Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yucatecan Still Lifes: Ticul, Tecoh, Tekit

I took three days right after Christmas and drove around southern Yucatán, an area that I don't know well. I plan to write more about that trip, but meanwhile am posting a few extra pictures that I took along the way.

Ticul, Yucatàn: hat on a pew. I spent a night in Ticul, famous for clay pottery and a rustic red limestone that is very popular for finish work in construction in Mexico. In the morning after breakfast I walked across the street to the church, which was pretty much empty except for two very old men praying in one of the chapels. Apparently one left his Panama near the entrance as he came in.

Niche in the church, Tecoh. I stopped in the pueblo of Tecoh my first morning, after a couple of hours on the road, to take a short rest break. I walked through the church, took a couple of pictures including this one, and afterward stumbled upon a wonderful bakery, Panaderia Mayapàn, where I bought a bagfull of orejas and polvorones. I crossed the street and sat on a bench in the beautifully-tended garden of the main square, eating the delicious cookies.

Christmas tree in the chapel, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. I stopped by to visit Jonathan Harrington at his hacienda near Tekit. He has a tiny Christmas tree (on the small table) in the old chapel there.

Spare room, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. This is one of the rooms of the old casona on the hacienda, which Jonathan uses as a catch-all for storage of tools and materials. The roof caved in long ago, and when Jonathan bought the place, he built a new roof structure with trees from the land. A couple years back, I bought four of the old ceiling beams, which had rotted on the ends but were still solid in the middle. I trimmed them down to solid wood and they now form part of a structure in my patio in Merida.

Floor detail, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Unique Christmas

Unooo, dozzz, trezzz, cuatrooo....

I was walking down a pedestrian-only street toward Mèrida's Mercado Lucas Galvez this morning to make a couple of last-minute purchases when I stopped to listen to this Salvation Army children's chorus. I wasn't terribly interested in diving into the crowds of last-minute shoppers, but this little break and the energy of the music gave me the fortitude to move ahead and get my errands finished. Along the way, I was able to stop for a minute to admire the many varieties of piñatas available this time of year for holiday parties.

I have participated in traditional, Mexican Christmases in the past and I had figured on blogging about that over the holidays. Most people here celebrate Christmas on December 24, La Noche Buena, and the day consists of being together with family, for faithful Catholics attending a late night mass or having a religious observance at home or with neighbors, and preparing and eating a meal together. Christmas trees, piles of presents, and Santa Claus are not such a big deal around here. This year after all I am not attending a family celebration, but there are many other things that make Christmas in Yucatàn unique for me.

Poinsettias, or Nochebuenas, are native to Mexico and although not indigenous to Yucatàn, large, tree-sized specimens can be seen growing in gardens along the roadside here. At least six color varieties have been commercialized and sold all over Mexico and exported. Yesterday on a drive in the country I saw this display, which included Nochebuenas, at a humble roadside shrine. These altars are common sites along roads. Friends or relatives of persons who passed away in highway accidents mark the location where the person's soul left his or her body by making a small altar on the spot. Someone also had planted two small plumeria trees, known in Mexico as flor de mayo. It is probable that these plants were favorites of the deceased or came from his/her garden.

Noche Buena beer is a Christmas season tradition in Mexico. This delicious amber beer is only available for a few weeks around the holidays. It reminds me a lot of Alaskan Amber, brewed in my hometown of Juneau. I have been nursing a twelve-pack for about a week now. I probably will buy another and hold onto it for awhile, to be able to savor this special seasonal brew into the new year.

Another holiday special that keeps giving in the new year: I have tomatoes ripening in my garden. Northerners are not accustomed to this. I expect to begin eating this new crop of tomatoes in the early weeks of 2010; it's a New Year's blessing available only to those living in the tropics.

Last Monday I went to a Christmas music concert at Mèrida's Cathedral of San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in Latin America. The cathedral was built in the early 1500's with stones taken by the Spaniards from the Mayan pyramid that stood on a site, just across the street, which afterward became Mèrida's zocalo, or main square. The concert was played on the cathedral's recently-restored organ, and sung by the children's and adult choirs of the cathedral. It is amazing to consider that nearly 500 Christmases have been celebrated in this building. The sound of the huge organ fills the cavernous space with vibrations. It's like being inside an enormous speaker. The human voices, though small, are clearly and sweetly audible over the organ's power.

