Friday, October 31, 2014

Día de los Muertos - a family feast and celebration

Patricia, Luci, and Yani
Do you have a kiss for grandma”, Yani Medina asked her granddaughter Luci, as she reached to hold the little girl. 

Her outdoor kitchen is buzzing with conversation and laughter as family members come and go, checking on the progress of Yani's preparations for the upcoming family celebration.

Yani - chopping, chopping, chopping
Yani is making the traditional “pibe” - similar to a very large tamale - for the Mayan Hanal Pixán celebrations otherwise known as the Día de los Muertos. Delicious smells float through the warm tropical air, coming from the various pots and pans on the gas stove. 

Across the street at the middle-school the students are boisterously departing for a three-day weekend away from their studies. They carry bunches of flowers and other gifts that have decorated temporary Hanal Pixán altars honoring their departed family members. The students will celebrate Hanal Pixán again with their families on November 1st and November 2nd, eating special foods, and visiting family graves in the cemetery.

Preparing the banana leaves
By the time I arrived in her kitchen Yani had already been working for a few hours, preparing the chicken, and chopping vegetables and was ready to show me the more intricate details. 

First she removed the cooked chickens from the huge pot, and then added chopped tomatoes, onions, handfuls of an herb called ezapote, salt, and a red spice achiote to the broth.

Mixing masa, a cornmeal dough that takes time and special techniques to create, she thickened the chicken broth.

Eduardo and Patricia with decorations for birthday party
As she worked her teen-age daughter Cristina stopped by to chat, and her mother Norma Figueroa Paz came to check the proceedings. Then her son Alex dropped in. 

Next came older daughter Patricia with her husband Eduardo, and their two sweet little girls. October 30th is Luci's second birthday so in addition to creating the Hanal Pixán feast, Yani was working on eighty tamales for the party.

Manual - starting to cook the "pibe" 
A few minutes later while her husband Manual Punab prepared the charcoal BBQ to cook the “pibe”, Yani's brother Freddy Medina stopped to add his humorously helpful suggestions. 

By now there are eleven people, spanning four generations of the same family, supervising, chatting and laughing while Yani serenely carried on with her project.

Stripping the tough outer edges off the banana leaves to use as a natural string for her “pibe” parcels, she explains in a mix of Spanish and English what she is doing. Next she pats the masa dough into a circular shape and adds the upright borders that will contain the yummy mixture of chicken, vegetables, and spices. In keeping with traditional some of the chicken bones are included in the “pibe.” They represent the bones of the departed.

Norma helping out with spicy "pibe" for Manual
With the addition of the K'ol – the chicken mixture – more vegetables, and a sliced hard-boiled egg Yani's creation was finally ready for the top crust. Everything is parceled up with banana leaves and tied securely. It's a work of art. She then creates a special “pibe” for Manual's upcoming birthday. He has requested his usual twenty Serrano chili peppers and a K'ol mixture including multi-coloured, Xpelón, beans. This dish is too spicy for most of the other family members and he will likely savour his fiery treat all on his own.

All set for the top crust to go on
By now three and a half hours have quickly passed. Yani asks me to come back in another hour when the “pibe” will be ready so that I can see the finished product. 

She also sends me home with a yummy dish of the chicken mixture, and a handful of fire toasted tortillas to snack on. 

Oh my goodness! Good! By the time I drove back to our house the dish was empty. Lawrie was only able to run his finger around the bowl, tasting the residual flavours in the bowl.

Packaged in banana leaves and tied with tough outer edges
What a great experience; learning a bit more about our local friends, and having a chance for a relaxed chat. For those of you who frequent our favourite bar, the Soggy Peso, Yani's son Alex is their newest employee. His uncle, Freddy Medina, is the manager of the bar, and his cousin Joao (YoYo) has worked there for a number of years. Next time you are in the Soggy Peso, make sure you say hi to Alex.

What a lovely family! We know they will enjoy their family celebrations this weekend: Hanal Pixán, Día de los Muertos, two birthdays. Wow!

Yani - all done!

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Live like a Rock Star

Sunset at Casa de los Sueños
Holy moly!” Gail exclaimed, “that is my handwriting. I won! I won!”

