Friday, November 21, 2014

Isla Mujeres is Un-Discovered, Un-Forgettable, Un-Cancun!

Fishing boats at sunset
This is my favourite part of Cancun,” the woman sitting beside me said.

Quickly I swallowed my mouthful of wine, to prevent it from being snorted out through my nose. Perplexed I turned to look at her and noticed her all-inclusive resort wristband.

“Cancun?” I said, my eyebrows rising up, questioning.

Sand art - on North Beach
Yes, we are on a day trip from the hotel zone. This is my favourite part of Cancun.”

Lawrie just smiled and diplomatically said, “This isn't Cancun.  It's Isla Mujeres. We're a separate community.”


Same location - next day, are we in Cancun?
A few days later when I was walking along the shore of North Beach, I noticed a sign that someone had built in the sand. It said: Dream Trip! Yep, good assessment. The next day I passed the exact same sign and someone had changed it to read: Cancun. 

Apparently more than one tourist is confused on the concept of where Cancun is located.

Casa Sirena T-shirts 
As Steve Broin, proprietor of the delightful Casa Sirena Bed & Breakfast located in Centro, is fond of saying: Isla Mujeres is Un-Discovered, Un-Forgettable, Un-Cancun. Just a twenty-minute ferry ride from the mainland Isla is a small island hamlet where people generally know a little bit about you, or sometimes a lot, and even occasionally too much. 

Street vendor
It's a friendly, open-hearted community where ex-pats and locals co-mingle. Many long-term ex-pats tirelessly help out with local charities, animal rescue, and student educational programs. Visitors and residents can choose to very involved, or can maintain a lower profile. It's a personal preference.

Like Cancun, Isla does have four all-inclusive resorts: The Privileges Aluxes, The Mia Reef, The Isla Mujeres Palace, and now the Hotel Villa Rolandi has changed to an all-inclusive. However, most of the accommodations are located in condominiums, small quirky hotels, a large hostel, and private houses. The tourists who discover Isla usually have a more adventurous outlook on life, preferring to try something new rather than to ensconce themselves in an all-inclusive, this-could-be-any-beach-resort-in-the-world, atmosphere.

Golf carts are common transportation for locals
As soon as you step off the boat you will realize this is very un-Cancun. The first clue is the number of golf carts on the road – about 800 are available for rent, and many more are privately owned. It's a fun and unusual way to explore the island. 

Then there are numerous tiny restaurants and bars scattered throughout the various neighbourhoods, augmented by street vendors with their mobile food carts. Another clue that this is not Cancun would be the dozens of small fishing boats pulled up above the tide line, festooned with nets, anchors, and bait buckets – ready and waiting. Or perhaps the coco frio vendors, who with the whack of a sharp machete will lop the top off a coco and hand you a cool nutritious drink, all for around two dollars.

Nutritious coco water 
Unlike Cancun, the island has a huge Naval base, just to the right of the passenger ferry docks. Several Navy ships, including the fast rescue boats, are often berthed in front of the base. There is a navy hospital, barracks for single personal, and family housing as well. Frequently the enlisted personal can be seen exercising, practicing drills, or doing maintenance chores at the base. 

And the airport – well, that belongs to the Navy, but occasionally is used by visiting dignitaries or pilots who have connections. However, a word of advise; be discrete if you are taking photographs of the Navy base, or the boats. For security reasons photographers are not welcome.

Navy personal 
Isla is a tight-knit, family-oriented community. Many islanders have lived here all their lives, as have their parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and so on.

Isla is not the anything-goes party-til-you-drop atmosphere of Cancun. 
Come visit. Enjoy. Be kind to our little island and you'll have a wonderful experience, one that will keep you coming back time and again.


And please, don't make me snort my wine through my nose by telling me this is your favourite part of Cancun. 

That's wrong, just so wrong.

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

(Thanks to Steve Broin for his great quote:Un-Discovered, Un-Forgettable, Un-Cancun!)

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Friday, November 14, 2014

Only in Mexico!

Ah, sunset.  The end of another great day.
The pale tones of dusk - mauve, light pink and pale orange – are shouldered aside by the setting sun. A blaze of deep orange, red and purple colour the western sky as another great day is coming to a close. I pour two glasses of our favourite white wine and ask Lawrie to join me on the upper street-side deck for a sunset drink.