Speaking of music, the last stop on my excursion yesterday was Izamal, about an hour's drive from Mèrida, where I ate a delicious roast-chicken lunch and visited the local pyramids. Izamal is one of Mexico's "Magic Pueblos," due to its superb colonial architecture, vast old convent and church, and ancient Mayan sites, including two pyramids right in town. The larger one, according to my calculations, covers a little over nine acres. Information I found online indicates that the Great Pyramid in Egypt covers about 13 acres. That makes this little-known pyramid in Izamal pretty darned huge. It is possible to see a great distance and spot many far-flung pueblos and haciendas from its peak. I climbed to the top to enjoy the view, and as I rested there, slightly out of breath, heard faint singing. Moments later the wind must have shifted, because suddenly the music became much clearer. It was then I could identify a child singing "Silent Night." The tender, fluting voice rose to my ears from somewhere in the pueblo far below as I sat almost alone high atop this fantastic work of ancient Mayan engineering, "Noche de paz, noche de amor..." What a wonderful Christmas gift, among many.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Friday, December 18, 2009

Food: Dulce de Papaya

The holidays are a time to get together with friends and family, and social get-togethers often revolve around food. Here is a recipe I'll be preparing for the holidays. It's probably not too useful for my readers in the north where green papaya is not available, but for what it's worth, here it is. Variations undoubtedly would work with other fruits.

I have never been a huge fan of papaya. I can eat it mixed in a fruit salad, and it's OK with a little lemon or lime juice, but there is something about the blandness that doesn't always agree with me. However, I eat a bit of papaya from time to time, and along with other fruit and vegetable trimmings from my kitchen, the uneaten parts end up as compost in the garden.

The result was this past year that seeds germinated and I have two large papaya plants in my back yard. I don't really have room for what amount to small trees, but I was curious and decided to let them be, just to watch them grow. Some months later, the plants are over ten feet/three meters tall, and producing fruit. I was wondering what I was going to do with all that papaya, when a friend of mine showed me how to make "dulce de papaya," or candied papaya, with unripe, green fruit. It is very tasty, and the flavor barely resembles that of mature papaya. Here's the recipe.

You need: green papayas; sugar; cinnamon; water; large deep skillet or stew pot with lid; sharp knife. There are no fixed quantities. This example was done with a small papaya of about 3 pounds/1.5 kilograms. You'll have to try it and adjust the recipe to your tastes.

Peel the papaya. As you do this you may want occasionally to rinse the sap that comes out by dunking the fruit in the sink or putting it under running water. The sap of the unripe fruit is strong and exposure may cause skin irritation. When the papaya is peeled, let it soak for a few minutes to remove more of the juices from the surface so it is easier to handle.

Cut the papaya in half and scoop out seeds. The fruit is hard, about the consistency of raw potato. This is a "Maradol" papaya. Some, like this example, are seedless.

Slice and soak the pieces in water for awhile to leach out more of the sap. Some cooks at this point suggest soaking the pieces in a solution of lime in water, I assume to counteract the acidity of the juices. I have tried it both with a lime solution and with plain water, and don't notice any difference in the end product. It's easier to skip the lime.

When the soaking process is about done, carmelize about a cup of sugar in the bottom of your skillet or pot. Lightly stir the papaya slices in the molten sugar for a few minutes, watching carefully to avoid burning the sugar. Slowly add water to partially cover the fruit. Break up and add cinnamon. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, gently stirring occasionally, until papaya begins to soften.
The papaya will take on a red-brown color. Add more sugar if you want it really sweet. Cook until the pieces reach almost the texture you want. If you want the results a bit firm, remove promptly. Drain papaya and allow to air dry until the surface is no longer wet. Sometimes in this climate anything sweet and moist will attract fruit flies. If this is a problem, I position a fan to blow over the drying fruit. This cools and dries it faster, and keeps flying insects away. To me dulce de papaya tastes best when still warm, but it will keep for days in the refrigerator and makes a nice dessert served chilled. I think it would be good with whipped cream on top. Some people sprinkle a little sugar or drizzle honey on the papaya when serving. I like it plain.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I just got back from a visit to Alaska. It's always a great pleasure to return, catch up with family and good friends, revisit favorite places and gaze at the very mountains that exist unchanged from my earliest memories.
It's a long trip that I have made dozens of times and it has become routine, but I have learned to enjoy the familiar transitions along the way. The journey typically begins as I lug bags past my hammock and under the arches of the patio to board an early morning taxi that delivers me to one of Mèrida's bus stations, and a morning bus, le lujo class (movies with headphones, drinks, recliner seats, nice bathrooms), for the four-hour trip from Mèrida to Cancun. It is easy to sleep on the ride; the scenery along the modern Mèrida-Cancun toll road is mostly the uniform green of the flat, forested Yucatecan plains. There isn't much variety in the view. I always plan a couple of extra hours for this trip, to allow for weather or bus problems, and normally arrive in Cancun with a little time on my hands. It has become my habit to trail my luggage out of the Cancun bus terminal, and eat a hearty lunch of enchiladas or a burger, followed by leisurely cups of coffee over the newspaper, at the Sanborn's restaurant across the street. Sanborn's is a large chain and a Mexican institution; I remember in the early 90's arriving in Guadalajara fresh from Barrow, and going to eat in the first restaurant I saw: a Sanborn's. Since then, Sanborn's restaurants have been a reliable and comfortable place to go when I visit larger cities in Mexico.

