Chapter 7. San Blas, Nayarit - Part II
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Our target this morning is the top of the mountain, but the question is the best way to get there. The seaside route is so steep we decide to go around the mountain and approach from the banana plantation road on the opposite side. Lee, Bob and Dusty ride with me and we soon get separated from the rest of the group. The four of us - especially Bob and Dusty - are quiet birders. We move slowly and speak softly, and since our group is small we can watch the birds at close range without frightening them off. We spend over an hour looking at the hundreds of birds adorning one very large tree at the edge of a cornfield. Gray Silky-flycatchers and Rufous-backed Robins are the dominant species, but at least a dozen others ranging from a Blue Mockingbird to a large flock of Mexican Parrotlets occupy the tree. We push on through the plantation and drive up the backside of the mountain. The path often forks, but we stick to the one paved in the old stones laid by the Spanish colonists - El Camino Real. Just as we encounter a lemon orchard, a roadrunner stands in the road, but it is much smaller than the ones we have at home. A Lesser Roadrunner! I stick my long lens out the car window and take the last photo on the roll of film. The roadrunner trots a few feet ahead, but remains patiently for me to reload film and take a second picture before disappearing in the orchard. We continue climbing the mountain looking for birds and then descend the other side, passing through the village of La Bajada and returning to camp. Dusty asks me to park on the lawn near her campsite so she can vacuum the floors on my car. I am pleasantly surprised when my three passengers later wash the dusty car as well. At this afternoon's count off, we now list 340 species since we left the U.S.
(Shari) Bert is playing the shell game again. He writes our bets down and covers the paper with a seashell. What we don't do for entertainment around here! A huge tree grows gracefully on the shoreline next to the restaurant and, close to sunset, we can hear chirps emanating from within. A deck surrounds the tree and many of us sit there to watch the sunset and wait for the chirping bats to go out on their nightly hunt for food. A colony of at least 17 bats lives there because I counted them one night. The first bat whizzes out of a big crevice in the tree soon after sunset. This is where the betting comes in. When will the first bat come out? It seems so random. I have decided to stay with 18:02:15 every night. It has been before and after that time, with no apparent correlation to sunset, except that it is always after sunset. As the time approaches, we all start cheering the bats on. Walter blows cigar smoke at the crevice to encourage the bats to leave near his time. Virginia quietly says "Come on bats, come on bats". I do a little jig around the tree and Ann threatens to say a prayer. Ann's time is the closest and tonight's winner. I asked her if she did say a prayer. She said no and explains, if she had, they would have come out exactly on her predicted time.
(Shari) At 6:45 this morning Caesar's partner knocks on my door. He says, "la glkj0i9e el jiuieyuy Caesar sannfkk no problema anakjkdoipean,mndlkjio andjknlokfj' najdkfdioja[ andjno;a[ nsko[ pesca nakdopiea0 ankeoe[w si nskoe[a][ snkeo[aw] \ ankwow[q." All I understand is "Caesar" and "fish" and "no problem." I walk over to John and tell him we are ready to go fishing but I do not think Caesar is going to join us. He decides he better bring his English/Spanish dictionary. We walk to Miramar where all the boats are parked and I see a teenage boy bailing out a boat. That is Caesar's boat. It looks like it once had green paint on it. Twenty-two feet long with a 3-ft. deck in the front and 5/8-in. narrow benches inside, the boat awaits our entry. The Yamaha motor looks a little worse for wear and when our "Captain" takes its cover off and removes the fuel filter, tied on with a string, I get a little nervous. I do not want to disappoint John so I do not back out of this expedition. I wonder if I am being foolish. After Renne, a teenager, brings gasoline in a plastic 3-gal. jug, eight other men help push us off the shore. These boats are heavy and I am glad I brought my beach shoes because the boat does not budge with us in it and John and I have to get out until the boat floats. I put on my borrowed life preserver and off we go. The day is beautiful and I enjoy the scenery on the 30-min. ride to the reef where the