Category Archives: Living in Mexico

Guest Blogger Kristine MacKain: Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 3 – Final)

This is the final installment of our friend Kristine’s Cool Oaxaca Blog—¡qué sonido tan triste cuando se acaba! She’s given us a wonderful glimpse into life in Mexico; we hope to see more of her soon. ¡Muchas gracias, Kristine!

Saludos a todos,

Lola

Rescuing A Oaxacan Native

Oaxaca from rear copy
Oaxaca, skin and bones...

Interesting developments here. We have been helping Rebecca (our property owner and wife of Tony) rescue a dog (Rebecca rescues animals and has a full blown operation going here at the farm where we’re staying). Over the last three weeks now, we’ve been searching for the dog in our car. When we find her, we coax her to eat (we carry cans of dog food in our trunk). The dog is a female, very gentle and shy, easily dominated by other dogs, and was literally starving before Rebecca and her “team” (us and our neighbor, Mary) went to work to save her. We’ve been able to get medicine for worms and fleas into her food and wiped some disinfectant on her for the flies that had taken up residence on her back. We’ve watched her go from too afraid to approach us at all, to approaching and quickly wolfing down the food and then running away, to eating while we touch her a little bit, to taking food out of my hand ever so gently.

Three days ago she ran up to us with confidence and wolfed down the food. Two days ago when Rebecca left in her car after feeding her, the dog ran after her car! Later that morning, after three weeks of gaining her trust, Rebecca and the Vet were able to put a leash on her and carry her to their car. The Vet examined her carefully and said she was about 1.5 years old and has had at least one litter of puppies. She has lost her front teeth, probably, the Vet said, from trying to eat rocks for sustenance. They were her permanent teeth so they will not grow back.  But otherwise her health is fine, and he has already had her vaccinated and spayed!

I’m besotted with the dog now — we already have a name for her….Oaxaca. I think that may be a cheesy name if she stayed here in the state of Oaxaca, but in Guanajuato, it will be a cool name.

Well, at this moment I am waiting for our new dog, Oaxaca, to be delivered by the Vet. Our mutual adjustment period is about to begin….

Megan House and a Dog Named Oaxaca

O's first morning at the casita
Oaxaca's first morning at the casita.

Oaxaca, the dog we recently rescued from the streets, easily adapted to being in our casita but spent most of her first days in her bed. One morning, while I was working at my desk in the living room, I heard growling and hissing coming from the kitchen, then a scramble—I looked up to see two cats dashing toward the bedroom followed (too closely) by a big white blur nipping at their heels. The dog and cats are now at a standoff.  No more feeding the cats in the kitchen. Even when her bowl is empty, Oaxaca patrols that kitchen entry like a sentry. Having said that, Oaxaca is not a neurotic dog and her transition to civilized life has been very fast, indeed. The first two days with us she inhaled her food (I didn’t hear ANY chewing!) but once the food began to appear on a regular schedule, she started to eat normally.

She was a bit slow to respond to affection, though. We petted her but she just looked at us rather blankly, her tail tucked between her legs. I imagined she’d learned not to trust the behavior of humans, even acts of kindness.

Rebecca who, with her husband, Tony, own 40 acres of property in the countryside just outside the city of Oaxaca, has been running an animal rescue operation on her property for several years. She has rescued large and small animals– horses and burros, cats and dogs. To date, she has two kittens and four puppies waiting to be adopted and has kept for herself eight adult dogs (because adult dogs are almost impossible to place in homes). She calls her business “Megan House” in memory of her first and most beloved dog, Megan, a German Shepard with a great personality that she rescued from the streets of her pueblo.

Washing a rescued dog.
Washing a rescued dog.

Rebecca and Tony live on the outskirts of San Pablo Etla and, like many pueblos in Mexico, the village is filled with stray dogs roaming the streets in search of food. Some of the dogs are in bad shape, like Oaxaca, and when Rebecca identifies one of those dogs, she and her local Mexican Vet, Luciano, go into high gear. They begin by feeding the dog and gaining its trust, often mixing medicine into the dog’s food. Eventually, they transport the dog to the Vet’s office where it is spayed and further treated, as needed. Sometimes the dog is released back onto the streets but if a dog is too ill, Rebecca takes it to her kennel at home. Occasionally, it becomes part of her family. As a result of their efforts, this team of two has transformed the pueblo—improving the lives of many dogs and preventing overpopulation through spaying.

