Chapter 6. San Blas, Nayarit - Part I
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Bert) As we exit Mazatlan this early morning, a yellow-green haze hangs over the city: a pea soup mixture of diesel fuel, dust, fog and emissions from the thermoelectric plant. We crawl slowly for 20 minutes through the clogged city streets, bustling with residents headed off for work. The road climbs gradually through the foothills and we pass miles of orchards. Small groves of papaya, mango and cultivated cactus fill bowl-shaped valleys rimmed by native growth. A chicken farm consists of thousands of wire cages packed with white chickens suspended over mounds of excrement. Boys and men mounted on burros tend to the farm work. As we continue southward, water is more evident. Wood Storks probe in the tiny ponds; yellow-green tufts of grass brighten the roadside; trees and shrubs cover every available space on the low hills; palm trees add a tropical feel. The road becomes narrow, without a shoulder. The pavement is built up several inches, making a slip over the edge a nervous thought. With no passing lane and miles of sharply winding paths, our passage becomes clogged with backed up traffic. Daredevil drivers attempt to slip their small cars in and out of our 14-vehicle caravan. We cross the border into a new state, Nayarit, and the density of trees increases. Fewer vehicles take this road, but overbearing trees encroach above the road and I prefer riding the center lane to avoid scratching the side of R-TENT. We have been driving for hours without a rest stop, since no pull-offs have been available. Finally, Jim stops in our lane and, with large gaps between the vehicles, we park on the road for a quick break. Now comes a climb over a steep and winding ridge, thick in jungle trees followed by a descent to seaside and our first look today of the open ocean, alluringly blue. We hug the coastline, encountering a few tiny villages and then our RV park outside San Blas. Our campsite is beautiful, but more on that another time. I'm tired of traveling today.
(Shari) The list of things fixed and purchased by our group in Mazatlan is endless. New tires, new clothes, souvenirs, new water pump for car, haircuts, massages, fiberglass repair, car washes, and even four new crowns from a local dentist. In addition we've stocked up on groceries and booze because today we head south to San Blas. The drive is tedious and slow. Soon the toll road and double lane highway ends and we get our really first taste of Mexican roads and traffic. The roads remind me of those in some parts of the Yukon; built up with no shoulder, twisty and full of potholes. Using the CB to announce oncoming traffic, we help one another pass slower vehicles. The further south we travel, the thicker the vegetation. By mid day, I think we may be in the jungle. Vegetation grows thick right up to the road, with lots of trailing plants hanging from the trees. Palm trees are thick and banana trees grow wild. We travel through a few small towns with the wealthiest people living in housing not as good as our poorest people at home. But everyone smiles and waves as we pass. Finally after 6½ hours of driving we turn left onto the road leading to the RV park. Here we wait, unhook, have lunch and chat. Four children approach us and someone gives them gum. Karla gives them one of those soap bubble makers. They are filthy dirty and one of the little boys does not have any legs but follows the children by scooting along the ground with his arms. Sometimes I feel so guilty about my relative affluence. Finally after an hour of waiting, it is our turn to come on in. We back into one of the remaining few spaces, only to realize our slide does not have enough room to open. After what seems like an eternity, we settle into a spot without sewer and water along the fence line with an ocean view. Bert is so crabby, I just leave him with getting us set up and visit with the others who are already having cocktails. I walk to the restaurant here and tell them we will be eating the shrimp at 6:15 PM. Bringing our own beer we join others outside on the patio overlooking the ocean, the sunset and the manicured grounds. We are definitely in the tropics. Ann and Jim have invited the whole group for dessert under the palapas, a thatched covered area complete with lights and tables. Ann serves a key lime cake and the most delicious homemade chocolates. She and Jim start in October and make hundreds of candies from truffles, cordials and fondants, to almond rocha. I have not tasted better any place. After listening to the work involved, we decide we want to get on her gift list, rather than getting the recipe.
(Shari) The morning is cool and fresh. This is the first fresh air I have smelled since leaving Tucson: no diesel, no dust, no burning, no grilling meat over a wood fire. Karla and I pick star fruit from a tree in her backyard. She climbs while I hold the ladder and the fruit. Imagine that! Star fruit growing in your back yard! I walk around the private homes on the beach, skirting someone's empty swimming pool. The house looks abandoned and shabby, until I realize someone is doing the laundry with a washboard outside on the patio. At one time it must have been some spectacular house, but now, like everything in Mexico, it suffers from lack of care. Sagging curtains, peeling paint, broken cement steps and weeds, ruin the million-dollar view of the ocean. I walk on and notice a lot of boats parked on the shore. This must be the little fishing village that I have heard about. I am a little leery of walking any farther since I am alone, so I turn around and head home. By the time I reach R-TENT, I am all sweaty and it is only 10:30 AM. Looks like it is time for relaxing in the shade. After the birders return, we car pool for our city tour of San Blas. We are shown a beautiful hotel, places to get safe food, and a fort on a hill overlooking the city, which looks a little wealthier than other cities we have visited. It is very clean and well swept with paved streets. Outside money from the navy facility, fishing and rich Mexican tourists from Tepic keep the city alive. The gift shop at the hotel has many nice things and I buy three shirts, one is for Bert that has the birds of San Blas on the back of it. We drive up the hill to the fort and Manuel, our guide, gives us a long history lesson on the settling of this area. Tomorrow the town is having a celebration and therefore the fort is spic and span. The funniest thing I see is the two temporary toilets set up for the visiting people. A rectangular area about 6 ft. on edge and 6 ft. high is covered in palm fronds for privacy. A curtain hangs over the door and the huts are labeled W C Damas and Señors. But inside there is no toilet, not even a hole dug into the ground. I guess the people are expected to go to the bathroom right there on the ground. After a few uses, I think it could get a bit smelly and messy. Yuck! Not for me! The view from up on the hill is fantastic and I snap a lot of pictures from all angles. One of the town below, one of the coconut orchard, one of the sea, one of the gilded bust of a man, one of some Aztec carvings and one of the bathrooms, of course. After our tour, we stop at the town that has glass cases in front of many open-air shops; the cases are filled with banana, coconut, and pineapple bread and muffins. For 10 cents apiece I get two each of every kind. Others in our group stopped for pizza at Casa Mañana and tell us how wonderful it was. I convince Bert that since the pizza is only served on Saturdays, we should accompany Ann and Jim to the restaurant. We wait forever but the wait is worth it. Arriving at 6:15, we put in our order. Enjoying the view of the ocean and the setting sun, we talk a mile a minute while drinking Corona beer. At 7:30, hungry children and adults stand behind the counter watching the making of about 30 pizzas. The pizzas are then put into an open-air oven and in a few minutes the delicious smell drives us crazy. Finally at 8 PM, we dive into our pizza. It rivals any pizza I have ever eaten and I tell the manager that I will be back next Saturday for more. He invites me to come tomorrow for lobster, shrimp and fish. Hmm, I wonder if I can convince Bert of that too.
