Saturday, November 5, 2016

Two holidays merge in Playa del Carmen

Playa is one of those places where you find yourself in the middle of something special every day, and autumn is no exception.  The fall holidays of “Halloween” celebrated on October 31st in North American and the Mexican “Día de Muertos” on November 1st have much more in common than you might think.  Both are major celebrations in Playa del Carmen, with some very interesting shared aspects.

What they have in common

Halloween is a shorted form of the event, All Hallows Evening.  It is widely believed that this holiday comes from Celtic harvest festivals and was later Christianized as Halloween.   In the U.S. and México, Halloween is a night of celebration, costumes, trick-or-treating and parties. In other parts of the world, Christian communities celebrate Halloween by attending church, lighting candles by the graves of their dead and eating certain food on this vigil day.   Although Halloween is a more commercial and secular celebration in North America, its roots are very similar to the ones from the Mexican holiday.

Día de Muertos is a Mexican celebration that dates from ancient pre-Columbian cultures. The festival known today as Día de Muertos fell in the 9th month of the Aztec calendar, about the beginning of august and was celebrated for an entire month.  The celebrations were dedicated to the goddess “The Lady of the Dead” (Mictecacihuatl) known today as “La Catrina”.  After the colonization, gradually the dates were moved to November 1st and 2nd to coincide with Western Christian triduum of All Hallow Tide.

Mexican traditions during this holiday include visiting the grave sites of loved ones, decorating them with flowers, and setting up altars to their deceased loves one with offerings like food, candles, flowers, candies and music.  Usually the offerings are based on the favorite foods that the deceased person once loved.

The altar itself has a purpose and a deep meaning as it represents the travel of the deceased to the land of the living for one day. The offerings are usually the same you would give a loved one visiting your house.   Some items include things such as a figure of a dog to keep the deceased company on his/her way back to the land of the dead.

Playa is keeping up with the Holidays

On vacation one thing you know for sure you’ll take back home is a great experience.   Playa lives up to its potential and this year was no different. The Halloween celebrations went through the roof last Monday.  The worldwide famous 5th Avenue was filled with thousands of tourists and residents wearing their best costumes. 

Every year the streets are filled early in the evening with kids and their parents trick-or-treating, taking pictures and admiring all the amazing costumes parading through 5th Avenue.   Late in the evening the adult costume parade begins and the party starts. Every night club hosts special parties with amazing decorations, costume contests with great prizes and incredible shows.  Weekend is just a word with no meaning in Playa, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Monday or Friday, the party goes on all night and you can see costumes in several stages of decay.

As Halloween goes by Día de Muertos is ready to take over the holidays with very special and incredible celebrations.  The best theme park in the Mexican Caribbean, Xcaret, hosts a great event called Festival de Vida y Muerte from October 30th to November 2nd.   This special event is an extreme cultural experience with music, performances, decoration, special effects and history.  Famous national singers perform at this special ceremony to honor the death.   

Xcaret is celebrating its 25th anniversary and this year’s celebration will be very special.  5th avenue is decorated with Catrina, flowers and perforated paper, special food is offered in several restaurants such as pan de muerto, calaveritas de azucar and many other traditional dishes for the day.

So now you know whether you are looking for a costume party or an intense cultural experience, Playa has it for you.  Playa is a cosmopolitan place with residents from all around the globe. This gorgeous city by the sea is embracing several worldwide holidays and we are loving it. We have our eyes set for this year’s Thanksgiving and we are sure it’s going to be great!

Did you know... ?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

One might think that in Mexico Thanksgiving is either non-existent or quite dissimilar to turkey day in the USA.  And in many senses you would be right.  However in many other degrees you would be dead wrong.  

This year we hosted an event with over 50 people, mostly Americans and Canadians living in Mexico from a couple of weeks a year to year round.  We hosted the event in the entryway to our condo complex under 2 large palapa (thatched) roofs.  Tables, chairs and tablecloths were ordered for the event and showed up the morning of, and had to be assembled.  We bought 5 turkeys which we distributed between various attendees to cook and bring.  Brent Parkin was also hired to play live music.  Then each guests brought the equivalent of $10 USD to cover the cost of items purchased/rented. Guests were also required to bring a dish to share (and their own beverages).

