Sunday, April 24, 2011

Semana Sante, San Javier and Olive Oil

Semana Sante, or Holy Week, is the biggest holiday next to Christmas, here in Mexico.  This is one of the few times of the year in this hard working country when almost everyone takes time off to spend with family and friends.  Considering the average work week is five and a half days, with normally only Saturday afternoon and Sunday off, a four or five day weekend is a big deal and, as a result, much of the country shuts down.

Now I certainly don`t work the sort of long hours that are common here, but I decided to take advantage of the slow down and take a day off from the Office on Thursday of this past week.  I had been thinking that it had been over a year since I had taken the drive up to San Javier, and so when some neighbours, who are down for a visit expressed interest in going there the trip was on.

Although I have written about San Javier in the past (The Road to San Javier Mar. `09) there were several reasons I wanted to make a return trip at this time.  First of all, I had heard that there was going to be some sort of “market” there this week and I wanted to check that out.  Secondly, it had been some time since my last trip and I wanted to see what progress there had been on paving the 32 km. road and the electrification project that I had heard about.  So, for those reasons, combined with it being Easter week, this was the time for my overdue return to San Javier.

The Mission Church in San Javier was begun just a few years after the first one was established here in Loreto over 300 years ago.  The Jesuits were looking for better access to water and more arable land than was available here in Loreto.  The Mission building itself was completed in the early to mid 1700`s and is the oldest such building existing in it`s original unrestored condition.  Not incidentally, it is also still in active use for religious services for the surrounding area.

But the destination was only part of the reason for this excursion, the drive itself from the main highway near the town of Loreto, through the desert, into the Sierra del Gigante mountains and beyond, was a big part of the adventure.  Five years ago, my earliest trips to San Javier were over the original unpaved road which was a memorable experience – to say the least!  Then, during the first state election after I started living here, the Governor elect campaigned on the promise of “paving the road to San Javier”.  Three years later during the next election with the road now paved about halfway, the next Governor campaigned on “paving the road to San Javier”.  So, with the imminent arrival of the next Governor, I wanted to see what progress has been made since my last trip.

Paving is a big issue for this road because in early December each year hundreds of pilgrims travel to San Javier from all over the Baja and mainland Mexico to celebrate the Saint`s name day.  Six years ago when I made my first 32 km drive to San Javier the initial quarter was a rough, but adequate gravel road.  The middle half was barely more than 1 lane wide, extremely rough with blind switchbacks as the road twisted through the mountains.  The final quarter remained narrow but was reasonably straight and level as you approached the oasis at San Javier.

A couple of years ago they had managed to pave about half the distance, still short of the most challenging and expensive middle section.  So on this trip, I was excited to see the continuation of the paving to almost 20 km of the way, through most of the section skirting the mountains, just short of where the road straightens out again into San Javier.  Who knows, in one or two more elections the road may indeed be paved all the way!

Paved or not, the road continues to be one of the most breathtaking trips I have taken in the immediate vicinity of Loreto; dipping in and out of oasis valleys, past primitive rancheros through arroyo gullies carved out of solid rock over eons by occasional flash floods caused by infrequent downpours.  But in spite of this exotic terrain, one of the highlights remains the final approach to San Javier which brings you beside a broad shallow riverbed, that even now, 18 months since the last appreciable rainfall, looks bizarrely out of place in the midst of the parched land that surrounds it. 

Water – the reason the Jesuits chose this place over 300 years ago, and in the distance, surrounded by lush green palms, the domed bell tower of the Mission seems to shine as a beacon in these harsh surroundings.  It is also here that the new electrical power line that has paralleled the road in places along the trip, now reaches the destination.  Prior to the completion of this line (at a cost of over a million dollars) this tiny hamlet has only had intermittent power supplied by a small community generator.    

