Checking Out Huntingtower Castle

The architecture of Huntingtower Castle is unusual with two separate tower houses side by side.

The architecture of Huntingtower Castle is unusual with two separate tower houses side by side.

One thing you figure out quickly in Scotland is that there are dozens of castles throughout the country, and in many cases one need not travel far in order to reach them. Our first week in Scotland we signed up to become members of Historic Scotland for which we are granted free admission to many of the castles. Today, we took a local bus just five miles out of our home city of Perth to the site of Huntingtower Castle.

The gap between the two towers has been closed in.  The walkbridge is just for tourists.

The gap between the two towers has been closed in. The walkbridge is just for tourists.

The uniqueness of this castle is that it was built with two tower houses side by side but separated by a gap of a few feet. More recent renovations had the two towers joined into a single structure. The oldest part of the castle as it stands today dates back to the 1400’s. Prior to 1600 the castle was known as the Place of Ruthven. In 1480 the two sons of William, the First Lord Ruthven, were each granted letters of legitimacy, thus giving both heirs a rightful claim to the estate. This rare occurrence may explain the building of two tower houses so close together – one for each son.

A floor once divided this room into two stories. The first floor was for cooking and cleaning. The upper floor was for dining.

A floor once divided this room into two stories. The first floor was for cooking and cleaning. The 2nd floor was for dining and receiving guests.

The reign of King James VI was an unstable time politically. Even though the king made the Fourth Lord Ruthven the Earl of Gowrie in 1581, a year later the earl captured the young king and held him for ten months as a prisoner in what became known as the ‘Ruthven Raid’. The dispute was settled and the king forgave his earl.

More political intrigue followed, and in 1600 the Ruthven brothers, John and Alexander, were implicated in a plot to murder King James. The king had them executed and their families were forced to forfeit their land. The king took possession of the castle and estate and renamed it Huntingtower. In 1643 he awarded the land and the earldom to the Murrays of Tullibardine.

The top floor was the earl's bedroom. A four poster bed sat along the left wall.

The top floor was the earl’s bedroom. A four poster bed sat along the left wall.

The last of the family to reside in the castle was Lady Mary Ross, widow of John Murray, the First Duke of Atholl, whose realm included parts of what is now Perth. She died in 1767 and the castle fell into disrepair. Farm laborers occasionally used the site for shelter. Nowadays, the castle has become a popular site for weddings. The castle is now in the care of Historic Scotland and is open to visitors all year round.

The most important historic feature of the castle is this medieval ceiling painted with pigments from the 15th century.

The most important historic feature of the castle is this medieval ceiling painted with pigments from the 15th century.

The ubiquitous cross of St. Andrew on the flag of Scotland flies over the ramparts.

These days the cross of St. Andrew on the flag of Scotland flies over the ramparts.

Finally At Home in Perth

Downtown Perth and the Tay River as seen from the Perth Bridge

Downtown Perth and the Tay River as seen from the Perth Bridge

Alison and Tom, agents at Your Move, helped us finalize our move. Which one do you think is in charge?

Alison and Tom helped us finalize our move. Which one do you think is in charge?

We have been in the United Kingdom for a whole month now, and we have covered a lot of ground. Travel during the latter half of the past month was sort of self-inflicted because we were willing to wait three weeks for the cozy apartment in Perth that we fell in love with when we viewed it early in July.

We have experienced the local culture and history in large doses. First, there was local lad, Andy Murray, victorious at Wimbledon. Then there was the birth of the future King George of England. We also visited Bournville, England, home of Cadbury World, and the home town of The Beatles on our trip to Liverpool.

Looking down High Street from our 3rd story apartment

Looking down High Street from our 3rd story apartment

We have been rewarded in our travels as we took in some great sights. At the same time it has been rather exhausting to always be on the move and hauling all of our possessions with each change of venue. Granted, we have only a suitcase and a carry-on apiece. However, that requires a taxi ride when arriving in a new city and we need to go any distance over six blocks, which is pretty much all the time. Traveling like this is not only tiring, but it can also get expensive. So it is our great pleasure to finally make it back to Perth and a place we can call home.

Our tea table in the bay window of the guest room

Our tea table in the bay window of the guest room

We needed an extra day to iron out the financial details, and then we spent most of today getting moved in. With only two suitcases unpacking does not take long. We did some housekeeping, went shopping for some basics (food, beverages and cleaning supplies) and had lunch at a sidewalk café. We re-arranged the furniture and did some laundry.

