All posts by Dave

One Town At a Time

By David Simmonds

“Is the rich world aware of how four billion of the six billion live? If we were aware, we would want to help out; we’d want to get involved.” — Bill Gates, rich guy.

About fifteen years ago I started a non-profit called The Sea of Cortez International Preservation Foundation. We raised some money and were able to do some good things for several years, including donating $10,000 to help in the creation of an artificial reef off the coast of La Paz in Baja California Sur. It has become a very popular dive site, helping tourism as well as the fish population. But then the horror of 9/11 happened and, understandably, it became very difficult to raise money, so I regrettably had to shut it down.

As a few years passed I missed doing something larger than my self-centered endeavors, so two years ago I formed another non-profit, One Town At a Time (www.onetownatatime.com). Then, immediately, I destroyed my ankle after decades of extreme activity, and had to back-burner everything until I could become reasonably mobile again. Today, thanks to a great orthopedic doctor, the ankle is mostly fixed.  With the help of Susie Albin-Najera  (founder of the excellent blog “The Mexico Report”), we have fired up One Town again. I don’t think  Susie ever sleeps. My friend and partner in Mexico Premiere, Lisa Coleman, has also joined the Board of Directors.

Here is the Mission Statement, to give you an overview of our purpose:

The mission of One Town At A Time is to address the living conditions of poor villages in Mexico by providing families in these areas with tools for achieving sustainability. This is the ideal way to ameliorate the immigration pattern in the United States which currently encourages villagers to cross the border to earn money to send back to their families. By providing villagers with tools for addressing their poverty, they can remain in their villages, sustain a sense of family and community structure, and cultivate pride in their way of life. One Town At A Time shares and provides the technology that enhances the ability of villagers in Mexico to improve and expand their current farming, trade, and communication practices in a way that honors their rich cultural heritage and brings them closer to the global socioeconomic realm.

Our present project is Apples For Classrooms. With monetary donations we will purchase Apple computers, iPads, etc. to give to rural schools in Cabo Corrientes, an area just a little south of Puerto Vallarta in the state of Jalisco. Some of the villages include Chacala, Mascotita, Refugio and Guasimas. They will need ongoing support to pay for satellite internet connection, but the benefit the kids will derive will be life-changing. A new world of possibility will open up to them that will positively impact each child as well as their community. I can think of no single thing that could be more beneficial than the knowledge gained by these curious and open minds. For the first time in their lives they will have access to all of the world’s information.

Our goal is to be able to present the Apple devices to the schools in the latter part of March, 2012 in coordination with Tianguis, the huge travel trade show that will be held in Puerto Vallarta March 25 – 28. Please consider helping us out. There is a Donation button on the web site www.onetownatatime.com, and/or forward this article to other people that you know. We are a registered 501(c)3 and all donations are tax-deductible.

 

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.

 

 

Eating Mexico’s Street Food

By David Simmonds

“You don’t eat at the street stands, do you, genius?” I get this annoying question all the time. I tell them “hell yes, it’s good and it’s cheap.” In many years of traveling Mexico I have been taken ill from bad food a few times, but I can’t think of one time that I could trace the problem back to eating street food. And in recent years I rarely get sick…ever. And it’s not because I have become “used” to it, somehow convincing rogue bacteria that they are powerless attempting to invade my long-battered immune system. Sanitation and proper food preparation have improved immensely in Mexico, and if you use a little common sense and chant a daily prayer to the porcelain god you can fine-dine at the street stands, just like the locals do. I like the street stands in part because you can see the person cooking your food and what they are cooking. It has to be fresh and look safe for consumption. Having been a waiter and bartender just after college graduation I know what goes on in a closed kitchen, and…never mind.

The first thing you should look for when choosing your street food is to discover who is doing all of the business. If a street stand operator is dishing tainted food he’ll be out of business in a week, so go where the locals go. They know who has safe food and just as importantly, who has really good food. You can fill up on three sizzling meat-filled tacos (try to find the stand that is cooking with mesquite wood for the best flavor) for about $3.00. There is usually a small tienda nearby to grab a soda, beer or bottle of water. Generally, you’ll order what you want and they’ll hand over your plate in a minute or so. Load up the tacos with the bowls of salsa, guacamole, onions, cilantro, and whatever else is offered. Find a place on the street or lean against the counter to enjoy your meal, or some stands offer a couple of portable tables and chairs. Then, get this, you pay the person at the cash register AFTER you have finished eating. Try that at Bubba’s Burger Shack takeout back home.

