La Comida de Puebla

Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.

The Food of Puebla

Let me start off by (re)affirming that I like food, I like to cook, and I really like to eat.  And because I am on this trip, I feel some of you may be interested in some of the fun foods of the areas we are exploring.  But although I have written a couple of posts on the foods of Oaxaca and Guatemala, I do not pretend to be a food writer or that I have a food blog or any special food expertise other than what I have learned on my own.  I’m not an expert.  Just a fan.

(Also, for this post, I had no choice but to break my rule of not posting photos of restaurant-prepared foods.  (It’s just a quirk of mine.)  But in this case, it was the only way to go since I was not in a position to prepare any of these dishes myself.)

Check out all those chicken rotisserating

I have to be honest: I had never heard of Puebla (neither the city not the state) before arriving in Oaxaca (also both a city and a state) this past spring.  Anything about Mexico is sadly underrepresented in typical U.S. school curriculums.  Only a two-hour bus ride from Mexico City, Puebla is in fact the place where the Mexican Army defeated French forces on May 5, 1862 – thereby inaugurating the annual celebrations on Cinco de Mayo.  When I was talking with my poblano friend several months ago (the term “poblano” is used to describe someone from Puebla), I asked if he liked the food of Oaxaca.  He said, “Sure, but being poblano I prefer the food of Puebla.”  Puebla has a cuisine? I wondered.  And now I know: yes, it does.

Let’s start with the granddaddy: Mole Poblano, created in the 17th century by a poblana nun (her kitchen is a tourist attraction even today) mole poblano is usually called the national dish of Mexico – that’s how important it is.  And it is considered the first mole of Mexico (remember, it’s pronounced “MOH-lay” and I’m tired of using italics for it even though it is a foreign word), although it is not one of the seven Oaxaca moles.  Just like Oaxaca, people travel to Puebla to eat the mole.  Like the Oaxaca moles, the principals are the same: an ingredient list two feet long with lots of chiles, spices, nuts, some chocolate, and lots and lots of effort and time.  The two times I have had mole poblano, I was surprised at how sweet it was.  It wasn’t like eating dessert, because it was dark and rich and savory.  But it was sweet.  The recipes I have found do indeed include sugar.  And it also has a little kick to it, which should be expected from the array of chiles used.  The mole is a deep reddish-brown color, and it usually covers a plate consisting of a chicken leg and some rice when you order it at an unpretentious little restaurant (comedor).  With a fork in one hand and a tortilla in the other, you are ready to go.

Yes, I ate it all and the entire meal cost about $3.

A sandwich called a cemita (“say-MEE-tah”) is also very popular in Puebla.  It is served on a large roll, which itself is called a cemita because it has sesame seeds on top.  There are usually many ingredients in this sandwich including a meat (a pounded and breaded pork or chicken cutlet is very popular, but there are others), avocado, lots of quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), sometimes chipotles, but always a strange and pungent herb that was a brand new flavor to me.  The first time I had a cemita was the day I parted from Erik and Apollo.  Erik and I had lunch at a mall-type place and found a restaurant that had cemitas.

Pápalo – looks harmless, right?

But all throughout that day long I kept – sorry, this is gross – burping a really strange flavor.  I thought maybe the cheese or the avocado were bad.  But no, it turns out that I was burping the herb pápalo, which is a mainstay on cemitas and always used raw.  By my second cemita I was ready for it, but this new flavor still perplexed and intrigued me.  It’s bright, green, citrusy (like lemon and orange) and pungent.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  And apparently it makes me burp.

A long line must mean good things

Having done a little research, I found that some of the best cemitas are in the Mercado el Carmen, about a 10-minute walk from the zocalo.  There you will find a long line of people waiting at Cemitas Las Poblanitas.  So at 1:30 on Friday afternoon I headed there for my third ever cemita, stood in line and watched everyone in front of me to see how to proceed.  The workers at this tienda are crazy fast.  They crank out the cemitas lickety-split.  The issue during my visit was that the demand was so high.  Standing in line for maybe 15 minutes, I was probably the only person waiting for one cemita.  Everyone else was picking up food for the family.  At that price and quality, I can’t blame them.

Cranking out the cemitas

The sandwich was huge and amazing.  Aside from a little dessert (see below) I did not eat again for the rest of the day.  The cutlet was enormous (albeit a little greasy); the pile of cheese was obscene; the pápalo was, well, pungent; there was avocado, chipotles, little raw onion, a drizzle of olive oil; and at Cemitas Las Poblanitas they gild the lily by topping each sandwich with two slices of ham.  I cannot believe I ate the whole thing, but I did.  But so did everyone else there – and a lot faster than I did.  (Pepe = World’s Slowest Eater)

Formerly a in-season-only dish but now served year-round by some restaurants looking to entice tourists through their doors, Chiles en Nogada is a decadent, filling dish that I have resolved to never eat more than once a year.  Or maybe twice.  Well, three times if I must.  But after my 3:00 dinner of a chile en nogada, I once again ate no more the rest of the day and made myself walk until I could walk no more.

