Aticama, Mexico Help Exchange

Posted from Aticama, Nayarit, Mexico.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!  Happy New Year!

To see our photos of the farm and our time in this area of Mexico, please see our accompanying photo post.

The Cono

On Friday, December 16 we arrived at our first Help Exchange south of the U.S. border, just outside of a small coastal town called Aticama in the state of Nayarit, Mexico.  As we mentioned in the post announcing our arrival, the organic farm is filled with gardens and trees and tries to be as self-sustaining as it can.  The owners are Americans who have lived here for quite a while: the husband bought the property 20 years ago and began planting trees, despite the fact that the local told him the soil was worthless.  When we arrived, we were greeted by two other workers (associated with the Wwoof organization, which is similar to Help Exchange) who are originally from England but are currently exploring this part of the world (like us!), and the seven resident dogs (Sparky, Lucy, Emily, Penny, Moochie, Winkie, and Mimi).  The owners had a house, the Brits had a little place, and we had our own house, a nine-sided, two-story structure referred to as The Cono (“The Cone”).


Over the years, the owners have planted a little bit of everything in an effort to see what will grow well in this climate.  There really are only two seasons: the wet season, which lasts roughly from June until late September and is characterized by oppressive heat and humidity with daily rain showers, and the dry season which is warm but dry with no rain.  At all.  Among the trees making a go of it here are: cacao, passionfruit, guava, cashew, kumquat, papaya, breadfruit, noni, three kinds of bananas trees, palm, lots of coconut, cinnamon, and even something called a peanut butter tree.  And there are plenty more.  They can grow things all year round, but some things don’t grow well in both the wet and the dry seasons.  Some things that require periods of cooler temperatures, like apples or pears, do not grow well here.

We worked Monday through Friday and occasionally Saturday, starting at 8:00 a.m., stopping at 1:00 for a lunch that was prepared by the wife, and then usually resuming again around 4:00 p.m.  The few hours immediately after lunch, when many Mexicans take their siestas, are often too hot to work outside.  But because of the time of year, the workload was often fairly light so we would frequently get our afternoons off.

Coconut Tree

Every morning we had to water plants, trees, and gardens and do general maintenance.  Often we trimmed trees, raked leaves, mulched (using coffee bean hulls), and made things look nice.  The two of us even got to design and plant three gardens, mostly of lettuces, herbs, and leafy greens.  Within only four days we had sprouts in some places – that’s a very nice thing about this climate.  The hard part was conditioning the dogs to stop walking across the gardens, which were formerly just large, empty areas where they could siesta in the cool dirt.  We also mixed A LOT of cement – the “Mexican” way (on the ground) – and used it to resurface a duck pond (after one of the Brits had the joyous task of cleaning it of duck droppings) and to create the side posts of an arbor to be built in front of the Cono after penetrating the stone patio and digging the holes for the posts.  We even took the arbor-building task to another level by clearing the view from the Cono so that the ocean could be easily seen from the arbor and painting the outdoor dining furniture.  These little touches will make the Cono a comfortable space for guests and even rentable for interested vacationers.

Papaya Smoothies

It was very cool to be living in a place like this, and we often took advantage of the edible delights all around us.  Coconuts were more than plentiful, and we certainly had our fair share (but, man, are they hard to get open – even with a machete!).  We had passionfruit and papaya, and every morning Erik would use either the lemongrass in our front yard or leaves from the cinnamon tree to make our morning tea.

In our free time we usually hung out with the wwoofing couple from England, playing cards and drinking lots of tequila.  But when we weren’t preoccupied with that glamorous pastime, we would frequently walk about ten minutes into town to buy supplies or eat dinner.  At the local restaurants, we would try out all the different foods that Mexico specializes in such as pozole, quesadillas, or tacos, and everything was incredibly cheap.  The going rate for a taco is around 9 pesos, or 65 cents.  One night, Joe had a four-taco dinner, Erik had a four-quesadilla dinner (both of which included beans and a small salad), we each had a Pepsi, and then we each had a pineapple tamale for dessert; the total (without tip) was 104 pesos, or roughly $7.50.

It was very fun to shop in the local markets, even if their selection wasn’t what we were used to in the States.  In fact, each market (mercado) was smaller than the convenience store at a gas station, and we would often visit the three different mercados in the neighborhood to get everything we were hoping for.  But we would try out our basic Spanish when asking for items such as butter (mantequilla) or eggs (huevos).  One day on a solo shopping expedition, Joe purchased two carrots, two sticks of butter, a poblano pepper, two jalapeno peppers, five eggs, three avocados, a small container of crema, four tangerines, a Roma tomato, and one package of eight Oreo knock-offs called “Giro” (pronounced “Hero”), all for… approximately $5.  And once, while we were really feeling the withdrawal from our two weeks at the New Mexico winery, we bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile for only $6.  Based on its taste, that was the only time we’d ever felt we over payed.

