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.”

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

Happy Birthday to Me – Mexican Style

tamuz
I turned sixty-three this February 22nd. At first it did not feel quite right because this is the first birthday in my life when it was not cold. I am not complaining. Since our power was out most of the day due to electrical maintenance, we sat out in our garden terrace and read books for most of the day. Not a bad way to spend a day. And it just got better!

Our neighbor Yvon, his daughter Natahlie, and granddaughter Regina.

Our neighbor Yvon, his daughter Natahlie, and granddaughter Regina, Florence and me

Once power was restored I was able to connect with family via Skype and with many friends via Facebook, all sending me birthday cheer. Then our new neighbors from Quebec, Madeleine and Yvon (pronounced Ivan), invited us up to their terrace to share a glass of wine and an enjoyable visit along with their daughter, Natahlie, and their granddaughter, Regina.

Our celebration dinner with our other neighbors, Jane and Jim, began with a cocktail and conversation on Jim’s scenic deck. The onset of twilight in Cuernavaca signaled our departure time for a dining experience at Tamuz a short drive away.

The Israeli owner/chef of Tamuz recreates an Israeli bistro setting.

The Israeli owner/chef of Tamuz recreates an Israeli bistro setting.

The open-air deck overlooks a lawn and illuminated water-feature wall. A duet performed live music that was soft and melodic. The young female vocalist’s lyrical voice swept over us like a whispering breeze, tangible but not visible. The atmosphere was, in all respects, classy.

Florence started with tortilla soup with a Mediterranean vegetarian dinner. Jane ordered an eggplant and cheese appetizer with roasted peppers and capers. It must have been good because she did not utter a word until there was nothing left on her plate. Jim and I both ordered the Caesar salad custom-made alongside our table. The three of us then enjoyed the entree coconut shrimp on a bed of rice with a spicy mango salsa.

The vegetarian plate included stuffed grape leaves, hummus and olives.

The vegetarian plate included stuffed grape leaves, hummus and olives.

When Jim informed our waiter that it was my birthday, he brought me a special birthday dessert with a single candle, and they played a birthday song over the sound system, which was also quite classy. I wished for what I always wish for – the health and safety of my loved ones.

Thanks to all who made this a special day.

A special dessert caps off a perfect birthday.

A special dessert caps off a perfect birthday.

living in Mexico

Expat Living – Financing the Dream

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

Aconcagua, highest point in the Western Hemisphere as seen from Libertadores Pass.

A previous post, Announcing the Six Monthers, describes our desire to move to a new location every six months. This lifestyle gives us time to acquaint ourselves with the local culture and discover places and things that are off the beaten path. This is how we did it.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

The ancient city of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.

First, we have no debt. All credit card balances are paid off every month. Next, we downsized. This was the most significant challenge, and sentimental value cannot be casually dismissed. Take the time to enjoy the things you have. Then ask yourself if you want to pack them with you. We made a rule. If we boxed up stuff and we did not reopen the box within a year, we did not need it. Whatever you do, do not purchase storage space because the cost of storage will soon be greater than the value of your stuff.

The view from our cabin at Selva Negra Eco-lodge in Nicaragua.

Selva Negra Eco-Lodge and coffee farm in Nicaragua.

We are not wealthy by any means. In fact, when we first decided to move outside the United States it was because we could not afford to live most places in the States on my retirement income. Florence will not be eligible to retire for another ten years, and she would have to work full-time for us to afford living in the States, especially given the cost of health care. That still leaves many countries where we can live comfortably on my $1,500/month Social Security check. Any country where rent and utilities cost under $800/month is within our means, including Mexico where we live now, and Florence works only if she so chooses.

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

Villefranche on the French Riviera near Monaco

The fun part is deciding where to live. As you consider your options, you should also plan how to adapt to your new lifestyle. Do you need to learn a new language? If so, it is not too soon to start studying. Is hot water a luxury or a necessity? We lived in Panama for $300/month with hot water only in the shower. We saved a lot of money, but it got old after awhile. The key is to live within your means and to adapt your lifestyle to your income.

This is not a vacation. This is the part of your life you will spend seeing the world, so pace yourself. Have fun making plans. Also, be flexible and change your plans should you discover better options along the way.

