Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fire in the Mouth!

One of the regional specialties of the Rio Sonora valley where Banámichi is located is the tiny chiltepin, a small hot pepper that is somewhere between a peppercorn and a pea in size. It is also known as Chile Tepin, bird's eye or simply bird pepper, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum. The word tepin is comes from the Nahautl language and means flea. It may be small in size, but WATCH OUT!! This flea will take your head off!

Chiltepin Grinder, Native Seeds Search
Our first introduction to the Chiltepin  was at the home of a friend in Banámichi who served us a delicious beef and vegetable soup. A small dish of tiny dry red pellets was passed around with a little wooden mortar and pestle to crush them. We were encouraged to crumble one and put it in our large bowl of soup. "One?" I thought. "How could that make any difference?" The result caused searing fire in my mouth and made my eyes water! YOWZA!

Freshly picked chiltepines from Beto's ranch
 Turns out these babies come in at between 50,000 and 100,000 units on the Scoville scale, a measure of chile hotness. By comparison, the lowly jalapeño comes in at a mere 3,500 to 8,000 Scoville units. The chiltepin's burn is just below the habañero or scotch bonnet. There are hotter peppers on the scale, but even though I like fire in the mouth, the habañero pretty much borders on inedible to me.

Once a visiting neophyte in Banámichi expressed curiosity about the chiltepin. He thought it couldn't be all that bad, after all, it was so small. Our friend Tom gave him a fresh one to try. He popped it in his mouth and chomped it down. His face turned red. He couldn't breathe for a few moments. His eyes watered. When he could finally speak again he gasped, "That was a really bad idea!"

Chiltepines thrive along the Rio Sonora in riparian areas under mesquite trees. They are also native to southern North America and northern South America. In the US, they grow in Texas, Arizona and Florida, and also in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. In 1997 it became the "official native pepper of Texas." Who knew??

Their heat depends on the amount of rainfall...the more rain, the hotter they become. According to Wikipedia: "In Mexico, the heat of the chiltepin is called arrebatado ("rapid" or "violent"), because, while the heat is intense, it is not very enduring."
Native chiltepines growing in mesquite grove

The Chiltepin is truly a wild native pepper and is notoriously hard to grow form seed, allegedly because the seeds must pass through the digestive system of a bird before they will sprout . Hence the name bird peppers. Thinking I could surely mimic a bird gut and outsmart the little buggers, I tried grinding them a bit with some fine sand and then soaking them in some vinegar, but no go. Nothing worked. I later learned from Native Seeds Search in Tucson, Arizona that they can sometimes be sprouted under mesquite nurse trees where there are  leaves and debris on the ground. I also  found an article from the Cochise County Master Gardener Newsletter that explains various fiddly ways to create the right conditions for the seeds to sprout.

I have not really had the need to do this, because a couple of years ago we had the opportunity to go to our friend Beto's ranch near Banámichi and pick our own. It is a tedious job because they cling tightly to the branches of their shrub and are so tiny. We spent at least an hour picking before having half of a sandwich bag full. But, no problem, to this day we still have not used these up because a  few go such a very long way.

Mexican ranchers will sometimes allow pickers to come on their land to harvest the berries in exchange for 1/3 of the yield, which is still quite a substantial amount. Then the pickers sell the chiltepines by the side of the road, or put up signs in front of their houses offering them for sale. Sometimes the pickers try to hurry the process by stripping the branches of leaves, berries, everything. Unfortunately this ruins the plant, and makes the ranchers angry enough to never let the pickers return to their land.

Also a couple of years ago our friend Terri gave me what she called a chiltepin plant. It was really just a sad looking twig in a rusty old coffee can. I dutifully planted it and it immediately began to thrive in my north facing planter in Banámichi. Over the  years, it has grown into an enormous shrub, as tall as I am. It produces gazillions of tiny red peppers, but they are not really chiltepins. I discovered this accidentally when I found the little conical fruits in one of those small cellophane packages in the grocery store in Tucson. They are called chile pequin, and I learned that they are a domesticated cultivar of the chiltepin. (A cultivar is a plant  selected for desirable characteristics that can be maintained by propagation.) So the two are are very closely related.