To call Rebecca’s dog rescue operation a business is a bit of a stretch; in fact, it is a charity, financed by Rebecca and Tony. The word has gotten out about Rebecca’s efforts and now people regularly bring her animals they find discarded on the streets, such as puppies and kittens too young to survive without their mothers. The GOOD news is folks also regularly appear at Megan House looking to adopt animals.

I think you have to be a bit crazy, as well as a saint, to do the work Rebecca does. She is totally focused and will not retreat from any dog who needs her help. Mexicans generally care for their pets but in one instance, Rebecca found a sick dog, owned by a local family, who was being terribly neglected. Instead of turning her attention elsewhere, she engaged Luciano (the Vet) as cultural mediator and translator and approached the family about their dog’s poor condition. She offered to pay for the medical treatment the dog needed and later, when the dog was on the mend, she and Luciano educated the family in how to care properly for it. Now that takes chutzpah!

On our third day with our new dog, we took Oaxaca for a walk. As we made our way up a hill, I walked ahead of Cedric and Oaxaca, who was on a leash. Oaxaca began to whine, clearly not

Oaxaca's first walk.
Oaxaca's first walk.

wanting to be separated. Other than growling at the cats, that was the first time I’d heard her voice.

Later that afternoon, I was working at my desk and Oaxaca was, as usual, lying in her bed. After awhile, I felt a nose pushing its way under my right arm. I looked down. It was Oaxaca. She was wagging her tail.  I got down on the floor and folded my entire body over hers, giving her a big bear hug. She groaned, wagging her tail faster, then let out a big sigh. I think that was the moment we fell in love. When I rescued Oaxaca, I was so focused on what I was doing for the dog that I did not realize what the dog was doing for me.

Now our vacation is over and Oaxaca is back home with us in San Miguel de Allende. On our vacation, we visited an archeological site and explored some artisan villages but we didn’t go birding and we never made it to the coast. We were too busy spending time with wonderful people and learning about their lives in Oaxaca—Rebecca and Tony, Mary and Bill, and Penny and Victor (who are in the process of buying a house near Casa Raab). We learned all about homemade mezcal distilling and hiked through Tony’s maguey fields. And then there were those gigs, singing and playing the bass with the Bodega Boys.  You can use a guidebook to help shape your trip, but you won’t find any of these adventures in a guidebook.

Most important, there was the business of rescuing our new dog, Oaxaca. We always knew we would be bringing home crafts and things from our travels—you know, rugs and pottery and stuff.  But we never imagined we’d be bringing home a dog!

Pantera, a rescued cat.
Pantera, a rescued cat.
Waiting for a home.
Waiting for a home.
Dickens, another rescued cat.
Dickens, another rescued cat.

Guest Blogger Kristine MacKain: Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 2)

Please enjoy Part 2 of Kristine’s take on life in Mexico—we’re sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did! Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow!

Lola

Could We Live Here?

We’ve seen amazing places, met artisans who do excellent work, even bonded with our taxi driver, Lupe, who sometimes takes us to the city.

The road from Bill and Mary's to our casita.
The road from Bill and Mary’s to our casita.

We’ve also met a number of people we REALLY like who are living here. In fact, we think WE want to live here! The owner of this property has land for sale and the views are stunning. We’d have to sell our house and we’re not sure we want to do that yet but we’re looking into it. We could buy land, build the house just to our specs, and live off the grid. I love Oaxaca; there is something mystical about this place:  the valleys circled by high mountains here, the way the mountains shift colors during the day, shifting from shades of green to dark blue by evening, the gray mist that settles over the meadows in early morning—it is truly stunning. The city of Oaxaca is messier and not nearly as charming as a place like San Miguel de Allende and it’s generally a poorer, dirtier place in the suburbs and villages (pueblos) surrounding the city. Also, there is poorer communication (as in no local papers and little formal gringo organization). But the setting is to die for. Also, the birding is fantastic–a testament to the great natural habitats here. Our neighbors, Bill and Mary, have counted 250 different bird species in their back garden!!

