Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or The Daily Quest for Coffee

The Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound

The Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound from Rick and Kim’s deck

The last four weeks have been chock full of excitement. My most recent post, From Summer to Winter, covered the first half of my journey which included touring the Canadian Rockies via motorcoach. These past two weeks have been all about connecting with family and friends.

Being Papa Mike

Papa Mike and the boys in our Mexico T-shirts

Papa Mike and the boys in our Mexico T-shirts

Perhaps the greatest joy in raising children is the reward of becoming a grandpa. After settling in at the home of daughter #1, I visited my five year old grandson’s kindergarten class to tell a story at story time. I was introduced to the class as Papa Mike, a title bestowed on me by my grandson. All my years of experience as a storyteller paid off. The children loved the story of The Little Red Train that I shared. They even invited me back a couple days later to share another story, which I did.

It was also during this visit that I finally got to meet and hold the newest member of the family, my nine month old grandson. He warmed to me quickly, and I spent many happy hours on the floor playing with him and retrieving the toys he liked to throw.

(Great coffee is always available with the push of a button at my daughter’s home. That’s my girl!)

When Bloggers Meet

Mike and Dawn in Bellingham

Mike and Dawn in Bellingham

It was my good fortune to meet a fellow blogger in-person. I am a fan of Dawn’s blog, Tales from the Motherland, in which she gets to the heart of things with a writing style and a passion that inspires me. The blogosphere is a wonderful place to connect with fellow writers online. However, we seldom get the opportunity to meet face-to-face, so this particular sunny day in Bellingham was a special time. Dawn and I shared happy conversation over coffee, and two hours together passed in what seemed like mere moments.

(The coffee at Avellino’s in Bellingham is awesome!)

Hometown Friends

Rick and Kim's doggies are their constant companions.

Rick and Kim’s doggies are their constant companions.

My weekend in Seattle allowed me to connect with several people I had not seen in years. Rick and Kim were my gracious hosts. Rick and I always had fun times whether at work or away from the job. This connection was just like old times, and like me, Rick is a proud grandpa.

I spent my first evening in Seattle having dinner with my high school friend, Rosemary. We have maintained our friendship for 45 years. We talked about anything and everything as though we had visited only a few days before. There is much comfort and understanding in knowing someone your entire adult life.

I reconnected with old friends Pat and Bob.

I reconnected with my fine friends, Pat and Bob.

A Facebook connection put me in touch with a couple I had not seen for over 30 years. Bob and Pat were mountaineering students when I was a mountaineering course instructor. Their teenage children were camp counselors in children’s programs I organized. Our brief breakfast reunion brought back great memories of our younger years, and again hours passed like minutes as my departure via Amtrak to Portland loomed.

(Seattleites always have fresh coffee readily available. Well, duh – it’s Seattle!)

A Storyteller’s Game

Daughter #2 - social worker, poet, RPG gamer and all-around great kid.

Daughter #2 – social worker, poet, RPG gamer and all-around great kid.

During my Portland visit, daughter #2 included me in her game night in the RPG (Role Playing Game) Club with her ‘nerdy friends.’ These folks do appear a bit different with their anything-goes dress and hairstyles. They are also incredibly bright people with a love for creativity and improvisation.

My daughter and I joined three others in a game called Serpent’s Tooth. (If you missed the literary reference to Shakespeare’s King Lear, don’t feel bad – so did I.) I played a cynical friend of the galactic empire’s president-for-life. My daughter was a sentient robot. One young man played a career bureaucrat, and the other young man played a female admiral of Starfleet and heroine of the empire. After two hours of role playing, we wrested all power from the president, and since he was president-for-life by law, the robot shot and killed him to end the game because it was the only logical thing to do. Then we all went to the local brew pub for beers and laughter.

My dear friends from high school, Lily and Rosemary.

My dear friends from high school, Lily and Rosemary.

My daughter describes Portland as the city ‘where 20-somethings go to retire.’ There is so much to do in Portland that I can see why many young people do not necessarily want to work full time. Just visiting all the brew pubs around town could take months.

(Daughter #2 does not drink coffee. Every day I had to walk five blocks for a morning cup of convenience store coffee – ugh!)