After lunch, I cross back to the bus station and grab an airport bus, and upon arrival at the airport board a shuttle or take the ten-minute walk over to the new Terminal 3. The first order of business is to go to the Immigration counter for an exit visa. Next, to Alaska Airlines to check in, and afterward to pass through security into the boarding area. The new terminal was designed so that it is impossible to get to the boarding gates without walking through the duty free shops, which in addition to tequila sell exactly the same types of expensive perfumes, designer watches and other "luxury" products seen in duty-free shops the world over. Here, sunburned tourists can squeeze some final moments of enjoyment from their vacation by maxing out their credit cards, if they haven't done so already. Personally, I walk quickly though Duty Free. Once through the gauntlet, there's plenty of time to get a latte and relax.
It's a more-than-five-hour flight from Cancun to Seattle, which these days is my port of entry into the United States. Alaska Airlines has added additional flights and this is a good one; in the past we normally passed though customs and immigration in the noisy chaos of always-under-construction LAX before a circuitous walk to a different terminal and encounters with hollering, cocky TSA employees, in order to board the connecting flight. The direct Seattle flight saves time and line-standing energy, and at Seatac the formalities are calm, friendly and efficient. My itineraries usually include a long stopover in Seattle, arriving late in the evening and boarding a northbound flight early in the morning. Often I pass the seven or so hours on a favorite couch in a little nook of concourse "C" at the airport. It is secure and quiet after midnight and the only people you see are the cleaning crew. It is easy to sleep if you don't mind being watched by security cameras as you do so. I don't mind because I can really sleep; there isn't much worry that someone will pick my pockets or snatch my bag. And, mornings are calm there because my bags are checked through and I haven't passed outside of airport security. I simply wash up and change shirts in the spacious restroom, eat breakfast, buy a paper and coffee and wait to board my plane.
Occasionally in Seattle, I work out a longer stopover and go into the city. This recent trip was one of those. A friend since my Anchorage days in the early '80's, Paul picked me up at the terminal, and I spent a pleasant 22 hours in Seattle, hanging out on the houseboat he lives in on Lake Union, eating out, and catching up. My family lived in Seattle for several years when I was small; it's always interesting to look around and discover that, despite all of the growth and changes, many of the familiar landmarks of my childhood are still there.

Flying to Alaska from Seattle is always the same: there are friends and familiar faces on the plane. I often get to talking with old friends, former neighbors, coworkers or ex-students in the boarding area. Sometimes I see people I haven't seen in years, or decades. It's always interesting, and time spent waiting to get on the plane passes quickly.

Arriving in Sitka or Juneau, I am always struck first by the cool moisture of the clean-scented air, something that it's easy to take for granted when you live in Southeast Alaska all the time, but when I have been away, it is the first thing I notice. The exact nature of this aroma of home is something a little beyond words that revives distant memories and awakens feelings. When I walk off the plane, I know exactly where I am.

Speaking of home, sometimes when I pass through immigration when returning to the States, the officer who stamps my passport will say, "welcome home," as he or she returns it. Since I was born and lived most of my life in Alaska, it will always be home, however in more recent years I also feel very much en casa, at home, in Mexico. After my visit up north, I arrived back in Mèrida late in the evening a couple of nights ago, and in the morning when I woke up there was nothing to eat in the house. I decided to walk the three blocks to the market at Parque Santiago, where there are some small restaurant stalls, planning to order an omelet. When I arrived, the hot, tangy aroma of choco lomo, a breakfast broth with chunks of beef and served with onions, radish, cilantro, sour orange wedges and tortillas -- a very traditional Yucatecan breakfast -- reached my nostrils. I used to eat this breakfast when I first bought the Mèrida house, before I fixed it up and put in a working kitchen. Eating choco lomo is among my first warm memories of living in Yucatàn, and the unique smell brings back the sentiments and memories of those first exciting days here.

I said "buenos dias" to the couple I sat down next to and ordered the choco lomo, with a Coke. Very Yucatecan. When it came, I put the garnishes in my broth, broke up the meat and liver chunks and began eating the meat rolled up in tortillas. It really tastes great contrasted with the cold, fizzy cola, sucked through a straw from the green glass bottle. A young man who makes his living selling sweets in the park whipped the tray off his head to display his wares and asked me if I wanted a meringue. An older man played an electronic keyboard and sang traditional songs for tips just down the corridor. It's interesting, but I realized while eating that breakfast that Yucatàn no longer feels foreign to me. I seem to be "going home" when traveling in either direction.