Friday, March 29, 2013

Hernando’s Frightful Encounter

Please don't eat me!  I'm all shell.
Whispered sounds sifted across the sand.  Something very large was headed his way.  A bright light swept across the beach, momentarily blinding him. Clack!  He quickly tucked his ten legs inside his house, slamming his large front claw across the entrance, barricading his front door against predators.  Quivering inside his home Hernando waited, listening to the approaching noises.  Would he survive this night?  Would he live to see another dawn?  “Please don’t let them eat me” he whispered.  “I don’t taste good.  I’m all shell.  Please spare me.”

A choice of Turbo Snail Shells for Hernando
Suddenly he was being lifted up, off the sand. Oh no, was this the end?  More noise and bright lights and he was placed inside a large metal container.  This really was the end.  He was going to be cooked and eaten!  Hernando struggled mightily against the steep metal sides, trying to escape, scrabbling frantically.  Then, oddly enough, a beautiful new shell was carefully placed beside him in the container.  “What?” he wondered, “What just happened?” 

Changed into a roomy one that weighed less
Cautiously Hernando touched the new shell with his front claws, feeling for a trap.  Or worse yet, perhaps a larger creature lurked inside hoping to catch him for its meal.  Hernando gently turned the shell over, and over, exploring the edges and looking for flaws, or holes.  It had black, and yellow, and white stripes with a gentle curl to the right, and a smooth interior.  

Hernando quickly pulled his slim tubular body from his current shell, and spiraled into the new one.  It was a perfect fit, with slightly less weight to carry around, but with room to grow for the next year or so.  And then the big hand reached for him again.  The hand placed him inside different container where he again scrambled and clawed at the sides, hoping to escape certain death.  Suddenly he was set back down on the sand near dozens of his friends.  The others were enjoying a feast of tasty food, and bathing in clean shallow pools.  Heaven, he was in Hermit Crab Heaven.   It was the only possible explanation.

Hermit Crab Heaven - food, water, friends, shells

Hernando’s first instinct was to scamper away and hide in the nearby bushes, but once he realized he was not being pursued - he stopped.  He turned around, and re-joined the party on the beach.  Scattered on the sand were dozens of shells in various sizes and colours.  Straggly lines of Hermit Crabs, ordered from largest to smallest, clutched the next-in-line crab.  Hernando knew what this was; he had experienced this many times.  It was a shell exchange! 

Hermit Crab shell exchange conga-line
As soon as the largest crab in the line choose a new shell, and decided that it was a good fit, it then released its tight grip on its current house, allowing the now empty shell to be taken by the next crab in the line.  Eventually during the evening as many as eight or nine trades per shell would take place allowing most of the crabs to secure a newer and bigger shell.  Some would be disappointed, not finding a better shell.  Hernando knew that not having any shell was the very worst outcome for a Hermit Crab.  

The shells were necessary to protect their fragile bodies from being battered by the rough ground.  They were also necessary to carry a supply of water, and to keep them safe from predators. 

Slim tubular body stuffed in plastic bottle
Hernando had made do with a variety of objects in his ten or more years of life.  (He wasn’t really certain how old he was.  None of the crabs knew how to count and some of his relatives had lived a lot more years than he had.)  In past seasons he had lived in a plastic bottle top, a glass pill bottle, and more recently a white jar that had held a smelly sticky substance before he moved into it.  Life was tough for a Hermit Crab.  But, he, Hernando already had a gorgeous new shell, so he ignored the shell line-ups and headed straight to the food.

Hernando in a Pond's Cold Cream bottle
The thing was, thought Hernando as he munched his food, they were called Hermit Crabs, but really they were very sociable creatures.  They enjoyed meeting up on the beach, touching and exploring with feelers and claws, identifying friends and family.  The only time things got a bit tense was during the shell exchanges – some of the impatient crabs could get downright nasty if they didn’t get the shell they wanted.  Occasionally a scuffle would break out, but it was quickly settled when one or the other of the crabs grabbed the shell and scurried away. 