For Christmas our hosts invited us to dinner at their house but asked us each to bring something.  (Midwesterns are no strangers to potlucks!)  Normally we would be thrilled to contribute food to a party, but when your limited variety of groceries can only be purchased at a market smaller than the Cono’s foyer, we sweated a little.  But in the end, we utilized what was available to us and what we already had and made some pretty impressive dished.  Erik used the Cono’s blender to make a refreshing cucumber/lime drink, together we made a balsamic onion and garlic relish (borrowing some balsamic vinegar from our host because it could not be purchased in Aticama nor in the neighboring town of San Blas), and Joe used up our personal supply of maple syrup to make glazed carrots with butter, cinnamon, and orange juice.  Our British friends tried to make Yorkshire Puddings but had no choice other than to use corn flour.  They were tasty but did not rise.  (As for gifts, we did not exchange gifts with one another but Joe gifted himself with a new toothbrush.

San Blas Plaza

When we had the morning or afternoon free from farm duties the four of us occasionally went to San Blas, which is a slightly larger town about 20 minutes away.  We went to the markets, the plaza in the town center to view the handcrafts made by indigenous locals, went to the beach, and ate cake at a great bakery.  (El pastel de tres leches es muy fantastico!)  We even went to the beach for an afternoon in Aticama.  Uli especially loved it, because he got to drive right on the sand and park wherever we decided we wanted to be.

Huichol Shaman

We also had the opportunity to participate in a pseudo-ceremony conducted by a Huichol shaman.  The shaman was dressed in authentic garb – save for the white t-shirt he wore underneath his costume that had some sort of Western slogan written across it. The ceremony consisted of a quick blessing of each of us present with a feather and smoke, and then we all did a little dance in a circle accompanied by the Shaman playing a small violin.  After that his family sold crafts and he collected tips.  Not exactly the authentic experience we would have liked, but it was enlightening to participate nonetheless.  It must be a difficult position for an indigenous culture:  it is necessary to earn money to pay for food, shoes, and other necessities; and people not of their culture are very interested in what happens “behind the curtain”; but we felt a little…odd…to witness something that must be on some level a voluntary exploitation (out of necessity) of something that they presumably hold sacred.  We are not making any judgments; just observing the way of the modern world, especially in a developing nation.

Other than our activities, what else have we noticed about Mexico?  If you haven’t caught Joe’s essay on the noises – er, sounds – that we have experienced on our two weeks at a farm in a small Mexican village, you can read that here.  The weather was incredibly consistent with highs usually around 80, nightly lows around 50, and sun every day.  Because we are so close to the ocean, everything is damp.  It feels like we’ve left our windows open all night long (which, incidentally, we have) and the moisture creeps into your papers, playing cards, books, toilet papers, clothing, and other things.  And this is the dry season!  As for the critters around here… there are scorpions in the area although we didn’t see any at any time, but we did take the precaution of shaking out our shoes every morning.  (The owner of the farm says he has been stung 22 times in his life.  ¡Aye carumba!)  There are also rattlesnakes, but again we didn’t see any.  The biggest pest… oh, yes… mosquitos!  They are as annoying here as they are in the evening hours on a Minnesota lake in June.  Just as bad are these very tiny black bugs called jejenes that have a wicked bite.  They are terrible on the beach but can find their way inland.  We have plenty of bug bites on our arms and legs, and at night we would usually have to track down as many as we could find before turning the lights out.

Erik and the Berkey

We also used this opportunity of being stationary in Mexico for two weeks to set up and try out our water filter system for the first time.  It is a Berkey Water Filter System.  We have the smallest one they make, which is still sizable, but it worked fantastically.  We used it for all of our drinking purposes, of course, but also needed it to brush our teeth and cook.  It will be great to have along with us and we venture south.

On Monday (Jan. 2, 2012) we leave the farm and make our way down the Pacific coast of Mexico.  We are expected to arrive in Guatemala on Sunday the 8th, meet our host family for the month, and then begin Spanish immersion school bright and early on the 9th.  We can’t wait to really spend time learning this incredibly fun language and practicing it for several weeks without the distractions of working or traveling.

Coming Up:  Joe’s birthday is on Tuesday but the celebration (and cake-eating) already began last Friday.  Details to come…

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2 Responses to Aticama, Mexico Help Exchange

  1. Ron says:

    Have a great Birthday Joe. Stay safe and healthy and hopefully we’ll skype again sometime. Mom and Dad

  2. Amy Oriani says:

    Fun! Aren’t cashew trees amazing? After I saw them I realized why cashews are so expensive! And boy, do I remember the smell of that coffee-bean-hull mulch. Whew. Closer to home…Cafe Latte makes an awesome Tres Leches. Maybe next birthday!

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