Monday, January 28, 2013

Leading a Tour

Our picnic before the cave explorations.
I now have 8 people with me in Mexico, on an adventure tour. They are all members of a club in Los Alamos, NM, called the Mountaineer's Club. People in the club lead trips and other members join in if they are so inclined.

I went on three Mountaineer's trips that were documented on this blog. One was a rock scrambling trip that turned technical: Rock Virgin. Another was a two week long trip into Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California to watch whales. The most exciting of that adventure is at this link: BatopilasCanyon. And a third was to an archeological ruin in Southern Colorado: Canyon of the Ancients

After the Mexican trip, Fearless Leader Dick Opsahl suggested that I organize a Mountaineer's trip to my part of Mexico: Chiapas. While in Spain and Turkey this past fall, I decided to go ahead, organize and advertise the trip. It filled within a day with a waiting list. Organizing from afar was much harder than I had imagined, but do-able with emails and an occasional Skype phone call. I found a good tour company in Palenque that would take us to several ruins and waterfalls, so that was the first reservation. After that, it was simply a matter of making out a good itinerary and getting hotels lined up.

After the Chihuahua trip, when it seemed that we ate ALL the time, I decided not to purchase food for anyone, unless it came with the packaged tour. So far that has been a great decision. Two people are vegans, one eats mostly meat and vegetables, and the others have a hodgepodge of eating styles. It has worked beautifully to have people go find their own meals from amongst the many excellent restaurants in San Cristobal. The only real problems have been for the vegans. Mexicans eat tons of cheese, milk products and meat. There are always rice and beans around but no guarantee that they weren't cooked in lard. And although soy milk is findable, it's not common. Getting the vegans their oatmeal without sugar, and made with soy milk at the hotel in Palenque proved impossible. In spite of detailed instructions, the kitchen staff bought soy milk that was half fruit puree and half milk with loads of sugar. And the oatmeal was the 1-minute variety that tastes an awful lot like wallpaper paste. So, the vegans ate rice and beans. For lunch and dinner too. For three days.

Joy making purchases from local girls at Palenque.
In addition to the Palenque trip, we have gone on some local tours to Zinacantan and Chamula. the nearby  MayanVillages. We hired a combi and driver to take us to Tonina, the Mayan city that took down mighty Palenque about the year 900 AD. We also went to Chiapa de Corzo to see the Parachicos Festival but it was a bust. The big January festivities apparently only happen on the weekends, we went on Friday. We did see some of the dancers but missed the parades which were small and happened while we climbed up the church's bell tower. But from up there we had spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the Grijalva River. It was everyone's first day on the trip, so for them, just being in a real Mexican town with no other tourists was quite a unique experience.

By the time they leave on Thursday, we will have visited the Lagunas de Montebello and explored some caves with my friend Arnulfo, a German, passionate about preserving the wild areas of Chiapas. This coming week, we will go up the Grijalva River to see the Canyon del Sumidero. In two weeks time, those 8 people will have seen almost every tourist site in the state, and covered hundreds of miles of territory. They now have a greater appreciation for the Mayan people in their current culture as well as their unique history. And they have had a lot of fun, I think. I certainly have.

At a private costume museum with the owner.

Fishing bird at the cascades of Agua Azul,
no longer blue due to heavy recent rains.

The Roses and the Greens at Palenque

Heading into the caverns near San Cristobal.

From inside looking out.
Passing the observation tower
in the Royal Palace, Palenque

Beautiful light on ruins in Palenque

Waterfall at Misol Ha

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Strange Adherance to Rules

Living in Mexico, one might think there is very little regard to rules or law. People drive fast, fast, fast. Around curves so fast the whole van sways to the side, to the point of toppling, but it doesn't. Double lines in the middle mean nothing, cars pass on curves even when other cars are passing over the lines coming the opposite way, and the passed cars quickly move to the side and everyone passes with a hair's breadth to spare.

Then there's the other side of the rule spectrum.

Picture this. The entrance to the Amber Museum, from inside the lobby, is a open doorway, maybe six feet wide. On the other side is an enormous courtyard and patio. The doorway has two poles with a metal bar between them. The right open side has a removable chain with an ENTRADA sign dangling from it. The other open side has a little metal flapper people push through when they come out. 

We'd already paid and visited the museum, and were in the gift shop. There were no other customers besides our little group. I wanted to use the bathroom before we left so I just ducked out through the closest of the two openings, which happened to be the through the exit flapper. The woman who ran the gift shop dashed over and called me back, I was already several yards down the patio. I had no idea what she wanted so I came back. She insisted that I exit through the flapper back into the lobby, then she reached over to unhook the ENTRADA chain and insisted I go through that. Rules! You just don't go IN the OUT door!! 

