All posts by Jeanine Kitchel

Sitting Here in Limbo

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

I feel like I’m becoming a connoisseur of calamities. And believe me, I’m not happy about it. In 1989, I lived through the Loma Prieta quake disaster (the earthquake that stopped the World Series) and in 2005 Wilma came calling at our door, literally. We live on the beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 miles south of Cancun. Even paradise has its perils.

Now we’re looking at another category 5 hurricane, Dean, that is ready to stomp Jamaica in a matter of hours. The NOAA (National Hurricane Center) trajectory places Cancun and the Yucatan directly in Dean’s path. Although it’s presently “only” a cat 4 storm, it’s projected to become a 5 on landfall Tuesday at 8 a.m. Swell. Everyone in our town plus all of Cancun and the Riviera Maya is braced for the worst. The fishing boats in Puerto Morelos are out of the water, plywood and storm shutters are up, tuna fish is sold out at every store you go to.

A two-year respite from a class 5 storm just doesn’t seem long enough. Although the Cancun hotel zone came back with gusto and Playa del Carmen never lost its groove, our town, Quintana Roo’s orphan, has had no major tree plantings and still desperately needs a coat of paint.

During hurricane season, oceanfront takes on a whole new meaning. We lost a good portion of our beefy seawall during Wilma, but miraculously the part right in front of our house held firm. But where the seawall washed away, so did the entire north end of our property. We lost 200 coconut palm trees, our coconut grove, and managed to save only 40, mostly on the front side of the property that doesn’t face the sea. We’ve since planted about 50 more and even brought in a few pricey big guys, 15 feet tall. If Dean continues on its projected path, all that is at stake. Houses and seawalls can be repaired, but trees and plants take years to come back. I’m already missing the palm trees we might lose.

It’s devastatingly stark around our town now, and the mangroves are still windburned from Wilma two years ago. Yet another high altitude storm will further push back our green zone. The thing about hurricanes is that even though your wishes may come true and your area isn’t point zero, some place else is. In 1998 Cancun sat directly in Hurricane Mitch’s path. We’d braced ourselves for total devastation. In the middle of the night the storm turned southward and hit Honduras, killing 10,000 people. With hurricanes, someone is always the loser. So it’s with mixed emotions that you pray for leniency because you know that with hurricanes, no one really wins.

Our area has a lot of villa rentals, and property managers are still begging guests to leave before the storm. About half of the tourists have taken the smart option and rebooked their tickets for an early getaway. The others will soon know how exciting a hurricane can be. They won’t be bored, for certain, and it will be one of life’s episodes they won’t soon forget. And not a pleasant one. My advice to anyone who wants to “experience” a hurricane: think Katrina. And get thee to an airport.

Time to continue on in my hurricane preparations. If we retain phone lines and internet connections I’ll write more after the storm on Tuesday.

Three Suspected of Smuggling Cubans through Mexico Found Dead

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Novedades/Cancun’s Saturday headline was disturbing. In encapsulated question marks, it read: Are Police Behind The Executions? The executions, of course, being those of the (now) four people linked to smuggling allegations whose bodies were found this week in Cancun. The last three victims, all Mexican, were found Friday by following red arrows painted on a highway that lead to a sinkhole which contained the bodies.

As mentioned in David Simmond’s story a few days ago, smuggling Cubans through Mexico has become a big business with these water coyotes receiving $10,000 USD per person.

As with many newspaper articles here, follow-ups can be rare and even the news stories themselves leave out important information. But in the spate of attacks on Cancun police by drug cartels (a police chief and his bodyguard and a police commissioner were executed within the past eight months in Cancun and have been attributed to the cartel) the drama of murders in Cancun, something unheard of in the recent past, is big news.

Many people I know here are in denial as to the changing times we’re experiencing on this once super safe coast. But about once a month I hear someone voice their concern about how things are changing. Cancunese fear that the cartel will gain a foothold in Cancun. And this recent crime, three more dead due to smuggling Cubans, has been attributed to the Cuban-America mafia, by the Quintana Roo attorney general. All in all, the body count is mounting, and although murder here is far less common than in the U.S., it’s disturbing to see these changes.

Details on this story can be found through the Miami Herald website at: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/americas/story/192528.html.

