Sunday, July 29, 2012

Visit Los Alamos

When people think of visiting New Mexico, the cities of Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque quickly come to mind, usually in that order. But the most historically significant place in New Mexico is a little known town that permanently changed the world.

Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. For years it was a closed city; a large military installation cloaked in secrecy. The major employer is still the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Groundbreaking physics continues, but so does cutting edge research in biology, astrophysics, and genetics. It's no longer all about bombs, but there are still plenty of secrets.

Outside of Los Alamos, people may try to discourage you from visiting by telling you the water is radioactive or the people are crazed warmongers. The secret is – that’s not true.

The Pajarito Plateau
The city sits on five finger-mesas of the Pajarito Plateau, formed during the last eruption of the Jemez Volcano, 1.1 million years ago. To the east is the lush valley of the Rio Grande River. Surrounding the city is national forest land, Bandelier National Monument, and tribal lands belonging to San Ildefonso Pueblo. Thanks to the high altitude, summers are pleasant with cooling afternoon thunderstorms, and the area is populated with ponderosa forests full of wild flowers and boletus mushrooms. Consequently, Los Alamos is the mountain biking capital of New Mexico, with hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails, many of which become cross-country ski trails in the winter.

Ashley Pond and Fuller Lodge

Most of us like to travel to learn about the world. If you have an interest in science and history, then Los Alamos should definitely be in your travel plans. The interesting sites are centrally located so seeing the little city on foot is fun and easy. Spring-fed Ashley Pond is the center of town. The original laboratory was located around the pond but it has transformed into a lovely park with commemorative plaques. The Laboratory is now located on the other side of a deep canyon.

The Bradbury Science Museum is filled with facts on the development of the atomic bomb, and the subsequent impact on human history. The library, designed by famed architect Anton Predock, is excellent and a cool stop on a hot summer day. A local non-profit, the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) provides hands-on programs for adults and children year round. Pick up a walking tour map of the city at the Historical Museum and stroll through history. The museum is next to famous Fuller Lodge, home of the original boy’s school, taken over by Dr. Oppenheimer when he conceived of a secret location to develop the bomb.

Beautiful scenery nearby,
this is the Capilla de la
Familia Sagrada at the base of
Black Mesa.
The bright yellow bus zipping around town is a tour of the city and the labs. Georgia Strickfadden is an excellent guide with an encyclopedic mind for history. Tickets can be purchased at the Otowi Bookstore next to the Bradbury Museum. Bandelier National Monument, an interesting pre-historic town occupied by Pueblo people was abandoned 800 years ago. It is accessible only by taking free buses leaving nearby White Rock at regular intervals. In Los Alamos, a car isn’t essential. On weekdays, buses run frequently around town including White Rock, and they’re free.

The best value for the night is the North Road B&B. For the price of a regular hotel room, you’ll get a suite with a kitchen, plus a cooked breakfast. The restaurant scene contains a number of international cuisines as well as local fare; buffalo burgers, New Mexican enchiladas with red or green chile (say “Christmas” if you want both), sopaipillas, and chiles rellenos. And for music all summer long, the local businesses sponsor the Gordon Concerts on Friday evenings, a giant free street-party with excellent bands (like the Red Elvises) from around the country.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Onions and Garlic, Cooking on the Road

When I started traveling in earnest, I wanted to cook on the road to save money, and eat the way I should eat, without any grains. Now few people in the world can imagine a food-life without grains, I'm no exception. It's doubly hard on the road as nearly every bite of street food has either corn or wheat in some form of bread making it easier to eat. Tacos, hotdogs, cuernitas (pastry horns with pudding), cookies, snacks of every kind.....are all off the list.

So out of necessity I've discovered a few things about long term travel and cooking.