We had such an amazing time yesterday at a mercado about 25 miles from here –it was the best mercado I’ve visited outside Morocco — a Zapotec pueblo (in the rug weaving region) called Tlacolula (get your tongue round that!).

Zapotec Indian women in native dress dominated the scene along with live turkeys, oxen harnesses, baby chicks, goats, handmade pottery, and mezcal demonstrations, as well as a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. You had to buy everything by the kilo and it was always the same price–20 pesos. We figured we got over $60 worth of fruit and veggies for about $12. The groceries were so heavy that Cedric had to make two trips to the car! We’ll never eat it all. We asked for one mango but were told it was five mangoes or nothing!

There was an incredibly beautiful church adjacent to the mercado that was filled with people wandering in and out. Walking out of the church we almost ran into a middle-class woman carrying a live turkey in a bag, its head bobbing back and forth in consternation. Mexican folk songs were being played and some guys were singing along. The experience was SO foreign– a mix of Mexican and Zapotec and not one sighting of gringos (except us) to corrupt the authenticity of the scene.

Thinking later about the chaotic, vibrant, messy, startling experiences in the mercado, and how strangely excited and satisfied I was having wandered through all that, I wondered what it was about Target and Home Depot that was so mind numbing, so excruciatingly BORING.

Church shrine in Tlacolula.
Church shrine in Tlacolula.
Tlacolula pueblo church.
Tlacolula pueblo church.
Woman buying tortillas at the mercado.
Woman buying tortillas at the mercado.
Waiting to be lunch...
Main dish waiting for pick-up…
"Turkey to go"
"Turkey to go"
Corn on the cob, mercado style.
Corn on the cob, mercado style.
"Moto taxi" in San Pablo Etla, "our" pueblo.
“Moto taxi” in San Pablo Etla, “our” pueblo.

New Guest Blogger + Cool Oaxaca Blog (Part 1): Welcome, Kristine!

¡Buenas tardes a todos! I want to introduce a new guest blogger, Kristine MacKain, who has some great—and fun—stuff to share with us about life in Mexico. We’re always happy to hear positive things about this country we love so much, and hope it inspires more of you to come visit.

Here’s a little bit about her:

Kristine MacKain, Ph.D. is a former research scientist and speech pathologist, now retired and living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She and her husband, Cedric Johnson, are happiest when they are traveling, seeking adventure, and learning about world cultures and how other people live. Cedric says that each time Kris visits a beautiful and interesting place, she wants to live there. Consequently, he’s learned never to attach himself too firmly to their home base!

And here’s the start of her contribution (it’s a long story, so we’ve decided to blog it up over the next few days, so stay tuned for more adventures—and pics—from Kristine!)

Oaxaca, Mezcal, and the Local Gringo Band

Less than a month ago, my husband, Cedric, and I rolled into Casa Raab, our Oaxaca farm destination just outside Oaxaca City. We drove down from our home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) on the Arco Norte, a new expressway that avoids Mexico City, passing through the city of Puebla, then dropping south through slate blue mountains into the state of Oaxaca.

We are renting out our SMA home right now, and we were planning on a quiet month in the country, following the suggestions in our guidebook: doing some birding and taking some trips to the coast, touring archeological sites and artisan villages. Venturing into unknown territory, however, we could not have imagined the adventures that awaited us.

ccCasa Raab guest bottling mezcalThe road into the property was dirt, rutted and bumpy. Close to the main house, four gringos crowded together outside behind a tall, narrow rustic bar-height table bent intently over a collection of tall glass bottles as one of them poured clear liquid through a plastic funnel.

“Hey, glad ya made it,” said the guy doing the pouring. “I’m Tony,” (our host and property owner)

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re in the process of bottling some homemade mezcal.”

bbTony at his homemade mezcal distillery
Photo by Jeff Charles

We followed Tony to the casita with our luggage, and he got right down to business: “Why don’t you two unpack later and join us right now for some mezcal tastings?” We were tired after the 7-hour drive, but we had just read a very interesting article in the New York Times pronouncing mezcal as “the next big thing” and describing it as “complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place.” The place to which the author was referring, of course, was Oaxaca. How could we refuse?

