Friday, October 26, 2012

What a Beautiful Noise!

By Neil Diamond
What a beautiful noise   Comin' up from the street
Got a beautiful sound     It's got a beautiful beat

A man on a motorcycle slowly cruises past our house – he is singing a Spanish love song at the top of his voice, oblivious that we are eavesdropping from our upper floor deck.  The sound is beautiful, haunting.  We frequently perch on this street-side deck with our feet resting on the aluminum railings, our toes wiggling a hello to passing friends.  With a morning cup of coffee or an evening glass of wine in hand we are watching and listening to locals. 
 We are voyeurs!
This island thrives on noise, and music, and laughter. Early in the morning the honking of a bicycle horn lets us know the tortilla vendor has started his route, followed by the whine of motorcycles as they whiz past depositing teenagers at the college, and still later we hear the squeal of brakes, slamming of car doors and laughter as kindergarten students arrive at school. 

Walk through any neighbourhood and you will hear the overhead noise of a rooftop alarm system, the family dog, peering over the edge barking at anything or anyone that infringes on his territory.
As the day progresses the sounds change. 

Every vendor or delivery person has their own signal to let customers know they are nearby.  Want freshly squeezed orange juice?  Just wait for the beep-beep of the moto horn outside your door. 
Need a 20L bottle of agua purificada?  Two blasts from a truck’s horn and the squeak of the suspension – and you know the Cristal delivery truck has arrived. 
The deliverymen for the small portable bottles of propane have a recorded song that reverberates from a speaker; Zeta Zeta, Zeta gas
The cheese salesman sings a short refrain offering queso queso as he balances the large wheel of cheese on his head.  The knife-sharpener tootles a set of Pan Pipes trudging through the various neighbourhoods. 
Businesses like Super X-Press and Chedraui hire car-and-drivers with loud speakers to cruise the island advertising the weekly specials.  The municipality uses a similar method for advising islanders of upcoming important public events. 
The really intriguing part of this boisterous culture is the number of parades that take place annually, complete with music, costumes, decorated floats, and hundreds of marching participants. 

We have many photos of Christmas parades, the Night of the Kings, Carnival parades that happen nightly for a week, political parades, Independence Day, Revolution Day, cowboys riding to the bull fight-ring, caged lions and tigers complete with loud music advertising the circus, numerous religious celebrations, and national holidays.  
Then added on top of the parades are the five or maybe six annual fishing tournaments, and a music festival that attracts islanders and visitors alike – the noise level just keeps increasing.

And then there are times when the noise is a bit too much; the over-loaded mufflerless dump trucks racing to catch the last car ferry off of the island, the poorly maintained city garbage trucks that blat and grind and wheeze along the roads like old men struggling with a bad case of gas. 
Some businesses, like Farmacias Similares, seem to have a corporate policy of annoying the general public with exceptionally loud music piped outside for everyone to enjoy from early afternoon until late at night.  Even our favourite store, Chedraui Super Store, has earsplittingly loud music blasting from the stereos, competing with in-store music, announcements of today’s specials, or requests for a manager to call the service desk.     Oh joy!
The ocean-side view at our island home.
We grew up in a relatively quiet country, Canada, where noise is quite strictly regulated.  We have lived on country acreages, in rural homes, and in a converted warehouse-condo located on Beatty Street in Vancouver BC.  Living here is similar to residing downtown in a big city where the ambient noise level is ever-present, but with a lot fewer people creating the noise - that beautiful noise. 

When it all becomes too much for us we can retreat to the ocean-side of the house and listen to our favourite noise of all; the sound of waves sliding in from the Caribbean Sea, swooshing up onto the beach, slowly receding and gently pulling the white sand back into the ocean.    
Ah! Joy!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tortillas – little cakes

Restaurante Kinich in Izamel Mexico
Soft words float in the semi-dark hut, curling towards the ceiling with the drifting wood smoke.  A gentle rhythmic sound filters between the words: pat-pat. Pat-pat.  Pat. 

Perched on small stools near a low, wood-burning fire, three dark-haired women chat amiably while they hand-make corn tortillas. 

