Friday, August 30, 2013

Grab the Bull by the Horns! A conversation with Javier Velázque Euan

Javier Velázque Euan

How do you load six or seven head of cattle onto a passenger boat?  You grab the bull by the horns, of course!

In a fascinating three-way conversation, Javier Velázque Euan recounted his experiences as the captain, for twenty-two years, on the Sultana del Mar.  He and I chatted at our kitchen table while his son-in-law Freddy Medina provided a running commentary and translation.   

Born sixty-nine years ago on Holbox Island, Javier Velázque grew up in Campeche, and moved to Isla Mujeres when he was a strapping seventeen-year-old: a young bull.  His first position on the Sultana del Mar was in the engine room, and then as a mate, finally taking over as captain of the ship from his uncle Captain Titio sometime in the mid to late-1960’s.

Sultana del Mar - Dan Kane photos
Javier’s eyes twinkled with mischief when he recounted loading live animals onto the boat.  Each “res” (cow, bull, steer) took three strong men to drag and push it on board; one man on each horn, and a third man pushing the terrified animal from the back.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be the back-end person on that job.  Javier, as the Captain, assigned that treacherous task to his deck hands.

At that time the Sultana del Mar did not have the second level, and it had an open deck in the back.  In the years before the car ferry service started a small car and perhaps a truck could be loaded on the back deck.  The island streets were mere ruts in the sand, and there were not a lot of vehicles, so once or twice a week handled the vehicle traffic.

Live pigs, crates of chickens, fruits, vegetables, and stacks of glass bottles containing beer, water or soda pop – anything the islanders needed came across on the boat.  Pet monkeys bounced around in the rafters tormenting and teasing the passengers.  Javier worked from two o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock in the evening seven days a week for the sum of $180.00 pesos per week.  (That’s about $15.00 dollars a week at today’s exchange rates.)  During the summertime, when students were out of school and families ventured on day trips to the island Javier and the crew worked almost twenty-four hours per day for six to eight weeks.  Their bonus was an additional $150.00 pesos for the entire summer.

Sultana del Mar - courtesy of Abby & Neil Fox
The forty-five minute crossing was done without a radio, or navigational equipment other than a compass.  

The city of Cancun had not been built.  It was only a small fishing village, and the main port was Puerto Juarez, where buses from the cities of Valladolid or Mérida would discharge their passengers.  

The buses would drive to the docks, and flash their headlights three times, in the direction of Isla Mujeres, to signal the boat captains that there were passengers waiting for them at the port.

In the fleet of passenger boats owned by Ausencio Magaña the first boat was the La Carmita, a banana-shaped boat that rolled and wallowed in the seas creating havoc with the tender stomachs of landlubbers and tourists. Freddy Medina remembers standing in the back of the boat, well away from any seasick passengers, enjoying the salty breeze.  

The next ship was La Novia del Mar and then La Sultana del Mar.  A fourth boat, La Dama Elegante, was equipped with a six foot (2 metres) by two foot (60 cm) glass insert for viewing the sea life.  A sunken shrimp boat, the Blanca Beatriz was rescued from near Isla Contoy, and refurbished.  That boat was primarily reserved for circumnavigating the island with sightseers.

Sultana del Mar 2013 - half sunken live-aboard
Amongst our North American friends there are many people who have had a long term connection with Isla Mujeres, and I asked them about their memories of the Sultana del Mar.  To a person they remember the “sign in sheet.”   Most of them thought it a great joke to sign in as Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, James Bond, Goldie Hawn, or Frank Sinatra – any name but their own. 

Vivian Reynaldo fondly remembers gazing at the sea life during the crossing; dolphins that followed along, starfish on the sea bed.  Michael Feldman remembers crossing the in open boat – probably the La Carmita – during a rain storm.  The passengers and cargo were soaking wet, but everyone arrived safely in paradise.  John and Cathy Stuckless remember riding in the Blanca Beatriz as well as the Sultana del Mar.

Steve and Lindell Lehrer have a fond memory of his elderly Aunt Honey – a very proper Palm Beach lady.  When faced with a weather delay, and then a wet, dark and crowded trip across the bay, she pulled out from her stylish Chanel travel bag a small bottle of Vodka.  Aunt Honey passed it around for everyone to share.  Guitar music started and the forty-five minute ride passed very pleasantly.