Mezcal is crafted by hand almost exclusively by small, homegrown distilaamaguey crop for mezcalleries, and Oaxaca has more mezcal distilleries than anywhere else in Mexico. The drink is made from various species of the agave plant, called “maguey” in Spanish. It has a smoky flavor and tastes vaguely like single-malt scotch. We were anxious to try it.

Relaxing at the mezcal bar with Tony and his guests, we learned that the guests were from Washington D.C., and had been to Casa Raab several times, seeking adventure in the machinations of a homegrown mezcal operation. They hoped to become mezcal connoisseurs and introduce several types of mezcal to their friends back in D.C.

We found we could quickly discriminate between mezcals that had been aged for several years and those more recently produced; mezcals also differ in color from clear (recent) to caramel (aged, in oak barrels).

Tony has a band called The Bodega Boys, a revolving group of guys and gals who live part of the year in Oaxaca, and  play each week at the mezcal bottling site. Would we like to join them in their next jamming session? Well, we didn’t sing or play an instrument but Tony said that didn’t matter, just show up!

Tony's top drawer mezcalAfter four samplings of mezcal (we really can’t remember), we were making our way back to our casita when Cedric said: “Now THAT wasn’t in the brochure!”

A week later Cedric had to go back to the states for a few days and Tony asked me to come watch his band. There was no audience but me so they talked me into singing with them!  (This was much easier once I’d had a few mezcals). I even played the tambourine. We sang for THREE hours. They asked how long it had been since I’ve sung with a group and I said, “About 45 years….” (I think that was the madrigal group in high school). Two weeks later, the band had Cedric playing the bass.

The most fun aspect of travel, I think, is the unexpected. As I planned this vacation, could I have possibly imagined that Cedric and I would be drinking homemade mezcal, singing and playing the bass with a bunch of guys in a local band??

Guest Blogger Carolyn Patten: Fiesta Time? Listos??

By Lola

Hurrah for Carolyn! She’s still in San Miguel de Allende (yes, that’s a note of envy creeping in my voice) and sending in a Travel Wench’s eye view of the town’s preparations for the grandest fiesta of all: the Bicentennial!

“In a country with an almost reverent attitude about fireworks and an actual patron saint for same – San Juan de Dios – the party atmosphere is never really undercover. Mexicans work harder than any people I have ever know, and they also know how to celebrate, dance, play music and get their yayas on like no other.

Look closely: yep, that's confetti!
Look closely: yep, that's confetti!

In slightly less than a week, Mexico will be caught up in the biggest party in 200 years – the 200-year anniversary of the 1810 revolution that declared independence from Spain. Here in San Miguel de Allende, the fervor is especially intense. This lovely city was where it all began, with the “grito” or shout of independence, delivered from the balcony of the Allende home across from the elegant cathedral, the Parroquia. For the past several months, the square in between the cathedral and the Jardin has been the site of folklorico dances, concerts, beauty queen contests, speeches and general extreme high spirits – even more than usual, and that’s saying a lot.

La Virgencita de Guadalupe, Mexico's own patron saint
La Virgencita de Guadalupe, Mexico's own patron saint

The main streets are decorated with red, green and white streamers and sparkly stuff. Bullfights are planned, parades are in the making, art galleries and restaurants are buffing up for a stream of visitors and, unless you just don’t like fun, there is absolutely no reason not to be part of the celebration.  The Bicentennial comes at a time when this sweet country is under siege in the press and those visitors north of the border are hesitant about making the journey.

But, I tell you, if there is an ideal time to visit, it is starting right now. The Independence celebrations hit their peak the week of September 13. San Miguel will take a pause to catch its breath, and then October 1-3, it’s time to pay homage to San Miguel Arcangel, the patron saint and guardian angel of the city. More parties, parades, fireworks and happy faces. In November? Put on your dancing shoes and stock up on sugar skulls, because the Day of the Dead is a huge two-day fiesta all over the city.