Convinced that an email she had received was a scam, perhaps a sales pitch for a time-share hotel, Gail Stewart refused to believe she had won the fabulous prize being offered. To assure Gail that the offer was genuine, the hotel owner sent a second email, containing a photo of a local child holding the winning ticket, that's when she recognized her own distinctive handwriting.

2700 Square Foot Presidential Suite
The prize was a complimentary week in the 2700 square-foot Presidential Suite at Casa de los Sueños on Isla Mujeres, plus a $500.00 credit towards food and beverages. She had purchased the raffle ticket many months before from the hotel owner who was independently raising funds for the Little Yellow School House. As an middle-school educator for thirty-eight years in Westchester County, New York, Gail is an avid supporter of anything to do with the education of children. The LYSH is a local school for children with developmental disabilities; all of their funding comes from various fund-raising events on Isla.

Food for the Sunset Event - cocktail party 
Gail Stewart and Mike Davanzo, or as she calls him “her partner in crime,” recently enjoyed their complimentary week at Casa de los Sueños, enthusiastically telling friends that everyone at the hotel was treating them like they were rock stars. 
They wanted to share their good fortune with island friends and arranged a sunset cocktail party for Wednesday evening. Lucky for us, we were included on the guest list!

Guests starting to arrive for party
According to Gail, the hotel manager was exceptionally helpful – suggesting food items that fit her budget, and organizing all of the party details. One fun twist was the table and chairs were set-up in the shallow end of the suite's private swimming pool. What a great idea! And Mike, an old time rock-and-roller, played lively and familiar tunes for our foot-bouncing enjoyment.

Mike Davanzo singing - Tony Garcia photo
Originally from Queens NY, Mike Davanzo has been playing in rock bands since high school, later playing professionally for more than 40 years in eastern US, and Canada. He is currently featured at Casa de los Sueños on the weekends from 4:30 to 6:30, during Happy Hour. Check with the hotel for his actual dates as sometimes he will be there on a Friday and Sunday, and other times a Thursday or a Saturday. 

Mike's music is another good reason to stop by Casa de los Sueños for a sunset beverage or two, and while you are there, purchase a raffle ticket for the 2015 Grand Prize.

Hotel staff setting up the buffet for the party
The ticket sales are limited to only 2500, and are on sale until March 15 2015. Tickets are $20 USD or 240 pesos, 100% of the sales go directly to the school. 

Now that the word is out there about Gail and Mike's great experience, you'd better get your ticket before they are all snapped up.

As Gail said, “It was a magical week, and everyone who worked there treated us like we had actually paid to stay in the Presidential Suite.” Although with Gail's many years of experience as a President for the Teachers' Union and as a Union Contract Negotiator, I noticed she kept a supervisory eye on every detail of the party. When you are accustomed to being in charge, old habits die hard. Thanks again, Gail and Mike for the invite to share in your good fortune.
Presidential Suite - private pool
Lawrie and I bought our ticket; hopefully it's the winning one! 
Maybe next year we will be living like rock stars for a week in the Presidential Suite of Casa de los Sueños.
Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Animals and Family Members - a humerous collection of stories about critters

Friday, October 17, 2014

Finding Paradise

2005 Boat found drifting after Wilma - Sergio used for a bar
So, you're from Wisconsin?” The woman queried, puzzled.

No, no, I live in Oregon. I said Milwaukie Oregon.” Jackie Conlon replied, a tiny bit frustrated that no one seemed to grasp the concept of a city named Milwaukee that was actually located in Oregon, not in Wisconsin. True, Milwaukie Oregon was home to only about 22,000 people while Milwaukee Wisconsin held about 600,000 inhabitants, so one was definitely more famous than the other, but neither city could be considered as “paradise.”

1993 Na Balam Hotel view 
Jackie first discovered her version of paradise in 1993. She was looking for a new adventure, a new place to relax after a strenuous six-months of commuting between Oregon and Colorado for her job in telecommunications. She was tired of the Mazatlan – Puerto Vallarta area, and suggested to her travel agent that she was ready for something new: maybe Belize. “Un-uh! No, a woman traveling alone in Belize is not a good idea,” the agent said. “I think you would like the Playa del Carmen or the Yucatan area of Mexico a lot more.”