Huge chile pequin bush in my Banamichi garden
Chile pequins ripening in my garden

According to Wikipedia, "Pequins are not as hot as chiltepins (only about  30,000–50,000 Scoville units), but they have a much slower and longer-lasting effect." In Thailand, where they have been imported from the new world,  they are known as "rat-turd peppers!" (Sounds yummy, no?)

Freshly harvested chile pequins...see the difference in shape?

Frankly, I can't tell much difference between the two. They both get the job done. I have come to love the flavor and the fire, and have developed a recipe for salsa that Dan calls "the best in the world. " He says I should bottle it and sell it, but it is so simple that it is almost embarrassing, not to mention I do not wish to compete with the many women who make a living selling their chiltepin salsa up and down the Rio Sonora. So I am happy to share my recipe with you here. Remember, it is just a can use either chiltepins or chile pequins, vary the number you use and vary the level of the other ingredients to suit your taste. If you have a tender tongue, I would suggest that you cut the number of chiles in half or thirds. You can always raise the heat on the next batch!

June's Excellent Salsa de Chiltepin

Note: My grocery store in Tucson, (Sprouts) has both types of peppers in those small cellophane packets on a rack. You can also buy them from Native Seeds Search for $12 for a one ounce bottle, which comes up to $192 a pound. (Compare to the price of silver at about $20 an ounce!)
You could use fresh herbs in the recipe if you like, and even throw in a handful of fresh cilantro if you have it, but the salsa is fine as it is.

1 15 oz can of diced tomatoes
1/3 can water
about 30 dried chiltepins or chile pequins
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 tsp dried oregano leaves

Crush the chiltepins in a mortar or in a bowl with the back of a spoon. Put everything in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for about 5 minutes and carefully pour into a clean sterilized jar and seal. Will keep in the fridge for 3-4 weeks.

Enjoy with tacos, eggs, quesadillas, carne asada, almost anything!

Sunday, October 20, 2013


When I was a child, I used to fantasize about off by myself somewhere, growing all my own food and not needing anything from anyone. I was too young for this to have any deep philosophical underpinnings at the time. It was  just that I wanted to get away from my supremely dysfunctional family.

Stevan de la Rosa
We recently met a remarkable young man here in Banámichi who is living my fantasy. (I am constantly surprised by the interesting assortment of people who have made themselves at home here.) Three years ago Stevan de la Rosa bought a piece of farmland on the north side of the Rio Sonora. Walking around town on a Sunday after church, he serendipitously met a man  who pointed out a woman with a piece of land to sell.

 Since then, he has slowly and meticulously made by hand adobe bricks and has constructed a lovely small home for himself, sourcing as many of the materials locally as possible. During the time he has been working on the building, he has lived in an elderly Sears canvas tent in a sun-dappled grove of mesquite trees, and he has planted food crops in the fields and elsewhere around his living area.

Mesquite grove

The old Sears tent

Ceiling showing catenary arch
The small dwelling has a roof/ceiling that is a catenary arch, all constructed of his handmade adobe bricks. The roof is incredibly strong. One Saturday afternoon recently he got together a group of 15 beefy local cowboys to stand on the roof to demonstrate its durability.

The building has a few arched windows set in the thick strong walls which take the downward force created by the weight of the catenary arch. There is a smooth adobe floor that he will seal with linseed oil, and he has recently painted the interior with whitewash. Near the floor are red and orange colored rocks that he found in the hills near nearby Huepac, and he has carved lovely trailing designs into the adobe at the front and back. Inside the structure, it is light and airy with a beautiful clear energy that is reminiscent of a small cathedral. He says that the local people tell him that all it needs are some saints up front!

Cathedral interior. The adobe floor is still drying.
Window, showing ceiling detail

Scrolls carved into adobe
Stevan spent his last year of college in Thailand, where he learned about sustainable organic farming. Since his classes were online, when he finished, he was able to stay and continue working and learning. During this time he was introduced to natural construction methods and became intrigued with building a home with nothing more than a shovel, a hoe, a bucket and a wooden form for the bricks. He also became involved with the idea of self-reliance and finding all that one needs locally. He later visited Africa to also learn about Nubian vault building, and other adobe construction methods. In the 10 years since then,  he has taught these methods to others, and has built  a number of  projects, preferring to work with owner-builders who are involved with and committed to the building process. He currently has a young apprentice who is learning from him and assisting him.

