Buen Provecho

Admittedly, I am not much of a cook.  It is not that I cannot; I just do not enjoy it.  I consider myself to be a creative person- -everywhere but the kitchen.  Following a recipe stresses me out.  Slicing and dicing is not mindless or therapeutic.  I need exact measurements and do not understand the concept of a pinch of this or a dash of that.  Do I really need to put onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes in cute little prep bowls?  And the dishes!  Ugh!

But a cooking class combined with the history of Mexico?  I could not sign up fast enough.  Ruth and her husband, Rudy, have a passion for food and Mexico.  They made a mid-life career change and opened a bakery in San Carlos.   They added a classroom and offer cooking classes several times throughout year.  In addition,  Ruth and Rudy organize and lead tours throughout Sonora and other states in Mexico.  They also make the best chocolate eclairs I have ever eaten.

IMG_1899While they rest of my classmates oohed and aahed over the fresh ingredients and delicious smells, I was busy writing every single thing Ruth said about the origins of Mexican food and its changes over time, the influence of the Spanish in popular dishes, Aztec celebrations and how they evolved with the introduction of Catholicism, and incredibly interesting facts about the food itself in my “Taco ‘Bout Awesome” journal.  After just one class, cooking was something I believed I could get excited about after all.  Knowing the story behind the recipes even made eating more enjoyable.

When I returned home after each class, my husband wanted to know about the food.  While he sampled the leftovers I always brought with me, I bombarded him with all the incredible things I was learning.  Yes, I shamelessly took advantage of my hungry audience.  For example:

  • It was the Aztecs who introduced the turkey as we know it today to the Spanish.
  • The main meal of Montezuma, the ninth Aztec Emperor, included more than 300 dishes every day.
  • The dishes for each of these meals were only used once.
  • One of Montezuma’s favorite meals was shrimp.  A recipe we prepared (Shrimp in Guava sauce with Morita chile) was rescued from precolonial times.
  • Aztecs steamed or baked their food until the Spanish introduced them to oil.
  • Mole sauce originated in the town of Puebla during the 15th century.  It was served during a welcoming ceremony for the second viceroy from Spain.
  • Rice was introduced by the Spanish.
  • Chocolate was eaten exclusively by priests and the upper class prior to the Spanish arrival.
  • A true punch is made from at least five ingredients.
  • If chiles are pointing down on the plant, they are domesticated.

Going to the grocery store used to rank up there with cooking as one of my least favorite things to do.   Oh how I loved going after classes and searching for the items Ruth had used in her recipes.  It seemed exotic to be able to find corn husks, tomatillos, tamarind, jamaica petals (that is huh-my-ka, as in the orchid, not the island), guavas, piloncillos, and tejocotes.  I discovered the best place to buy tortillas and masa for tamales.  On weekends I drug Steve from one tianguis (open air market) to another searching for cazuelas (clay pots).IMG_4138

Finally, it was time for me to test my own skills in the kitchen.  I had avoided it long enough.  Ruth and Rudy had prepared me well.  I could do this.  I started with one of the easier recipes.  (I may have known where to buy masa, but I was no way near ready to attempt tamales on my own yet.)  I handled the chopping.  I didn’t need the little prep bowls.  I had exact measurements for each of the ingredients.  The Coastal Style rice was just as delicious as it had been when we made it in class.  While we ate, I told Steve again about the Spanish bringing rice and oil to the Aztecs.  I added that the Spanish liked to cook in copper pots.  I mentioned a little town three hours up the road that sold them.  He listened closely and nodded at all the appropriate moments.  And he even did the dishes!

Arroz al estilo Costeño

2 cups long grain white rice

1/4 onion

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil

1 1/2 cups chopped carrots

4 cups hot water

2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn

2 cups coarsely chopped cabbage

Soak the rice in warm water for 5 minutes to remove the starch, rinse well, and drain.  In a blender, puree the onion, garlic, and 1/2 cup water.  Set aside.  Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a large skillet, add the rice, and sauté, stirring lightly.  Once the grains separate and become translucent (about 5 minutes), pour off the excess oil.

Add the carrots and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the pureed onion and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the hot water and salt.  When the water comes to a boil, add the corn and cabbage.  Stir.  Cover the skillet and cook over a medium to low hear for 20-30 minutes (water is absorbed and rice is tender).