Most stands specialize in one or two signature dishes, usually serving variations of beef, chicken, and near the coast, fish. Some stands serve just fresh fruit or elote – roasted corn on the cob slathered in a mayo-type sauce with lime and cayenne pepper. Another stand might just serve carnitas, sold in bulk with salsa, cilantro and fresh tortillas, and down the street it might be churros, the long, deep-fried donut-like waist exploders. The list is endless, as are the flavors.

But my personal favorite, the one dish I would order on the way to the gas chamber, is birria, or goat stew. Most commonly found in the state of Jalisco, it is served in a bowl with a side dish of cilantro, onions, chiles and tortillas. I usually have to be dining solo when I’m searching for birria – apparently goat meat doesn’t agree with everyone, even after I explain that we aren’t actually eating someone’s pet. Oh well, birria and a beer is as good as it gets for me.

So on your next Mexico trip take a walk on the wild side (apologies to Lou Reed).You can find open stands all day, but many don’t open until the evening, staying in business late into the night. A couple of street tacos right after a night of cantina-hopping will lessen the hangover symptoms immensely the next morning…or so I have been told.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.

Wisdom Of The Villager

David Simmonds

This story has been around a while, but worth remembering as we enter another year

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican fishing village.

A tourist complimented the local fishermen on the quality of their fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.

“Not very long.” They answered in unison.

“Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?”

The fishermen explained that their small catches were sufficient to meet their needs and those of their families.

“But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

“We sleep late, fish a little, play with our children, and take siestas with our wives.  In the evenings, we go into the village to see our friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs.  We have a full life.”

The tourist interrupted,  “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?”

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant.

You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!

From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?”

“Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years.” replied the tourist.

“And after that?”

“Afterwards? Well my friend, that’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the tourist, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make
millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?” asked the fishermen.

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

“With all due respect sir, but that’s exactly what we are doing now. So what’s the point wasting twenty-five years?” asked the Mexicans.

And the moral of this story is:
Know where you’re going in life … you may already be there!

Mexican Laws and Mordida

By David Simmonds

When I was younger and dumber, in my late teens and early 20′s, Mexican laws, in my mind, were non-existent as long as you had a $20 bill in your pocket. This bribe money is commonly called mordida, or “the bite”. Whether it was failing to stop at an invisible stop sign, public intoxication, or most anything short of murder, a $20 spot would take care of the problem. Working for years on that rule it’s a minor miracle that I’m alive and walking freely today. Fortunately, I wised up as I aged, as most of us do.

In fact, Mexico is a country steeped in law and tradition. The current laws are derived from the Constitution of 1917, after the revolution. What surprises many gringos is that the laws are different than in the United States. Mexico operates under the Napoleonic Code instead of English common law as is practiced in the states. Mexico law is codified as referenced in law books, with unique circumstances having no effect on innocence or guilt. When in court, the judge looks up the law and applies it. For the most part there is no jury of your peers. Sentences tend to be longer with fewer back-room deals being negotiated. The harsh penalties tend to have a direct effect on illegal acts by many Mexicans. They know they’re going to jail if caught, so they for the most part abide by the law. And you should, too.

Another major difference in Mexico and U.S law is that in Mexico you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Yes, read that again, slowly. You have to prove your innocence. Do you like your chances? I didn’t think so.

The issue is further complicated by all of the state and local laws. There is no way you will be aware of all of these, so use common sense. If in doubt, don’t do it.

I know Americans who have spent time in Mexican jails, and believe me, you don’t want to be one of them. (Full disclosure: I did a few hours in an Ensenada jail. The police were indiscriminately arresting young gringos because some drunk doorknob had cracked a beer bottle over a cop’s head). Now, the mordida is essentially illegal. It is also fairly common. You need to make that decision if you want to participate, and the price has increased since the $20 days. Better yet, don’t get in a situation where you have to make that call. The reality is that it may well work and you can be on your way. Or, the cop might be insulted, and your problem just became worse.

