' today.  Deleted and restarted this article three times!  Finally said to heck with it !!  Cheers, Lynda)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Benefits of Nasty Weather

We had an unexpected visit on Saturday night and all day Sunday, from a tropical storm, that according to all the weather and hurricane forecasters had only a 10% chance of developing into nasty weather.  I suppose no one thought to inform the gods in charge of the event.

So glad I washed the windows yesterday!
We had a restless night listening to the winds batter the house, and the rain squeeze in between the window casings, dripping onto the floors .  I lay awake, mentally cataloguing all the things I had left outside mistakenly thinking we were only due for some rain; things like sofa cushions, the solar pool cover, and other assorted light objects that would make fine missiles in the wind.  It would have been fool-hardy for us to attempt to retrieve our things while the wind raged.

Our two cats disapproved of the wet floor.
In the morning we were greeted by running water, cascading down two levels on our inside staircase from the rooftop to the kitchen below.  The rooftop drains were clogged, and the water had breached the doorsill.  When we opened the door into the kitchen, our two cats were perched on the furniture, meowing at us, convinced that their lives were in imminent peril.  There was an inch of water on the floor and they couldn't get near their food dish without getting wet feet.  Oh my, such a tragedy!

In Centro - rain, rain, rain on Sunday morning.
When most of us think of tropical storms or hurricanes we think of terrifying winds, torrential downpours, flooding, power outages, property damage, and unnecessary loss of lives ….. not good things.   However, many meteorologists believe that tropical storms may more than offset the damage they cause by the good they do.  

Scientists already know that in such places as Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and Caribbean−even in the southeastern portion of the U.S.−tropical storms provide up to a third of the annual rainfall for drinking water, as well as refreshing wetlands and tidal areas behind the barrier islands.  In the Yucatan peninsula – where we live – most of the domestic water supply comes from the underground rivers running beneath the limestone.  This source is refilled by tropical storms and hurricanes.  The rainfall associated with hurricanes also benefits the farmers in the hilly and remote areas of Mexico – providing much needed water for their crops, unless the rain becomes excessive, and then the farmers’ fields and homes can be washed away in the onslaught. 

Big waves rolling in on east side of Isla Mujeres

It’s a pretty fine balance between good and evil.

Tropical storms are also a crucial factor in maintaining the planet's heat balance. Meteorologists believe that the tropics will become warmer and warmer if some of this heat is not transported away from the tropics.  Fortunately, the earth has some handy methods for carrying heat from the tropics toward the poles; about a third of this heat is distributed by ocean currents, a significant amount is transported by movement of the atmosphere, and a large portion of heat is picked up from the sea by tropical storms.

So, there are a number of benefits to nasty weather – but, I’m not sure it is the easiest way to get a kitchen renovation.  At least we only had a bit of water in the kitchen, no harm done - and it was a very novel way to wash our stairs.

Lawrie clearing street drains!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"It's not my country, I am a guest!"

The first winter we arrived on Isla Mujeres, we met Harriet and she regaled us with funny stories of learning the intricacies of a new culture.  Harriet's mantra, when sometimes the cultural differences make her head ache, is "it's not my country, I am a guest."  We liked it!  And promptly stole the quote for our own use. It has become one of our favourite sayings - especially when something wacky happens that makes you shake your head in wonder, muttering "Why don't they ....?  (fill in the blank)  And then you remember: "It's not my country.  I am a guest" - and laugh. 

On Sunday this past weekend Lawrie and I had taken our car into Cancun for our monthly grocery shop, doing the Costco, Mega Commercial, Home Depot circuit to buy things that are not readily available on the island.  We were headed back to the car ferry depot at Punta Sam, when we spotted a barricade, constructed out of a thin piece of rope, two tires, and four traffic cones.  It stretched across the main road between Cancun and Punta Sam - directing traffic onto the new double-lane section of highway that appeared, finally, to be completed.  No signs, no warning lights - just a piece of rope and four orange cones.  Interesting.  Oh well, the new pavement was great. 

Rope and traffic cones - this road closed, use new one.
Ah ha! But there's a twist. 