All these domestic chores are rather nice for a change, including having our own washing machine. And we like having a cinema around the corner and a grocery store and a fresh produce market on our street. Everything we need is within six blocks including the park, the bus station and the train station. Life is good and I am pleased to say we are finally home in Perth, our base from which to tour Scotland over the next six months.

North Inch Park is six blocks from our place. I foresee many morning walks along the river.

North Inch Park is six blocks from our place. I foresee many morning walks along the river.

Now what? Will it be a tour of nearby Scone Castle or a perhaps day trip to the oil rich city of Aberdeen? I can hardly wait to share our next adventure because I know we will soon be out exploring again.

Birmingham, England in a Day

Victoria Square and the City Councilor Building in the heart of Birmingham

Victoria Square and the City Councilor Building in the heart of Birmingham

We set out to explore on our first full day in Birmingham. Distances are not far in the city center, so we walked. Map-reading skills came in handy because the city’s streets are a random network of arterials, one-way streets, pedestrian promenades, dead ends and twisting roads. Throw in a central canal that cuts through the heart of the city and you begin to envision downtown Birmingham.

The Birmingham Cathedral in the heart of the city

The Birmingham Cathedral in the heart of the city

The city sees itself as a cultural center with several museums and six universities. I see Birmingham as a shipping and industrial city with a history of industry and manufacturing. It has some interesting sights like the Birmingham Cathedral (aka St. Philip’s) and St. Martin’s Cathedral, all part of the ABC Tour (Another Blessed Cathedral), and a maze of shops and malls in the town center called The Bullring.

Small by cathedral standards, St. Philips is elegant inside.

Small by cathedral standards, St. Philips is elegant inside.

Birmingham’s industrial history differed from other factory cities. While manufacturing plants for weaving textiles or refining chemicals required a low-skilled workforce for assembly line work, Birmingham was much more specialized. They operated smaller shops and highly skilled workers provided custom products on a smaller scale. Birmingham became a center of innovation during the Industrial Revolution as indicated by registering more patents than any other British city.  Notable innovations during World War II included the cavity magnetron, a key component in radar and eventually in microwave ovens.

Most recent stop on the ABC Tour was St. Martin's Cathedral near The Bullring.

Most recent stop on the ABC Tour was St. Martin’s Cathedral near The Bullring, Birmingham’s retail business center.

The public library was not open for us which was a disappointment. It was bad timing because the new Central Library is in the process of moving to a brand new building scheduled to open September 3rd. We have been in internet limbo this week as we depend on internet access to stay connected to family and followers. That situation was partially solved with the purchase of a dongle which connects a laptop with the mobile phone network.  We only purchased one. We will definitely get a second one since they cost only about $15/month for unlimited use.

The ultra-modern new Birmingham Library Photo credit: Birminghamlibrary.co.uk

The ultra-modern new Birmingham Library
Photo credit: Birminghamlibrary.co.uk

It has been exciting times in the UK. We were in Scotland when Glaswegian Andy Murray took the Wimbledon men’s championship.  Of course the whole world was watching as the birth of the future King of England took center stage. I still do not quite grasp the British fascination with their monarchy.  A couple of locals tried to explain how it is essential to the Brits.  I do not think it is something we Americans are equipped to comprehend.  Nonetheless, congratulations to the Royal Family!

Glasgow – A City In Need of an Identity

Glasgow Cathedral is the resting place of St. Mungo, Patron Saint of Glasgow.

Glasgow Cathedral is the resting place of St. Mungo, Patron Saint of Glasgow.

I might say that Glasgow has been a bit of a disappointment, perhaps due in part to the city suffering in comparison with Edinburgh. Where Edinburgh is charming in a 19th century way, Glasgow is an architectural mish-mash of old and new.

The Necropolis, City of the Dead, sits on a hill overlooking the Cathedral and the city.

The Necropolis, City of the Dead, sits on a hill overlooking the Cathedral and the city.

We toured some stunning sites like the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis which were full of old world charm, as was the campus of the University of Glasgow. Shuffled together with these architectural treasures are high rise apartment buildings, steel and glass office buildings, modern high rise hotels, and an eclectic mix of nouveau architecture in their new Museum of Transportation, The Hydro sports complex and the new science center. Glasgow seems like a city stuck somewhere between old and new with indifference toward any specific identity.

The ultra-modern Performance Center and Arena next to the River Clyde where shipping docks once sat.

The ultra-modern Performance Center and Arena next to the River Clyde where shipping docks once sat.

Glasgow, with close to half a million people, has about twice the population of Edinburgh. Historically, Glasgow is a working city. The now non-existent shipbuilding docks along the River Clyde produced famous ocean liners like the Lusitania, the Mauritania, the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary, and the Queen Elizabeth II as well as hundreds of Allied warships during World War II.

