Friday, August 29, 2014

Trouble in Paradise

Paradise - 99% of the time!
Arrggh!  There are a few, rare, occasions that living in a foreign country, in a foreign culture and not being fluent in the local language can make us crazy with frustration.

We seldom “bitch” about anything in this blog, preferring instead to keep it upbeat and positive, but this week Home Depot Cancun pushed all of our buttons; the Frustrated Button, the Annoyed Button, and the dreaded Crabby Button.

We have four ceiling fans in our house, one in each bedroom, and two on the downstairs floor that have been working just fine for the last seven years but were getting to the end of their usefulness. Rust, corrosion, and squeaky motors: it was time to replace them all.

The store we love to hate.
Lawrie and I went into Cancun to Home Depot and purchased four matching Hampton Bay fans – made in China and sold exclusively by Home Depot and not available anywhere else. 

The fans were a decent price, dark brown fake palm leaf-shaped blades, exterior quality so they should last for quite awhile, well, until at least one week before ten-year warranty expires that is.

When we got back to the island we called Patricio, our friend who built our home seven years ago, asking him if his electricians could install the fans. Jose, Benito, and a new trainee Juan were at our house within a few minutes. Within an hour or so the guys had all four fans installed, but only three worked.  Jose tested all the circuits and connections still nothing happening with the fourth fan. I said no worries, just take it down and put it back in the box. I'll return it to Home Depot tomorrow.

Three fans installed and working just great.
Jose grinned at me, said something to the other guys making them laugh aloud. He went on to say in Spanish something about Lawrie should have lunch, go to a movie, and doing a bit of shopping while I waited at Home Depot. 

I nodded and laughed in that polite not-quite-understanding-way that everyone uses now and again when you have absolutely no idea what the other person saying.

The following day we headed back to Cancun to exchange the fan. 

Got the original receipt? Check. Fan and all the original parts? Check. Original box? Check. Okay, good to go. We will just pop in and exchange it for an identical one. Easy.

At the Home Depot return counter we explained in Spanglish that the fan was not operating, and we would like to exchange it for a new one. Lawrie went ahead into the store to make sure they had more in stock. He loaded one into a cart and returned to wait patiently with me at the returns counter.

Hanging out at the returns counter - waiting, waiting.
The first clerk looked at the receipt, then she looked at me, looked at the box and re-checked the receipt and huffed indignantly. She took all the parts out of the box to look at them. Well, I was impressed. She must have had the parts list memorized. 

She could tell just by poking and prodding at the various little bags that we hadn't secretly held back any of the parts; that we didn't keep any of the 16 pieces of part AA Blade attachment hardware, or the 3 of part BB wire connecting nuts, or the 5 of part G Blade bracket screws, or the 1 EE a balancing kit, or even the 1 HH pull chain. What an amazing memory she must have.

Another clerk was paged and everyone repeated the process; look at us, the receipt, the box, poke at the parts, and look at us again. Nothing had been said up to this point by any of the staff members. 

The parts list
We are now feeling vaguely sleazy. We were certain the staff thought that we had somehow managed to steal this fan out from under the noses of the cashiers and security guards. 

These are the same security guards who are located ten feet from the cashiers, and consistently check every bag, box and item before stamping the receipt and allowing the customer to exit the store.

We are still waiting at the returns desk and a third clerk is paged. Same routine. Still no one is saying anything. We are now hitting the thirty-minute mark. I asked if there was a problem. No answer, instead a fourth clerk is called via a portable radio. He explains that since I had already been back to the store to return a fan I must have another receipt, that the one I had presented to them was incorrect.

Really? We purchased the fans two days previously. We live on Isla Mujeres. We have not been back to Cancun, or Home Depot to exchange any fans until today. This is the original receipt. All we want to do is exchange one non-working fan for a hopefully working fan. (Can you tell, my Crabby Button has just been pushed?)

