Exploratory Drive

It was so inviting even I went in.
It was so inviting even I went in.

Burt pulled out the map and said, “There’s gotta be an easier place to hike in the mountains.” Well we got lost but found what he was looking for anyway. Burt’s original goal was the end of the road about 8 miles south of where we landed but we can’t complain. Rancho Santo Domingo is at the end of a different road and on a trail head into the Sierra de la Laguna. Chito is the current occupant and resident guide. He sent us on our way and we did a short exploratory walk. His dog, I called it bones, followed us. Bones’s love for Olive was unrequited. I guess she prefers men with more meat on their frame. Up the hill from the very old and well shaded ranch house we found a mature orchard with ripe toronjas (grapefruits) and flowering mango trees. The trail followed the arroyo up into the mountains. Birds were sparse because of the heat but this water hole was fantastic.

We turned back early. I am still tired from Sunday’s expedition and we had a music date with Tom.  We can visit this place again when we have more time and energy. On our way back down Burt spotted the Cape Robin! I missed it but I can trust Burt knows a robin when he sees one.

Burt's butt in a fine swimming hole.
Burt’s butt in a fine swimming hole.
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
Chito y Beto: soul mates?
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The Annual Death March to Titi Mountain

Burt's aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.
Burt’s aspirin a day makes even mild scratches dramatic.

Burt’s finally had enough of our annual slog on the skirts of Titi Mountain. I think. We’ve made an annual trek up there every year for the last four year. This year I cried. Between losing the way, the heat, hunger, and the darn beta-blockers I had my work cut out for me. I knew I would be miserable on an uphill hike through the thorn forest and I tried to take it like a big person but the first 40 minutes were really discouraging. I almost quit.

The start of this marathon is a very poor ranch deep in the desert at the edge of an arroyo. In the past the house has been vacant but this year the owners were there with their three skeletal dogs. The burro that rubbed his head on our car all night long last year was not seen. The owners speak a version of Baja Spanish that I find impenetrable. We exchanged pleasantries where every other word was Mande? or Como? What? Hi? What? How are you? Say that again? Great? You? What? Painful. Then the man says, “You play violin.” I heard that. We played music once here 4 years ago and everyone within 10 square miles remembers. Does this make us famous. In a word, yes. At the time it seemed like we were torturing them. Maybe we were. Today he seemed to remember it fondly. He asked if I had brought my violin and seemed disappointed when I said no. Maybe he was just being polite.

This route is located in a spot our friends the deer hunters showed us four years ago. Angel and Ramon agreed to let us tag along while they hunted. That day we covered twice as much ground in the same amount of time. We were faster then but we also had a guide dragging us over and under and through vegetation. On our own we wallow a bit trying to figure out where to go. The area is very wild but also heavily grazed by cattle. There are microtrails everywhere created by cows stomping their way to every green shoot or puddle of water. Cows make trails that are too short for the average gringo. Tree limbs, vines and cactus hang about at the four foot level. Constantly we find ourselves trying to decide if we should climb over a log, pass under that nasty vine, or through the chest high weeds. All this obstacle course like maneuvering while headed uphill. It’s not an enjoyable walk; it is more like an expedition. About an hour in there is a native palm oasis. Things get more enjoyable there.

The thing that keeps us going, besides the annual grudge match, is that we hope to find some of Baja’s endemic birds that live at the higher elevations. Today we had our eyes and ears peeled for the cape robin, the Baird’s junco, and the isolated population of acorn woodpeckers. All of these birds are subspecies of birds found elsewhere but the ones here in Baja have been left isolated by the ocean and the desert. They don’t migrate. They all look slightly different from tehir more mobile colleagues.