Glasgow, being the closest port to the United States, was the gateway to Europe for raw goods from the New World. Fortunes were built in the tobacco and sugar markets. International shipping spawned a wealthy class that built up the west side of Glasgow. The working class mostly occupied the east side. The difference is evident today with the east side of town showing signs of wear and neglect.

Classrooms overlook one of the university quadrangles.

We felt smarter as we walked through the quadrangles at the University of Glasgow.

Glasgow has some stunning historical architecture. The City Chambers building adjacent to George’s Square opened in 1881 is so stylish inside that it has been the setting for film settings including both The Vatican and The Kremlin. Glasgow Cathedral dates back to the 12th century and is the only cathedral in Scotland to have remained intact following The Reformation. Glasgow University, the second oldest university in Scotland, was chartered in 1451, and it is said its many spires inspired the setting of Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter series. Apparently, the filmmakers were turned down by the University of Glasgow to use the main campus as a setting for the Harry Potter films.

Old and new now stand side by side in Glasgow.

Old and new now stand side by side in Glasgow.

About fifty years ago developers began systematically knocking down old stone buildings in Glasgow to make way for modern skyscrapers. The city’s ceiling was raised from five stories to fifty stories, and that movement is still underway. A relatively small percentage of structures are protected for historical reasons. There seems to be general apathy about fixing or preserving the classic parts of Glasgow. Even when the powers-that-be proposed updating George’s Square in the heart of the city, the citizens of Glasgow raised hell until the city leaders scaled things down to a simple resurfacing of the square.

The bartender at Oran Mer, an old church converted into a bar/restaurant.

We ate at Oran Mer, an old church converted into a bar/restaurant. The bartender was pleased to pose for me.

Although parts of Glasgow seem a bit tired and out of repair, I believe our visit here has been worthwhile. The immaculately refurbished Mitchell Library has been a comfortable retreat to read and work. And as always, the local people have been nothing but courteous and helpful. Ultimately, it is the people who give Glasgow much of its charm.

First Impressions from Scotland

Lochleven Castle - Kinross Scotland

Inside the walls of Lochleven Castle – Kinross Scotland

Although the ten hour flight to the UK was grueling, the one hour shuttle to Edinburgh was a breeze. We caught a bus from the terminal and transferred to a northbound express bus straight through for 20 miles to Kinross. We walked into a nearby supermarket to ask about getting a taxi, and the sweet Scottish miss at the service counter had a taxi on its way within minutes.

A nice house in Kinross

A nice house in Kinross

The patron standing in line behind me picked up on our conversation and asked where I was from. I told him we just arrived this same day from Los Angeles, to which he replied, “And you decided to come here?” like I was crazy or something. He added, “It rains a lot here, even in the summer.” I said, “I’m from Seattle, so rain doesn’t bother me. We call it ‘liquid sunshine.’ Anyway, we came to Scotland because it is on our Bucket List,” I replied happily. He said, “Your Bucket List is it, just like the in the movie with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson? Well, you will love it then. It is beautiful here!” And just like that we were friends.

The garden across from our hotel in Kinross

The garden across from our hotel in Kinross

As we were waiting outside the store for our taxi, he came over as he exited the store. I had just told Florence of the encounter as he smiled and walked up to us, so I made introductions. He even offered us a ride to our hotel, which we declined because we had all of our luggage and he had a small car.

We were relieved to complete the day’s journey at the Windlestrae Hotel in Kinross. After sleeping over ten hours and eating breakfast, we began walking the town. Everything except a coffee shop and corner grocery store were closed on Sunday. The town air is so fresh! No beeping horns, no barking dogs. Just spotlessly clean streets and sidewalks and quaint architecture.

View of Loch Leven and hills from outside the walls of Castle Lochleven

View of Loch Leven and hills from outside the walls of Lochleven Castle

We visited our first historical site, the  Lochleven Castle. Mary Queen of Scots was garrisoned here in 1567. She made a daring escape a few months after being imprisoned, daring because Loch Leven is the largest fresh water lake in Scotland, and the castle is on an island in the lake. She was re-captured soon after.  If you know any of the history of Queen Mary, you know she was ultimately convicted of treason and beheaded to remove the threat of the claim she had to the throne of England.

We are going to Perthshire on Monday. While there is much to see and do there, our first order of business is to find an apartment. If it turns out to be exciting I will share the adventure.

How to Travel Europe, or Who is This Schengen Guy?