There is a Canadian store with branches all over Mexico called Coppel. I am convinced that although Coppel has many big and small ticket items for sale, it is much more interested in loaning money at extreme rates than in selling anything. Downstairs are refrigerators, washing machines, and TVs. Upstairs are smaller but expensive items like sewing machines, blenders, microwaves. They have all the other stuff a kitchen needs too, pots and pans, spatulas, etc. Everything in the store has a very professional sign on it with two prices. The price you pay weekly, or the price you pay in cash. For a refrigerator that costs 5,000 pesos in cash, the long term payment over 100 weeks will cost the customer 10,000 pesos total. (But you'd have to be able to multiply 100 pesos by 100 weeks to know that!) It's an interest rate of 50% a year!!!

Even a 26 peso spatula has a payment plan. The small items are secured, hanging from locked studs. I had seriously looked around the cheaper hardware and miscellaneous stores for a small skillet and spatula, but found what I really wanted at Coppel. Both were locked up. Nobody who worked there seemed to be able to unlock them and they told me to ask at the payment window (where 30 people were lined up to pay their weekly 100 peso installments) for a "muchacho". I asked and nobody showed up. After about ten minutes I found a kid in a store uniform shyly skulking around behind some displays. I asked if he could help me and he looked embarrassed that I'd caught him doing nothing at all. He followed me to the items, wrote the numbers on a piece of paper and then took me downstairs to pay while he then went back upstairs to unlock and fetch them. Why he couldn't have unlocked them and brought them down with us, I don't know. More than likely it's a rule of some kind, like you can't let a customer see how easy it is to unlock something.

So downstairs I pulled out a 100 peso bill and was ready to pay for my two items. (100 pesos is the equivalent to $8 US dollars!) The woman slowly and meticulously filled out a form on the computer. She needed my name, my address, my birthdate, my phone number. What? I refused. She became visibly upset. I told her I was paying cash and asked why she needed all that? She looked blank. I'm sure she was just trying to fill out the form because that's her job and those are the rules. Finally she reluctantly took the money and a bit later the muchacho showed up with my purchases in a bag, stapled at the top.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The End of the World - NOT

Tonina on a clear day with the Zapatista
sign at the entrance. The Zapatistas took over
in 2011 and have been running the park ever since.
On Dec 21st the world was supposed to end, according to many book writers hoping to sell their prophetic ideas before proven wrong. Oh, sorry, that was according to the Mayan Calendar, which every sane Mayan knew was just a roll-over just  like Jan 1, 2000. Ah, but the 2000 roll-over was supposed to be significant too, the economic world was going to collapse,  computers couldn't handle "00" as a year date if I recall correctly. And in spring 2011 the bible also predicted a very specific date, according to Harold Camping. He had a whole bunch of fundamentalist Christians buying into his prophecy. When it didn't happen, he claimed a mistake and revised it to sometime in October of 2011. Yet, we are still here.

Doesn't the Bible say something about not believing in false prophets? How many times does someone have to be wrong before they are considered a false prophet?

My German friend Arnulfo wanted to celebrate the roll-over with the Mayans. Palenque was getting swamped with foreigners arriving with prophetic books in hand, so he went to Tonina instead. He stayed at one of the little cabanas nearby and asked around on the 20th if there would be any celebrations or rituals. He was assured that everything had been postponed until Christmas day, nothing would be happening the next day. Disappointed, he arose very early on the 21st to take sunrise photos of the ruins, but the day was horrible. A massive storm was dousing the ruins..........AND the thousands of local Mayan/Zapatistas who were gathered outside. They wore black masks and caps that cover all but their eyes.

He chatted with some women who told him they would be marching to Ocosingo for a huge demonstration. Knowing he could be arrested and deported for participating in the demonstration, he rode instead on one of several buses that followed later.

Ocosingo was taken over by as many as 6000 people on Dec. 21st. It startled the government, which in the last two decades has built numerous military bases near every one of the cities the Zapatistas took over in 1994. During that year battles raged and people died. The Zapatistas held San Cristobal, Ocosingo, Comitan and others for several weeks before the government could amass enough troops to kick them out. Hence all the new bases.

