Thursday, January 14, 2010

An update on December travels and a horror story.

Continuing the December travels update! Trip number 2 was a return trip to the state of Guanajuato, this time to a small town called San Felipe Torres Mochas. I was invited to come along with a startup ecotourism company called Turismo Mosaico México. They interviewed me in Guanajuato during the callejoneada and I ran into the team again during our one night in Querétaro. We took it as fate and I joined the team for this scouting trip.

View from the window of an hacienda being restored in the area. 

A critical figure in Mexico’s history and cultural legacy, Father Miguel Hidalgo spent ten years as priest in this small town before leading his country to independence. We were able to see his entries of baptisms, marriages and other church proceedings in the records of the parroquia (parish church) dating from the 1600s. It was a really inspiring moment, witnessing the awe on the faces of the Mosaico México team at the sight of Hidalgo’s handwriting and signature. 

Inside the hacienda. Thank goodness the beers later that night were less dusty.

Another highlight included a long night of drinks at our kind host and guide el Ingeniero’s bar Tres Metros Bajo Tierra. I wasn’t the only one to get excited about drinking nine feet under...

What a view. Rahjib agrees. We took an excursion to a cave while in San Felipe.

Another encounter that blew us all away was meeting the archaeologist in charge of a eight-year dig of an incredibly important ruins site near San Felipe, due to be open to the public in September 2010 in time for the Bicentennial. The archaeologist described some of the joys and frustrations about the research and excavation process. His team has worked through hypothesis about the use of this site, which is significant because to this date all prehispanic peoples in the Guanajuato area were nomadic. This large, permanent site could stand to refute or alter this hypothesis.

 Before we left, he brought out some artifacts discovered at the site and due to take up residence in the site’s museum. What a special treat. No one who visits this site starting in September will get the chance to speak so candidly with the head archaeologist, whose blood, sweat and tears are all invested in the project, or see these artifacts except through a thick layer of glass. We were blown away and left on an excitement high. 

Overall, it was a joy to work with the Turismo Mosaico México team, even though they did enjoy making a huge deal out of every bite of food I ate, me being the “food specialist” on the trip. And then proceeding to Facebook tag every photo of every food item I was compelled to eat on camera. Joy. But by far the best part of the trip was getting to know some of the proud residents of San Felipe Torres Mochas, residents who are working hard to show what jewels their sleepy town has to offer. 

After spending a few more days in Guanajuato (I couldn’t pass up staying with a new friend from Mosaico México who lives in my new favorite city), I made it back to Puebla for five hours before heading out with Manuel on an overnight bus to Chiapas on the 15th (trip number 3). I went on a four-day trip to the Selva Lacandona and then spent a couple days in the beautiful colonial city of San Cristóbal before an afternoon at the ancient Mayan ruin site of Palenque. 

Guatemala in the distance

Manuel and I met Alicia through Nico. Alicia is a young twenty-something biologist who rocks a mullet/rocker haircut, is a natural-born storyteller, hysterical and super fun. She is, in short, fantastic, zany and completely invested in her work to save the jungle. I couldn't think of a better person to lead you through the Mexican jungle. This pilot trip to the jungle was run by the non-profit Alicia works for, Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos A.C.  This non-profit works with various ejidos (cooperatives), including the ejido Flor de Marqués, to find alternative means of income to clearing the jungle to make way for grazing cattle or growing crops that do better in the central Mexican climate, saving the jungle while helping the people of the region. 

Around thirty years ago, the Mexican government dropped four families from the central Mexican highlands off in the jungle as part of a larger land distribution policy to start a cooperative and survive as best they could. Doing what they knew best, they cleared some of the jungle, planted corn and beans and started grazing livestock. But, as Alicia explained, the richness of the lush jungle is in the plants and trees themselves. The nutrients exist mainly in the ecosystem, not in the soil which is actually pretty shallow and nutrient-poor above the sandy base underneath. Not the ideal conditions for growing corn and bean crops. So the people are forced to clear more and more land to survive. The biologists of Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos A.C. are working with the ejidos to come up with more sustainable and eco-friendly solutions. For example, one ejido has set up a butterfly farm as both a tourist attraction and a means of creating and selling artesanías after the short lifespan of the gorgeous butterflies is up. 