Our neighbour Chuck looking at Hernando
Some evenings Hernando roamed a large area, traveling a very long distance in search of food.  And one time he traveled past the green house, past the long white house, past the orange house, past another white house, all the way to the yellow house.  The large inhabitant of that house thought he was interesting, and picked him up to have a better look.  “What the heck is wrong with these creatures?”  Hernando muttered, waving his antennas in agitation: “Don’t they understand that this really big front claw can do serious damage to those soft pink sticks they use to poke at me?  I am a seriously mean dude!” 

Handsome Hernando!
Back at the Crab-i-tat, where the beach party was still in progress the Hermit Crabs gobbled down the free food.  However there was always a downside to the free gifts.  It was frequent and terrifying visits from the large creatures that inhabited this area, flashing their bright lights across the sand and shouting: “Oh, look at this one!  He’s huge!”  Well, he grudgingly admitted to himself, maybe he wasn’t all that scary to the big creatures.  He was the one who had slammed his large front claw across the mouth of his shell, hiding, quivering in fear. 

After terrifying the wits out of him for a few minutes, they left him alone again to enjoy the rest of the evening with his Hermit Crab friends.  He had survived another frightful encounter, and he was still getting bigger every year. 

Chayne, Sue Lo and Carlie visiting Hermit Crabs

PS: Hernando has had many visitors this year: Ethan, Evan, Kati, Emili, Kara, Nicolas, Carlie, and Chayne.  He would like to thank everyone for being nice to him and his friends.

I know I have written about Hermit Crabs before, but Hernando wanted to tell his side of the experience!

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, March 22, 2013

Questions, questions, questions

Paradise - Isla Mujeres QR Mexico
“Wow!  Lucky you.”  That’s the first thing that people say when we tell them that we live on Isla Mujeres, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.  

And then the questions start. 

“Can you own property?”  Actually, Mexico makes it relatively easy for foreigners to own property.  Inland, you can hold a direct title to your Mexican real estate.  

2007 Paperwork done!  The lot is ours.

In the restricted zones — including prized beach areas or the manufacturing zone near the USA/Mexico border — you can own real estate through a bank trust.   The choice of bank is up to you.  

The trust will have a renewal term of anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five years.  The bank will handle the government forms that need to be filed yearly, for a fee of course.  The trust can be transferred or sold.  

Do a little off-shore fishin'
“Do you feel safe?”   Yes we do.  But, having said that we do not live on the USA/Mexico border where there are problems on both sides of the line.   We aren’t night-owls.  We barely stay awake for sunset so we aren’t involved in the late night action.  And like any country in the world - big cities have areas that you would not venture for any reason.  The same applies to Mexican cities. 

Searching for pirate treasure with family members.

“What do you do with your time?”  Ah, well, what does any retired person do with their time?  

We read, putter at small jobs around the house, enjoy a meal with friends or family, nap, putter some more, go for a walk, learn a bit of Spanish, do a little off-shore fishin’, take photographs, and write two blogs.  

Another favourite pastime is road trips, exploring various cities and villages.

X-Rays for the Knee-Doc, he fixed my knee

“What do you do for medical?”  This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions.  As Canadian living outside our country our universal healthcare is void after an absence of six months.  Here in Mexico we chose to pay as we go.  If we need something done we pay for it – a lot less than we would pay in either the USA or Canada.   Some of our friends have had stellar treatment at any one of the three first-class hospitals in Cancún with their American-trained doctors.  Others have not had a good experience.  The same can be said for any doctor in any hospital in any country.  Outstanding, good, bad, or indifferent treatment – it depends.  Rather than obsess about potential health issues, we just enjoy every day for what it is.

“How much are your property taxes?”  Low.  But like every country taxes vary from property to property, size of the house, waterfront versus inland – all of the usual conditions that are taken into account for property taxes.

“Do you have to leave the country every six months?”  No, not if you have an FM3, FM2, or the newer permanent resident card.  If you come in under a one hundred-and-eighty-day visitors permit, yes you do have to leave, but you may return again.

“Can I work in Mexico?” Sure, once you obtain the necessary permits and permissions.  A number of the island restaurants, real estate offices, and stores are owned and operated by people from other countries.  