The four clerks exchange knowing glances: “Whoa, Crabby Person! Better call in the big boss.” The department head is paged. He tests the motor to be sure that we aren't lying. It will work - if he pushes it with his fingers - but will not start on its own. No problem. He nods, and tells them to go ahead and do the exchange. He then repackages the defunct item and places it back on the shelf with the other fans that are for sale. Problem solved.

Headed home to Isla
At five minutes short of an hour we exit Home Depot with our replacement ceiling fan. Back home on Isla, I sent a text to Jose, and he was there within minutes to install it. 

That's when we read the 10-year warranty fine print: the warranty document must be stamped and signed at the time of purchase at the store where the product was sold. 

Are you kidding me? We were supposed to open the box at the store, read the warranty document, get it stamped and signed before we left the store! 

Double Arrggh!

And just to be clear, Home Depot Cancun is not the only store that teaches their staff to provide poor customer service. 

It is very common. We marvel at our Mexican friends who nonchalantly accept indifferent treatment boarding on rudeness. 

They just shrug their shoulders and laugh: It's Mexico.

So, we take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine and sit on our ocean side patio. 
This is the real reason we live in Mexico. We enjoy the climate, we enjoy our island and our waterfront casa, and we truly do enjoy the Mexican culture – most of the time.

Paradise - reclaimed!

Oh, and did we mention the new fan squeaks like a rat caught in a trap? Sigh, looks like we will be visiting our “favourite” store again: Home Depot in Cancun.


Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Friday, August 22, 2014

Off the beaten path

So, you've been to Isla a time or two and are getting slightly bored with hanging out at the beach all day.  

It might be a perfect time for you to explore, by golf cart, moto or bicycle, some of the local neighbourhoods instead of following the usual route along the perimeter road.

A decent map will help with your explorations.   

Laura McFarlin – the MapChick – produces a handy-dandy map and travel guide for the island.  Her map is available for sale at the hotel reception office of Marina Paraiso, located on Rueda Medina just a couple of minutes south of the whale shark statue.  

While you are at the office purchasing your map you might want to make a quick stop at Barlito's @ Marina Paraiso for a coffee and one of Brad's almost-world-famous Cinnamon Buns.  Yum!  Raisins, cinnamon, icing – three of our favourite food groups!

Okay, got your supplies? Camera?  Bottled water? Then let's go.
Head south along Rueda Medina, until you see the naval housing complex on the left side of the road.  

It is painted bright orange with a tall white perimeter fence, and a guard at the gate.  Turn left at the next street and slowly weave your way up and down the short blocks of the Caridad del Cobra and Canotal neighbourhoods.  

Located between the Salinas Grande (a land-locked salty lake) and the perimeter road this is a quiet residential area.  

Please be respectful and keep a sharp eye out for kids, cats and dogs playing in the roadway.  

A number of the roads will dead-end at the salinas or turn into pedestrian pathways necessitating turning around and retracing your route to the next through-street. 

Many of the houses in these two neighbourhoods are painted in eye-catching colour combinations of pink, purple, green, yellow, turquoise, or orange.  

Most of the really colourful houses seem to be on the streets with bird names; streets named Flamenco, Fragata, Garza Azul, Garza Blanca, Cormoran, and Aquila.  I also discovered a few on Manglero (Raccoon Street).  Unfortunately not all the streets have visible signage.  Time + sea salt = disintegration of everything metal.  

Don't assume you will always find a name for the road you are driving on.  Our road-trip theory has always been: if you don't know where you are headed, you can't get lost.  Just enjoy the experience.

And as we all know, driving in the tropical heat can be thirsty work.  Oscar's Pizza & Restaurante is on the main road, Rueda Medina.  Along the roadside entrance are a dozen or so huge wooden chairs made from the trunks of trees with twisted branches forming the back and arms.  

It's is a good place to have a cool beverage and if you are lucky enough to be there after 5:00 in the afternoon when Michael and the crew fire up the pizza ovens, well, the New York-style pizzas are amazing as are the delicious garlic knots.  Garlic knots; another favourite food group in our house!

Get out there and explore the island.  You will be glad you did.

Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Friday, August 15, 2014

Waitin' on the African Queen

Abandoned boat  near  El Cuba Ron Restaurante
Relaxing on with a cold beverage on a dock-side bar we watch the boats slip past; there are colourful fishing pangas, and charter boats, and whale shark tour boats returning for the evening. Lush vegetation overhangs the languid blue-green water. 

Laughter. Tropical heat. Music. 

It could be the movie set from the 1951 movie, The African Queen, staring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

Colourful panga-style fishing boat
That movie was made the year I was born, and was considered to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the US Library of Congress. 

That's an unusual honor considering in the movie Humphrey Bogart was portrayed as being a quirky and cantankerous Canadian while Katherine Hepburn was a proper, well-mannered Englishwoman.

View from new upper deck at El Cuba Ron
However, on this particular afternoon Lawrie and I are sitting on the new upper deck of the Varadero, also known as El Cuba Ron Restaurante, on Isla Mujeres. 

According to owner Rafael Burgos Rios the name Varadero means a place where boats are built, maintained, and repaired. His grandfather originally used the waterfront property to build and repair boats for island fishermen.

One of Rafael's family members
Born on Isla Mujeres on Mexican Independence Day in 1957 Rafael has Cuban, Spanish, and Mayan ancestors. His ancestors have been on Isla since 1896. His wife Ana Jimenez, on the other hand, was born in Havana Cuba, moving to Isla Mujeres when she married Rafael. 

When Rafael graduated from school he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, cousins, and uncles – working the boats that circulated on a trade route from Florida to Central America. The sailing ships brought oil, maize, medical supplies, shoes, clothing, and the mail. For the return trip the captains loaded live lobsters and turtles destined for American restaurants.

Ana and Rafael
For the first twelve years of operation - El Cuba Ron restaurante - was located on Guerrero Avenue in the funky old building where Pita Amour is now. Then thirteen years ago Rafael decided to move the business to the family owned property on the canal that leads to Laguna Makax. 

Built on the western side of the island near the big boat repair yard it's a great place to hang out on an afternoon, or to enjoy a tasty dinner later in the evening. 

On weekends a Cuban band plays great music from mid-afternoon to early evening.

Rafael outside the entrance
The menu selections include a number of tasty fish, chicken and pork dishes prepared in the traditional Cuban style. 

We also really enjoy their guacamole and Lawrie is a big fan of their mojitos. Mojitos are addictive and sneaky! They are a refreshing drink made with white rum, soda water, sugar, lime and crushed mint. 

The deceptively innocent taste makes it is easy to forget how many you have consumed.

Guest singer at El Cuba Ron Restaurante
While we were enjoying the sunshine, the music, and the ambiance a couple of large cruisers rafted alongside the restaurant – their passengers eager to join the fun. 

One youngster confidently stepped up to the band leader and asked if he could join the group. Pretty soon everyone was dancing and singing along to the tunes.

Well, the boat called the African Queen never did pass by, nor did we see Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn but it was still a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

Try it! You'll like it!

Waterside view of El Cuba Ron Restaurante

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

Friday, August 8, 2014

Isla explodes with creativity and colour!

Artist: Saner, on Palacio Municipal      Photo L.Lock
In an explosion of colour and mythical creatures the Sea Walls – Murals for Oceans project blasted its way onto Isla Mujeres. 

Fifteen artists from USA, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Spain arrived on Isla in mid-July for the start of a nine day urban art festival. 

The event would eventually see the creation of a multitude of eye-popping murals decorating blank walls of various public and private buildings.

Pangeseed: protection of endangered marine life
Ruben Perez, the Director of Culture for the Municipality of Isla Mujeres was approached last February by the sponsoring organization asking for assistance for the program; assistance gaining permission to paint specific walls on public and private buildings.  In conjunction with Pangeaseed, World Art Destinations, 1XRUN, Residencia Gorila, and Juxtapoz Latin America supplied the funding to make the event happen. is an international organization that collaborates with members of the art, science, and environmental activist communities to raise awareness of sharks and other marine species in peril.

