Monday, May 28, 2012

Pasta Anyone?

Merida Mexico examples of "Pasta" tile floors in Colonial homes
Pasta Tiles
A few ingredients, a little mixing, and let it dry.  Viola!  Pasta Mosaico.  Feasts for the eyes, pasta tiles are the Persian rugs of the Yucatan and a prized element in any colonial home.

Once upon a time, Spanish Galleons were loaded with them.  Used as ship’s ballast for the trip across the ocean, they would be left scattered on the beach discarded to make room for gold and other treasures to be stored in the ship’s hold.   It didn’t take long for the locals to make good use of them.  In a hot climate, these cool, colorful tiles made the perfect flooring for their homes.  

Janalo’ob of the Yucatan

One of the great pleasures of house sitting in a new place is trying the local cuisine.  Food varies greatly from region to region in Mexico and Yucatecan cuisine, in particular the Mayan dishes, offer their own unique ingredients and distinct flavors.  So what’s janalo’ob? It’s the Mayan word for food.  

We discovered the main reason food in the Yucatan is so different from other parts of Mexico has to do with the geography of the area. Until the mid-50's, the Yucatan peninsula was difficult to reach.  Mountains and poor roads kept the peninsula isolated from the rest of Mexico. The port cities of the Yucatan had more contact with New Orleans, Cuba, France, Spain and other parts of Europe, influencing their food choices. One of the major differences is the food is not as hot with spices as we’ve found in other areas of Mexico.

Another defining influence is the locally grown foods like Chaya, a leafy green used in everything from drinks to dips.  There’s also a popular meat marinade based on sour orange juice, called pibil.  Use of the sour orange probably originated from the Seville oranges of Spain, arriving here with the Conquistadors.

Cochinita Pibil, our personal favorite so far, is pork  marinated in achiote paste, (from the annatto seed), sour orange juice, peppercorns, garlic, and salt.  Wrapped in banana leaves and baked, it’s served piping hot with pickled red onions, black beans, rice and tortillas. Add a couple of cervezas and it’s a meal to die for.  The only difficulty we have with Mayan food is ordering it.  It's just not easy to say "I'd like some Ya'ach'bil with my Tikin xic and ch'ujuko'ob".

Survival Tactics

Electric "Fry" Swatters
Until a couple of months ago neither of us had ever seen an electric mosquito/fly swatter. If you haven’t yet come across one, just imagine a tennis racket with cross hatched wires stretched across the area where the strings would be. The handle holds two "D" cell batteries or a rechargeable plug in device. To use the swatter, you depress a button on the handle and swing it at the offending pest and zzzzap, it’s fried.

Rick at the ready
Our friends Mike and Donna gave us one as a gift just before we left California to begin our house sitting adventure.  Mike said we would surely need it to defend ourselves from the mosquitos in Mexico. Unfortunately, the swatter wouldn’t fit into the small amount of luggage we brought so it was left behind.

When we arrived in Merida the homeowner showed us around the house and provided us with ideas as to how we could stay comfortable inside as well as outside. Guess what? Strategically placed around house and patio were three of the swatters in a variety of colors. Turns out they are quite popular here. We quickly discovered why, there are mucho mosquitos! Colleen quit counting she was bitten so often. I was luckier, or maybe just not as tasty to the little buzz bombs. Deciding not to let them get the best of us, we slathered with repellant cream and, swatter in hand, met the challenge head on.

Now, in the afternoon when it’s time to see if the hammock still works, I use one hand to hold the adult beverage and the other at the ready with my "fry" swatter.  

Green Gold

We followed our Mayan guide through what was once a large henequen field, stopping here and there as he pointed out stone work that had transported water for irrigation.  “Mayan” he would say, indicating the well-worn limestone channels.   We were at Hacienda Yaxcopoil, touring one of the great haciendas and henequen plantations of the late 19th and early 20th century.   As we returned to the main building, he pointed to the stone stairway and again said “Mayan”.

Visiting the Haciendas was something I looked forward to as part of our adventure in Merida.  I had only a vague notion of their history.   Much of the land surrounding Merida belonged to the Indigenous people and had been sites of Mayan cities, temples and pyramids.  When the Spanish arrived and took the land, they created cattle ranches and farms and the haciendas were born.  Many of these haciendas that are today so beautiful to behold, were built atop of, and from the stones of,  these Mayan cities.  Yaxcopoil is one such hacienda.

It is a bittersweet experience to visit the haciendas, much like going to see the cotton plantations of the American South.   Planted with a type of agave plant called henequen, the Mayans were enslaved to work the fields, harvest the henequen and process it into sisal.  Sisal, a valuable commodity used around the world to make ropes, ship’s rigging, and twine came to be known as “green gold”.   Like cotton, it created fortunes for a few, but made life desperately hard for the many.  The rein of henequen ended when synthetics were developed, replacing the need for sisal.

Today’s haciendas range in condition from mere piles of rubble overtaken by jungle, to luxury resorts.  Many are open to the public and can be visited.  Some are private.  A few, such as Yaxcopoil, are museums kept in the style of the time, devoted to telling the poignant tale of the green gold.  

Kitchens were apart from the main house

Henequen processing machinery

Mayan artifacts from the property

Metates y manos

Tortilla Shopping & A Lesson in the Metric System

How many gramos?

House sitting in a foreign country has a variety of challenges. Not least among them is shopping for groceries.  We have been in Merida, Mexico for two weeks now and have been trying out the different local markets, mostly buying fruits and vegetables which only keep a couple of days in this climate.  These markets are not traditional stores as we think of them, but groups of vendors in an open air setting, mixed in with little stands selling cooked foods, flowers, meat and poultry, and tortillas. 