The chile in question is – big surprise – a poblano chile, which in the U.S. we are very familiar with.  But this puppy gets stuffed in the craziest way.  The picadillo stuffing is a combination of finely chopped meat (usually beef and/or pork but mine had chicken), nuts, maybe some seeds, diced candied and dried fruits, and spices.  Sometimes sugar is added, and often a small, hard peach is also used.  Stuff this mixture into the chile, dredge the package in an egg batter and fry it.  Then it is topped with a rich, luxurious walnut cream sauce (which covers the entire plate), and topped with parsley and pomegranate seeds.  The white sauce, red seeds, and green parsley pay tribute to the colors of the Mexican flag.

It just looks like dessert, doesn’t it?

Whereas I said mole poblano was sweet but not quite dessert, this definitely is dinner and dessert to me.  The filling is sweet and the sauce is as rich as melted frozen custard.  I called it a seasonal dish because in Puebla, walnuts, poblano chiles, and pomegranates are all in season as the same time, roughly late June though early Autumn.  Since I had mine in early June, dried cranberries were substituted for the pomegranate seeds.  But this dish is so outrageous that I may just bus it back to Puebla later this summer to have the dish in season.  And at that time ALL restaurants loudly announce that they are now serving chiles en nogada.

Take your pick

Tacos Árabes are pretty easy to find on the streets and pretty cheap eats.  Thanks to a nicely represented Lebanese population, giant vertical skewers of lamb can be seen roasting and being thinly sliced at the entrances of many restaurants.  For many Americans, this isn’t such a new flavor – think gyros.  But when stuffed into a tortilla with some lime juice and hot sauce – no cucumber, tomato, or tzatziki here – this is a might tasty treat.

There are plenty of other street foods to mention, like molotes (more tortillas stuffed with things and then deep fried), which I love even though they are usually pretty greasy.  But one of my favorite experiences happened literally just around the corner from where I am staying: there is a little hole-in-the-wall joint where a sweet, old lady makes nothing but quesadillas and memelas.  A couple of weeks ago I was craving something naughty, so I sat down on the bench at the only table in the joint and ordered a quesadilla, having zero idea what was going to go into that quesadilla.  All she asked was “¿Con todo?” (“With everything?”).  Of course I replied, “¡Sí!”  Well, into a freshly pressed and slightly stretched tortilla she piled a mound of quesillo, a giant handful of canned mushrooms (yes, you read that right), and a mountain of chicarrones, which are fried pieces of pork rinds.  At one point, while the quesadilla was on the plancha, she even spooned a little extra grease right onto it.  It was finished with a chipotle red salsa, and it was SOOO good and SOOO bad for you.  I loved it.  And it was big, so again I was done eating for the rest of the day.  I’ll probably before I leave Puebla…

Skulls made from sugar, waiting for Day of the Dead celebrations

And now, finally, dessert.  Puebla is just as famous for its sugary confections – called dulces - as it is for mole poblano and chiles en nogada.  There is a street near the center where for several blocks it is nothing but candy stores.  And they all, more or less, sell the same things.  I found one that I liked – the girls behind the counter were really nice and gave me lots of free samples – so I went a couple of times, bought some things, and felt comfortable enough to ask some questions.


They do look like cigars, don’t they?

Camotes are what everyone everywhere is trying to sell, even at the bus station, because tourists seem to love them.  I think they’re fine, but I don’t love them.  It’s a sweet made with mainly two ingredients: sweet potatoes and sugar.  Flavorings are usually added (like vanilla, orange, or lemon) and the soft final product is shaped a little like a miniature cigar.  They do actually taste a little like and have the texture of mashed sweet potatoes.  They’re different (for an American palate) but pretty good.  Other dulces, in all sorts of shapes and sizes, incorporate flavors like coconut, mango, almond, vanilla, and even pine nuts.  I’m pretty gaga for these pecan things flavored with burnt milk.  On Friday, after polishing off that colossal cemita, I bought one and ate half of it as I was leaving the store and planned to eat the other half later in the evening; I ate the second half 15 minutes later.

A peach-inspired dulce on the left, and my favorite pecan-burnt-milk one on the right.

Actually, I’ve found myself surprisingly hooked on some of these things, and I was never a big candy eater before.  Cake, yes.  Candy, not so much.  (And yes, I did break down and buy a slice of cake on the street as well.  It actually wasn’t too bad but it was still decidedly Mexican.)  The one peculiarity for an American observer was the lack of chocolate options in the candy store.  Most candy stores have virtually nothing involving chocolate.  Just nuts, fruits, seeds, and sugar.  I guess they save the chocolate for all that mole poblano.

The food of Puebla completely caught me off-guard.  And I have to be honest – and no disrespect is intended: I spent a weekend in April and then three weeks in June in Puebla, and I don’t really find it to be a very interesting city.  The historic center is worth exploring, and that’s where all the good foods can be found, but otherwise it just doesn’t resonate with me.  Having said that however, I would absolutely go back for a few days to once again enjoy the food and a couple of the museums.  I don’t think Erik will be back in time for Chile en Nogada Season, but maybe the two of us will take the bus to Puebla for a few days so I can show him my favorite candy store and then we can seek out other culinary delights!

My favorite candy store and my favorite helper – she gives me lots of free samples

Posted in Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | Tagged | 2 Comments

Pause Update No. 1: Puebla and HQ

Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.