It's not like having dinner at home with family, but it's the next best thing.  We have made some wonderful friends, and by being inclusive we are always making more.  Our friends (who we now consider like family) have made our experience here in Playa del Carmen wonderful.  The sense of love, family and sharing one might feel at a USA Thanksgiving is just as strong south of the border at our turkey day event.

Me chatting with Larry and Leslie

Brent Parkin

Brie, Jackson and me.

Some of the spread.

Mary, Dan and Neil

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Recovering Scottie's Lost Ipad

After I found Allan's lost iphone (see entry: I guess word has got around that I'm fairly good at tracking down lost Apple devices.  Last week my friend Scottie called me and reported she lost her ipad and wanted my help in finding it.  Most likely she left it in a taxi in Playa upon returning from her trip to Guatemala.  I, of course, was up for the challenge.

An ipad is tricker to find then an iphone as the iphone with a paid data plan (unlike the ipad) has a built in internet signal which can be tracked by GPS.  Luckily Scottie had the Apple iCloud program activated on her ipad which allows for global device tracking.  Otherwise it would have been impossible. Using Scottie's iCloud login information in my web browser I entered into the find my device application.  On a global map the application can pinpoint the exact building the device is in. Unfortunately Scottie's ipad was not connected to a wireless network so it did not appear on a map.  And since she required a security code to use the ipad, it was not likely anyone was going to get back the opening login screen, never mind actually connecting it to the web.

Through the iCloud program I set the ipad to lost mode which not only will tell me where the ipad is, but where it has been.  I also set a message on the lock screen of the ipad (in Spanish - which reads "reward - [my cell phone number]".  So if anyone tried to login they would see the reward note and hopefully call.  We were willing to pay anyone some money for it - no questions asked. And that was really the goal - just to get it back.

I checked the find my device application day and night to no avail.  It was "offline" and until it was connected "online" or someone saw my reward note and called, I should expect to hear nothing.  A week passed, and then my phone rang.  A (Mexican) gentleman said he saw my reward note on the ipad.  He had bought the ipad off a taxi driver for $3,000 pesos and was told it was unlocked and just needed to be configured.  I explained it was my Ipad, that I left it in a taxi and asked him if he got a license plate or taxi number off the taxi, to which he replied negatively.  I offered him less than half of what he was asking.  He then responded he was out all this money and wanted at least half.  I agreed.

He lived across the highway and I asked him to take a taxi to meet me which I would pay for in addition to the cost of the ipad.  I was busy in a meeting so I could not go.  He agreed to come, but after one hour he did not show.  Thus began my texting and calling him and his not responding/answering.  Finally he answered and mentioned he was scared I was going to get him in trouble - was going to blame him.  I assured him I just wanted "my" ipad back. I added his number to the contacts on my cell phone and then added him to the free messaging program, Whats App, in hopes his profile photo would appear.  He had a photo of his baby in his profile photo, so I messaged him and said I had a lot of photos of my baby on the ipad which i really wanted.  I was trying to appeal to his fatherly instincts.  The ipad that once felt like it was in my grip was slipping away.

My calling and texting went on and off for about 2 hours and continued even into a dinner with clients who thought the whole experience was interesting and entertaining.  I called my friend Scottie and asked if I should offer the full amount he lost - $3,000 pesos. She agreed, so i texted him and sure enough he called back and agreed to meet me on 5th Avenue and 30th Street at Ah Cacao.

After 20 minutes had passed I texted him asking where he was.  He responded asking what I was wearing.  I told him and then he walks over with the ipad under his shirt. I literally said "why do you have the ipad under your shirt?"  He said something like he was afraid the cops would think he was doing something with the ipad.  I offered to buy him a coffee and we sat down as I logged into the ipad to make sure everything was there.