Luckily, the Flor de Marqués land has suffered much less deforestation than land occupied by neighboring ejidos, making its preservation that much more important. 

After the overnight bus to San Cristóbal, Chiapas, we met up with the rest of the group and then drove five more hours in a van on windy roads through gorgeous, lush mountains and jungle. We finally arrived in Flor de Marqués the afternoon of the 16th. We spent four days camping out on the ejido’s soccer field, spending the days clambering through the jungle and bathing in a fresh jungle stream near camp to wash away the sweat and mud at the end of the day. 

We had the chance to see spider monkeys, loud, angry-sounding howler monkeys, macaws, other beautiful jungle birds and a huge range of flora: bromides, thick jungle vines, spiny trees meant to combat a now-extinct bear, the huge ceiba, and my personal favorite, the matapalo

The matapalo is a tree that grows vine-like branches around a host tree, eventually killing it. The result is an enormous hollowed-out tree made of what looks like fused vines, the ultimate climbing tree and dream tree house. As we clambered up about 20 meters, I definitely had a Robinson Family moment. The ceiba, however, is probably the living thing that most defines this jungle. With its enormous skirt of supporting roots called contrafuertes, its trunk meter upon meter tall, and its branches that extend at the very top of the trunk, so high that when viewed from below you either get a crick in the neck or dizzy, this tree was revered by the Mayans living in the area a thousand years ago. Their religious beliefs actually promoted protection of the jungle. The ceiba contained both the Mayan cosmology and their perception of history and time. The roots, the underworld or the past, the trunk, the earth or the present, and the branches, heaven or the future. You cut down the tree, future and past, heaven and the underworld collapse, destroying the present and the earth. Pretty accurate still to this day. Makes me a little nervous about the Mayan calendar’s prediction of the end of the world in 2012 (just see the movie for the highlights.) 

Baby ceiba

Big ceiba

One sign that this part of the jungle is recovering was the set of jaguar prints we saw on our final day in the jungle. Alicia put it in perspective for us: we had stumbled upon paw prints of a nearly-extinct large cat, a cat that had walked the exact same path we were on, headed to some thermal springs, just the night before. Wow.

More than anything, I enjoyed talking with the people of Flor de Marqués. Guys from the community served as our guides, clambering up trees alongside us and showing us some incredible bat-filled caves in the middle of the jungle. A group of women cooked breakfast and dinner for us, keeping us full despite our larger-than-normal appetites. I was touched because these women had never cooked for anyone outside their families before and were obviously nervous about feeding us. By the time the day we were set to leave rolled around, one of the women held my hand in a group photo. I felt humbled and like I had won the lottery all at once. Because one of the things that made this trip even more eye-opening for me, besides learning about the massive deforestation and seeing the beautiful flora and fauna firsthand, was seeing how very differently these people live. They did not inherit a thousand years of knowledge about the jungle but, instead, had to learn over the past thirty years how to adapt and survive with very little. And seeing the very little interest the fellow campers, mostly young Mexicans fortunate enough to have a university education in the cosmopolitan city of D.F., showed in getting to know these people and about their way of life just underscored the classism and racism still existing under the surface in Mexico. I was floored and felt uncomfortable, trying to lead by example but making no impact on my peers. Instead I decided that this opportunity was one that only Manuel and I could, or would, take advantage of and to make peace with that. But seeing this sort of blatant disinterest in making connections and overcoming barriers in my peers, young, educated Mexicans, diminished some of my hope for a less-discriminatory future for Mexico. Maybe I’m wrong, but it opened my eyes. Not that I didn’t feel the inherent differences between myself and these people from Flor de Marqués, that would be a lie and a too-rosy picture of myself. But the point isn’t to pretend differences in backgrounds and circumstances don’t exist, the point is to try to reach across those differences without suspicion or fear and to make a human connection. That’s why that woman saying, “I’m going to sit right here with you,” for the picture was the highlight of my trip. 

After the return trip to San Cristóbal, Manuel and I decided on a whim to stay a couple more days. The city is an interesting mix of European and indigenous, cosmopolitan but the end-of-the-world as well. Travelers from all over the world come to San Cristóbal as the launching-off place to visit the rest of Chiapas, and many become enchanted with the city and stay for years, creating a market for funky cafés and bars. I can see the attraction. The white-washed colonial buildings topped with dark tile roofs in a misty city surrounded by lush greenery make for a picturesque setting. Add to that the vendors in indigenous dress selling beautifully crafted artesanías, including colorful stuffed wool animals that I fell in love with, textiles, leather, and amber and jade jewelry, and a colorful food market and you know you’ve ended up somewhere very special. 

