Tuesday, March 31, 2020

San Miguel in a Changing World

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
March 1 - 21 2020

Click San Miguel to see photos of the town

After ten weeks at our favourite beaches, San Miguel de Allende is our culture month, that is, usually. This year was a little different, and I know you all can guess why. The COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

Ateción, the local newspaper, the bible for all visitors and residents in San Miguel, comes out each Friday. We all read it religiously, reading all about the coming events in town and choose which one we just must attend. There are the latest films, discussions, concerts, plays, art exhibits, house tours and much more scheduled at the Biblioteca and theatres in the area. We coordinated dates of events that others in our group of friends were planning to attend, made reservations and bought tickets for our choices, including some for later in March.

I signed up for yoga classes, led by Alejandro at Hotel Posada de Aldea, near our home, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Tuesday and Thursday mornings was Aquafit classes, also at the hotel, led by my favourite instructor, Eréndira. I worked on keeping myself fit and Ray got his exercise taking longer walks and visiting the markets to buy our food.

We enjoyed a Flamenco Dance performance, and later, a Jazz concert the Angela Peralta Theatre. A real treat this year was the Reel-Docs documentary series at Santa Ana Theatre. The Documentaries, organized by the Reel-Docs volunteer group, are so popular that the series sells out almost as soon as the program for the year is announced in January. The popularity is in part because the films have such eclectic, interesting topics and the filmmaker is always invited to San Miguel to answer questions about making the film, the issues brought up in the film and what follow-up is expected. It adds an extra dimension to the film. We saw Renegade Dreamers, contrasting protest musicians in New York City in the 1960’s with the current crop of protest musicians in New York. Incarcerated Rhythm, a 2018 documentary, highlighted six men in a medium security federal prison in upstate New York, participating in a unique rehabilitation modern dance program. Both films were excellent.

By the first Wednesday we were starting to get inklings of what was happening in the rest of the world, how it was affecting San Miguel, and therefore us. It wasn’t that we hadn’t heard about COVID-19, it was just that it seemed to be more of a problem in other countries, not in San Miguel. In fact, it hadn’t affected Zihuatanejo, where we spent the previous five weeks, either.

We were notified that the first of the Pro Musica classical concerts we had planned to attend the next Sunday, was cancelled. The reason was that the musician, Ran Dank, was ill. Little did we know that this was just the first of many cancellations of events we had expected to attend.

We emailed the owner of the house we were renting to tell her we definitely wanted to reserve for March of 2021. She replied that, unfortunately, the house would not be available next year as she was moving back to live in the house herself. That meant we had to find another place to rent. We spent the next week browsing multiple online listings and contacting the owners to ask for a viewing. San Miguel is a walking city, so travelling to see rental units brought us to both favourite older areas and new ones that were fun to explore. Even still, we were relieved to finally find one that suited us and was still within our slightly heightened price range. It is a newly renovated small house, managed by a woman who takes care of many of the rentals where the Andrews stay. It was in the central core, was well furnished and equipped, plus it had enough room for us not to feel cramped for space. We reserved for March 2021.

There were more bright spots to lighten our spirits. The first Friday of March is the celebration of Our Lord of the Conquest. Indigenous people from towns near and far come every year to dance on the streets surrounding the Jardin. The dancers, called concheros, wear elaborate feathered headdresses and richly patterned pre-Hispanic outfits. They dance to the beat of drums from early morning to late afternoon. I can’t resist the colour and symbolism of the ceremonies and the sheer energy of the dancers and drummers. It is one of my favourite photo ops. One of the groups performs dances symbolizing the struggle between good and evil forces, with the good always winning. The day also signifies how the ancient beliefs of the people have combined with their conversion to Christianity. Each group in its turn, burns sweet grasses in front of a small altar during the dances and ends with everyone streaming into the Paroquia Church to be blessed by the priests.

Click Concheros to see photos of the dancers

Our group of friends continued gathering each Friday for lunch at Oso Azul (blue bear) restaurant. As many as 16 of us gathered to enjoy a meal together and catch up on the latest news. The restaurant has lunch entertainment by a good Mexican woman playing her guitar and singing favourites. The only problem is she had to compete with everyone talking at once.