On my final night in Portland, I enjoyed a delightful dinner with Lily, another long-time friend from high school. It has an exciting month on the road, and it was also a long time to be away from my wife who awaits my return to Mexico. Even though we Skyped and texted daily, I can say with a sigh of relief, “There’s no place like home.”

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Top 10 Things I Love About Mexico

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Art and culture are on display everywhere in Mexico.

Our stay in Mexico is approaching the end, and it is appropriate to reflect on our experiences. We still have another month and a half before our final departure. However, I will be on assignment in the U.S. for four weeks. So before our stay draws to a close I want to share my Top 10 list for Mexico:

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

Ancient civilizations left their mark.

1. Restaurant Food – There are fabulous restaurants in Mexico. Our host, Jim Horn, has introduced us to the finest eateries in Cuernavaca.
2. Fresh Fruit – The variety and abundance of fresh fruit is the best in the Western Hemisphere. Everything grows here.
3. Hospitality – The people are friendly and helpful. They want visitors to feel welcome, and we do!
4. Health Care – On the few occasions when we needed care, we found world class health care at reasonable prices on our “pay-as-you-go” plan.
5. Climate – While it was snowing in places in the U.S., I was getting a tan. Enough said.
6. Cheese – Before arriving in Mexico, I was craving good cheese. We found great cheeses in Mexico!
7. History – The remains of civilization in Mexico rivals the relics of the Old World dating back thousands of years.
8. Butterflies and Hummingbirds – We have never seen so many of these beautiful creatures in one place.
9. Diversity of Culture – Movies, art, theater, music, indigenous culture, it is all here.
10. Infrastructure for Tourism – There is an excellent transportation system and the roads are well maintained.

Honorable Mention

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Artisans and food vendors abound.

Safety – The bad rap Mexico gets in the American media is simply unfair. We have felt as secure in Mexico as anyplace we have been in the U.S. or any other country we have visited.
Tranquility – Our recent visit to the town square on a Sunday was typical. Families were out with their children. Young people strolled while holding hands. Elderly folks sat with friends in sidewalk cafes sipping coffee.
Shopping – We frequently stroll among shops and stalls to see what is for sale. Most recently we bought a brightly painted ceramic crucifix for 40 pesos ($3.40) and a nicely crafted carry-on backpack for 180 pesos ($16.50).

Did we miss anything?

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my "office."

Birds and butterflies visit me often in my “office.”

Mexico is a big country, and we missed seeing a lot of it. Neither of us are what you would call “beach people,” so we did not visit the coast. Nor did we make it to Puebla, Yucatan or the lush southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. There is simply too much of Mexico to take in over a short span of time. Some might say, “But you had six months! That is plenty of time to see so much of Mexico.” That may seem true. However, we are not on vacation. Vacation living is often expensive and exhausting.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

Mexico is a big and scenic country.

We adopted our Six Monther lifestyle to take life at a normal pace. We attended some expat meetings. We saw a couple of first-run movies. We found local shops for food and services. We adopted exercise routines. We even published a book. In order to take in more of the things worth seeing, we will need to return someday and perhaps we will. However, there is much of the world yet to see.

Our home for the second half of 2013 will be Scotland. Have you visited Scotland? What do you think is a must-see destination?

living in Mexico

A Day in Tepoztlán

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

Mt. Tepozteco overlooks the main street in Tepoztlán.

The quaint town of Tepoztlán (place of abundant copper in the indigenous Nahuatl language) has grown rapidly to over 40,000 inhabitants in recent years.  Some of the growth can be attributed to the Pueblo Mágico (magical town) designation bestowed by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism.  This award recognizes selected towns for their scenic beauty, cultural heritage, and/or their historical significance.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, they have it all.

Bananas, mangos, strawberries, guayaba, pineapple, melons, even Washington apples, they have it all.

Tepoztlán comes to life on Market Days, every Wednesday and Sunday. That is when food vendors, craft persons and local farmers set up awnings around the main square of town.  People come from Mexico City and surrounding towns to enjoy the live music, shop for fresh produce, dine, and perhaps seek out their favorite flavor of ice cream for which the town is famous.