Respect the laws of Mexico, and learn about them before you travel. Remember that you are in their country and you need to show proper respect to the institutions that prevail. Here is a good web site to help you learn and understand. http://tijuana.usconsulate.gov/root/pdfs/telegalcriminalguide.pdf

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.

About Day Of The Dead

By David Simmonds

Dia de Los Muertos is a colorful religious festival in Mexico that is deeply rooted in thousands of years of tradition. This event has a long and complex history that has evolved over time, surviving many successive ancient civilizations and the Spanish Conquest. The Day of the Dead is a profoundly significant cultural event and a unique holiday characterized by special foods and confections. What at first may appear to outsiders a bizarrely macabre celebration is actually an important family ritual that recognizes the cycle of life that is the human experience. Mexican culture recognizes death as an implicit consequence of life. As in pre-Hispanic times it is seen as the seed of life, a passage to a more authentic existence. Death is embraced in a friendly way, but the Mexican relationship with death is full of subtle irony and mockery. From an early age children make, play with and eat candy skulls and skeletons. Skeleton toys are for both the living and the dead and are used to adorn the offerings for dead children. This may be one reason for the healthy acceptance of death as part of the cycle of life in Mexican culture. Despite the humor that mocks death during this time of year, there is a strong sense of respect for the people’s ancestors.

This is particularly so in rural areas with indigenous peoples, where preparations and anticipation of this event are a major preoccupation much of the year. The festival is essentially a private family feast. Although it has a very colorful and festive public aspect at the community level, the core of the celebration takes place from October 31 to November 2, with the extended family. November first is All Saints Day when little dead children are honored, and November second is All Souls Day commemorating the souls of all the faithfully departed. The manner of celebration varies by region, as some families wait in their homes for the arrival of the spirits while others spend the night picnicking in the cemetery (or pantheon) by candlelight.


Whether at home or in the cemetery, one of the most important aspects of the celebration is that of the family “offering” or offrendaOffrendas may take place in family homes, in the cemetery, or both. Offrendas are usually decorated with flowers (usually cempazuchiles, a type of marigold), palm leaves, fruits, or other regional ornaments such as tin or paper skeletons. Also present are usually photographs of departed loved ones, figures of saints, favorite foods, personal items, fresh baked bread, sugar skulls or toy skeletons. Copol incense burns to attract dead loved ones and clear the air of any bad spirits that might be present.

The family gathers around the offrenda and shares memories of the departed, awaiting their arrival. Their souls are not usually seen, but their presence is sensed. They do not eat the foods left for them, but rather consume its essence, leaving behind positive energy. When family and friends eat the food, it is thought this positive energy is then absorbed and sustains them throughout the year.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.

 

The Huichols of Nayarit

By David Simmonds

One of my favorite states in Mexico is Nayarit. They have the perfect mix of the Sierra Madres and a beautiful coastline, featuring San Blas, Chacala, and the ever-popular Sayulita. But it may be the Huichols that make the state so intriguing.

While many of the native peoples of the Western hemisphere have been assimilated into the mainstream of the modern world, the native Huichols have been able to maintain their traditional language, mores and spiritual ways for centuries…although they, and we, are now in danger of losing a pristine culture that has much to teach the world about the reciprocal relationship people can have with the planet.

The number of Huichols, who are some of the last remaining descendants of the Aztecs, is estimated at around 7,000. The rugged and remote terrain of the mountainous Huichol homeland, as well as the fact that the Huichols had little to plunder, helped these people escape the pillage of the Spanish conquistadors (and in fact, this is the only group in Mexico spared by the Iberian conquest). The Huichol Indians today live in small communities high in the Western Sierra Madre in the state of Nayarit.

The Huichols call themselves Wixalika, meaning “prophets” or “healers,” and they are proud of their freedom and purity of race. The Huichols are a refreshing reminder of a world past in which entire communities worked together as caretakers of the planet. Many of their ways could exemplify the techniques that could be used by more modern cultures to come to terms with ecological balance.