Tortillas, one of the typical Mexican staple foods that we enjoyed in the US are purchased daily here, fresh and so hot you can’t hold them in your hand.  In the US we bought them off the supermarket shelf in a plastic bag by the dozen.  In Mexico, things are sold by the kilogram which is 2.2 lbs.  Can you imagine how many tortillas there are in 2.2 pounds?  Well, we found out.  It’s a lot. More than we could eat in a week, maybe even two weeks.
Merida Mexico tortilla making maching in operation
Making tortillas

In our defense, we are from the United States.  You know, the country that refused to switch to the metric system that the rest of the world uses?  So we’re often confused, quickly trying to convert ounces and pounds, to grams and kilograms. And, although we are learning Spanish, we easily get flustered when we’re actually called upon to speak it, so we tend to nod a lot and make silly hand motions trying to indicate things like quantity.  So that’s how we ended up with a 12” stack of tortillas. (Okay, it was a 30 centimeter stack of tortillas!)

The next time we went to the market we kept an eye on the locals, listened to what they ordered, and learned from them.  "Doscientos gramos tortillas por favor" (200 grams) and we were on our way, feeling quite proud, with a little over a dozen, fresh off the griddle, mouthwatering tortillas.  

Now, if we could just figure out what to do with those 3 kilos of peanuts….

Beetle Bling

Merida Mexico beetles with Jewelry decoration
Having traveled in Mexico for many years, I've seen some interesting things for sale.  I am always impressed by the creativity of the street entrepreneurs.  There are the guys on the street offering to take your picture with the donkey painted to look like a Zebra and the vendors that will write your name on a grain of rice or sell you some Mexican jumping beans.  There are the people who want to offer you their giant iguana so you can be photographed with it - usually after you've had a few drinks.

Merida Mexico beetles for sale with Jewelry decoration Today at Santa Lucia park I saw one of the strangest ideas yet.  The woman had a small glass aquarium with twenty or so live beetle crawling around inside.  These were not your ordinary beetles.  They were beetles with bling.  Rhinestones, small gold chains, colorful bits of cut glass and paint adorned the backs of each beetle.  I couldn't resist asking her who bought them and what they used them for.  She smiled and said that people attach them to their shirts to wear as pins!  She generously offered to give me one, but I declined, explaining that we were only here house sitting temporarily and couldn't have pets.  Walking home I thought, if I had taken her up on her offer, I would have had to name it Elvis.

Welcome to Merida

Entering this home is like walking back in time.  We leave the cars, honking horns and speeding buses behind the double wooden front doors and immediately feel the cool calm of this graceful old colonial home.  The first thing I notice is the 16 foot ceilings that rise above us, braced by rough wooden vigas, interrupted by the occasional slowly spinning fan.  Underfoot, pasta tiles gleam, their once bright colors softened with age, their patterns a kaleidoscope that changes from room to room.  Archways, tile, wrought iron work are reminders of an era when everything was fashioned by hand.  White walls more than a foot thick insulate the house from the mid-day heat.  Tony and Nala, the two house dogs are sprawled on the floor, tongues out, trying to stay cool.  The cats, Scooby, Mickey D, Millie and Scrappy are napping underneath the shade of the backyard portico.  Beyond them, the walled garden’s main feature is the inviting blue pool.  Life here is lived according to temperature.  Nothing moves too fast.  I immediately feel like I should slow down too.  What is the hurry?  This is Merida, in the Yucatan, and this is where we will spend the next 7 weeks.  We are housesitting.

One Way Tickets - Our Story

We were sitting in the airport waiting for the flight home.  Neither of us wanted to go back.  We wanted to wash our clothes and go somewhere else that was new, some place different.  It wasn’t that we didn’t like our home or enjoy our life, but something else was calling to us.  The romantic thing would be to call it wonder lust.  Maybe we’d been subscribing to International Living magazine for too long.  Whatever it was, and is, it was a feeling that wouldn’t go away.

We did continue to go home though, trip after trip.  But we kept talking about how we could get away more often.  We could do house trades, or we could sell our house and all of our belongings, or we could get a house sitter, or we could rent out our house, or….our minds spun around and around unable to reach a conclusion.  Then we met Jillian on a trip to Mexico.  She was house sitting and had been for many years.  That was how she lived her life.  It seemed like something that we could do too.  It seemed like the time was right.

Two months later, we were listed on several websites seeking house sitting assignments.  All of our belongings were stashed in a 10x30 storage unit and our home was leased out for year.  We were ready to embark upon life on the road, with 2 carry-on suitcases each, 2 laptops, and a cell phone with an international calling plan.  

We’d done the research, lots of it.  We had applied for several house sitting opportunities, put together profiles and reference letters, interviewed via phone, e-mails and Skype.  Our bills were all paperless and accessible to pay on-line, what little mail we were expecting was going to a family member.  We’d notified banks and credit card companies of our plans, paid our taxes, had our teeth cleaned, visited our doctors for our annual physical exams, and stockpiled some prescription meds.  We did our best to cover all of our bases.  We let all of our friends know what we were doing and spent time with our families, encouraging everyone to get on Skype so we could stay connected.  Finally we were ready to go.  We were on a journey without a known ending.  We had one way tickets to Mexico!

We had an overnight flight to Cancun where we would spend the night before making a brief side trip to Tulum.  From there we would take a 4 hour bus ride to Merida where we would begin our first assignment.  My husband’s daughter dropped us at the airport and we were off.  We thought.  Oh, the best laid plans….