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine NP, Chile

Mike and Florence at Laguna Gray, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile

Perhaps most important of all, be on excellent terms with your significant other. Traveling abroad is not couples therapy. If you think this goes without saying, let me ask this. When was the last time you and your significant other shared a confined space while it rained for several days in a row? Do you still make each other laugh?

If you would have told me two years ago I would be moving every six months, I would have laughed at the thought of it. I did not even have a passport two years ago! All I am saying is if I can do it so can you. Good luck and buen viaje!

living in Mexico

Benefits of the Expat Diet

Open air markets are common throughout Latin America.

Open air markets are common throughout Latin America.

We have reaped several health benefits since adapting our eating habits to our expat lifestyle. For one thing our digestion is better. My wife used to be gluten intolerant. That is longer noticed. She also used to react to onions and tomatoes we bought in the U. S. That has not occurred in Latin America. All the chemicals used in fresh and processed foods in the U. S. are not evident in locally produced foods.

There is no shortage of places to eat while on the go.

Tasty foods are readily available while on the go.

Our diet is defined by the foods most commonly available. In Panama, rice and beans were a staple, and chicken was the typical entrée at dinner. Fish was also in ready supply which we ate a few times each month even though neither of us are big fish eaters. We lived away from the big city in Panama, and produce vendors would drive right to our door.

We are city dwellers now in Mexico, and the variety of foods available is more like what would find in the States. Mexico also has big box stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart). However, we have no need to shop in bulk. Our six monthers lifestyle dictates we not stock up on food. What we cannot eat we will have to give away in a few months, so we only buy what we need.

Panaderías provide a variety of fresh baked good.

Panaderías provide a variety of fresh baked good.

We buy fresh baked goods, fruits and vegetables as needed because local panaderías and produce stands are ubiquitous, and their prices are lower than at the supermarkets. We have learned about many new food items. We use chayote, guayaba, guanabana, cherimoya, and varieties of melons and citrus fruits we never knew existed. Utilizing these foods has allowed us to economize, too.

A mango on a stick makes a great quick snack.

A mango on a stick makes a great quick snack.

More common fruits like pineapple, guava, and papaya are plentiful. Of course, we have aguacates (avocados), and thank goodness! Fresh avocado on salads, with rice and beans, fresh guacamole with totopos, or just eating it out of the peel with a spoon is so yummy!

We practice a lifestyle we will take with us everywhere we live, whether in the U. S. or abroad. Since we do not have a car, we do not load up. We buy what we need when we need it. No more impulse buying, especially snack foods and candy. We walk to and from the store as part of our daily exercise routine, and we shop at open air markets for fresh produce.

Whole or grated artisan cheeses are commonly available.

Whole or grated artisan cheeses are commonly available.

We knew about economizing and eating fresh before. Were we just too busy to incorporate these habits into our busy working lives? We now take life at a more reasonable pace, and we have found that to be a pleasant change.

living in Mexico

Announcing the Six Monthers

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

Mike and Florence at Estancia Cristina in Southern Argentina at the base of the Andes.

We are a new breed of expat travelers. We are the Six Monthers, thus named because we seek to live in a new country every six months. We live like the locals live, eat like the locals eat, and experience life in a different culture with each move we make.

Some of the world's most sought after coffees are grown in Panama.

Some of the world’s most sought after coffees are cultivated and grown in Panama.

We lived for six months in Boquete, Panama, up until January, and we are now living in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We are already planning our move to Scotland this July (Inverness perhaps?), and if things work out as planned, we will move to Spain at the beginning of 2014. We currently favor Costa Brava, but then deciding where to land is part of the fun. There are other countries we wish to experience as well, but they will have to wait their turn.

There are advantages to staying in a country for six months. Most obvious is that we take our time seeing the sights worth seeing and seeking out-of-the-way places that are known to mostly locals. We do not need a special resident visa which may be expensive or simply not available in some countries. No thanks, we won’t be staying that long. And in countries with a 90 day tourist visa limit, we just take a long weekend to a neighboring country.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

The natural hot springs near Caldera, Panama reward the more adventurous sightseer.