As we enter the main street I am struck by the subtle changes since my last visit, a few new buildings and the overall impression that San Javier has been spruced up with the arrival of power.  There are a couple of new stores and a second restaurant across from the Mission building.  I am also struck by the fact that, while there are perhaps double the “usual” number of visiting vehicles parked around the square in front of the Mission, this was fewer than I had expected during this Holy Week at one of the most significant shrines in this part of the Baja.

Following a respectful visit inside the Mission, where we signed the Guest Book full of entries from near and far and I took a few non-flash pictures, we made our way a couple of hundred yards behind the massive stone walls, through irrigated fields of onions and beans to a natural wonder.  When the missionaries arrived here over 300 years ago one of the first things they did was plant a grove of olive trees some of which still survive with trunks 30 or 40 feet in diameter!

Returning to the small square, we stopped to look at some of the hand-crafts on display and for sale, which apparently comprised the “market” I had heard about and, as we were doing this, we heard about a demonstration of crushing olives for oil that was going to take place across the square.  During the course of this demonstration I was amazed to learn that there were over 300 Olive trees in the groves around the Mission, that were tended by one of the oldest families in the community.  From these trees they harvested 20 tons of olives between September and December, some of which were prepared for eating and the remainder crushed for their oil.

Over the past several years the extended family here in San Javier had slowly relearned the process of producing oil from the olive fruit, largely based on recollections from their youth and Mexican intuition.  I learned that the harvested olives, which appear to be partially dried and withered, are crushed whole (the pit contains oil too).  Then the crushed fruit and pits are packed tightly into a small cast iron press (that was adapted from making adobe bricks) and gradually squeezed under great pressure to produce a dark olive-brown oil – two litres of oil from a packed five gallon bucket of olives and pits.

This oil is then strained slowly through a tightly woven cotton sleeve once or twice until the colour of the remaining oil is a pale yellowish green.  After sampling a little of this freshly squeezed oil I bought a small bottle of it for 80 pesos (about $6.50) and will look forward to enjoying it with a loaf of fresh baked bread!

I also visited a Dulceria, or sweet shop and bought some Papaya preserved in syrup and we found the perfect hat for my neighbours mother Molly – just the thing for the upcoming Royal Wedding?  We then headed back through the desert, retracing our earlier route and enjoying the view back towards the Sea of Cortez.  Just before rejoining the main highway, we stopped for Cheeseburgers at Del Borrachos - a perfect ending to trip.

Reflecting on it afterwards, this drive to San Javier was a good reminder of the progress that has happened over the years that I have been here.  While at times the pace of change has appeared to be slow, sometimes frustratingly so, seeing the beautiful road opening up this isolated community, making it much more accessible to many more people, and bringing with it the electrical power we all take for granted, which will accelerate the rate of change in the future.  Yet part of me misses the experience and adventure of the old road, and I am glad that was the way I saw San Javier first.

Celebrating progress – and missing what it replaces – that is a conflict that I think will become much more frequent for those of us lucky enough to be “Living Loreto”.   

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Beach Dogs Open Il Mare!

This week I return to a couple of recent and familiar themes here in Loreto Bay - food and music. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a restaurant opening at the Golf Clubhouse, since then there has been another opening.

My friend Hector and his wife Natalie, who have two restaurants in town, (La Cava and Bruno’s) have taken over the ocean front dining space at the INN and opened an Italian style Trattatoria called (appropriately enough) “Il Mare”. This has always been one of my favourite spaces at the Hotel – open air, adjacent to the Beach with a natural reed Pergola roof, it makes a beautiful setting for lunches and dinners. (By the way, for casual dining and afternoon bar service, the Snack Bar at the Pool remains open for lunch, but is now closed for evening meal service.)

Hector has had a long relationship with Loreto Bay, previously as Director of Customer Service, and he has lived in our community before moving into town when he opened his restaurants there. He also has some impressive qualifications as a chef as well. In addition to the successful restaurants in town, Hector has been one of the top finalists in each of the past three years of the local Paella competition, which many of you are familiar with from postings I have written here before. (“Paella Cook-off” Nov. ’10, “Big Week” Nov. ’09, “Extraordinary Day” Nov. ’08). So this addition to the dining options, both at the INN and within the surrounding community of Loreto Bay and Nopolo, adds another welcome dimension to our lifestyle here.