We even managed to host a “Cinq a Sept” at our house for a late afternoon party. We raised a glass of wine or beer to our friendship and passed around the many appetizers contributed by each of us. We were glad that everyone was able to come as it would not be long before each of us made plans to return home earlier than planned.

As we entered our second week in San Miguel, activities and events were beginning to be cancelled.  All gyms, pools, language classes, art galleries, restaurants and bars were starting to close. Trudeau made a plea for all Canadians to return home. We, along with all our friends, came to the same conclusion. We had to make serious plans to return home earlier than we had planned.

On the same day that we started to look at alternate flights home, our original flight with Aeromexico for March 30 was cancelled. We couldn’t reach the discounter with whom we booked our March 30 flight so we booked another flight for Sunday, March 23 with Air Canada, as they were guaranteeing that there would be no charge for flight changes. We would deal with any refunds or credits for the cancelled flight later.

Just a few days before our planned March 23 departure, our flight was cancelled. We had no choice but to reach Air Canada by phone and stay on hold until an agent answered. We were checking available flights online only to discover the flights were no longer listed the next time we looked. Ray suggested we just book the first available flight listed, even if it was more expensive. We booked a flight for departure March 25. About an hour after we booked the March 25 flight, we reached an agent. It took some explaining but all went well. The agent agreed that the flight for March 25 could be cancelled as it was made just an hour ago, besides, she told us, the March 25 flight was also in danger of being cancelled. The agent suggested a flight departing Mexico City early in the morning of March 21. The flight went to Ottawa via Vancouver, rather than Toronto for Saturday March 21, meaning we would get into Ottawa at 1 AM Sunday, March 22. We quickly agreed on the option.

Everything worked as planned. Since our flight was scheduled to leave Mexico City at 5:25 AM, we took the bus from San Miguel de Allende to the Terminal Norte in Mexico City on Friday afternoon March 20 and took a taxi to the small hotel we booked within walking distance of a walkway over a highway direct to the air terminal. We were up the next morning at 3 AM and walked across to the International terminal. We had been warned by one of our friends who flew home to Canada just a few days earlier that no food would be served on our flights. Therefore we were pleasantly surprised to find that several of terminal restaurants were open to serve breakfast to the relatively small number of travellers with early flights. Our flights were on time and uneventful. We had lots of time, about 8 hours, in the Vancouver terminal to find food to eat and phone all our friends and relatives who live in the Vancouver area. It was 1 AM on Sunday when we landed in Ottawa and taxis were waiting to get us home. Yes, we were tired by the end of the next day, but that was OK, we made it home safely, and still in good health.

Now we are getting used to be self-isolated in our home. We have neighbours who have kindly bought food for us that we needed until we could get a larger food order delivered by Loblaws new service. I am trying out a virtual yoga class, since all live classes and gyms are closed. It is taking a bit to get used to but I am sure it will help me keep fit.

And what are our plans for 2021. It is our wish for us all to stay healthy and for the COVID-19 to have run its course by the end of 2020. Ray and I, and all our friends, have reserved to visit Mexico again next year. For Ray and I, that means stays in Puerto Morelos from late December to late January, Zihuatanejo in February and San Miguel de Allende in March.


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

More Than Entertainment in Zihua

Zihuatanejo Mexico
February 20 2020

This blog is an ode to our friends in Zihuatanejo with whom we are so impressed. Yes, we all come to Zihuatanejo to enjoy the beach and to enjoy the many concerts offered, but there is more than pure entertainment behind the events we attend. The organizers of many of the events volunteer their services and donate the entire proceeds to support local causes. In addition, many people spend a good number of hours directly helping others less fortunate than themselves.

What I am writing is just part of what visitors are doing in Zihuatanejo.

We get to know the local people who work in the restaurants and roam the beach selling their wares every day. We get to enjoy their company and think about how we can help them and their children in their lives. It may be just buying the wares they sell but for many of our friends, it is much more.

"What have you got in the bags," we asked Sandy and Ron Johnson, who had just arrived from Vancouver BC. They were carrying two large shopping bags to the beach.
"Oh, one bag is school supplies for school children here, and the other bag is children's clothing. Air Canada allowed us to check two bags of 50 lbs each for no charge, as long as they were charitable donations. In addition, Ron and I both brought carry-on bags with school supplies. Our friends, Albert and Michelle Lamonthe volunteered to carry another 50 lbs of school supplies in their 5th wheel for us," they tell us.