1. Tools: There are no good knives on the road. Doesn't matter if you stay in a hostel, with friends, or rent a vacation home, the knifes suck. I can't believe the number of people who think a steak knife is fine for cutting. One wrong move and a serrated knife, slipping off a carrot, will cut your fingertip off. The solution? Bring a sharp paring knife by a good manufacturer like Henkle, and a small hand held knife sharpener. A simple cover made out of cereal box cardboard and tape will suffice to keep the knife safe.

2. Preparation: Most cutting boards in the real world are wooden, chopped up, and probably crawling with the worst kinds of rotting meat germs. I carry a small plastic one that's thick enough not to slide around, and a thin super absorbent towel that dries quickly and is perfect for all kinds of cleanup. Small bottles of biodegradable camp soap and disinfectant for produce are good to have on hand.

3. Spices are abundant in every country, but it's tough to buy 1/4 ounce unless you can find a spice shop. Most come in largish packets and by the time you've accumulated nine or ten spices, you're out of space to carry it all. REI and other outdoor stores sell a backpacking kitchen, with salt and pepper shakers, and tiny containers for spices that zip up nicely in a little bag. Load up before you leave home with your favorites. Mine are cumin, garlic powder, basil, oregano, cardamom, cinnamon, and hing (an Indian spice made from the sap of a tree, super powerful and excellent with eggs and potatoes). I also carry cubes of different boullions. Knorr makes chipotle, herb, vegetarian, and tomato in addition to the standard beef and chicken.

4. Meals: Lots of people like to eat breakfast out. In some countries like Mexico, breakfast is eaten around 10:00 which is too late for me. Plus in many cultures breakfast is mainly breads and pastries.  When I set up a kitchen in a new place I buy garlic, onions, potatoes, cheese, and whatever other vegetables and fruits look good in the market. Almost everywhere you can buy a roasted chicken. So I usually get one of those, and a couple cans of garbanzo beans or refried beans. Then I'm set for a few days. I save the skin and bones from the chicken to boil with carrots, onions and potatoes for soup, which is also quite good for a quick breakfast.

5. Other stuff: It seems like most places I've stayed have plastic zip lock bags and maybe plastic wrap. I usually purchase a few storage containers for leftovers, as I almost always travel by myself. I also don't mind purchasing a spatula, slotted spoon, tongs, and other utensils if I'm going to be staying in a place for a month or more. For a six month stay in Mexico, I even bought a blender.  I've left some fairly well stocked kitchens in my wake.

6. The fun stuff: Cooking school!! In places famous for their cuisines, like Oaxaca, Mexico, there are cooking schools, culinary shops, and even people serving incredible street food who are happy to talk to you about their creations. In San Cristobal, I became friends with a woman who owned a small restaurant. She showed me how to make Mole Verde. I can make it at home some day, after I find the seeds and grow the secret ingredient, an herb called Epazote.

Long term, and round the world travel means keeping possessions at a minimum. Many people like to try every restaurant, but after a while, a nice home cooked meal is more satisfying. For fans of weird flavors of ice cream, like me, eating at home means saving calories so there's room for the cool stuff.

Peppers in the market.....
these turned out exceptionally

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New Mexico Fire Lessons

Dorothy Hoard
In Los Alamos, New Mexico, there is an organization - The Pajarito Environmental Education Center, known widely as PEEC. It was started in earnest after the horrendous Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 which burned more than 400 homes and put 1400 people in search of a new place to live. At that time, the fire was the largest in New Mexico history, but just last summer in 2011, another fire blew up in the Jemez mountains and swept towards Los Alamos at a fast pace, causing the town to be evacuated. Fortunately, much was learned after the 2000 fire. Back fires were set along major roads which were only possible because of an evening shift in the wind direction. Those back fires prevented the big fire from entering the town. New growth during the intervening eleven years went up in flames. That fire was the largest in New Mexico history, burning approximately twice as much land as the Cerro Grande.

This summer, 2012, a fire started in the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico and it is the largest in history, burning about four times the land area of the Cerro Grande.