The primary focus of their belief system is the ritual ingestion of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus. (It is used, of course, as an integral part of their religious ceremonies, and is never used recreationally…a more modern cultural phenomenon.) The Shaman priest or sorcerer of the tribe, called the Marakame, accompanies members of the tribe on several spiritual journeys each year to the Wirikuta Desert, a six-hundred mile round-trip journey on foot, in search of this cactus. When the plant is finally found, it is ceremonially shot with an arrow, a means of sacrificing the Deer God (or Venado) inside the cactus. When the drug is eaten the voyager goes into a ritual dream in search of a pantheon of 90 deities, mostly female, and this becomes the basis for a translation to other member of the tribe of the symbolic meaning of the induced visions.

The Christian missionaries arrived in the 17th century and introduced to the Huichols the glass beads made in Europe. The Huichol Indians immediately incorporated these objects into their intricate beaded devotional art in the form of beaded masks, prayer bowls, and beaded yarn paintings, art forms that continue to the present day. While all Huichol art is seen as a spiritual manifestation of the induced peyote experience, they see no conflict in offering it for sale.

While most Huichols support themselves through hunting and agriculture, there are several families, numbering perhaps 15 or 20, who devote themselves to the creation of beaded and yarn art. The artist applies a thin layer of soft beeswax to a wood sculpture or a gourd. With a fine pointed wood stick, he picks up one glass bead at a time and sets it into the wax, pressing in the bead with his finger. He starts from the outside of the piece and painstakingly works toward the center in a representation of one of his intense spiritual visions.

In some areas of the Huichol homeland the traditions remain strong, but in others the influence of the modern “conquistadores” is being felt. With the building of roads and airstrips and greater exposure to the ways of the modern world, social ills such as alcoholism, disease, cultural alienation, and suicide have had a negative impact on the Huichols.

The Huichols do not necessarily have to make the journey to complete assimilation, and, in effect, extinction. The knowledge of the Wixalika is much too valuable for the world to lose. In a sense it is perhaps our duty to find ways to allow the Huichols to enter the 21st century without compromising the spirit of these people.

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.

 

Driving In Mexico

By David Simmonds

I have driven tens-of-thousands of miles in Mexico and the worse thing I can remember happening was having a mango jump off the flatbed of an oncoming produce truck near Mazatlán, smashing out the left headlight in my old VW van and spraying mango pieces and juice from head to huarache, where I sat in the driver’s seat. I thought I’d been shot by a deranged sniper until I figured it all out. And another time I blew an engine (another VW van, naturally) in the Sonoran desert on my return trip on a 100 degree summer day when few cars were on the road (this was years ago, before toll roads), only to be rescued by a pickup truck full of missionaries who rope-towed me to the Arizona border, almost making a believer of me.

But that’s about it for the mishaps. Driving in Mexico is a great way to really see the country and to meet the people who live in the small towns along the way. This is where the character and soul of the country reside, and should not be missed. The one caveat that has always held true is to avoid night-driving. Not because you’re going to get held up by bandits, but because animals often find their way onto the roads and there are still trucks and cars that drive without taillights…and headlights. Daylight is just a safer way to travel, and you see more. Mexico has built many thousands of miles of four-lane toll-roads over the past thirty years, making it much easier to get around (although they aren’t cheap), but the old roads still exist. Whereas the toll roads avoid having to drive directly through many towns and are much faster, you miss a lot by taking them. However, when you drive the old roads, you really need to pay attention. Crater-like potholes, narrow un-banked roads, erratic drivers, wandering livestock, slow moving trucks, and plastic-Jesus grasping bus drivers require that you keep your mind uncluttered and concentrate on your surroundings. But still, I highly recommend that you do it.

If you are flying into Mexico and plan to rent a car to give you more flexibility, make the arrangements before you travel. You will find the best deals by calling, or going to the web site, of the various rental companies and see who has the best deal for you. The rates can vary widely, so it is worth the effort. I can usually find a small car for about $120 – 160 per week, or $25.00 per day. Try to get unlimited miles and insurance included in the price. The independence of having your own wheels will make for a more interesting and complete trip. Just avoid the VSM’s (van-seeking mangos).

Disclosure:  I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program.  All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.