Sandy continued with more of  story: "After we returned from Mexico last year, we talked to our nieces, Lucy (12) and Piper (9) Dunbar, about our experiences. Lucy made a power point presentation about the need for school supplies and back packs in Zihuatanejo, and presented it to two Grade 7 classes in her school. The response from her fellow students was terrific. Both girls also did a great job of culling their own outgrown summer outfits and collecting more specially selected used clothing for the children here," she said.

Sandy and Ron told me that they are helping some children even more. Last March, they had become friends with young Amayrany Soldano Sotelo (12), her two younger sisters, Manuela (10) and Lupita (5), and their mother, Magdalena, who supports her children selling ceramic bowls, purses and other items on the beach.
Amayrany's teeth were so badly spaced that it was preventing her from eating and talking properly. In partnership with  Don and Joyce Kaplan, from Minnesota, they asked local dentists,Dr Oliverio Soberanis Nunez and his wife Dra Azucena Acosta Mena to examine Amayrany and let them know how the young girl could be helped. With the dentist's help, making room for all her teeth and extensive orthodontic work, Amayrany has a new look and is starting to speak more clearly. Now Sandy and Ron are ensuring that the whole family will continue to get regular dental care. It is exciting to see the change in the young girl and her sisters.

Lisa Marie Lawrence, a retired teacher from Peachland, BC, teaches local children English on the weekends at the beach (she often also provides lunch). The children also practice making and writing thank you cards.  The lessons will help the children if they want to work in the tourist industry. The children all enjoy the classes and Lisa Marie enjoys their company. 

Don Kaplan (AKA Beach Grandpa) periodically buys all the children who gather round him, Respados (AKA Snowcones in Canada). They are frozen shaved ice with flavoured sauce and in Mexico, hot sauce! The children always remember to thank Don and Joyce with a hug.

Tom and Karen Nichols volunteer at a local senior center in town, Asilo DIF. Tom and Ed Forester volunteer at an Addiction Rehab Center in Zihuatanejo and both are volunteers in
Talita Cumi, an orphanage in a village outside of town (www.talitacumi-mx.org). Ed is involved with building a new septic system for the orphanage. Ed says he is simply a labourer, AKA grunt.

Ken and Barb Stevenson, from Canmore Alberta, stayed this year in an apartment owned by Tim and Donna Melville, active members of Sailfest. As a result, the Stevensons met Dania Maria Ibarez Jaramillo, who is in her second year of International Engineering at Petalan University. They will be sponsoring her for the next two years of her schooling and year of internship. When they discovered that the computer she was using for her school work was shared with her brother and was very old, they arranged through Sailfest President, Carol Romain, to get her a new computer. When Dania showed her mother her new computer and told her about the sponsorship, her mother was overcome with emotion.

Sailfest, a 6-day festival in February, gathers sailors from the US, Canada and even Europe, to Zihuatanejo Bay, and is now in its 19th year. The proceeds from the festival go entirely to the non-profit charity, Por Los Niños in Zihuatanejo (www.porlosninos.com). Sailfest raised $2,200,000 MXP in 2019 and 2020 topped that with more than $3,000,000 MXP raised.
In partnership with local government agencies, Rotary Clubs, international charities, and the local communities, 117 classrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and playgrounds have been built in 14 new schools and expansions have been added to 21 existing schools. To date, 2500 young students have been helped, more than 30,000 school meals a year have been served, and nearly one thousand academic scholarships have been awarded. 

A special treat at the Sailfest Concert, part of the week of activities, was a choir of students from the high school supported by Sailfest, who performed numbers in Spanish and English.
Later, music was by the M-Docks, a band from Springfield, Missouri, who have come every year since the festival's inauguration.

The Sailfest Chili Cook-off is always fun. About twenty volunteers cook their favourite chili recipe. Participants buy tickets to sample the various offerings and vote on their favourite. At the same time, there is a silent auction of jewelry, meals and other items, donated by local businesses, that we all hope to make a contribution with our winning bid.