Abby Fox on the Sultana del Mar
Other friends, Abby and Neil Fox chuckle over the ownerless dog that rode the boat, by itself.  It crossed to Puerto Juarez and disembarked, presumably to visit a girlfriend or two.  Later in the day the dog would reappear and board the boat to return to Isla Mujeres.  He was completely at ease with the boat, the boarding routine and the workers.  

On one of these trips an islander was crossing to Isla with a large sack of pig knuckles to sell in his store.  While the man was chatting with another passenger the dog took a pig knuckle and settled down to enjoy his treat.  After a few minutes the man noticed the dog, and retrieved the pig knuckle, placing it back in the sack with the others!  
No worries, a little dog saliva won’t hurt anyone.


Thank you everyone for sharing your island stories.  I have much more information – enough to write a second article another day.  And thank you again Dan Kane for starting me off on this tangent.

Javier Velázque Euan and Freddy Medina - I take full responsibility for any mistakes between what you told me, and what I heard.   I am still giggling at the mental image of loading cattle onto a passenger boat.  

That’s really taking the bull by the horns!

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, August 23, 2013

Then and Now – Dan Kane’s photo collection

Dan Kane - transplanted islander
“What is happening to my little isla?” – Recent arrivals moan.  Change!  Inevitable change.  When you look back on the photo collections of other Isleños the island has always been changing.  

This idyllic palm-strewn sandbar in the Caribbean Sea was discovered by the Mayans, then Spaniards, then Mexicans, and finally world-travellers of many different nationalities.

A transplanted islander, Dan Kane, recently reminded me that he has a collection of photos taken back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  They are fun photos of thin earnest young men with longish hair, and pop-star-style moustaches.  

Earnest young men with pop-star moustaches

The southern view from the balcony of their room at the Rocamar shows a remarkable open area where our house and the houses of my neighbours are now situated. 

The view north, behind the two men shows the large hotel known over the years by four different names including the Presidente, and the Avalon.

Upper balcony of Rocamar  Hotel looking south
Some of the photos capture Playa Norte, or North Beach as an empty sweep of white sand, dotted with palm trees; no condos, no hotels, just sand and a couple of rustic beach restaurants.  

At the south end of the island the Mayan temple to the Goddess IxChel stands alone, a sturdy sentinel against invaders.  (The structure was much larger before the devastation of Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988.)  The statue garden has not been thought of, the newer lighthouse structure, gift store, restaurant have yet to be built.  Neither Garrafon Natural Reef Park nor Dolphin Discovery exists.

Mayan structure before 1988 Hurricane Gilberto
Every person that discovers Isla changes it in some small way.   Perhaps a tourist requests an item that was not available before and an enterprising merchant imports it to the island.  Perhaps a winter resident requires a new service and a company steps in to supply it. 

Services that may have started out with simple things such as fax machines and photocopiers soon included cable internet, cell phones, internet cafes, or cash machines.  Eventually the island offered every modern convenience a traveler could dream up – including the fairly recent Chedraui Super Store.

Isauro "Indio" Martinez Magaña 
Other historic pictures from Dan’s collection are of a very well-known former islander, "Indio", sharing his sailboat with friends.  Isauro "Indio" Martinez Magaña passed away on August 14th of this year.  

He was part of the large, influential Magaña family, and a cousin to our Presidente-elect, Agapito Magaña Sanchez.  

Many of you will remember Indio’s Beach on the south-western side of the island; a quiet tucked away area to enjoy food, beer, and perhaps a little nude sunbathing if you were so inclined.

North beach before the hotels, condos and restaurants
Most of us are careless with photos from our youth, never once believing that a quick snapshot of friends enjoying themselves could have any historic significance down the road. 

Perhaps in a few years your personal photos will be the subject of another blogger’s musings.  

Cherish the memories – they are a bit of history happening before your eyes.

Thank you Dan, for sharing your memories with us.

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, August 16, 2013

Daydreaming about a road trip

Mérida - private garden

Rain, rain, go away.  Come again another day. 