We extended our trip by one more day to head back to the jungle and the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque. The huge temples and palaces, with more waiting to be excavated, were really breathtaking. I was pretty excited to see the Templo del Muerte. After a few hours exploring the ruins and climbing one-too-many pyramids, we hopped on another overnight bus to Puebla. I walked into my apartment at 8 am on December 23rd, with just enough time to shower and take my clothes to the laundry before heading to the market with Sra. Zanella to shop for the ingredients for her special spinach, bone marrow, and cheese lasagna and Sr. Canal’s stuffed chickens to bring to the ranch on Nochebuena. It felt to come home to my Choluteca family.

I ended up bringing more home from Chiapas than pictures, memories and souvenirs though. The last night in the jungle, Alicia told us she had a horror story to tell. We got excited, having been fishing for some horror or ghost stories the entire trip. (No better way to ensure a good night’s rest than telling horror stories right before sleeping in a tent on a cleared soccer field surrounded by dense jungle full of snakes, jaguars, howler monkeys and other predators, all very active at night to gauge from the enormous racket they make around 3 am.) But no, this was no ordinary ghost story. More like the plot of some science fiction film, maybe Alien vs. Predator. As our eyes widened and our jaws dropped in first horror, then disbelief, Alicia told us about a large fly living in the Central American jungle regions. This fly lays its eggs on the abdomens of normal, pesky but ultimately harmless mosquitos. When these mosquitos bite a mammal, the eggs enter the bite and hatch inside the mammal’s skin. The larvae grows for 8 to 10 weeks, feeding on the skin. The normal mosquito bite lingers and after a few days, a small watery opening at the center of the bite appears. The larvae keeps the bite open with its watery excrement so it can breath. The other sign that you’ve been infected with the bot fly is the sharp, shooting pains a couple times a day as the larvae moves or grows. 

I noticed a few days after coming back from Chiapas on the 23rd that I had a mosquito bite near my bra strap on the side of my back that hurt, still itched and wouldn’t go away. Sure enough, a watery opening at the center of the bite. I thought I got a tiny worm-like thing out while I was at the beach in Oaxaca, but things didn’t improve. Maybe I had twins? Today I finally managed to remove the bot fly larvae, and this time there was no mistaking what it was. Ewwww. Let’s just say I really connected with the jungle, in more ways than one. 

Thanks for joining my horror story hour....only look below if you’re not the squeamish kind. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's been awhile’s been awhile. Over a month actually. I spent most of December traveling in the states of Guanajuato, Chiapas and Oaxaca, sometimes spending no more than five hours in Cholula to eat, shower, do some laundry and repack. It was a blast, I got to see more of Mexico in a month than I ever anticipated. I also left each state wanting to return to see and know more, already thinking about when I could come back. At the beginning of this fellowship year I thought about traveling to other central and latin american countries during my time in Mexico. Now I’m realizing that this country has so much to offer, so much beauty, so much variety, so much good food, fascinating culture(s) and people. One year is just not enough. I’ve sort of scrapped plans to spend significant time outside of the country and instead have several trips taking shape for the upcoming months, including to Morelia and Pascuaro in Michoacán, hopefully seeing the monarch butterfly migration in the process, Tulúm and other ruins and beaches in Quintana Roo, Veracruz for Carnival and Zacatecas to the north. I’m also planning on spending some time in the Sierra Norte of Puebla. My “tío” José Luis made his career out of constructing highways and roads, including in the secluded mountains to the north of Puebla. He is familiar with many of the municipalities in the area and has offered to have me stay with some of his trusted contacts. This would give me the chance to live a few weeks at a time in smaller, rural indigenous communities. While it’s pretty chilly here in Cholula, it’s much colder in the mountains, around 1 degree Celsius in the afternoon. Once I translate that into Boston winter standards at a little above freezing, it doesn’t sound so bad, but I’m planning on waiting a couple of weeks for things to warm up a little bit before heading for the mountains. After all, I left all that heavy winter gear at home. 