Serves 6

Lessons in Language

When my dad was transferred to Medellin, Colombia more than thirty years ago, his company sent him to Cincinnati, Ohio for two intensive weeks of Spanish instruction.  Today, his Spanish is almost better than his English!  The very first thing I asked my husband when he accepted his transfer to Guaymas/San Carlos was whether or not we would be offered Spanish lessons.  The answer, unfortunately, was no.

San Carlos, officially called San Carlos Nuevo Guaymas, is a part of the Guaymas Municipality.  The area as a whole has a population of close to 135,00 people.  San Carlos, developed primarily as a beachfront residential area, has a population of approximately 7,000.  For the most part, its residents are retirees and transplants from the United States and Canada.  As a result, the predominant language in San Carlos is English.  It is possible to conduct all business- -grocery shopping and other errands, dining, recreation and sight seeing- -without speaking a word of Spanish.  This includes my husband’s job as well.  Nearly all professionals in his company are bilingual.

While I arrived with a decent grasp of the Spanish language, I was determined to find a teacher and move from passable to proficient.  I assumed finding a Spanish tutor in a Spanish speaking country would be an easy task.  You know what they say about making assumptions…

My first tutors were students at the Secundaria School in the fishing village of La Manga, where I volunteered teaching English two days a week.  I am certain that I learned much more from them than they did from me.  They loved to hear me try to say “refrigerador” and “ferretería”.  I have since learned that even native Spanish speakers here use “refri” instead of refrigerador.  Oh, just wait until I see those kids again!

It took six months to find a Spanish teacher.  Shortly after we began working together, I had an experience while shopping in Guaymas that truly humbled me.  I asked a shop owner if the store next door to him was open.  I didn’t understand his reply and asked him to repeat it.  In perfect English, he asked me how long I had been living in Guaymas.  I answered him in Spanish.  He continued angrily in English, reminding me that in the United States we are not always very gracious toward people who do not speak our language.  I knew in my heart he was right.  I have read too many Letters to the Editor, op-ed pieces, and comments on social media.  I have listened to too many “talking heads”, acquaintances, and even family members that give credence to his sentiments and remarks.  He was understandably upset.  I happened to represent an unkind attitude that he may have encountered.  Instead of defending myself or making excuses, I told him that I was trying to learn and even had a teacher.  His advice to me was to try harder and get a better teacher.

IMG_4137So I redoubled my efforts.   I meet twice a week with my tutor; once for vocabulary and grammar practice, and a second time for Spanish conversation.  I complete practice exercises in  workbooks and search for lessons on-line.  I initiate exchanges with people on the beach, follow the gardeners from the hotel next door all over the place, and chat up the guards at our front gate.  I am pretty sure I drive them all crazy!  But they are patient, kind, and encouraging. In fact, one of our guards recently tried to fire my tutor, convinced that teaching me Spanish is his job!

The support of so many has made a huge difference in my learning.  I find myself more willing to take risks.  Even if I totally botch it, my mistakes are an opportunity for growth.  I am more appreciative of efforts made by others to speak English to me as well.  We all have the power to be teachers.  Be aware of this potential.  Are the lessons we share compassionate?  Uplifting?  Helpful?  Applaud the effort and celebrate progress, not perfection.

Oh, and if you happen to find yourself in a conversation with a shopkeeper in Guaymas, never use “repita” or “mas despacio” if you do not understand.  In Sonora, Mexico, “mande” gives you a lot more street cred!

Little Kiss Kiss

I am not really a creepy crawler person.  I do not have anything personal against bugs, spiders, or snakes.  I simply prefer my multi-legged friends to be soft and cuddly.  So I was pretty curious about what critters I may encounter here in San Carlos.  And I mean, encounter in my house.  I have friends who have shared multiple stories of getting ready to jump in the shower only to discover a scorpion had gotten there first.  On one hand, seeing a real live scorpion sounded somewhat exciting.  On the other, not so much.

So far my run-ins have been pretty boring.  After Hurricane Newton last September, two tarantulas showed up.  They were dead- – -so not a lot of fear factor there. Strictly for the sake of science (and a really cool picture for Facebook), I got close enough to examine and measure them.  There are several reasons I am not a scientist.  Eight hairy legs is one.