The Best Laid Plans….

Click here to go to the accompanying photo post.

Here’s a little update for everyone wondering what these two now-stationary globe-trekkers are up to.

Even back at HQ, Erik is still working hard

Erik had a wonderfully productive few days at HQ accomplishing many Apollo- and Maggi-related chores with the help of Joe’s parents.  Such tasks involved a lot of washing and scrubbing but also a little repairing.  The outsides of Maggi and Apollo are sparkling again, with a little added help from a tar and bug cleaner, after the 2200-mile journey from Puebla to HQ.  Everything inside of Maggi was washed and vacuumed, and some heavy duty hinges and clasps were installed inside of Apollo to help repair the damage done by those doofus checkpoint guards in Tampico.

Erik even got to enjoy one of this favorite pastimes: baking bread.  And there is a rumor that cocktails (another favorite pastime) may have been involved during the weekend.  Joe’s parents fed Erik well, although at some point there was talk of going out to a Mexican restaurant.  That plan never materialized.

Unfortunately, the situation at the V.A. is pretty much what we were expecting.  After spending 45 minutes on the phone explaining the entire ankle story to a very nice nurse at the V.A. hospital in Minneapolis, Erik was told that he should receive a call and a letter with a new appointment scheduled within the next six weeks.  Since that isn’t going to fly with Erik, he hobbled himself into the V.A. on Wednesday to speed the process up.  The good news is that x-rays show that there are no pieces floating around his ankle and in fact the x-rays look not too different from ones taken over 10 years ago.  The bad news is that it’s still going to be awhile before he is able to be seen by the orthopedic surgery team.  But now he is up in northern Minnesota, staying with his parents (who are very excited to have him there) on their farm and spending time baking bread, mowing the lawn, and watching adorable, recently born calves.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Meanwhile, back in Puebla…

Pepe meanwhile has been learning how to live day-to-day without letting expected changes catch him off guard anymore, which is challenging for someone who was used to being in very planned control (in his work).  On June 1 Pepe “moved in” with a friend in Puebla, who invited him to stay as long as his needed considering the situation that had arisen with Erik returning to the U.S.  (Pepe was thinking about a month, which was agreed to by his friend.)  On the evening of Day 11, this friend told Pepe that he was having personal issues (it was nothing Pepe did) and that Pepe needed to find another place to live.  Pepe was already looking for a way to get out sooner (because of the really cloudy energy in this friend’s house), but not three weeks sooner.  So Pepe has extended his already-planned trip to Mexico City (to see two friends from Minnesota who are separately and coincidentally going to be there the same week) at the end of the month from three to six days, and started looking for hostels in Puebla.

Three days later Pepe’s friend told him that he didn’t have to move out anymore.  But in the meantime Pepe had already made a reservation at a hostel in the historic city center for the weekend, if nothing else than to give his friend the weekend alone in his own house.  But, even better, Pepe got to spend the weekend downtown, walking around visiting churches and museums, hearing free concerts in the park, and eating all sorts of fun foods!  (A Puebla food post is forthcoming.)  Monday he will return back to his friend’s place and see if it will work for him to stay for the week.

The little volcano that could

As it is, the neighborhood where Pepe’s friend lives isn’t very interesting  - actually, it’s pretty lame.  But, it just to happens to be only a few blocks from “the smallest volcano in the world.”  With a height of 13 meters, an external base diameter of 23 meters, and an internal diameter of 8 meters, it was worth the 10 pesos (75 cents) Pepe plunked down to venture inside.  Its name, Cuexcomotl, is from the Nahuatl for “mud pot.”  It was born from the last volcanic eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano in 1064 as a secondary crater.  After descending the narrow, winding staircase, there is a nicely finished floor for viewing the tunnels – one of which contains an underground stream.

Although Pepe’s situation alone in Mexico has become a little less predictable than expected, he is handling it to the best of his ability.  In a few short weeks (31 days to be exact, but who’s counting?) he will be once again be living in Oaxaca and the drama should hopefully subside.  (n.b.:  Although the city of Oaxaca is, of course, in the state of Oaxaca, it was not effected but Hurricane Carlotta.)

Don’t forget to contact Erik directly if you have time to see him in Minnesota.

Please stay in touch!  And click here to enjoy some more photos from Puebla, Mexico…

Posted in Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Pause Update No. 1 Photos

This gallery contains 24 photos.

Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.Here are just a few pictures from around Puebla, Mexico.  To read the accompanying post, click here.  Enjoy!

More Galleries | Leave a comment

One Year Anniversary!

Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.

Happy Anniversary to Us!  

(Yes, the very definition of self-congratulatory)

It’s hard to believe that one year ago today we hit the road (check out our counter on the right!), and it has been even longer than that since we’ve been out of our house.  It’s hard to describe because in some respects it feels like it’s been less than one year, but in others it feels like it’s been more.  (So I suppose if you average that out, it comes to about a year. Hmm.)  We thought about posting something about what we’ve learned and how our lives have changed over the past year, but, really, who wants to read that sappy drivel?  Or maybe, because of the recent craziness in our adventure, we didn’t have the energy to come up with anything.

