Archive for October 2010

Hill Country Oaxaca

October 5, 2010

We docked in Huatulco, a town that’s been emptied of its natural inhabitants to make way for a cruise terminal.  The people who lived there were relocated by the government to a hill town called Santa Maria Huatulco, so that’s where we headed.

When we arrived a kids’ bike race was just about to start.
and the streets were lined with spectators
market vendors
and grocery shoppers.
It’s a prosperous-looking town with tidy houses,
inviting shops,
and a lovely City Hall
with a shady courtyard
and a muraled staircase.
The pretty church also displayed a nice sense of humor
with donkeys indoors
and with this sign that reads approximately “My sons and daughters, to talk with me you don’t need a cellphone.  Please turn it off.  Signed, God.”
Actually, this might have been more serious than it would appear, since everywhere we saw kids texting and talking on their phones, just like kids everywhere.
But all is not modern in Santa Maria Huatulco
as these ladies washing clothes in the Huatulco River demonstrate.
Driving much higher into the hills, we came to a tiny town called Pluma Hidalgo.  The recent torrential rains in the region had washed out substantial chunks of the road, leaving it only wide enough for one car in some places.
The difference in prosperity was immediately evident, as these typical houses show.
Pluma Hidalgo has no large stores, only street vendors, but we were there to buy only one thing: coffee.
Here, in this tiny shop
was roasted and served
the very best coffee I have ever tasted, a coffee so sweet that it was hard to believe that it contained no sugar.  Although our suitcases were already filled to capacity, we managed to find room for a kilo of their extraordinary beans, inched our way carefully back down the steep and sagging roads, and headed for Costa Rica.
By the way, please excuse any and all eccentricities in font and spacing.  I’m posting from the ship, and every time the seas get rough at all our relationship with the satelltet gets complicated, and blogging weirdness ensues.

Edible Acapulco

October 3, 2010
Leaving behind the peace and poverty of the countryside, we headed into modern-day Acapulco, a hive of activity and soaring condo buildings, planning to have a leisurely visit to the city’s largest marketplace followed by a drive through the old part of town.
But no. As soon as we approached the center of town we were caught in a colossal traffic jam,
actually the worst one I have ever seen.  If we moved more than a mile in one hour I’d be astounded. It did, however, give us more than ample time to observe many of Acapulco’s over 4000 VW Beetle taxis,
as well as what was to me the sorry sight of myriad American standards like McDonalds, Walmart, and Costco. So much for Mexican independence.
Finally we arrived at the market
where we were the only gringos in sight.  In fact, there didn’t seem to be any customers either, which I attribute to the fact that we were there at an odd mid-afternoon hour. It’s a vast foodie playground
with all sorts of prepared foods for a complete meal if you wish,
although they are sitting out unrefrigerated, for the strong of stomach.
On the fresh food side, there was everything you could ask for, including melons, papayas,
fresh chickens,
fish, including huachinango, or red snapper, which seems to be the most popular local fish,
and fresh meats, here displayed next to our guide Manolo.  As you see, none of the poultry or meat is refrigerated either.
There were household sundries,
staples like chiles, beans, and posole,
buckets of different types of prepared mole, which I was dying to try to smuggle home,
as well as chiles and piloncillo for those planning to make their own mole at home.
We saw huge and fragrant bundles of dried herbs for tea,
and there was a section of lovely fresh flowers
in fancy and festive arrangements.
There was even a small area with supplies for the Day of the Dead, a day to honor your ancestors.
All in all it was a delightful step back in time, even though time ran out for us to see the old part of the city,
and all too soon we were sailing away from Acapulco and on our way to Huatulco.  This business of having only one day in a place is frustrating and tantalizing, but definitely better than not seeing it at all. After spending such a long time in one town in France that we were on a first name basis with the butcher and the baker, it’s quite a shock to just mill around briefly like a
typical tourist, but that too is an experience, and we’re having it.

Talking Tortoise

October 2, 2010

We spent only one day in Acapulco, but it seemed like two.  One day was all about the countryside and the sea tortoises, the other was about the new Acapulco and its ancient marketplace. Taking it nice and slow, as befits a story about tortoises,  let’s start by spending some time in the country.

With Manolo, a private guide, we drove far out into the countryside to visit a national sea tortoise refuge center.  Here, the beaches are patrolled, so that the tortoise eggs can be gathered almost as soon as they are laid.  They are brought to this sandy field, where they’re buried for most of the 45 days it takes them to incubate, each clutch of eggs being marked with its expected hatching date.  When they’re about to hatch they’re moved to a small enclosed pen, where the babies are safe from predators.

Groups of tourists, school children, and anyone interested in the preservation of the tortoises come to the refuge and pay a small sum for the privelege of holding the the baby tortoises gently and setting them free in the open ocean.

These are our own personal tortoises, ready to swim away from us as soon as we’d met.  We walked them to the surf line and watched the waves take them.  Only one tortoise in a hundred released at the refuge will survive to be 5 years old.  If they make it that long, they can live to be 130 years old.  I’ll be wondering about our tortoises for the rest of my life, and although the odds against them are so enormous I can’t help but hope.

