Friday, September 27, 2013

Night patrols

In the blackest hours of the night a silent intimidating figure sits on a coral outcropping at the ocean’s edge.  Cloaked in a black t-shirt, and dark pants he patiently waits.

What’s his story?
Ernesto digging out the baby turtles 

Ernesto (Tiega) Gomez Tur has worked for the Turtle Farm on Isla Mujeres for the last nine years, caretaking the giant sea turtles, and their hatchlings.  Turtle season coincides with the hurricane season, May to October.  Ernesto is one of the turtle farm employees patrolling the eastern beaches late at night, waiting for returning female turtles to select a spot to lay their eggs.  It’s a quiet, lonely job.  It’s also a job that gives him a great satisfaction.  His task is to retrieve the newly-laid eggs and transport them to the turtle farm to be hatched out in relative safety, away from predators: birds, dogs, and humans.

Ernesto when he was about forty-two 
Born on Isla Mujeres sixty-something-years ago, Ernesto had six brothers and four sisters most of whom are still living.  Married for fifty years to Teresa Gomez Heredia they had eight children.  The surviving seven children now have twelve offspring ranging in age from twenty years to a few months old.  Many of his two hundred or so family members - brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins - frequently gather to celebrate birthdays, weddings, Quinceaños, and other special events. 

When Ernesto was a small child he lived in centro (downtown) when there were approximately twenty families on the island.  Later when he was a young lad he remembers helping his father farm a tract of land in Las Glorias, growing vegetables and fruits without using any chemicals.  He nostalgically speaks about the abundance of fish, shrimp, lobsters, and conch in those years.  Fishermen were able to support their families fishing very close to home.  Unfortunately with more people, came a greater demand for seafood, and more fishermen that have dramatically reduced the supply.

Digging out more baby turtles
A cheerful worker, Ernesto has had a number of jobs over the years including operating a small boat between one of the local hotels, and the mainland: delivering hotel guests and transporting supplies.  With his strong singing voice and engaging personality the hotel guests would joke that riding with Ernesto was like being on a gondola in Venice Italy.

When I went to the turtle farm to chat with him during his afternoon break, he was busily digging up dozens of hatched turtles in preparation for releasing them.  The nests have signage indicating the area on the island where the eggs were found, the date the eggs were re-buried, and species of turtle.  He casually and competently dug thorough two feet of damp sand, sorting out the broken eggs, and placing the live babies in a big plastic bucket.  

Some of the babies waiting to be released
Taking up to sixty days to hatch out the babies’ first instinct when they reach the surface is to get into the water.   They scramble over each other.  They paddle their little flippers over the sand, trying to escape.   But, Ernesto’s big hand carefully scoops them up, adding them to the collection of three or four thousand that will be held for a few days until the next scheduled turtle release.   

Cookie bandits, and Ernesto,on right
When I went to chat with Ernesto, I brought a dozen large cookies with me as a thank you gift.  The strange thing is – at the end of our chat Ernesto’s co-workers had guilty grins, and cookie-crumb smiles.  The bag was empty by the time Ernesto thought to look for a cookie.   He laughed, a big smile lighting his face, joking with his cookie-stealing friends. 

He’s not such an intimidating figure after all.

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, September 20, 2013

Moto Mania

Using the moto to transport lumber
How do they make it look so simple?

We have a collection of snapshots, taken in haste, as various motorcycle drivers hurry past; photos of people clutching small children, demur women in dresses balanced side-saddle, or workers holding on to ladders, tools, buckets or large pieces of lumber.  

The photos are blurred by movement, slightly out of focus, but represent an interesting cross-section of islanders. 

In the late 1970’s early 1980’s there were three rental companies on Isla Mujeres that had a few machines available for tourists to buzz around on the mostly sand streets.  Gomar Rentals was the pioneer in rentals on the island, being joined later by Carabela and Honda.  

Riding side-saddle - no problem!
Every two years the rental motorbikes would be replaced with new ones, allowing islanders to purchase the castoffs at a much reduced price.  

Until about seventeen or eighteen years ago privately owned motorcycles, or motos as they are called in Mexico, were rare on Isla.   

A few ex-pats either brought their favourites from the USA or purchased a new motorbike in Cancun.  