Artists - on FB page of Sea Walls for Oceans
When I asked “why Isla Mujeres” as a location for this amazing project Liz Rashell Creative Director at World Art Destinations said the project organizers “chose Isla Mujeres, México cause Isla Mujeres serves as the nursery of the Caribbean and is on the migratory path of whale sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and large schools of fish.” That sounds to me like a great reason to celebrate with colour and beauty. 

Artist: Pelucas, on Guerrero  Photo L. Lock
As inspiration for the murals the artists were taken out to swim with the whale-sharks and manta rays, to give them an idea of how big, and how benign these gorgeous creatures are. And then the fun began! Spraying, painting, daubing in temperatures hovering around 32C the artist brought to life their fantasy creatures, depicting a wild assortment of marine life and of course our world famous whale-sharks.

We, and a number of other islanders, have spent the last two weeks trying to locate and photograph all of the murals. 

It's a bit like a scavenger hunt – as the website map is more of a suggestion where the images might be found. Driving around in centro can be a bit hazardous at the best of times because the one-way-street system is very poorly marked. Add to that rubber-necking art enthusiasts who are attempting to snap photos while driving past the working artists. It got a bit interesting at times. 

Artist: Cinzah Seekayem on Madero    Photo L. Lock
I resorted to sitting in the back of the golf cart while Lawrie drove, allowing me to take photos as we located the murals.  Finally I found the last one I was looking for painted high up on the Hotel Osorio on Madero Street. 

It's a fun painting called “The Traveler” by Cinzah Seekayem. The mural faces west on a one-way street but it see it requires twisting your neck around and up. 

To take the photo I had to park the golf cart, climb up on the front grill and balance on one foot – I have a broken toe on my right foot so I couldn't put any pressure on that foot. (The silly stuff we do to take photos for this blog!)

Artists: Local students across from school  Photo L. Lock
In amongst the official murals are a few that were done by other artists joining in the fun. The one near the middle school appears to be a collection of complimentary images painted by sixteen local students. 

It a vivid mural done in orange, pink and green depicting Mayan ancestors, whale-sharks, manta rays, and sailfish. It is one of our favourites, although truth be told we like them all!

Artist: Curiot at the entrance to Mercado  Photo L. Lock
The fifteen artists had such a good time on Isla Mujeres, they are willing to return next year with more artists to paint more murals!  Wow! If they run out of blank spaces to fill - we would happily volunteer an exterior wall of our house.

Thank you Tristan Eaton, Tatiana Suarez, Vexta, Saner, Smithe , Nosego, Curiot, Meggs, Aaron Glasson, Shark Toof, Hannah Stouffer, Pelucas, Cinzah Seekayem, Yoh Nagao, and Celeste Byers adding colour and fun to our island.

Artist: NoseGo on back of Mercado  Photo L. Lock

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

Artist: Tatiana Suarez official web photo

Friday, August 1, 2014

Apache Mtz – little of this, and a little of that

How long has your family lived on Isla Mujeres?” I asked. “For forever,” he replied with his huge infectious grin, “since the beginning, when the first families settled on Isla.”

I'm curious, what's your real name?”

He smiled again, and laughed. “It doesn't matter, no one knows me by that name. I use Apache, because my dad was called Indio. My grandfather gave him the name because as a little boy my dad was tough. He never cried even when strapped with a belt for stowing away on my grandfather's fishing boat instead of going to school. Dad loved fishing; he hated school. My grandfather admired his son's toughness and started calling him Indio as a nickname.”

Indio's name is synonymous with two island businesses. The Indio's Beach Club on the southwest side of the island was a popular place for people to hang out and enjoy a laid-back island experience. Then in 2005 Hurricane Wilma hit the island leaving a path of destruction through the beach property; the sand shifted over to the Cancun side of the bay, their buildings were damaged, and the golf carts that were stored on the property were destroyed. It was a devastating event for the family.

The other business, Indio's Golf Cart Rentals, was started in 1994. Apache helped out at the family business from the time he was twelve years old. After assessing the hurricane damage in 2005 Indio decided to close the business, but Apache said he was interested in carrying on. He started operations with the four remaining useable golf carts. By 2014 Apache had increased the stock of golf carts to sixteen vehicles by creating a little niche market; they offer 24-hour assistance. If a rental customer needs help it is only a cell phone call away. Clients are supplied with phone numbers for Adrian, the office manager, who is fluent in English.