Il Mare is open for lunch and dinner, except Mondays, with salads, antipasto, pizza and pasta at lunch, adding steaks, lobster and shrimp in the evenings. Currently they have a limited wine and beer selection, but Hector promises they will be adding a special House wine and Draft beer in the future. After a two week “soft opening”, during which time they have been operating at close to capacity, Hector invited “Los Beach Dogs” (the working name for the Homeowner trio that I featured most recently in “Woodstock with Golf Carts” last month) to play for an opening party at the new restaurant.

Like with most things that happen in this community, word travelled fast and when Rich told me that the music would be starting about 6:30 I anticipated that this would be a popular event so my neighbour Boyd and I arrived at 6:00. Good thing that we did, when we arrived every table had been reserved but fortunately there was one of the two couches still available. Several of the tables were already occupied and the rest filled up quickly with the Guests who had had the good idea of reserving early.

As more people converged, an area of the surrounding INN courtyard became an informal “overflow” and some of the people even arrived carrying folding chairs. When we sat down, Boyd and I ordered a pizza with sausage, artichoke and yellow pepper on a generous base of cheese over a crispy thin crust and a couple of drinks to enjoy while the food was being prepared. Soon after, Los Beach Dogs, who had set up in one corner of the open air dining area, began their first set.

Hector and his staff were kept very busy, having to serve all of the tables and over 50 to 60 people at the same time stretched their resources, plus some of the “overflow” audience ordered their own pizzas “to go” and enjoyed them “al fresco” on the courtyard grass a few yards from the busy tables. But it was a happy crowd and no one was in a hurry.

The combination of music, good food and drink was further complimented by the light show that filled the darkening sky in the background – no “special effect” could equal the dazzling sight of the orange to rosy coloured wisps of high cloud being illuminated by the sun setting behind the Sierra del La Gigante range.
In spite of this stiff competition from Mother Nature, George, Rich and Steve “had” their audience enthusiastic from the first tune and played a well received set of now familiar blues and pop standards, sharing the vocals between all three of them. After a break, where they visited with friends and neighbours at most of the tables, they returned for a second set which featured a special treat. A couple of weeks ago, at the “Woodstock” concert, one of the highlights for me was the debut of a song that Rich had written. I was really moved by the lyrics of “The Road Uncertain” the first time I heard it, and it captured the feelings many of us have shared in the experience of beginning a new life here.

I wanted to include a sample of the song with the earlier Blog, but time and technology conspired against that happening. However, this time your humble Blogger brought his video camera to the concert so that I could record the song for your enjoyment. With apologies for the poor lighting, and with the permission of the composer and performers, please click on this link and enjoy online premiere of The Road Uncertain:

Nice eh? I confess, I get a little choked up every time I hear it again, and I dare say I’m not the only Homeowner that will react that way!

The evening carried on until “Baja Midnight” (anytime after 9:00 pm!) with more songs as the sunset turned into another star filled night sky and the audience, all of whom were part of this special community, shared in good food and drink accompanied by this entertainment provided by friends and neighbours. In speaking with Hector afterwards, he plans to do theme evenings in the future with more entertainment and special menus – the social life of Loreto Bay is developing!

Hector also told me that when Il Mare gets their phone extension from the INN switchboard he wants to begin a Pizza delivery service within Loreto Bay! Be still my pounding heart! Does this mean there may eventually a use for our Hi-Guys – true progress!

So another Red Letter Day in Loreto Bay – a new Restaurant, with plans for entertainment in one of the prettiest locations in the whole development providing another gathering place for us to share – this winter life just keeps getting better “Living Loreto”!