Is this a scene from a previous century?  No. It is present day at the Restaurante Kinich, one of our favourite places to eat when we are in the pretty colonial City of Izamal.  There is nothing like fresh corn tortillas, hot off the griddle!  Tasty!
In Mexico the dietary mainstay of most families is the tortilla made from corn - white maize.  The national average consumption per person in Mexico is 120 kilos, or around 264 pounds of tortillas per year; presumably adults consuming more than the national average, babies and toddlers considerably less.  The versatility of this popular food is endless. They are used for tacos, flautas, burritos, and enchiladas, used as utensils to scoop up food, and when necessary used as a small plate. 

My sister Valdine in 2008 at Tortilladoras near our house

When we first moved to Isla Mujeres there were several tortilladoras scattered around the island neighbourhoods, making fresh tortillas every morning. By seven in the morning the delivery boys could be heard honking their bicycle horns, advertising the fresh hot tortillas. 

My sister Joann, who lives on Isla during the summer, likes to purchase from one of the smaller establishments two or three tortillas at a time - completely confounding the clerks. 

My sister Joann in the new Chedraui Store

“How much do we charge?” They wonder.

Eventually Joann decided to buy the normal amount, and give the unwanted remainder to someone else to enjoy. I’m sure they still chuckle about the “Crazy Gringa.”

With the arrival of the large Chedraui Super Store on the island we were concerned that the smaller establishments would disappear. 

A year down the road, and they all seem to be doing well, even though Chedraui sells a kilo of tortillas slightly cheaper than the government subsidised rate.

 In the very traditional method of making tortillas the corn kernels are cooked with lime to remove the husk and then ground on a stone slab a metate, with a grinding stone a mano.   Next a little water is added until a soft dough is created.   Once the texture is perfect, a golf ball size of masa harina dough is shaped into a flat thin pancake about six inches in diameter.  Then it is placed onto a hot griddle or a wood-heated comal to be quickly cooked on both sides.  

In the commercial tortilladoras the pre-processed grain is purchased in large sacks – often truckloads at a time.  The corn flour is treated with calcium hydroxide to release the niacin in the corn and to make it easier on digestion.  The dough is quickly stamped into thin circles with a machine, and a conveyor belt takes the tortillas to be cooked over a gas flame.  Efficient!  And still very tasty.

However the best tasting tortillas are the ones cooked over a wood fire – like at Restaurante Kinich. 

But if you have ever eaten at Deysi and Raul’s El Charco Restaurante on the island, you have eaten fresh corn tortillas made to order by Raul. 

Pretty darn tasty too!

Friday, October 12, 2012

It’s mine! It’s mine. It’s all mine!

My eyes slide sideways, furtively glancing around. Is anyone watching me? Then my hand reaches out and snatches the bottle of Smuckers Carmel Topping. Then another. And another. And I reluctantly stop at four bottles. With trembling hands I quickly back away from the grocery-store aisle, rushing towards the check-out to pay for our liquid contraband.

Wait! Maybe I should buy the remaining six bottles as well?

I am tempted to run back and clean off the shelf; or at the very least stack other dissimilar items in front – slowing down the eventual sale of the residual bottles. It would be a disaster to run out of our favourite caramel topping, so necessary for our morning cappuccinos. Overcome with indecision and trepidation I grudgingly leave the remaining six bottles of Smuckers Carmel Topping for the other eight-hundred thousand inhabitants of Cancun to enjoy.   So very thoughtful of me.

Back on Isla Mujeres we miserly add the bottles of caramel flavouring to our hoard. Our cache currently includes eight boxes of Twinnings Darjeeling Tea, twelve bottles of Santa Rita 120 Sauvignon Blanc wine and six bottles of Paul Newman’s oil and vinegar salad dressing. Amongst our friends the Santa Rita wine from Chile is a highly sought-after commodity. It is a tasty white wine that is relatively inexpensive. Despite our pleadings to the contrary the local Chedraui grocery store manager typically orders one case at a time! Lawrie frequents the grocery store on a regular basis, picking up a few items here and there. Whenever he sees a new order of the Santa Rita he is quick to snatch up a handful of bottles, adding them to our cache.
Then, once our supply is secure, he calls other friends on their cell phones to let them know the store has replenished the Santa Rita wine.  Clever man.

When you live in a foreign country strange things happen to your personality. Hoarding becomes second nature. Flavours that we crave are sought out, checking with other North Americans to see who has seen a particular item. Where? When? Was there a good stock or was the store about to run out?