Normally when cars disembark from the ferry the road into Cancun is four lanes wide, two headed into Cancun, and two headed out of Cancun for about a mile, then it switches rather abruptly into just two lanes, of opposing traffic.  The drivers have to be on their toes.  The only indication of a change in the traffic pattern is a row of round bumps, sometimes painted reflective yellow, across the left-hand lane to indicate you should move over to the right-hand lane - NOW.  Okay, we have all become accustomed to this manoeuvre during the past year or two. No big deal.

Then on Wednesday while we were headed back into Cancun to buy a new dishwasher we thought the traffic headed out to Punta Sam was quite light, not many cars on the road.  We finally realized what was happening.  Some of the traffic was on the new section, while some of the vehicles were using the old road.  So, now we had one lane headed into Cancun, and two, or three, lanes (take your pick where you want to drive) headed to Punta Sam.  

The new road.  On the left behind trees the original road.

"You would think that some signage might be called for at this point wouldn't you?  .... oh hell, it's not my country.  I am a guest."   

When we lived in Canada sometimes our various foreign friends would mutter and shake their head over Canadian idiosyncrasies. 

That's when we could have quoted Harriet's favourite saying.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Colours of the Caribbean

Colour: It's surrounds us. 
Colourful fishing boats
It’s hard not to get caught up in the extravaganza of colour on this little Caribbean island - Isla Mujeres. 
There are blues in shades of azure, cobalt, navy, sapphire, cerulean and indigo, and greens running from jade green, and emerald, to bright lime greens. 
Other colours of the island palette include crimson, scarlet or ruby reds, with a little added zing of papaya, orange, lemon and banana.  Wow! 

At Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres
In Canada we grew up with more sedate colours reflecting the thick forests of conifers, dark northern Pacific grey-blue seas, enlivened for a few months with splashes of spring blossoms.  

Each year I could hardly wait for spring to arrive to brighten the dun-coloured landscape.
Living in the Caribbean, I can hardly wait to open my eyes to start a new day.

Our northern tastes in colour reflected our environment – nothing bright or fun, just staid creams, grays, dark blues, deep greens, and browns.  The houses are typically painted neutral colours unless you are lucky enough to live in a 'painted lady' the grand dames of the Victoria era.  We blended with our surroundings. 
Here on Isla the houses, clothes, and even municipal structures reflect the brightly-hued environment.  Clothing - anything goes for colour including accessories, and shoes. 

One of our favourite buildings in the Centro
Houses and businesses alike are painted a happy hodgepodge of orange, green, pink, blue, yellow, purple, red or whatever colour the owner had access to, or enjoyed. 

The seawall protecting the eastern side of the downtown (Centro) has been painted several times in the three years that we have lived on Isla.  It was pink and blue, then yellow and pink, and more recently a brightly painted collection of various scenes depicting turtles, fish, and the national flags from nearby countries. 
Brightly painted building in Centro

During carnival - the week long festival at the end of winter leading up to the beginning of Lent - well, everyone just has too much fun dressing in vibrant costumes for the daily parades and dance competitions.

We may have arrived late to the party, but we are happy participants in the festivities.

Hasta Luego

Lynda, Lawrie and Sparky

Get your Isla 'fix' - Murder and mayhem in paradise. 
Isla Mujeres Mystery series available in e-books and paperback. 
The perfect antidote to highly contagious northern blahs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Launching of the Turtles

Some of the local kids who came to release turtles
Mayhem - is the word that comes to mind while watching a hundred or more little kids rushing to release over 6000 baby Green Turtles into the surf.  Wednesday evening was the last scheduled release of the day-old hatchlings, this one held at the beach across from the Guadalupana neighbourhood.  It was a very sociable event with a number of our local and gringo friends participating.

Arrival of baby turtles at release area

About a quarter past six in the evening, the baby turtles arrived from the Tortugranja (turtle farm) via large plastic tubs transported on the back of a flatbed truck.  The heavy tubs were then carried to the beach and lined up along the sand just out of the covetous reach of the little kids, and bigger kids like me.  In an attempt to minimize the number of predators prowling for a feast of turtle sushi we had to wait until sundown before the turtles were distributed for release.

Hard to see in the semi-dark!
And then it happened.  The official in charge deemed it time to start the release.  Every kid with a bucket was given a double handful of squirming baby turtles to release onto the sand, hopefully pointed in the right direction - towards the water.  They are so very small, and about the colour of dried seaweed.  It was extremely difficult in the deepening twilight not to step on the tiny shapes racing across the sand to the ocean.  Once they reached the ocean, two-foot waves tossed a number of them unceremoniously back on the sand. 