August National Geographic Features the Maya

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

All Mayaphiles will love the August issue of National Geographic which not only gives insight as to why the culture declined but explains how the arrival of a warlord from the west may have affected Maya civilization.

New clues gleaned from another decade of deciphering Maya monuments point to Fire Is Born, from Teotihuacan (near Mexico City), whose singular influence may have jump-started the Maya’s classic period.

Based on interviews with present day scholars and archeologists including Arthur Demarest, Vanderbilt University, David Freidel, Southern Methodist University archeologist, and epigrapher Stanley Guenter, the series of articles give an updated status of the Maya and theories on why their civilization collapsed. As an added bonus you’ll find a separate two-part pullout: one side is a map of Mexico and Central America and the back side details how Mexico and Central America were formed over the past 60 million years.

Mexico Gas Prices Have Their Ups and Downs

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

With government owned Pemex the only show for in town for buying gas, you’re pretty much stuck with a one-cost price tag, everywhere. But at about 60 cents per liter, that breakdown brings gas here to roughly $2.45 USD per gallon, cheap by world standards.

A few months ago, Novedades/Cancun reported that even though gasolineras were committed to one price, some stations were going about corruption in a different way: by changing the weight on the pumps. So even though you thought you were paying the same price everywhere, at some Pemex stations you were getting a light tank of gas.

I did a personal study and located two gas stations in Cancun where my pesos went further for a full tank. One is closest to the airport, the other is near Sam’s Club. These non-corrupt stations usually have lines of taxis and local cars lined up as the locals seem to know where to go to get the best buy.

But now there’s a website that lets you know if the gasolinera nearest you is cheating or not. Check out: http:/webapps.profeco.gob.mx/verificacion/gasolina/home_11.asp.

If you’re on vacation look for the station with lots of business, and don’t forget to tip the attendant. It’s the norm here.

How the Margarita Got its Name

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Was there a Margarita behind the margarita? Of course. But contrary to what you may have imagined, this woman was not a Mexican beauty but instead a fledgling Hollywood starlet.

And although other Margarita namesakes have surfaced and vied for this distinction, this starlet has all the trappings of the real McCoy.

Years ago a eulogy aired on NPR for a man named Carlos “Danny” Herrera, who’d died at the age of 90 in San Diego. Although the name rang no bells, he left an unforgettable legacy. He’d created one of the world’s most famous cocktails, the margarita.

It was 1992 and NPR took the story from the San Diego Union-Tribune which paid homage to Herrera who’d been raised in Mexico City but moved to San Diego five years before his death.

Herrera worked his way across Mexico and settled south of Tijuana in 1929. He and his wife built their house in rugged Baja California. They added a bar in their home to entertain friends. More people started to drop in and he opened for business; later they added a restaurant. Then came ten hotel rooms and a pool along with a booming clientele from across the border.

Rosarita Beach just down the road was becoming a fashionable getaway for the Hollywood crowd and Carlos’ place was an easy pit stop for a quick refreshment on the dusty Baja road. By 1935 traffic was heavy.

Carlos was a friendly guy with a quick wit and his bar-restaurant, named Rancho La Gloria after his daughter, attracted stars and socialites who stopped in on a regular basis. Among the bar’s clientele was an actress named Marjorie King. While all her friends were taking advantage of Carlos’ talents as bartender, Ms. King didn’t partake in the revelry. She was allergic, so the tale went, to all alcohol except tequila.

What luck, Carlos cajoled. Tequila is the national drink of Mexico, he said as he poured the actress a straight shot of the clear, strong liquid, brought out a plate of limes and set a salt shaker beside her on the bar.

Marjorie wrinkled her pretty nose, gave Carlos a “not so fast” look and informed him she hated the taste of it.

What was a girl to do? In those wild and reckless days not long after Prohibition, how could one sit idly by and not join in the fun? Herrera was determined to put an end to Ms. King’s misery. He went to work.

Herrera decided he would create the ultimate concoction for the attractive actress. He started experimenting and came up with a winner: three parts white tequila, two parts triple sec, one part fresh lime juice, a pinch of sugar. As the day was hot he added shaved ice and blended the mixture with a shaker. King liked the looks of the drink immediately.

But how to serve it? Marjorie King was no ordinary gal, and Carlos wanted to pay tribute to her sense of style. Something special was needed. He grabbed a champagne glass, dipped its rim in lemon juice, and twirled it in a bowl of salt. Reshaking the contents he then poured the frothy liquid into the champagne glass and presented it to King.