But here’s an update…


Erik is a hero who can do anything he sets his mind to

Leaving Puebla very early on Saturday morning, Erik had two very long but successful days driving through Mexico by himself.  There was no dawdling; Uli was worked hard.  Our clever false floor inside of Uli even suffered some damage from FREAKIN’ MORONS at a military check point near Tampico.  (Not the first time we’ve had damage because the soldiers were, apparently, completely devoid of grey matter.) He was dealt another inconvenience at the end of the first day when he arrived at his intended campground after 10 hours of driving solo to find it was shut down.  He thus had to backtrack 20 km to a pay-by-the-hour motel.  In all fairness, he said it was very clean and even Uli had a privacy curtain.

He crossed the border into Texas on Sunday evening and finally made it to HQ in Wisconsin on Wednesday afternoon, where he indulged in such favorite activities as eating pickled herring, brushing his teeth using tap water, and flushing toilet paper down the toilet (which still feels weird to him after a few days).

Pepe feels a little off-kilter without Erik and Apollo

Last Friday Pepe broke down a bought a cell phone in Mexico.  This is was a weird experience on so many levels, mostly because everything from the sales representative to the instruction manual to the phone itself were in Spanish.  He bought the cheapest phone they had ($16 US) in order to make/receive calls and texts (using T9 again for texts – it takes like 4 minutes to type a sentence or two in English – longer in Spanish!), including texts from Erik as he reached his destinations in Mexico.  If you can make international calls or texts, he’ll send you his digits but it’ll be your job to figure out the international prefixes.

Friday night he arrived at his friend’s house in Puebla, only to turn around Saturday morning and hop a bus to Mexico City for the weekend.  Unfortunately, as he was transferring his weekend clothes from one bag to another, the camera got lost in the shuffle and remained at home for the weekend.  But he hopes to go back in a few weeks and see some more of the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere.

His friend’s house is located in an incredibly uninteresting and not-all-that-beautiful part of Puebla, so there is really nowhere enjoyable to walk.  Luckily, however, he found an internet cafe within two blocks of the house, and they let him plug his laptop in and use their internet for 8 pesos an hour (about 57 cents at the current exchange rate).  But he has worked up the courage to take a city bus by himself to a more developed part of town – okay, a mall.  Unfortunately, Pepe’s friend is typically gone from home 16 hours per day, so Pepe is usually alone.  But that’s okay, too.  He certainly can find plenty to do.

Thanks for all the supportive comments and messages we received after announcing our change in plans.  We always appreciate hearing from people – even a quick hello – no matter what we are doing or where we happen to be.

By the way… if anyone out there was wishing that there were a way to congratulate us for hitting the one year benchmark, may I direct your attention to the SHARE page…

Coming Up:  Erik encounters a rubber scraper in the HQ kitchen but has forgotten what it is used for; later that night, out of habit, he looks in the HQ workshop for a ladder before getting into bed.  Meanwhile in Puebla, Pepe hops a bus hoping to find a Starbucks but instead ends up two hours away back in Mexico City – and again without the camera!

Family portrait in sunny California

Posted in Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | 2 Comments

Big Announcement

Posted from Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.

Hitting the Pause Button

So… we are just a few days away from our One Year Anniversary of being on the road.  It should be a time for celebration, but sometimes life doesn’t always work out the way we expect.

We’ve been alluding to a big game-changer of an announcement for a couple of weeks, and the reason we didn’t go public with it sooner is that we weren’t exactly sure ourselves what the ultimate plan would be, but now we are locked in.  And here you go…

We are, so to speak, hitting the Pause Button on our continuing journey through Central and South America for a reason beyond our control and one that should not be ignored.  Please note that we did not say that we are hitting the Stop Button.  After this mini detour is complete, we will get back on our horses, or… car seats, or… whatever.

In 1994, after serving in the Air Force including six months in Saudi Arabia in Operation Desert Storm, a benign giant cell tumor formed in Erik’s left ankle which devoured the entire ankle bone.  In a series of operations over the course of about one year, the tumor was successfully removed, the remaining void was filled with bone cement, and the subtalar joint was fused, thereby disallowing any further ability to tilt his ankle joint side to side.  The doctors at the V.A. hospital in the Twin Cities told Erik that these procedures would last for 10 years, at which time he would most likely need an artificial ankle.  If you did the math, you noticed that that was 18 years ago.

Although fortunate that the relief provided by these procedures lasted much longer than the anticipated expiration date, Erik started to feel discomfort several months ago, which has now turned into frequent pangs of pain, including while sleeping or sitting – not to mention climbing the steps of Maya pyramids.  Specifically, the cartilage is no longer buffering the contact between the leg bone and the ankle.

Therefore, we have decided that Erik needs to return to the Twin Cities for medical attention.  This is tricky to coordinate: since Erik cannot make an appointment for his consultations until he returns to the U.S., we have no idea how long this entire delay will last (incl. travel time, appointment scheduling, recuperation time, physical therapy, etc.).

So…. here’s the plan:

Erik will drive (yes, drive) back to the U.S. with Apollo to have this all taken care of.  While there, Apollo can also get a thorough examination from a trusted mechanic.  Since Erik can also use this time to take care of accumulated mail and purchase some more supplies for our trip (like replacement flip-flops, water filters, or pillow cases) having Apollo will be very convenient for him.  When all is complete (we are expecting this to take four to five months, but we honestly have no idea) Erik will drive back to Mexico.