For Arnulfo, it was a fortuitous thing that he was in the right place at the right time. Many more people are now on the side of the Zapatistas. Their numbers have increased because the pressure the Zapatistas bring to bear on the national government appears to be working. Taking their queue from Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi, they have adopted an entirely peaceful and revealing approach. Every time soldiers appear, some of the villagers grab video cameras to film what the soldiers do. The people quickly don their masks so they cannot be individually identified and later arrested, then they block all access to their villages or demonstrations with their bodies and the bodies of their children. It's been a long time since the government has dared to open fire on anyone, and a few years since they hired local (government) supporters to do their killing for them.  (See the previous post Down With Revenge for that horrible story.)

I am expecting many more road blockades and town closures due to the fact that the new government of Mexico is the PRI party, known for its negative attitudes towards native people. And the government was taken off guard, not because they weren't able to respond quickly but because the  numbers were shocking. Arnulfo said there were estimates of more than 60,000 people demonstrating in all the cities on Dec 21st. The new governor of Chiapas and the President of San Cristobal have both made conciliatory speeches lately. Unfortunately, the Mayans have heard those speeches before.

The native people are moving into an advancing time-frame, a time of increased conflict which will result in increased change as well. The United States went through these upheavals in the 1960s and 70s. Mexico has been heaving for a while, it will continue. And Arnulfo will be there to watch.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Travel to Eat

Some people live to eat, others eat to live. I fall into the first category. I'm not ashamed of that, though it has led me to fight the Battle of the Bulge forever. It has also led me on numerous adventures and modified my sensibilities as to what, exactly, constitutes food around the world. Traveling and eating are two activities I dearly love. If I could figure out a way, I would eat to travel!!

As a kid, there was a long list of foods I hated and hated to smell cooking. Liver was #1 and still is. I don't ever eat it and can't even be in a house where it's cooking. The odor is worse than cigar smoke.

In Turkey people have gardens on their roofs,
in courtyards.....wherever the sun shines.  
Other items on the hate list included raw onions, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, tongue, and lamb. As taste buds mature, certain foods still taste the same but for some strange reason are no longer repulsive. A gourmand friend caramelized a variety of cruciferous vegetables together with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, some nuts and onions. I was blown away; Brussels sprouts came down off the hate list. Slow exposure to lamb in Indian and middle eastern cooking has brought lamb off the list, but it's still gross if it's gamy. Tongue is palatable, but it and liver both have a wet-powder texture I've never gotten used to. And recently, while visiting Aylin's family in Akyurt, her mother made an eggplant dish that was so good I thought I might faint. In fact, it's called Imam Bayildy which means "the priest fainted". One legend is that it was so delicious he just keeled over. But the opposite legend is that when his wife served it, he asked how much (expensive) olive oil she used. When she told him.....he fainted!

The Turks claim to have a hundred ways to cook eggplant and judging from the myriad dishes I ate in Turkey, I agree. It's probably safe to say it's their national vegetable. It's served hot, cold, mixed with other vegetables, pureed, chopped, sauteed, deep fried, breaded and fried, baked, broiled, and stuffed.

It wouldn't be proper to travel half way round the world to eat something easily prepared at home, and then never bother to cook it.  So although this is not a cooking blog, if you want to try to make fabulous eggplant, here's a good recipe from the cookbook Arabesque by Claudia Roden.

Eggplants stuffed with onions and tomatoes: Imam Bayildy

1 1/2 large onions, sliced thinly
2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, minced
4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 T flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt to taste

6 small eggplants (about 4 to 4 1/2 ounces each, 5 1/2 inches long)
1 cup good quality tomato juice
1 t. sugar
juice of one lemon
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Make the filling first. Soften the sliced onions gently in the oil but do not let them color. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a moment or two until the aroma rises. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the tomatoes and the chopped parsley. Season to taste with salt and mix well.

Trim the caps from the ends of the eggplants. Peel off 1/3 inch wide strips of skin lengthwise, leaving alternate strips of peel and bare flesh. Make a deep cut on one side of each eggplant lengthwise, from one end to the other but not right through, in order to make a pocket.

Stuff the pocket of each eggplant with the filing and place them tightly side by side, with the opening face up, in a wide shallow pan. Mix the tomato juice with the sugar, salt, and the lemon juice. Pour this and the oil over the eggplants. Cover the pan and simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until the eggplants are soft and the liquid much reduced.

Alternatively you can cook the stuffed eggplants in the oven. Arrange them, cut side up in a baking dish, with the rest of the ingredients poured over, cover with foil and cook in the oven preheated to 400 degrees F for one hour or until soft. Allow to cool before arranging on a serving dish.

(If you like this, consider buying Claudia Roden's cookbook, it's loaded with great recipes from Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, all wonderful!)