Our first visit to Tepoztlán was on a Sunday.  We chose a nearby restaurant for lunch before purchasing several grocery bags filled with fresh fruits and vegetables including pineapple, strawberries, bananas, mangos, mandarin oranges, tomatoes and avocados, all for about $15.  We would have looked into the 16th century Dominican cathedral, The Parish of the Nativity, except that Sunday mass was just getting out, and the area in and around the cathedral was quite crowded.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won't eat the seeds.

The mosaic mural is coated with varnish so the birds won’t eat the seeds.

Our return visit to Tepoztlán on a Wednesday a few weeks later allowed us time to visit the cathedral.  Access to the cathedral grounds from the marketplace is through an arched gate.  The face of this portal is exquisitely decorated with a mosaic scene portraying in fine detail the agricultural imagery of the region.  The whole scene is portrayed solely with the use of seeds, beans, and organic materials.  Even though the image is preserved by a thick layer of varnish, we learned the entire mosaic is redesigned and redone from scratch every year.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The Dominican cathedral is even more dramatic inside.

The cathedral itself is a tribute to the ingenuity of the artisans of the 1500’s who carved the intricate stonework on the façade. The local history is also superbly displayed and described at the adjacent former convent, now a museum.  We were as impressed with the stunning architectural detail of the building as we were with the museum’s exhibits.

For the more adventurous visitor, an invigorating hike up the neighboring peak of Tepozteco offers spectacular vistas of the town, the surrounding hills and the distant central valley of Morelos.  To this day there are remains of an Aztec era temple high on the cliffs of Tepozteco, probably a site for priests of an earlier era. Whether you like to shop or if you simply prefer a beautiful drive in the country, Tepoztlán is worth a visit.

living in Mexico

Xochicalco – Ancient City of Flowers

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent, featuring deeply cut relief carvings, sits on the highest terrace at Xochicalco where sacred rituals were conducted.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco has plazas on different levels connected by ramps and stairs.

Xochicalco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site south of Cuernavaca, Mexico, had a relatively brief history from 650 AD – 900 AD. The Mayan civilization of that time was in decline experiencing strife and rebellion. Xochicalco was built as a walled, fortified city on the highest mountain overlooking the rich farmland of Mexico’s central valley, suggesting a need to defend itself against warring factions. Cisterns the size of modern swimming pools were built to gather and store rainwater since the city had no permanent water supply. Scholars estimate the population of the city at its peak may have reached 15,000 inhabitants.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

This living area on the highest plaza is most likely where the priests lived.

Xochicalco grew rapidly as a cultural, commercial, and religious center. Although not a Mayan city, Xochicalco modeled itself on Mayan ideas of organization and construction. The city was terraced with plazas on different levels that were connected by a complex network of pathways and stairs. The uppermost level was the site of the temple where priests carried out the most important rituals of the day.

The indigenous Nahuatl word Xochicalco translated literally means “in the place of the home of flowers,” most likely a reference to the prolific blooming of wildflowers in November following the region’s rainy season. While research might reveal the actual name of the city as it was known at the time, I have not discovered it.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for spectators.

The largest of three game fields at Xochicalco had lots of space for large numbers of spectators overlooking the arena.

Games played on the stylized playfields of the day had some similarities to the modern-day games of soccer, basketball, and football. The fields were shaped like a capital letter “I” with carved stone ‘goals’ or hoops on each side. Spanish observers of the games described seven-man teams who wore protective padding on their heads, shoulders, torsos and legs. Players moved a solid ball weighing an estimated eight pounds and 8” in diameter made of vulcanized rubber.* Players were not permitted to use their hands or feet. While scorekeeping remains a mystery, one observer witnessed a player putting the ball through a hoop. He expected the crowd to jump up and cheer. In actuality, the spectators jumped up and ran away while being chased by players on the scoring team. It was later explained the scoring team was allowed to take the possessions of the spectators. Thus, the winners were trying to chase down the wealthiest spectators in an effort to claim their clothing and jewelry as a victory prize.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

All carved figures depicting a sloped forehead are of Mayans. Shaping of the skulls of infants was a common Mayan practice.

Almost all of the structures now visible at Xochicalco have been restored by modern archeologists prior to the 1990’s. The new school of archeological thought has become one of consolidation as opposed to restoration. That is, only enough work is performed at a site to preserve it as it was found, thus keeping everything ‘genuine.’ These academics refer to old school archeologists as ‘pyramidiots,’ a derogatory reference to rebuilding sites according to an academician’s ‘best guess’ as to what structures actually looked like. In defense of the old school, I will point out that the site at Xochicalco would appear today mostly as piles of rubble had there been no restoration projects. You will need to decide for yourself which approach is the most appropriate.