And Pepe?  Pepe will stay in Mexico.  After staying with a friend awhile in Puebla, Pepe will return to… wait for it… Oaxaca.  (How many of you saw that coming?)  Pepe has big plans for his time alone, so it should hopefully be very productive on many fronts.

We decided that there really is no reason for Pepe to accompany Erik back to the States (where he would once again have to be known as “Joe”).  We are confident in the whole situation with the surgery (it’s not life-threatening); there would be very little for him to do in the U.S. all those months while waiting for Erik; and for Pepe to fly back to Mexico would be an expense we just don’t want or need to pay.  He is going to have his own solo adventure in a different country hopefully perfecting his skills in his newest language.  It’ll be fun, right?

Because the purpose of our trip is not about being inside the truck but exploring, walking, hiking, climbing, working, etc. we feel that it is best that Erik get the medical attention he needs and then we can resume our adventure without concern.  In fact, we have had to cancel a Help Exchange stay in Belize because we feared that his ankle would prevent Erik from fully participating.

So there it is.

Two more things:

1.  If you want to see Erik while he is in Wisconsin or Minnesota, please contact him.  Although we don’t know exactly the timeline of how this will play out, Erik would love to have visitors, well-wishers, and friendly faces come see him as he is recovering.

2.  Pepe would love to have e-mails from his friends and family while he is alone in Mexico.  Please don’t forget about Pepe.

To send us e-mail, just go to the Contact Us page.  It’s SO easy.

As usual, we will continue to provide updates via this website and we will work on updating the calendar to reflect our new predicament.  We won’t be posting any surgical photos (you’re welcome) but we will let every one know how this fork in the road is playing out.  And Pepe may do some exploring of Mexico on his own, so he will share those adventures as well.

And be sure to check out our Quotes page – updated specifically for our new situation!

Thanks for understanding, and please stay in touch -

Erik, Pepe, & Apollo

Posted in Pause - Summer/Fall 2012 | 10 Comments

Yucatan, Mexico Help Exchange

Posted from Isla Aguada, Campeche, Mexico.

On Friday, May 11 we arrived at a ranch in the northern Yucatan Peninsula for another Help Exchange stay.  It’s been almost five months since our last HelpX stint (click on the Help Exchange category on the right side of your screen to read about the others), so we were looking forward to working outdoors, meeting new people, staying put for two weeks, and not spending money.  But this situation didn’t work out exactly as we anticipated.

View of the first house from the second house - lots of work to do on the land

The owner of the ranch was born in Belgium, lived in the U.S. for over twenty years, and then eventually bought this ranch seven years ago in the state of Yucatan.  He escorted us to the ranch from a neighboring village because he warned us that finding the entrance is too difficult for people who had never been there before.  That was a good sign that it would be nice and secluded.  He also asked us to buy a hammock since the workers sleep in hammocks but he was short one.  We instead volunteered to sleep in Maggi.  So we were now, in essence, camping and working.


Misha gives a tour of some of the trees

The idea of this ranch is to be self-sustaining, like several others of our HelpX stays.  Solar power, wind power, and small batteries are used for the day to day runnings of the farm.  There is a motor in the well which pumps out the water that he uses for every aspect of life here, from drinking (after filtering it, of course) to cooking to flushing the toilet to watering the trees.  Funny thing about solar power… when there was no sun (even temporarily) there was no water.  That was definitely an adjustment.  When your task is to water 20 trees and the water hose is directly connected to the sun and there are a lot of clouds in the sky, well, it takes a while.

Papaya trees

The farm has banana, papaya, citrus, and a couple of other fruit trees.  Bananas are to be the main dietary starch on the ranch, but unfortunately not a single banana was available for consumption while we were there.  He also raises snails, the only source of ranch-raised protein, which again we weren’t able to try.  There are no other animals being raised for food but there is a dog, a cat, and countless lizards.  Right now his main vegetable crop are radishes, but there are also some cacti, the paddles of which are edible once they’ve been cleaned and peeled (called nopales).  And although there are a few tomato plants here and there, they are not getting the attention they need at the moment.  Papaya are definitely the most prolific crop at this moment, and the one we’ve been eating quite a lot of.  Everyday.

The second cement house

The owner has been working on construction of a second cement house, which will be used for future HelpX workers.  During our first work day, a snake tried to join in the construction fun, but after some careful prodding and directing, it was shown the door before Misha the resident German Shepherd had a chance to play with it.


Misha was there to supervise everything

There wasn’t a lot of variety in our daily activities.  Together we did plenty of weeding, but usually we were occupied with separate tasks.  One of us spent the mornings doing hard manual labor, such as excavating the rocky earth for dirt (a precious commodity here and obviously necessary when growing trees and vegetables) and carrying concrete construction blocks by hand around the farm; the other of us took over kitchen duty, making meals on the one gas burner, utilizing the electricity only when the wind turbine had provided ample, and washing dishes outside in buckets of well water because there is no sink – anywhere.