The Honda Store
In those years only the fortunate few who did not require a loan to purchase were able to own a new moto.  Interest rates in Mexico can run from 25% to 75% for a loan or credit card, depending on the circumstances and the company.  

In about 1995 Honda made the decision to put a dealership store on the island, and to offer terms: little payments over a very long time enabling many people to own their first motorcycle or scooter.  

For sale at Chedraui Super Store on Isla
An explosion occurred, and the streets were overrun by motos.  Now, motorbikes are so common they are sold in the local grocery store, Chedraui as well as several other appliance stores.  

The Chedraui Super Store is currently offering twelve months interest free and a free helmet if the purchaser qualifies for a Chedraui credit card: a mixed blessing in itself.

Common to see four or five on a motorbike
As the motos became more common islanders invented new uses for these versatile machines.  They became tireless workhorses, or tow trucks, or family vehicles.  

When we first moved to Isla seven years ago we typically saw two or three people on each moto, now the norm seems to be four and occasionally five family members crammed on one bike.  

The law states a maximum of three people per motorbike, but for the most part that is overlooked unless there is a campaign of enforcement in effect.   

Helping a friend with a push.
We are especially intrigued by the drivers who helpfully push a friend’s motorbike to the gas station, or the repair shop, or to their home for repairs.  The drivers will position the working moto slightly behind the non-functioning bike.  

The driver of the operating machine will then place a foot on the foot-peg of the other moto and off they go – cruising along, chatting, not a care in the world.  It’s a feat of balance and coordination unlike anything I have ever seen. 

I’m jealous!  My motorcycle riding abilities consist of applying a painful death grip to the rib-cage of the driver.  Clutching until my fingers turn white, hoping against hope that I will survive.   

I just don’t have the graceful confidence required to ride a motorcycle.  I’m happier in a car or golf cart.

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie

Friday, September 13, 2013

Blowing their own horns

Spine-tingling mariachi music at Due Torri Restaurante
The deep throaty notes from the trumpet made the small hairs on my arms dance with joy: pure joy.  

A seven-person mariachi band made their entrance at the opening night of a new Italian restaurant on Isla – Due Torri.   

They strolled through the restaurant, finally settling near the guests of honor.  Guitars, and violins, and horns, and strong melodic voices – just thinking about it is giving me goose-bumps again.  

Serenading the special guests
The mariachis were dressed in decorative eighteenth century charro (horseman) attire.  Tightfitting and secured with multiple silver fasteners, these traditional outfits were designed to ensure that no flapping material would spook the rider’s horse.  The boots have small heels to keep the rider’s foot in the stirrup, and the large sombreros, the sun from the rider’s head.  Most mariachi groups have forsaken the large unwieldy sombreros in favour of the bare-headed approach.

Mariachi group on Isla Mujeres 
But where did the name mariachi originate from?  Well, some documents state it was derived from the French word for marriage, dating from the 1860’s French Intervention in Mexico.  Other documents show that the word existed before that time.  

The music has, on the other hand, evolved through the centuries from the indigenous music, played with rattles, drums, flutes and conch-shell horns during religious celebrations.  

Eventually with the arrival of the Spanish settlers harps, guitars, violins, and brass instruments were added into the mix.  I enjoy listening to all of those instruments, but for me, it’s the brass horns that really make the music. 

Guadalajara Mariachi Festival 2012

The modern day mariachi tradition is very strong in Mexico with annual festivals, and competitions in Guadalajara, and Morelia in late August or early September.  We were lucky enough to enjoy a few days of the Guadalajara festival last year.  Outstanding music and amazing costumes! 

The actual music genre didn’t become widely popular until 1920 with the first recording of a mariachi band, played over the Mexican national radio airwaves.  Another boost to their worldwide popularity came from the Presidential candidate Lázaro Cárdenas whose 1935 election campaign featured multiple mariachi bands.

Agapito Mangana Sanchez - at Due Torri Restaurante

Meanwhile, inside the Due Torri restaurant on Isla Mujeres, ninety or so invited guests clapped and sang with great enthusiasm.  It seemed like everyone, but Lawrie and I, knew the words.  