At 2:30 and after 4 hours of trudging with ample and lengthy breaks we turned for home. My phone said we’d walked 3 miles. I believe it was closer to 2 but it felt more like 5. So three is a nice compromise. At the turnaround point we had not seen any of our birds. We did find a nice persimmon tree on the edge of the palm oasis and it was full of butter butts (yellow rumped warblers) and orange crowned warblers. The fruit tree is a relic of the sugar processing days. At the ridge there was a sugar cane processing plant. Local people hiked 6 miles every day to work it back in the late 1800s.  The workers planted fruit trees on their route. On our way back down, just before the persimmons, Burt spotted a woodpecker. I got my binoculars on it just as it flew and I was 90% certain it was our clown faced acorn woodpecker. Then Burt spotted another one and this next one held still and we both confirmed it was the bird we were looking for. Yippee. All tears were worth it.

Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It's more like a route.
Here is an easy stretch of the so-called trail. It’s more like a route. Olive and Elvis appreciated that fetid water.
Here's what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Here’s what the trail typically looked like. Over or under or around?
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
Titi Mountain and another thing to walk around or over.
The saddle there above Burt's head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn't make it. It was the closest we've come on our own.
The saddle there above Burt’s head was our goal. After 4 hours of hiking we didn’t make it. It was the closest we’ve come on our own. Just on the other side are the sugar cane processing mills ruins.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started.
The house roof visible below the tree branch is where we started. The start was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive from our place. The locals are very remote.
Resting in the oasis.
Resting in the oasis.
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Cooking with Chiles

Cooking with chiles.
Cooking with chiles.

Recently a friend/neighbor put out an all points bulletin requesting help processing chiles to make his notorious ‘black gold’. Generally I can ignore calls for kitchen help but Jessie is a well regarded cook around here and I love chiles so I volunteered. I’m spelling chilies the Spanish way. I had no idea what this ‘black gold’ might be but I was game. I informed Burt and he agreed to participate as well.

The day arrived warm and sunny. Our host/jefe had purchased some 100 pounds of chiles, half serrano and half jalapeño. He provided tools and protective gloves. I anticipated a team of choppers and seed cleaners but when I showed up at the appointed hour it was just me. Even our host wasn’t quite ready. I helped set the shade and clean some utensils. Then I set to chopping off the ends and slicing the chiles length-wise. If someone else showed up they could clean the seeds. Immediately I complained that I was hungry. Jessie was perplexed. I informed him that the host was required to fortify his team with food. Men can be so bad at these kinds of things but Jessie was amiable and he made me a cheese omelet and added a side of a previous batch of black gold. Meanwhile another processor showed: Mayra. Mayra is also a well regarded local chef. Her family originated in Cuba and she can cook anything. Mayra and I set about the task at hand. I chopped and she swept away the seeds with a custom made seed cleaner. Jessie invented the seed cleaning tool. He sharpened the curved end of a cotter pin and it fits into the half moon of chile pretty tidily. Soon Jessie served us a kick-ass omelet and the black gold salsa was so good it inspired further work. I had a stake in this now. If I cleaned enough peppers some of the black gold salsa would be mine. An hour or so later Burt showed up.

We three cleaned up the peppers and Jessie cooked batches of them in his cowboy wok. I don’t know what it was. Some auto part attached to a propane tank. The wok held about a gallon of cooking oil. Jessie poured a bucket of chiles into smoking hot oil and cooked the heck out of them. Cooked them until they were blackened shards of flavor. Every step of the processing was fraught with great risk of burns, both chemical and physical. Scrapping the seeds sprayed oils. Flying seeds landed in cleavage. Water glasses were too dangerous to use more than once. Nobody wanted to use the bathroom. We endured. It was a hot day all around.

So this salsa is kind of strange and wonderful. Basically it’s essence of burnt chile without too much heat. The intense deep frying burns away the volatile oils that cause damage to our mucous membranes leaving behind a charred flesh. If you, like me, enjoy the burnt bits best on your pizza or grilled cheese or roasted veggies, this salsa is for you. You can add a dab of burnt chile wherever you want it. After deep frying the chiles are drained and then pulverized in a powerful blender. Add some salt. Jessie then puts it in canning jars and cooks it at a boil for another 2 hours. I think that might be over the top but perhaps it adds to the alchemy. This processing greatly reduces the raw unprocessed volume. Gallons of raw whole chiles are required to make a quart of salsa. The result is a glistening black salsa the consistency and color of dirty motor oil.