fish are. Hugging the shoreline, we pass a tall white rock that looks like a statue, but on closer inspection we notice many pelicans around it. John dubs it Pelican Poop Point. We are excited. We see schools of Spanish Mackerel feeding on the surface. We see other fishermen catching fish. I can hardly wait to get my hook in the water. Our guides have nothing for us to use for lures or bait and I wonder what they use when they fish at night. John and I use what we had in Alaska. Renee seems to think that will work. At first we troll along, but after an hour with no nibbles, we decide to try the bottom. We see hundreds of pelicans fly overhead and Renne starts to count them, "Uno, dos, tres." Laughing I say, "Mil." John says, "No, cein." I say, "No, ceinto uno." We all laugh at that one. Caesar had promised he would have equipment and bait for us, but I see nothing. We look up the word for bait in the dictionary and say, "Carnada." Soon we are motioned to pull in our reels and we head to a beach. A man is bringing in a net very close to shore and we stop there. All of a sudden four fish come hurling from his boat into ours. These must be our bait fish. Back out to sea we go. Cutting the bait into chunks, we now fish on the bottom. After another 30 minutes of nothing, we reel in our lines to try a different spot. Something enormous is on my line. My pole bends. I cannot budge my catch from the bottom. I give up trying and soon the line goes slack and I can reel it in. It feels a little heavy and I wonder if there is something on there or not. The water is very clear so we all keep watching my line. Soon we see what it is. I do not want to reel it in and I make all sorts of disgusting sounds. I have caught myself an eel. I am not going to take this off the hook and am ready to cut my line. However our captain grabs it and cuts the eel from the hook. We have been out on the water now for three hours with nothing to show for it but an eel. Even Renee starts to admit, "No fish, no luck." We call it quits and head home. Then, John sees it first. Two fins sticking out of the water. I am reminded of "Jaws," as we edge closer to this whale shark. We are only 10 feet from it and I can see its rounded head and spotted body. Two fins protrude from the back of this enormous creature and now I really am reminded of "Jaws." The shark is longer than our boat and I guess it to be 25-30 feet. On shore we gather our belongings and we are told (I should say motioned) that we can take the bait fish home to eat. They are El Dorados or Mahi Mahi and look decent size to me. We figure it will feed the four of us with rice, squash, bread and salad. Bert fillets them , I grill them outside and we laugh as we enjoy our $40 meal.
(Bert) Our early departure in the dark brings us to the Cerro de San Juan Reserve by daybreak. This forest reserve near Tepic is at an elevation ranging from 4000 to 5500 ft., high enough to make pines the dominant trees. I don't often think of Mexico as having pine forests, but since so much of the interior is at high elevation, the country actually has lots of such forests. We bird our way up the winding dusty trail to the top. The mountaintop is flat and supports a large ranch that the family has turned into a resort of cabins and a few RV spots. Horses, sheep and goats graze on dry grass in a large fenced pasture. We break for an early lunch, then head back down the mountain to a turn in the road where wildflowers are in bloom. The flowers attract lots of hummingbirds - brilliantly colored White-eared, Berylline and, most importantly, Bumblebee Hummingbirds. I don't know if the Bumblebee Hummingbird got its name from the buzzing noise it makes or from its very small size - about the length of my index finger - but both descriptions fit. When it hovers beside a bloom, it remains so still and so long that you'd think it was perched. Later in the day we encounter another flying animal, but one so strange you'd think Steven Spilberg designed for a Star Wars movie. It's not even clear to me to which classification of insect the Spider Hunter belongs, but in flight it looks like a helicopter with a yellow rotating blade. Only when I watch it at rest, using binoculars, do I see how it is constructed. The Spider Hunter has a stick body like a Walking Stick, but wings like a dragonfly. Near the end of each wing is a bright yellow dot. When it takes flight, the scissoring wings create a strobe effect that makes them look like they are rotating. According to Kim, the insect hovers over spider webs and picks off spiders for lunch.
