A Carolina Tale

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Photo of Reedy River from S. Main Street bridge, downtown Greenville, SC.

In the category of “You Learn Something New Every Day,” I learned some interesting American lore rooted here in my new hometown of Greenville, SC.

PoinsettJust south of Greenville City Hall in front of the old County Court House (now the M. Judson Bookstore) on S. Main Street sits a bronze statue of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). Born in Charleston, SC, son of a wealthy physician, Poinsett was a physician, statesman and diplomat.

He was educated in Connecticut and in Europe, where he traveled extensively including Russia and the Middle East and became fluent in several languages. He returned to the U.S. where President James Madison named him ‘special agent’ to Chile and Argentina (1810-1814, 50+ years before the U.S. had ambassadors). He returned home to be elected to the S. Carolina House of Representative (1816-1819). He was elected for two terms to the U.S. House of Representatives (1821-1825).

Poinsett resigned his seat in Congress when President John Quincy Adams named him the first Minister to Mexico (an appointment turned down by Andrew Jackson).

Poinsett’s interest in science led him to discover La Flor de la Noche Buena (the Christmas Eve flower). He brought specimens back to the U.S. where it became know as the Poinsettia.

In addition to further public service as Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President Andrew Jackson, Poinsett also was a cofounder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, a group of politicians advocating for the use of the “Smithson bequest” for a national museum that would showcase the most significant items from American history, which eventually became known as the Smithsonian Institution.

Note: A block further south on Main Street leads to a bronze statue of Charles H. Townes , (1915-2015) who was born in Greenville, SC. Widely recognized for his work as an inventor and a physicist, in 1964 Townes was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics with Nikolay Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov for contributions to fundamental work in quantum electronics leading to the development of the maser and laser.

News and Sports from a Global Perspective

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014.  His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony. Photo credit: Reuters

The crown is transferred to Felipe VI of Spain on June 19, 2014. His wife, Letizia and his two daughters stand before the Congress of Deputies for the ceremony.
Photo credit: Reuters

While living abroad over the past three years we have witnessed several historic moments up close. When we were in Mexico in March, 2013, we experienced firsthand the collective elation of the Latin American world when the Argentine cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was named Pope Francis I. We were living in the United Kingdom in July, 2013, when Prince George was born, the newest heir to the British Throne.

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013. Photo credit:  Wikimedia.org

Pope Francis visits the slums of Vargihna, Brazil in 2013.
Photo credit: Wikimedia.org

Most recently, we watched the swearing in of Spain’s new king, Felipe VI. The event was a ceremony without a coronation or much fanfare, following the abdication of his father, King Juan Carlos, for reasons of poor health. Even though this was a low key event by royal standards, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards lined up along the parade route from the Congress of Deputies to the Royal Palace in downtown Madrid, where thousands more assembled below the palace’s central balcony to cheer their new king and his family.

Outside of the political arena, the top story in the world right now is the World Cup soccer tournament taking place in Brazil. It is fascinating to watch the hopes of sports fans from around the world rise and fall with the fortunes of their national teams. I wonder how many Americans know or care that the United States soccer team is still alive in the qualifying pool with Germany, Ghana and Portugal, and a victory in either of their next two games will advance the U.S. team to the win-or-go-home second round of the tournament.

Mexico's Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil's Daniel Alves. Photo credit:  Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Mexico’s Andres Guardado is fouled by Brazil’s Daniel Alves.
Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

Every café and bar across Spain turns on the live telecast of the soccer matches. Games start here five hours later than local time in Brazil and fans gather in the evenings at every watering hole for the excitement. Unfortunately, Spaniards have had little to cheer about. Although Spain was the top-rated team going into the World Cup, this week they suffered their second straight loss and they will soon be packing for the trip home. Highly-ranked England lost their second game as well (to Uruguay), and they, too, are headed home.

Although my expectations for the United States team are low, I will be excited if they advance in the tournament against the world’s elite teams, most notably Holland, Germany, Brazil and our next opponent, Portugal. And even though I am not a huge soccer fan, I find myself cheering for teams from my favorite countries that I have visited – Croatia, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico.

Soccer in the U.S. has never caught on like football, baseball or basketball. Even professional hockey draws three times more paid attendance per season than does soccer. I think one reason Americans find men’s professional soccer laughable is because so often following contact between players, the player with the ball collapses in a theatric display of pain and agony, which looks as phony as professional wrestling. It appears these feeble antics are displayed with the hope of drawing a penalty, and most American spectators would react like ‘What a wussie!’ The exception this week was Mexico. Their machismo was evident as they battled host-nation Brazil to a 0-0 tie. The Mexican players jumped up quickly from the turf so as to not give any satisfaction to their more physical opponents that the hits they absorbed had any effect.

The World Cup continues up to the finals on July 13, and I will be proud of the U.S. team no matter how they perform. Also, I will cheer for my favorite underdogs to hold their own against the world’s football powers. Unlike American football, superior strength and a strong running game is not the typical determining factor in a soccer match. Like Spain found out, being elite does not assure victory. Personally, I think Germany is the team to beat. Do you have a prediction?

What’s on TV, or Who Stole the Remote?