Cockroaches are pretty regular visitors.  They do not announce themselves.  Typically, I open a closet door and see of flash of brownish-orange scurry away.  Initially, I did not take much comfort in the old “they are more afraid of you than you are of them” line.  The cockroaches are a lot bigger than the ones I used to see.  Their antennas move constantly, reminding me of an evil villain rubbing his hands together in demonic glee.  Over time I adjusted.  Anticipating a cockroach allows me to master the surprise of actually finding one.  I have also discovered that cockroaches flop onto their backs a lot.  Lacking the abdominal strength to turn themselves over, they are a pretty helpless bunch.  Their bellies are much cuter than their backs.

IMG_4125Ants, mosquitos, flies, moths.  Nothing exciting to see here, right?  Except those bugs lure one of the sweetest guests imaginable into the house.  The common gecko is the smallest member of the lizard family.  Called cuizas (kwee-zsahs) in Mexico, these little guys jump like Olympic athletes from one side of the stairwell to the other. They scamper along the walls and ceiling.   They are incredibly quick and impossible to catch.  And they are absolutely adorable!  They range from an inch to three inches long and have very light colored bodies.  I may purposefully leave a screen door or two open to let bugs inside.  This way I am guaranteed a visit from a cuiza!

The very best part of the common gecko is its chirping noise.  For the longest time, my husband and I thought there was some kind of nocturnal bird living close to us.  Finally, we learned the noise we were hearing was, in fact, the gecko.  Friends told us this little fellow is also called a “kiss kiss” because the chirp is very similar to the smoochy noise made when calling a dog.  For such a tiny fellow, the gecko has a huge set of pipes!

If I hadn’t already been in love, the name “kiss kiss” would have put me over the top for sure.  Kiss kiss was the name my maternal grandpa called me.  I don’t find very many pennies from heaven here in Mexico.  But I do hear a lot of “kiss kisses”.  And every time I do, I feel my grandpa close by.  This makes tarantulas and cockroaches, and even the prospect of a scorpion, all the more bearable.

Reaching New Heights

Cerro Tetakawi is the preeminent peak in San Carlos.  Easily visible from Carretera 15, and nearly everywhere else once in San Carlos, it dominates the coastline near Bahía San Carlos.  Its most noticeable feature is the sharp, finger, or horn-like point, extending upward from the top.  Indigenous Yaqui, Seri, and Guaima Indians, who depended on the Sea of Cortez for their livelihood, often  sought shelter on the shore near the mountain.  It held a sacred meaning to them.  The power of this mountain is certainly felt when standing in its shadow.

Both the Yaqui and Seri people named the great hill.  Various translations of its original name have been shared with me.  The Yaqui named the mountain, Tákale, which means fangs of the snake.  A Seri translation for the same peak is “Dragon’s Tongue”.  It seems at one point, there may have been two sharp extensions near the top, which resembled the mouth of a fierce beast.  I was told one of the “fangs” broke loose during an earthquake.  According to my source, it was the Spanish who misinterpreted the name, calling it Tetakawi, or Teats of the Goat.  The name change does not diminish its dominance or energy.

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Why climb a mountain?  The most common response is “because it is there”.  Visitors to San Carlos agree, as Tetakawi is second on Trip Advisors “Things to Do” list while vacationing here.   There are two routes up; one on the desert side, and another on the coast.  Tetakawi rises 200 meters above the sea and offers stunning 360 degree views from the top.

And because it was there, I too wanted to climb.  My first attempt was from the desert side.  The Spanish word “cerro” translates to “hill” in English.  I wondered what kind of climbing superstar named this beast… While not an experienced mountaineer by any stretch of the imagination, even I knew this was no hill!  The route became steeper as I climbed, er, scrambled, slipped, and struggled my way upward.  Loose rock made the going much slower than I had anticipated.  I stopped often to catch my breath.  I crawled on hands and knees at points.  Between my dog and me, the water I brought disappeared more quickly than anticipated.  The views at the halfway point were breathtaking, and I decided they would have to be enough that day.