(Bert) The treasure map was scratched on the back of a scrap of paper: curved lines tracing back roads through the jungle, squiggly lines marking the river running between the mountains, some X's for the banana groves, a couple of villages labeled by their first initial since its author couldn't remember the Indian name. The treasure? Purplish Jay! Penned by a birding bum that Kim and Walt met over a cup of coffee near Tepic a few days ago, this map was our crude guide for today's adventure. Just four of us embark in the direction of the map - Kim, Walt, Lee and myself, as driver - people Walt likes to describe as "hardcore birders." I zero the odometer, Lee records distances, turns and landmarks so that we can retrace our steps if need be. We start on a familiar road, the bumpy El Cora Road leading out the backside of Tecuitata. Within a few miles we encounter a flock of jays flying across the road. I slam on the brakes and we all pile out in pursuit of the flock, not Purple, but San Blas Jays - a great sighting, but not our treasure goal. A mile further we make another great sighting, Great Swallow-tailed Swift, a lifer for all four of us. We're on a roll now. We enter the village of El Cora and exit taking an even rougher road leading us further away from the blacktop highway we've left far behind. A donkey gallops on the road ahead of us, its long tether dragging on the ground. The boy who lost hold of the rope seems unconcerned and as we pass slowly, the donkey takes its position behind the boy on the horse, followed by the boy's father on another horse. We smile and wave as we pass. Our map tells us to look for a road on our left that will take us from our mountaintop path to the river below. We pass up a few prospects that look too narrow, too steep or too untested to pursue. Our map has no distances and its proportions are compressed or elongated unequally, so we're not sure where our position is. We stop for a Laughing Falcon, then make a turn that takes us down the mountain side and deep into the jungle. We stop a few times at good birding spots. Just as we are about to leave again, along comes the donkey and horses carrying the man and his son. Addressing the man, Walt carries on a conversation in "Spanlish," his term for the crude Spanish mixed with English that he speaks. We get confirmation that we are on the right road, but when the Spanish gets too complicated, Walt tells him he doesn't understand. The Mexican man responds in broken English, "His English not good also." In his version of Spanlish, the man tells us he often travels to the U.S. to work in the tobacco fields of the Carolinas, Tennessee and even went as far north as New York. We continue along the jungle road, climbing again, until we reach Cuarenteño, a well-kept village with connected brick homes marked with house numbers, a strange addition for this remote area. We try to find the back way out of town, but hit a dead end and try another. This one leads into a low area terminated by a small factory of sorts. We again ask directions, but then stop to examine the operation sprawled in front of us. It's a coffee bean processing facility. Recently picked berries are drying on a large concrete slap at a depth of 2-3 in. A young man uses a rake to turn the berries as they dry. From there the dried berries are transferred to a device that knocks off the husks which are piled up and later shoveled into a truck to be taken back to the coffee plantations as fertilizer. The ivory-colored beans are spread on another flat concrete slab to dry in the sun, and once dry, they are again gathered up in a rotating bin that knocks off chaff and dumps them down a shaft where they are bagged in 110-lb. sacks. The process is fascinating as a Mexican worker cheerfully points out the procedure to us. Back to birding, we double back out of Cuarenteño, still searching for the river road. Almost back to El Cora, we take a road we dismissed earlier. The narrow path is rougher than any we have encountered thus far and we often wonder if we have made the right choice. Yet, even in this deep jungle we encounter workers mingling among the coffee plants. When we ford a flowing river, driving on a concrete bottom, we know we've found the spot marked on our treasure map. But it's now past noon, and prime birding time is long past. We begin the ascent up the opposite side of the mountain, cross another stream and soon are blocked by a herd of cattle pushed from behind by a young boy on horseback. The road is so narrow, the cattle cover it from the shear mountain wall on our left to the steep drop off on our right and we wonder how we will be able to pass. But the boy turns in his saddle and motions us forward. Slowly we inch forward and the cattle shift to single file beside us. After 10 minutes we reach the front of the herd and the older cowboy swings his lariat and calls to the cattle to get the leaders out of our path. My passengers applaud his talents as we leave the herd behind. The road improves and I finally can see the speedometer needle extend beyond zero. A few more bumps and turns and we reach Jalcocotan and the main highway. Driving back the winding mountain road is a breeze compared to this morning's trek. We missed our treasure, but the adventure was prize enough for today.
(Shari) Nothing much to report today. It is beyond my comprehension how those birders can go out early every morning to do the same thing. I find I am getting bored and I have varying activities. I read, sew, write or visit. Today, since I have a full water tank, I am washing a load of clothes. Unfortunately, Bert did not empty the gray tank recently and some water backed up into the sink before I could shut the washer off and I could go outside to dump a little gray water on the lawn. Oh well. I make some hamburger buns for good ol' American burgers tonight. After burgers and beer, we watch a movie from home.