The result: the soon to be famous margarita, shaken not stirred. And what a coincidence. The drink included all the ingredients of a traditional tequila shooter, but in a more appealing package.

How did the drink come to be known as a margarita? Since Marjorie and her gang of friends came often to Carlos’ bar, whenever their car caravan pulled up outside, Carlos would spot the bunch, see Marjorie and greet her with a hearty “Margarita! Margarita!” the Spanish equivalent of her name. Then he’d start to prepare her special drink.

It was instant name recognition. Margarita was the perfect name for this sexy new drink. Meanwhile Marjorie went back to the States where she hung out with all her swell friends and introduced the drink to bartenders at some of the finer dining establishments from Los Angeles to San Diego. When asked its name, she explained the bartender who’d invented it called it a margarita.

The name stuck and by the 50s margaritas were being served everywhere in Southern California. Soon afterwards, the margarita began making its way ’round the world as Marjorie’s friends were globe trotters and took their love of the cocktail with them wherever they went.

So the next time you’re taking a sip of that marvelous frothy concoction known as the margarita think back on a time when Baja California was still just a rugged strip of sandy desert and Cancun didn’t even exist. Think about a little bar with big views of the Pacific Ocean and thank Carlos “Danny” Herrera for paying homage to a Hollywood beauty by inventing a delightful drink to brighten up her day. Salud!

Rolling Over in Pakal’s Grave

 

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

 

Although Pakal, the great Mayan ruler of Palenque, lived far from Quintana Roo (now synomynous with the Riviera Maya) his neighboring southern kingdom in Chiapas had much in common with the Maya of the Northern Yucatan Peninsula. And if Pakal could see the changes that have challenged this once (and still) beautiful region, he would be rolling over in his, er, sarcophagus.

Not unlike what will most likely be said of us (for those who choose not to be cremated) by future generations when the snowy mountains of Kilimanjaro have become as dry and barren as the Sierra Nevadas and the continent Antarctica is just a footnote in history.

A recent phenomenon, the Riviera Maya, formerly known as the Tulum Corridor until the late 90s, has surpassed all developers’ dreams. With over 30,000 hotel rooms and arguably some of the world’s finest beaches, it has morphed into a Cinderella Superstar.

 

Once know for funky pueblos like the Playa del Carmen of the mid-80s, this 90-mile stretch of coastline no longer sports unfenced white sascab roads that any Tom, Dick or Harry can just wander down and spend an uninterrupted day sunning on an idyllic beach.

 

Oh no. Every inch of beach front land is spoken for, from Cancun south to Tulum Beach Road, and possibly beyond into the ejido-sphere of the Sian Ka’an Reserve, a 1.3 million acre biosphere that was meant to be left untouched.

 

 

One of the directors of UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) in Puerto Morelos where marine biology is studied told it to me like this, when I asked why the all-inclusive hotels continue to secrete secondary waste into the mangroves, thus clogging the tenuouseco-system on the reef, the Maya Riviera’s crowning glory: It’s all dollars and cents.

Payback for a standard resort hotel takes 20 years in real time in the real world. Here however, in the Riviera Maya, the payback profit takes only eight years.

 

But what happens when the turquoise ocean is pea-green and the reef has secondary growth, which it does now? I asked gamely.

 

They (the hoteliers) move on to the Dominican Republic or Papua New Guinea, he told me. They let a four or five star property drop in value to a one or two star resort. They’ve made their profit, to hell with the environment. Forget the cultured or the well-heeled traveler, enter the tour package.

 

Startling, but true. Zoning laws enforced early on by Vicente Fox’s Environmental andNatural Resource Minister Victor Lichtinger, demanding that environmental edicts must be enforced with two-story oceanfront structures in the Riviera Maya, have fallen to the wayside and now, new zoning regulations are “rethinking” the value of long, low structures.

 

“Better” use of the land is now considered to be high-rise hotels–as tall they say as eight stories in the not too far future, on the ocean.

 

But with the bring ’em on mentality that’s rampant with the scent of growth, eight story hotels create a mega-structure look and often block not only views but access to the ocean. The very look and feel of the Riviera Maya will be compromised. And because beach front land is a finite commodity, beach front homes, condos, even time shares just continue to rise in price.

