Grocery shopping has never been my favorite activity. I can stretch what’s left in the bottom of the veg bin or back of the pantry for days just to avoid the grocery store.
grew up in the 70’s and totally missed out on the pre-industrial food shopping experience in the US, after which grocery shopping became the final step in a food system designed for efficiency, profit margins and rationalizing ag subsidies.
From the shopping experience itself, to the quality of the food, grocery stores are not designed with people in mind. Especially busy, harried, female type people who are most often the ones dropping by the grocery store after work or early on a Saturday, with fussy toddlers or sulky teenagers, who know the promise of “Just need to pick up some milk” is going to result in an hour in the store, a huge cart of groceries, and your mom having at least 3 conversations with neighbor ladies doing the same schtick.
Or was that just my experience?
When I come back to the US after being gone for awhile, I always wince at the sheer number of choices available from the center aisles of the store, the majority of which are not really that good for you. How many different kinds of bread, or tuna varieties, packaged processed doo-dad snacks, or just plain soap do we need?
Color sells in Mexico
In Mexico, the big box experience has crept in, of course. Walmart has branded stores here and owns a big grocery chain, butting carts with home grown mega chains Chedraui and Soriana.
Luckily for me and the world, even Walmart and the rest of the Big Box Boys have met their match in Mexico. The takeover of the food shopping experience is not complete because it runs up against a very entrenched opponent - la cultura del mercado - the market culture, which is enabled to some degree by the fact that lots of small farms still exist in Mexico, too. Small farms have suffered and still do, but more have survived ag consolidation than in the US. (Although interestingly enough, the growth of small farms in US is on the rise again, and many of those are women owned. yay!)
Mexico has a large industrial ag complex that grows a lot of food for the US market, too, but it is very easy to still find small producers, especially in the Tianguis and mercados in small towns.
What is a Tiangui? And how do you say it? Glad you asked.
First you should know the difference between Mercado vs. Tianguis (Tee-ang-geez - geez with a hard g like "geezer")
A mercado is a built structure with walls and a roof. For example, the mercados near the Zocalo in Mexico City are carrying on a tradition that dates back thousands of years in the same place. You will find a mercado in the center of most towns, and in larger towns, there are several, serving different barrios.
The Abuela of all mercados in Mexico is La Merced in Mexico City, a fascinating city within a city. If you want to see it, you should go. We highly recommend going with a group on a guided tour, keep your phone on the down low, and watch your bag.
Tianguis are pop up markets - you will see them on certain days taking over some streets with colorful tarps. They are what we consider flea markets in the US, and often sell food as well as other merchandise. In Mexico City the tianguis have highly organized associations with some political clout which has given even the global Walmart juggernaut a pause. It is very common for the tianguis have all kinds of merchandise, including grocery type food - veg, meat, fruit, flowers, dairy.
I often see tianguis referred to as street markets or mercados in sources written in English. Now you know the difference.
When you go to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (because you must, it should be a bucket list item for everyone, it is worth its own trip to CDMX), you will find a display of fabulous dioramas of life in Mexico City before the Spanish took over. One of the scenes is of market day, and it is fascinating how similar it is to market day here in many areas of Mexico City and smaller towns all over the country.
There is another term - Abasto - this is the wholesale market where many of the restaurants, tiendas, tianguis and mercados stock up. You can find some stalls that will sell to individuals, but don’t expect to be able to buy less than a kilo of anything. One night late when we were driving back to CDMX from Oaxaca, we saw lots of trucks heading into the city to arrive at the Abasto and La Merced by the early morning. It made me think of the 24 hour rhythm that a city the size of CDMX needs to keep functioning.
I’ve made the point earlier in our blog that we are not foodies. What we are is picky.
I am picky about where our food comes from, especially meat. We also monitor our sugar intake as if it were a drug (because it is), so that involves reading lots of labels. I’ve learned the Spanish words for all sorts of varieties of sugar -fructose, sucrose, refined, etc.
Lastly, Sergio grew up shopping in los mercados and he likes to get the best deal possible. His Tia Coco would give him money to go buy something she forgot or was out of, he would talk the vendor down a bit and then pocket the difference. Arbitrage starts early in Mexico.
All of that means that we spend a lot of time on sourcing our dispensa (weekly basket of goods) and defending our food perimeter, something that foodies do as well. The good news is we have more choices here than just Whole Foods, which we don’t have at all, and I don’t miss it as I spend about half the $ on groceries as I used to when that was my main option.
Even so, prices are slightly higher in southern Baja due to the “island” effect that most everything has to be imported. I also suspect there are some anti-local economy policies coming out of central Mexico regarding protecting mainland producers - Baja is treated a little bit like a colony. More on that in a bit.
We recently had lunch in Los Cabos at a trendy “food hall” concept location. We were talking about Christmas Dinner and local meats. Sergio asked the busboy, the waiter, and one of the senora’s prepping tacos at her taco stand about local meat producers.
From that intel he learned there is a brand new Carnicería just opened in Los Cabos outside of San Jose. We stopped by to check it out.
We walk in and its big, bright and clean. The well-dressed owner is positioned in a supervisory role near the cash register (as most store owners are in Mexico). He is teaching his daughter how to ring up sales. His wife is standing nearby, too, sporting a big diamond ring, almost 2 carats. You don’t see that everyday in Mexico. Family business is still very common here, and apparently this one is doing well.
Even so, I still wouldn’t stand around a carnicería on the outskirts of town with my big diamond ring, even though we are in the Baja bubble, a state that has so far escaped the worst of the kidnapping and narco related violence that plagues central and northern Mexico.
Sergio says hello and asks about the meat. Is it organic? The owner knows his beef, or at least the buzz words. He speaks slowly and clearly, something I have noticed is common among some Mexicans with more formal education. It may be as a courtesy to me, too. He can tell I understand some Spanish but I haven't said much yet, so he's not sure how fluent I am.
He says the beef isn’t organic, because they don’t know if the animal was fed organic feed, (correct answer, by the way). He says the cattle are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
I ask, “Las vacas son de Baja?” Vaca is technically a cow, so I'm probably not saying it right, but he gets the gist.
Solemn moment. No, the cattle are “sacrificado” - sacrificed - his word for “processed” - in Sonora, a major beef producing state across the Sea of Cortez. I am struck by the use of the word sacrificado, a verbal connection to ancient peoples and their ritual for expressing gratitude to another living being for becoming our dinner. Sergio tells me later it is also the term for when you put your pet down. See how cool Spanish is?
Some of the cattle are from Baja, but they are not kept separate in the feedlot, so there isn’t a way to distinguish the meat from a Baja steer from that of his Sonoran primos.
Bummer. Part of the rationale behind buying local meat is to decrease the carbon footprint on the animal. A Baja steer that gets shipped (either across the Sea of Cortez or via semi truck up and down the Baja peninsula, I don’t know which), sacrificado’d, and then shipped back to Baja totally loses the “local” advantage in the sustainability department.