(Shari) Pat, Louise, Bert and I are the only ones left in camp this morning. Everyone else is gone, most of them birding. We reread our journals and get them ready to e-mail. After bacon and eggs rancheros for breakfast, we gather the other two women for the ride to San Blas. Some sort of fiesta is occurring in Aticama as we pass through. Girls are dressed in purple homemade Indian dresses with headdresses of colored feathers. I see another girl on a float with a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus, behind her. Three other girls wearing long white dresses are standing near the float. I wonder if this is some sort of religious occasion. Arriving in San Blas, we leave Bert at the Larga Telephona while we walk to the market. Open-air booths sell shoes, shirts, toys, tools and hair bows. Big tubs of shrimp, sitting in the open sun, line another side of the street. Other vendors have jewelry and pottery placed on colored blankets on the sidewalk of the town square. After looking at the wares, we enter the central mercado. This is a big gymnasium-size room with vendors selling various things. At the entrance, onions, carrots, radishes, corn, tomatoes and lettuce are arranged in bins. At another section, meat is butchered. Still another has fresh fish lining a counter top. In the middle, a restaurant with diner stools along the counter does a brisk business. Squeezed in between, bookshelves are stacked with staples: fruit juice, bread, vegetable oil, flour, canned vegetables, canned milk, diapers and paper towels. Cheese is laid out in a refrigerated case and a small cooler holds fresh milk and cold beer. That is the main grocery store, folks. I buy a huge bag full of fruits and vegetables for $2 and carry it to the car. We go off to find the water vender. While there, an American tells us of the bakery down the street. So that is our next stop. All sorts of baked goods line bookshelves inside a small house labeled Panderia. Ladies are picking baked goods up with their bare hands and putting them in big open cardboard boxes. These boxes look the same as those in the small stores, so I assume this bakery is the source for the store bought goods. One woman motions us in and nods that we can pick out our own baked goods. It is hard to decide what goodies to put in the plastic bag that she gives us. I think I am getting addicted to the Mexican baked sweets and I pick some cookie-like pastries, empanadas filled with custard and buenulos. Also, those big round flat thin cookies, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, make it into the bag. I share those with Louise and Pat as we wait for Bert to fill our tank with gas before we head home. It is pizza night at Casa Manaña and of course we cannot miss that. Gene, Sandy and Louise join us for those delicious pizzas topped with chorizo, onions, mushrooms, and jalapeños.
(Bert) The word was out that Woody had seen a rare bird, but no one was saying what it was. Yesterday, the group had split up with birders going in at least three directions. First, Virginia shows up at R-TENT as we lounge in its shade. She tells of an incredible bird that only she got a good look at. It's the eye that left her spellbound. Like the blue mascera of an entombed Egyptian king, the eye is made oversize by a blue teardrop orbital ring. A fleeting look from that eye left an impression on Virginia forever. Thumbing through the books later, she identified its owner as a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, described as "often heard, but hard to see." And, in fact, the bird disappeared in the underbrush before anyone else got a good look at it. Twenty minutes later Woody walks over to R-TENT, saying, "I've got a new bird to report." I tell him, "I've heard it is a good one. What is it?" Woody responds, "I'll give you a hint. It starts with Lesser." With Virginia's report still on my mind, I guess, "Lesser Ground-Cuckoo." Woody's smile droops and somewhat dejected he says, "How did you know?" He then relates his spellbound experience with the haunting eye. Like Virginia, he had no idea what the bird was until he consulted the books. Like Virginia, he thought his sighting was unique. In fact, until Friday no one else had seen the species this year or any of the previous years the birding caravan has been coming to San Blas. Now two observers, birding locations miles from each other, both have the same rare sighting within an hour of each other. What a remarkable coincidence!
(Bert) Descending concrete steps, the water is only a couple hundred yards from our campsite. During the past couple weeks the ocean has been quite calm, deserving of its Pacific name. Surprisingly, the water is warm as we slosh our feet through surf's edge. The shoreline is rocky here, but a quarter mile further is a sandy beach where we swim this afternoon. One family swims nearby and a teenage couple romances on the sand. Other than that, the whole beach is ours and we swim for a half hour.