 

If you’re looking for that sleepy little Mexican village, it’s paved over here in the Riviera Maya. But not to worry, it’s a big country and I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for if Mexico is the ticket for you. Just follow one of the many unmarked roads and see where it takes you.

Mexico is a State of Mind

By Jeanine Lee Kitchel

It’s no secret that I was seduced by Mexico 20 some years ago when I was traipsing around south of the border. Mexico offered romance, escapism, excitement. Mexico was then (and still is) a state of mind. It was my Neverland.

I had photos of Mexico beaches, long and windswept, tacked onto my bulletin board at work and at home I had magnets on my refrigerator holding up my favorite Mexico shots: the perfect beach, the perfect palapa, the perfect fishing boat, the perfect sunset. Every leisure thought I had seemed to hinge on Mexico, like waves in the ocean slowly coming back to shore where they belonged.

Each vacation south held some new adventure along with a few traveler’s tales. After years of hanging out on the Pacific coast with surfers, I graduated to the white sand beaches of Quintana Roo in the early 80s at a time when no one else seemed to know this side of Mexico–the Caribbean side–existed.

My fiance (later my husband) and I first heard about Cancun from a friend who’d gone there in the late 70s. She said it was remote and gorgeous and the Maya pyramids were nearby. I longed to see the pyramids so we tried to book a flight with a San Francisco travel agent. She didn’t have a clue where Cancun was, had never heard of it.

Even though the popular movie Against All Odds, starring Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward, and fabulous shots of Tulum and Chichen Itza, had recently premiered, we had to show her where Cancun was on a map. That’s how remote the area was only 20 years ago.

Our Mexicana flight took nearly 20 hours and it was like stepping directly inside Mexico once the plane door was closed, from the flight attendant crossing herself as we left the ground at SFO to the smell of Spanish omelets and tortillas for breakfast. We had three layovers, one in Guadalajara in the middle of the night–scary–and another at some undisclosed location without a name on the terminal.

Our last leg of the journey took us to Mexico City where we laid over for two hours. We were drained, but at least it was daylight. For fear of missing our last connection, we didn’t move from in front of the reservation desk where we’d be booked in. After asking when we would board, more than once, the reservations clerk came clean–they hadn’t received any boarding passes and had nothing to give us.

“What will we do?” I asked helplessly, determined not to let the lack of a piece of paper
keep me from this new adventure.

After searching around under the counter, the clerk produced a brown paper bag. Tearing it in large uneven squares, she wrote our seat assignments and flight number on the torn piece of paper in black magic marker and handed them to me.

I was stunned. “This is it?” I managed to squeak.

“Si,” she nodded and smiled, without apology.

Well, okay, I though, looking at Paul, my traveling partner. “Here we go!”

We were never disappointed in our Mexico vacations. Isla Mujeres, or island of women, named by pirates a couple centuries ago after finding statues of women on the north point of the island, was our first stop. We nearly missed the last ferry to the island after our 20-hour flight but narrowly made the connection.

We fell in love with Isla. Adored North Beach with the shallow, turquoise ocean bumping up onto a white sand beach that stretched seemingly for miles (standard fare for the Mexican Caribbean we were soon to find out) and especially loved Maria’s, a small
resort with French restaurant attached. Maria had only five rooms to rent, bungalows fit for a tropical hideaway paradise, with palapa roofs and a bountiful garden brimming with hibiscus, crotons, and areca palms.

A narrow cement walkway etched with geckos and tropical flowers wound its way down to
the two prized bungalows, close enough to the beach to hear waves lapping on the shore at
night. Although we’d started out in the less desirable rooms closer to the restaurant we
stayed long enough to nab one of the sought-after bungalows below.

We spent long hours on Maria’s lonesome beach, sharing the ocean with her ancient loggerhead sea turtles that swam in the ocean by day and by dusk returned to a funky
zapote cage that straddled the sand at the water’s edge. We hunkered down in Mexican style Adirondack chairs, sunbathed, talked, napped, and dreamed, and I think it was right there on Maria’s beach, that we decided somehow we would escape northern winters and city life and live in Mexico.

That’s how it started for me. My love affair–with a country. And after living here on and off for 18 years, I realize that everyone, every single expat who lives in Mexico, has a story. Their story.

And this is mine.