Every evening, the week before and the week after the official festival, you can donate to the festival and go on a Sunset cruise around Zihuatanejo Bay, complements of the boat owners.
Ray and I opted for the February 14th cruise this year that featured Denise and John, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. They entertained the 23 guests on board their guitars and singing many of the familiar Down-East music.

And that is not all. Last Saturday the annual Dance in the Street (Baila en la Calle) was held. The past few years the Red Cross and local firemen/paramedics were recipients of the proceeds to purchase defibrillators. This year the recipients were the orphanage, Talita Cumi and Casa-hogar Bet-Shalom, a home for abandoned and at risk seniors in Las Pozas, a small town near Zihuatanejo. 

Money was earned by a $50 MXP donation, 50-50 raffle tickets, which none of us won, donated silent auction items, t-shirts for the event, cards designed by the orphanage children and much more. I entered my name on several silent auction offerings and ended up the winning bidder for breakfast at El Patio, run by Antonio, the son of our landlords, Irma and Jesus, and a dinner voucher from Casa Elvira, a restaurant on the beach promenade.

Entertainment, as usual, began with two popular bands, Shady and Rob,
followed by the Mark and Andy Show. Both groups play oldies but goodies, just right for our style of dancing. 

After an intermission, we were entertained first by a choir from the Talita Sumi orphanage.
The local folk dancers were next. First, a group of young girls and their teacher, dressed in Colonial period dresses, performing typical dances of the era.
They were followed by a larger group of adults who demonstrated their ballroom expertise. The adults were good, but I preferred the traditional dances they performed last year.

Yes, the events during Sailfest and Dancing in the Street are fun but the rewards truly come when so many children and seniors in the Zihuatanejo area benefit from the efforts of the many volunteers. Every year there are more of the visitors to Zihuanejo volunteering and helping any way they can.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Zihuatanejo Wave Etiquette and Entertainment

Zihuatanejo Mexico
January 28 2020

It's all how you approach the waves. The water is warm and the bottom is sandy on Playa La Madera, so you don't have to worry about rocks. Ray and I both love the beach and love to swim in the ocean. Therefore, we have learned to respect the ocean and follow the rules to avoid being knocked over unexpectantly, even with the relatively small waves.

First, leave your eye glasses on your table or chair. Don't wear them in the water. In the last week four pairs of glasses, that I know of, have been swept off, never to be seen again.
Second, waves usually break in a sequence of seven, gradually getting larger and then diminishing. So, you wait for the biggest waves to break close to shore before you walk into the water and keep your eyes on where the next wave will break.
If you think it will break right where you are standing, turn sideways to the wave and brace your feet. This makes it much easier to avoid being knocked over.
If you want to swim, swim out past where the waves are likely to break and you can easily swim parallel to the shore, however long you want.
If you just want to stand and chat to your friends in the water, pick a spot just beyond the spot where most of the waves break.
Plus, face the waves while you chat and you won't be surprised by a breaking wave.
Finally, when you are ready to get out of the water, just reverse the order, waiting for the biggest waves to pass and making sure you are aware of where the next wave will break.
You will soon get the hang of wave avoidance and become another fan of Playa La Madera.

Our first extensive trip to Mexico in the winter of 2005-6 introduced us to the charms of Zihuatanejo. Our return to Zihua in 2014 cemented our enjoyment of this fishing village turned vacation destination and introduced us to Playa La Madera. We have returned every year since, gradually extending our stay. We have made several lasting friendships, enjoyed the increase of good restaurants and the local town market, all within a short walk from our current apartment.

This year, we arrived just one week ago, on January 21 2020 and we will stay until the end of February. It has become Old Home week, greeting the Kaplans, Ed and Neidra, Tom, Karen and Shelley, and several others who are already ensconced in Zihua.  The employees at our favourite beach restaurants, massage therapists and beach vendors have become old friends. We feel instantly at home.

Our friends, Suzanne and David Andrews, Barry Mair and Sheila MacDonald and Margaret and Jack Dunphy, who joined us in Portugal this fall, are here for the last two weeks of January. The Dunphys will be returning to Calgary at the end of the month while the others will move on to the much cooler temperatures of San Miguel de Allende.

We are making the most of our time with them, starting with dinner in one of their Ceiba Suite condos the first evening we arrived in Zihua.
Then came a visit to Santa Prisca for the Thursday afternoon Pozole lunch, with a glass of Mezcal for dessert, and entertainment from a four person band playing oldies but goodies.