I can't imagine how terrifying this whole procedure must be for a baby turtle.
Big wet kid, releasing turtles
The thought keep flickering through my brain while we watched the mayhem – at this point in their lives these turtles are about one inch tall, and the waves are about twelve inches high. Isn’t that equivalent to a human swimming in twelve-foot waves?  The Frigate birds, gulls, and other predator birds will feast on them come daylight.  Others will be gulped down by underwater predators - like fish food sprinkled on the surface of an aquarium.  No wonder the survival rate for turtles is approximately 1 in 1000. 

After about fifteen years have passed, those that do survive will return to this area to mate in the waters off the south end of Isla Mujeres.  The females will return to the beaches where they started their journey and lay a hundred or more eggs in deep sand, before heading back to sea.  The males will never return to land.  They are a fascinating species.

Lots of interested folks watching the event

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Salt of the Earth

Some months ago Freddy Medina, the manager at the Soggy Peso Bar & Grill here on Isla Mujeres, mentioned that his island ancestors gathered salt from the island's landlocked briny lakes.  The salt was used for preserving fish right up to the time that electricity and refrigerators became available.  I thought that was pretty interesting story so decided to research the salt works on Isla Mujeres.
Salinas Grande on Isla Mujeres
For several weeks I had been cruising the internet trying to find more information about the salt works without much success – until I found the Aztlan Association and website.  This association is a group of forty-five, or more, experts on all things Meso-American.   Their backgrounds range from professor at the University of Arizona, the curator of the Ancient America Museum Exhibitions, a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas, to a Gallery Specialist of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Boca Raton Museum of Art Florida.  (You get the idea!)  The number of PhD degrees, attached to the various names, is amazing.  I am one of a handful of “amateur” members of the Aztlan Association.  Thankfully a number of the professionals were more than happy to answer my questions.

Some of the inhabitants of the Salinas Grande

The gist of the story is that when the Spanish discovered Isla in 1519 the islanders were already using salt as a preservative as well as trading it to the mainland villages from what is now Puerto Morelas in the south up to as far as Veracruz in the north for other supplies.  According to Fernando Alcocer the salt was traded for products like skins, meat, jade, obsidian, cotton blankets, and honey.  The salt works were exploited by the villagers of Dolores, the original name of the town at the north end of Isla Mujeres – which is now referred to as el Centro on the island. 
As Rae Clare, another member of Aztlan Association sent me a quote from a book written in 1880's by Alice lePlongeon: "At the beginning of the fishing season, men and women would collect the salt that was deposited by evaporation on the shore of the pools.  They seemed to regard it as a kind of picnic, though the work was laborious, especially for the women, who stood up to their waists in muddy water all day long, putting the salt into large turtle shells that served as vats.  It would have been almost impossible to transport the salt by land to the village of Dolores; the only roads are narrow pathways through the thicket, and the soil is so rocky and uneven that it would have been very tiresome to walk, much more so to carry a load."

Looking across to the west side of the Salinas Grande

The Spanish Salt Survey of 1605 stated that Isla Mujeres produced around 650 tons of salt annually, however in 1977 one of the Aztlan members interviewed a long-time islander Don Ausencio Magaña, who thought the total would be closer to 100 tons annually.  Around 1974 the three salt pans were abandoned, and they became an unofficial location to dispose of household garbage. 
At some point between 1979 and the present time the Salinas del Cañotal which is now referred to as the Salinas Grande became a city park.  It has been refurbished with a wide and relatively smooth walking or biking pathway that circumnavigates the Salinas, along with lighting and benches.  The concrete walls, surrounding the Salinas Grande, are repainted every three years in the personal colours of the current presidente/mayor.  We have been through the purple and orange administration, then the pink and blue administration, and we have now entered the new navy blue and orange period.  Colourful!
A side benefit to the Salinas being cleaned up is that there is a variety of birds that has taken up residence in the former salt pans.  We have seen spoonbills, herons, egrets, frigate birds, and gulls of course.  Good photo-ops for nascent National Geographic photographers! 
It always amazes me what information can be found on the internet.  But I wouldn't have thought to research the salt works without the original comment from Freddy Medina who started me on this quest. 
Friendly neighbours