1993 El Presidente Hotel damaged by hurricane
So her first trip to the Caribbean side of Mexico included two nights in Cancun, then ten days in Playa del Carmen, and another ten days on Isla. Unfortunately her first visit to Isla Mujeres included breaking her toe on arrival, limiting her island experiences to hotel, beach, and restaurant. However, the turquoise water, soft white sand, and charming locals hooked her on the island. In the next twenty-one years she returned time and again to her island paradise, bringing family members and friends to share the experience.

1996 Garrafon Park
Now a confirmed Islahólico – a true fan of Isla Mujeres – Jackie is a longtime member of the Isla Mujeres Scholarship Group. The group formed in 2005 with a goal of providing financial assistance to qualified students who wanted to continue on to college or university. Jackie told me that this is a personally satisfying venture, one that gives her close contact with the students and their families. She can see how her monthly contributions are improving the life of the student and of the student's family. Whenever one of the students graduates, she is happy to sign up to assist another one for the four or more years needed to complete their education.
Bunch of youngsters

Jackie is also an avid supporter of local businesses, and enjoys promoting them. She created a FaceBook page for a local restaurant, to help them market their business. And if you happen to be her personal FaceBook friend you will see a variety of “food porn” photographs, promoting various local restaurants, but she confesses, until very recently she had never tried the wonderfully decadent Mexican specialty – marquesitas. Marquesitas are the crepe-like batter confections that are cooked on a large pan, filled with sliced bananas, and chocolate sundae sauce, then rolled into a tube-shape and handed to you with a small paper serviette wrapped around one end. Heavenly!

2005 October, high seas before Hurricane Wilma

Even though Milwaukie Oregon may not be a tropical paradise, Jackie has discovered her own paradise here on Isla Mujeres. 

She is a big-hearted addition to the island.

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

All of the photos are from Jackie Conlon's collection 

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Yeah! The new ferry terminal is open, sort of

Ribbon cutting - photo via Municipality of Isla Mujeres

At last after many false starts and delays dating back to December of 2013, the new ferry terminal was officially inaugurated by a large group of dignitaries on Saturday October 4th.  

Guillermo Ruiz de Teresa & Roberto Borge Angulo
Every level of government was represented from our own Municipal President Agapito Magaña Sánchez, to the Governor of Quintana Roo Roberto Borge Angulo, to the Federal General Coordinator of Ports and Merchant Marines Guillermo Ruiz de Teresa, the President of Cancun, the President of Cozumel, our Naval Vice-Admiral Juan Ramón Pigñol, plus a host of other dignitaries.

Waiting for the event to start
A good crowd of islanders were on hand for the celebration. A large white tent was quickly erected in the new parking lot. It sheltered two massive video screens and convention-style raised platform for the honored guests plus dozens of white slip-covered chairs for the general public. It was a classy event.

Appreciative crowd listening to Agapito Magaña
But, you know, everything runs on Mexican time. The event was supposed to start at 10:30 in the morning, but didn't get started until the last dignitary arrived via helicopter around 12:30 in the afternoon. And as always, everyone waited patiently for the commencement. The only people checking their wrist watches with mild irritation were us, the ex-pats. (We are learning, slowly, very slowly, not to fuss over start times.)

Governor Roberto Borge & Presidente Agapito Magaña 
Finally the event started. Municipal President Agapito Magaña Sánchez called it “an historic day” for Isla Mujeres to have this new 700-thousand square-meter terminal. The new structure is fantastic, with plenty of room for the two plus million visitors that Isla Mujeres will host this year.  Of course the smaller vendors, eating establishments, and tour operators will take a little time to settle into the new facility, but be patient, eventually it will happen.

I know some of you will say that the old quaint facility had character, befitting the island, however, in our opinion, one visit to the washrooms or the waiting area would have put paid to that idea.  Isla Mujeres is a world class destination - funky, quaint, rustic, fun, beautiful, romantic, or hip - but it is that first impression that grabs the newcomer, creating a yearning, a compulsion to return again and again to this beautiful little island. This gleaming white facility, with it's Mayan architectural influences is a dazzling new entrance to paradise.