And have I mentioned that prices for gorgeous, full-service hotels and top restaurants are rock-bottom right now? Yep. If you’re feeling the pinch in the U.S. or Canada, this is definitely the place to stretch your dollars. Fly right into Mexico City and take a comfy shuttle or streamlined air-conditioned bus into San Miguel, or take an alternate flying route into the Leon/Guanajuato airport and reserve a spiffy shuttle from there direct to your hotel room.

Bienvenidos to party central!”

Balloons and toys sell briskly in the Jardin...
Balloons and toys sell briskly in the Jardin...

Ignacio Allende's statue keeps an eye on the festivities.
Ignacio Allende's statue keeps an eye on the festivities.

Guest Blogger Carolyn Patten: Drug dealers, beware! And other musings…

Kudos to Carolyn for telling the dealers to stuff it where the sol don’t shine. For more Carolyn, visit her at www.thetravelwench.com; for more Jackie’s, visit her Facebook page and make a friend!

If you are a drug dealer and you are thinking of visiting Mexico, watch out! It can be very dangerous. If you are a tourist/traveler in search of an experience that includes delicious food, warm and welcoming people, glorious art, spicy music, centuries-old architecture and modern bus transport all over the country, well, smart money will have you booking a trip to the heart of Mexico today.

And, as a not-inconsiderable bonus, you will be taking advantage of truly bargain prices – all because the drug dealers who are bumping one another off in the border towns have gotten 99% of the international press. True. Google Mexico and you’ll find dozens of stories, virtually all of them negative.

This is a view of Jackie's San Antonio. Yes, this picture is worth a thousand words.
This is a view of Jackie's San Antonio. Yes, this picture is worth a thousand words.

We were discussing this at dinner last night in Jackie’s San Antonio, one of San Miguel de Allende’s most upscale restaurants. The evening was cool after a brief downpour that made the streets and the lush garden glisten. Across the street, the church of San Antonio was glowing in the early evening sun and farther down towards Centro, the glorious Parroquia cathedral looked freshly gilded.

The table included a coup le from San Francisco who have been coming here for years and another San Francisco couple making their first trip. The “old-timers” were relaxing on this visit, as they’d spent the better part of a year remodeling and furnishing a beautiful home not far from the restaurant. I’d met the newcomers shortly after they arrived, three days before, and in that short time they seemed to have grown a few years younger.

They had discovered San Miguel time, a luxurious place where we walk everywhere, sit for hours with friends over meals and coffee, and do our shopping in  tidy little tiendas where we know the owners. Some of us have cars, but we don’t really need them because the taxis are so cheap. For a trip to Guanajuato or Queretaro, both of which I made this last week, first choice is the immaculate Primera Plus bus line, with plush seats, air conditioning and top movies. It’s cheap and always on time. The four San Francisco friends are in Guanajuato today, staying at a boutique B&B in the best residential section. When they booked, they had their choice of rooms at a discounted rate. That is unusual, because July is traditionally the start of the “second high season” here, the time when visitors from the U.S. border states come for a break from the heat. But, bookings are not materializing and the restaurants and hotels are beginning to suffer.

Jackie told us that she is worried about keeping her highly trained staff if the usual tourist flow doesn’t materialize. “When you start using your broom to clean, of course there is some dirt that’s going to be stirred up,” is how she put it when we talked about the Calderon drug war.  Nobody here wants that war to ease up. But the media’s focus on that to the exclusion of the rest of Mexico is making the economy take a big hit.

Can you imagine yourself here? I can. I did. I was there. We  missed you!
Can you imagine yourself here? I can. I did. I was there. We missed you!

So what can we do? Those of us at the table decided to do what we would normally do, and then take it up a notch. The ones who checked TripAdvisor before coming down are now posting their reviews of different Mexican destinations, restaurants and hotels on that site. I’m writing a blog post.

And we’re all telling our friends ‘’ If you’re a drug dealer, it’s dangerous in Mexico right now. If you’re a tourist, it is a fabulous destination and will probably never be less expensive!”

Transportation choices in San Miguel. Being in a hurry isn't high on anyone's list, whew!
Transportation choices in San Miguel. Being in a hurry isn't high on anyone's list, whew!
A view of my (very quiet) street.
A view of my (very quiet) street.