Be right there! I just have one small job I want to finish,” he hollers back. Okay, no worries. I put his glass of wine back in the refrigerator head up to the deck. Peace!
Concrete pumper truck arrives

And then it starts.

Across the street a concrete truck and a concrete pumper truck pull into in the seldom-used school basketball court. Several months ago the local government in conjunction with school administrators decided the basketball court needed a covered dome, and now the construction has started. Two sets of air brakes sigh, the hydraulic mechanism starts up as the pumper truck extends its four-sectioned boom out over the length of the basketball court. Nope. Too great a distance to be efficient. The operator retracts the pumping mechanism and moves the truck closer. Okay, let's try again. More noise and shouts as the crew positions the pump's spout and begin spewing concrete into numerous foundation forms.

Municipal worker removing loose wire
A few minutes later a municipal bucket-truck stops outside our house, reverses backwards into the thick traffic to stop mid-lane while a worker removes a low-hanging wire; all the while the truck's reverse alarm is incessantly bleating. 

Beep, beep, beep, beep. 

Our road is currently extra busy with traffic because it is the only route open to drive from one end of the island to the other. The road on western side of the island is closed for two or maybe three months, more or less, for re-paving.

But, mom, these are my favourite sandals
While the municipal truck has nearly blocked the north-bound lane, a woman driving her two children on a moto suddenly stopped in the south-bound lane. Her young son had lost his sandal. Now the non-stop traffic weaves and dodges around a small boy, the back end of the moto, and the stopped municipal truck.

"Be right there, I just have one small job to finish."

But wait, there's more. My handyman husband fires up his hand-held grinder, preparing to clean rust and corrosion from our gas stove burners.

Sparks fly. Particles of old paint and rust floats upwards, settling in my lovely glass of chilled white wine.

Street busy with dump trucks.

The last assault on my peaceful sunset enjoyment comes in the form of a large beaten-up dump truck, that rumbles past with a cheeky blast of his Jake brake, the engine retarder, producing a loud unnecessary blast of noise that is the equivalent of a middle finger salute.

Eventually everything quietened down. The municipal workers removed the fallen wire, the young boy retrieved his sandal, the traffic thinned out, and across the street in the basketball court the construction workers finished up for the night.

Busy working on the foundations for the new dome roof.
Even Lawrie eventually finished his noisy repairs and joined me with his glass of wine, but by then the sun was tucked away in bed for the night.
Tomorrow there will probably be another colourful Caribbean sunset. We'll try again to enjoy our peaceful, end of the day, ritual.

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Friday, November 7, 2014

What is your address? ¿Cuál es su dirección de la calle?

Memorable entrance
It's a simple question that often leads to long descriptive directions, similar to – we live in Colonia Cañotal next door to so-and-so's house, across from the Mini Super, look for a yellow house with green and white trim.

Mexico is not the only country in the world with a confusing system of addresses, but most of our nearby neighbours originated from Canada or the USA. We are accustomed to a numbering system that has odd numbered house on one side of the street, and even numbered houses on the other side. The numbers typically radiate out from the centre of the town or city, increasing in numerical value further from the centre. We were required by law to affix our assigned number in a visible location on the outside of the house to assist the emergency services such as police, fire and ambulance to and ensure that the postal employees could find the address.

Our casa
On the other hand our house address here on Isla is a bit of a mouthful: Casa K'aay Hà, Lote #3 Circunvalacion Aeropuerto SM 02, M 204 Isla Mujeres QR 77400 Mexico. Just for fun I emailed four of our nearby friends to ask what their official addresses were. We all live on the east side of the street within a two-block area, on a road commonly known as Aeropuerto that runs along the east-side of the island.

Of the four friends I received four different addresses. One lives on Carretera Perimetral, two live on Circunvalacion Aeropuerto, and another lives on Carretera Garrafon. 

Some of us apparently live in the neighbourhood of Colonia Rancho Alegra, while the others don't. Lawrie's sister Linda, and her husband Richard live one lot south of us so their address is almost exactly the same as ours, except they are lote #1, the lot in between us is still vacant and would be lote #2.