This past Saturday, I went on a PEEC sponsored hike to see American Springs with naturalist Dorothy Hoard, author and guide extraordinaire. Along the way we could see trees that survived the Cerro Grande standing alone among the grasses. Below them were aspens that had regrown and were about eight feet tall. Last summer they burned again. Now tiny little aspens are a foot tall, growing from the ancient roots of their family, and fed by seeps like American Spring.

Dorothy reflected in the waters of American Spring

The actual spring has a concrete containment built around it, to hold the water in for a while before it seeps on down the hill. The containment was built sometime in the 1930's when a logging company needed water for its operations. Now there is about six inches of water and while it's not accessible to most animals, the larger grazers can put their heads through the hole for a drink. Other small seep puddles are open for the racoons, skunks, and squirrels.

Dorothy knows almost every plant; which are indigenous and which are invasive. She knows the geology of the entire region, and is an encyclopedia of information.

PEEC runs walks, tours, summer camps, and classes for adults and children all year round. Recently the county council agreed to spend four million on a new building to house the program. Up till now, PEEC has been run with donations of money and time, and was housed in an old elementary school building. Having a new expanded facility, which will include a planetarium, will allow PEEC to offer many more adventures in the quest for knowledge.

PEEC's website is here:

And of course, continued donations are gladly accepted, volunteers are welcomed.

Some dead trees from Cerro Grande (the sticks) and
some from last years fire (with branches still).

New growth around
last years burned dead aspens.

Portions of forest that survived two devastating fires.

A few Ponderosas that escaped
both fires, and are now "Mother"
trees for the forest.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

San Cristobal: La Casa de las Flores

It's not unusual to come across mission sponsored schools and community programs in Mexico, but in my experience, it's unusual to find a local non-profit that is successful and addressing local needs. One such program that impressed me on my first trip (in 2011) to San Cristobal was the ReadingTrain. But as often happens, the program got usurped by greed. On my return trip, the Reading Train program consisted of two tour guide "trains" (tour buses in the shape of a locomotive) making oodles of money for the owners. The non-profit that was supposed to benefit from all that money had been reduced to a single canopy tent with a couple of chairs and maybe twenty children's books. There were no volunteers helping the children read, no small peddle 'trains' as a reward for the kids when they finished a book, and no children! It was such a sad degradation to watch. The year before, the kids were excited and had a great time riding on the little peddle cars. Now there's nothing but a fraudulent shell so the tour guides don't lose their government grants.


On the other side of the spectrum is Casa del las Flores. The brainchild of a local woman named Claudia, this non-profit gets funding for rent and her salary from a lawyer in Mexico City. Funding for one teacher's salary comes from Amigos de San Cristobal, a local coalition of foreigners and locals who raise money for worthy projects and non-profits.

Casa de las Flores is a day-home, five days a week, for children who live on the streets selling woven bracelets, stuffed toys, chewing gum, and shoe shines. Most of these indigenous kids have parents struggling to feed a large family, but some are orphans, and some are being raised by an older sibling. The children begin working at a very young age, some no older than four years old. Many of them are cute and win the hearts of foreign tourists. They may sell more than their mothers, who spend the bulk of their lives wandering the streets with textiles draped over their arms. For years at a stretch, the mothers also carry one infant after another in a reboso.

Learning to write and spell.
I first heard about Casa del las Flores from my friend Laurie, who has been coming to San Cristobal for a month or more every year. This year she and her partner Tom stayed for two and a half months. She volunteers at the center, teaching kids reading and English. Most of the children are also learning Spanish, as Tsotsil is their mother tongue. Very few, if any, have gone through the doors of a public school. Their lives revolve around their families, church, and selling on the street. For the kids, Casa del las Flores is a world of possibility, where they can learn, have genuine playtime, and practice real world skills in a safe environment.