Hmm… which one of us was hauling dirt in buckets and sweating through his clothes in the hot morning sun while the other was indoors learning how to make bread in a pan on the burner or spaghetti in a pressure cooker with virtually no water in a kitchen that was, in actuality, a closet?

The kitchen in the closet

Erik on radish duty (nice ankle brace)

Well – you are ALL wrong.  Pepe was the laborer while Erik was the cook.  Believe it!  Pepe has the blisters to prove it (at least five on his hands in the first day alone).  Erik has been dealing with some ankle discomfort lately, and just walking on the ranch is difficult for anyone because the ground is so uneven and rocky.  Therefore, being inside the house was good for Erik’s ankle and besides, no one is as talented at washing dishes as Erik – and he was a great cook while we were there.  (Ask him about his spaghetti with green papaya - ¡Delicioso!)

Where Pepe worked everyday. Kind of like prison, right?

Pepe, along with the only other worker there (and he being from Oregon), chipped and hammered away at rocks and dirt, carrying buckets to another part of the farm to deposit into tree beds of the future.  Pepe also watered trees, which involved hooking up a car battery to a pump inside a fish and plant water tank (are you still with us?) and using a giant hose to direct the water to the citrus trees.  It’s all very clever and uses surprisingly little energy, but the systems took a little getting used to.

The reservoir, from whence came our shower water

There was, thankfully, an indoor toilet, but it had to be flushed by dumping a bucket of water into it.  The water for the toilet and the shower was supplied by a reservoir that had to be filled everyday with the hose from the well, which again, only worked when there was sunshine.  (There wasn’t always sunshine.)  We also had a period of a few days where the reservoir water was contaminated by some frogs who, under cover of darkness, made their way inside and laid their eggs.  So, for a few days, the water was full of frog eggs, and then for a few days after that it was full of tadpoles.  This made our daily water distribution – not to mention the debate of whether or not to take a shower – rather tricky.  Eventually the owner flushed and cleaned out the reservoir.  But it took him awhile to attend to this matter, because he was preoccupied with other issues…

Some of the snail beds

…The immigration system in Mexico is, in one word, inconsistent.  Some may argue that is it also disorganized and can be unfair.  And just recently new rules went into effect.  Soon after we arrived on the farm, the owner had his normal annual meeting with the immigration office in Yucatan.  After living here for seven years without a problem, this year they informed him that unless he transferred rather substantial amounts of money to his Mexican bank every month (the exact amount was calculated based upon the minimum wage in Mexico), he would have to leave the country.  Being unable to comply with their financial demand, they gave him eight days to pack up and go.

A solar "oven" for heating water for cooking

So, arriving back at the farm on Tuesday night, he was obviously distracted.  The good news is that he can change his “level” of citizenship and just live every six months on a tourist visa if he wants to.  The bad news is that it’s impractical – not to mention unfair – for someone who has lived here for so long, hires local workers, contributes to the economy, etc.  We’re not sure what is going to happen; all we know is that he left the ranch early Saturday morning (one week after we arrived) with hopes to fly to Brazil for a couple of weeks and then probably return.

Miss Kitty and family

Being a good guy, the owner allowed us to stay on the ranch for a few more days after he left.  We had a safe place to park and live, and even the keys to the house to use the water filter and kitchen.  We also agreed to take care of Misha and Miss Kitty (who recently had three kittens) and to continue watering the trees – based on the cooperation of the sun, of course.  There will, however, be no more hauling of dirt.

It was about a 10-foot jump into the cenote

We should also mention that as workers it wasn’t just all work and no play.  We worked mainly in the mornings; it wasn’t necessarily cooler than the afternoons (although maybe a little), but the sun was usually out in the mornings which meant water was more readily available.  By noon we would stop working and either eat lunch or head to the cenote, a big water-filled hole in the earth in which we swam (sometime in lieu of a shower).  We don’t know how deep it really was, but a local farmer tried to measure it and at 60 meters deep gave up.  There were also a couple of really friendly local workers who came by a couple of times per week, and they would work and hang out with us and let us practice our Spanish on them.  At night we would all use up some of the stored electricity from the wind turbine and watch a DVD (usually history-based) and then an episode of “Seinfeld.”

Camping at the ranch after everyone else was gone

Although our time on the farm was enjoyable, we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to learn a whole lot about the systems of operation because of the owner’s situation with immigration and early departure.  The weather was interesting, being virtually surrounded on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico.  It was hot, sunny, and humid, but there were usually plenty of passing clouds – and they pass with great velocity here.  It was also very breezy, sometimes just plain windy.  But we also enjoyed the many different birds and their interesting songs (nothing like those in Minnesota); we’ve never seen freely flying birds with such bright reds, oranges, yellows, and blues in their feathers.  Butterflies were also plentiful, gorgeous, and varied in many sizes and colors.  Then there were the countless frogs and lizards, lizards during the daytime and frogs in the evenings.  And so many unidentifiable sounds in the night: “Was that a frog or some type of bird?”

After staying at the farm until Wednesday, we headed back out on the road (four days earlier than we originally planned, before of the immigration complication).  We are camping and moving slowly west.  West?  Why west?  We were supposed to head south to Belize.