Just for interest sake I asked how many golf carts were available for rent on the island. With pen and paper Adrian and Apache did a quick tally estimating that there are twenty golf cart rental companies on Isla Mujeres with a total of approximately 580 carts available for rent. Even so many island rental companies are sold out during the busy times of the year, including the summer holidays. That bit of information really surprised me.

More recently Apache has branched out into deep sea fishing, acquiring a thirty-six foot boat in partnership with friends. The two family-owned pangas (small open fishing boats) were not comfortable for off-shore fishing with clients. The bigger boat has air-conditioning and cozy interior quarters. 

He is hoping to attract more couples – people who want the full experience. His off-shore trips will start early in the day with fishing, then return to the Indio's beach club property to cook the catch while enjoying music and drink a cold beverage or two. It's island life as it used to be.

With two sons and two daughters Apache and his wife Arlina are hoping the family businesses will live on with the next generation. He has fond memories of fishing with his dad, and of learning English from his dad's clients. 

Isauro Martinez Magaña May 2013

He has several old photos displayed on the walls of Indio's Golf Cart rentals on Medina Avenue, photos of his dad in his younger years enjoying life and following his passion: fishing. Unfortunately Indio passed away in August of 2013, at the still young-at-heart age of 64 years.

One last question” I said to Apache as I gathered up my things, “I have to know your real name, not knowing is driving me crazy!”

Okay, okay!” he grinned, giving in to my cheeky persistence, “It's Isauro Martinez Polanco.” He was named after his dad, whose first name was also Isauro.

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie

How to find Apache:  or on FaceBook Isla Mujeres Indio Golf Carts and Apache's Searious Fishing.

PS: the photos are from Apache's collection, except the one of the golf cart, that one I took looking down from our upper patio.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Odd Jobs – part two

Breadman in Centro
Yes, I know, I recently wrote about “Unusual Jobs, Not Available in Canada” but it is a subject that continues to intrigue us, the ingenious ways that hardworking islanders earn a living. 

The most visible are the street vendors who walk or cycle daily around the neighbourhoods many with their individual sales pitch or chant, anything to get the attention of potential customers.

Every morning around dawn, when I am out walking our little dog Sparky, a middle-aged man pedals his heavy bicycle cart along our street. The cart is so heavy he is forced to get off and push it up the two not-quite hills. 

 As he passes he calls out to the construction workers who are just starting their day: “Hay tamales. Hay masa.” It roughly translates to: Here are tamales, here is masa. Masa is a very popular corn dough used for making tortillas or tamales.

One of the Tamale salesmen
Many construction workers typically live on site to provide security for building supplies until the house is completed. Grocery stores are not always nearby and the labourers really appreciate having cooked food delivered to their work place. 

Filled with bits of chicken or pork, spices, onions, and chilies the substantial tamales provide much needed nutrition at the start of a long, hot, work day.

Construction workers appreciate cooked food delivery
The question that flickers through my brain when I see the tamale salesman is: How early does he get up if he is already pedaling past our house at six in the morning? Does his wife stay up all night to prepare the tamales, trying to sleep during the frequently noisy and hot daylight hours?

Youngster selling corn 

Even youngsters frequently pitch in to help out with family finances. Awhile ago, when we were visiting friends at the Guadalupana settlement, I noticed a young teen pedaling his bicycle cart through the neighbourhood. He was selling cooked corn on the cob. Presumably mom or an older sister did the preparation, and he was responsible for selling the product. It's a good lesson in economics and business for the young man, but at the same time I am sure he would rather be swimming in the ocean or hanging out with his buddies.