The owner said there is a shortage of rastros (meat processing facilities) in Baja, the ranchers here can’t get permitted for the number that they need to create a local supply chain. I suspect that has something to do with the power of the ranchers and rastros on the mainland, but I have no proof of that.
This is something I ran across in Northern California, too - it is not as easy as it should be to get local meat. Grass fed doesn’t usually mean local and sustainable. During a drought, for example, some ranchers ship their cattle around the country to where the grass is, then ship them to processing plant in a different area, then the meat is sold into the distribution system.
By the time you have that grass fed hamburger at your local trendy hangout, it may be the product of a stressed out steer who was carted all over the western half of the US. Or maybe even Mexico, given the US accounts for 87% of Mexico’s beef exports. Kinda crazy, right?
We haven’t been here long enough to find a local rancher to sell me half a steer, sacrificado on the ranch. Besides that, our small freezer only has room for about a pound of ground beef alongside the local chicken we buy from Martin at the farmers market here in La Paz. It's my dream someday to contract with a local farmer to work with to raise our meat for us and a few friends. It's not hard to find local pork sources here, we passed a small pen of pigs on the outskirts of town every morning on our morning walk in Todos Santos.
The problem is you still have no control over what the pig is being fed. And I'm not just talking about here in Mexico. In Northern Cal, I knew of one producer who fed his pigs leftover donuts from a donut place. I don't know anything about raising pigs, but a pig is not a garbage disposal and all that refined sugar isn't good for any mammal.
Sergio's Uncle Beto is from Michoacan, a Mexican state known for its pork. He worked for 30 years in the Parma meat factory there, but he still raised his own pigs. I bet he knows a thing or two about los puercos.
But for now, I have to choose my battles. Today, instead of choosing to be a vegan or have chicken for the umpteenth time this month, I decide to give this place a try. It’s Christmas after all!
I asked the butcher behind the counter to pick out a New York strip for me. He looked a little surprised, being used to having his customer, often a good-natured, bossy Senora across the counter, tell him what they want. He pauses, asks me how much fat I like, and carefully considers his choice. He picks out a lovely cut with some input from Sergio, who also has a strong streak of good natured bossiness. Probably inherited from his Tia Coco.
We buy the meat and say goodbye to everyone in the store for about 10 minutes, because by this time we have been talking for about 20 minutes and we are part of the family.
We get to the car and Sergio says, "Wait! You have to ask the owner 'where is my calendar?'"
I say, "What?" He says, "Just do it!"
I hesitate because I've lived in Mexico long enough now to know, if you go back you have to say goodbye all over again. But we return and and I ask the owner,
Tiene un calendario para mi?
He winces and says “Ai….", looking seriously chagrined. It turns out it is a longstanding custom for the carnicerias to give out free calendars at the end of December.
He apologizes profusely and says, “We have only been open a week and I haven’t had time to order them!” My Chilango (slang for native of Mexico City) gives him a hard time and laughs.
I say, “We will just have to come back soon!”
We say, Feliz Navidad y ano nuevo, gracias, hasta luego yet again...
Later, we made the steak for our Christmas Eve Dinner. I have to say, I was very proud of the result. We didn’t freeze the steak and that helped. We didn’t have a cast iron skillet where we were house sitting; however, we made do, we didn’t over cook it and it was a delicious Merry Christmas Dinner!
Have a great week and thank for reading.
PS. If you are interested in a quick overview of the meat industry in Mexico, go here.
Happy New Year / Feliz Ano Nuevo from La Vida With wings
We hope you enjoyed your holidays and 2019 is looking rosier than ever for you.
I missed a couple of weeks on this blog due to an extra heavy workload getting some 2019 content ready for my business.
Sergio has been making his way through the complex process of registering his car here so he can drive Uber. It is a long boring story that was complicated by a missing document he had to chase down in Mexico City, I won’t go into it, but let’s just say that changing the location of your car to another state in Mexico is nothing like doing so in the US. Baja is particularly sensitive because they are in the process of reforming a wild west car registration system (or lack thereof) that included illegal importing of cars from the US for years. You still see cars with US plates that expired years ago, although apparently not as often as used to be the case.
All of which makes me continue to have second thoughts about having a car at all in Mexico.
In our new place, there are only 3 parking spaces out front, and La Paz is known for petty theft / car break-ins. This means every night there is at least one car alarm going off. As an aside, I can’t think of a single reason to have a fancy car in Mexico. It’s like driving around with a big target on your back.
The real estate agent who represents the apartment is a beautiful young woman, one of those humans you can’t stop staring at. She has perfect cocoa colored skin, is built like Marilyn Monroe, if Marilyn had been a latina brunette who does lots of Pilates, she has beautiful clothes, and she drives a new Mercedes, one of the sporty expensive ones.
Quite frankly, I worry about her. My Mexican intel (aka Sergio, who always gets the good scoop) told me she is the girlfriend of the owner of this complex. I shouldn’t stereotype, but here I go - my guess is her boyfriend bought her the car. I would not feel safe in a car like that anywhere in Mexico. He should buy her a new Nissan Sentra instead. Baja in general has escaped the worst of the narco violence, but there is no reason to allow your ego (or your boyfriend’s) to help attract the wrong kind of attention.
Sergio talks about upgrading our stodgy little Toyota Avanza, albeit obviously not to a Mercedes sport coupe, lol. I do like the new Audis, but I don’t want a car in Mexico if we aren’t monetizing it.
Another reason you can save money in Mexico, especially if you are considering living in a populated town. Uber is cheap and public transportation is plentiful, so a car is not really necessary. Upgrading our wheels only makes sense if Uber finally takes off in Cabo San Lucas with a large need for Uber Black. Plus, we would need to move there, as we are 2 hours away right now. All of the above is unlikely in the next year at any rate.
Besides that, I really like it here in La Paz. I don’t know why, but we’ve only been in this apartment for 2 months, I traveled for about a month of that, and now that I’m back it feels like home. Does that happen to you? Do you have an impression of a space immediately, or does it take a few visits or even months?
This is a new complex with only 8 units; no pets or small children allowed. Like 99% of apartment complexes in Mexico, it has gated entry. There is no easy way to breach the perimeter so they did not put bars on the windows, which I really appreciate. We are on the second floor, with decent natural light and no neighbors above us. In La Paz, the water pressure is pretty low, so our tradeoff to not having people walking on our ceiling is that our showers are pretty wimpy.
The apt is only 500 sf - that sounds small and it is, but the way the space is laid out and finished makes such a difference.
I have been in many traditional Mexican middle class houses - in general, they are squat concrete boxes, with small windows covered with burglar bars and a heavy metal gate at the front door. Boxy concrete houses are easier to keep cool except in the hottest months when the heat finally overcomes the adobe cooling effect of the concrete walls and the house heats up like an oven during the day.
They also tend to have really bad lighting. There are practical reasons for all fo the above- construction is inexpensive, but electricity (la luz) is not.
Air conditioning is still a luxury, and when you do see it, it is usually not central. Split A/C units are very popular here. If you don’t know what that is, go ahead and google it, I had to. As a girl who grew up in Houston listening to the huge compressor fan buzzing outside my bedroom window for 10 months out of the year, when I saw the split A/C in our previous AirBnB, I didn’t see how such a little unit could cool a room with no ducts. Turns out they are a great idea for zoning A/C with no ductwork.
The kitchen is often small and, it must be said, poorly designed - more for the convenience of the builder and plumber than the cook. I really admire Mexican women who traditionally have kept big families well fed with substantial meals that emerge every few hours from such cramped spaces with tiny cooktops.
Bathrooms are also small, often oddly placed, as in one that is directly off the living room. I’m not talking around the corner or down the hall, I’m saying literally the door is beside the couch. Awkward!
For a culture that loves doodads and knick knacks, there is curious lack of storage and counter space in the bathroom and kitchen, so the small amount that does exist is usually covered with “chivas” (slang for “stuff” in Mexican spanish).
The top of the fridge often features a gravity-defying pyramid of jumbo bags of chips, bread, the ubiquitous cake, liters of soda, and anything else that is too big to fit anywhere else. Come to think of it, that is not unique to Mexico - I’ve seen lots of fridgetop piles in the US, too!
With all that as the norm for our price range if we were to rent a house, this little apartment feels like a mirage in the Baja desert. It has a simple modern layout, white smooth plaster walls and floors with nice, calm cream colored tile. The kitchen is way bigger than the ship’s galley version we had in Mexico City. The bathroom is also much bigger than you find in a traditional small Mexican house, and is located sensibly off of the bedroom, (probably because we don’t have a living room).
The unit came furnished with a few pieces of new furniture. There is a built in desk with 2 drawers. The closet is not huge, but its adequate and also built in, and between that and a small dresser we got a great deal on for $35 at the tienda segunda, we can put all our stuff away.
The ceilings are 9 feet, so the space feels bigger than it is. Tradeoff- it gets Africa hot here in the summer, there is only one split unit A/C in the bedroom, so keeping the kitchen cool will be a challenge in July, if we are still here after our lease is up.
Sergio talked with the owner and learned that he built these small apartments because the location is around the corner from a large hospital. The doctors that work at the hospital don’t necessarily live near here. Since they often work night shifts, they rent an apt and then go home on weekends or whenever they have their time off. That explains why the units are so small. It also means our neighbors are not around much, and when they are, they are usually sleeping. Both of which you almost never find in an apartment complex in Mexico. And all for under $400 a month, which is less than half of our regular rent budget.
I have been watching some videos about real estate in Mexico - If you are curious about buying real estate here, check out these 2 videos for starters:
They make my inner video producer wince, but the attorney gives some very good basic facts.
When you ski by yourself, you often ride up the lift with people you don’t know. I make it a point to say hello to every person I meet, if they don’t do so first.
This is an example of how traveling alone keeps my inner introvert flexible. It’s kind of like those singles parties you may have heard of, where you have about 5 minutes to talk to a stranger before you move on. Ski Lift speed dating, sans the romance.
This past month at Whitefish Mountain Resort, my favorite convo was with a little boy in a dinosaur decorated snowsuit and floppy polar fleece moose ears on his helmet. I had seen him zipping down the hill earlier on his snowboard, his small body as loose as a ragdoll as he effortlessly made tiny shifts in his balance to change directions.
At one point he zoomed into the ski lift area a little fast and used a controlled wipe out to stop, clanking into the metal gates that form the ski lanes. As he hopped up, his dad, a tall lanky 30 something version of his son, said, “Whoa dude, we’re just out here having fun, remember it’s not a race.”
“Yes it is! Yes it is!” said Little Dude.
A bit later, I happen to ride up on the ski lift with them. I am on one side, his dad is in the middle, and he’s sitting on the other side.
I say, “I sure like those moose ears!”
He immediately peeks at me around his dad, a small face with green goggles and a toothy smile still intact with baby teeth.
He is about 5 years old, the best year in the human lifespan, in my opinion.
I say, “I’ve seen you zipping down the hill! You’re good on that snowboard!”
His dad says “Yeah, but you gotta slow down a little bit, I think you kinda freaked out that other lady on the last run. Her eyes got real big”.
Little Dude says with a laugh, “I know! Her eyes bugged out like monster eyes!” Curls his hands to make big monster eyes around his goggles for extra effect.
You can tell by his laugh that the idea of slowing down, or being remorseful about spooking another skier on the slopes, has not occurred to him yet.
His dad says to him, “Do you want the bar down?”
He is referring to the metal bar on most ski chairs that can be lowered as a safety measure after loading the chair. Without it, there is nothing except sitting still on the narrow vinyl covered metal seat to keep you from tumbling out of the chair onto the ground.
My inner Mom is yelling, “YES OF COURSE HE WANTS THE SAFETY BAR DOWN. WHY ARE YOU EVEN ASKING?”
Little Dude says, “Nah, I’m OK.”
Dad says “Well, OK, just don’t tell your mom or she’ll kill me.”
Little Dude chortles again and says ”Let’s take a picture! “
Dad says ”No way, that’s evidence!”
They laugh and then Dad pulls up some pics of snowboard gear on his phone and they start looking at them.
All the sudden Little Dude says, “Hey Dad, can we put the bar down? “
Dad says, “Sure”, reaches up and nonchalantly pulls the bar down, without looking up from his phone. No big deal.
I’m impressed at this example of the power of Dad parenting.
Let him take a risk, let him tell you when he’s had enough, and don’t comment either way.
Don’t say, “Wow, isn’t that better with the bar down? Don’t you feel so much safer?”
Moms could learn from this.
Even so, I'm not a dad, so when I rode up with another little boy, about 8 years old, I was a little nervous.
When you rent skis, they put a piece of tape with your name on it so you can find them quickly (and avoid inadvertently stealing someone else’s) in the jumbled rows of similar skis outside the lodge. According to his skis, this boy’s name is Cody.
I say hello and then start to ask, “Shall we put the bar dow...”
I didn’t even have the sentence out and he said.
I don’t pull adult rank, but I am really uncomfortable riding with the bar up on the chairlift, with a young boy and no parent in sight. I shift both poles into the opposite hand so at least I can grab him more easily if need be.
I asked him how his morning had been. He thinks about it carefully for a minute and says “Pretty good.”
“When did you learn to ski?”
“Oh, about 3 years old.”
I point out a little kid down below us on the slope and say, “Oh, like that little guy?”
He sighs and says “Yeah, that’s my brother, he’s like 3 or 4 or something. And that’s my dad”.
So, it turns out there is a parent in sight, more or less.
His dad, on the slope below us, is teaching his little brother how to ski and has sent Cody up the lift by himself. This might explain why Cody’s morning is “pretty good” rather than excellent.
It also explains his nonchalant dissing of the safety bar, mandatory use of which would have been guaranteed by a pact signed in blood if Mom had been involved.
I honestly admire Dad energy, I see the empowering result in letting kids choose risk, provided they don’t fall, or at least survive, a tumble off ski lifts, swing sets, boats, barn roofs or cliffs.
My parental energy is more Mama Bear - I was protective but not a hovering mom when my kids were young, I allowed them to fail and make mistakes, but I can’t say I could ever be relaxed enough to have sent their younger versions up on this ski lift alone. And that’s what makes Dad energy so great.
As the morning progresses, the lift line swells to a good-natured jumble of families, students in ski classes, instructors, and experienced skiers impatient to get up the mountain. Next up, I’m paired up with a young woman in line.
We chat as we inch toward the loading point. Her name is Ariel, she is very friendly and I learn within about 3 minutes she’s working as a “liftie” at the resort and this is her first day off. It is also her first day on skis in 4 years, and, she’s also from Austin! Small world.
As you may know, when you approach the loading point of the chair lift, you have to pause and wait your turn as the people in front of you get scooped up by a chair. Then you hurriedly scoot up a few feet to the white line to position your bum in front of the chair that is rounding the corner and coming for you.
You put your poles in one hand and look behind you to grab the chair. If you do it right, you sit down as the chair comes in under you and voila! You are on the lift. (If you don't do it right, there is an embarrassing outcome that includes you in a heap in the snow a few feet out, the chair lift stopping and everyone in line a witness as you flounder to get out of the way.)
Ariel from Austin and I shuffle up to the white line and look back to get ready to meet the chair. Much to our surprise, instead of seeing the oncoming chair, we are face to face with two young men who have jumped the gun, or rather chair, in this case. They had been talking and not paying attention, shuffling on auto-pilot onto the boarding area. They look as surprised as we are.
In the meantime, the chair keeps coming. The liftie on duty says “OK guys, slow down” and then pauses the lift so we can rearrange to sit side by side instead of landing on each other’s lap - or in a proverbial heap in the snow in front of the lift.
It turns out the guys are locals, about 15 or 16 years old. Like the boys I met earlier, they have been skiing since they were 4 or so. This is their first day skiing for this season.
I love the fact that they are so excited to be on the mountain that even after growing up on skis, they literally could not wait and gaffed the lift line protocol like beginners.
This lower lift only is only a first step to getting to the second lift that goes up to the summit and to the black diamond runs on the other side of the mountain. Skiing those runs makes the relative risk of not using the safety bar sort of quaint. In fact, on this ride, the question of lowering it doesn’t even come up.
I ask one of them about the other side of the mountain. By this time in the ski lift speed convo they know I’m a visitor and barely off the green slopes. My ski instructor classified me as teal, a combination of green, the easiest, and blue intermediate runs.
The young man pauses politely, not sure if I’m asking because I’m thinking about trying a run on the back of the mountain or not.
He must have sisters because he’s learned the value of choosing his words carefully. He comes up with, “Um, some of those runs can be kinda tricky. You want to be kinda careful back there.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have no intention of going all the way down the mountain in a pizza wedge, on my backside, or worst case, on a stretcher with ski patrol, even though some of those ski patrol guys are super attractive.
Ski patrol has a mix of ages, skewed more toward 20 somethings, male and female older versions of the kids I met on the lifts today, who have been skiing every winter that they can remember, developing a relationship with the mountain that visitors and beginners can't hope to replicate.
However, there are some men in their 40 or 50s who still work ski patrol and...well, let's just say they are in great shape and it shows, even with all the snow gear layers.
Ariel has more confidence than I do, even after not skiing for 4 years, and she takes off on what I would call a dark blue run. Not teal.
It is freezing this high up, so I decide to go for a cocoa in the summit restaurant. I sit down and, seeing some ski patrol off duty at the bar, contemplate what minimum injury I could fake to warrant an escort down the hill.
It's cloudy and you can't see much out the window, but doesn’t matter, it’s just nice to be part of the scene, even if I’m more of an observer than participant at this altitude on the mountain, far above the hubbub of the lower lodge, family vibe and beginner slopes.
It is very unlikely I’ll ever be a black slope skier, but I’m OK with that. Skiing is work, and every workout you skip (and extra adult beverage) will come back to haunt you on the mountain.
These precious trips give me a lot of motivation to stay fit the other 51 weeks of the year when I’m not here, trying to mix a little more blue into my teal with every trip.
I only fell twice this trip, didn’t wipe out exiting the ski chairs, didn’t plow into any other skiers, and my skiing is finally more parallel than pizza.
I cocoa toast these short 2 days as a success, and resolve to prioritize a month or two per year of slow travel living in the mountains for me and my Meximan, who, for a Mexico City native, looks pretty good bellying up to the bar in his snow gear, too! <3
Opening weekend. Whitefish Mountain.
The gear, the skis, the boots that make you walk like a zombie. If you are a beginner, the awkward first few runs with your ski instructor on the bunny slope. You feel like a toddler learning to walk once again. If you give into it and stop insisting you should be "better" at this, it's like remembering something wonderful your body forgot. Your teacher gets you the point where you are (in theory) less of a risk to yourself and others, and sends you off to the grown-up runs to practice.
The lift chairs at those runs come around much faster, and then it happens. You take that leap of faith and sit back into the air, a moving strip of frozen metal and vinyl scoops you up up up beyond the hubub, past the treetops, into a silent cold world, a puffy bird perched on a moving branch with no safety bar.
Up here you can see the mountain's proud profile, the summit hidden by clouds, you know the highest face of the mountain is smiling at the sun as they bless these strange 2 legged animals with bright polarfleece instead of fur, defying weather, gravity, sore knees and common sense to shuffle, sashay and shoot down the mountain on skis, chasing joy for it's own sake.
December Greetings from gorgeous Montana!
I’m sitting here with every crossable body part crossed, hoping for snow next week so I can ski in Whitefish. I must have an inner Gambler in my personality, because I splurged and booked a ski-in ski-out condo for a few days, with no guarantee of snow.
Even if we don’t get snow, I can’t find the energy to complain too much. The mountains are amazing in any weather, and I’m here!
My gambling winning streak got off to a good start earlier last week as I had postcard perfect driving weather from Bozeman, where I flew in, to Missoula. Making plans to drive across Montana in November is definitely a roll of the dice. I got lucky and had no problems, but I could just have easily been stuck in a blizzard at the Bozeman Hampton Inn on Thanksgiving Day.
Why start out in Bozeman, you might ask? I know some of my family did when they heard about that part of my plan.
I flew into Bozeman for a bucket list item: The Montana Grizzly Encounter. No, not a life-threatening bear meetup on a backcountry trail, but a safe viewing of rescued bears at a location outside of Bozeman. Grizzly bears cannot survive in the wild if they are orphaned or raised in captivity, and the MGE takes in rescue bears that otherwise would have to be killed.