For some reason the ipad acted as if it was being registered for the first time. I'm not sure if someone tried to wipe it off or whether this was just a feature of it being placed in lost mode. Regardless at the login screen it asked for the original icloud login information from Scottie, which I provided, and then it asked me to restore the ipad from Scottie's last back up, which I did.  We had a nice conversation about work and life and then I paid him and went back to my dinner.

In short everything was there. Scottie got her ipad paying less than it would have cost to replace the one she had with far less hassle. The ipad guy got his money back. The taxi driver got away a thief among the other nameless 1,800 other drivers in town.  I was told it was no use even reporting it as the taxi union nor the police would do anything.  I believe Scottie reported it to the taxi union but without a plate or a taxi number there was nothing  that could be done.  And i got away feeling really good that I helped a friend. It was also very entertaining playing detective!!!  All in all I think all parties left feeling satisfied.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Grasshoppers on the Menu at Barro Negro

We met friends, Chris and Betsy, for lunch at the new restaurant Barro Negro in the old Origines building on the corner of 38th Street and Flamingo Avenue.  The waiter handed us menus in English which listed grasshoppers as a primary ingredient in several dishes.  We thought surely this was a mistake.  We asked the waiter who confirmed there was no translation issue - they were serving grasshoppers.

The server at Barro Negro explained that in the Oaxaca region of Mexico grasshoppers are a staple in the daily diet.  He then brought over some miniature dried and salted grasshoppers with lime for us to try.  I refused at first since I am not much of an adventurous eater, but after Chris, Betsy and Allan tried them and said they were good I figured what the heck.  They were a bit crunchy but really all you could taste was the salt and lime so it really did not taste like I was eating an insect. Betsy, who spent her child hood in Hong Kong said outside the Western diet, grasshoppers are on the menu in pretty much every other culture.

The waiter also brought over some grasshopper powder with salt and lime which some apply to the rim of cocktail glasses.  I had enough insects for the day so I passed on trying this one, but everyone else said it was good.  Allan was so inspired he ordered sautéed grasshoppers as his main dish and commented they were very good. I opted for a duck toastada with tomatoes, peppers, cheese and avocado - it was delicious.   In short I would say the food at Barro Negro (for grasshopper fans and those not) is really good but the drinks are very expensive - cokes are about $3 USD - more than twice what they normally are.

Barro Negro Menu

My delicious toastada which I split with Chris

Grasshopper powder

Chris enjoys dry, salted grasshopper with lime

Out of Work Sign

I found a sign on a non functioning door at the Plaza las America's mall which made me chuckle.  It's an example of how someone should check with a native speaker when trying to translate Spanish into English.  I understand in Spanish this sign says the door is out of service.  In English I'm led to believe the door is out of work and looking for a job...  I guess even doors need a hand once in a while.

I remember when we started putting for rent signs at some of our homes and instead of correctly putting "se renta" (for rent) I accidentally put "en renta" which is bad Spanish.  Perhaps I should start taking my own advice!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Guanajuato, Mexico

Nestled high in a valley between the Sierra Mountain Mountains rests the lovely colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico.  Allan and I visited for a few days after it had been recommended to us by friends, some of whom claimed it was better than San Miguel de Allende.  I must say we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.

Approaching Guanajuato for the first time is quite impressive especially if you drive through one of the many tunnels below the city.  The tunnels are a maze work of manmade wonder, and it's almost like driving through an aqueduct.  Guanajuato used to have a large river that ran through it, which flooded a great deal and consequently caused a lot of problems.  So the locals took the river and rerouted it underneath the city and the tunnels, making Guanajuato a city of several layers with the street traffic on one level, underground tunnels on another and the river below it all.  It's quite a site to see.

Street level the city if a wash of pastel colored colonial buildings, beautiful parks with palm trees and lots or ornate stonework.  It's a very young city with the University of Guanajuato bringing in a lot of young life to the otherwise quiet city. Ironically with such a young population, it's very quiet at night.  There are not many bars and at 11pm at night the streets seem almost like a ghost town.  To its benefit Guanajuato has almost no vice like you might find in other spots.