Mamey salesmen arriving on Isla via car ferry 
As the day progresses and the heat increases a number of vendors are out and about, selling everything from seasonal vegetables, to cheese, tortillas, bread, ice cream treats, clay pots, or woven mats and bags. They trudge the streets with display cases confidentially balanced on their heads, or they trundle along the sidewalks with hand carts piled high with seasonal treats such as lychee nuts, or mamey fruit. 

 Shaped like a small rough-skinned football, the orangey-red flesh of a mamey has an intriguing flavour, tasting like a combination of sweet potato, pumpkin and peach. Islanders enjoy mamey as a wintertime treat.

Mid-afternoon snack break
Later in the evening the food carts congregate in convenient locations offering hamburgers, hotdogs, tacos or desserts. Businesses supplying take out meals, or home delivery, proliferate around the island. Few homes have large refrigerators to stockpile fruits, vegetables and meat. Most meals are prepared on small gas stoves, similar to a Coleman, or a two burner hot plate. It boggles the mind to think of how many people make a living supplying food to other islanders.

In many ways the food culture in Mexico resembles the European habits. Eating out at any one of the many economical street-side restaurants is common. For those who cook at home daily shopping turns a potentially onerous chore into a social event. Locals gossip with other shoppers as they gather up items for the day's meals. It's not about rushing around and piling items in a cart. It's about stopping and kissing a friend on the cheek, then asking how their family is, how they are, and responding with your own updates, before moving on to find one more article on your shopping list. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say: slow food, made with love.

Evening treats!

Local people are ingenious at finding ways to earn a living. They work long hours, frequently at physically demanding jobs. They also enjoy life: frequently.

Hasta Luego

Lynda & Lawrie

Friday, July 18, 2014

A surprise birthday gift becomes a life-changing event

Isla Mujeres 
Pondering where to take her husband Mark for a surprise celebration of his 50th birthday Donna Caffo remembered a sleepy little island located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Mexico: Isla Mujeres. 

It was an island she had visited as a teenager in 1980 on a very brief day-trip from Cancun.

Fishing boats and birds
When she and Mark arrived on Isla for his birthday celebration in 2004, it was love at first sight. Small family-owned restaurants littered the sandy beaches, fishing boats were pulled up above the tide line, nets and lobster pots were stacked amongst the boats. 

Island life had a slow easy rhythm. It felt authentic, comfortable, without the big-resort all-inclusive separation between local and tourist.

Views from Ixchel condos
Every year from then onward Donna and Mark vacationed on Isla Mujeres, eventually deciding they wanted something more permanent. 

Late in 2007 they purchased a penthouse unit, at the IxChel Two development, overlooking the white sand of north beach and the aquamarine water of the Caribbean Sea.

Mark Caffo at Artists' Fair 2011
It was bliss, until 2010, when life tossed them a curve ball. Mark was laid off from his systems designer/integrator position and the only work opportunities that were available to him entailed traveling 90% of the time. That did not fit with their lifestyle or goals. They brainstormed for alternative career ideas, deciding that combining Mark's passion for photography and love of the island might just be the answer. Donna and Mark launched Caribe on Canvas in October of 2011, turning beautiful photographs into affordable artwork.

Lawrie purchased a print from Mark - 2011

To make this unique product Mark (and occasionally Donna) uses a number of software programs creating prints that have the look and feel of oil paintings. The resulting artwork is printed on a canvas with a Stylus Pro Printer, then sprayed with an ultraviolet protection finish and finally the fabric is stretched onto a custom-made wooden frame. If a customer prefers the prints can be purchased unframed. Several of our friends have arranged with Mark and Donna to have photographs that are personally meaningful to them turned into colourful and eye-catching artwork. It's a great way to display your favourite images.

Mark Caffo and Abby Fox at Artists' Fair

Participants in the very first Isla Artists' Fair held in November of 2011, Donna and Mark are regular exhibitors at the monthly event. 

A recent addition to their creations included a calendar for 2014. They will also be selling prints and posters from the new Jenny Penny Beach Boutique on Matamoros beside Bobo's Bar & Grill, as well as the new Barlito's Rapido when it opens later in the year.

Next time you are on Isla look them up or if you aren't coming to Isla near future check these two websites for more information:
Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie