Monday, November 29, 2010

Poultry Wars

Some of last year's produce
What  happened to my lovely vegetable garden? Last winter I was rolling in produce - green beans, snow peas, too much chard, carrots, spinach - all of it. This year - nada! I lovingly turned over the dirt, added specially purchased worm casings and organic fertilizer, carefully practiced crop rotation and set the water timers. When we came back after several weeks nothing had grown.

June/Elena the Gardener
There were a few seedlings bravely struggling along, but mostly, nothing had come up. Why? No idea. So once again I prepared the soil and replanted and carefully took all the steps to insure a bumper crop. When we came back again, only a few more stragglers had sprouted.

Mother Beet of the Universe from last year's garden
After the third planting, We finally caught the culprits red-beaked. It was some neigborhood chickens! These feisty, wiry little garden-disposal units came over the 7 foot garden wall and pecked through everything as it came up. The stealth raiders came at dawn and dusk. I would get up at 5:30 AM and hear the telltale clucking outside. As quietly as I could at that hour, I charged outside and hurled rocks and obscenities in several languages."Malditos pollos!" "Verfluche Schweinhund!" "Danged chickens!" Amidst flapping and squawking the little buggers flew right over the wall.

Theorizing that chickens don't usually fly too high, we put three feet of chicken wire around the wall. Two days later, the hateful birds were back pecking at the garden. They flew right over the now 10 foot wall. I can't show you a picture, because now they flew at the very sight of me!

We began to joke about getting a gun - illegal in Mexico. About this time, our friend Lynn also had something eating her garden. She speculated that it was the iguanas - two exceptionally large lizards that lived in the area. She got Ramón to bring his BB gun - apparently legal - and he picked them off for her. Her garden grew.

Animal lover that I am, I have to admit that I did ask Ramón to come over, but he seemed more reluctant to shoot chickens. Dan, our neighbor, said if he caught one he'd slit its throat. But of course the trick was catching one of the two super-chickens.They could run and fly like crazy!

Dan mentioned to our neighbor Chuchico about the pests. Chuchico also confessed to the chickens bothering him and he suggested poison. He told us that often people have chickens but don't feed them, allowing them to scrounge. That way the eggs and meat are virtually free. Good for an impoverished family, I guess, but not so good for the surrounding neighbors. He identified the source of the chickens as a small white house around the corner from us. The people there  live very simply, and we doubted that they had the money to feed the birds.

We discussed the situation with various friends. Some told us to go to the owners and demand that they pay us for all the seeds their birds ate up.They told us we had a right to do that. We thought about it. If we did that, we would earn the reputation in the village of ugly Americans picking on poor people. Absolutely not worth it.

Back to the thought of chicken assassination. Tichi, Beto's mom, pretty much summed it up: it is not a good thing in Mexico to kill your neighbors' chickens. Then she giggled and told us how some naughty boys in her youth stole a neighbor's chicken and took it down to  the river bed and roasted it over an open fire. She thought it was quite the amusing prank, but not one to be repeated by presumably more mature adults. (Who? Us?)

 If we couldn't kill them, and nothing seemed to chase them off permanantly, the only solution was to build an anti-chicken cage - that is to surround the garden with chicken wire. This meant a trip to Hermosillo to the Home Depot. You already know how much I love  going to Hermosillo (NOT), but I did reluctantly go along for the cause. The war had to be won. I would not be outsmarted by two lousy chicken-brains.

The Anti-Chicken Coop
Over the next couple of days, Dan constructed a magnificent cage around the garden. It even has a roll-up door and is completely chicken proof. I replanted the garden a fourth time. By this time It was already pretty late in the season to plant a winter garden. So now, most things are actually growing, confirming that the chickens were indeed the problem. There's a hard freeze coming tonight. I hope none of the tender seedlings freeze!

Now I see the chickens scrounging in the road near our house. If they should get run over, I won't mourn their loss. Two days ago, our neighbor Dan gave me an early Christmas gift - a wrist-rocket slingshot! If I ever see those miserable birds in my yard again, they're gonna get it......

Friday, October 29, 2010

Git Along Little Dogie

Woolly Bully

The sound of exasperated and terrified bawling and mooing came from the old corral. About 50 cattle milled about in the limited space. A large white bull snorted and stamped the ground near the barbed wire fence where I stood watching as a tiny calf, all ears and eyes approached me, his curiosity overcoming his reticence. Fawn colored, his umbilical cord was still attached. Such a sweet little thing!
Sweet little calf and it's mom
 But there is no use getting attached to any of these animals...this is a working ranch. All the animals have to pull their weight, and after they have, it will be off to the meat packing plant to satisfy humans' insatiable desire for beef.

Still, these cattle have it good by Mexican cow standards. They are owned by the family of our friend Beto Corella, and they are extremely well cared for as Mexican cattle go. They are well fed and watered, vaccinated and nurtured along.

The ranch house porch
Beto and his wife Vicky invited us out to the ranch for a picnic. After 45 minutes of bouncing along a maze of unsigned dirt roads while leaving billowing clouds of dust behind us, we were definitely ready to arrive. The ranch house itself was primitive. The kitchen opened onto a wide  porch covered with corrugated aluminum.

Inside the kitchen was a blackened hearth and a tiny cement sink. In the center was a table with chairs made from tractor seats. This definitely was a man's hideout!

We all squeezed onto the shady part of the porch as the day was unseasonably warm. Meanwhile Tichi, Beto's mom, wiped down the metal chairs for us to sit and relax while Beto checked with his ranch hands about the animals and then started a fire for the picnic.

Gradually the female cattle were herded into a smaller corral off to one side. One of the ranch hands pulled on a long plastic glove that reached to his shoulder. After each cow was secured so that it could not move, he reached inside them with the gloved hand to feel if each was pregnant. These were real cowboys, doing real cow stuff. None of this nonsense about riding around and shooting at bad guys and Indians. They were testing a statistical sample to see what percentage of the cows would produce babies in the spring. This is a for-profit ranch in the hinterlands of Banámichi, and, as with any business, productivity is an issue.

I recall last year hearing Beto say that the bull "wasn't doing his job." Apparently that meant that not enough cows were being impregnated. This year the bull must have done well - 7 out of 10 cows were pregnant. At the end of the day, the remaining 3 females were loaded into a trailer to be taken to Beto's farm where they would be artificially inseminated. They cow has a job to do, and do it they must, want to or not.

Beto chopping wood for the cooking fire
 Meanwhile, back at the ranch (I've always wanted to use that expression in it's original context!), lunch was being prepared. Of course here in Sonora it could only be one thing - carne asada - grilled beef. Somehow it seemed a bit crass to cook and eat beef in front of the herd, but they were sufficiently disturbed at finding themselves in the corral that they didn't seem to notice.

Beto and Vicky cooking Carne Asada
The beef in Mexico is a bit different than what we get in the states. It is not grain fed, nor is it hung and aged, but it is often aged on the hoof -that is it comes from an old animal, and so will be quite tough and stringy. This problem is solved by slicing it very thin and then cooking it over mesquite coals. Then it is chopped into tiny pieces and put into a tortilla with pico de gallo (Salsa of fresh onion, tomatoes, green chile and cilantro), guacamole, and the ever present salsa de chiltepin. By the time it is eaten, the toughness is not noticed.

Yummy picnic: Carne Asada Tacos
This time of year in late October it is chiltepin season. The chiltepin is a tiny red pepper (the size of a small black peppercorn) that grows wild in truly inhospitable conditions. People have tried to domesticate it and grow it in gardens, but apparently, to no avail. It only grows in parts of Sonora and along the US border, and the salsa that is made from it is a specialty of this region.

Bowl of chiltepins
Chiltepins are VERY hot! On the Scoville scale, they are hotter than cayenne, but not as hot as habaneros. One tiny little red globe will make a bowl of soup very hot indeed. Recently I heard a tale of a fairly naive man who was convinced to pop one in his mouth and chew it up. His face turned bright red, and when he could breathe again he said "I shouldn't have done that!"

 Salsa de chiltepin is prepared from tomatoes, onion, garlic, seasonings and a certain number of chiltepins to taste - a few for a mild salsa, more for an incendiary one. Being a chile lover, I can attest to its intense heat, and also its excellent flavor.

Chiltepins on the bush
Part of our day at the ranch was spent in walking up a small dirt track into the desert and looking for chiltepin bushes. Whenever we found one we picked as long as we had patience - it is a slow and painstaking process.

It is a tradition that if you pick on somoeone else's land that you give them 1/3 of your pickings. Beto however would not take any, so we brought ours home to dry and store for future salsas.

I have not yet made the salsa - there is a woman who makes it and sells it door to door in Banámichi, and so far I have purchased it from her. It seems such a hard way to make a living! But this last time, Dan proclaimed it too hot to eat, so when this lot is gone I will attempt to make some that is milder.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Tichi and I crocheting on the shady patio
As he sun was setting we piled back into the vehicles for the trip home. The cowboys rode in the back of Beto's truck, Mexican style. The 3 non-pregnant cows lurched and tumbled about in the trailer as it bounced over the pot-holes. Back in the vehicle behind the trailer, their eyes glared wide and frantic in our headlights. Occasional "MWRAAAA!" sounds emanated as we crept along. Finally we saw the lights of the tiny pueblo of Las Delicias in front of us, and we were almost home. The journey for the 3 cows was just beginning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall has Fell

Inter-not Update:
When we arrived this time, there was a note stuck to our door that TelMex had visited us several days earlier. Dan checked the router as soon as he walked in the door. "I think it's working!" he shouted! With shaking hands he plugged everything in and fired up the computer. "By Damn! It works!" he said. We don't know how this happened. o far as we know, no one has died and released a port. At any rate, we are now enjoying high speed internet, and we are as happy as clams with our new services.

Fall has Fell:
When I was 8 or 9, my group of friends and I used to repeat to each other,  "Spring has sprung, fall has fell, summer will be as hot as hell!" Then we would laugh out loud because we had gotten away with saying a naughty word.

This year I said naughty words all summer because this summer truly was hellish. The heat was long, intense and humid - a deadly combination. Normally I am fairly stoic about the heat, but this year it drove me nuts. There was no reprieve, no way out - no matter which way I turned, it was just plain hot. I sweated buckets and took lots of showers and grumbled a lot to whoever would listen.

That is until we arrived back in Banámichi a few days ago. It has cooled down here - literally overnight -  and the  weather is delicious - 70's in the daytime, 50's at night. last!  With a huge sigh of relief I am settling back into my glorious outdoor lifestyle.

With the cooler weather has come the red chile harvest - a time that is very important to the inhabitants of the Rio Sonora - and to me.

A couple of days ago we drove to the tiny pueblo of La Estáncia where many of the red chiles are sold.
The ristras - long narrow wreaths of chiles - were hanging from walls, doors, and from racks by the side of the road. We stopped at one farm where a sea of gorgeous dark red blanketed the entire area in front of the barn.The chiles were being dried and sorted, the ones not destined to become ristras to be ground up into a fine powder called "Chile Colorado."

Seeing the chiles brings joy to Elena's heart. (Remember Elena?) This is where I feel a deep connection to Mexico and the  people who share my love of the sauce made form Chile Colorado. It is a deep red, fiery hot, sensuous and delectable flavor. I could drink it with a straw. It makes all my mucous membranes tingle and come alive. My eyes might water and I may gasp for air, reach for beer, milk, any nearby liquid to quench the fire, but I can't stay away from the stuff. I am addicted to it. It is one of my favorite foods in this lifetime!
Ristras for sale at the farm
Ristras hanging in a doorway

A sea of red chiles
Sorting chiles for powder
Those of you who are not familiar with Chile Colorado may wonder what to do with the stuff. A few years ago, a friend with an extended Hispanic family taught me what to do with the pods themselves.

Chile Colorado Sauce (from  fresh or dry pods)

Start with more of the pods than you think you will need - lots - at least several pounds - the sauce freezes well. Carefully wash the pods and remove the stem end. Scoop and rinse out all the seeds (they are way hot - if you use your fingers, be sure not to touch any mucous membranes!) Bring a big pot of water to boiling. Drop a handful of pods at a time into the boiling water until they are re-hydrated and a bit soft. Fish them out with a slotted spoon and put them in a blender. Add just enough boiling water to make the blender go and grind up the pods into a thick slurry. Pour the slurry into a food mill or heavy duty strainer and squeeze, press, or mill until the slurry goes into the container below and only the dry chile skin fragments remain. Discard those. Repeat until all your chiles are used. Now you can use the sauce directly, or put it in baggies and freeze until you need it.

Red Chile pods
If you have some Chile Colorado powder, you can still make a perfectly delectable sauce.

Chile Colorado from Powder

Measure out about 2/3 to 3/4 of the powder.
Pour 1 quart chicken stock into a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
Very slowly add the chile powder to the stock, stirring with a wire whisk to break up lumps.
Whisking occasionally, simmer uncovered for about 30-45 minutes until liquid is reduced by about half and the resulting sauce has thickened enough to coat a spoon. Sauce is ready to use.

OK, you say, now what? Will the stuff be hot? You bet your sweet bippy it will be hot. How hot will depend on the variety of chiles you use. They come in various degrees degrees of ability to burn the mouth. If you have gotten a batch of hotties, and you have tender taste buds, I suggest you dilute the sauce with some good quality tomato sauce - the kind that comes in those little cup sized cans, not spaghetti sauce. A 1-1dilution is good. You can do more tomato sauce if you want, but with too much, the flavor of the tomato will overwhelm the chile flavor, which is a real shame.

A very simple way to use the sauce is to spoon it over grilled chicken breasts.
You can pour a couple of cups of it into a crockpot with a hunk of beef and in 6-8 hours you will have a delectable dinner.

You could also use it as the sauce base of chicken enchiladas.

The first way I ever tried Chile Colorado was in a Mexican restaurant in Durango, Colorado. They half-filled a soup bowl with cooked pinto beans, added some grilled chicken and then smothered the whole dish with a sizeable quantity of the sauce. Add a bit of cheese and some sour cream or guacamole and you will think you have died and gone to heaven. It is pure ambrosia.

This tells you a bit about Elena's tastes. I hope you will love this stuff as much as I do. If you don't live where you can purchase ristras or pure chile powder, DO NOT use the red so-called "chile powder" that is adulterated with garlic powder, cumin, salt or whatever. You will be sorry. It is NOT GOOD. It is a poor facsimile of the real thing. Sometimes grocery stores carry cellophane packages of dry red chile pods - especially in areas where there is a sizeable Hispanic population. Use those.

Good luck and my  blessings for happy meals that evoke the warm sunny climate and the cheerful loving people of the Rio Sonora.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Día de Independencia

Update on Inter-not: The green light is still blinking. Someone called us to let us know they were installing a new port as we spoke and that we would be hooked up in less than 24 hours. 24 hours came and went. The light was still blinking. Dan called TelMex again and talked to a supervisor who said that in fact there was no port, and we would probably have to wait until someone canceled their service or died before we got service. Time to rejuvenate the antenna contraption!

Día de Independencia:
Dan and I dragged our sleepy selves out of bed at 3:50 AM. It was Sept. 15th, the first day of the bi-centennial celebration of Mexican Independence from Spain.  The city had been swept to the point of spotlessness, and red, white and green banners hung over all the streets and around the gazebo in the Plaza Hidalgo. We had 10 minutes to throw on some clothes and walk to the plaza  where the Paseo de Gallo (Rooster walk) was due to begin. I told Dan, "Don't worry... nothing here ever starts on time."

As we headed down Calle Obregon, our neighbors were already sitting out on their porch waiting. Dan called out "Buenas Noches!"  They laughed and told him it was actually Buenas Días even though it was still pitch black and we had to strain to see the irregularities waiting for us in the street..

4 AM Sept 15th Paseo de Gallo
Other people were out on the corners, waiting in pajamas and bathrobes. As we rounded the corner into the plaza, the parade emerged out of the waiting crowd with trumpets and drums breaking the early morning silence. Right on time! We joined the back of the parade and headed back down Calle Obregon in the direction we had come. Periodically, someone shot off rockets that blazed into the dark sky and then exploded with a boom that rattled the windows of the houses. No one would sleep through this.The parade wound it's way through town, back to the plaza and then went on to the nearby towns of La Mora and Las Delicias to wake all those folks as well.

Apparently, many years ago, some of men in Banámichi decided it would be nice to take a walk early in the morning on the day before Día de Independencia to celebrate. Later this evolved into waking up the citizenry and inviting everyone to breakfast. At first it was men only, and then the womenfolk began to beg their husbands to go along to see what was happening. So gradually, everyone began to go and it became a local custom and an annual civic event.

The breakfast consists of menudo, a greasy concoction of hominy and tripe that is reputed to be a hangover cure. This seems to be a recipe that separates the Mexicans from us gringos - The Mexicans love the stuff, and most gringos I know are a bit iffy about it. We didn't try it.

After awhile, we peeled off the back of the parade and went home to sit on the roof for awhile to soak up the early morning cool and gaze at the Milky Way out over the river flats. A gentle breeze picked up that was almost chilly. I noticed the descent of the peace and contentment I always feel looking out at the church steeple and the mountains  in the distance Slowly we each succumbed to the hour and drifted back to bed snooze a  bit longer. We left the early celebrations and late night fiestas to the Mexicans who all in all are a hardier lot than we are.

On the evening of Sept 15th, people once again gathered in the plaza to celebrate "El Grito" (the shout) - the call for independence. In 1810, in the early hours of Sept. 16th, Father Hidalgo rang the bells of his little church in the small town of Dolores, Guanajuato to call everyone together. He spoke to them of Spanish oppression and at the end, they shouted "Long Live Independence!!"  This was the beginning of the 10 year war for independence, and this pivotal moment is celebrated every year when the Presidente offers the cry of independence in the plaza at 11 PM. 

The next day (Sept. 16th) we arrived early at Los Arcos Hotel to take our places across the street in the shade for the civic parade. Lynn passed out red, white and green Mexican flags to people nearby. An elderly woman with white hair and a bent back hobbled up to the corner where we were sitting. We offered her a seat and some coffee which she at first politely refused and finally hesitantly accepted. Meanwhile, A cowboy in matching blue boots and shirt rode up and down the street on his horse, transporting costumed little girls to the start of the parade.

Our local government
Finally with the now-familiar sound of drums and trumpets, the government contingent rounded the corner. El Presidente (the mayor) Adolfo Lopez, his wife Elvira beside him, was supporting the Mexican flag. All of the other city officers and staff followed behind him.They made a handsome picture, and I felt a flash of pride in my adopted home. Our friend Vicky waved to us as she went by.

Children in costum
Next came all the school groups! Sometimes I think of Banámichi as a town of elderly people, but this was a great reminder of how many children and young people live in the area. Some of the children were in costume, variously depicting independence history, regional costumes, the Mexican flag and so on. From the littlest to the biggest, they marched in formation with group leaders yelling "Alto,  ya!" (Stop, NOW!) And "Advanzar, ya!"(Go forward, NOW!)

Hooray for Santa Elena gold and silver mine
Even the Santa Elena mine had a representative contingent, who were in a joyous mood. They had just recently poured their first gold bar. Their helium balloons were everywhere, and rose into the sky as children watched them in wonder. Finally came the floats and more costumes, and then it was suddenly over with the passing of the city police car.

Unhappy corn gir
Everyone headed for Plaza Hidalgo where there was a jumping castle for the kids, food and drink vendors, and a gathering crowd. After a seemingly eternal wait, various age groups and school groups performed regional dances of Mexico.  The unhappy teen-age Corn Girl won the costume contest, after which she seemed to cheer up. It is easy to imagine her mom forcing the costume on her reluctant self, and like teenagers everywhere I could almost hear her say, "But mom, I will die of embarrassment!" She nearly did during the parade when a stray dog ran up to her and sniffed the corn husks that made up her prom-like dress.

Little peasant with sandwich
Folklorico dancer
The concluding entertainment were a group of young folklorico dancers, the boys handsome in their black and white charro outfits and the girls in their long, ribbon decorated dresses. There was no embarrassment here as the dresses whirled and flew in a blur of color with the exuberant movement of the dancers.

That evening there was to be another fiesta and dance. The weekend also included a rodeo and a horse race - regional activities in the ranching country of Sonora.

To an aging and sometimes cynical gringa, it was uplifting to see how much reverence the Mexican people have for their history, and how much pride in their Mexico. As an American, it is so easy to forget the realities of other countries - that people there feel the same pride in their heritage that we do for ours. We are not the center of the universe as we imagine ourselves to be. Particularly now, with the immigration debate in the US at a fever pitch of stridency  and animosity, it seems easy for a segment of our population to demonize the Mexicans and imagine that they are the one-dimensional enemy who wants to sneak into our country and upset our neatly stacked applecart. In reality, most Mexicans prefer Mexico - it is home and everything that is familiar to them and they only leave under the worst imaginable economic conditions. All they want to do is feed their families and then return home.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


The Rio Sonora in flood. The picture has nothing to do with the blog post but it is cool because this does not happen very often.
I used to be a Luddite, but now I am completely hooked on the internet. What an astonishing thing it is. Just think - an entire universe of information sitting right here in my office – and in your office, and your neighbor’s and her neighbor’s - it’s everywhere! I use it constantly…the recipe for a rack of lamb, how to make organic pesticide, a crochet pattern for a baby blanket, where to buy chai tea, who is General Álvaro Obregón, to buy shade cloth, to research an inexpensive support for pea plants, to look up the side effects of a new medication, to make conference calls on Skype and where is that restaurant anyway?

You get the idea…I’m totally helpless without it. I’ll bet you are too. So try to imagine yourself without connectivity. No e-mail, no phone, no information, no nada. Are you freaking out yet? Clearly when we got to Banámichi we had to get hooked up fast.

At first we used to go over to the Posada del Río Sonora to hook up for an hour or so a day. But this was inconvenient: pack up the computer, drive or walk the 4 blocks over there, hook up. Most of the time the connection was very slow—heavy sighs of frustration. Then pack everything up and go back home. An hour later Dan would be antsy again. “I need to go over and check my e-mail and look up how to get better internet service.”

Once when the Posada was closed, we sat on the front step and tried to get service. No dice. But then we discovered that there was something called Internet Gratis – a free service of the “city” of Banámichi. How forward looking! How progressive! How slow…and with insufficient oomph to handle Skype calls. We suffered with this system for a couple of months until suddenly one day it inexplicably died, never to be revived.

The antenna was our friend
A phone line with internet service was $40 a month. We thought this was too much for only using it only part time. Our friend Bill said we could use his service but we wanted to do it from the convenience of home. So Dan did massive amounts of research – in Tucson. Soon we had an antenna on the roof which picked up other nearby internet signals, Bill’s included. But said signal was too weak. Dan bought another gizmo to send out a stronger signal from Bill’s. So Bill’s network was broadcast out across the Banámichi airwaves, picked up on our roof, and sent downstairs to our computers.

Amazingly, this Rube Goldberg contraption actually worked. Until the power went out, that is. Then it took hours of incomprehensible fiddling to get it back up. Finally, Dan got it stabilized and it worked really well, if a bit slowly.

One day recently we were visiting Bill, and I commented on what a wonderful system it was, how stable, how reliable. I jinxed it, because that same night, after the thunderstorm described in the previous post, it went down, and never has worked all that well again.

The street without a name
Meanwhile a few months ago, Dan decided it was time to bite the bullet and get the Telmex service for $40 a month. So off he went to Hermosillo to set it up. In the middle of the day I got a call from him: “What is the name of the cross street by our house?” He was trying to tell Telmex where our house is as it has no house number.  I ran outside to look. No sign. I followed the street up to  Constitución, the main street through town. No sign there either. So Dan told them Calle Alegría, but that crosses our street several blocks south of our house.

Dan came back late that afternoon with a phone under his arm and a smile on his face and told me that Telmex had promised installation service in 24-72 hours. The time came and went. No technician appeared. It was time to return to Tucson.

After several weeks, the technician finally showed up and Tom let him in the house to hook everything up. When I arrived, there it was! The telephone worked fine, but no internet. After nearly a week, I had our friend Beto call them. I carefully listened to  understand his polite Spanish. Again they told us 24-72 hours. Again the time came and went and the little green light on the modem still was flashing.

A couple of months later, one day the phone simply stopped working. After several calls using the cell phone, Dan found out that they turned off the service because we had not paid our bill. What bill? We never got one! We had been wondering how and when the thing would turn up.

Thinking maybe it was a good idea to give them better directions to the house, we started asking around for the name of the mystery street. The woman in the Tecate Beer Depósito on the corner had no idea. No one else seemed to know either. Finally an elderly toothless man sitting on an ancient kitchen chair in the shade at the corner declared it was Calle Galo Treviño. Indeed. Galo Treviño. Who or what is Galo Treviño? Another internet project that couldn’t be done.

Dan and friend escaping the heat in the Hermosillo Walmart
Dan decided to go back to the main office in Hermosillo to straighten everything out. So in the heat of summer we dragged ourselves 2 ½ hours south to what has to be the furnace of northern Mexico. Dan came back to the car smiling. “Oh, they were so nice. Everything is taken care of. We’ll have internet service in 24-72 hours!” Lynn and I cracked up.

So Dan called them the next day. We both speak some Spanish, but on the phone it is especially difficult to understand, and people speak so rapidly. After about 30 minutes, he hung up and poured himself a celebratory scotch on the rocks. 24-72 hours!! Hope springs eternal...

After that time passed Dan started to call them every day. Always polite, he just asks them what the progress had been. Finally he ascertained that Banámichi did not have an extra port to plug us into. We have been getting occasional reassuring calls that they are working on it. I got one of these about an hour ago, but the green light is still blinking.

I have great faith that one day soon, this will all be resolved. Carlos Slim, where are you when we need you??

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Monsoon season in the desert is a season of excess - too much heat, too much water at one time, and too much humidity. In the San Judas grocery store, the owner wipes his forehead and says, “Mucho calor! Muy húmido!” Agreeing, I am reminded that we all suffer through this season together.
Drunk on the monsoon rains, the weeds stagger higher and higher, until they are chest high, then neck high. If I go outside in the silence of night, I swear I can hear the rustling sound of their growing. Will they stop? Is there a natural size limit?
Our yard, which was clean and sober just two weeks ago when Dan and Tracy left looks like the Amazonian rain forest when we arrive. This is what happens when we are away too long in the summer. Things lurch about as they choose, without any organizing direction. Nature reverts to nature.
Where is the avocado tree? It is surrounded by a stand of weeds, and I can’t even find it! As I look eastward, I can’t tell what is in the planter along the wall and where the weeds end that are standing beside it. They blend together so I can’t even see the wall.
 The trumpet plant, a runty little start-up a year ago is now taller than I am, it’s unruly branches going in every direction. Note to self: that thing needs a trim! Even the wild chiltepín plant that Theresa gave me now stands chest high.
  Our friend Beto tells us that so far there have been about 9” of rain this monsoon – that’s more than fell during all of last year. I should have known. On the road from Magdalena to Sinoquipe, it was like riding through a tunnel of green. The farmland and mountains on the way to Baviácora shine like emeralds in the sunlight.  
  I once read that the human eye is most sensitive the yellow-green color. This surely has survival value - in the green are food and shelter and even water. Seeing green well allows us to distinguish that which is not green: prey, enemies, danger. 
As a desert dweller of 45 years, I find green a soothing, relaxing color. I can look at it without squinting, and it somehow reassures me that all is right with the world. Its sudden appearance each year with the advent of the monsoons is like the first intake of air after holding one’s breath for a really long time. Ah yes. Life will go on for another year…the cycle continues, the cool season will come.
So far this year, the monsoon storms have crept in while I have been asleep, and I have missed the drama. I have been wishing for a storm I could experience in the waking state.  Be careful what you wish for – last night my wish came true. The result was greater than I could have imagined.  As we chatted quietly with Tom and Lynn at their Los Arcos de Sonora Hotel, the power went on and off, on and off, and finally we lit candles and settled into the stifling darkness. Then, we heard the telltale grumblings in the distance. When a gentle rain started, we all headed for the outdoor patio to cheer it on. 
The storm moved closer, and suddenly it was on top of us. Water gushed from the sky. “A regular toad-strangler,” Tom declared. A brilliant red bolt of lightning went directly from the cloud to the ground just behind the building. The answering roar was deafening and immediate. Icy terror rose up, my hear beat faster,and I had a sudden urge to run into the house. 
                                                       Watch the storm with us!!
I love the monsoons. The raw uncontrolled energy seems to pour through me and purify my connection with the natural world. I am one with the storm and the land. I tremble in fear, and yet I am in held in place by awe. It is as if  I  am standing naked before God.
The lightning comes so furiously that it becomes a strobe light. The streams of water pouring from the roof canales separate into gigantic individual drops, silver and electric blue. The thunder becomes a non-stop roar. Finally, what we have all been waiting for – the cool, droplet-laden air begins to find us on the patio. Aaahhhhh…….the heat is temporarily broken, and we revel in the delicious freshness.
In the wake of the storm, we see many tiny bufo toads. (See June 27, 2010 post) As I head into the garden to weed, there is an old 5 gallon paint bucket with an inch of rainwater in it.  At the bottom is a small bufo. I gently pour him out onto the ground, and he grips the earth with green and white fingers so he can hop away.
On the road back to Banámichi from Hermosillo we see an entire hatch – thousands and thousands - of small white butterflies heading south over the road.Why south?  In the evening, thousands of small black insects - all the same species - collect near the outdoor lamps at Los Arcos Hotel. The wall is black with them. Tom vacuums them up to keep the place looking tidy. The excesses of the rainy season!  The numbers speak to the fragility of so many short lives. Enough butterflies and insects need to survive to fulfill their ecological function. I don’t know what that is….perhaps providing food for birds? Pollinating some plant? There are no clues. Nature keeps her own counsel. .

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Total Shock

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would only write positive stories. There is so much negativity in the US news these days about Mexico and Mexicans that I want in my own small way to offset that negativity and tell the world that México is a fascinating country with wonderful people. In addition to being positive, I feel an obligation to report truthfully what I see and experience. So far there has been no conflict between these two commitments to myself.

And then last Monday came along. I don’t know what to do with this event – I don’t understand it and am still trying to make sense of it.

Lynn and Dan W. and I decided to go to Bacachi, a recreational area right outside Banámichi with warm springs. Actually, the springs are pleasantly cool and refreshing on these 107° days. So we tootled over there, driving along the dirt road past green fields and cattle grazing on the stubble of the brown fields. The car strained up the hill and soon the picnic ramadas came into view, and then the lovely blue swimming pools.

The pools are in a tree-shaded canyon, and the ejido (collective land ownership) that owns the springs has added shade cloth over the pools and a little snack bar nearby. It’s very rustic, but all in all very civilized.

We stripped down to our bathing suits, and I was just about to step into the beautiful clear water when someone, Dan W. I think, said: “Look at the toads!”

I glanced into the shallow end and there were two toads mating. The beige female was as big as a cantaloupe, and the darker male was much smaller, riding on her back. The female was alert and looked vaguely irritated, but the male seemed in a trance his eyes half closed. They were fine specimens of toadiness. I tried to take a photo, but as I approached, the female rapidly swam away with remarkable agility, carrying the extra weight of the male along with her. I had no idea these guys were such good swimmers and could stay underwater so long.

These were not just ordinary toads, but were Bufo alvarius (Sonoran Desert Toads) that I described in one of my earliest blog posts. It is close enough to the rainy season that these guys are starting to be out and about. These are the toads where (some) people “milk” the glands, dry the secretions and smoke the result. The smoke is supposed to give you a trip into “outer space.” I don’t know about this first-hand – I find the whole idea beyond revolting. My revulsion has generalized to the toads themselves. My skin crawls to look at them, and the thought of touching them, or getting in the water with them…. Well… never happen!!

Just as we were standing there contemplating the state of affairs, one of the caretakers from the ejido came along with a net. We all pointed and said at once: “Sapos! (Toads!)” Well, he gots the point and began chasing them around the pool with the net -  a home-made affair made with a tree branch, some wire and some of the same shade cloth that is overhead.

The chase went on for quite some time – the toads were faster and more adept in the water than this man was. Finally he managed to corner them and he scooped them up.

I expected him to put them on the ground so they could go on their merry ways. Instead, he raised the pole with the net directly overhead and used the leverage it provided to fling the toads with great force across the pool and onto the ground with a whump!

I stood there in shock. The toads separated in mid-air and landed on their backs. They didn’t move. At the very least they had to be unconscious. Stretched out like that with their white bellies upward in the sky, I was sure they were dead. “Son muertos,” I said accusingly. Defensive, the caretaker says, “¡No!” and gives the big one a poke with his stick. Its legs began flailing uselessly, and it took a minute or so for it to regain the coordination to turn itself back over. Eventually it hopped away, covered with dirt, to nurse its toady concussion. The male soon righted himself as well and hopped back towards the water in the pool. The caretaker used the net and flipped it down the hill.

I was horrified. As much as I am grossed-out by the toads, I do not wish them harm as individuals, or as a species. As soon as the two in question hit the ground I had projected myself into their bodies and was cringing at their pain. My bottom line is that they are conscious creations just as we humans are, and deserve to be treated with respect.

At least this is what my values and my culture tell me. But I have experienced education and other advantages that fate has not awarded the ejido caretaker. I could explain this event by saying that it was the misguided action of one ignorant individual.

However, his culture as a whole is one that publicly sponsors bullfighting, and less publicly, cock fighting and sometimes even dog fighting. Animal cruelty laws are few in México and apparently the ones that exist are not often enforced. It seems to me in general that in México there is not the same awareness that we state-siders have of animal suffering.

So I must question why this is. It is hard for me to accept that this is simply a case of cultural relativism. I will agree, though, that with animal psychics, and holistic veterinarians, and PETA, we in the US may have gone a bit too gaga over our animals. On the flip side, though, the infliction of gratuitous pain in the name of culture seems just plain wrong to me.

I have observed other Mexicans, more educated and privileged than this ejido man, while not volitionally harming animals, being unconscious of their suffering. A young couple we know who are highly educated and part of the top level of society in Banámichi have a desert tortoise and a cat as pets. We watched their young child man-handle the “tortuga,” dropping it and leaving it upside down. Nothing was said to her about this except by another visiting American. Their cat had an injured foot, and was obviously in pain, walking with difficulty. I mentioned it, and the man, a rancher, dismissed my comment – “It’s nothing.” The cat is left to itself to get well or die.

Was this because these are practical ranchers in this part of the country? Perhaps they cannot afford to be sentimental about pet animals or seek veterinary care for them. Only horses and cattle can expect this privilege.

Does this indifference to suffering result from too much suffering as a culture? After all, The Aztecs engaged in ritual human sacrifice of their enemies, and there were the excesses of the Spanish Conquistadors and the Mexican Revolution. Nowadays there are the over-the-top murders of the Narcos.

In the end, I must conclude that I do not understand this aspect of México. I am uncomfortable with it and cannot condone it. Perhaps it is simply that each culture has its positives and negatives. Nothing is black and white. I must take off the rose-colored glasses through which I have been assessing México, and see her as she really is. She is still a fascinating country with wonderful people!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


The full brutalizing heat of summer is here in Banámichi. I can work in the garden from the time I wake up until maybe 8 AM. By 8 AM, the few clothes I am wearing are soaked with sweat and I begin to feel light-headed as I pull the prolific weeds and pick up rotten grapefruit that have fallen from the tree. I seek refuge in the house.

The house is wonderful, with its 21” thick adobe walls, made for a climate like this. When I walked in after being away for several weeks, the inside temperature was 85 degrees – a pleasant miracle in the 100°+ outdoor temperatures.

It is easy for me to become a hermit in this weather, never sticking my head out the door all day. I draw, write, read, knit and meditate. I live in silence. My soul relaxes and my focus is inward. It is a healing and clearing time – as if the heat is burning all the dross from my inner being.

Meanwhile, outside, the sky is blue, and the sun burns relentlessly all day. Dust hangs in the air. The air over the mountains is white with glare. The temperature hits 103°, 107° and sometimes higher. There are no clouds in the sky, and everyone is waiting for the first afternoon buildup of tall gray thunderheads over the mountains that will bring the start of the monsoons. Traditionally this happens around June 24th El Día de San Juan, so we still have a while to go.

The riverbed of the Río Sonora is dry – the farms upstream are pumping and using most of the water. I turn on the kitchen faucet and a small trickle emerges – hardly enough for a shower. The water pressure is insufficient to turn on the on-demand hot water heater. (Dan says it’s inappropriate technology and he is probably right. Still, I love the idea of it – it's so “green,” so politically correct.) The water running out of the cold tap is tepid to the touch and makes a great shower – if it is running at all.

Sometimes the water is off for a day or more at a time. The town system is antiquated and a break in a line anywhere means that everyone must do without until the line is fixed. My garden has really suffered. If the irrigation system comes on when the water is turned off, the plants are out of luck, and will go thirsty for another day. For some of them, their growth is stunted and they begin to turn crispy – their range of adaptation has been exceeded. (How often does this happen to us humans?)

 Some plants have grown well, and others, not so well. For a while there were more zucchini that we could use, and now the production seems to have halted and the plants show the stress – the leaves are brown and attract an enormous biomass of aphids and flies that feed on the aphids. There are still melons on the vine – it will be a race to see which comes first – ripening, or the death of the plant from the heat.

Ahh, but the tomatoes!! The branches hang low with clusters of cherry tomatoes that are all shades of red and orange. I harvest a bowlful – so sweet, so delicious! The other tomato pants hang heavy with fruit as well. They seem to be thriving under their cover of shade cloth.

The early season corn is finished. I waited too long to pick it – should have done it 2 weeks ago. Now what I have are small cobs with dried kernels – seeds for next year. So much for my vision of roasting ears! Anyway – this was some sort of weird mutant hybrid corn - some of the seeds grew without stalks – just an ear of corn sticking out of the ground. Now that's bizarre! I’m glad we didn’t get to eat it – might have been radioactive!

The green beans have given their all, and we were not here to enjoy them – one of the perils of two residences. Eggplant? The plants are brown, wilty, and insect-eaten. The chili plants from Lynn’s ristra may yet do OK. They are children of this climate. And there is still some tender chard left – will those plants ever quit? I have to keep reminding myself that this first year is all an experiment.

On the other side of the garden, there is the gigantic berry tree. This monster tree is in the yard of our neighbor Chuchico, and is so large that half of it hangs over our yard – over my garden to be specific. It is the biggest deciduous tree I’ve ever seen and provides much needed shade for us and for him. It is a magnificent thing but for one tiny fact – it is covered with small, gnarly, seed-filled berries about the size and color of a blueberry. These are not edible by anything except the pesky fruit bats, which chew them up, suck the juice and spit out the rest. Bleahhh!
Last fall, the berries and chewed up mess fell all over my garden, attracting insects and disease to the plants. This year I decided to do battle with the berries. I bought a 12x18 foot piece of shade cloth and hung it at an angle above the garden, with the intention that the berries would be caught by the shade cloth and tumble back over the wall into Chuchico’s yard. Has this been successful? Well, partially. In true Mexican style, I did not have the appropriate materials to do the job properly. I need a few more 10 foot long sections of pipe to prop it up. Instead, I have a wiggly, wobbly piece of sapling cut from Tom’s overgrown property. The shade cloth sags and it bags. I have to go outside and manually flip the berries over the wall. It is better than nothing. Maybe mañana I will get some pipes and fix it up. But then again - it’s hot out there.

Where would I get such a thing as pipe here in the back of beyond anyway? That indeed is part of the problem. We have a small ferreteria (hardware store) here in Banamichi. We jokingly call it the “No hay ferreteria.” (The “Do Not Have” hardware store.)

On occasion, I reluctantly slink in there and self-consciously approach the counter along with the ranchers and cowboys. They look me over and size me up.  I squirm under their gaze and wonder what they are thinking.

Finally, Lupita gets around to asking me what I want. In my best Spanish – which I have practiced all the way to the store – I explain the commonplace object I want -  say a small hook closure. She shakes her head and frowns. “No hay!” she says. “We don’t have it.”

This happens all the time with all manner of items. “No hay!” “No hay!” “No  hay!” So either we get it in the States and bring it through Mexican customs and pay the 15% importation tax, or we drive 2 ½ hours to Hermosillo to look in Home Depot, Rumba, Massa or one of the other hardware stores there before driving
2 ½ hours back. Maybe we get lucky, maybe not. More likely we will wind up improvising – like my wiggly, wobbly sapling. “Muy Mexicano!” – “Very Mexican,” our builder friend Ramón would say.

So you ask, why do I want to live in this land of water shortages, failed crops and “No Hay?” In Tucson, everything is so predictable. In Banámichi, from one day to the next, I never know what will happen, who will come to the door, what I will have to improvise. It’s fun, it’s interesting. It’s a challenge. I love the challenge. So what if something isn’t the way I expect? OK, I learn to adjust my expectations and find a way to cope. It’s an ongoing lesson in the true unpredictability of life. Life is more primal, more in my face, more immediate and vibrant when I constantly have to think on my feet. I have to be more in touch with myself. I feel more alive.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Who is June-Elena?

Who is June-Elena? To my friends and family I am June, my name as given in 1943. I was actually born in April, but my Mom held to her romantic idea of June being the month of the roses, and named me for that regardless. I’ve always felt June to be a bit of denial of my real identity, but Mom stuck to her guns. 

Elena was born for me during the 80’s. I was searching for what seemed to be missing in my life and trying on different New Age concepts in whatever form they happened to come to me.

Somehow I came into possession of a tape of guided imagery called “Past Life Regression.” I was skeptical, but still halfway thought I might really see a past lifetime. Actually, I was a bit spooked – what if it did work? Did I really want to know? Maybe something dark would be revealed that I really would be better off not knowing.

One evening, my curiosity got the better of me. I settled into bed, adjusting the pillow so that I could be comfortable with the earphones. I pulled a sheet up over me, put the tape in the player and clicked it on. The player made whirring sounds and the swamp cooler hummed, blasting out humid air. It was summer in Tucson.

“You are beginning to relax deeply” the tape said. I took a deep breath and felt my arms and legs melting into the bed. I followed the instructions into relaxation, a trance, whatever it was. The room became distant and the sound of the player dominated my awareness.

 “What do you see?” the tape asked. A vague image of a thin woman with long black hair came to me. She was dressed in native garb and was toiling in the fields. (No lifetimes as Cleopatra for this kid!!) I had the sense that her life was hard and lonely…maybe she had a few kids out there in the countryside, and they were just barely surviving.

“What is your name?” the tape asked. The name Elena popped into my head. The next thing I recall was the snapping sound of the tape ending. I must have drifted off to sleep.

The next morning I pondered what had happened. I was not sure that this was real or just a product of my imagination. Eventually I wrote it off. Even if I knew for sure it was a past life, what would I do with that information?? It didn’t change my present life one way or the other.

Perhaps 6 months later, Dan and I decided to visit Alamos in Mexico. It was a small colonial town in the mountains south of Guaymas Sonora. I wanted to go to the beach, but Dan wanted to see something different. Guess who won?

Driving into town, we found wonderful old buildings and cobblestone streets. We had no hotel reservations, so we began to walk in search of lodging. We found a gorgeous hotel with thick adobe walls. It was laid out with rooms around a square, a courtyard in the middle. I instantly loved it. When I asked the proprietress for a key, she told us that keys were not needed. As she walked us to our room, I noticed that the rooms all had women’s names instead of numbers. She walked us directly to the room called “ELENA!” and opened the door.

I was speechless. What did this mean? Elena, whether real or imaginary began to come to life for me. I don’t remember all that much about Alamos, but Elena became more than a curiosity.

I still don’t know if I really saw into a past life, or even if there is such a thing as past lives. But somehow, Elena has become a part of me. I can feel her presence inside me in Mexico. It is a familiar, at home feeling that comes when we cross the frontera heading south. It is especially strong in Banamichi. I am at ease there in a way I don’t understand.

I walk the streets of Banamichi and feel a deep comfort. I go into the tiny grocery stores or the city offices and chat with the clerks. I hug people who know me. I smile at everyone and say “Buenos Dias.” They smile back. They wave at me in the street. I feel like I belong here.

I think it is Elena who feels so at home in Banamichi. It was she who was born into this culture, she who feels an affinity for the warm sunny climate, for the bright red of ristras of chiles. She loves the spicy food, the bright colors and the warmth and vibrancy of the people.

Elena is part of me. I can’t explain it, but somehow this is true.