(Shari) The little boy just cries his heart out while his mother and father swim in the ocean and his older brother plays in the sand on the water's edge. I tell Bert that at least his parents know where he is. He must be more scared of the water than excited to play with his brother. He does not move an inch from his marked spot, but lets anyone who will listen know that he is not a happy camper. Only his family and two lovesick teenagers, with hormones running high, share the beach with us this hot afternoon. The water of the Pacific is much warmer than I expected and I have no trouble getting wet. We ride the gently rolling waves as they wash ashore. The color of the water is not the pretty blue of tropical waters of Hawaii but it has a brownish hue from the fine sand churned up from the bottom. A lonely shrimp boat fishes not far from us, its nets out like the oars of a Spanish galleon of old. The fronds on the coconut trees on the bluff above wave in the gentle breeze. Everything is quiet and peaceful for this Sunday afternoon.
(Bert) By 4:30 AM, four cars are loaded with birders anxious to try their luck at owling. For some, this is their first experience and they unsure how it works. We arrive at the Mecantan Road coffee plantation well before dawn and led by flashlights we find a likely position in tall trees beside the dry creek bed. We stand silently - a hard task for this group - and listen for night sounds. Mostly we hear roosters crowing from a farm a half-mile away, but we also hear a few Killdeer and a distant Mottled Owl. Jim turns on his cassette tape player and the recording of owl calls. Then quietly we wait again. On silent wings, a pair of owls has moved into the trees above us. With surprising volume, one owl hoots and its mate responds. They are Mottled Owls, but so close up that we hear more notes in the call than when at a distance, and the owls seem like a different species. A pair of Collared Forest Falcons calls to each other at a great distance away. Some think they are Laughing Falcons, since both species make a variety of laughing calls. Sad laughter, these seem more like mourning wails. Six or eight owls can be heard, but none seen until I catch a shadow flying from one palm to another. I shine my flashlight toward the shadow and it moves to another tree. This time I catch it in the spotlight: a small Mottled Owl with two red eyes that barely return the light.
1. This lovely bird is usually found in Mexico
One wife scooped her hubby and made him feel real slow.
2. Finding this bird could get you real tense
He's usually found in the woods-very very dense.
3. You might laugh until you hurt your tummy
Trying to imitate this guy, you dummy.
4. Finding this bird was a big surprise
Be quiet on the shore and use your eyes.
These are just four of the 17 clues Pat made for our Valentine bird games. Can you guess what they are from the jumbled letters below?
As our group arrives at the palapa, decorated in hearts for Valentine's Day, each picks a word from a hat. Seven birds have rhyming words and everyone has to find their team by the rhymes. For example, Loon, tune, moon, June have to find each other. When all the teams are picked, they are told to make a Valentine poem from their words. Some pretty strange poems result and we laugh and applaud as the teams act out their creative work. The winners have their pick of prizes before we end with snacks supplied by Carlyn and Pat. After dinner, we gather at Jan and Jim's to watch Sleepless in Seattle, a Valentine's movie supplied by Gene and Sandy. We munch Ann's lemon bars and my chocolate chip cookies in the cool night air as we cheer Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their growing relationship.
(Shari) The alarm punctuates the still morning with its incessant electronic beep. 5:30 AM and time to get up if I want to accompany the group to Mexcaltitán. I barely have time to greet the sun before we cram into cars and begin the 2½-hr. drive to this Venice of Mexico. Mexcaltitán, a name that does not roll easily off my tongue, is a small village surrounded by water. When the road ends, we board boats and drive down a wide river until we reach the island village , proclaimed to be built by the Aztecs hundreds of years ago. The dirt streets are 5 feet wide and sunk below the level of the buildings and sidewalk. In the summer these same streets are covered with water from the flooding that occurs. Now they are just hard packed dirt. A circular street wraps its way around the town and other streets come off of it like spokes on a wheel. The population is housed in buildings that line each side of the street. Picture rows and rows of army barracks with their doors placed every 12 feet. Picture these same barracks without doors on the openings or screens on the windows. Picture you walking by these barracks only four feet away and looking inside. Some have tile floors and others have dirt. Some have many things hanging on the wall, including blinking Christmas tree lights left from the holidays. Everyone has a statue of Mary and a burning candle. The furnishings inside are sparse: usually one old sofa, an open bookshelf with a TV and a bed. I feel like a Peeping Tom as I look inside the dwellings. I am totally embarrassed when my eyes alight on a man without legs lying on his tummy and washing his floor, scooting the water out the door with his hands. Do I smile and acknowledge my snooping or look away as if I had not seen? I wonder where the 3-bedroom, 2-bath houses are? We walk around the circular street and down another one to the museum. Here we pay our 40 cents and admire Aztec artifacts from 600 B.C. A group of little children, sitting on the floor, are watching a movie with their teacher. I think we disturb their concentration, especially when we hand them pencils and candy and take their pictures. Bert wants me to take a picture of one of the streets that leads to the water. Wash hangs on lines strung from one side of the street to the other. I resist taking it, because I wonder what these people must think of us. Do they resent us gringos coming into their town, handing out candy and gawking? Or do they just tolerate us light-skinned people? All seem very gracious and smile and even offer a "hola." I see one man carry two 5-gal. buckets of water down the street. He has them balanced on a pole resting across his shoulders. On his third trip, I take his picture. He smiles broadly at me with a twinkle in his eyes. Some of the water sloshes out of the buckets and he must set his heavy load down to regain his balance. Again he smiles as I say, "Lo siento." I am sorry. Later we see him again and he recognizes me and gives me another big smile. I have no idea why he is carrying water from one side of the island to the other. Many wells line the streets and he could get water from them. In fact I see numerous men and women obtaining water from these wells. A small pail is attached to a rope and lowered down the shaft. When it is pulled up, it contains water that is poured into a larger pail that is then carried inside. I do not even want to know what they use this water for or where their waste and garbage ends up. I do not see trash on the streets or smell foul odors in the air, but I still wonder.