We sold everything we own, i.e. – house, cars, furniture, appliances, electronic equipment, and artwork. What we could not sell or give to a relative we donated – clothing, books, lamps, sporting equipment. Some of that process was painful, although it was also quite liberating. And we find we do not miss those things. Now everything we own fits into two suitcases and a carry-on bag. We are free to go where we want when we want.

The open air markets like this one in Cuernavaca are common throughout Mexico.

Open air markets include many booths like this one in Cuernavaca and are common throughout Mexico.

We opened a bank account at an international bank so we can make withdrawals anywhere we go without having to open a new account. ATM’s give the best exchange rates, and we typically withdraw the maximum amount allowed because the transaction fee is the same regardless of the amount withdrawn.

We meet interesting people wherever we go, both expats and locals. Just like back home, not everyone is a likely friend simply because we were born in the same country or state. Even though we have hit it off with lots of interesting people, staying in touch is difficult beyond being friends on Facebook. The friends we had back home are still our best friends.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

The pristine town square of Iquique, Chile is one of the places to which we would like to return.

Making the transition to a lifestyle of moving every six months is not for everyone. Your house full of memories and a lifetime of purchases are not going with you. Nor are your closest friends and family members going with you. That is why you will always need a reliable internet connection. Thanks to Skype, we maintain regular contact with family and we stay connected with friends who are curious about our adventures and want to keep up with our latest stories from abroad.

The most important factor for us is our health. Thankfully, we are strong and healthy enough to satisfy our wanderlust. We know we only have so long before we can no longer travel. Therefore, we are living a life many people only dream of while we have the opportunity, and we are sharing our experiences as we go.


living in Mexico

The Amazing Maya Nut

Indigenous women sort Maya nuts for processing.

Indigenous women sort Maya nuts for processing.³

The Maya rainforest remains one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, second only to the Amazon rainforest. We tend to think of ancient rainforests as virgin forests, untouched by human hands. It might be more appropriate to think of the Central American rainforest as The Garden of the Maya, because the Mayans found numerous ways to utilize its incredible diversity. Studies have shown that 90% of the plants found in the rainforest are useful to humans, and there is evidence to suggest the Maya nut was an important food source for the Mayans.

The Maya nut tree can grow over 100 feet tall at maturity. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The Maya nut tree can grow over 100 feet tall at maturity.⁴

You may have never heard of the Maya nut. This nut grows on a tree (Brosimum alicastrum) indigenous to central and southern Mexico and Central America. Commonly called ramón or breadnut, the Maya nut is believed to have been a food staple of the Maya civilization dating back thousands of years. Now it is part of a revival effort helping to feed the hungry throughout this region.

Indigenous people in Mexico and Central America roast the nuts and then grind them to varying degrees of coarseness. They mix it with cinnamon to make a healthy tea drink, and children love it for its chocolaty flavor. The tea contains traces of tryptophan, which is great in the evening for helping children relax and get a good night’s sleep.

The Maya nut is a superfood, high in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, potassium, folic acid and vitamins A and B. It is also a good source of complete protein with a chemical structure similar to that of red meat. With additional minerals like iron, it is a healthy nutrient for pregnant women and helps lactating women produce more milk.

Maya nuts are easily harvested as they fall to the ground when mature.

Maya nuts are easily harvested from the ground when mature.⁴

Many indigenous people in Mexico and Central America have barely enough food to avoid chronic hunger. The Maya nut is now being cultivated as a food source that is nutritious and sustainable. There is the temptation to sell Maya nuts to industrialized countries where many people seek its nutritional benefits. However, the profits from sales of the nuts alone are insufficient to replace the food needed to maintain a healthy diet. Efforts are underway to provide refined products like tea and flour for sale to industrialized countries because sales of these items provide significantly higher profits.

Many delicious snacks are prepared from Maya nut flour.³

Fine foods are prepared from Maya nut flour.³

Cecilia Sanchez Garduño, PhD, the featured speaker at a recent meeting of the Newcomers Club of Cuernavaca, is a doctor of botany. At this meeting I was able to taste a sample of a snack cake she shared with us, and it was delicious! It reminded me of gingerbread. Her years of work both with the Maya Nut Institute¹and on her own have benefitted hundreds of rural and indigenous women and helped them form numerous businesses to produce and market Maya nut products and to teach workshops to other women.² Anyone interested in learning more of her work and how to help can contact her via email at sanchez_garduno@yahoo.com.