My thanks to Al Graichen for providing some of the pictures in this Blog (who was that grey haired guy with the pony tail?)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"It's our Beach!"

In the past one of my favourite things to do here is to walk on the Beach at sunrise. Unfortunately, it has been too long since the last time I enjoyed this simple pleasure. I can blame increased activity at work (we have been busier in the past month or so than at any time in the past 2 ½ years) but with the recent time change the sunrise is now an hour later, and the temperatures have jumped almost 10 degrees in the past week, so one morning this week I headed for the Beach about 7:00 am, as soon as I woke up.

The short 250 yard walk from my house brought me to the sea grass “berm” that separates the shoreline from the row of Beachfront homes, and I saw that on this morning there was a very low tide. The sky was already brightening behind Isla Carmen, which forms almost half of our horizon to the east, as the sun has moved almost midway on it’s circuit to the north. Combined with the smaller Ilsa Coronado, further north and more opposite the town of Loreto, these two islands provide a perspective that helps to define the ocean view better than the simple water line in the distance that would be there without them.

To begin my stroll towards Punta Nopolo, the rocky point that marks the southern end of the Beach, I only had a few lazy Pelicans for company, cruising inches above the glassy surface of the water on this calm morning. In the distance I could see a fishing boat offshore, presumably catching some bait before heading out into deeper waters in search of Cabria, Yellow Tail or other game fish.

The Beach sand, exposed at this low tide, was pock-marked with evidence of thousands of clams buried below the surface, their mini-volcano holes filled with sand from the gentle actions of the waves. There were also rolls of greenish brown seaweed scattered in patches along the shore, left behind by the receding water, and marking another seasonal episode of the plant and animal life that comes and goes in a constantly shifting cycle.

As the sun first breaks over the top of the distant Island, my attention is torn between the spectacle of this dazzling event and the opposite view of the golden light striking the rugged mountain peaks directly opposite to the west. Now that the dawn was rising, I could see some activity further down the beach. In the distance I saw a small boat being manoeuvred across the beach and into the gently breaking water on the shore.

Still further down the beach, there were other early risers accompanied by two dogs coming towards me and the boat, being launched between us. As I got closer, I recognized Kaz, a fellow Homeowner preparing his inflatable canoe for launching as he was joined by Bruce and Susan, their daughter Michelle, and their two beautiful black Setters. As I approached, it became apparent that preparations were underway for a fishing expedition, but I soon found out that this was no ordinary day, in fact, it was Michelle’s Birthday – and “her” day was going to begin with a fishing trip with friend and neighbour Kaz.

While the boat was being loaded with tackle and the electric outboard, and Bruce was helping Michelle get settled in the bow seat, Susan headed off for a leisurely jog down the beach, enthusiastically accompanied by her four legged companions. I gather this is a frequent morning ritual for the family, in fact, Susan was explaining to me that their dogs were so well attuned to the routine that they cannot say the word “beach” when they are at home and the dogs are around, without causing them to go into a (well behaved) frenzy of excitement! The vocabulary of these obviously intelligent dogs is such that their Humans have to either spell certain words like this, or substitute the Spanish word, to maintain reasonable order. From what I observed of these two dogs, I would be concerned that it may not be long before even these subterfuges are broken by the canine members of the family!

After the boat was launched into the shallow low tide, there was some delay in getting into deep enough water for the small electric outboard to be fully submerged. So, to offer some assistance, Bruce flipped his paddle board into the water and headed out to join the fisher’s canoe. These paddle boards have begun to become popular here because the often calm, shallow water off our shoreline provide the ideal conditions for using them. A paddle board looks like an oversized surfboard 8 – 10 feet long and a good 3 feet wide, with the upside surface covered in a ribbed mat, to provide secure footing so you can stand and use a long paddle to propel the board smoothly through the water.