(Bert) We pass through a mango orchard on this morning's hike. The trees are tall and rounded, mildly flagrant with branching bud-like white flowers. A banana tree plantation follows the mangoes. These trees are much shorter, just above head height, and are already bearing clusters of green bananas. At the intersection of the two fields we encounter the namesake bird for this area: the San Blas Jay. We are fortunate to see the birds, as last year's trip missed them entirely. The attractive jay is black as a crow, but offset with stunning, azure blue wings. Beyond the orchards a reservoir holds the water used for irrigating the fields. Young frigatebirds in training use the calm water to practice touch and go flying across its smooth surface. Sometimes they dip their heads in for a drink; other times they miscalculate their height and belly plop into the water, then struggle mightily to become airborne again. We can see their bedraggled feathers and hear their enormous wings when they pause to shake off the water in mid-air. In the afternoon, Jim and Jan lead us on a car tour of San Blas, while Manuel Lomeli - a local bird guide - tells us about his city. San Blas holds a strategic place in history. Positioned as a seaport at the entrance of a wide river, the city was founded by the Spanish on February 22, 1768 with the construction of a shipyard. In 1724, Czar Peter of Russia ordered the exploration of North America and by the 1760s that exploration had extended from Alaska to California. Spain found this advancement a threat to its settlements, so they began establishing a series of missions along the coast of California: San Diego, Los Angeles, Monterrey, San Francisco. San Blas served as the point of departure for these explorations. The calm harbor and the abundance of agricultural products made it an ideal place to establish a fortified port. Overlooking the flat palm-studded lowlands leading to the harbor, we stand on a high cliff among the ruins of the fort and the first church. The cliff edge is lined with antique cannons. On the same cliff, Manuel points out the petroglyphs carved in the rocky outcroppings, evidence of settlement by Indians long before the arrival of the Spanish. In town we stop at the ruins of the 1883 stone building that served as a warehouse for the constant stream of barges carrying supplies until the advent of trains diminished the importance of San Blas. Now 10,000 people remain here and the city's main attraction is its seaside resorts, popular on weekend outings for residents of the more dominant inland city of Tepic.
(Shari) This has got to be the most unusual church service I have ever attended. First it is Catholic and second it is in Spanish. We accompany Ann and Jim to the San Blas Catholic church. Arriving 10 minutes early, we take our seats in a pew about halfway up. Hardly anyone is in the church with only a few children sitting up front, boys on the left and girls on the right. A small dog makes its way up the aisle, stopping to sniff and play with anyone who will give him a pat. The church has a tile floor that is extremely dusty and the movable pews themselves have a layer of dust covering the well-worn wood. Paint peels from the walls and not even the statues of Jesus, the pope and Mary look clean. A wedding must have occurred yesterday because long strips of white netting drape from one column to another, each having a white carnation in the center. By 9 AM the church is jammed packed, mostly with children. We must be attending a children's mass. The children are well behaved, probably due to the fact that many adults stand and admonish any shenanigans. Ann finds us a Spanish bulletin so that we can attempt to follow the order. The priest enters the church preceded by two small boys, their tennis shoes sticking out from under red robes. Everyone is chanting something, but not anything I can locate in our bulletin. The priest must be welcoming the congregation and saying something funny because all laugh. From then on the order of service more or less follows the printed bulletin, however a lot of things are added in between. A young girl about three years of age, all dressed in a beautiful green frilly dress and matching hat, gets baptized and everyone claps. When the peace of the Lord is passed a few people nod, smile and shake our hands. From the square outside, I can hear music, car horns, and people shouting. Adding to the flavor of the service, the smell of roasting meat wafts through the open doors and windows from the street vendors outside. Two children take up the offering, and after the basket is passed a procession of other children parades to the altar. Each child is holding some small useful object. I see lots of 1-lb. bags of macaroni, one girl carries toilet paper, and another brings crayons. These gifts are then placed on the floor in front of the altar and later carried away by two older boys. After service the priest welcomes us, but knows very little English. We stroll around the square, buy some milk at the mercado, wait for Jim to call his mom, and just plain look at the activity around us. Soon it becomes too hot and we drive home to sit in the shade of our awning. Bert takes half of our group for the boat tour in the jungle. Those remaining either watch the Super Bowl on TV in Spanish, bird around camp, swim in the ocean or, like myself, read outside and visit with anyone that happens by. Jim and Ann show me another life bird, one that Bert has not yet seen. Ha again. It is one of those really red headed woodpeckers, with a white ring around his neck and black back. I keep forgetting the name of the thing, but if you mention it I will recognize it as the one I saw.