*Note – Ancient Mesoamericans learned to vulcanize rubber over 3,000 years before Charles Goodyear obtained the U.S. patent for the process in 1847.

See more of Xochicalco on this short video:

living in Mexico

Jalapeño Love – A Food Story

JALAPENOS

The Scoville Chart shows jalapeño peppers on the cooler end of the heat spectrum.

Jalapeño peppers are on the cooler end of the Scoville heat spectrum.

Some might say my craving for hot spicy food is indicative of a warped personality or a self-destructive tendency, including my wife. However, I do not eat things so damn hot that I must run to the fridge for a dousing of milk, yogurt or ice cream. (Note – water and beer just spread the heat. Dairy products help put out the fire.) I am not seeking a stomach bomb with 3 million Scoville units. No, I am talking about flavor. The special tang of hot salsa on a taco or burrito that makes every bite a burst of flavor. The sensual crunch of juicy jalapeño peppers on nachos that fills my mouth with flavor. Such is my love of jalapeño peppers.

My love of food is inescapably linked to my love of spice. For example, when I go to a Thai restaurant, I look for the dishes with the most little chilies next to the item. Then I ask the waiter if the heat ratings for these dishes are “Americanized.” Would four chilies on the menu be only three if we were in Thailand? I do not want wimpy hot food. Part of the joy of eating spicy food is sweat breaking out across the bridge of my nose.

Jalapeños are your friends!Jose Jalapeño on a Stick - Jeff Dunham Productions

Jalapeños are your friends!
Jose Jalapeño on a Stick – Jeff Dunham Productions

I am not alone in my quest for spicy heat. Many shops specialize in selling great varieties of hot sauces, some with adjectives like ‘kick-ass’ in the brand name. Also, most supermarkets now have a wide variety of spicy sauces. They are usually divided between the sauce aisle and the Hispanic foods aisle. These sauces are okay to quickly liven up a bowl of chicken noodle soup or a side of baked beans. However, they are quite boring compared to the textures and flavors of a good homemade salsa or stirring a couple tablespoons of diced jalapeños into a steaming bowl of chili.

Stop avoiding hot, spicy food like it is a bee ready to sting you. Try adding a tiny bit of jalapeño pepper on your next nacho chip. Your body builds a natural tolerance to capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them hot. That is why some people, like me, can eat a jalapeño like a pickle and just smile while first-timers seem wimpy as they run to put the fire out. Remember, start slow with jalapeños, and perhaps one day you will also relish the crunchy texture and flavor of a jalapeño to spice up next Mexican-style meal.

The jalapeño bean dip was a hit with all the women at the party.

The jalapeño bean dip was a hit with all the women at the party.

We recently hosted a birthday/going-away party for our Canadian friends, and I served my jalapeño bean dip with my wife’s homemade totopos (tortilla chips). Even my wife, a self-admitted spice wimp, loves this dip, and it was a hit with everyone. Try this simple recipe. You may be surprised by how big a hit it will be at your next party. Who knows? You might love it yourself.

Jalapeño Bean Dip
Ingredients:
Refried beans – 16 oz. serves 4
Grated mild cheese, i.e. – cheddar, jack or a mixture. Approx. 1 cup, not packed
Chopped jalapeños – appox. ¼ cup from a jar or can. Add more to suit your taste.

Heat the refried beans in a sauce pan. Add a little water if they are dry. Gradually stir in the grated cheese until it is completely melted and blended in. Add chopped jalapeños. Simmer for a few minutes. Scoop into a bowl. Sprinkle grated cheese on top if desired and serve with tortilla chips.

Taxco, Mexico – City of Silver

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxco is reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy.

Taxis whizzing through the streets are like a Disneyland ride.