Along this road there are several lots numbered 1, or 2 or 3 because every time the Manzana number changes – that's the M204 in our address – the lot numbers start over again. Many of our friends have attempted to number their houses with something recognizable, something that makes sense and the result is quite interesting: #216 is south of #305, which is south of #20. In other words if you were driving from the centre of town trying to find a specific number you would see #20, then #305, then #216. It's a good way to keep everyone guessing!

Other friends have chosen to name their houses in an attempt to be easily located by postal workers, delivery personal, or emergency services. Some of the best names we have seen are slightly humorous ones such as Sandra and Carl's Casa Spanglish, Brook and Paul's Cas-A-Beer, John and Betty's Casa Piolin (Tweety Bird) or Chuck and Marcy's Casa Gallo, (Rooster is Chuck's nick-name).

Linda and Richard Grierson call their house Casa Luna Turquesa (House of the Turquoise Moon). They have an easily recognizable turquoise crescent-shaped moon attached to the upper edge of the house. Harriet and Richard Lowe, on the other hand, chose Casa Flamboyan. The name aptly describes their beautiful multi-coloured home. A number of local folks just put a plaque with their family name on the house, and that works too. When we named our house Casa K'aay Hà, we thought we were calling it the Mayan equivalent of Singing Water, as it turns out the name can mean either Song Water or Fish of the Sea!

Well, with all of these choices for addresses no wonder the postal delivery folks have a challenge making deliveries. We have been lucky, always getting great service from the post office. 

Here's three hints that might help you get good service as well:
  1. name your house, or put a number on it – anything to distinguish it from the others on your street
  2. visit the post office with a photograph of your house and get to know the employees
  3. stop by on November 12th, National Postal Workers Appreciation Day with goodies, beverages, and of course a tip. (They are only open until noon on this day.)
We also offer a bottle of cold water, or a soda to any of the delivery people hired to drop off bank statements, utility bills, or parcels. A little kindness goes a long way towards getting great service.

As for how to find us, that easy! We either say we are on Aeropuerto across from the high school basketball court, or we say we are next door to Casa Luna Turquesa. Richard and Linda have been here on Isla longer than we have, and most people know where they live.  It's simple!

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

An error correction: Along this road there are several lots numbered 1, or 2 or 3 because every time the Manzana number changes – that's the M204 in our address – the lot numbers start over again.    That should read Monzana - we have lived in this house for going on seven years, and all of our paperwork says Manzana (apple) but I just discovered the word is Monzana (block).  Too funny!

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Friday, October 31, 2014

Día de los Muertos - a family feast and celebration

Patricia, Luci, and Yani
Do you have a kiss for grandma”, Yani Medina asked her granddaughter Luci, as she reached to hold the little girl. 

Her outdoor kitchen is buzzing with conversation and laughter as family members come and go, checking on the progress of Yani's preparations for the upcoming family celebration.

Yani - chopping, chopping, chopping
Yani is making the traditional “pibe” - similar to a very large tamale - for the Mayan Hanal Pixán celebrations otherwise known as the Día de los Muertos. Delicious smells float through the warm tropical air, coming from the various pots and pans on the gas stove. 

Across the street at the middle-school the students are boisterously departing for a three-day weekend away from their studies. They carry bunches of flowers and other gifts that have decorated temporary Hanal Pixán altars honoring their departed family members. The students will celebrate Hanal Pixán again with their families on November 1st and November 2nd, eating special foods, and visiting family graves in the cemetery.

Preparing the banana leaves
By the time I arrived in her kitchen Yani had already been working for a few hours, preparing the chicken, and chopping vegetables and was ready to show me the more intricate details. 

First she removed the cooked chickens from the huge pot, and then added chopped tomatoes, onions, handfuls of an herb called ezapote, salt, and a red spice achiote to the broth.

Mixing masa, a cornmeal dough that takes time and special techniques to create, she thickened the chicken broth.

Eduardo and Patricia with decorations for birthday party
As she worked her teen-age daughter Cristina stopped by to chat, and her mother Norma Figueroa Paz came to check the proceedings. Then her son Alex dropped in. 

Next came older daughter Patricia with her husband Eduardo, and their two sweet little girls. October 30th is Luci's second birthday so in addition to creating the Hanal Pixán feast, Yani was working on eighty tamales for the party.