I tried and tried again.  I climbed the coastal side for each of these attempts, and my results were the same.  I followed spray painted arrows along the trail, which made navigation a bit  easier.  The views were even more incredible.  After being severely scolded by my son for taking his dog on the first climb, I left Honeycomb at home.  Not holding onto a leash left my hands free for grabbing anything that would slow me down when I slid backwards on the dusty, rock strewn path.  (Hiking gloves are definitely on my Christmas list.)  I maneuvered over boulders in the middle of the trail two-handed this time.  I did not have to worry about the well-being of the dog, nor could I use my concern for him as an excuse to head to lower ground.

I surprised myself by my willingness to let go of “the top”.  Even more surprising was the fact I refused to give myself a hard time for turning back.  Well, okay, maybe just a little.  People passed me carrying coolers and bags of snacks for pete’s sake!  But this is my journey, not theirs.  Arthur Ashe’s words, “the doing is often more important than the outcome”, ring true for me today.  I will climb again.  I will move closer to the top.  I will celebrate each and every step.  That is the spirit of this mountain, Tákale.

UNmanaging My Time

“Time anxiety” described my symptoms perfectly.  (Read more here.)  I became easily overwhelmed by the day in front of me and what I needed to accomplish.  My life became a series of “have to’s”:  lesson planning, grading, housecleaning, dog walking, bill paying, appointment making. I found it difficult to relax, worried that I would not have time to complete some task.  I feared wasting my time.  As a result, engaging in positive, nurturing activities took a backseat to everything else.  I didn’t give myself time to go to a movie, a park, out to eat, or shop for a new outfit.  I did not find those pastimes productive, nor did it seem I could squeeze them in among the have to’s.  To suggest that I was not healthy was an understatement.

I packed this obsession in a suitcase and brought it with me when my family moved to Mexico.  My husband signed a two year work contract.  I was not granted a work visa; therefore, my days stretched out in front of me.  I made a list.  I wrote down what I wanted to see, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, and foods I wanted to try.   I told myself moving to Mexico was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I did not want a second to slip by unspent.  And then I found myself discouraged and frustrated when I wasn’t crossing items off quickly enough.

So I tossed my list in the trash and started walking on the beach.

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I stopped wearing a watch.  I did not plan on setting any speed walking records.  I would not be submitting my time to an official.  And besides, some days I jumped in the waves while walking; my watch wasn’t waterproof.  I meandered, pausing to look behind me, and marvel at my footprints in the sand.  I searched for shells and other surprises left for me by nature.  I watched dolphins swim and dive playfully in the water.  A sea lion surprised me one morning.  I studied the shades of blue between the sea and sky.  I wanted to name them all- – -I could not.  I took detours, crossing rocky bridges when the the tide receded.  I climbed sandy hills and gave myself permission to sit down at the top and just be.  Each day I walked further.  I paid attention to how the sand felt on the bottom of my feet, noting differences.  My eyes scanned the distance, tracing the path of each mountain as it made its way to the sea.  I learned to say thank you.

My breathing is slower.  My appreciation for the world around me is deeper.  I express joy more often. I have learned to use all of my senses.  I look for and appreciate the possibility of each moment.   Giving myself time each day has made me more productive, not less.  The beach has been a wonderful teacher.  My body is stronger, but more importantly, so are my mind and my soul.

Diving In

Hi, my name is Amy.  I have a pathological fear of oceans.  Maybe it is just an overthinking problem.  As soon as I am up to my waist in water, “What about sharks though?” begins playing on a loop in my head.  Actually, sharks and those really creepy, glow in the dark creatures that live at the very bottom.  Oh, Sea of Cortez, you aren’t fooling me calling yourself a sea.  I know your water comes straight from the Pacific OCEAN!