Claudia told me, in an interview, that she originally envisioned a homelike atmosphere where there would be stable parents, rules, chores, good nutritious meals, and expectations. She is the constant "mom". For the first two years she ran the home almost single handedly, but then suffered from a medical crisis. She asked her friends for help, the word went out, and now she has more volunteers than she can use. Some of the volunteers are men who gladly fill the role of dad. About half the volunteers are foreigners who serve for short periods of time while others live year round in San Cristobal. The other half are local Mexicans. Claudia's role has changed thanks to all the volunteers and extra help. The vision for the center has enlarged to include training in sales, computer skills, and business.
Watering the plants in the rooftop organic garden

Recently, the front part of the home, with large doors that open to the street, has been turned into a store. On one side used clothing, toys, and household items are sold, on the other side they sell fruits and vegetables. The children came up with the idea of the store. They buy produce from a mayoreo (wholesale grocer) and sell organic vegetables they grow on the roof. The kids work in teams. The team running the store each week gets a salary which is probably better than they would make selling trinkets on the street. They learn math and business skills, and how to interact successfully with customers. Other children cut up produce for packaged fruit salads (topped with chile) that are popular all over Mexico.

Collapsed bathroom
Casa del las Flores offers showers two days a week. The center is housed in an older home with a small kitchen and one bathroom. The other rooms of the house serve as a library, computer center, classrooms, and a large play room filled with toys. There are two decrepit bathrooms in the far back of the property. The roof on one has caved in and the other has no door or running water. Claudia estimated about $10,000 pesos could bring both up to working order, but the need for money to buy food is more pressing. The school serves lunch for up to thirty children every day. They can plan the food quantities on a daily basis. It's easy to get a head count, the kids must do one hour of class and a chore before they can eat lunch. Keeping enough food in stock for the demand is a bigger challenge. Most of the food supplies are donated by local people and businesses but still, a lot has to be purchased. Feeding the kids is Claudia's biggest worry.

The school is home to two cats who serve a unique purpose. Most indigenous people have no use for an animal that does not provide food, wool, or work. Dogs and cats are often treated very badly. The children have no experience with a pet. They have no idea how to treat an animal with affection, or get animal affection in return. Most of the children have never been cuddled and have no idea how to pet an animal. Learning to love and take care of another living being is great training for getting along well in life, and it dovetails into Claudia's secret purpose for Casa de las Flores: to change Mexican culture.

There are flexible rules for the children about working, studying, and doing chores before they can eat lunch, but there are only two house rules: No drugs, and all must show respect for women and girls.
Everyone has some chores

The kids are allowed to come in off the streets if they are high (inhaling solvents is a big problem) but they are not allowed to bring drugs inside. If they do, they are permanently banned. They must also show respect for women and girls and that's a much tougher rule to enforce because it goes against the grain of so much Mexican culture. The kids have to be taught what respect is, what words and actions are not allowed. The girls must be taught to respect themselves, to stand up and not allow others to treat them badly. Claudia told me it was a lot easier to ban drugs.

Each child coming in the door for the first time must be trained. They need to learn about honesty, social skills, what is expected of them, and the rules. Sometimes a child never comes back. Some return once a week, or once a month. The time spent at Casa de las Flores is time they are not out selling their wares. Women and children are often punished with beatings if they don't come home with a certain amount of money. About 40 children show up regularly. An average of twenty kids a day are fed and taught. No paperwork is kept as that would create a "government agency" atmosphere, and Claudia would lose the trust of the children. She has no statistics on how many of them are truly homeless, how many have families, or what their family circumstances are, though she has a pretty good idea from talking with them.

I have a feeling that Casa de las Flores will still be in operation, and probably with spin-offs by the time I return to San Cristobal. Claudia's integrity will see to that.

For more information about the school, and if you'd like to make a donation, the website for Casa de las Flores is:

Two girls on the roof watching the antics of the other
children in the house's patio. 

The school's library and
computing center, housed in
the old living room

Three girls in charge of the lunch dishes