At social gatherings our conversations are laced with pithy stories of locating and obtaining flavoured treats. Our visiting relatives look upon us as slightly weird, off-balance perhaps. Obsessive. They made disparaging remarks like: “Do you always talk about food?” We stare at them, defensively muttering: “Maybe. What concern is it of yours?”

Comparing notes!

We never mention to out-siders our friend who has dozens of Lindt chocolate bars lining the door of her pantry refrigerator. Enough to last the winter season in Mexico.

It’s a deep dark secret.

On the other hand our winter friends understand our needs. They frequently offer to ‘mule’ items to us in Mexico when they return for the season. “What can we bring you?” They ask, fully understanding what it is like to fixate on an item that is over 5000 miles away. October and November become a pre-cursor to Christmas when bags of our favourite salty Dutch licorice arrive, tucked in ones and twos into the suitcases of returning friends.

Hah! Let others scoff at our obsessions. At least someone understands.

As for the location of our secret hoard …… my lips are sealed.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Scrub a dub dub

Everyone needs clean clothes - especially in a hot and humid climate.  Driving around the island on a sunny day you may notice many houses have a clothesline strung across the front, festooned with brightly coloured clothing snapping in the Caribbean breeze.  There is nothing like the fresh, clean smell of sunshine-dried clothing! 

But sometimes doing your own laundry isn’t an option.  On Isla Mujeres the average house tends to be quite small, about the size of a one-bedroom apartment with no room inside for a washing machine.  The machines are costly, and the repairs can be never-ending with the high humidity and salt content of the ocean air.  Even if an islander has the space for a washing machine buying one on credit is not a good option.  In Mexico interest rates for credit cards are prohibitive, ranging three to four times higher than the USA or Canada.  Forbes Magazine listed a sample of the rates in an article published April 2012: American Express 42%, HSBC 48%, BanCoppel 88% and the Azteca Bank/Electra Centers higher still, but unwilling to disclose their actual rates.  Electra is one of the many companies in Mexico that specialize in selling appliances - as small as a toaster and as large as a refrigerator, or motorbike - with extremely low monthly payments that bring the final purchase price to three or four times the original cost. 

So what do people do?  Improvise! 

There are a few commercially run businesses on the island that for ten pesos per kilo (about fifty cents per pound) will wash and dry your laundry, folding it neatly into plastic bags – ready for pick-up the following day.  A number of our Canadian and American friends use these services, wisely preferring to spend their time enjoying the island than dealing with smelly clothes.  And there are a number of local ladies who are fortunate enough to own a washing machine, and will take in washing for friends and neighbours for a similar fee.   But the greater number of people on the island hand-wash, and hang-to-dry on a daily basis, decorating houses, fences, and yards with clothing and bedding.  It adds a bit of local colour to the island.  (Just ask any photo-nut, like myself, how many photographs he or she has of colourful clotheslines on Isla!)

In Canada, and many other countries the solution is commercial businesses offering coin-operated laundries or laundro-mats as we call them.  They are generally located in every city or town near where apartment dwellers have easy access to the facility.  A number of the coin-operated businesses offer assistance, for a fee, allowing the customer to leave their washing with the attendant, retrieving it after work or after shopping. 

When we first moved to Isla, a few years ago, I was entranced by the idea of line-drying our sheets and towels.  I asked Patricio to install a roof-top line for me.  Then for the next six months I trundled up to the roof, carting my freshly washed linens, carefully pinning them to the line.  Ah, fresh clean sheets!  An hour later I would return to remove the fresh, clean sheets ….to find them wrapped like large white sausages around the line, over and over and over again.  Still wet.  The Caribbean breezes had been playing games.  Eventually after fighting the wind and rusty clothes pegs that left non-removal marks on everything white or light coloured – I gave up.

I now use our propane-fired dryer.  I don’t mind doing the laundry.  I can do it when I please, stuffing a load into the washer while I wander around in the morning with my first cup of coffee.  

The folks who do use a clothesline learn to keep an experienced eye on the weather.  A sudden squall off of the ocean can ruin a day’s work in a few minutes – soaking the clothes, delaying the drying time, or shutting down the operation for the entire day if the rain settles in for a few hours. 

Hopefully the colourful clotheslines won’t disappear entirely. 

They are so much a part of Isla’s character.