After 3 hours of work our team had hardly dented the serrano chile bag. The jalapeños remained untouched. I inquired of Jessie about past amounts and past batches. Jessie informed me that a solo effort on 20 pounds had taken 9 hours. I sadly informed him that Industrial Engineering meant we had 45 hours of work ahead of us to finish the job. The three of us had done about 10 hours of work. Where was the rest of the team? Burt, Mayra, and I did not stick around to find out. I left after 4 hours. The last hour I just chatted. My hands and wrists and elbows hurt. No salsa, no matter how good, was worth tendonitis. Rumor was that two other workers showed up for an afternoon, cocktail hour shift.

For our burns and bodily aches we were rewarded with 5 pints of black gold salsa. It is heavenly on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Serranos, topped and halved.
Serranos, topped and halved. The seeds are the hottest part.
Cowboy wok and frying chiles.
Cowboy wok and frying chiles.

 

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Day 3 in Pescadero

Well, we are here. I can’t get any pictures to upload. The internet is too slow. I’ll keep trying. To answer Pat’s question, yes, I used my new phone for the photos in the previous post. The whale watching photos I am trying to upload were taken with my regular digital camera. The iPhone does not zoom well and since the whales were reported to be far away I brought my bigger lens.

Our transition into Pescadero is going smoothly. Since the yard was lovingly cleaned by our awesome gardeners, I focused on getting the gNash back to a livable state. Two months of winter weather and steady work had allowed for disastrously unhomey conditions to develop. There were so many layers of clothes and bedding and instruments that there was no room to clean. Think mold, dust, dampness, dog hair, detritus. Think smelly. Think hoarders living between piles of everything they own. Disgustingly smelly. I went after it with a broom, then mini-vac, and finally a vinegar soaked rag. It’s much shinier and fresh in here now. Life in a trailer is not for the faint of heart. On the upside there was no new sign of rodentia.

Today I had for main assignments: go to town and pay the property taxes, drop off laundry, change dollars to pesos, charge the internet stick. I managed to do them all, not in that order, and also schedule our first gig of the season. If you are a local and reading this, we’ll be at Mi Pueblito on February 12. These errands plus catch up sessions with Mayra and April took until 1 PM. I arrived home and applied my cleaning skills to the rumpus room and our bathroom. Burt has spent all his time getting the infrastructure functioning: water, electricity, storage. The beach might be doable tomorrow.

Oh! Lookee here.

Mom and baby surfacing for air, side by side. Those two dots are the baby's blow hole.
Mom and baby surfacing for air, side by side. Those two dots on the left backside are the baby’s blow hole.
Blurry whale tail.
Blurry whale tail.
Brown Pelican. Gorgeous colors.
Brown Pelican. Gorgeous colors.
IMG_0991
Sea lions or lobos marinos.

 

 

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Portal We’re Here and Back at Work Already

Cholla in bloom.
Cholla in bloom.

Here we and our fleas are back in the USA. First day here I was enjoying some basic pleasures I am denied in Mexico: drinking dark beer and doing my own laundry. Re-entry into the states also has a skin crawling tradition every year, the flea eradication program. Despite the application of all conventional and even some unconventional weaponry we cannot completely eliminate the fleas in Mexico. The fleas live all around and jump from dog to dog all day long. Olive’s brand of flea seems immune to all drops, dips, baths, sprays and mechanical devices. It’s not really that Olive has so many (which she does) it’s that she can’t stand the bite of a single flea and so chews herself raw unless we have complete control. Lucky for her we live in flea free zones in the US and we just have to kill the ones we have living in the gNash and on her and her companions. Another stroke of luck is that she doesn’t have allergic dermatitis (yet) but the lesser hypersensitivity to the bite. Elvis and Mimi are quite blase about their own populations of fleas. A little scratch here and there is all they do.