View to the east with corn crop
After traveling extensively for a number of years, he began to feel the need to settle somewhere. Born in Tijuana, he wanted to stay in northern Mexico in a place where there was water year around. He came across another blog that led him to the Rio Sonora valley. His piece of land is beautiful, with a view across the fields of the mountains to the east and the white domes of the Banámichi church rising above the distant green of the trees. An irrigation canal runs through the mesquite grove. Pretty little yellow-bellied birds zip among the trees, and other small creatures share the space with him. It is a large plot of land, and he has already raised some crops on it. He lunches on salad made of arugula and tomatoes that grow in the mesquite grove. He plans to eventually work the land on a larger scale and raise animals.

Outdoor kitchen showing exterior of the building
I must say that even now, Stevan's lifestyle appeals to me enormously. It is the simplicity, the quietude, the physical activity and the time for introspection that draw me - the same things that keep pulling me back to Banámichi. Stevan will tell you that his is a simple lifestyle, but that it is not necessarily easy. Adobe is heavy stuff. He is lean and muscular from the physicality of it. Still, he says, sometimes when he is hard at work, he looks up and sees the mountains in the distance and he still can't quite believe that he gets to live in such a magnificent place.

Stevan is a gentle soul, an old soul. He is invariably enthusiastic and cheerful, and is solid and secure within himself, knowing what he wants from life. He gets along with everyone. In spite of the challenges of his lifestyle, he seems genuinely happy. He knows that it is the simple things that give him the most pleasure in life. It is deeply satisfying to create his own home, to raise his food, to enjoy his view of the mountains. Sourcing his needs locally eliminates the necessity for dealing with systems that create difficulty and turmoil. He is at peace. It is good to be free from the need for external stimulation. It is better for the person and far better for the planet to live in this manner.

“Live simply so others may simply live.” - Mother Teresa

Saturday, September 21, 2013

World Citizenship

January 1977:   The New Year which we had spent visiting my relatives in Germany had just rolled over. This was the year of Dan's Fulbright Teaching Exchange in England. We were driving through a cold dark fog in Belgium, headed to the ferry from Calais to Dover and back  to where we were staying in Hastings, East Sussex (Hastings in the Battle of Hastings,back in 1066, which was fought in a place nearby appropriately called Battle.)

The feeling of being in an alien place crept over me again. I shivered and sighed. The discomfort of not feeling at home had never really left me since we arrived in England in September. Before we left, I had poo-pooed culture shock as something that happened to other people. England was basically the same culture as ours .... or was it?

Everything was so different than what I was used to. It was cold and dark, a damp seaside climate after living in the Sonoran desert. They drove on the wrong side of the street and the cars were backwards. They used roundabouts instead of traffic lights. I shopped in the High Street, going to the butcher, the baker, and the greengrocer, after being used to supermarkets. All the brands were different. The TV stations were different, the books available to read were different, and we were "The Americans," a constant source of amusement to the locals and unwitting representatives of American culture, whatever that was at the time.

So here I was, a stranger in a strange land, out of sorts with the environment and with myself. We eventually got to the ferry and after an uneventful crossing re-entered England. I looked around. The orange of the sodium-vapor lights was a sudden comfort. We were back on the side of the street that I had reluctantly become used to. Pub signs called out cheerfully and the roundabouts pointing to now familiar places seemed to welcome us. With a huge sigh of relief, I realized I had come a place other than the USA!

That experience unsettled me for months and years afterward. I slowly realized that I could never again just sink into unthinking American citizenship the way I once had. My identity had changed and I had instead become a citizen of more than one country...a citizen of the world.

A visit to a Maasai Village, Tanzania
Over the years that has played out in my life in a number of ways. I became very curious about other cultures and open to experiencing as many as I could, as often as possible...the more different the culture from ours, the better. I have now traveled to 42 different countries and 5 continents and the wanderlust has not left me. Each place I visit has something new to opens me in new ways. With each additional culture or place I visit, my understanding of human nature  runs a bit deeper. I have come to expect the unexpected and not be floored by it as I was in England. In fact I have become able to embrace the unknown and enjoy it, even savor it.