I have identified with bears probably from before I was born, and definitely for as long as I can remember. My favorite animal is the Grizzly bear. Wild Grizzlies prefer to avoid people, and several years ago I was privileged to see a male Grizzly in the wild, far away on the side of a mountain.
We were in Glacier Park. People had stopped on the road below to watch him. A couple of enthusiasts who had set up powerful viewing scopes were generously sharing peeks.
I’ll never forget looking at that bear through the scope. He was huge and honey colored, sitting in the sun, munching on late fall grubs and greens. The scope was so clear I could see insects flitting about his round fuzzy ears. It was the perfect teddy bear viewing moment, so easy to forget this animal is at the top of the food chain and can easily kill with a strong paw swat or crunch of its powerful jaw.
He was quite a distance up a steep hillside, so the two-leggeds (humans) below were not tempted to get closer, especially as a park ranger had arrived on scene to monitor the situation.
The second time I saw Grizzly bears was a mother with two cubs in Yellowstone. That viewing was much more stressful for the bears. She was crossing the highway that runs out of the park on the east side. The road was being repaired a few miles in and construction trucks had been hauling ass around a blind curve where she and her cubs appeared out of the woods.
A Bear Jam of lookie-lous quickly gathered, our car included.
Bear Jams, where people stop their cars by the side of the road to catch a glimpse of a bear in the woods, do not bring out the best in some humans. There are always one or two selfish people who insist on getting too close. I’ve seen them edge forward, double park, try to cut in, get in the wrong lane, and generally act like children insisting on their turn at the expense of everyone’s safety, including the bear.
In this Bear Jam, we were far enough behind to observe two cars that had stopped directly in front of the mother bear, one idiot had gotten out to take better pictures. He and and a couple of other cars were blocking her safe exit to the woods on the other side of the highway.
She was confused and running along the road, in the middle of the traffic lane with one cub, while the other stayed behind.
All I could think was how I wished she and her cubs had stayed up in the mountains, far away from the road. I knew that if a logging or construction truck came around the corner, it would kill the bears in an instant, leaving the other as an orphan.
Not to mention the people in the cars lining the road were at risk as well, should a large truck try to swerve to miss a bear. This is the kind of scenario that must keep park rangers up at night.
Fortunately, no trucks came and the mother bear and one cub made it across, they paused while the second cub joined them after a frantic scrambly sprint across the road. In a true Wild Kingdom happy ending moment (my favorite kind), all three disappeared into the relative safety of the woods.
I thought about those Yellowstone bears as I viewed Brutus, the biggest bear they have at the Grizzly Encounter. Raised by people from a very young age, he was an “inside bear” until he got too big and destructive to stay indoors. He has been trained to appear in movies and photo shoots.
He is fun to watch, but he is not wild.
He’s missing his wildbear edge, and I’m not referring to any lack of definition beneath his well-fed girth. His gaze is absent as he lumbers about like a domesticated dog looking for his next treat.
I’ve started observing nature as a teacher in the past few years, (more on that in a sec). Humans could learn a lot about the perils of too much food and comfort from observing animals who have been stripped of their wildness and live in “captivity”.
So while I loved seeing him for the sheer fun of seeing a big Grizzly bear relatively close, I didn’t feel the same subsurface connection I get from visiting the Redwoods, hiking in the desert outside of Todos Santos, or in general, seeing wild animals in the wild.
Do you have a spirit animal? It doesn’t have to be a woo-woo thing, it can be as simple as thinking about why your favorite animal is your favorite. It’s actually a very practical exercise because Nature is our ultimate teacher. I turn to what is happening “out there” all the time now for answers to life or even business questions.
It wasn’t always that way. I’m not an experienced outdoorsy guru type - I grew up in a Houston suburb, sitting as close to the AC as possible for most of my life. In my 20s and 30s I craved urban experiences much more than nature. I moved to Los Angeles after college and loved it.
I still love big cities, especially Mexico City!
But in my 40s, when I had been living in Austin for many years, I began to have an inexplicable craving for the woods and green space. I have since heard and read of many women they experienced the same thing in midlife. You know that saying, if it’s too loud, you’re too old? Maybe another perspective is, if it’s too loud, you’ve outgrown the music.
Austin was (and is) a fun city that was (and is) getting more crowded every year.
I remember thinking, “Wow, li’l ol’ Austin is LOUD”.
Busy coffee shops where you almost had to yell to be heard, the lines at stores, the traffic everywhere, all the time.
I started planning hikes in the green spaces that make Austin famous, yet I had to get in my car to get there. I gave up yoga class because it was expensive and the studio was a 20 minute drive away. I felt trapped in my car and we weren’t even living in the suburbs at that time.
It was about this time, early December one year, when I began to rebel against the “typical” holiday hubbub. As the pace around me seemed to rev up, all I wanted was more quiet time and staying home.
I finally realized that I was not the Grinch incarnate, I was simply obeying an inner instinct that comes from our animal side, or at least from my Bear side! Think about it - the way we “celebrate” the holidays is the opposite of what nature (and a bear) is doing in winter - dormant, tucked in and resting.
After a few years of angst and juggling desire for connection vs. a desire to hide away, what I’ve come to realize is I don’t want to be a hermit and live off the grid, but I don’t want to spend hours a week in my car, either.
In fact, I don’t even want a car, period. We use one because Sergio drives for Uber, but if that were not the case, we would sell it.
By the way, selling your car, or downsizing a 2 car family to sharing one, is a Power Move if you are working to transition to a more flexible lifestyle. You immediately save a bunch of money, and also will buy less stuff because its not as easy to haul it home. Try doing a Costco run on your bike and see what I mean. Or better yet, skip Costco and ride your bike to the park.
So, because I don’t like being tied to driving for daily doses of nature, community, exercise and caffeine, Sergio and I have made it a baseline to live within walking distance of natural spaces and a decent coffee shop or two.
We chose our locations in Mexico City based on proximity to parks. Now that we will be in La Paz for a few months, we can bike to the boardwalk or walk to a nearby park from our new apartment.
In this part of western Montana, figuring out how to be near some woods is not a problem. The communities around Flathead Lake offer an irresistible balance of access to wild nature and great coffee shops, too.
Yesterday morning I walked down a wooded trail in a light snowfall just steps from the shores of Flathead Lake. I felt like a B list movie star in one of the Hallmark Holiday movies I’ve been binge watching with my mom during my stay. Don’t laugh, I told you I love guaranteed happy endings!
I see Bald Eagles almost every time I walk down the road here, and a pair of them stopped off in a treetop for several minutes, right across the street from the local library when I was coworking there.
I feel very lucky to have family in this area where I am working and playing for a couple of weeks after celebrating my dad and older brother’s birthday near Houston.
It was my Dad’s 80th and we had a great time partying in a 100 year old farmhouse near Brenham, Texas. May you always find a house older than you are to host your birthday celebration!
I am missing Sergio and wish he could have come with me, so that led me to look at some things we had done together the first year we were in Mexico City.
If you would like a peek into two of my favorite traditions in Mexico City - Posadas and Piñatas, here is a link to a post I did shortly after we moved to Mexico.
Read here about how this half-bear-hibernation-lovin’ gringa partied until 4 AM at her first CDMX Posada and caught the last Uber home.
I just sank into a huge comfy brown leather chair, easily the most comfortable chair I’ve come across in Mexico. I find myself wishing for a waiter to place a beverage at my side while I watch a big screen with Iron Man or the whatever the most recent Robert Downey Jr. movie is these days.
Instead I’m staring at a poster advertising some blood lab analysis special deals. There is no waiter, definitely no Iron Man, just a nice young woman in teal blue hospital scrubs, tying a tourniquet around my upper arm.
I’m here at the lab to have my blood drawn as part of my midlife DIY one woman HMO strategy here in Mexico.
The simple version is this:
Our new cute apartment is right around the corner from a hospital. We walk by it as we go to the playground where we now work out most mornings.
Prior to our appearance, the playground was usually empty in the mornings. At first, the group of older jardineros (gardeners) in charge of the grounds were suspicious of us as we intruded on their morning break time, which seems to be about 30 minutes of shooting the bull, leaning on a rake. I say “break”, but from what I am not sure, as it seems to precede any work. Maybe warm-up is a better word?
Now that they realize we are not undercover productivity consultants working for Parks and Rec, we all exchange greetings before Sergio and I go off to our shaded corner to start our burpees while they resume their chat.
Sergio notices and admires their homemade dustbins with long handles, made from a corner of a plastic box cut off diagonally and attached to a wooden slat. They use them to gather the small bits of trash collected while raking the sand and gravel.
Sergio loves “repurposing”, which, to many Mexicans, is not a trendy eco-friendly activity, but a practical way to save some pesos. The minimum wage here is less than $5 per DAY, so a $15 Made in China dustbin from WalMart represents a big splurge for these guys, and likely might result in some good natured ribbing from your fellow jardineros.
However, like all Mexicans, the gardeners do have access to national health care, which brings me back to the theme of our story.
On our way to the park we also pass a big lab, sensibly located across from the hospital. It has excellent signage and big banners out front advertising the “paquetes” or special deals - the more tests of your blood you order, the more you save. Throw in a urine test and its quite the bargain.
We stopped by earlier this week to get some information.
Tip: In Mexico, it is still usually best to stop by, in person, for info.
A phone call is second. Relying on the website is a distant third. More like a last resort, really.
The muchacha at the desk told us that we didn’t need an appointment, and that if we came in the morning our results would be available by 4. Same day service! The front counter was strewn with several small flyers detailing each of the paquetes. Prices in pesos, obviously. 100 pesos is about $5 USD right now.
We both just had birthdays, we are due for our physicals, so we decided to have basic blood test done before we go in to see the doctor.
I got into this habit in the US of calling the doctor’s office before my appt. to ask them to order the lab work so I could get it done before hand, and actually discuss the results with my doctor during the appointment.
I don’t want to make time to go the office just to sit on a table and have la Doctora listen to my heart and then tell me to go get my blood tests and come back later.
Yesterday morning we skipped breakfast, my favorite meal, so for me, this is quite a sacrifice. We arrived at the lab. It is in an older building with a spotless waiting area, big windows and a fan blowing the air around.
We go up to the desk and choose our paquete - the basic blood work for glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides. It costs $15, which is probably a tad high to be honest. I have seen it advertised for $7.
I add on a thyroid test a la carte. This is an extra $40.
Sergio asks about the prostate blood test, and yes, there’s an app for that. With a bit of marketing flair, it is called the Paquete Padre.
However, his national insurance will cover the cost of that test, he just needs to make the appt and go in. So we decide to wait on that one for a couple of weeks.
There is a large, inviting waiting area with a fish tank in the corner. There are more of the comfy brown chairs here, but here is a moment of irony - I choose to sit in a hard plastic chair.
I’m thinking of germs, the proximity to the hospital, of who might frequent the lab, and how it’s probably easier to sanitize the white plastic chair than the big leather ones.
We wait about 2 minutes, and another young lady calls me into the room to draw the blood. In that room, I have no choice but to sit in the comfy chair, it looks clean enough, so I decide to make the best of it. It occurs to me that maybe the chair is a protection against the possibility of someone fainting and injuring themselves falling off a plastic chair with no arms.
She tells me to make a fist, my vein pops out, she draws the blood and that’s it.
Sergio is up next. He has great veins, too, so we are probably her easiest customers of the day. That and he makes her laugh by hamming it up and acting afraid.
After all the excitement, we decide to walk to breakfast at one of our favorite cafes in La Paz, Maria California.
It is a slow breakfast place, and I want to revisit it because the first time we came, we had an appointment, we had to rush and I felt shortchanged of the experience.
It’s a lovely spot, right across the street from the best AirBnB ever.
The restaurant is on a corner, they have leveraged their location and created a wraparound greenery filled patio of sidewalk seating, with lots of bougainvillea and shade. I took pictures for future reference. You can also see the marina just down the hill, with the blue bay peeking out from behind. They have live acoustic music on the weekends.
The menu starts with 2 pages of juices and includes excellent traditional Mexican breakfasts that emphasize the best of what that means - quality eggs and fresh salsas, and minimizes the less desirable version that usually involves too much grease, tasteless eggs, questionable chorizo, and fried tortillas.
We sit down. Sergio says we must order a juice that includes carrot, orange and beet juice, to help us replace the blood we gave for the test. He is very interested in health stuff like that and has a curious set of beliefs about health and treatment ideas inherited from his grandmother.
He would have made an amazing EMT or nurse in another life. He’s action oriented, not easily fazed and doesn’t need much sleep.
I am impressed with his juice counsel and I agree. Why not?
So, imagine my surprise when the waiter comes by and he orders our juice with a hot chocolate and sweet cornbread chaser.
I say, “That is your post-blood draw breakfast? Hot chocolate and pan de elote?”
He grins and says “Pero mi amor, it's corn!”
Corn, or Maiz, is indigenous to Mexico, and it is practically its own food group here. It was an important part of the pre-hispanic diet and tortillas still serve as basic sustenance in poorer areas.
Even so, corn isn’t exactly a superfood, even when it isn’t wrapped up in sweet batter at topped with caramel sauce and a cherry on top.
I laugh and feel angelic as I order a big salad with tuna for us to split. It’s not that I have anything against hot chocolate and pan de elote, it’s just that somewhere along the way I lost my tolerance for sugar. When I eat too much I don’t feel good at all within about 15 minutes, and the crash lasts for a couple of hours at least.