(Bert) An eerie watery tunnel funnels through the mangrove swamp. Above us the White Mangrove trees arch and at our sides their tangled roots wall the passageway. Mid afternoon on a bright sunny day, yet only a fraction of the light reaches us in the tunnel. The cool air feels refreshing here in nature's air conditioner. Nine of us plus the driver are riding a long flat-bottomed boat powered by a small outboard engine. The driver skillfully maneuvers through the narrow twisting passageways as we follow the San Cristobal River downstream from Matachen to the ocean bay. Least Grebes float beside us, Cinnamon Hummingbirds gather nectar from spider lilies, Green and Belted Kingfishers swoop through the low-ceilinged airways, a Great Black Hawk perches on a branch unafraid of our approach to 15 ft. Breaking out of the tunnel at the mouth of the river, the driver nudges the boat headfirst onto the mud flat. We survey the birds feeding there, waiting in expectation for the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Sitting in the hot sun for nearly a half-hour, but still no rail has appeared. Manuel, our Mexican birding guide, decides we should leave this spot before nightfall interrupts other potential sightings. But just as we start to leave, Shary spots the rail and we all get close looks at the bright rufous bird, so colorful compared to its North America counterparts. The tide has raised the water level in the tunnel as we return and the ceiling is even lower. We pass our starting point and continue further upstream. Leeward, we see something swimming beneath a snarl of Swamp Cypress roots; a pair of crocodile eyes watches us warily. Rounding a sharp curve, the driver slows. He knows the favorite perch of a Northern Potoo and, as scheduled, the strange bird sleeps across a vertical branch suspended over the waterway. This is an odd-looking creature: owl like in camouflaged coloring, a bit like a Kookabura in size and shape, but with a wide nightjar like mouth, the bird seems to be a misfit of left-over parts. Without cracking open an eye, the potoo remains asleep as I take a full-frame photo at 10-ft. distance. Likewise, the Boat-billed Herons - with comical bills far out of proportion to their heads - allow photographing at close approach. We disembark at the source of the river, which also serves as the source of San Blas's water supply. We arrive late in the day and weekend partiers have already left; a vacant restaurant and swimming hole remain. A submerged chain link fence protects swimmers from the intrusion of crocodiles. We wait for darkness to settle in, then reboard and begin our return with starlight illuminating the dark waters. Using powerful flashlights, Manuel and I search for night birds. Owls' eyes do not reflect light, but nightjars do. Two glowing eyes propelled on silent wings, dark shadows swoop in front of us. Some stop to perch on the mangrove branches and, spellbound by our bright lights, they allow us to get a dozen feet from them. We examine Pauraques and Lesser Nighthawks, but the strangest are the potooes. Their large eyes shine back like flaming red-orange coals of fire and I feel as if I'm peering into the furnace of Hell. We cross paths with the crocodile again, but in the darkness his glowing eyes seem more menacing and our small boat less secure. By now even the starlight eludes us and Manuel uses his searchlight to guide the boat driver through the tormented passageways. More silent creatures swoop past us. In my flashlight beam, I catch foot-long Fish Bats sharing our narrow tunnel and as it opens up to our docking area, dozens of bats fill the air around us. This has been an afternoon and evening that will remain firmly impressed on my memory banks.
(Bert) Non-birders can pass on this day's journal and jump to Shari's, but birders please stay tuned for yet another birding adventure. Singayta is a village a bit smaller than the length of its name. We park our cars there and commence this morning on foot along a narrow level road that edges an inclined jungle forest on one side and level cultivated fields on the other. The density of birds along this forest edge is amazing. We start with a flock of Orange-fronted Parakeets, screeching loudly, but flying too fast for visual contact. A more patient Russet-crowned Motmot waits for spotting scopes so that we can all enjoy the intensity of its colors. Much of this morning's birding is done by standing in one spot and watching the birds come in and out view. At one of these spots we see an amazing list, including Masked Tityra, Lineated Woodpecker, Greenish Eleania, Golden Vireo and Boat-billed Flycatcher. With all the birds to watch, it's easy to miss the colorful butterflies that float by. But I can't resist the Crimson Patched Longwing, so I take a close-up photo of one. By noon our trip list totals 76 bird species, marking Singayta as our most concentrated stop thus far.