Children get a healthy snack during their school day.³

Children get a healthy Maya nut-based snack during their school day.³

References
¹ http://mayanutinstitute.org/
² http://mayaforestgardeners.org/forestgardening.php
³ Photo credit: Maya Nut Institute
⁴ Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

living in Panama

Auntie Flo’s Totopos

Auntie Flo's kitchen is an open-air arrangement adjacent to our patio, also know as my office.

Auntie Flo’s kitchen is an open-air arrangement adjacent to our garden spot, also know as my office.

We usually save the food photos for Facebook. However, this just seemed too good to pass up. When I saw Florence frying up the remainder of our fresh corn tortillas to make our own corn chips, I just wanted to share this.

A new batch of totopos fresh from the pan

A new batch of totopos fresh from the pan

I really wanted to title this article “Tía Flo’s Totopos” just for the alliteration. However, I didn’t because many people don’t know what tía means and even fewer know what totopos are, although by now you probably have figured out they are tortilla chips. And considering how many nieces and nephews Florence has, she has always been Auntie Flo.

Corn tortillas fresh from the conveyor belt at the local supermarket cost about $1.00 for about three dozen. The two of us cannot possibly eat that many tortillas while they are still fresh, so we make our own totopos. Lightly salted they are quite tasty.

There really is such a thing as a Margarita-in-a-can.

There really is such a thing as a Margarita-in-a-can.

Add some hot, fresh refried beans and locally made fresh salsa and you have the perfect sunny afternoon snack to tide you over until dinner. Some, like me, might wish a cold beer to round out the perfect snack food. Florence is partial to the Margarita-in-a-can. BYOS – Bring Your Own Salt.

This is all part of our effort to explore and better appreciate the cultures of the places we visit. And it will make a great Super Bowl snack.

living in Panama
Food & Drink Blogs
Food & Drink

Emiliano Zapata – The Mexican People’s Hero

Remains of Hacienda Coahuixtla - Ayala, Morelos, Mexico

Land owners exploited peasant farmers. Zapata demanded the return of land illegally seized from the farmers. The ruins of Hacienda Coahuixtla in Ayala, Morelos stand as testament to the fate of the haciendas.

Emiliano Zapata grew to be a legendary hero in the State of Morelos, Mexico, where I now live. Morelos is one of the smallest of the 31 states of Mexico, but also one of the most important due to its plentiful water, fertile farm lands and year round growing season.

General Zapata and his staff during the Mexican Revolution.  Photo credit: Wikipedia

General Zapata (center) and his staff during the Mexican Revolution. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Zapata was raised in the humble, rural town of Anenecuilco where his family owned land. At the turn of the century, the surrounding fertile valley of Morelos began producing sugar cane on a global scale surpassed only by Hawaii and Puerto Rico. While slavery had been abolished in the New World, indentured servitude on the great haciendas of central Mexico was akin to feudal farms during the middle ages in Europe. The peons had little control over their living and working conditions, a throwback to when the conquistadors enslaved the natives to work their fields and mines.

Zapata's headquarters was near the fertile land he loved.

Zapata’s headquarters was near the fertile land he loved.  Sugarcane fields are still seen in the distance.

Although Zapata did not have a university education, he was well-educated. He learned not only to read and write, but also the proud history of the indigenous people. Records also indicate Zapata was fluent in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of his region. In 1909, Zapata was elected president of the local town council at the age of 30, an honor almost unheard of since town councils were typically made up of town elders. He had grown to understand the terrible exploitation of the peasant farmers, and with the full confidence of the people, he dedicated his life to looking out for their right to own the land they worked.

The gate is all that remains of the wall at Hacienda San Juan in Chinameca, where Zapata was ambushed. The bullet holes are still visible behind the statue of Zapata on horseback.

The gate is all that remains of the wall at Hacienda San Juan in Chinameca, where Zapata was ambushed. The bullet holes are still visible behind the statue of Zapata on horseback.