I carried on down the beach and saw the fishing boats in the distance fire up their engines and start to pull away, heading north towards Coronado, presumably stocked with bait and full of the high expectations that every fisher begins their day with. Close to shore, the ever present Pelicans alternate their unchanging routine of floating motionlessly in the water, then thrashing awkwardly into the air, and with a few quick beats of their huge wingspan, glide motionlessly mere inches above the water, punctuating their flight with occasional dive bomber plunges into the water, usually emerging with a fishy snack for their efforts.

Upon reaching the end of the Beach in front of the INN, with the sun truly risen again for another day, I turned around to retrace my steps and make my way back home. As I did so, I admired some of the recently finished Beachfront homes and the progress that was being made on the few remaining unfinished properties. In the now full sun, seeing these beautiful homes glisten in the morning air, I appreciate how much closer we are to fulfilling the vision we all shared for this place when there were only chalk lines on the sand.

Now in the distance, I can see Bruce standing straight on his board as he paddles beside the canoe as it is making it`s way on Michelle`s special fishing trip. Further down the beach, I meet Bradley, another Homeowner, walking his dog Shilo along the Beach, stooping occasionally to pick up the odd plastic bag or other trash that has washed up on shore with the receding tide. We greet each other, as Susan jogs past with a broad smile on her return trip, with her canine escorts that seem to be smiling as well.

After greeting Bradley, I acknowledge his clean-up efforts and thank him, to which he replies simply; “It`s our Beach!”, then with a smile and a wave he and Shadow carry on with their early morning ritual. This phrase echoes in my head as I make my way back home to get ready for the day – “It`s our Beach” - yes it is, and a sunrise stroll is probably the best way to enjoy it`s ever-changing beauty and a special time for the spontaneous meetings with friends and neighbours sharing that special time of day.

While I don`t get down to the beach for the sunrise as often as I would like to, whenever I do, I promise myself I will return again sooner, because every time I start my day that way I remember why this is one of the best parts of “Living Loreto”!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yokohama in Loreto

Regular readers of this Blog may be under the impression that my life in Loreto is one of uninterrupted bliss and tranquility - parties, walks on the beach, dinners with friends . . .

While that is true for much of the time I spend living here, occasionally reality does intrude into this ideal lifestyle, like what happened a couple of weeks ago on the drive back to Loreto from the Airport in Cabo. I was about at the halfway point of the trip, 250 km from home and I had just driven through a small hamlet with “rumble strips” on the highway at each end of town and a “Tope” or speed bump in the middle.

So I was still driving slowly as I was leaving town, rumbling over the exit strips but when I reached the end of the strips my car kept vibrating. Being lost in thought at the time, listening to satellite radio, it took me 10 or 15 seconds to realize what was wrong – I had blown a rear tire. Fortunately, I had not yet started to speed up again and traffic was light on the straight stretch of road I was on.

Unfortunately, Mexico Highway #1 does not have shoulders and by the time that I realized what was wrong with my car, I had to stop - NOW! So, I managed to pull off the road – just – and, because I happened to be in a boulder field at that particular place, I was only able to get about 6” off the pavement before I had to stop. When I got out and looked at my driver’s side rear tire it was completely shredded and wrapped around the wheel – I was going no further.

Changing the tire on a vintage Denali requires the partial disassembly of the rear cargo area to get at the tool kit that is required to crank the spare tire down from it’s storage area underneath the chassis. When I had finally accomplished this, I inspected my spare with some trepidation as I tried to remember when the last time I had used it was – and trying not to wonder whether it still had enough air pressure.

Next I had to position the jack under the axel, using several rocks to establish a solid base and then I had to hunker down on the pavement of the highway and start removing the lug nuts from the wheel. It was about at this point that I realized how lucky I was!