(Shari) The thermometer reads 53 deg this morning when I get up. By 9 it is already 70 and in the afternoon it reads 86. I wish I could keep some of the cool for later. Bert and I try to go swimming in the pool this afternoon only to find all three are being drained. I say three pools but they are very small, two about as big as large hot tubs and the deep one only 20 x 8 - not long enough to do laps for sure. So it is off to the showers instead, which are very clean by the way. This park is off the beaten path and in fact is 0.5 mile down a stone path. At the entrance I watch two men laboriously laying the stones, one by one. Using a plumb line to get them straight, they lay the stones - gathered from creek beds - down and cover them with sand and gravel. It makes for a "paved" road but a bit bumpy and hard to walk on. So many of the streets are done like that so when I say the town has paved streets, it may mean rock ones. Apparently labor is cheaper than cement. Anyway, back to the park. Twelve spaces have full hookups, however the spaces are very close together and some are short. Other spaces on a slight hill have water and electric and still others have electricity only. We have one of the electric-only sites, but a fantastic view of the ocean and surrounding grounds. Two palapas - thatched covered gathering areas with tables and chairs - grace the front lawn next to the restaurant's outdoor patio and between the trees and swimming pools. In the evening, we take our drinks there and watch the sunset, waiting for the green flash and then time the first bat coming out of the enormous tree on the lawn. When I first heard of the green flash, I expected the sky around the sun to turn green. After missing it for three nights in a row and thinking the rest of the group was taking me on a proverbial snipe hunt, I started to look smaller. In reality, the flash is a small green area right above the area where the sun just previously has set. So I saw it last night. Soon after the sun sets, it gets very cool and everybody heads indoors for their dinner. Believe it or not, we are eating in tonight. Fat free hot dogs, yum yum. I miss not having TV, so we watch one of our movies tonight and by 10 my eyes are closing and it is time for bed.
(Bert) In the town square of San Blas, a placard mounted on the old Catholic church displays a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
But to me, a dreamer of dreams
To whom what is and what seems
Are often one and the same,
The Bells of San Blas to me
Have a strange wild melody,
And are something more than a name.
(Shari) After the birders leave, I take my morning walk the half mile to the road and back. The stones are hard to walk on and I go slower for fear I may twist an ankle. It is going to be a hot one today because at 9 AM I am already working up a sweat. Ann and Jim decide to stay in their RV space, so it looks like we will keep the one we have. It suits me because of the view, but Bert is not too thrilled about moving R-TENT to dump. Others tell us it is ok to dump our gray water on the lawn and to borrow Sid's little blue dolly to rid our tanks of the black water. Stretching a hose across the driveway, to fill our fresh water tank would be no problem. We will see. We do not use the water directly from the faucet anyway. We fill our tanks and add ½ cup of bleach to purify it. We buy a 5-gal. plastic bottle of water for 70 cents for our drinking supply. A truck comes through every other day in every park we have been at, selling it. So far no one has gotten sick on the water. Karla and Kim got sick eating chicken tostadas at Las Palmeras in Alamos, but most of us do not eat the lettuce unless we are quite sure it is safe and then we douse it with freshly squeezed limejuice. Those itty-bitty limes are rather a staple around here. Frankly however, I would have eaten the lettuce where they did since it was suppose to be one of the safe places to eat. Both of them were taken to the local clinic and given three kinds of medicine and within 24 hours were well enough to travel, if a bit weak. Today, a gas truck comes through for anyone needing propane. Again most parks have had that too. I ride with Ann and Jim into Santa Cruz, a very small town with only one street, two blocks long. We visit the mercado to pick up some bread, fruits, eggs and veggies. A little boy on the street has a wheelbarrow full of peaches and tells us they are trente per kilo. I think he meant 30 centavos and not 30 pesos. We ended up paying $1.50 per pound and I think we were taken, because when I asked "Correcto?" he nods yes but an older woman questions him on the side. Oh well, he needs it more than we do. (Later I find out the price was correct). Walt uses Sid's portable potty wagon to dump, while Bert looks on. After deciding that does not look so hard, Bert does it too. With the correct fittings it works pretty slick actually. Of course I just observed and did not have to wheel that heavy thing to the dump and did not have to wash it out after.
(Bert) My mental image of a coffee plantation is corrected today. Climbing inland from the coast for 16 miles takes us past the village of Jalcocotan to Mecatan Road. Calling it a road seems a bit pretentious. Actually it is a stone paved path through a mountain forest. Two things strike me as unusual. First, the trees are enormous. I wish I knew the names for these, but the only one I recognize is banyan. These trees tower above us so high, my neck aches as I scan for birds in the canopy. The under story is the second unusual feature. It has largely been replaced with coffee plants. These rounded green bushes are 5-10 ft. high and are loaded with gumdrop-size dark red berries. I taste one and it is sweet, but little pulp exists since two large hard beans dominate the berry. A few trucks loaded with Mexican locals pass us on the path. Although they head to fields beyond us, their job is to pick the coffee beans by hand. The coffee plants are scattered randomly under the tall trees, many on steep hillsides. The whole forest serves as a giant air conditioner and we keep on jackets through much of the morning. It is an enchanting place to be. Bird calls echo through the forest, but their origin is hard to trace in the dense foliage. Yet it is a 3-trogon-day for me, both literally - I find Mountain, Elegant and Citreoline all within an hour - and figuratively - a great morning in a delightful birding habitat.
(Shari) It was Karla's idea to theme our snack time around Ground Hog Day. I made a sign saying "Birder's Ground Hog Day, Mexican Style. How many birds will you see?" Walt made pieces of paper with names of birds on them from very silly common ones to real rarities. He went around the circle having each person draw a name. Reading the names became funny with Bert being an Old Buzzard and others apropos to their drawing. We top the evening off, watching the movie Ground Hog Day with Bill Murray on Jan and Jim's outside TV. It is unbelievable how cold it gets at night. I had to wear long pants, a windbreaker and my fleece jacket to stay warm but I was still cold.