(Bert) The sun has barely risen above the mountain ridges, leaving some of the forested valley in shadow and some in morning light. From our high vantage point overlooking the broad valley below us we can survey several miles of forest unmarked by buildings or roads. Behind us roar the unmuffled semis snorting down the hill, held in check by abrasive air breaks. From the wayside our wait for the Military Macaw is brief. We soon hear the parrot call and from behind a ridge a rainbow-colored bird drags its long flowing tail as it enters the valley. Constantly calling, the macaw wings its way across the length of the valley, then repeats the performance four more times for us. From this Tepic mountainside we head north to Mexcaltitán. This island town reminds us a bit of Venice, but at a very different cultural level. The small island is completely occupied by the village, which has its origins in ancient Aztec times. We park our cars at the last outpost of land, then board two long boats that take us along a broad river through the mangrove swamp and to the flat, rounded island in the marsh. First we survey the village from the water side as our boat circumscribes the island. Then we disembark and walk along the streets, the main street forming the rim of a wheel with side streets composing the spokes. High sidewalks edge the streets so that in the rainy season citizens can remain dry when the streets transform to canals. Linked, plaster-covered houses - some painted, some not - form a continuous wall on both sides of the streets. All homes and shops have open doors so we can see inside. This, like most of the other Mexican towns we have visited, is a very open society. So much in contrast to our American culture of working inside closed buildings, living in sequestered homes and traveling in vehicles that encompass us, here in Mexico we can observe the whole of the village's population inside their buildings and on the streets at work and play. Women sweep and wash, men stand or sit and stare, children play, today's fish catch lays stretched in the sun to dry, dogs lie in the streets. Wealth, as measured in home styles, ranges from those with beautiful polished tile floors and attractive furnishings to dirt floors and sparse belongings. But even in some of the poorest homes, electricity powers a TV almost always turned on. Mexcaltitán has an underground water system accessible through shallow wells and we see men extend pails on ropes to scoop up water for the household. A bottled-water cart - there are no motor vehicles on the small island - supplies potable drinking water. One wonders how their sanitation system works (or doesn't), but we see little evidence of pollution. A real surprise is the Museo del Origen, a well-designed and outfitted museum adjacent to the city square. The museum shows us the Aztec history of the area and includes masterful copies of original artifacts. On the way back we buy a smoked fish from a street vendor in San Blas. The fish is filleted from head to fin, the entails removed and the flesh laid open on a smoky charcoal fire. Spiced with a zesty pepper sauce, the fish makes a very tasty dinner.
(Shari) In a country where most of the people have only a sixth grade education, very few newspapers get printed, let alone delivered door to door. In towns that lack post offices, very little mail gets through to individuals. So how do merchants advertise specials? How does a circus let everyone know when it has performances? And how does a town organize a town meeting? I wondered that myself until today. I understood enough Spanish blasting out of the loud speakers on top of a pickup to decipher the words "special prices on tomatoes and melons." This form of advertising works too. I bought some melons and tomatoes.