Zapata supported Francisco Madero’s successful campaign for President of Mexico. However, Madero was not prepared to institute significant land reforms for the benefit of the peasant farmers. In 1911, Madero appointed a regional governor in Morelos who supported the hacienda owners, and the relationship between Madero and Zapata deteriorated. Soon thereafter, Zapata and others drafted the Plan of Ayala, a land reform plan that called for all lands stolen under earlier administrations to be immediately returned to the farmers.

This 20 foot statue of Zapata stands at his burial site in Cuautl, Morelos.

This 20 foot statue of Zapata stands at his burial site in Cuautl, Morelos.

Inevitably, Zapata placed himself in mortal danger by defying the president. In 1919, Zapata was tricked into believing one of the Federal Army’s commanders was prepared to defect to Zapata’s side. Zapata believed this would be the final step in achieving the victory for his people. Instead, he was ambushed and murdered.

While the Plan of Ayala influenced the revised Constitution of Mexico, not all of the reforms envisioned by Zapata were ever fully realized. Nevertheless, Zapata is revered by the people of Mexico and there are streets, parks, highways and landmarks throughout the country named in his honor.

Note: According to most accounts, Zapata had 13 children, most if not all by different mothers. Zapata never forced his desires on women. It is considered a tribute to Zapata that the women who bore his children came to him out of love and devotion.

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Food & Drink Blogs
Food & Drink

A Brief History of Mexico – Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

The Aztecs built the city of Tenochtitlan on an island. Mexico City is now centered on this site.

History portrays Hernán Cortes as a brutal conquistador responsible for wiping out a once proud and highly-evolved indigenous society in Mexico. It turns out he had a lot of help.

The Aztecs worship gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs worshipped gods of sun and rain and built great temples, some of which remain today.

The Aztecs did not start out as a powerful tribe. In fact, they did not have a homeland for many generations. They subsisted in what is now Central Mexico as mercenary soldiers. They were fierce warriors, and they were seldom defeated. On the other hand, they had no loyalty. Their warriors always fought for those who paid the most. They would even turn against their hosts if their enemies outbid them for their services.

Over a period of centuries the Aztecs had alienated every tribe in the region. The tribes of the central valley banished the Aztecs to a marshy island in the middle of the lake that once covered much of the valley where Mexico City now sits. Over time, the Aztecs built their strength and influence to the point that they threatened to attack any neighboring tribe that did not pay tribute to them. And indeed, those who resisted were wiped out. Over time the Aztecs dominated all of what is now Central Mexico.

An artist's portrayal of Tenochititlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

An artist’s portrayal of Tenochtitlan depicts what Cortes encountered as he entered the Aztec city.

Then, in 1519, Cortes showed up on the Caribbean shore. When he learned of the great nation of the Aztecs, Cortes set out with 500 men, 15 horses, and a dozen cannons to meet the Aztecs for himself. Cortes discovered the Aztec Nation numbered about six million people and held dominion over another 12 million. The cultivation skills alone needed to produce food for this many people were unprecedented. Cortes was going to need help. It turns out he had no difficulty finding it. Every indigenous tribe readily joined forces with Cortes when they learned his objective was to conquer the Aztecs. It took only two years for Cortes’ army to conquer the entire Aztec Nation. It turned out smallpox was the biggest killer. Over 90% of the indigenous population died from diseases brought from Europe to the New World.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

The Palace of Cortes is now a huge museum.

Cortes made his home in a village called Cuauhnáhuac, a native term meaning ‘near the forest.’ The closest word in Spanish was Cuernavaca, or cow horn, a term which bears no relevance to the place. Cortes had a palace built. It stands today as a huge museum bordering the central plaza in Cuernavaca. The Government Palace and the main cathedral are also located near the plaza.

Cuernavaca is now a metropolitan city of nearly one million people with numerous gardens, parks, museums and commercial areas. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, the climate remains pleasant throughout the year. All of which goes to explain why we made this our home, for now.

Note: This article touches lightly on the history and events spanning the centuries leading up to the Spanish Conquest. I have detailed nothing of the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies which evolved simultaneously with post-Christian European societies. Any slight to the sophistication of these cultures is unintentional.
living in Panama