Photo credit - CBS Television

For entertainment we turn to books first. I like mysteries. Florence prefers biographies. However, we can only pack so many books. And since neither of us is inclined to spend $10 or more for our eBooks, we turn on the television when the last paperback is finished.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Over the past two years we have become quite familiar with the prime time television shows from the U. S. that Latin Americans love the most. Number one on the list has to be Two and a Half Men. Latino men in particular love the sexual innuendos, especially the episodes with Charlie Sheen. Coming on strong in popularity is The Big Bang Theory. These two shows along with Friends are often shown in hours-long marathons.

We learned these popular sitcoms serve as a means for Latinos to learn English. We also found that studying the English lyrics of popular music has helped people become fluent in English, particularly with the student population, who view English fluency as an important step toward better job opportunities.

Photo credit - CBS Television

Given our level of Spanish comprehension, our television viewing usually comes down to what is being broadcast in English. In the past two years, I think we have watched every rerun ever made of Law and Order, Law and Order – SVU, House, CSI, CSI: NY and CSI: Miami.

We had some favorite TV shows before leaving the United States. Florence loves NCIS, which plays in Mexico about a month later than new episodes in the states. My favorites include Burn Notice, Justified, and The Closer, none of which are shown in first-run. I would have signed up for Hulu+ or Netflix except copyright laws prevent streaming outside the U. S. Fortunately, our cable service in Mexico airs a couple of old favorites in both Spanish and English under different names: Pawn Stars is El Precio de la Historia (The Price of History), and American Pickers is Cazadores de Tesoros (Treasure Hunters).

csiTelevision shows broadcast in English typically have Spanish subtitles, and since literal translation is not always possible, there are sometimes funny interpretations. For example, a character on one show said, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” and the Spanish translation on the screen was, “Just like Pinocchio.” My favorite translation malapropism was when a character said, “It’s Greek to me,” and the subtitle read, “It’s Chinese to me.”

Warning to family and friends: If we visit and you think we are spending too much time in front of the television, it is only because we have a lot of catching up to do.

Photo credits – CBS Television

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

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

Teotihuacan – Echoes from the Past

View of the Temple of the Sun from the Temple of the Moon

View of the Temple of the Sun from the Temple of the Moon

Visitors at the base of the pyramid at Cuicuilco are walking on a 30 foot deep lava bed.

Visitors at the base of the pyramid at Cuicuilco are walking on a 30 foot deep lava bed.

The story of Teotihuacan in Central Mexico starts out around 800 BC at a place 40 miles away at a site known today as Cuicuilco (Place of Songs and Prayers in Nahuatl language). Cuicuilco was the ideal location on the southwest shore of Lake Texcoco in the heart of the Valley of Mexico. Natural springs provided a year round flow of fresh water from the nearby mountains. The soil was ideal for cultivation, and lake fish supplemented the diets of the people. For a thousand years settlement took place all around Cuicuilco as denizens of the region discovered its perfect climate and resources. Then suddenly, Mt. Xitle violently erupted just 2 miles to the south. Most of Cuicuilco is now entombed under a thirty foot layer of lava rock.

The Avenue of the Dead was most likely  named by Spaniards who thought the many temples were tombs.

The Avenue of the Dead was most likely named by Spaniards who thought the many temples were tombs.

Cuicuilco was hastily abandoned by the 20,000 or so residents in need of a new place to live. Since all the best settlement sites in the valley were now taken, the people of Cuicuilco were forced to keep migrating until they reached a forested plain far to the northeast, and there they founded Teotihuacan. Unwittingly, these early settlers found themselves at the crossroads of the major trade routes in the region. What started as a humble settlement grew to become the greatest trade city in the hemisphere, fueled by the discovery of obsidian.

The Temple of the Moon marks the north boundary of Teotihuacan.

The Temple of the Moon marks the north boundary of Teotihuacan.

The people of every region relied on obsidian for tools, arrowheads and spearheads. Teotihuacan grew and prospered thanks to the obsidian trade, and military force was utilized as necessary to squelch any serious competition in order to maintain their monopoly. At its peak around 600 AD, Teotihuacan had about 250,000 residents, which would have made it the sixth largest city on Earth at the time, and its history of prosperity spanning over 800 years is still a subject of study.

Archeologists discovered tunnels 30 feet deep leading to a room beneath the temple's center.

Archeologists discovered tunnels 30 feet deep leading to a room beneath the temple’s center.

Archeologists have noted the main road in the city, oddly referred to as the Avenue of the Dead, is laid out on a line 15° 30’ east of north. Given what we know of their precise systems of measurement, this oddity is not a mistake. The largest temple in the city, The Temple of the Sun, holds the key. The west side of this pyramid faces the exact spot on the horizon where the sun sets on the two dates that the sun is directly overhead at midday, May 16 as the sun passes northward toward the Tropic of Cancer, and July 28 when the sun is returning toward the equator. The line from this temple to the setting sun is exactly perpendicular to a line 15° 30’ east of north.

The west side of the Temple of the Sun teems with people before sunset.

The west side of the Temple of the Sun, third tallest pyramid in the world, teems with people before sunset.

We experienced an amazing phenomenon on our Teotihuacan tour. We stood before a pyramid about 20 feet back from where the steps ascend on the side, and we clapped our hands. The echo of the sound came back as a “chirp.” We learned this echo has the identical sonic signature of a quetzal when it chirps. Knowing that the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica worshiped the quetzal as a symbol of nobility, it was like hearing the echo of history with our own ears.

View more images on this short video:

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.

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