(Bert) Previous travelers to San Blas sometimes warn of the ferocious gnats that live here, but until today I've really only encountered rather tame ones. Usually a quick spray of Off on legs and arms keeps at bay the few we come across. But today when we start our birding at Singayta, we are attached unmercifully. I use a heavy dosage of all three sprays and creams I carry and my accompanying birders do likewise. But the no-see-ums ignore the repellant and assault us anyway. In a grassy forest edge, we recognize Stripe-headed Sparrows and a Lucy's Warbler, but spend a long time struggling to identify a non-descript flock of female Varied Buntings before we declare the battle a loss and retreat to another spot. A few hundred feet away, we are left untroubled and leisurely add Black-capped Vireo and Fan-tailed Warbler to the list. In late afternoon I conduct a workshop on Thayer's Birder's Diary, the computer software I use for recording bird sightings. The green flash at sunset is particularly dramatic this evening, followed by a loud cheer usually reserved for fireworks. Tonight for the first time, all bets are wrong on the exit time for the bats. Even though I list a record 14 bets among our group, no one hits the actual time within one minute. So, according to our concocted set of rules, the purse is held over for tomorrow night. In the evening Jim and Ann bring over Saving Private Ryan and, together in R-TENT, we watch the great movie and share popcorn.
(Shari) We visit from one extreme to another: Mexcaltitán, a very poor town, to Costa Custodio, a very rich area. This 5-acre peninsula, with ocean front villas high atop a cliff, commands some of the greatest views in Mexico. For sale at a price tag of $320,000, four are already sold. When the owners are not present, the villas are put into a rental pool and weekly rates are $350. For an additional $100 per person per week, three meals each day are included and prepared inside your own villa by a member of the staff. So for $550 per week - less if shared by another couple - you can have yourself one luxurious place to stay. Each of the five completed villas is a little different, but all have an open tropical atmosphere. Everything faces the ocean and no windows or doors mar the views from that side. It is like living outside, but not. Each villa has two bedrooms and a modern kitchen, a great room and a washer and dryer. At the end of the peninsula, all share a very large swimming pool and flower garden. Red and yellow hibiscus, pink bougainvillea, multicolored periwinkles and yellow and red roses frame the tile walkways. Open, tropical, luxury living at an affordable price entices all of us to consider renting these in the future. Deep sea fishing, birding, walking along 12 miles of pristine beach, canoeing the river, sea kayaking, surfing or just lazing around the pool are activities advertised in their brochure. I can attest to the fishing off the rocks at one of the villas. Two young men with one end of string tied around a plastic coke bottle and the other tied onto a fish hook, catch a number of fish while we watch. The thousands of pelicans offshore also attest to the good fishing. Anyone interested in sharing a rental?
(Bert) Just like the lottery, tonight's purse of $14 - left over from no winner last night - draws new betters. Sixteen pick times for the bats' early departure, bringing the jackpot to $30. Times range from 17:58:01 to 18:08:20. Most choices cluster around 18:04 that seems to be an average exit time, but newcomer Beth - Walt's sister who joined us just yesterday after her flight into Puerto Valletta - chooses the latest time. Everyone theorizes on the factors that effect the bat's departure: the setting of the sun (a fizzle), the degree of cloud cover (none), the humidity (high), the phase of the moon (full), the amount of cigar smoke Walt blows toward the crevice in the tree (lots), the volume of conversational noise surrounding the tree (deafening). Another could be the trend in exit times, to which few paid much attention, but I recorded as score keeper each night: 18:00:45, 18:02:11, 18:03:51, 18:07:08. The conversation continues at high volume, not recognizing Jim and Jan's early choices of 17:58:01 and 18:01:01 are already passed. Next Ralph is in the running, followed by Virginia. Jerry's window of opportunity is only nine seconds since Virginia boxes in his time with 18:02:10 on one side and Shari with 18:02:30 at the other end. The tension mounts as we pass up times from John, Shary, Kim, Gene and Ann. Now we reach Walt's guess of 18:04:35, and he starts puffing smoke furiously, but to no avail. Carlyn and Ed have their brief moment of glory, but are also passed by. Now we are down to the last two betters. Woody at 18:06:32 has a huge window of opportunity - 100 sec. But the time slips by, the sky darkens, the no-see-ums start biting our legs and still no bat has ventured from its roost. We are beginning to wonder if we will again have no winners tonight. Woody's chance is gone and now it is only Beth's late bet still in the running. The suspense is tense as we all stare at the narrow crevice. John announces the official time as we pass 18:07, then 18:07:30, then 18:07:45. Suddenly, the first bat shoots from tree like a canon ball and all eyes shift to John for the exit time. He proclaims, "18:07:54" and we have a winner. We applaud as Beth takes home the jackpot - an exciting way to welcome her to our group.