Every winter starts out with me faithfully applying flea repellant to the dogs and cat. Every winter it seems that the Advantix, Revolution, baths or combs or whatever else we try is working. And every winter a few months in the fleas start getting the upper hand. They find a nook to hide in or they evolve a resistance to the pesticide of choice. Or they just out number us. No amount of cleaning and laundry helps for more than a day or two. I think our sandy lot is harboring millions of fleas just waiting for a dog or cat to walk by. Around March I give up. I look at Olive and say, “Sorry, kid, you’re on your own.”

So we cross the border every April carrying a full load of gross and head to a laundromat and pet supply store and start over again. This year we’re using the new ‘miracle’ flea collars. For $41 plus tax each of our pets is sporting a new Seresto 8-month flea collar. All rugs and bedding have been washed on hot. New dog beds were purchased and the old beds sent to the landfill. I spent hours yesterday using a flea comb and mechanically removing the dead and dying fleas from their coats. I hope it’s enough. The only redeeming fact is that the fleas rarely come near me or Burt. They still prefer their natural hosts. In fact they probably are cat fleas and prefer cats. Combing Mimi revealed a greater density of fleas (despite less itching) than the dogs. I have this theory that the fleas are going to adapt to feeding on humans if we keep up the chemical assault. I hope I am wrong.

As for next year in Mexico I have some new ideas. First, I’m bringing down some beneficial nematodes to apply to our soil. These nematode-y things eat fleas and flea larva in soil. Second, I’m hoping the collars work as advertised. Third, no dogs in the trailer. Elvis has already volunteered to spend his nights outside so we just have to convince Olive it’s the place for her, too.

Here are some desert flora for your enjoyment:

Cactus star
Cactus star
Baby barrel cactus view of the world.
Baby barrel cactus view of the world.
Cholla. Elvis got some in his foot which I then transferred to my hand.
Cholla. Elvis got some in his foot which I then transferred to my hand.
Pretty desert beetle.
Pretty desert beetle.
Unknown flower.
Unknown flower.
Spreading, creeping mat of flowers.
Spreading, creeping mat of flowers.
A ball of flowers.
A ball of flowers.
The desert near Santa Inez.
The desert near Santa Inez.
Here's the bit that was in Elvis's foot now in my hand.
Here’s the bit that was in Elvis’s foot now in my hand.
Ocatillo and shadow.
Ocatillo and shadow.
Pitaya
Pitaya
Rust never sleeps.
Rust never sleeps.

 

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El Torneo de Tenis

Burt's #1 fan, Jasub.
Burt’s #1 fan, Jasub.

I have loyally and happily (mostly) attended Burt’s tournament tennis play for three years. I give pep talks and cheers. I analyze the opponents. I do a pretty good job of being wife and fan. This year’s tournament went pretty well for Burt but I lost my job as number one fan. This cutie pie on the left is Jasub, son of my Spanish teacher, and former music student of ours. One run of Go Burt, Go Burt, Go Burt! out of his five year old mouth and it was obvious I could not compete. Sadly despite the most vociferous cheering section Burt lost the game.

Tomorrow we hit the road. Sad to be going and happy that we are sad to be going is the mood around here. I’m glad we’re never feeling like it’s time to go. Mexico is our home and this year we made great progress towards a life of blended gringo and Mexican friends and activities. Plans are already brewing for next year’s projects.

The rumpus room and bodega are nearly sealed up. The gNash is cleaned and organized. This year we’ve hired some staff to keep watch on the place while we’re gone. It’s official, we have a gardener and family. For $50 a month he or his wife or father-in-law are going to water and check the property three time a month. That’s the plan anyway. You never know what will happen when the boss is away. Hurricanes and family disasters can ruin the most ambitious workers. I do know that our guy, German, is a nice young man with a nice family. We’ve helped them a lot and he and his wife, Vikki, are eager to help us if they can. Part of the plan is for them to weed and clear debris before our arrival next year to make settling in easier. I’m pretty optimistic we’ll be wondering why we hadn’t made arrangements like this in previous years.

Another sunflower and Burt.
Another sunflower and Burt.
Mimi proving a cat can go old school and lie on a legal pad if there isn't a keyboard available.
Mimi proving a cat can go old school and lie on a legal pad if there isn’t a keyboard available.
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Beach Trip

Olive jumping for sand clods.
Olive jumping for sand clods.