(Bert) I've mentioned it before: birders gravitate toward sewer ponds. So again today, we drive the 14 mi. into San Blas to visit its garbage dump and ponds. In the U.S. with its sanitary systems, this really isn't as bad as it seems. But in Mexico, the sanitary systems are gross. We should have been issued clothespins for our noses and blinders for our eyes. The dumping of fish offal and skeletons is the most offensive and so needless since the best place for these is back to the sea where they came from. Yet our group puts up with the smell and with their noses in the air we see some 75 bird species in a few hours. The best for me was a close look at a Laughing Falcon, so named because of its far-reaching boisterous laughing call. Yesterday we heard one reverberating through the coffee plantation forest; today I see one silently perched on an electric utility pole. While in San Blas, I take care of errands, accompanied by Kim. We go to the bank to pay for our visa permits which we received at the border, 160 pesos per person. While waiting for our number to come up in line, a parade goes by on the street in front of us. School children dressed in colorful costumes dance by us. Some wear sandals with metal soles that exaggerate the sound of tap dancing as they stomp their feet in unison. The parade is part of a weeklong celebration, presumably over an anniversary of the revolution of Mexico over Spain and the independence of San Blas. Next we try to get email, but neither of us can get a phone call to go through. Ralph meets us at the phone company - a bank of telephone jacks and a few phones at the cashier's desk of a tiny grocery store - and his computer won't dial out either. We conclude the lines are overloaded. Later in the afternoon, we again try getting email, this time in Santa Cruz at another "phone company." At 3 PM the place is closed for siesta, so we return at 4. John and Ralph are successful, but my call is stymied at the login/password step and it looks like I'll have to contact my Internet provider to find out the problem. Meanwhile, our messages in and out continue to stack up.
(Shari) My granddaughter's birthday is coming up on March 23 and I better get busy if I want to finish the dress, hat, matching doll dress and hat by then. I set the sewing machine on the table, the small ironing board on the kitchen counter and sew all morning. Soon it gets too hot to sew and I go outside to sit under the shade of the awning. I never lack for anyone to talk with, since whenever people go by, they stop to chat with me. At 5 PM we go with Jim and Jan to Mi Restaurant and watch the sunset from this new perspective. I am the only one that does not see the green flash on the sunset again tonight. I saw it once with the binoculars. The menu is all in Spanish and no one in the restaurant speaks any English. We muddle through it and Bert gets a delicious fish dish and I get a mar and tierra dish (surf and turf). It is not very good, but Bert's is excellent. Things have settled down a bit and my days are not filled with activities like the beginning of the trip. Bert birds the mornings and I piddle. We eat lunch together at noon and then he naps. Before I know it, it is time to watch the sunset and the bats, dinner and then more reading, VCR movies or journal writing. Such a life!
(Bert) Turning off on the road to La Palma, we almost immediately reach its stone-paved main street. The contortions of the road's surface cause us to crawl so slowly that the three miles through La Palma and the next village, La Bajada, take us almost a half hour even though there is no other traffic. Our string of vehicles - mostly SUV's and ¾-ton trucks rarely used by locals - creates a parade that residents find entertaining. Children, scrubbed clean and neatly dressed, jaunt to school in small groups. The Mexican children here are quite attractive and very healthy looking. In La Bajada almost all of the buildings facing the main street are painted alike in designer pastel colors: a peachy coral trimmed with brick red. Roses and other colorful flowers adorn most of the small yards around buildings. A gurgling mountain brook runs along the edge of town. Nestled at the foot of the cooler mountains, La Bajada is certainly an appealing place to live. We park just beyond the village and hike the steep road into the canopied coffee plantation. These plantations are one of the best examples of cultivated agriculture conducted in a natural environment without disrupting nature's harmony. We encounter Juan Valdez look-alikes, leading saddled burros packed with a sack of coffee beans picked today. Back at our RV park, I pick up my computer and five of us drive the short distance to Santa Cruz to again try transferring email. From yesterday's conversation we understood a 2 PM meeting time. But when we arrive, the lady informs us in a mixture of Spanish and broken English that she is leaving for lunch. So we return at 4 PM, this time with Carmen as translator, and try again. Through Carmen, we find out that the 2 PM time was okay, but we needed to state beforehand which day so that she could make special arrangements. As we set up our computers, several others from our group show up and pretty soon we have the little room filled with callers reaching the U.S. I am still locked out from my account and password and I can't reach my Internet provider by phone, so I leave a detailed message on the answering machine. Then John lends me his Internet provider account information and I am successful at receiving my email - the first time in over a week - but not in sending. One little Mexican boy finds this whole process entertaining and, with fascination, he watches us manipulating our three notebook computers. I start a Solitaire game on my computer and motion the boy over to me. I show him the first few steps of the game and then let him try using the touch pad and mouse buttons to play the game. The lady running the phone shop is interested in the whole process as well and Carmen finds out she has never had people come in with computers before.