Taxis whiz around like a Disneyland ride. Mosaics of white stone are inlaid in the cobblestone streets

As our bus approaches the town of Taxco on the winding mountain highway, I find the view reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy. The most striking feature is that almost every structure is painted white. The obvious exception is the stunning Cathedral of Santa Prisca. Built over a 15 year period starting in 1758, the twin bell towers of the cathedral were the tallest structures in Mexico at the time. Silver baron, José de la Borda, nearly went bankrupt funding the elaborate Baroque-style construction of the church.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception.

The main altar portrays the Immaculate Conception in exquisite detail.

The taxi ride from the bus station to the Museum of Viceregal Art is incredibly similar to a Disneyland ride as we whirl through a maze of steep inclines and turns between three-story buildings until we arrive at the museum. All the taxis are white VW Bugs with a seating capacity for two passengers only as all the front passenger seats have been removed.

We are told the taxi is free, which I wondered about. When I saw the museum proprietor give each driver several pesos, I realized why the ride was free. The “museum” made a nice profit on our free tour based on the three hundred pesos ($25) we spent on gifts made of silver. Admittedly, it is difficult to not purchase these beautifully crafted items. An elegant silver chain necklace cost under $10.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

This shop modeled itself after the rich silver mines that made Taxco famous.

Since pre-Columbian times Taxco has been renowned for its silver mines. Even though the last silver mine in the area closed just a few years ago, Taxco remains a focal point for handcrafted silver goods and jewelry. Tourism is now the number one industry of Taxco, and the shopkeepers and street vendors are eager to please to the point of ushering people into their shops whenever possible. Hotels and restaurants also provide many options. We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant near the cathedral with a view of the whole town.

Taxco is a shopper’s paradise. The town is strategically located on the principal route from Mexico City to Acapulco. To those for whom shopping is a not a priority, Taxco is essentially a tourist trap. While there are many options for dining and sightseeing, a visit to the Cathedral of Santa Prisca is enough to make a stop in Taxco worth the effort.

living in Mexico

The Cathedral or Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

The Cathedral of Santa Prisca is worth stopping to see.

The Vacation That Changed My Life

Alaska
I had run my first marathon a couple of years before. However, I had not sustained that fitness level. My eating habits reflected the depression I was experiencing following the breakup of my thirty year marriage relationship, so I set out to get back in shape. After an intense three months of diet and exercise, I felt good about reaching my goals, and I decided to reward myself.

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

RC Radiance of the Sea in Glacier Bay

My first thought was to eat a big steak dinner, which I scaled down to a deluxe hamburger to stay within my food budget. I topped my food fantasies with the idea of gorging myself on a homemade banana cream pie. Of course, these gastronomic misadventures were what put me on the weight-loss path to begin with. When I asked myself what I really wanted, it hit me. There were two things I had never done and always wanted to do: 1) visit Alaska, and 2) take a cruise. I could accomplish both at one time! Since I was unattached, I researched singles cruises. As it happened a singles group had openings on a cruise that July which fit with my vacation schedule. Sharing a stateroom with another single was a great way to save money, so I booked it.

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

View of Juneau from Mt. Roberts

As people signed up, we introduced ourselves to one another via email. I learned quickly that more women cruise than men. Of the sixteen people in our group, thirteen were women. Although I did not mind the odds, I was a bit nervous thinking I was older than most members of the group. Just to make sure I was putting my best self forward, I bought some new dress clothes. I also had my hair styled including dying out the gray. I was ready.

The first evening on the cruise was a social mixer/cocktail hour. All but one person showed up at the appointed hour. I knew who was missing because we had all exchanged introductory emails. When she finally showed up I approached her and said, “Hi, my name is Mike. You must be Florence.” (Under duress I am now fast forwarding past all the mushy stuff.)

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

We decided to stay in touch after our cruise. Florence lived in Glendale, California. I was in Olympia, Washington. We maintained a long distance relationship for awhile, which was stressful. She took vacations in Washington with me (and filled my freezer with home-cooked meals). I visited her at her home in Las Vegas. I met lots of her Italian family at Thanksgiving. We decided then that we should be together, and by Christmas she and I had a home together in Olympia. The rest, as they say, is history.

All this occurred in 2005. Florence and I were married in 2007. I retired in 2011, and we have been traveling the world together ever since.

I had never before used “Hi, my name is Mike” as a pickup line. Since I am batting 1.000 with that line I do not use it anymore. Thus, my perfect record remains intact. 🙂

living in Mexico