Big announcement coming up in a couple of days…

Posted in Help Exchanges | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

La música de Oaxaca

Posted from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

The music of Oaxaca

If you make it to the end of this post, there is a video!!

Our original plan (many months ago) was to spend two weeks in Oaxaca.  Then one day while looking at the calendar, we realized that there were several reasons why extending our stay would be a more practical idea: we wouldn’t be traveling during Semana Santa (the week before Easter which is the most popular vacation week in all of Latin America), we would guarantee ourselves a place to stay during Semana Santa, our rental cost would actually be less per week because we were committing to a longer duration in one place, and we really didn’t need all that much time to get to Tulum afterwards.

Gotta love it

What we didn’t expect, however, was that we would hit the jackpot in terms of celebrations in the inspiring city of Oaxaca.  Sure, Semana Santa was bound to provide us with new things to see, processions, maybe fiestas, but we expected things to quiet down afterwards and then experience the city when everything was just usual and normal.  But I’m not sure Oaxaca has a speed labelled “usual” or “normal”.  Oaxaqueños (residents of Oaxaca) like to celebrate for any reason, and they celebrate with music.  And while we were there, they had a great reason: they were celebrating their 480th anniversary.  Not too shabby.  Sure, there was food, dancing, and art as well, but music is where Oaxaca really puts it out there, and we were bombarded with performances of all different kinds of music in all different places.  And it was a great education for a musician from the U.S.

Even without special festivals, there is music literally in the streets.  I don’t know why, but Oaxaca seems to be a hotbed of street musicians.  Around the perimeter of the Zócalo is a string of restaurants facing into the park itself.  And usually standing in between the diners and the trees are musicians, hoping to win a fan or make a couple of extra pesos.  Roaming mariachi bands, singing the folk music that everyone there knows and loves (la música ranchera, as it is known), were staples of this area during the evenings, often until midnight.  Usually comprised of five guys with a couple of guitars, a couple of trumpets, and a violin, they would stroll about with their repertoire of well under ten songs and enchant not just tourists but locals as well.  It wasn’t uncommon to catch them swapping instruments before heading to their next encounter.  To be frank, nothing was ever pitch-perfect with these guys but everything was from the heart, and they had plenty charm and character to spare, so no one really noticed or cared about any little imperfections.  Including yours truly.  Well, usually.

All musicians circling the Zócalo usually did a good job of discreetly taking turns.  You would also see a solo serenader, strumming chords on his guitar while using his tenor to sing of his love; you might find yourself scurrying out of the way of the elderly gentleman who carried his unprotected trombone in one hand while pushing his walker in front of him (bless his heart) stopping every now and then and crank out a tune on his trombone (again, bless his heart); or you might find a quartet of high-school-aged boys, each strumming a guitar, trying to endear themselves to the public (keep practicing, boys!).

In one corner of this area there was a regular marimba ensemble: two marimbas (three to four players) and percussion.  These guys played hot, lively music that had people spontaneously dancing and clapping along.  On Wednesday nights, a different marimba band would perform Cuban and Cuban-inspired music while men in suits and women in nice dresses would show the rest of us gawkers what it really means to dance.

You can't throw a stone without hitting a marimbist - not that you'd want to.

The marimbists here boggle my mind: first of all, there are so many of them; secondly, they play the marimba as easily as if had been doing it in the womb.  American percussionists train long and hard on this instrument which most of them do not own and rarely are called upon to play.  One thing, though: the marimbas here aren’t always in tune.  They take a lot of beating, they get moved every single day, and usually it’s just more practical to play an out-of-tune marimba than not play one at all.  But again, it’s like the mariachi bands: there is plenty of heart and energy to cover up those little things.

On the streets themselves, the instrument of choice seems to be… the accordion!  (My grandmother would have loved that!)  Within only maybe a dozen blocks, I knew of at least six different accordionists.  The accordions were usually modest little instruments, and the tunes were Mexican and Oaxacan folk tunes.  Again, each player only had a repertoire of maybe five to eight songs.

Pepe's first accordion lesson

I know it is going to sound crazy, but one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had on this trip so far was befriending one of these accordionists.  His name is Juan, he is 13 years old, and he plays the accordion in the street every night (except Sundays).  One night I started chatting with him about his accordion, and many nights thereafter I visited him for a while.  He genuinely seemed to enjoy talking with me (and making fun of my Spanish errors), but I also knew that the more we chatted, the less he played, and therefore the fewer tips he made.  So sometimes I would talk to him, find out that he doesn’t even know the names of the notes, then I would leave him alone for a while so that he could play and so that I could find some French fries and sodas for us.  Juan had only been playing a year, knew six songs by heart, would like to play in a rock band someday, and his father and sister also play accordion in the street.  It’s an interesting life, and I had so many questions, but I didn’t want to overstep any boundaries.  But he did me the ultimate honor of allowing me (I didn’t ask – he offered) the opportunity to play his accordion.  I know something about the accordion, how it works, and the layout of the left hand, so I did my best at “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  My public debut is on the video below (The passers-by really seemed to get a kick out of it.)

The state band of Oaxaca with lights and everything!