Manual - starting to cook the "pibe" 
A few minutes later while her husband Manual Punab prepared the charcoal BBQ to cook the “pibe”, Yani's brother Freddy Medina stopped to add his humorously helpful suggestions. 

By now there are eleven people, spanning four generations of the same family, supervising, chatting and laughing while Yani serenely carried on with her project.

Stripping the tough outer edges off the banana leaves to use as a natural string for her “pibe” parcels, she explains in a mix of Spanish and English what she is doing. Next she pats the masa dough into a circular shape and adds the upright borders that will contain the yummy mixture of chicken, vegetables, and spices. In keeping with traditional some of the chicken bones are included in the “pibe.” They represent the bones of the departed.

Norma helping out with spicy "pibe" for Manual
With the addition of the K'ol – the chicken mixture – more vegetables, and a sliced hard-boiled egg Yani's creation was finally ready for the top crust. Everything is parceled up with banana leaves and tied securely. It's a work of art. She then creates a special “pibe” for Manual's upcoming birthday. He has requested his usual twenty Serrano chili peppers and a K'ol mixture including multi-coloured, Xpelón, beans. This dish is too spicy for most of the other family members and he will likely savour his fiery treat all on his own.

All set for the top crust to go on
By now three and a half hours have quickly passed. Yani asks me to come back in another hour when the “pibe” will be ready so that I can see the finished product. 

She also sends me home with a yummy dish of the chicken mixture, and a handful of fire toasted tortillas to snack on. 

Oh my goodness! Good! By the time I drove back to our house the dish was empty. Lawrie was only able to run his finger around the bowl, tasting the residual flavours in the bowl.

Packaged in banana leaves and tied with tough outer edges
What a great experience; learning a bit more about our local friends, and having a chance for a relaxed chat. For those of you who frequent our favourite bar, the Soggy Peso, Yani's son Alex is their newest employee. His uncle, Freddy Medina, is the manager of the bar, and his cousin Joao (YoYo) has worked there for a number of years. Next time you are in the Soggy Peso, make sure you say hi to Alex.

What a lovely family! We know they will enjoy their family celebrations this weekend: Hanal Pixán, Día de los Muertos, two birthdays. Wow!

Yani - all done!

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Live like a Rock Star

Sunset at Casa de los Sueños
Holy moly!” Gail exclaimed, “that is my handwriting. I won! I won!”

Convinced that an email she had received was a scam, perhaps a sales pitch for a time-share hotel, Gail Stewart refused to believe she had won the fabulous prize being offered. To assure Gail that the offer was genuine, the hotel owner sent a second email, containing a photo of a local child holding the winning ticket, that's when she recognized her own distinctive handwriting.

2700 Square Foot Presidential Suite
The prize was a complimentary week in the 2700 square-foot Presidential Suite at Casa de los Sueños on Isla Mujeres, plus a $500.00 credit towards food and beverages. She had purchased the raffle ticket many months before from the hotel owner who was independently raising funds for the Little Yellow School House. As an middle-school educator for thirty-eight years in Westchester County, New York, Gail is an avid supporter of anything to do with the education of children. The LYSH is a local school for children with developmental disabilities; all of their funding comes from various fund-raising events on Isla.

Food for the Sunset Event - cocktail party 
Gail Stewart and Mike Davanzo, or as she calls him “her partner in crime,” recently enjoyed their complimentary week at Casa de los Sueños, enthusiastically telling friends that everyone at the hotel was treating them like they were rock stars. 
They wanted to share their good fortune with island friends and arranged a sunset cocktail party for Wednesday evening. Lucky for us, we were included on the guest list!

Guests starting to arrive for party
According to Gail, the hotel manager was exceptionally helpful – suggesting food items that fit her budget, and organizing all of the party details. One fun twist was the table and chairs were set-up in the shallow end of the suite's private swimming pool. What a great idea! And Mike, an old time rock-and-roller, played lively and familiar tunes for our foot-bouncing enjoyment.

Mike Davanzo singing - Tony Garcia photo
Originally from Queens NY, Mike Davanzo has been playing in rock bands since high school, later playing professionally for more than 40 years in eastern US, and Canada. He is currently featured at Casa de los Sueños on the weekends from 4:30 to 6:30, during Happy Hour. Check with the hotel for his actual dates as sometimes he will be there on a Friday and Sunday, and other times a Thursday or a Saturday. 