Governor Roberto Borge

Governor Roberto Borge also promised in his very popular speech, the completion of the Cultural Centre, completion of the on-going hospital project, more utility services on the mainland portion of Isla Mujeres, upgrading the car ferry terminal at Punta Sam, and last but not least the repairs and upgrading of the popular Isla Mujeres baseball field. 

Whew! That's a big list, hope it happens.

Congratulations to the many levels of government that created this handsome new facility. Great job!

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Animals and Family Members is a collection of stories about critters we have known:

The Adventures of Thomas the Cat is our first book, written in Spanish and English, for young children to enjoy:ás-el-Gato

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hidden Secrets (Lawrie's turn to write)

I know, it's a hard job running around Isla looking for all the fun bars. Oh well, my “check liver” light is not on at the moment, so here goes.

Starting downtown on Francisco Madero Street, just off Hidalgo Avenue is Tiny's Bar. No, Tiny, the owner is not tiny, but the bar is. 

Two-for-one Mojitos
It is probably only eight feet across. Tiny's is a fun spot with great drinks, and my brand of beer: Sol. 

But since it is two-for-one Mojitos day, I had to sample a couple, and then it is time to move on. 

This time I stopped at the Bunga Bar, also known as The Drunken Mermaid, just a cross from the ferry terminal on Rueda Medina. They don't carry my brand of beer, but oh well, I guess rum and Coke it is. 

This is a perfect spot to people watch in the late afternoon – lots of small and even smaller bikinis passing by on the street – with fun music playing in the background.

I've got a bit of a buzz going. I'm going in circles, retracing my route back to Hemingway's Grill (La Tablita) on Guerrero Avenue. 

La Tablita - Hemingway's Grill
This is a place for me to get into serious trouble. Luz the bartender takes very good care of me, and they have icy cold Sol. Well, I'm going to leave the downtown area now, and travel up the west side of the island to where I can park the golf cart, and get a taxi as driving will soon not be an option for me.

Bahia Tortuga - listening to music.
Bahia Tortuga is the first bar I came across. It is a great palapa bar situated on the bay, with a stage for the outstanding live music acts they feature. 

They don't have my kind of beer, but a Margarita or two will be just fine fun.

Soggy Peso SOL - colder than a penguin's butt
Next is a short walk to the Soggy Peso Bar & Grill. Okay it's only two doors away. 

Here I am in serious trouble; icy cold Sol cerveza, killer strong margs, and fun, friendly staff. I had to be taken home at this point (I think).

Oh, the sacrifices I make for a good story.

The day after I continue my quest to hunt down all the fun bars on Isla; besides I need the golf cart back.

Daddy Blues at Barlito's 
On to Barlito's at the Marina Paraiso. It's another enjoyable palapa bar, overlooking a marina, that also features live music three nights a week. Barlito's serves most types of beer, which is rare, as most bars in Mexico are either a Sol house, or a Corona house, but not both. It's a licensing thing.

The Band with No Name at Chuuk Kay
Next door to Barlito's is Casa Blanca. It's one of those bars that is not structurally sound, as they seem to need a brass pole to hold the ceiling up. This one is probably best enjoyed later at night.

A little further along, and back on the waterfront, is Chuuk Kay with a new and very large palapa right on the beach. The covered space would easily accommodate a large wedding group. Chuuk Kay also has my kind of beer, and good food. The Band With No Name – Javier and the guys – play fun danceable tunes on weekends.

Five-piece Cuban band with a guest singer
Right next door is Varadero, also known as El Cuba Ron. It's an excellent Cuban restaurant overlooking the passage where all the expensive boats pass by, headed into their docks, or stopping at Varadero for food and fun. They have live Cuban music on the weekends, both Sol and Corona products, and super fish dinners, but I'm just drinking this time. After leaving Varadero, out on the main road is Bronco's, with cold Sol and late night entertainment. I would need a special kitchen pass to go there – and I'm afraid to ask!

I've heard good things about the Casa de los Sueños happy hour, and the one at Maria's Kan Kin on the south-west side of the island, but darn, I'm impaired again and will have to continue this fact-finding mission another day …....

Hasta Luego
Lawrie, Maureen, Randy, Amy, Kevin, Ken, Colleen, Linda, Rich
Lawrie & Lynda

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