(Shari) A mile down the road is a little town named Santa Cruz. I think it is a typical Mexican small town, with only one main street. Until this year, the whole town did not have telephone service. Now there is a "larga telephona" in town, housed in a small store off the main street. In your mind's eye do not picture a typical American small store. Small stores in Mexico are basically all alike. Picture one of those temporary storage places that has rows of 10x12 or 10x10 storage units all housed next to each other. This is a Mexican street. Each 10x10 space has some kind of shop. Next to the long distance place is a lady selling sugar cane. Her shop is full of raw sugar cane stalks that she peeled, chopped, bagged and sold. She does a pretty brisk business with people chewing on the small chunks to suck out the sweetness and then throwing the stringy chaff away. The telephone place is just an empty room with four white plastic chairs and one table serving as a desk. On the desk, four telephones rest. Along the wall another telephone lays on a small end table. This is the phone we use to try for our e-mail. We only are successful in receiving e-mail today and not in sending. Now we think it is our provider that has us messed up. Bert calls them but is put in one of those endless queues awaiting a technician. He hangs up after leaving a voice message. Out on the street a woman, man and little boy await a bus. She finds us very interesting and cannot keep from staring. When Pat gives her little boy some candy, as polite as can be he says, "Gracias." Across the street is an open-air pool hall and the clinking of cue balls punctuate the otherwise quiet street. Rattletrap cars and trucks park on the street in any direction they happen to be facing at the time. I often am concerned that we are going the wrong way on a one-way street because of the parked cars heading in the wrong direction. A lot of sweeping takes place on these small streets. Seems they just move the dust from one location to another. Although a lot of trash litters the roadsides coming into a town, very little trash litters the town's streets. Everything is in need of paint and is a dingy gray looking. A good dose of soap and water would do wonders. I cannot describe the living conditions adequately. Small 10x12 shacks of varying material dot the land helter-skelter. Except for the laundry outside, I would not think anything but farm animals lived in them. I cannot discern any area richer than another; all the people seem to have about the same amount of income. I suppose the cement block houses are more costly than the ones of wood planks but the same amount of junk peppers the outside "lawn" of each. And the word zoning is not in the Spanish dictionary I am sure. I am glad to get back to R-TENT.
(Shari) Hearing Walter's laugh at 7 AM, I get up from bed. I cannot believe that everyone is gone already. Today is a free day to do anything and all these birders are out birding AGAIN. Bert and I are going to explore the area. Packing two sandwiches, some drinks and chips we head for the mountains. Up and up we climb, passing through a small village like all other small villages. This one has a small store selling coffee and an area with ostriches penned up. All week, the Mexicans have been celebrating their independence from Spain. Parades have been frequent and we notice a few children dressed in black and white carrying drums. Also a truck decorated in red with two chairs on it is parked on the side of the road. Maybe we have a king and queen of this parade. Three small merry-go-rounds on the side of one of the open air restaurants entices children to play while parents eat and watch. We climb still further. Bert turns into this small one lane path and two familiar cars are already there. This is one of the birding spots of the previous week and Bert wanted to show me. I think he just wanted to go birding. A stone path leads us up into the forest of banana and mango trees. This is really a coffee plantation and the coffee bushes are planted in the shade of the taller trees. We run into Gene and Sandy and after showing me a Tufted Flycatcher in the scope she tells me that the Valdez family is busy working. She always has some funny comments if you listen closely. Sure enough, there hidden in the forest, I see a family including children picking the small berries off the coffee plants. Bert picks one of the red berries, about the size of a cherry, and gives it to me to bite into. It tastes a bit like chocolate. Inside the berry is a bean. This then is dried, roasted and sold to coffee drinkers all over the world. Because the coffee bushes are so hidden in the forest and because they ripen at different times, this job is labor intensive. One by one the berries are picked and put into a sack. We climb more and I see a Rusty-crowned Ground-Sparrow and an Elegant Trogon. We pass other birders on the hill as we make our way up. I call them retarded birders because they are so slow. Ha, Ha! They are just enjoying the wide variety of birds seen from any one location. I see a Yellow-winged Cacique, rather like my favorite red-winged blackbird, but yellow. Bert wants me to look more, but I have enough lifers for one day. We get back in the car, and head to the town of Tepic (pronounced "ta peek"). Sandy says we are going to take a peek at Tepic. This is the cleanest, wealthiest town we have seen so far. We stop in a nice city park to eat our lunch. A well-dressed young lady, towing a little girl by the hand, talks to us in Spanish while holding out a small coin. We do not know what she is saying and just shrug. If she were not so well dressed I would have assumed she was asking for money. She does not stop by the locals sitting on other benches however. We find a restroom to use. I notice each of the public restrooms I have found, has a hand printed sign telling readers to wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating. Back in the car we drive the main street looking for the Farmer's Market or the museum. We find neither, but do find a wonderful grocery store. It is called Ley's and they are in every big town. I am told Safeway owns them. We stock up on needed things like gin and peach liquor. Smile! Arriving home we find our lawn chairs soaked with water and a muddy mess under our outdoor rug. The sprinklers must have run this afternoon and no one thought to move our chairs out of the way. A game of Mexican train is starting at the polapas. I hurry to soak my fruit and vegetables in bleach water and put away the groceries, so I can join them. This is not a Mexican game but really a south Texas game and is played with dominos. I think one has to be over 50 to know about it and maybe retired to boot. Carmen and I watch the sunset and then we all head out for pizza. Casa Mañana has pizza on Saturday's menu. A group of 16 has planned on this all week. Upon arriving there we are told that the pizza is all gone. I am so disappointed that I say if there is no pizza then we are leaving. The manager asks how many pizzas we want and after I tell them at least eight, he decides to make them. Apparently when they run out of dough they stop making pizzas. Because we want so many pizzas, he is willing to make more dough. It will take some time however. Well, time we have plenty of, so we order cervezas and nibble on chips and enjoy each other's company. It is amazing that just a month ago we did not even know each other's name. Today we talk like we have been friends forever.