Later that afternoon, on our way back to our apartment, we stop by to get our results. Sergio looks at the numbers doubtfully and says, “Who is going to explain these to us?”
I say, “Google!”
When we get home, I pull up some search returns and we look at our results. The cholesterol number is not broken out into HDL and LDL, so that’s annoying.
But it also doesn’t matter because the total number is higher than it should be, for both of us. I’m surprised, I’ve never had high cholesterol and my eating habits are not that much different than they have been.
It is also ironic because when I lived in Northern California, I was eating much more meat than I do here; I knew the local producers there and the meat was incredible. In fact, I was eating bacon several times a week then! And now I don’t eat it at all. In general, Sergio is suspicious of eating too much meat and is almost a vegetarian.
But numbers don’t lie, unless they mixed up our results with the portly señor in front of us at the lab.
We discuss the likely suspects for saturated and trans fats in our diet here. A coconut crema paleta several times a week. Somehow fritos jump off the display at the store and insinuate themselves into our cupboard, too. The delicious fresh-made fried flour tortilla chips and / or french fries with a beer a few times a week. Lastly, and probably the biggest issue, is a suite of full fat dairy products, imbibed daily.
The truth hurts, because we found a local small dairy run by an energetic young woman and her family. You can swing buy and buy your fresh milk straight from Bessie in a repurposed plastic bottle. Can I tell you how delish this is?
Now it looks like we'll need to cut way back on la leche, especially this fresh fat bomb version.
In fact, Sergio announces gravely he is giving up butter, sweet breads, and milk.
I know this man, the first two items would be a stretch, the last would never happen.
I say to both of us, “It’s not about giving up. It’s about eating less of those items and replacing them with higher quality alternatives. So, those loaf cakes you buy as “bread” at Chedraui to save money (and have your cake and eat it too) for breakfast? My stash of lime and chile Fritos? No mas amigo.”
The Universe is conspiring to help us. Our first day in our apartment we went to the El Faro cafe and small art gallery, they just opened a new location near us. The owner has been a baker for 30 years. Her breads are some of the only in town, (indeed, in Mexico!) that we have found that don’t have sugar or refined flour.
She uses many ancient grains and bran, even in her treats, which are sweetened with honey or a Mexican version of a mild brown sugar called piloncillo.
She does not sell sweet corn cake with caramel sauce and a cherry on top.
Below are some shots from El Faro.
The woman who waited on us is a retired professor from UNAM in Mexico City. She told us when she arrived in La Paz a few years ago, she weighed about 260 lbs and had health issues. Since then, she has been eating better, including the healthy breads from El Faro, she is more active, lost about 100 lbs and looks and feels much better.
Wow. Do you ever consider how many amazing stories “everyday” people have to tell? With her story as inspiration, Sergio and I will keep tweaking our own habits for the better and keep you posted.
We’d love to hear more about your journey to a healthy balance, too! We are not a health and fitness blog (obviously) but I don't see how we can talk about living your best midlife without some conversation around how we treat our bodies, especially because what we do now really affects the next 20 or even 30 years.
Thank you for reading! I’ll be reporting from Texas and Montana and Tulum the next few weeks. I am not looking forward to leaving my Meximan for a month, but I am looking forward to seeing family - we are celebrating my awesome Dad’s 80th birthday near Houston.
Then I’m heading to Montana for more fam time with my Mom and Tios, including skiing in Whitefish, MT, followed by a trip to Tulum with Jessie before I come back to La Paz before Christmas.
All the while I'll be checking in with work. Is this a big spontaneous trip? No. I planned my November this way from the beginning of 2018.
This is what makes the tradeoffs of having a very simplified home base worth it - I can afford to integrate my dream circuit - mountains to beach and back again, family time, with an urban dose of Houston and Mexico City in the mix, into the last few weeks of the year.
Thanks again for reading, please pass it along if you enjoyed it.
All our best -
Kala and Sergio
In the US we distance ourselves from death as much as possible. In Mexico, people seem to be much more matter of fact about death. For them, accepting the inevitability of death is simply an extension of their earthy appreciation of life.
For the past few years, the Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) is gaining popularity in the US, so much so that Disney took notice, ran the imagery and storyline through their finely tuned filter, and produced the extremely sappy movie called Coco, released last year. It is the most recent example of attempts on both sides of the border to smooth the sharper edges of the holiday.
The actual roots of the holiday are far more interesting and deeply entwined with our shadow side. Like the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs had a very active relationship with mortality and life after death. The traditional Aztec Dia de Muertos festival honored Mictecacihuatl, the Queen of Mictlan, the underworld.
They also had a very superstitious, fierce warrior culture. It is the reason that a relatively small tribe was able to grow from a small, mosquito ridden island community (Mexico City originated in the middle of a large lake) to eventually dominate and rule a huge area of pre-Hispanic Mexico at their peak.
To accomplish this required some powerful gods and teachings, especially in the myths about the afterlife experience, which offered rewards to those who took risks in the service of their country.
In fact, if you died in a particularly difficult or scary way, such as getting struck by lightning, killed in battle, or even giving birth, you went straight to paradise, no questions asked.
If you died peacefully in your sleep, or from a random, unimpressive illness, you went to Mictlan, the Underworld for losers, where you had to undertake an arduous journey to get to paradise.
Not only that, but you had to run the gauntlet with Queen Mictecacihuatl, who ruled with her husband, the King of Mictlan, with an equally unpronounceable name Mictlāntēcutli
M & M were a fearsome pair. At at time when 5’ 5” was considered tall for Aztec men, the King is depicted with a height of 6 feet, with a skull face, blood spattered body, with arms raised, ready to devour newcomers to Mictlan.
Not to be outdone, his Queen gives new meaning to the word spooky.
According to legend, she was sacrificed as an infant. Aztec artists depicted her with a flayed body and open jaw to swallow the stars during the day. Why she would want to do that, I don’t know. Sergio has some contacts in the Danza world who have spent years studying this stuff, he is asking around for me. I will update you if I find out. Someone just sent us 6 pages of references in Spanish from a source at UNAM, I haven’t had a chance to run it through Google translate yet.
Between the two of them, they provided plenty of incentive to Aztec men to pick up a spear and join the nearest battle, and for women to continue to bear children in spite of the risks. Choosing a valiant death over a peaceful passing meant you received a Get Out of Mictlan Free card and enter paradise immediately, instead of being devoured by the Lord and Lady of Death. On top of that, your soul had to take another scary journey to reach a better level of heaven. Yikes.
Together the King and Queen were responsible for watching over the bones of the dead. This is what led to the popularity of the skull - or calavera - and the skeleton figures - called Catrinas - in the Dia de Muertos holiday symbolism.
In spite of the fierce aspect of the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, Wiki tells us that In the Aztec world, skeletal imagery was also a symbol of fertility, health and abundance, alluding to the close symbolic links between life and death.
The celebratory aspect of life and death, as part of the same creative cycle, is the perspective that Dia de Muertos helps to keep alive and kicking in Mexico.