In the meantime, a little catchup...Part I

 After coming home from Guanajuato (trip number 1), I spent Thanksgiving with friends here in Puebla and ending up cooking my first two turkeys. The day after Thanksgiving my friend Manuel and I cooked a complete Thanksgiving dinner for his mom, some cousins and some of our friends. I actually had more fun sharing this tradition in the company of some of my best friends here in Mexico than I did at the “all American” Thanksgiving dinner with the American teachers of the Colegio Americano the night before. 

The next day, Nico, Manuel, his cousin Keren and I went to their grandmother’s house to see her prepare mole de caderas. Before moving here, I had only heard of mole poblano, the complex dark brown sauce made of almonds, chiles, chocolate, spices created in Puebla. But I quickly learned that mole is merely a term for "sauce," and that there are a ton of different moles, mole negro, amarillo, verde, mole de panza, each coming from different regions or cities. So, back to mole de caderas. On the way, we stopped off at a Puebla market to buy some extra goat bones....yep, this mole is definitely unique. And unique to Puebla. The goat spine and hips required to make the mole come from goats that are killed in El Ritual Cultural y Festival Étnico del Mole de Caderas, or Mantanza, in Tehuacán, Puebla at the end of October. In a tradition originating in the colonial period, these goats are given salt every two weeks and little water and graze on bushes, grasses and nopales in the mountains for the last six months of their lives until the ritual offerings and dances culminate in the Mantanza. The result is a darker, dryer and uniquely flavored meat meant to be more easily preserved as an important protein source for the rest of the year. 

On the way over, we stopped at a meat market in Puebla to pick up an extra espinazo (spine), which runs about 800 pesos. This dish has become increasingly expensive to make. This year, fewer goats were killed as a result of the struggling economy, driving up the price of the meat. But even so, it was only mid-November and all the espinazo had been sold out. We picked out a couple sets of caderas and watched the butcher, whose family has been selling this special chivo meat for decades, slice them up into serving-size pieces. 

Goat parts in hand, we headed to Manuel’s grandmother’s house. Their entire family gets together each Saturday for la comida, the big midday meal. Only some of the family could make it this particular Saturday; we were only about 25 at the long dinner table. That’s a lot of mole. Thankfully there was already several sets of caderas and an espinazo boiling to make the caldo (broth) responsible for the mole's particular flavor. 

Manuel’s grandmother has been making and overseeing this recipe for decades. 

When we arrived, there was already a paste of chile guajillo, a mole (sauce) of tomato, onion and tomato, and the caldo simmering on the stove. 

Setting aside the meat, the caldo was added to the mole, plus a respectable amount of the chile paste. Some caldo and mole was set aside and only slightly heated with some of the chile paste for those who weren’t fans of spice. (I’ve noticed that as many people in Mexico don’t eat chiles, pointing out the severe stomach damage that can result from a lifetime of eating spicy food, as those who proudly chomp on whole chile serranos in between bites of eggs for breakfast.) After checking the flavor and adding salt to taste, an entire bunch of cilantro, still bundled as it isn’t served but only added like a bay leaf for flavor, was added to the mole. This cilantro, preferred by many Mexican cooks for its stronger flavor, has a much finer, feathery leaf and even some small florets at the tips. 

While the mole simmered for two and a half hours, we set about removing the small green pea-like guajes. Manuel’s grandmother swore that the guajes were almost as important as the chivo in giving the mole’s distinct flavor. Blended to a finely-textured paste, the guajes are added about thirty minutes before the end of cooking time.

I had been hearing about this unique mole, found only in Puebla and only in the few months following the Tehuacán ritual mantanza, since I had arrived here, and I’d been smelling it while it simmered all afternoon. While I was a little concerned that the “unique” and “distinctive” flavor of the mole de caderas might be a little overwhelming, the mole exceeded my expectations, slightly spicy, very savory but balanced with the flavors of the tomato, cilantro and guajes. Each bowl was served with a piece of bone and meat. Part of the fun was using our fingers to get off every morsel of meat. Probably the first time I've eaten a soup with my fingers.

This delicious and distinct mole de caderas definitely helped with the slight hangover we all brought to the table after post-Thanksgiving dinner drinks the night before. Nico agrees....

More updates to come! I'm learning a new photo editing software called Aperture 2...wish me luck.