And finally:
Lots of good friends and family members on this island
“What do you miss the most of all?”  I miss very little except the close proximity of my immediate family.   I do, however, wish we had a better comprehension of the laws, rules, and regulations.  When a person grows up in a certain culture be it Canadian, American or European you have an innate understanding of what expected of you.  When you switch to a different culture, life can, at times, get interesting, very interesting. 

I also miss conversing in a language that I am comfortable with.  And before you feel the need to email me and advise me to take lessons – I am sixty-two, Lawrie is seventy-one.  Our brains seldom retain the words that we have learned.  It is what it is.  We try to find a new word every day that we can remember.  That is a huge accomplishment in our books!

Enjoy every day!  

And yes, “Wow!  Lucky us!”  

We enjoy living in paradise with good weather, good food, and good friends.  

Try it – you might like it!

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, March 15, 2013

A city of contrasts – Mexico City

Monument to Independence
How can a person really get to know a city of 22 million inhabitants within a three-day span?  It can’t be done.  Historically Mexico City has always had a wealthy elite population, and a large, extremely poor population.  More recently a middle class is emerging, affluent enough to shop in the many designer-label stores and drive upscale cars or fancy Harley Davidson motorcycles.  It is a diverse and fascinating city.

Fuente de Tlaloc - with ADO Turibuses
Before our visit to Mexico City I checked the internet for itinerary ideas for a three-day stay.  One website listed a minimum of twelve attractions with a recommended tour time of between two and three hours each.  In three days?  Never going to happen!  That plan didn’t take into account shopping, eating, and people-watching, all very necessary activities when Lawrie and I travel.  We did print the list of locations to give us a starting point for investigating the metropolis.

Monument to the Revolution
We decided that once we had checked into our hotel we would ride one of the ADO Turibus vehicles and do a quick overview of the city’s centre.  The cost was $165.00 pesos per person, or $85.00 pesos with our handy-dandy Mexican resident cards.  The tour buses continually circulate past twenty-five interesting locations.  They operate from nine in the morning until nine at night allowing passengers to frequently hop on and off.  

There are two easy rules for using the Turibus system: Rule #1 don’t stand up on the open-air level as countless low hanging electrical wires will try to decapitate you.  Rule #2 at nine in the evening the buses stop operating, no matter where they are in the circular route, and the passengers must disembark.  Get off.  Shoo!  Go away.  

As it turned out we enjoyed this method of getting around so much we used the Turibuses two days out of the three, returning to our hotel just before the witching hour of nine at night. One of our first stops included the newly completed Soumaya Museum featuring the largest private collection of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s work.  

Soumaya Museum 
Owned by the Carlos Slim Foundation the museum is named after his recently deceased wife – Soumaya.  

Costing more than seventy million dollars to complete in 2011 it is a stunningly beautiful cloud-shaped structure.  Or perhaps it resembles a shiny pliable cube, twisted in the middle.  Either way it’s a gorgeous building housing an impressive collection.

Olmec colossal head

The following day we walked a short distance from our hotel to the Museum of Anthropology located in the massive Chapultepec Park.  Built in 1964, the museum houses hundreds of thousands of items depicting the many indigenous cultures that make up the complex fabric of Mexico.  

My favourite exhibit was the Olmec colossal heads - dug up in the Veracruz area of Mexico.  The heads date from 1500 to 400 BC. (Or BCE if you prefer). They weigh between six and fifty tons, and stand between five and eleven feet tall.  Impressive!  

I must confess.  I enjoy museums – a lot.  But, after two hours my brain hurt from visual overload.  We exited the museum and headed to the Turibus stop just a few feet away.

Lunch at Monte's Bistro in Condessa colonia
Our next stop put us into the stylish Condessa colonia with dozens of interesting stores and gourmet restaurants, just in time for a late lunch.  We disembarked to share a leisurely meal and a tasty bottle of wine at Monte’s near the Fuente de la Cibeles.  

Another beautiful fountain, in a city with thousands of fountains, this one is the exact replica of the original located in Madrid Spain.  Surrounding the park were numerous Jacaranda trees, at the peak of their blooming season as purple trumpet-shaped flowers clotted their winter-nude branches.  A few stray blossoms had begun to fall, drifting towards death.

Fountain of Cibeles
At a third stop, in the historic centre of the city, we prowled past the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral, the Museum of the Great Temple and the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  

The variety of architecture in the city is amazing – showcasing styles from the 16th century Spanish colonial National Palace, to the ultra-modern Soumaya Museum.  

Time Out !!
After a few hours of gawking and taking photographs we had to take a time-out.  We sat in a café with a cold beverage, letting the humanity stream past us in a never-ending river of colour, sounds, and body shapes. 

People-watching is one of our favourite pastimes.  In Mexico City the residents wear a wide range of conservative business attire.  A few wear casual western jeans, checkered shirts and polished leather boots, and others are dressed in colourful traditional clothing from the various segments of the country.  

The range of jazzy footwear for the women made me jealous; stiletto heels trimmed with babbles, glitter or fur, in a rainbow of colours versus my serviceable sandals.  

Shoe envy!
And then it was time to leave.  Three days seemed long enough when we planned this getaway.  

But it sped past quickly, and we were left with the certainty that we had missed many interesting sights in this huge and culturally diverse city. 

Young photographer taking picture of her parents

Another time.  Another adventure.

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Secret Life of a Carnaval Costume

Dazzling headdresses and smiles
The late afternoon sun reflects on the tall sparkly headdresses glistening on the sequins, jewels, and pearls.  The smiles of the women are just as dazzling as they dance along rue Medina in time to the pounding salsa beat.  

It is carnaval time in Mexico!  The dance troupes wear astoundingly beautiful costumes – a new theme every year means new costumes.  This year the theme was Mágica Tradicion featuring oceans and sea creatures. 

Orange and pink and purple 2012
Every year we are astounded by the variety of the designs and the creativity.  So, I asked two of my very bilingual island friends: “How much does the average costume cost?  How long to make them?  What happens after carnaval?”  

Since both of the people that I asked were men – they had to check with their female family members for the real answers. According to the ladies, the cost usually runs around 1500 to 2500 pesos per costume, depending on the intricacy of the design and materials required.  They take a few days to weeks to construct, and are handmade by several extremely talented women on Isla working out of their homes.  Planning for the next year starts very soon after the current event has finished.

Starfish princessa 2013
This year my favourite group included petite starfish princesses and little octopi princes, their older counterparts dressed as fanciful mermaids or mermen.  

Other groups are outfitted as lobsters, clams, sea anemones, seaweed, coral, waves, or dolphins. The colours range from pale green and coral pink, to vibrant blues mixed with sunflower yellows and deep purples.  

One troupe of ladies was dressed in black, blue, and silver with wide brimmed hats that flounced in time to the salsa beat. 

Enjoying the parade 2013

I snapped photographs of several groups during the five-day event only to discover that there were many others that I missed entirely.  How does that happen?  

Well, the parades are never quite organized - invariably starting hours later than advertised and participation of the dance troupes appears to be discretionary, not mandatory.  Occasionally a float or decorated truck breaks down leaving the entire group stranded – unable to join in the fun.  It’s an organizers’ nightmare; like trying to line-up a group of cats.

With three parades the mix of groups changed daily.  Some of the dance troupes were in all three parades, others only appeared in one and other groups never managed to participate in any parade choosing instead to do impromptu dances in various neighbourhood locations on the island.  No matter.  As long as everyone had a good time, that’s all that counts.

The lobster-ladies 2013
And when the five-day celebration ends with the beginning of the forty days of Lent, what happens to the beautiful carnaval costumes?

According to my two sources of information – they are basura, garbage.  Some are stored for a few months in boxes, others are thrown out.  Occasionally the owner will wear it to another costume party before throwing it away.  So that prompted random thoughts of a costume rental company, or a costume museum where one of each design could be displayed for the admiration of others.  

Or another middle of the night musing included the creation of a costume hand-me-down system between the larger cities and smaller communities.  Mexico City to could give their elaborate costumes to Cancún, and Cancún could pass along theirs to Isla Mujeres for instance.  

Friends 2012 parade
Then reality set it. 

On average there are about ten dance groups that participate in the Isla Mujeres carnaval each year, with a wide variety of costume designs.  So, for either the museum idea or the costume rental plan that would mean dozens of pieces that would need to be cleaned, preserved, and protected from a humid, salty climate.  A climate that would rust, tarnish or rot the elaborate outfits in a very short time. 

Plus these beautiful works of art are not one-size-fits-all; they are custom made for the individual owner so a swap or trade system would be difficult to facilitate.  I could just imagine the havoc that idea would cause as people of various heights and sizes tried on costumes in an attempt to find one that would fit.  It just wouldn’t work.

Heading to the parade 2012
Ah well, digital photos will have to help keep the creativity of the seamstresses alive.  We look forward to next year’s artistic expressions.  The colour, the music, and the flashing smiles.

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, March 1, 2013

Three … two … one … none!

Mooring lines on car ferry
For a few days this week the island looked like the aftermath of a small hurricane.  The sugar white sand of north beach covered the streets, spilling over the seawall and drifting across the sidewalks.  A strong westerly wind had been blowing for three days.  

Besides the unexpected appearance of sand dunes the grocery store shelves were bare, ATMs flashing out-of-service-signs, and the centro gas station was out of gasoline.  What the heck happened?

It was an unlucky confluence of events that conspired to create chaos.  The car ferry was out of service for a few days.  Tragic?  Not really.  Terribly inconvenient?  Absolutely.  

Living on an island has one disadvantage – everything must be brought to the island, or taken away from the island by boat.  No car ferry creates havoc with businesses and personal lives. 

The two nearly identical car ferries on Isla Mujeres
When we first moved here in 2007 there were two nearly-identical car ferries that were capable of carrying quite a number of the larger trucks, and passenger cars. 

Around 2009 the private company that owns and operates the car ferry service decided to sell one of those boats and purchased a different style of ship from South Korea, one that had better passenger carrying capacity, but less space for vehicles.  

The new kid on the block Sergio G. Aquilar
In the summer of 2010 one of the two identical boats was sold to Isla Holbox.  The new ship, re-christened the Sergio Gracia Aquilar, was faster but unruly when it came time to docking procedures due to its tall superstructure.  Eventually the captain and crew learned to tame the boat.  It was kept as a backup to be used on Sundays and national holidays when the number of passengers far outnumbered the vehicles.

About two weeks ago the remaining large capacity boat was sent to Campeche for emergency repairs to the bottom of the ship.  In previous years the car ferries were taken to Cuba, for a re-fit or repairs, until the cost became prohibitive.   

Once that boat was out of service, we were left with the smaller capacity car ferry - in use during high season.  Not the best solution, but the only one available.  The line-ups to get on the boat were longer and the chances of missing a sailing due to an overload increased exponentially.

How to berth an unruly car ferry - sideways!
And then Murphy and his law struck; Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.  

Yep, the remaining car ferry broke down, out of service for a couple of days, leaving the local businesses scrambling to remain open.  The shelves in the grocery stores looked like people had been panic buying in preparation for a hurricane.  Fresh produce?  Nothing.  Empty ATMs at the banks and grocery stores refused to dispense cash.  

Jammed in on the Sergio Gracia Aquilar
Lineups were common at the one gas station that still had fuel.  Restaurant owners forced to make additional trips into Cancun to re-stock kitchens.  The paving project at Sac Bajo came to a halt – no asphalt available to continue.  

The garbage-hauler was unable to remove refuse from the island.  And most importantly the beer companies Corona and Sol were unable to replenish supplies!  In Lawrie’s estimation that was a national emergency!

Sunset through the superstructure of the car ferries
The smaller boat is back in service now, running a catch-up schedule.  It sails from either side when it is full!  The larger boat is due to return – eventually.  At one point in 2010 we had three car ferries, then two in 2011 when one was sold, then one as the larger ship recently went in for emergency repairs, and then none for a few days this week.

Synchronicity?  No, Murphy’s Law.

Hasta Luego          
Lynda and Lawrie