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

Overlooking the entrance to the ancient city of Pompeii

When Florence and I developed our Six Monther plan of living in a different country every six months, we listed all the countries in which we were interested in living.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

The Ponte de Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

We came up with a list of twenty countries, and we achieved a couple of general objectives. First, we would set foot on every continent. Second, we would be seeing much of the world before we are too old to be as active as we would like in our travels. (I am 63, Florence is 53.)

Our bucket list of countries includes a number of European Union member countries. As we researched the visa requirements for these EU countries, we came across a law unique for travelers to the EU called the Schengen Visa.

View of Vulcano from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

View from the Aeolian Island of Lipari

The Schengen Visa is an entry permit issued by an embassy or consulate of any member country.  To facilitate a more convenient immigration procedure, the Schengen states have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders.  This single visa is now all that is required to enter any member country.

Here is where it gets confusing, because there are twenty-six Schengen states and twenty-seven EU member countries (with Croatia slated to join in July, 2013). Two EU members are not Schengen, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Norway and Iceland are not part of the European Union, but are part of the Schengen area.
Note: Do not try to remember all of this because membership in both the EU and the Schengen Alliance keeps changing.

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

Horse sculpture near Agrigento, Sicily

The point of this is that a tourist visa in the UK is good for 180 days, which works great for our Six Monther plan. However, Schengen Visas are valid for only 90 days. Also, we cannot use a strategy of leaving the EU for a few days on some side trip and then return to a Schengen country and start a new 90 day clock. The Schengen Visa only permits travel for 90 days within any 180 day period. Thus, after 90 days we would have to exit for at least 90 more days before a new 180 day clock would start.

The Dual Citizenship Option

Church in Taormina, Sicily

St. Rosalia Church below Tindiri, Sicily

This leads to our strategy of obtaining dual citizenship with Italy for which we are eligible due to Florence’s Sicilian roots. This is a detailed process with a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through. It is precisely this bureaucratic process that may force us to revise our travel schedule as we await approval.

If you are considering international travel beyond a vacation getaway, you should investigate your eligibility for dual citizenship. There are many benefits. First, you gain access to the same set of opportunities in two different countries including voting rights, purchasing property, and access to education and social services.

Florence in Pisa

Florence in Pisa

You will also have two valid passports which, in some cases, will provide ease of travel and lower reciprocity fees for entry into foreign countries. In addition, once you obtain dual citizenship, it stays in your family. You can pass it along to your children, a gift for which they will no doubt thank you someday.

Dual citizenship eligibility can be obtained through birth right, marriage, and naturalization. If you know your parents’ or grandparents’ ethnic history, it may be to your benefit to investigate the citizenship laws of their country of origin. Who knows what doors it may open for you?

living in Mexico

If the Tooth Hurts…

photo credit: deviantart.com

photo credit: deviantart.com

On our last day in Panama as we were waiting for our plane to Mexico City, I bit into a hard candy and broke a tooth. It was the first molar, top right – or to borrow from the technical terminology of the dentistry profession, tooth #14.

dentistI cannot fault the hard candies of Panama, which are actually quite yummy. This dental fracture was an accident waiting to happen. The filling in this tooth was probably 40 years old, and as you will learn as you get older, nothing lasts forever. I knew I was going to need a crown for this broken tooth. I have a few of those already, so I know from experience what is involved. Armed with this knowledge I did the logical thing. I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible.

Our deadline for departure from Mexico is looming, and I know medical and dental costs are less here than in the U. S. So I finally made an appointment based on my friend Jim’s referral. The dentist (orthodontist, actually) fit me in the following morning. He looked at my tooth, cleaned it up a bit, and as cheerfully as one can deliver this message he said, “You need a root canal.” He then took an X-ray of the tooth to take to Dr. Martinez, who he assured me, was the finest dentist in town when it comes to root canals. Dr. Martinez scheduled me for two days later.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

Maybe I should have brushed more with Ipana when I was a kid.

I had never had a root canal before. Call me a wimp if you must, but based on all the root canal stories I have heard, I was seriously averse to this dentist visit. But I went anyway. Just like with any dental work she first numbed my mouth. Ha – I did not feel a thing! She was good with the needle, but how about with the drill? All I can say is the orthodontist was right. Dr. Martinez was the best. I caught a glimpse of her dental school diploma on the way out. She graduated from dental school in 1988 – twenty-five years ago. She did not look old enough to have twenty-five years experience, but she certainly performed like a seasoned professional! I was impressed.

Dental expenses in Mexico

The consultation with the orthodontist including the X-ray: 400 pesos ($33)
Root canal and filling on my broken tooth: 3,200 pesos ($264)

I looked up the cost for a root canal in the U. S. Figures range from $700 to over $1,000. Many insurance programs cover only 50% of a root canal, so I think I did pretty well. We will see what the crown ends up costing.