We went to the beach. It was wet and sandy. The dogs chased clumps of sand and tennis balls. Burt swam. I took pictures. I’m not allowed in the water. I can blame menopause for more irritating things. Trust me you don’t want the details. Tomorrow I plan to go back in the water.

Elvis paced back and forth while the boys swam. He uses a tennis ball like a baby with a binky.
Elvis paced back and forth while the boys swam. He uses a tennis ball like a baby with a binky.
Olive shakes her money maker.
Olive shakes her money maker.
Burt and Vince check out the waves.
Burt and Vince check out the waves.
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San Jacinto

A swarm of bees flew by us.
A swarm of bees flew by us.

I had my last Spanish class today with Ivonne. We read a funny piece she had written about one of her first experiences in Baja. Just like English, Spanish is full of idoimatic expressions and these words and phrases vary depending on where you are. Ivonne grew up on the mainland of Mexico in Guanajuato. Choyeros (residents of southern Baja, so named because of the ever present cholla cactus) have a different way of speaking. And one might say they are a little more ‘red neck’ than citizens of the mainland. After this story you too might agree things are a little rough and tumble around here.

Over in Mexico (in Baja we call the mainland Mexico) you can buy a large bottle of beer. This large bottle of beer is about 2 1/2 regular beers. In Mexico they call it a caguama. A caguama is a sea turtle. In Baja they call the large bottle of beer a ballena or ‘whale.’ One fine day about six years ago Ivonne and her friends were picnicking on a remote beach in Baja when they realized they had forgotten the beer. Ivonne and a friend offered to drive off and find some beer. I think it might have been Ivonne who had forgotten to load the beer in the car. Six years ago roads around here were very rough and a five mile drive to the store could take an hour to get there and back but off they went.

After a short bit Ivonne saw two guys and a truck parked by the side of the road. They decided to stop and ask where they could by beer. After making the usual polite greetings Ivonne asked, “Where can I buy a caguama?” The guy looked funny and said, “A caguama?” “Sí, queremos dos o tres caguamas.” We want two or three turtles. The guy told her he’d call a friend and let her know. Ivonne thought it kind of weird that the guy didn’t know where to by beer, but okay. She watched the guy talk on his cell to a friend. The guy hung up and said I can get you two caguamas in about three hours. Now, Ivonne was wondering why would she wait three hours when she could drive to town and back in one. The guy was wondering why she thought she could get two turtles so quickly from some random guy on the side of the road. More words and no understanding. These turtles would come with their shells. Shells? What shells? Why do they have shells? Is that some Baja thing? They continued on in a “Who’s on first?” manner for a while. Eventually Ivonne asked how much the caguamas were going to cost. The answer shocked her. A caguama was $800 pesos or about $75 US. Now Ivonne realized something was really wrong and she asked him why she had to pay $800 pesos for a bottle of beer. The guy told her she asked for turtles and he was getting her turtles. “But we want beer!” Another phone call was made cancelling the turtle order and the men offered to sell Ivonne and her friend some beer they happened to have in a cooler. And Ivonne learned that a big bottle of beer was a whale and not a turtle.

Selling turtles is illegal in Mexico but apparently to little effect. According to our sources if you have the money you can dine on turtle soup any time you wish. I did not like learning this but the story was funny. It also is reassuring to remember that communication is difficult even when we think we are speaking the same language.

Here are some pictures from yesterday’s drive.

A pretty flowering vine.
A pretty flowering vine.
Cleaning out the freezer. This was yummy left over pineapple upside down cake.
Cleaning out the freezer. This was yummy left over pineapple upside down cake.
Water in the arroyo and the Sierra de la Laguna.
Water in the arroyo and the Sierra de la Laguna.
Torote Tree or Elephant tree.
Torote Tree or Elephant tree.
This might have been us. Burt lied when they asked if we had 4WD.
This might have been us. Burt lied when they asked if we had 4WD.
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Feliz Pascuas

Las flores salgan de los cardones. The cardon cactii are in bloom.
Las flores salgan de los cardones. The cardon cactii are in bloom.