So it seemed the best way to acquaint myself with my new neighbor was to first explore it from above.  My son, Caleb, and I signed up for a guided kayaking trip in and around one of the most popular coves in San Carlos.  From the shore I counted at least nine of the most beautiful shades of blue I had ever seen; colors that inspired feelings of peacefulness and serenity.  My flopping into the kayak disturbed that calm momentarily, but once settled I noticed how warm the water felt.  There was none of that goosebump inducing stuff happening here.  As Caleb and I paddled out a bit, we looked straight down and realized we could see all the way to the bottom.  I thought, “This is definitely the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

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We had just maneuvered our way through a craggy arch.  My heartbeat increased.  My eyes teared  How freaking cool!  I inhaled deeply… “Mom, pay attention.  Quit paddling.  You’re getting water in the boat!” Caleb brought be back from my “moment” to the reality of the situation.  Yep, our kayak was filling with water.   “Hey, I did not fling water into…”  I never finished my sentence.  Our kayak  turned, and a wave smacked us hard on the side.  In a state of shock and disbelief, I flew out of the boat and landed in the Sea of Cortez.  Which, by the way, now looked more like something from the movie, Perfect Storm.

It was at this point Caleb and I realized that a “guided tour” in Mexico might just be a little bit different than the guided tours we were used to taking.  The tour, you see, continued while Caleb and I dealt with our little problem.  Okay, while Caleb dealt with it.  Because I couldn’t see through that blue water to the bottom any more.  I expected my imagination to hit the “play” button any moment…

All of the sudden it occurred to me that I had our car keys in my pocket.  Protecting them became my mission.  I pulled them triumphantly from my pocket and held them high above my head.  This meant Caleb single-handedly dragged both the kayak and me to another rock outcropping.  He hoisted the kayak onto the rock, opened the plug on the bottom, and drained the water.  We somehow managed to climb back in and rejoin the tour.

Our little kayak limped back to shore.  We parked, thanked the guide, and  staggered, completely spent, across the beach to our car.  I puked salt water along the way.  Caleb’s foot bled where it had been crushed between the kayak and our temporary island.  “Amazing!  Wow!  I can’t believe it!  I didn’t think of sharks one time!” I exclaimed as we climbed in to the car.  Caleb rolled his eyes and shook his head.  Hey, I’ll take my little victories.  One day at a time.

“Just Deserts”

IMG_2604Confession time.  I did not connect the name of the state, Sonora, with the desert of the same name.  What can I say?  I am more of a Pacific Northwest landscape kind of girl and didn’t spend a lot of time thinking of others.  Prior to our move, everything I knew about the desert, I could count on one hand.  When I heard the word, I conjured images of Georgia O’ Keefe’s colorful, almost succulent paintings and the smooth, soft lines of Ansel Adams’ photographs.

We arrived in San Carlos in the middle of June.  It was very, well, brown.  The desert between Hermosillo and San Carlos appears harsh.  Jagged mountain peaks rise  brazenly from nearly barren land. Hints of green appear every now and then as the landscape is dotted with brush and trees that seem to struggle in the heat.  There is nothing to mute the brilliance of the sun in the endless, blue sky above.  My eyes hurt looking at it all.  Where were the six different shades of Georgia’s orange?  And Ansel’s perfectly manicured sand; you know, the fluffy stuff?

I asked because all I was seeing was, well, brown.  Succulent?  Soft?  Try knife-like.   I was also pretty sure that was not sand in this desert, but dust. This was later confirmed when I stepped out of the car on our first gas stop, and a strong wind blew it in my face.  (Side note:  Wind chill is measured and reported in the desert.  Summertime wind chills are regularly between 117-121 degrees Fahrenheit!)

On various excursions we examined our new environment more closely.  One misstep on a climb up an ancient volcano, led to a piece of rock  piercing my son’s hiking boot and cutting his foot.  I made the mistake of not wearing long pants on a horseback ride.  (With wind chills of 121 degrees, are you kidding me?)  My legs rubbed against the brush and trees and came away bloodied.  Don’t ever grab a cactus if you slip on a mountain.  After a morning trimming our bougainvillea, my arms matched my legs perfectly.  How does one even hold a palm frond to fan a person?  Those are barbed too.   Every single thing in this desert is tined, thorny, or prickly!

Summer is our rainy season.   In a blink of an eye, it all changes.  There is an explosion of green on the mountains and on the ground.  If one looks closely, bursts of purple, yellow, white, and orange appear.  Water holes fill, beckoning the abundant wildlife to come closer for a drink.  It has taken time, but my notion of a desert is changing.  (Nothing personal, Georgia or Ansel.)  I am slowly recognizing and appreciating the beauty this desert hides behind its spikes, and spines, and sharp edges.  It is an artist in its own right, protecting its creation.