Destination Scotland, or Hello Haggis

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands – photo credit: giantbomb.com/images

Photo credit: scotlandphotos.net

As The Six Monthers the time is rapidly approaching to relocate to our next country of choice – Scotland. Airline reservations are made. We are researching rentals in and around Edinburgh. Through my blog I have connected with people who have offered detailed information like the best locations to catch trains and buses and what distance from the city is practical for commuters. We have learned that living twenty miles outside of Edinburgh is more economical as well as slower paced like you would expect of any suburban area. We will use temporary lodging and continue our housing search once we arrive.

Photo credit: scotlandphotos.net

One of the most frequently asked questions we get from people with whom we discuss our lifestyle is, “Why six months?” How did we come up with that interval of time to live in a new country? Our answer is that six months is sufficient time to immerse into the culture of a country – to determine the best places to shop for groceries, to visit local farmers markets, to locate transportation hubs, and to discover a few favorite hangouts. It is also less expensive to rent a place for six months. We prefer to establish a base rather than move from place to place, which sounds exhausting.

sco054Six months sets a limit on how much time we have to explore and discover places we have researched. This time frame impels us to tour and not put off our sightseeing. Staying longer than six months in a country might tempt us to get complacent about exploring the region. We keep our energy level up by knowing the clock is ticking. We continue pursuing historic, cultural and scenic destinations based on our research and input from the locals.

sco014Along with the excitement of the upcoming move is the difficulty of saying goodbye to Mexico. As is always the case, it is the friends we have made that we will miss most. We have spent the past two years in Latin America, and we have learned much about the awe-inspiring history and culture of our Spanish-speaking neighbors.

Now we are heading to Europe, and after that Asia. We have mapped out the next ten years with our bucket list of countries we seek to experience six months at a time. We have much to see and learn about other countries in the world, and we look forward to sharing our adventures as we go.

Note: Photo credits, unless otherwise specified, are courtesy of Steve at Scotlandphotos.net.

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

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.

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

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

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

Mexico De-Mythified

The town of Tepoztlán as seen from the surrounding hills.

The town of Tepoztlán as seen from the surrounding hills.

I have spent little time in Mexico prior to my recent move to Cuernavaca. I admit my mental images of Mexico have been dominated by two media-transmitted stereotypes. The first image is right out of movies like The Magnificent Seven or about Pancho Villa where the local people are peasant farmers and the bad guys are horsemen with big sombreros and bandoliers of bullets crisscrossing their chests. In these movies it is always hot, everybody is perspiring, and Banditothere is no water to be found for miles.

The second image comes from movies and news stories portraying drug cartel violence where the bad guys drive shiny Escalades or Humvees, carry machine pistols in their thigh holsters, and are seldom seen without an AK-47 held across their chests. (How they keep those SUV’s shiny while driving on dirt roads all the time is a mystery.) These guys have either just killed a bunch of rivals and innocent civilians, or they are prepared to do so if anyone interferes with their drug transaction to move a few bundles of cocaine across the border into the United States.

Sundays at the market in Tepoztlán are the busiest days.

Sundays at the market in Tepoztlán are the busiest days.

As it turns out, I have seen little evidence of poverty, violence, or water shortage. The grocery stores are immaculate. The open air markets have amazing selections of fresh fruits and vegetables at great prices. The arid reaches of the northern desert are nowhere in evidence in the central states. And I have not heard a single gunshot at any time during my first week in Mexico.

My first impression of the cities is they are clean. Even with a scarcity of garbage cans, garbage and litter get picked up regularly. The countryside is a mixture of open space, scenic mountains, and pine forests stretching beyond the horizon. The weather is mild even in January with daily temperatures in the 70° – 80°F range. With these considerations, Mexico is pleasant.

The State of Morelos in Central Mexico is lush, fertile, and scenic.

The State of Morelos in Central Mexico is lush, fertile, and scenic as seen from this mountain view.

The best part of Mexico is the people. On the drive from the airport, I commented to our driver, Vicente, that people seemed less reserved than the local people of the Central American countries we have visited. To which he replied, “Nuestros corazones están abierto.” Our hearts are open. And he is right. I have not felt the suspicious eyes of people watching me like I am an exploitive American. (Latinos have stereotypes of Americans, too.)

It is with a sense of ease and comfort that we begin to settle into our daily way of life in Mexico. We have experienced some of the culture and history of Mexico along with some amazingly good food. These are some of the benefits of living here, and we have barely scratched the surface.

living in Panama