Our island weather is socked in, grey and wet; while a soggy tropical depression slowly passes over us.  With time on my hands I am daydreaming about another road trip in the dryer winter months.  

Maybe we’ll do two-day trip to an old favourite: Mérida.  Built on the ancient Maya city of Thó, Mérida is best visited in the cooler months of October to May.  June to September the temperature can climb to 40C or around 110F.  That’s too hot for us.

Mérida is about three and a half hours north-west of where we live if we drive the well-maintained toll highway system.  Someday we might venture along the back roads again, but that route takes a whole lot longer to get anywhere.  Every tiny little hamlet, or village has numerous spine-jarring topes (speed bumps) slowing the traffic to a crawl.   

Calle 60 at Calle 57 good hotel
On the other hand, driving in the City of Mérida the one-way-only street system takes a few minutes to get used to until you realize the odd numbered streets run at right angles to the even numbered streets.  

It’s a bit puzzling for a driver accustomed to the North American system.  In the USA and Canada the streets typically run in east-west direction and at right angles to avenues traveling in a north-south direction.  Eventually after navigating three times around the same block searching for an address Calle 60 #488 at Calle 57 – we figured it out.  

Will my brain retain that bit of useful information until the next time we driving in Mérida?  Probably not. 

Paseo de Montejo in Mérida at night
Even with the slight confusion of driving in Mérida, it is well worth the effort.  The city abounds in fascinating museums, art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels located on the famous Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard featuring many fountains and statues.  

A few years ago we were treated to a private showing of art in one of the haciendas.  Many of the buildings in centro still retain the colonial flavour of when the Spanish overlords ruled Mexico.  On another visit to Mérida, we wandered the downtown area, stopping for a delicious dinner at Pancho’s and one of their famous flaming coffee drinks.

Lawrie - art galley in a hacienda
A number of our friends say that the best time to visit Mérida is during Carnaval (known as Mardi Gras in some cultures).  The festivities begin the week before Ash Wednesday or Lent, so the date changes from year to year according to the schedule for religious celebrations.  

In 2014 the dates are February 26th to March 5th.  For eight days the City of Mérida will celebrate with nightly parades featuring colourful floats, international and national bands, dance troupes in gorgeous costumes, and street dances.  The Presidente of Mérida estimated that there were more than a million extra visitors in the city during the event. 

We haven’t participated in the Mérida Carnaval festivities yet, preferring to stay on our little island and celebrate with friends.  

However, since this is a wet and rainy day, and I have been contemplating a winter road trip this just might be the year.

Flaming coffee at Pancho's in Merida

Hasta Luego 
Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Cookie Ladies:

Some for me and some for you

Kenia Osorio & Rossmery Avila
What do you do when your friends beg for more: more gooey-good brownies, more decadently delicious Moon Pies, more buttery chocolate chip cookies?  

It’s simple.  Start a business!

Accomplished bakers and cousins Rossmery Avila and Kenia Osorio Fernandez started Delicias Galletas Decoradas in response to urging from friends.  

Both women are well-known and have a large extended family group living on the island.  

Rossmery and Kenia were born on Isla, with ancestors from the Yucatán, Mérida, and Spain. 

Cool Spiderman Cookies
Rossmery is married to Omar Nieblas, and they have a beautiful little daughter, Camila.  Omar was a pitcher with the Mexican professional baseball league – Liga Mexicana de Beisbol- for many years. 

Kenia Osorio is the decorating specialist.  She created the fabulous Spiderman birthday cookies for Barlow Wareing’s birthday party.  All of the little kids, including Lawrie, thought the cookies were amazing – wishing they could have two instead of just one! 

If you want to order your very own supply of decadent treats contact Rossmery or Kenia via email: or via telephone at 877-0665.  

If you don’t have any idea of what a carrot cake with cream cheese filling Moon Pie is, you need to try one – right away! 

Photo from their FaceBook page Carrot Cake & Cream Cheese Moon Pies

And some for our four-legged friends

Bessie and gourmet dog cookies
If you are a four-legged client in need of a cookie – then Bessie Hamaker should be your very best friend.  Bessie has recently branched out into making gourmet dog cookies.  