(Bert) Late yesterday I wrenched my back while picking up R-TENT's water hose, a light task, but the result was sufficient to make it excruciatingly painful to walk or move. So today I forego birding and catch up on computer tasks instead. Although the pain made sleeping last night almost impossible, by noon today my back is mostly recovered, provided I move gingerly. At 3, Shari and I drive into San Blas to run errands and do e-mail, now routinely easy at the "Larga Distancia." Then at 5, we meet the rest of our group at Hotel Garza Canela for our Farewell-to-San-Blas dinner. What pain I still had quickly dissolves with a double margarita and Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon. While waiting for our meals to be prepared, I hand out a contest form asking birders to guess the top three sites in terms of number of species. Surprisingly, only Carlyn guesses all three correctly: Miramar at 116 species, Singayta at 104 and the Mecatan Rd coffee plantation at 84. Only a few guess the amazingly high number of species we found in the general San Blas area: 273 species. For prizes, I give out copies of the new Texas Birds magazine, produced by the Texas Ornithological Society. Hors d'oeuvres arrive - I chose octopus - and we share the delights around the table. Shari and I split her choice of lobster and my fish, both delicious, and even fit in an irresistible dessert. Hotel Garza offers a great restaurant and a real surprise here in San Blas.
(Shari) Tonight is our dinner at the Garza Hotel in celebration of our last days here in San Blas. Three family units are not here, due to illness. Poor Carmen and Larry have not seen much of anything except the inside of their motor home since we arrived here three weeks ago. Now it seems Sid and Jim may have the bug too. The remaining 24 of us fill four tables of six and spend three hours literally wining and dining. At the end of the meal we meet the resident chef for the past 19 years and give her our accolades for a meal well prepared and presented. If in this area, the Garza Hotel is a must stopping place not only for its excellent restaurant but also for its upscale gift shop. I do not even want to mention how much money I spent here. I am getting my Christmas shopping done early this year.
(Bert) Our last morning of birding in the San Blas area, two vehicles take the retched road on the backside of Jalcocotan, heading down the mountain and to the river in the valley. This is a beautiful valley, luxuriant in jungle growth. Cut by two mountain streams separated by almost a mile, this is the only valley where we have seen significant water. Today, this area is especially productive for butterflies. Kim identifies a few for us, all with strange sounding names: Cracker, Sister, Minibanded Daggerwing, Creamy Stripestreak. Even the hummingbirds we find this morning have unusual names: Mexican Woodnymph and Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird. Today is our last full day in San Blas. We've been here three weeks, the longest Shari and I have been in one spot in years. Yet, I'm not anxious to leave. I know Shari finds it too warm, but it's okay with me. I know Shari is getting anxious to leave, but I still have more places to explore and more birds to find, and more beaches to comb. We have a travel meeting at 4, and Jim and Jan outline tomorrow's travels. At dusk, the bats surprise yet again. Just when we think we've got it figured out - almost everyone bets late departures - the bats surprise us and come out at 18:03:40, making Ed the winner with the second earliest time of 14 betters. Again, it's pizza night and a group of a dozen joins us for what has become a Saturday night routine. I'm going to miss this place.
(Shari) It's pizza night. Three weeks in a row we have enjoyed the pizza at Casa Mañana and, tonight, our fourth is no exception. The pizza may run out tonight before we get there after bat bets, so I take orders and hunt down our friendly waiter, Octavio. He looks like death warmed over and is sicker than a dog with much the same thing that is going through our group. I hope he does not breathe on our pizza. We have a short travel meeting and learn that Larry and Carmen, Gwen and Woody, and Beryl, Sid and Alice are staying back an extra day and will meet us in a week at Los Glorias. I'm sure we will miss them and worry about how they are doing without us. The bats come out early tonight, in direct contrast to logic. It must be the full moon affecting them, or maybe because Walter was not smoking a cigar tonight. Anyway, Ed won the pool. This is his second time. Not fair!
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