#1. It was still daylight, an hour later I would be doing this in the dark

#2. It was a straight stretch of road and vehicles could see me as they approached from either direction

#3. The oncoming vehicles in the lane I was sitting in, had been slowed down passing through the town I had just left

When I finally had the wheel off the axel, (being interrupted frequently, whenever there was a car or truck approaching in my lane, causing me to retreat from the pavement to the relative safety of the roadside) it was time for the next moment of truth – putting the spare on the car and seeing if it was still sound. So far, so good, - it was a bit soft, mind you, but (dare I say) “good enough for Mexico”! At this point I admit I just threw all the tools and bits and pieces into the back of the car, my pit stop had taken half an hour and I could see I had about an hour of light left – and two and a half hours drive ahead.

Gingerly I steered back on the highway and drove slowly for the first few hundred yards until I was convinced that the spare tire was going to hold – at least for the time being. As I gained confidence in the new tire, I gradually speeded up until I was back up at the regular speed, but I was still unable to relax. It wasn’t just my imagination – it seemed everywhere I looked, on either side of the road, I could see the remains of blown out tires! And now I was travelling on a ten year old spare with no back up tire if it blew out – oh yes, and it was getting dark!

However, the remainder of the trip was blessedly uneventful, even though the last hour was in full dark, and under normal circumstances I avoid highway driving at night, with the exception of the occasional 15 km drive home to Loreto Bay after dinner in town. The main hazard of night driving is stray cattle on the road, a very real threat for potential collisions, as was brought home again recently when a Mexican friend of mine hit a cow on the highway just outside one of the entrances to the development, while he was driving back to Loreto after dark.

The next chapter of this story began the following day, when I set about the challenge of replacing the blown tire. There are several tire shops in town, but none of them carry the Yokohama brand and, since this was a new set of tires six months ago, I did not want to use a mismatched replacement. Here is where fate (or perhaps karma {carma?}) comes in.

As luck would have it, I happened to know a friend of a friend who is in charge of distributing Yokohama tires in Mexico and when I contacted him about my predicament he said that he would check with his Dealers in La Paz and Tijuana to see if they had the required size in stock. No luck, but he then arranged to ship one to the TJ Dealer from his office in southern California. More than a week passed by the time that the tire had cleared customs and arrived at the Dealer, who then had to drop it off at the Bus Depot, as the bus freight service, called Baja Pack, was the best way to ship it from Tijuana to Loreto.

The following week I picked up the well travelled tire at the Bus Depot in Loreto and then went to the Bank and deposited the cash for the tire and freight charges directly into the Dealers account, (cheques and credit cards are not commonly used for such payments here). Finally, I took my new tire to one of the Llanteras, or Tire Shops to have it mounted on the rim and replace the spare.

But wait, there’s more! As soon as they removed the old tire from the rim, they discovered that my new replacement was an “R17” size, not the “R16” size of the original – back to the drawing boards! All the way back to Loreto Bay I was on “tenter hooks” until I could check my email to find out if I had originally ordered the right size or not, and, although it was small consolation, I had ordered it right!

So, I had to begin the whole operation again, with the gracious assistance from my friend in the States who had to ship a replacement in the correct size to the Dealer again, and I in turn, had to return the oversize tire back the 1,000 km to Tijuana by bus. As I write this at the end of last week, the correct tire should be at the Dealer’s any day, following which he will be re-shipping it to me and, hopefully, sometime early next week I will have successfully replaced the tire I blew out over two and a half weeks ago – maybe!

Years ago I remember reading somewhere the somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” comment: “Every definitive statement in Mexico should be followed by the word MAYBE!”; as in, diesel fuel 20 km - maybe, or English spoken here - maybe. Over the years I have come to realize that there is a lot of truth in that rule, and, what would be a straight forward transaction back home in North America, tend to become more complicated here in Mexico.

While waiting over two and a half weeks, and exchanging numerous emails, to have a tire replaced might sound unreasonable by the standards I was once used to. Here in Mexico, even mundane exercises in day-to-day life can take on unanticipated complications and become a “project”, having said that, I for one consider these inconveniences a small price to pay for the many benefits of “Living Loreto”!