Even the young keyboard musician who had quietly been entertaining the guests joined the mariachi band, belting out spine-tingling notes in a voice that couldn’t possibly originate from such a slight body. 

Mariachi music really gets in to your blood.  I might have been born into the wrong culture.  Perhaps I was meant to be Mexican, not Canadian. 

Amazing voice for such a slight person
But – Celtic music and Scottish bagpipes also produce that goose-bump tingling reaction of my senses.   

Music opens the door to my heart.

Hasta Luego 
Lynda and Lawrie

Ribbon cutting at Due Torri Restaurante - Isla 

Friday, September 6, 2013

“My only worry - is the tide gonna reach my chair?”

"is the tide gonna reach my chair?"

Living on the edge of the sweet blue ocean, watching the tide and listening to Zac Brown music – it just doesn’t get any better.

Lawrie and I have had boats of various forms most of our lives: rowboats, speed boats, work boats, and even some beautiful big cruising boats.  

We know about tides and tide tables; that’s the handy-dandy information that tells you when the sea level is due to rise to high tide and six hours later when it will recede to low tide.  In, out, higher, lower; every six hours, every day of every year, into infinity. 

Lawrie on our Sealander in BC
So imagine our surprise when we first discovered that the tides on Isla Mujeres are minimal.  It’s one of the quirks of living closer to the equator where tide-change is almost non-existent.  

In the Vancouver area we frequently experienced dramatic tidal differences of ten, or twelve, or fifteen feet (5 meters) between the high tide and low tide.  Here on Isla, if I look at the tide tables the difference between high tide and low tide is just a few inches. 

In the tropics wharves and docks are stationary, fixed to their pilings.  In Vancouver all the wharves and docks have various mechanisms that allow the floating platforms to rise higher or drop down depending on the tides.  

BC the ramp at mid-tide.  It gets very steep!
Ramps for accessing the docks on some days can be very steep, slippery affairs necessitating a firm grip on the handrails to prevent you from sliding down and landing in an ungainly heap on the dock.  

Here on Isla, things are level.  If there happens to be a slightly higher tide due to a storm surge, well your feet get wet.  Too bad, but at least you won’t slip and spill your beer.

Passenger boats loading for Isla 
In areas of big tidal swings the loading and unloading of cargo takes on new dimensions.  Heavy crates are lugged up the steep ramps.  The cargo going down the ramps has to be controlled otherwise it could slide and tumble, scattering across the docks when it thumps onto the floating dock.  In coastal British Columbia ambulance stretchers take a lot of careful maneuvering to ensure the patient stays on the stretcher and is not deposited in the ocean for an unscheduled swim.  On an icy winter night, with a big tide differential, this can be an exciting adventure.  We know.  We were volunteer ambulance attendants for several years on a similarly-sized Canadian island, Bowen Island.

Tourists heading back from Isla to Cancun
Here in the tropics the ambulance attendants are able to wheel the stretchers directly to the boarding ramp, and hoist the patient across the railings of the boat and into the cabin.  For commercial cargo and tourists’ suitcases the Isla Mujeres bicycle porters “Maleteros” gather dockside, load up the cargo, and then pedal off to their destinations.

British Columbia - skipper made a mistake
A few years ago when we still lived in Vancouver we saw the dramatic results of a commercial fisherman who either hadn’t paid attention to the changing tides, or he fell asleep after an exhausting night of working the nets.  His boat was well and truly jammed up on sharp rocks, awaiting the next high tide.  Embarrassingly for him, the next really high tide, high enough to free the boat was not for another eighteen hours. 

Isla Mujeres - Capt. Nephi sinking.
In the meantime, when boats are run aground here on Isla Mujeres, it is usually for emergencies, or to make repairs.  Two years ago the skipper of the Capt. Nephi had to ground his boat on the west side of the island.  He was taking on water at sea.  The navy cruiser rescued the crew and boat, pulling it to safety and leaving it in shallow waters.  It was a dramatic end to his day, but not nearly as dramatic as the skipper who tried to steer his boat over the rocks in British Columbia. 

Beautiful water of Isla Mujeres

So this whole musing on tides, and water, and boats started because Lawrie has been looking for a small boat, one we could use to poke around in paradise.

Hasta Luego 

Lynda and Lawrie