Friday was dinner at El Manglar restaurant on Playa La Ropa, the next beach along the huge Zihuatanejo Bay. El Manglar is next to the home of five crocodiles, several iguanas and other wild creatures that live in protected creek sanctuary next to the hotel. The crocs were nice enough to pose for photos, but, since they get fed during the day, were not in the mood to have us for dessert. We timed our visit for sunset, which obligingly went down in a vibrant orange glow. More photo ops.

Monday evening twelve of us gathered at El Canto de Las Sirenas (the mermaid's song) to hear the owner of the club, Juan Luis Cobos, Mr Guitar in Zihua, play and enjoy his talented guests for the evening. We were in for a treat. There wasn't one group that we didn't enjoy. But a Scottish girl playing a fusion of classical, electronic and folk guitar got the biggest applause. She was fabulous.

And of course we are on the beach each day, swimming, going for a beach walk and enjoying lunch at the beach restaurants. That is just the start of our visit. We have more events already planned. It is proving to be a busy month.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Boom and Bust in PoMo

Puerto Morelos Dec 26 2019 to January 21 2020

Thank goodness the seaweed problem, especially the abundance of Sargasso seaweed has been solved, we thought. The town of Puerto Morelos has installed a boom about the entire length of the town from the famous leaning lighthouse north to the town limits to prevent the seaweed from reaching the beach. There were consultations with the advisors of the National Protected Marine Park which encompasses the ocean between the reef and the town beach. The boom was installed so that the marine life were still free to make their way under the boom to their usual feeding areas closer to the beach. We were happy as we could still swim from the shore with our snorkels and enjoy the abundance of fish grazing on the large coral rocks not far from shore. We did this every day, until the dreaded El Norte arrived from Canada, we are always told. Especially strong winds reconfigured the beach. In the space on one day, Instead of drop off shortly after entering the water, the beach sloped gently into the water. We didn’t lose any of the sandy beach, it was just a more gentle slope. The boom, preventing seaweed from reaching the beach, was no match for the winds. It broke in several places and most of it had to be towed away to the dump.

It still marginally affected our swim and snorkel routine. The stronger winds brought stronger currents which we managed to master for several days, until the winds kicked up the sand, obscuring our vision and preventing the fishing and snorkel boats from venturing out. We just took a few days off from swimming, but continued our favoured walks down the beach. Eventually, even more of the boom was carted off to the dump, but the result wasn’t as drastic as we feared. Yes, sea grasses still made its way to shore but in manageable levels. The town was still able to sweep up the worst and the beach was just as lovely as ever. Our only gripe was the continuation of high winds, preventing us from swimming out to our favourite rocks, looking for some exotic fish we had not noticed before. 

In the meantime, we enjoyed our 54th Anniversary dinner at Tanino’s Restaurant on December 30th when a talented duo provided us with Jazz and Blues music. 

We also renewed our friendship with beach friends we had met last year and enlarged our circle of friends, all of whom we hope to see again next year. There were Maurice and Susan from a small town north of Brandon, Manitoba, Paul and Anelia from Vancouver, Loyce and Gilles from Lac Megantic, Earl and Flo from Saskatchewan and many more.

I returned to Spanish lessons once more. My teacher, Maria Antonia, from Cuba had me working hard. 
A special treat was celebration at the school with Victor the director of the school, to celebrate La Dia de los Reyos Majos, January 6, the day when the Three Kings visit the baby Jesus.
My teacher, Maria, also invited her student to share the celebration in her home. (Maria is 3rd from the left, next to her mother, with whom she lives. Ray was happy to share in the celebration as well.
A special cake, in the shape of a crown, is prepared to share with family and friends. Good luck for the year is guaranteed for those lucky enough to find a small, plastic baby Jesus in their slice of cake. It was not my lucky year, but I am not worried.

I was glad when there was more than just me to struggle with remembering everything I had learned before but had inconveniently forgotten. If I chose to continue next year, I hope Marti, from Colorado and Daniel, from Montreal, are in my class. I left with advice to practice, listen and read Spanish.

Patti still has her yoga studio in Puerto Morelos and I thoroughly enjoyed my sessions. I will be sure to continue with Patti next year.