Mike's music is another good reason to stop by Casa de los Sueños for a sunset beverage or two, and while you are there, purchase a raffle ticket for the 2015 Grand Prize.

Hotel staff setting up the buffet for the party
The ticket sales are limited to only 2500, and are on sale until March 15 2015. Tickets are $20 USD or 240 pesos, 100% of the sales go directly to the school. 

Now that the word is out there about Gail and Mike's great experience, you'd better get your ticket before they are all snapped up.

As Gail said, “It was a magical week, and everyone who worked there treated us like we had actually paid to stay in the Presidential Suite.” Although with Gail's many years of experience as a President for the Teachers' Union and as a Union Contract Negotiator, I noticed she kept a supervisory eye on every detail of the party. When you are accustomed to being in charge, old habits die hard. Thanks again, Gail and Mike for the invite to share in your good fortune.
Presidential Suite - private pool
Lawrie and I bought our ticket; hopefully it's the winning one! 
Maybe next year we will be living like rock stars for a week in the Presidential Suite of Casa de los Sueños.
Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Finding Paradise

2005 Boat found drifting after Wilma - Sergio used for a bar
So, you're from Wisconsin?” The woman queried, puzzled.

No, no, I live in Oregon. I said Milwaukie Oregon.” Jackie Conlon replied, a tiny bit frustrated that no one seemed to grasp the concept of a city named Milwaukee that was actually located in Oregon, not in Wisconsin. True, Milwaukie Oregon was home to only about 22,000 people while Milwaukee Wisconsin held about 600,000 inhabitants, so one was definitely more famous than the other, but neither city could be considered as “paradise.”

1993 Na Balam Hotel view 
Jackie first discovered her version of paradise in 1993. She was looking for a new adventure, a new place to relax after a strenuous six-months of commuting between Oregon and Colorado for her job in telecommunications. She was tired of the Mazatlan – Puerto Vallarta area, and suggested to her travel agent that she was ready for something new: maybe Belize. “Un-uh! No, a woman traveling alone in Belize is not a good idea,” the agent said. “I think you would like the Playa del Carmen or the Yucatan area of Mexico a lot more.”

1993 El Presidente Hotel damaged by hurricane
So her first trip to the Caribbean side of Mexico included two nights in Cancun, then ten days in Playa del Carmen, and another ten days on Isla. Unfortunately her first visit to Isla Mujeres included breaking her toe on arrival, limiting her island experiences to hotel, beach, and restaurant. However, the turquoise water, soft white sand, and charming locals hooked her on the island. In the next twenty-one years she returned time and again to her island paradise, bringing family members and friends to share the experience.

1996 Garrafon Park
Now a confirmed Islahólico – a true fan of Isla Mujeres – Jackie is a longtime member of the Isla Mujeres Scholarship Group. The group formed in 2005 with a goal of providing financial assistance to qualified students who wanted to continue on to college or university. Jackie told me that this is a personally satisfying venture, one that gives her close contact with the students and their families. She can see how her monthly contributions are improving the life of the student and of the student's family. Whenever one of the students graduates, she is happy to sign up to assist another one for the four or more years needed to complete their education.
Bunch of youngsters

Jackie is also an avid supporter of local businesses, and enjoys promoting them. She created a FaceBook page for a local restaurant, to help them market their business. And if you happen to be her personal FaceBook friend you will see a variety of “food porn” photographs, promoting various local restaurants, but she confesses, until very recently she had never tried the wonderfully decadent Mexican specialty – marquesitas. Marquesitas are the crepe-like batter confections that are cooked on a large pan, filled with sliced bananas, and chocolate sundae sauce, then rolled into a tube-shape and handed to you with a small paper serviette wrapped around one end. Heavenly!

2005 October, high seas before Hurricane Wilma

Even though Milwaukie Oregon may not be a tropical paradise, Jackie has discovered her own paradise here on Isla Mujeres. 

She is a big-hearted addition to the island.

Hasta Luego
Lawrie & Lynda

All of the photos are from Jackie Conlon's collection 

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