Long-time resident of Isla she is well-known for her beautiful shell mirrors, displayed in some of the best locations on Isla: Barlito’s Café and Bakery, Olivia’s Restaurante, Su Casa, and a number of private homes including a matching pair made for Steve and Lindell Lehrer.  Bessie first discovered Isla Mujeres in 1981.  She finally made the move in 1988 to live full-time on the island, working at the Cristalmar Hotel on Sac Bajo for a time before retiring.  Over the years her elaborate mirrors have migrated to homes in New York, California, Texas, France and Italy.

Corner detail of mirror owned by Norris Blevens
As for her dog biscuit business; the cookies are made from natural ingredients of rice, barley, milk, eggs, plus chicken or beef livers.  The sample bag we brought home got a two-tails-wagging review from the beach dogs Odd and Missy.  

A sample bag of 100 grams costs $30.00 pesos (under $3.00) but if you are treating a beach dog or neighbourhood pooch Bessie will give you a break on the price; buy one get one free.   Bessie would be happy to deliver although she is conveniently located near Chedraui in the middle of the island should you wish to pick up a supply.  Don’t forget to keep these treats in the freezer.  They don’t have any preservatives and will spoil in the tropical heat. 

Mirror owned by N. Blevens

Contact Bessie at 998-116-2987 to place an order.  If you are a four-legged client, perhaps you could get your human to make the call for you.  

Prices: 100 grams $30 pesos, 200 grams $60 pesos, 450 grams $125 pesos.

So, now you are all set for cookies; cookies for you, cookies for your friends, and cookies for your four-legged pals.  

Never mind the calories.  There is always another Monday to start a diet.

Hasta Luego          

Lynda and Lawrie

PS: When I was attempting to photograph the mirror Norris's puppy was buzzing around my feet.  I tried to get him in the photo but he only showed as a dark blur - moving and wiggling around too much.  So, Mighty Manfred, I apologize for not including your photo.  You are a sweetie.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Hopes, Dreams and Opportunities

Scattered around the island, projects unfinished, left to crumble and rot – they each have their own story of hopes and dreams.  Many have become shattered dreams; lost through economic turmoil, under-financed plans or problems with permits, and regulations.  But - there could be opportunities for someone: someone with a vision, someone with a healthy bank account. 

For us the most visible abandoned project is the Unik Hotel (unique).  It is situated the main road on the south-western side of the island.  That’s the property I for a few years jokingly referred to as my future employer, with imaginary plans to be the general manager.  Eventually I realized the hotel was not going to be finished anytime in my working lifetime, so darn it all, I just had to retire.

Unik Hotel 75 luxury suites, complete with personal butler
The Unik Hotel was originally designed as seventy-five luxury suites, each with their own butler.  And then the worldwide financial crisis of 2008 happened, and that dream went up in smoke.  Inside are five hydraulic elevators still in their crates, waiting to be installed.  A local businessman has in his storage facility the large screen televisions purchased for the hotel in 2008.  The televisions are a little rusty and corroded after five years of sitting, but the creditors won’t make the decision to toss them out.  From the waterside the property looks amazing.  It would be such an asset to the island if the hotel is eventually completed.   

Unfinished condo project on Playa Media Luna
 Another unfinished and very visible project is on Playa Media Luna, the north-eastern area of the island.  This project progressed as far as opening the display suite, and selling a few condos before the finances bottomed out.  The location is stunning, facing a crescent-shaped beach, and the multi-hued waters.  This beach is a favourite place for the sea turtles to lay eggs, a great spot to watch the release of thousands of baby turtles in September and October.  

Pretty home for a number of pigeons
But the one that intrigues me the most is the blue and yellow hued Moroccan-influenced building that sits across from Oscar’s Pizza on the western side of the island.  On our first trip to Isla in 2002 the colours and design of the building caught my eye.  Designed to be an apartment complex its current occupants are hundreds of pigeons nesting inside the domed structure; cooing, and courting.  Every year the paint fades a little more, not catching my eye as readily as it once did.  The complex was started by a local man who had done well in the Mexican lottery.  Perhaps lottery-mania caught up to this dream. 

There is always hope, hope that some or all of these projects will be finished.  Sometimes one person’s difficulties can be another person’s opportunity.

Hasta Luego          

Lynda and Lawrie