Monks in Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet
I often think about my mother's family who emigrated from Germany to the USA in the 1920's. They eventually became US citizens, but retained their Germanic ways until they passed away, never fully embracing the US as home. In fact  my Aunt Martha missed the old country so much that  she actually moved back there for a period of time. Instead of this pervasive attachment to a particular place thought of as "home," I have come to realize that the sense of being at home resides within me. As I have come to feel at home in my own body and soul, I have learned that I can move comfortably in strange new places and that I could live just about anywhere and adapt to whatever conditions exist.

Iquitos, Amazon Basin, Peru

World citizenship has also come to mean caring deeply about far flung people and places. I now read carefully news reports of places like Rwanda, the Amazon River basin, and Tibet - places we have been -  with genuine curiosity and deep feeling for the people who live there. World politics have come alive for me. I care about these places and the people who live there. And, when there is famine or natural disaster, I can mentally place myself in the midst of the suffering  and offer heartfelt blessings for the well-being of the people. Compassion has expanded to take in our entire planet. I have learned that every smile, every act of kindness does indeed affect the whole world.

 Marrakesh, Morocco
Knowing that I am a citizen of the world also means that there is no person or group who is truly alien or "other." Looking into the eyes of a veiled woman in a market in Morocco, I saw that she and I were just the same. Dancing in a circle with Maasai women in Tanzania, I felt the same loving bond that I feel with my friends at home. The waves of humanity that surround us in every culture are family. I have learned that people everywhere share the same consciousness. In that sense we truly are one, no matter what culture represents our origin. I have learned that I can open my heart to anyone and extend kindness to them and dwell in our shared humanity.

Near Cappadocia, Turkey
 About a year ago I happened to see online a letter from Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez. She had started a petition to the major newspapers to stop referring to human beings as illegal. She said that activities are illegal, people are not. Amen to that. As human beings we all want pretty much the same thing: a place to live, enough to eat, and to live and love as we see fit. Some folks must go to great lengths to achieve that, including crossing borders in search of work. They are neither illegal nor aliens, they are people like us who love their families and want to be able to support them. Instead of jailing them or deporting them, could we not help address the conditions that create the need for them to enter the USA? What if you or I were in their position? How can we help? They are part of our human family. Where is our compassion?

Folklorico Dancers in Banámichi
Which brings me back to Mexico and Banámichi. I love the people here. I love  that they are hardworking, family oriented souls. I  love the surprises and the things I learn from this culture, and I feel totally at home here.Yes, life is a bit different that in the USA. Cowboys ride horses in the streets. The water goes off periodically. The natives celebrate different holidays, care about different politics, are eternally polite, and deal with difficult things less directly than we Americans do. Life may progress more inefficiently, but I am not there to tell the Mexicans how to do things my way, rather to learn what I can from their way.

                                    "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring
                                    will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time".
                                    ...T.S. Eliot

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Everything is Just Peachy!

Sometimes it's the simplest things in life that create the most happiness! When we started cleaning up our back yard in Banámichi in 2008, we discovered a long uncared for tree struggling for survival next to the south wall. Upon examination, we discovered it was a small peach tree. We began to water and prune it and generally nurture it back to health.

The original peach tree*
It never occurred to me that a peach tree might grow and actually produce fruit in Mexico. From what I know of peaches, they need a period of cold in the winter in order to do well, and for the first few years, the winters in Banámichi were balmy. Just as I suspected, each year the tree produced a profuse shower of pink and white blossoms in March, then a few gnarly rock hard fruits that promptly fell off the tree, and then....nothing.

Meanwhile,  yet another small peach tree passed through several sets of hands before it landed with me. Always a champion of the underdog, I took pity on the thing and planted it not far from the first one, thinking I would eventually move it to a better spot in the yard. At least it would provide nice shade when the days became intolerably hot.

It grew like crazy, within a year becoming too big to move. But there it sat, also producing nothing. Maybe it was too young. Then, two years ago we had a big cold snap in the winter. I have previously written about the destruction that this caused in the garden. But the winner was the first peach tree! That year it had a bumper crop. The peaches were odd...small and hard and a bit green, but very sweet, very tasty. I harvested all of them and spent hours preparing the little marbles to make peach jam and to freeze the rest for some wonderful pies later in the year.

The next year, the winter was very mild. Once again, the first tree produced a few rock-like little nubbins that the birds finished off before I could see if they were useable. The smaller, newer tree just sat there, apparently too small and discouraged to bother producing anything.