(Bert) On this free day, without scheduled activities, Shari and I drive to the coffee plantation on the Mercatan Road that I visited on Wednesday. We park in the shade and hike under the stately trees, taking photos of the coffee plants growing beneath them and the mango and banana trees planted in cleared openings in the forest. Many of the coffee berries have been picked clean in the past few weeks, but the bananas are not yet ripe and they hang in big clusters of small bananas, some with the unusual purple flower still attached. Butterflies abound in the forest and the clearings. Of the few that I identify, I find a large bright orange butterfly called a Julia; another is a Malachite, bright jade that reflects the sunlight like a precious jewel. In spite of herself, non-birder Shari starts following the birds with her binoculars. Here the birds are the type she appreciates: big, brightly colored and close to us. Two types of squirrels noisily climb through the trees. They resemble our Gray Squirrels and Fox Squirrels, but are larger and have brighter white eye rings and fluffier tails. As we return to our car, we go by a tree covered with blossoms and attracting so many bees that it sounds like we are passing under a humming electrical transformer. From the coffee plantation we head to Tepic, a large modern city where we enjoy our picnic lunch in the city park and stock up on groceries at Ley's, an enormous supermarket that would rival any in the states. Back at our RV camp, we again watch the sunset and the flight of the bats. Just as I'm turning back to R-TENT, a man yells, "Whales." I turn to see two huge Humpbacked Whales frolicking in the ocean. One repeatedly breaches, pulling most of its enormous 50-ft. length out of the water and exposing its long narrow flipper. What a spectacular way to end a pleasant day!
(Bert) I wonder if this is what Hawaii was like in the 1930s or 40s - before investors transformed the state to a tropical Disneyland. At our table on the beach we both face toward the sea, transfixed by its tranquility. I ordered Huevos Mexicana; Shari wants Huevos Ranchero. The ocean is not as turquoise here as it looks in Hawaii, and the salt air does not have the intoxicating feel as in Hawaii. But we've got the rest of its appeal: the sounds of waves rolling on the beach, the sights of frigatebirds soaring high above us and out toward an endless horizon, the feel of a gentle cooling breeze. Only a few others are at the restaurant this morning: one couple behind us, a large extended family at a long table in front of us. Unlike the multi-million dollar Hawaiian hotels and huge breakfast buffets, ours today is a humble building with planks stretched on the sand and a thatched roof overhead supported by poles, but no walls. We're in the simple fishing village of Miramar. Pleasant music plays from a distant radio. Rowboat-sized fishing boats are pulled up on the beach with their small outboard motors tilted inward. A lone swimmer splashes in the surf, looking a bit chilled. From a short pier, a fisherman casts and reels in a catfish. Life moves slowly this early Sunday morning; no one works except the waiters and cooks. Label this scene, "Peaceful."
(Shari) Miramar, a short walk along the beach, is a very small fishing village but sports many open air restaurants. Jan has told us about the cheap wonderful breakfasts there. We find a nice looking one with a splendid view of the ocean and order from a menu in both English and Spanish from a waiter that speaks no English. Bert is afraid to order the orange juice because it might be reconstituted from the local water. Instead he orders lemonade. Not until the waiter leaves do we realize that is stupid too. So I ask "Hace usted esta con agua mineral?" He says "si" and assures us with plenty of up and down nods that it is perfectly safe. I have huevos rancheros and Bert has huevos mexicana. Both come with beans, rice and tortillas and keeps us full for the rest of the day. Soon after returning to R-TENT, the lady who is making me a table runner arrives with her two children. She shows me her handiwork and we agree it is "Muy bien." I pay her the $22 we had agreed to. Also, I would like to give her some clothes but I do not want to offend her. I point to my chest and say "Necesita usted estas cosas? Yo se le doy." I think I said, "Do you need these things. I give them to you." Her face lights up as she says "Si, Si." And she duly thanks me. Karla told me about a beach that she and Walt went to the other day. So I put on my swimming suit and off we go. We drive all around San Blas and along a road surrounded by marshland and shrimp beds, but do not find a beach. We take another road along side the ocean, but it is laded with open-air restaurants with covered parking and young men waving flags inviting us to turn into their place of business. This goes on for blocks, but we find no private beach. The road ends in sand and we have to engage 4-wheel drive to turn around. Back home we go. I join a game of Mexican train with seven other ladies and we spend the next two hours calling each other names like scum bag and weasel. Even sweet Jan joins the foray and when she has to leave early she calls us all scum bags. She certainly burst our bubble. We thought she was the sweetest person on this trip. True colors really come out when a bunch of women play games. Kim says it is lucky we do not play football. We'd kill each other.
(Shari) It is a hot one today. Yes, I know it is February 7 and most of you readers are in the middle of winter and freezing, but I am hot. No breeze comes up from the ocean and it is still and muggy. Today is our potluck get-together and my Adobe Pork is in the slow cooker. Jan and I arrange, clean and cover the tables under the palapas. Bert makes orange juice and we supply Fuzzy Navels for any that want one. Remember those popular drinks from about 15 years ago? They contain orange juice and peach liqueur. Yum, Yum! Soon the serving tables are loaded down with casseroles, tamales, enchiladas, salads, caviar appetizers, biscuits, gooseberry cobbler, and lemon meringue and pecan pie. Conversation is a buzz and we are ready to eat. Sandy has made a T-shirt for Sid that has a bike with an outhouse on the back with the lettering, "Sid's Sanitary Service. We are #1 in the #2 Business" is printed on the front. This refers to his little blue dump cart he lets us all borrow. Later Bert and John try for e-mail and neither one is successful. You poor readers will have a lot to read when we finally make a connection.