Thanks, Carolyn! We look forward to hearing from you again soon – and maybe indulging in a little something something at Jackie’s… – Lola

President Launches Diconsa Mobile Unit Pilot Program

LiconsaZacatecas.- During the launching of the DICONSA Mobile Unit Pilot Program, President Felipe Calderón stressed Federal Government’s commitment to guaranteeing cheaper food for the country’s poorest families.

Accompanied by his wife, Margarita Zavala, the President declared that price stabilization means that there will be no shortage of food in Mexican households, particularly for families living in the countryside.

“Guaranteeing quality food at fair prices is a cause shared by all, above party affiliation and political situations,” explained the president, on tour of Zacatecas.

He said that 90 mobile units will supply basic products to 350,000 families in 1,450 localities throughout the country.

The President also thanked Congress for protecting social expenditure, particularly the funds assigned to DICONSA, at a difficult time such as the 2009 economic crisis.

“And we have strengthened DICONSA by investing in LICONSA, and organizing DICONSA not only to ensure that Mexicans with least will have access to products but also to prevent the action of speculators, who are precisely those that cause the greatest damage to those living with the greatest shortages,” he said.

During the event, which was also attended by state governor Amalia García Medina, President Calderón celebrated the 30 years of this Rural Supply Program, which directly benefits one out of every five Mexicans in the country.

“That is why we need to strengthen DICONSA, even in situations with greater price stability. And I can assure you that DICONSA has proudly fulfilled its commitment to Mexicans and to Mexico,” he added.

A propos of this, he reported that the price of Mi Masa maize flour will not be increased and remain at five pesos.

“And if we think that tortilla and the maize flour increasingly used to prepare it is the basis of Mexicans’ diet, I am sure that DICONSA is doing the country a great service by providing Mi Masa fortified flour,” he declared.

Still a Small Beach Town in Riviera Maya

Jeanine Kitchel

Amazing as it may seem, the Riviera Maya, that white sand stretch of endless beaches  in Quintana Roo, still has one beach town that has defied the odds and retained a spectrum of that “je ne sais quois”  factor we all hope for in our search for Margaritaville.  It’s small with great beaches, a little town square or zocalo, walkways in front of the beach with benches and palapas for idling, and a handful of nearby restaurants of almost every persuasion for snacks and dining. Where is this little gem?

Why Puerto Morelos, of course. Just 30 miles south of Cancun and about 20 miles north of ever popular (and overrun) Playa del Carmen. Even Cancun locals have discovered Puerto Morelos in the past couple years, and Sundays are very popular so come early to reserve your spot on the beach, and stay late and enjoy antojitos or dinner in one of the town favorites – Pelicanos, Hola Asia, Posada Amor Restaurant- all on or very near the square.

The town has become a magnet for foreign travelers in large part because it has a town center, grocery store,  a variety of restaurants, ATM machine, and is self contained without the feel of big city Cancun or the glitzy hotel zone.  Many foreigners own beach villas here which are rented out,  some for sale – as is Casa Maya, just north of town and listed on Sotheby’s at www.sirrivieramaya.com (#196) or google Casa Maya Puerto Morelos – and others listed for rent or sale on  informative websites such as MayanRivieraProperties.com and MexicanVacationVillas.com.

Small hotels are plentiful, with still reasonable rates, and now there are a handful of all-inclusives, too. But the small town feel is what brings people back year after year. It’s the type of place where you get to know the waiters at the local restaurants.

Located at the edge of the low jungle, on the other side of the highway, there’s a Sunday Mayan Market run by former Floridian Sandra Dayton who initiated this project 15 years ago when she helped Mayan women in Puerto Morelos buy two sewing machines so they could earn money by sewing clothing to sell. The market has blossomed and now includes food, Mayan massage, and a variety of handicrafts.  Dayton is a character andher knowledge of the jungle is incredible. If she still offers a jungle tour, sign up for it, because it is well worth every peso. Contact Dayton at starseed@prodigy.net.mx.

Puerto Morelos still has the feel. Try it, you may like it.