This past winter, Banámichi had a two day cold snap, with nights sinking to 24 degrees. And, WOW!! This summer, BOTH trees have been unbelievably weighed down with fruit. There were peaches hanging in clusters along the branches like grapes!
Peaches or grapes??*

When we were in Banámichi in the middle of the summer, they were just coming into ripeness, but it was still too soon to pick them. It broke my heart to leave those darned peaches after all they and I had been through together. I told various friends to help themselves so at least they would not go to waste, and then forced myself to stop thinking about them.

To my great surprise, our neighbors who share our back yard were there at just the right time and harvested many of the little beauties. They courageously brought them back across the border to Tucson...US customs never even asked, and you know how it is: "Don't ask, don't tell!"  So we had a peach festival right here in my own kitchen! It surprises me  how much happiness that bag of peaches brought and the sweet history it held.
Odd little peaches...about 2" in diameter

Four of us set to work peeling and slicing the peaches.
Slicing and dicing
It was it big project - took 2 solid hours....they were small and hard and seemingly green, but the sticky juice was everywhere and the fragrance permeated the whole house. When we were done, we had enough for 3 large to eat right away, and one for Dan and me, and one for our trusty peach runners!

Filling the pies

Ever health conscious, we used a combination of brown sugar and a product called Whey Low... a form of sugar with fewer calories and a low glycemic index. We seasoned the mixture with cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of almond extract. There wasn't quite enough crust to make a complete lattice for the three, but it hardly mattered. No one was in the mood to leave the fragrance and head to the store for more. We kept sneaking peeks as the pikes baked, and could hardly wait for them to cool enough to sample them.

Baked beauty, even if it is missing some strips
It's what inside that counts...


As you can see, the finished result was very much enjoyed by all!!

Yummers! And with ice cream too...
 Thank you cold weather (at least for this little gift!), and thank you peach tree Gods! At least we have this to look forward to if global climate change messes with the Banámichi weather.

* Thanks to Lynn Matthews for these photos!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Few Odd Things...

Sometimes the small events that make up the fabric of life are just as curious and interesting as the bigger, splashier events that make for long blog posts.

De Colores
In the past I have posted about house colors in and about Banámichi. Whenever we drive along the Rio Sonora, I  look for newly painted, brightly colored houses. The colors always make me happy. So when it came time to paint our own house, we gave serious thought to the colors. Initially when we moved in, we painted our house a robin's egg blue with white trim, and it looked beautiful. However, even the best paint Home Depot had to offer faded quickly in the hot, bright, direct sun of a western exposure to become white on white.

Banámichi offices of thePAN political party
Then we visited Greece last fall and were very taken with the white with royal blue trim which is so popular there. We settled on these colors - a very classic, clean look. Then our friend Tracy reminded us that these are the colors of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional -National Action Party) political party. As visitors in Mexico, we are not supposed to participate in any form of politics there. Our Mexican friend Beto was consulted. He said that if we used the blue and white, people might think that the PAN gave us the paint, or that we wee closet supporters. Not a good thing.

Our new house colors in Banamichi

So we reluctantly abandoned the blue and white concept. A visit to Sherwin Williams narrowed our choices to two, and finally we settled on white and "Fabulous Grape"...a vibrant purple that Dan calls "Goofy Grape." The white won't fade, and at least the purple doesn't  represent any political party! It looks gorgeous again, if a bit blindingly white in the western sun.



When we arrived in Banámichi this last time the weather was gorgeous...brilliant blue skies, wall to wall sunshine and pleasant temperatures. I ripped open all the windows and let the beautiful clean air circulate through the house. It was particularly lovely at night to go to bed bathed in silky air imbued with the fragrance of orange blossoms.

Somewhere around 4 AM that first night we were abruptly awakened from a deep sleep by a loud and jarring "RRRRK-A-RRRK-A-ROO!!! There were answering echoes from nearby streets and from all over town. Sleep was over. The thing was right outside our bedroom window across the path, in the neighbor's yard. Our neighbors had a new rooster and a seemingly solitary chicken who just clucked quietly and followed the rooster around.