In Europe and for the most part in the U.S., the orchestra is the ensemble of high esteem.  In Mexico, the concert band reigns supreme.  Oaxaca has an official state band, and they are fantastic.  Our first week there we saw them perform in the Zócalo, mainly classical orchestral works arranged for band, but they were musical and polished – and in tune!  There is another, maybe more popular-minded, band that performs several times a week in the Zócalo as well; they do marches and typical folk music of Mexico.  Children’s bands and school bands seem to pop up everywhere as well, and it’s another bizarre thing: when these kids are performing well-known folk music, such as songs about Oaxaca or Mexico, they usually don’t even need the printed page in front of them.  (This was proven to us at an outdoor concert when a breeze blew some music off the stands and everyone just continued to play as if nothing had happened.)

Adorable - and they really didn't need the music

Little marching bands always accompany a street procession, such as during Semana Santa or even, as I’ve seen, a funeral procession, and no one ever seems to need music.  At an Easter celebration complete with a blazing fireworks displays (also on the video below), the accompanying band was incredibly high energy, played forever without stopping, and honestly seemed to have the easiest time in the world with all the rhythmic intricacies inherent in the folk music of this region.  (For those of you who care: the fluidly alternating between 6/8 and 3/4 is a hallmark of this music, and everyone here does it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, while amateur Western-trained musicians never seem to grasp neither the sound nor the concept all that easily.)  I couldn’t decide what to give my visual attention to: the fireworks or that wacky band of silly young men who were obviously having as much fun performing as we were having listening (and, of course, they were not using music).

It’s inspiring how many young people seem to play a band instrument here, and it’s interesting to note how this culture of band – or even la música ranchera seems to have infiltrated Mexican pop music.  Sure, you’ll find trumpets, saxophones, and violins in a lot of pop music, but don’t be surprised to see Sousaphones or trombones as well.  Or accordions, for that matter.  It definitely gives modern Mexican pop music a unique flavor of its own, with a proud nod to its own roots.

Chamber orchestra on the stage

In the week that was devoted to the 480th anniversary celebration, there was music everywhere and at all times.  Every morning in the mercados, while you were drinking your chocolate caliente and eating breakfast, guitars, pan flutes, marimbas, and/or trumpets would serenade you.  In the evenings we saw a brass quintet perform outdoors, we saw two orchestras perform in the beautiful theater (one was like a decent community orchestra (missing a few wind players) and the other was an excellent professional chamber orchestra specializing in 17th and 18th century music), we saw the bands that were mentioned above, we saw three funny caballeros with guitars singing la música ranchera, we saw a fun party band with plenty of brass instruments and dance steps, we saw children’s choirs and children’s guitar ensembles, and we also saw maybe the most interesting (but, in my mind, not the most successful) attempt at colliding musical

More adorableness

genres: Gregorian chant, performed by a legitimate chant ensemble, being backed up by a heavy metal band.  I appreciated the idea but didn’t love the result.  Erik, however, thought it was great.  The band itself was okay, but it was this performance of la música ranchera (after the chanters left the stage, of course) of all the ones I had experienced all week that was the least inspiring for me.  Something about unoriginal transcriptions of tunes like “Viva, Oaxaca,” on electric guitars didn’t move me.

Mariachi Oaxaca entertaining the masses

But easily my favorite performance of the week: Mariachi Oaxaca, a mariachi band of four fiddles (all ladies), three guitars, and three trumpets (father and two sons) that absolutely had me on the edge of my chair and asking Erik if there were money in the budget to buy their CDs.  Me!  The guy who meticulously prepared Mahler and Shostakovich for his final performances on the podium, fell gaga for mariachi music.  But these guys (and gals) were head-and-shoulders WAY above the regular mariachi bands who perform in the Zocalo.  They were rock stars, and the crowd (and I) could not get enough.  I only wish I had known all the lyrics like the people sitting next to me or could have understood all the jokes that the hammy brother was constantly tossing out while his more serious-minded younger brother was beautifully singing, trumpeting, or fiddling.  Heads-up to the MPO: they even did “Huapango” (the whole thing) on their ten instruments and it was AWESOME.

Ah…. what else to say.  There is a lot more to say (such as, I think part of the “Mexican sound” has a lot to do with the musicians in an ensemble tuning their instruments separately but not tuning to each other), but I’m blabbering too much in this post as it is.

Music and dancing to celebrate

But I will conclude with the observation that this celebration, with all the music around Oaxaca, was not being shoved down people’s throats.  Oaxaqueños love it.  They know all the words, they stand for specific songs, and their heart swells with pride upon hearing this music.  I can’t think of a correlation in the U.S. when it comes to music.  Sure, many people can recognize “When Johnny Come Marching Home,” but the vast majority of Americans don’t know the words, what it means, or why it was written; and from generation to generation our musical “heritage” is fading away and being replaced by… well, let’s not go there.

Do you have 10 minutes?  Check out this video collage of musical samples that Erik put together.  Mariachi Oaxaca is there, chant + heavy metal is there, Pepe in the street playing accordion is there.  We may not have always had the best seat (frequently we were actually behind the ensemble), but the music is fun to listen to.

Food + Music = Oaxaca.  What more is there?

Coming up: tales from our current Help Exchange.  It was, uh, different…

Posted in Mexico | Tagged , | 9 Comments