Happy Easter, everyone. The Easter bunny does not cross the border to deliver eggs and candy in Mexico. Easter here retains its strong ties to the traditions of Spain and the Roman Catholic Church. So there are bloody pageant plays in the streets and church services and family gatherings. But in Mexico it is also a time of massive family outings to the beach. Hordes of humanity flee their everyday life and pitch tents on beaches all over the country. Not much work gets done during Semana Santa.

In the Easter spirit I have posted a picture of the bird of peace. The common ground dove. This dove species makes daily excursions in our yard. The dogs ignore it entirely as it wanders around grazing on ants and seeds. The doves also ignore the dogs and amble quite closely to both Olive and Elvis. Meanwhile I cannot be in the yard at the same time as these birds. The doves do not tolerate humans. These pictures were taken from the gNash using a telephoto lens. So there’s peace on earth between doves and dogs but not between humans and doves. Smart doves.

The cactus flower shot was captured from ground level looking up at a 20′ high cardon. This was also with telephoto. That’s why there is a very shallow depth of field. These flowers attract bats and bugs and birds but the activity is hard to see because it’s far overhead. There is not actual flower in the picture here. There are buds about to open and flowers turning into the fruit. I’ve got my eyes peeled and my telephoto on and I hope to capture some blooms soon.

Ground doves.
Ground doves.
Ground Dove
Ground Dove
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Abejas

The honeycomb was attached to the lid of the outhouse.
The honeycomb was attached to the lid of the outhouse. Here is the old lid being placed in the new box.

The call of the bees reached us again. I think they are communicating with us. Last year we told ourselves we were bringing bee veils back to Mexico so we could help neighbors with bees and maybe start our own bee factory. Did we get our act together and get the veils? No. Death, hospitals, cross-country trips and work got in the way. Dreams of bee keeping trickled away while we dealt with the daily grind.

Since we are only a week from departure I was thinking, “Well I guess we didn’t need the veils after all.” Not one swarm our misguided hive crossed our paths this winter. All previous seasons in Mexico we’ve had bees to manage and none had been found this year. Last week Burt heard a swarm fly by but he didn’t see it. I was sad about this and wondered if we should get bee gear for next year. Sunday I bumped into friends at a local farmer’s market. The first words out of their mouths were: There’s bees in our outhouse. Not a typical Sunday morning greeting but I was happy to hear the words. The bees must be directing our thoughts. Nora and Peter had no idea Burt was a bee keeper but I filled them in and said we’d try to help them save the bees and clean up their poop station.  They camp on property near here as a retreat from their jobs in La Paz. While they were away working a swarm of bees found their quiet outhouse and started building. A nearby vender overheard the three of talking about the bees and my lamentations of why oh why didn’t we buy veils and offered to loan his bee veil. The bees were really in charge.

This hive turned out to be very amiable and had built its home on the lid of the latrine. The combs all hung off the crapper lid. All we needed was a new box to hold the old lid and a new lid for the old box. Burt used some scrap wood and built a tidy box with a front porch (the gap the bees use to go in and out of the hive) and we headed over at dusk to make the move.

Some smoke was applied to calm or confuse the bees but these bees were so mild mannered I stood in their midst and took photos freely. Burt gently lifted the old lid and put it on the new box. He then reached into the latrine and scooped out handfuls of bees and placed them on the box’s front porch. The bees went into their new home. You could see them crawl in. It was over in a few minutes. Happy faces all around. Woohoo. We made plans to pick up the hive in a few days and locate it in our yard. Pizza and beers were shared around the camp fire.

This morning the bees were gone. They swarmed away. They weren’t in the new box or the old latrine. We’re mildly sad and pretty happy. We guess the new hive decided didn’t like the new spot and set out as a group (a swarm) to find something better. We’re sad because we have no bees but we’re happy because these bees are alive living in the wild and there is not risk of stings on personal equipment when using the facilities. So we’re calling this a success. And the bees are in charge.

Burt in a borrowed veil.
Burt in a borrowed veil.

 

 

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