So the windows were reluctantly closed. Even through the double glazing the thing could be heard from early morning on into the evening hours. Dan said it had to die. We were hoping the neighbors would decide to eat it for Easter dinner, but no such luck.

...and I thought they were gone for good...
One day, I saw the rooster and the chicken in the street. I tried to approach to take a picture and of course they skittered away from me, perhaps knowing that I harbored ill -will towards them. I thought, "Oh, good, they will run away and someone else will catch them and eat them!" But again, no such luck. The next morning, there they were in back in the neighbor's yard, in a cage, right under our bedroom window.

We thought for sure that they must be disturbing their owners as well, but there was never any sign of that. Maybe they had already learned to tune the poultry out. I never did learn to do that, and as of the time we left to return to Tucson, the rooster and it's lonesome chicken were still strutting about the neighbor's yard.

Mr. Lizard

All of us have seen a very large lizard on the back garden wall. By very large, I mean somewhere around 18-20 inches long, snout to tail. A big fellow. I googled lizards and learned that he is a desert iguana.

I always thought iguanas were the big green lizards with the crest along the head and spine -- like the one Dan once gave me as a birthday present while we were courting. I know, I know...some men give their girlfriends candy, jewelry, and so on, but I fell hard for the man who gave me an iguana.What can I say?

Mr. Lizard on the back wall
Anyway, our current iguana is sort of sandy brown with large powerful front limbs and claws. Our shed at the back of the garden has some square  hollow metal tubes that support the roof. They are just large enough for Mr. Lizard to enter at one end, walk to the other end and sit there, head protruding, completely protected, eying the activity in our back yard. Once in the tube, he can't turn around, all he can do is to back out amidst loud scrabbling and scratching sounds. He must live in the yard of the neighbor behind us, who has an old Mesquite tree in the corner just behind our shed. The area is overgrown, and Mr. Lizard probably feels secure there from flying hawks and turkey vultures. (There would be some good eating on this fellow!)

Mr. Lizard peeks from his hidey hole
When approached, he tips his head to one side, looking at the person or cat with one eye as if to say "I see you. How dare you come so close to the GREAT me!" He definitely has an arrogant air about him. He knows he is a grand creature and he has his pride!

Spring Break for Mexicans

The Thursday before Easter Dan and I, Lynn and her friend Pat loaded ourselves and a picnic lunch in Lynn's truck and headed to Feliz Estancia to spend a peaceful day at the hot springs. Silly us. Who knew that 2/3 the population of Mexico goes on break during Semana Santa - the week leading up to Easter - and that most of them would be at the hot springs? We started to have an inkling as we arrived and there was a line of cars waiting to enter the property and someone directing traffic.

Mexico on spring break at Feliz Estancia
Eeek! When we got inside, there were tents and chairs and campers everywhere. There were vendors selling soft-drinks, all sorts of snacks and even balloons and floaty-toys. I have never seen the place like this. Generally it is fairly quiet and peaceful. There would be no elegant trogons on this day.

We headed for the far end of the property to the new pool. Ahhh, peace....there were only a few children playing in it. Oh, the lovely warm soothing, so delightful....for about 15 minutes until all of the new arrivals descended and very quickly, this area looked like all the other areas. Jam-packed with revelry and rough-neck water sports.

We withdrew to eat lunch. As we were eating, the balloon vendor started to speak to us in perfect English. He seemed sad and out of place amidst so much merry making. He told us that he had lived in the States for 39 years, and that he thought Mexico would be a great place to live if a person had money.

More crowds at Feliz Estancia
We don't know for sure and didn't ask, but suspect that he was deported back to Mexico as an illegal. I felt really bad for him...reduced to selling balloons, although once again, I had to admire the Mexican spirit of entrepreneurship and self-reliance. He was doing what he could to support himself in an area with few jobs. Somehow, it must be possible for our great nation to make room for someone like this man with such a strong work ethic, who contributed to our society for so many years. And, I have to admit, I felt a bit guilty, because I am among those who have enough money to live well in Mexico.

Friday, March 29, 2013

International Dining comes to Banamichi

The first sign of variety!
The gas station that houses the new Chinese Restaurant
As we drove into town after a long absence (think recovery from a hip replacement), the first thing I noticed was a neon yellow sign with the words Restaurant de Comida China. Huh? Chinese food in Banámichi? That seemed really odd and immediately memories of a dreadful faux-Chinese meal in a strip mall next to Home Depot in Hermosillo came to mind. I grimaced with the memory and was immediately skeptical about the promise of this new establishment. I didn't notice on that first pass-by that the restaurant was located in the gas station!