Unlike Playa Guanajuato is mostly filled with Mexicans (this is Mexico, after all!!).  It was strange having street vendors solicit the local crowd but avoid our table.  We think because they are not used to seeing gringos and are probably intimidated by the fact we speak English and they most likely do not.  We certainly enjoyed being in the real Mexico and appreciated getting away from vacation land for a few days.

One of the highlights of Guanajuato, at least for me, was the mummy exhibit.  About 150 years ago the local government started exhuming bodies of those who could not pay to keep their relatives interred. The remains appear to be from a Cholera outbreak in 1833 and only about 2% of the bodies exhumed were mummified.  The quality and variety of the mummies is so great they opened a museum which has gained worldwide fanfare.  There is everything from a mummified fetus, to a French doctor, to someone who was buried alive.  Many mummies still have hair on their heads and bodies!

Besides the museum we visited the Pípila, a monument on a hill over looking the whole city. To get to the museum you take the funicular up to the top for a breathtaking view of the gorgeous city.  You really get a nice overview of Guanajuato.  We grouped the museum together with a visit to the central market with its many booths and crowded isles.  You can buy anything from local produce and meats to corny souvenirs and some local handicrafts.  It's certainly worth a visit.

Other than the museum and monument we really didn't do much besides walk around and take in the beauty of the city.  We tried to visit the home of Diego Rivera, which has now been made into a museum but it's closed on Mondays.  For meals, we had a hard time finding good restaurants and found if we strayed from the Trip Advisor top 20 the food tended to be less than wonderful.

Overall we loved Guanajuato: there is a lot to do and the locals were very nice. It's a picturesque city with lovely architecture.  On the downside there is not a lot of night life and my allergies really acted up.  We enjoyed visiting but are looking forward to returning home to Playa del Carmen.

The balcony of our hotel room

Allan gets into the act with a local street entertainer

Me atop the Pípila

View from the Pípila

Allan at the Central Market

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Dolores de Hidalgo and La Gruta

The small town of Dolores de Hidalgo sits roughly an hour to the north of San Miguel de Allende. It's well known for it's lovely pottery and for it's role in Mexico's independence.  In 1810 Father Hidalgo uttered his famous cry for independence from Spain, which helped to propel Mexico's war of independence and landed the town forever in Mexico's history.  Of course Allan and I not being history buffs, we visited just for the great ceramics and for the hot springs which sit between San Miguel and Dolores de Hidalgo.

We hired a taxi out of San Miguel for a short, few hour round trip voyage north first to La Gruta and then to Dolores de Hidalgo.  La Gruta is a nice little retreat with several hot spring pools, a few "normal temperature" pools, a restaurant and some rooms for those who want to stay over night.  You can certainly spend the whole day here basking in the waters, going from hot to cold, and getting served in the water from waiters offering anything from food to your favorite adult beverages. I wouldn't say the report is up scale, but it is very nice and well worth the visit.  There are changing rooms and lockers onsite but you should bring your towel.

At first I was apprehensive about taking the plunge as I'm not a fan of public pools.  I guess I think they are not as hygienic.  However, once I put my foot into the 90+ F degree water I was hooked and jumped right in (as did Allan).  A tunnel connects one pool to an inclosed structure covered in stone, much like a large spa. This is where the hot water plummets into the pool from a pipe above.  Allan and I only stayed about 1/2 hour in the water - much longer and we would have been falling asleep from being too comfortable!!

From the hot springs, it was another short 1/2 hour ride into Dolores de Hidalgo.  We really just hit a few pottery shops and bought a few items at a fraction of the price they would be in Playa.  I did not bother to buy a whole ceramic dining set, which many do.  I guess I did not think I would need or use it. In retrospect I am wishing I did.

Other than the pottery shops which are more like small nondescript factories, we did not do anything else in Dolores de Hidalgo.  We did not visit the church or statue of Hidalgo. We were satisfied being superficial shoppers who were anxious to get back to San Miguel de Allende.  Door to door we were back in San Miguel in less than 3 hours, feeling quite tired from the very relaxing hot spring.

Allan at La Guta

Me in the tunnel between the pool and where the water pours in

Pottery shopping

Some of my acquisitions