(Bert) E-mail fails again today, this time because of telephone transmission problems during both our 1:30 and 5:30 attempts. The thought of this very frustrating situation clouds my memory of the rest of the day's events. Earlier, we again visit the coffee plantation beyond the mountain village of La Bajada. This time we drive further up the mountain before parking to hike. The steep road is very strenuous, both driving and hiking. Constructed of the same rounded stone technique as the city streets, the rocks hold in place but unevenness makes us pitch and toss, and the steepness makes us or our vehicles work hard. Jim says this road is part of the original El Camino Real, built by the early Spaniards. It certainly looks like it has been in place for a long time. Our most exciting find this morning is a pair of Collared Forest-Falcons. These are very elusive birds that hide in dense forests. Silently, two fly over our heads and Kim sees where they land. Then I spot them also and align Gene's spotting scope on one of them. Completely hidden by foliage, except for the narrow angle of the scope, we get a long and clear view of these lanky falcons.
(Shari) The poles are in the bucket. I borrowed a life preserver from Sandy and Gene. I packed some water, a granola bar and a jacket. The tackle box is ready. John and I - Karla and Larry backed out - are going fishing. We walk the beach path to Miramar where we are to meet Caesar and his partner at 7:30 AM. We are 15 minutes early and men are already getting their boats ready to take out. We see four boats come in from nighttime fishing. They only have small bags of fish and John and I wonder if our catch will be that little too. Every fishing boat that approaches, I ask if that is Caesar. John says no, Caesar does not have a mustache. I say I think Caesar does have a mustache. Oh boy, we both forgot what Caesar looks like. I guess he will wave to us, or something. All the boats in this bay look like oversized, unkempt rowboats and I wonder what Caesar's boat is like. We notice that the men getting in and out of the boats get their feet wet. I wonder how we are going to get into the boat. Good thing I brought my beach shoes. It is getting late, 7:45 already. Here comes another boat, but not Caesar. Finally at 8:00 we think we have been stood up and leave. A man runs after us and madly talks to us in Spanish. All I recognize is the words "Caesar" and "Mañana." I do not want to come back tomorrow without first talking to Caesar. What is the word for ask? "Llama Caesar nosotros?" What is the word for today? The young man says, "Las tardes?" I say, "Si, las tardes." Have Caesar call us this afternoon. So John and I walk back, very disappointed we could not go fishing. In the afternoon, binoculars in one hand and camera in the other, we go on a jungle boat ride. This is just like DisneyLand, but with a real jungle. The vegetation is so thick on the river that it must be cut twice a year to enable the boats to get through. Our boat captain knows no English but generously slows or stops when he sees us pointing. Thirty minutes after boarding the boat we disembark at a restaurant at the end. Swimming in an area supposedly screened against invading reptiles, we watch a crocodile feed on a fish. I think I would not swim there. Bert cannot resist pointing out new birds to me and I add five more to my life list, the most interesting being the Boat-billed Heron.
(Bert) Hot, humid, dusty and few birds sum up our morning expedition to a banana plantation. We drive to a banana loading dock near the village of Jalcocotan and hike along the road through the plantation. Trucks loaded with workers pass regularly, stirring up the fine dust and adding to the layers already accumulating on the roadside plants. Papaya trees and coffee plants intermingle with banana trees. Women are picking coffee beans and men are trimming off the lower stalks from the banana trees with their sharp machetes. Most of the old forest has been replaced by agriculture, but a few of the magnificent trees remain isolated. Single trees have canopies that shade an acre of land. Rounded crowns catch sunlight, internal branches are mostly bare, supported by red trunks that are awesomely stout - the whole tree constitutes a work of art. A world apart in natural design, a nearby cluster of bamboo is a tightly fitting collection of fishing poles big enough to catch a whale. Each shoot is at least 6 in. diameter and towers a hundred feet above us. Back at camp, I barely have enough time to string the hoses toward R-TENT and start the long process of refilling our fresh water tanks, before Shari and I join the others for a boat trip on the San Cristobal River. Today's trip starts around 2 PM, earlier than the last one, so we are passing upstream in brighter sunlight and extremely hot and humid weather. Animals are more abundant: crocodiles basking on logs or patches of dry land, iguanas lounging on tree branches, turtles peeking heads above the surface. At the turnaround point we disembark and I head to the garbage dump a few hundred feet away from the restaurant. Behind the dump is a narrow path into the thick jungle. I hear heavy movement in the trees above me and, looking up, I see more than a dozen Coatis - commonly called Coatimundi - nimbly walk along the branches a hundred feet from me. A Coati stops to stare back at me with eyes made larger by circles of white fur. The head reminds me of its closest relative, the raccoon, but the Coati's snout is stretched out. The heavily furred body looks soft and cuddly like a bear, but with a 2-ft. tail as long as its lanky body, the Coati has strange appearance overall. The Coatis continue to scamper from branch to branch, putting on quite a 10-minute show. After we return to the boat dock, we head into San Blas to try exchanging email at the "telephone company" next to the church. Much to my amazement, everything works. I gather incoming email and send out the huge backlog of outgoing email. What a relief to finally get this task done!
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