The dining-out situation in Banámichi has been very limited, as it would be in any small town anywhere on planet Earth. The nicest restaurant in town is located in the Posada del Rio Sonora Hotel. It offers top quality ingredients and is well received by the many people who eat there. The other choices in town have been more basic and these are the focus of this post.

On the side street next to La Posada is MacVer, otherwise known as "El Hamburguesa." I once and only once made the mistake of actually ordering a hamburger there. It was about as thick as a sheet of cardboard and had the same consistency - more breading than burger. Some of their other offerings are more credible..a decent chicken sandwich, and once some fairly nice grilled fish. I admit to being a bit of a "gourmet-mouth," so this has never been a choice dining opportunity for me, even though it has a cute front and a spruced-up interior.

Martín grilling carne asada

Around the corner and up the street from the Los Arcos Hotel, there is a place known very simply as "Los Tacos." No translation needed. Here, Martín presides over the grill turning out excellent carne asada (grilled beef) tacos....the only item on the menu. Sometimes he has grilled green onions with the tacos. The food is inexpensive and very tasty, if limited in scope.

Then there is "Pollos Nito" (Nito's Chicken.) Hardly more than a stand on Avenida Constitución, it specializes in fried chicken and tortas...sandwiches on large fluffy rolls. The tortas are quite good, and I especially like the big jar of pickled jalapenos they offer to every table.

So other than an occasional weekend hot dog or fish taco stand, that has been it for Banámichi.

Soon after we arrived. Tom and some of his guests braved the new Chinese place. The report was that it was  OK, possibly even good. So last night Dan and I decided to give it a try. I have to say that we are both very spoiled when it comes to Chinese food. We taught English together in China for 4 years, and Dan continues this summer into his 10th year. We have had the best of the best from state banquets with the American Ambassador down to homemade dumplings in someone's home in Rizhao. Real Chinese food is nothing like American Chinese food. It is so much better..beautifully presented, fresh, bright flavors, and no gloppy sweet sauces. After eating in China, I  don't much care for American Chinese food any more. I particularly dislike the now ubiquitous Chinese buffets where everything tastes the same to me. Whatever happened to the small mom and pop Chinese places where you could order a real meal?

Inside the gas station restaurant
Anyway, so we went to the Chinese place in the gas station last night. Dan's enthusiasm for anything vaguely Chinese carried me through my skepticism.. It turned out to be a pleasant room painted brightly in orange and yellow with clean white tablecloths with orange toppers. Each table had soy sauce and a bottle of Sriracha sauce. OK, any place with Sriracha can't be all bad. There was a steam table with bins of 5-6 dishes: beef and broccoli, orange chicken, red pork with vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, chop suey, and a huge bin of fried rice. The woman behind the counter was Mexican... a sweet young person who was very friendly. She claimed no Chinese ancestry. Behind the window in the kitchen I noticed an equally fresh-faced young man who looked like he might have had some Chinese ancestry a few generations ago. Word around town has it that they are from Magdalena across the mountains to the west of Banámichi.

Some of the food available
Unfortunately many of the bins were almost empty. They must be doing a reasonable business. The cook was just finishing up making more fried rice and orange chicken, so we waited. I tried the two entree plate with the orange chicken and the remnants of the beef with broccoli. The latter was excellent - lean and tasty and I wished there had been more of it. The orange chicken was very sweet, as is to the taste of the local population more than to mine. Still, it was hot, crunchy, fresh and tasty...definitely better than the equivalent at an American style buffet that has been sitting on the steam table for hours.

We would happily recommend the place as a long-awaited change from tacos, tortas and poor imitations of hamburgers. We are very pleased that these folks have chosen  Banámichi to start their business. We'll definitely go back, as much to support them and the culinary variety in town as  for the food itself. We wish them the very best and hope that their business is wildly successful!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Making Do

I was working in the garden with the irrigation running when I heard the alarm on the tinaco (roof top reserve water tank) start screaming, indicating that the water level was falling. I ignored it. That was a bad mistake.
A rooftop tinaco, somewhere in Mexico

We put the tinaco on the roof because of the frequent water outages in Banámichi. The way it was designed, all the water for for the two houses first runs into the tinaco and then flows out to the garden or the house. Then we realized that if the city water supply went down, the irrigation would run the tinaco dry in a very short time, so Dan designed and built an alarm system with an exceedingly raucous alarm and warning lights. When the alarm goes off, we can turn off the irrigation, thereby insuring a reserve water supply for the house.