The refuge is surrounded by coconut palms

and the building itself is thatched with coconut palapa, as are most of the structures in the area.

The visitors are protected by the omnipresent Mexican security forces, armed with AK-47s “not because it’s dangerous but just in case” Manolo told us. I’ve seen more machine guns than I can count in the past few days.

Leaving the tortoises to the mercies of the ocean, we headed even deeper into the countryside,just to see how people live in the rural part of the state of Guererro.  Snapping pictures as we drove past, we saw little shops,

a rural pharmacy,

and a collection of homes.  I’m ashamed to admit that I asked if this was a picnic area.  Some of the houses are so rudimentary that I couldn’t even recognize them as habitation. I kept looking for a school, but Manolo told us that there’s no compulsory education in Mexico.  Thinking about that, and about these houses, really made us wonder how Mexico can pull itself into the modern world.

We managed to convince Manolo to take us to a real Mexican restaurant for lunch, not one for gringos.  In this pretty open air spot,

surrounded by flowers and right on an estuary, you first choose your fish from a tub of fish in ice, and then they clean and grill it over wood for you.  Half of it was slathered in a garlic sauce, the other half in adobo.  It was some of the best fish we’ve ever eated, served with hand-pressed tortillas, sopes, frijoles, guacamole, and a couple of delicious salsas.  Manolo told us that he’d eaten there right after he met his wife, but had never been able to afford to go there again.  It’s a restaurant for rich Mexicans, tourists from Mexico City.  The people who live in those palapa-topped sheds right across the river could never eat there, since the bill for the three of us came to $60 with a tip. They had talked us into choosing a fish that was too big for the three of us, but I was glad that Manolo was able to take the leftovers home to his four kids, who are not likely to be eating there anytime soon.

While we ate we watched this man mending a net

and this egret doing some fishing of his own. Then we set out to see modern-day Acapulco, but I’ll let you digest all this for a bit before we go there.

Los Cabos On Our Own

October 1, 2010

photo credit Shel Hall

In reading about Cabo San Lucas before we set sail, I’d had the very strong impression that it was a tacky tourist resort, and that we’d be much better off visiting the neighboring town of San Jose del Cabo.”Hurray, adventure,” we thought, “no ship’s tours for us, let’s take the bus to San Jose.”

In the event our day exemplified the optimism of under-informed travelers. The bus, as it turned out, didn’t come anywhere near the cruise pier.  No problemo, we found a bicycle cab to take us to the bus stop. The bus itself traveled the 22 miles between the two towns seemingly for the benefit and comfort of resort workers, who got on and off at the long series of fancy resorts strung out along the beautiful coastline, and who, judging by the narrow pitch of the bus seats, are not allowed to be taller than 5’5″.  And there was one other little problem: we had no idea where to get off the bus. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have more than a few words of Spanish between us, so we had to rely a lot on the help of our kind fellow travelers, who through signs, gestures, and their own few words of English, told us where to alight and thenin which direction to walk a dozen blocks or so.  I was in search of a particular restaurant, whose address I’d seen given as the centro historico, the historic center.  Until I saw the place, I couldn’t tell why everyone I asked looked so puzzled, surely my accent wasn’t that terrible?  But really, it was just a plaza, the center of town, even if not particularly historic.  And although it was possibly less touristical than Cabo itself, the margin was not great.

Shel and I spent $28 on a bowl of fish soup and a plate of chiles rellenos, which, while very good, seemed shockingly expensive considering where we were. 

The restaurant, however, was very pretty and very well air-conditioned, which was all we cared about, dripping and flushed red as lobsters as we were after our long walk on another 100° day.

And so we ate, we shopped for a really beautiful guayabera for Shel, and we contemplated our terrible fate, having to walk back up that long, long hill to the bus stop. 

Seeing a tour bus guide, we begged to be allowed to hitch a ride back to the pier, paying her for the pleasure, naturally.  She said “Sure, no problem, since you want to tip me, just get on the big blue bus in half an hour.” And so after admiring the town center for a little while, we got on the big blue bus and drove off. But wait, where was the tour guide? Criminy, we were on the wrong bus! As it happened, the bus was going to the pier,

photo credit Shel Hall

where the marlin fisherman were flaunting their catch, and until the moment when we got off and the guide noticed that we were stowaways all went smoothly. 

 We slunk off with her muttering in the background, and hurried past some bathing pelicans to the protection of the ever-present security forces that you see everywhere around the pier.

Once safely back on the ship we immediately fled in search of ice cream and cold drinks,and sat watching the parasailers, grateful to have gotten into no more trouble than we could handle.

Today the captain told us that here, 20 miles out to sea, the air temperature is 89°and the water temperature is 82°, which explains why we’re mainly staying indoors. And, in our own enlightened self interest,we’ve arranged with a crew member to give us Spanish lessons, starting immediately. Hasta luego!