The only problem was that it took awhile to work out the quirks in the system, so there were many false alarms. When the alarm went off this time, I never even considered turning off the irrigation. I was lulled into complacency. It had to be another false alarm.

But noooooo, not this time. A short while later, Dan called out the door: "We're out of water." Ok," says I, "No problemo, it will probably come back on within an hour or so as it always does." Well, not this time. By evening, Dan was scrounging around in the shed to find the 5 gallons of water we had stashed away for emergencies. This situation qualified! The 5 gallons lasted for a couple of toilet flushes and for washing the dishes. By now, we were down to planning meals that could be served with a minimum of dishes.

Fortunately, drinking water was never an issue, since we purchase purified water for that purpose from an establishment called River Water in Aconchi. River Water is a is purified and distilled.

The next morning, there still was no water. Of course, rumors abounded -  the mine was sucking up all the water, or, some guys had gone to Hermosillo - in the middle of the night - to get parts for the city pump. All that day, we expected the water to come on momentarily. The dishes piled up and the toilet went unflushed. All of us gringos commented on how foolish it was to have only one pump for the town, and groused about our waterless lot.

Lynn asked Ramón, "Why don't you Mexicans revolt?" He just shrugged. I think it is just not the Mexican way to complain. Mostly, it won't do any good and is a waste of energy. Why ask the city to buy a second pump, when they hardly have the money to maintain the one they have? Mexicans don't complain, they just make do with what ever they have and with whatever happens. In contrast, I recalled a TV news item during Hurricane Sandy where an American woman in New York was shrieking about how it was two days already that she had been without electricity. Two whole days after a disaster of that magnitude! Her face was contorted with rage. What was somebody going to do about her problem? She as truly ugly about it. We Americans are SO spoiled!!

The morning of the next day, Dan took several 5 gallon buckets down to the irrigation ditch and filled them with greenish water. I did worry a bit about bacteria, but we both have pretty good immunity, so we went ahead and did the dishes. We blew right through those buckets of water and soon needed more. It is shocking how much water gets used in a normal house..even if one is being frugal with it.

Dan filling up at Feliz Estancia
By this time, some people in town had a trickle of water coming out of their faucets, but random others - including us -  did not. In the afternoon, we went out to Feliz Estancia, the hot springs, so we could soak and clean ourselves up a bit. While there, Dan filled several more buckets with water from the swimming pool.

As we entered the 4th day without water, we were finally able to fill our buckets with clean water at Los Arcos Hotel. Others were also getting water from friends and relatives. Little old ladies were seen carrying heavy buckets of water up Calle Obregon. Making do the best they could. Finally, later that day, when I had given up all hope of having water before we had to return to Tucson, Dan turned on the faucet...and whooosh!! There was a healthy stream of water. The crisis had passed. Within a few hours, the neighbor's washing machine was gurning away, and laundry hung in every yard up and down the street.

There is something to be said for knowing how to make do with what one has instead of looking to someone or something else to solve problems. It builds self-reliance and creativity. Mexicans have made an art form of doing this. When we first moved into our house in Banámichi, we had an armoire that we were using as a pantry. Because the floor sloped where it had to sit, we had it propped up and balanced on a large rock. Ramón stopped by one day, and when he saw that he roared with laughter! "Muy Mexicano!" (Very Mexican!) he said!

Using what one has....
If you look around in Mexico, everywhere you will see the evidence of making do. When the water heater breaks, or you have no money to pay for the gas it takes, rip out the wiring and build a wood fire under it! Have an old washing machine that doesn't work? Use it to prop up your swamp cooler. Your car is missing a couple of doors? No it anyway. No work? Sell tamales or coyotas (jam filled pastries) door to door. No money for carne asada? Eat beans and tortillas. And what is there to be ugly or complain about? Be happy! Life is good.