M & M are just two of the equally quirky, often fierce, Aztec deities that confronted the Catholic missionary Padres after the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. I find it fascinating that the Spanish are the people that invaded and conquered Mexico, because they had a lot in common with the mindset of the Aztec culture, given the two cultures never interacted prior to the conquest. For example, the Mictlan experience I outlined above is not too far fetched from Catholic concept of limbo and the afterlife journey through different levels of hell and heaven.
One reason the Catholic church was able to make significant progress in new lands was a combination of brute force domination and self-interested tolerance. (Centuries before, the Romans practiced the same good cop / bad cop tactics to solidify control over conquered lands and people.)
The Spanish tore down major temples to erect churches and cathedrals in their place. Well, I should say that the Spanish used the Aztecs as slave labor to tear down their own temples and reconstruct a new church from the very stones of the destroyed temples. One can imagine the psychological effect this had on the natives. (The Spanish also used the stones to fill in many canals, a move that quickly destroyed the urban ecosystem of the city at that time and resulted in significant decline in the standard of living for most inhabitants, but that is another story.)
The Templo Mayor, the most important temple in the Aztec world, located in the center of Mexico City, was so huge that the Spanish finally gave up trying to tear it all down. It's massive base was buried over the years and not rediscovered until 1978.
You can see stones from the Templo Mayor in the lower part of the exterior walls of the oldest part of the Metropolitan Cathedral, Latin America's largest and oldest cathedral. It is fascinating to visit the Zocalo and stand facing the Cathedral with the Templo Mayor behind you, literally in the space between the biggest clash of civilizations in the western hemisphere.
I often think of the time and money Americans spend on European tours, and wonder if that is partially because they don’t realize the depth of Euro-centric tourism that is available in Mexico. Yes, the beaches and margaritas are world class, but there is so much more here than that, at a fraction of the price of a European vacation.
At any rate, while the conquistadores were busy demoralizing the locals by razing their temples, the Spanish Padres took a more subtle approach and did their best to merge pagan celebrations into the church calendar.
The festival for Mictēcacihuātl was no exception - originally celebrated in the summer, the Spanish moved it to October to coincide with the trio of Catholic holidays honoring those who have died - All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day.
So there you have a brief overview of the Day of the Dead in all its gritty context.
Earlier I mentioned Coco, the Disney movie with the Day of the Dead theme. All things Disney are very popular in Mexico, and, as Disney knows, Extremely Sappy plays well in Mexico, so the movie is very popular here.
It’s like the sweet decorated sugar skulls that are for sale everywhere this time of year - they are meant to take all the bite out of the calavera imagery. Death is not final in the movie, we get to dance and sing with our loved ones who have died, receive direct counsel from them, all without having to come to terms with their absence.
But I have to say that the spirit of Coco is not so far from the modern observance of Dia de Muertos here. In many places, the party starts in the house at the beginning of October, when the family creates an altar honoring those who have passed. On Nov 1 and 2, families go to the cemetery, tidy up the graves, and set up camp. They bring candles, lights, food, music. Or, much like the Thanksgiving ideal, some families achieve that, but not all.
Sergio's family is not particularly close. His aunts and uncle are all in their 80's. His parents divorced when he was 3, and he lived with his father after that. He was never close to his mother, she now has Alzheimers and is cared for by her older sister. His father passed when Sergio was 19, and now both of his brothers have died as well. Last year we visited his family's grave; it was Sergio's first time to be back in many years.
We arrived close to dusk, a few minutes after closing, Sergio slipped the guard at the gate a few pesos to allow us in. The panteones (cemeteries) in Mexico City are huge - they don't allow visitors after dark anymore, especially this weekend, due the challenges of security and crowd control. We cleaned up the gravesite and then went to toast his father and brothers during the celebration in the Zocalo that night.
No matter what the venue, Mexicans celebrate death in a way that I never see happen in the US, where people visit cemeteries, often alone, for their hushed tranquility. We take pictures of old mute gravestones, think sad thoughts, and have no positive rituals, rooted in community, to process the emotions stirred up by the proof of mortality right in front or our eyes.
In truth, death is meant to be processed with others, not as something to run from our whole lives, but to use as incentive to take risk and live while we can, in community with others. At least that is the message I get from the King and Queen of Mictlan.
In the US, we don’t give our dead any chance to come out and play. I encourage you to create an altar next year to invite those you love and admire who have passed on. But you don’t have to wait. You can create a small space on a shelf or corner of your home, put a picture of those you miss, a memento or two, and be blessed by their energy every time you pass by.
Below I share some photos of last year in Mexico City, when Sergio visited his father's grave for the first time in years, and we celebrated that night with the crowds in the Zocalo.
Happy Birthday Sergio!
Today is his 56th birthday, and he is celebrating about 55 years of eating chilis, as salsa is one of the most common foods in a Mexican household. Kids start eating salsa before they can even chew tortillas! It's a super important source of Vitamin C for the people here.
Enjoy the video and please click through and SUBSCRIBE to our YouTube channel, too.
We are taking advantage of the kitchen here in this fabulous AirBnB and taping some cooking demos. This video is Sergio making salsa. We also have a video over on Instagram of him dancing salsa, which is one of our highest viewed posts so far. : D
Did you know that chili peppers are indigenous to Mexico? They are extremely high in vitamin C- a half cup of them provides over 100% of the RDA.
One delicious seasonal twist is to add mango to your salsa. Mango is indigenous to Africa and India, and was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish.
One of the true joys in life is eating a ripe mango in Mexico straight from the tree. That right there should be on your bucket list and is reason to spend late summer / early fall in Mexico.
It is an amazing fruit that provides a natural sweetness that pairs well with fish or chicken. This salsa is not my favorite for breakfast salsa but that is just personal preference. I do not like sweet things on eggs. Yuk.
If you like spicy heat, try this recipe with habanero pepper. Just be careful - turn on the fan and open windows when you roast the peppers, and use gloves to cut them up. Sergio never uses gloves, but he has got a lifetime of hot chili conditioning.
We've taped a few more videos and will be posting those in the next 2 weeks after we move to our new place, a tiny apartment with great big internet connection that will make it much easier to upload videos.
Enjoy the video and please subscribe to the YouTube channel! â Thank you!
I have stayed in 40 Airbnb’s since I ditched my lease 3 years ago.
That number would be higher except for the fact that we spent a year in an apartment in Mexcio City. As we watched Airbnb rates go up by about 30% due to increased tourism by the coveted millennial crowd, I decided to take on the life experience of leasing an apartment in CDMX.
It was a little cheaper over the course of the year, it had great light for shooting video, and we were 10 minutes on bike to gorgeous Chapultepec Park.
Even so, I was happy to let the lease go after a year.
The kitchen was about the size of a ship’s galley, and since we were in an apartment and not on a yacht, the charm of a doll size stove and tiny counter wore off after about a week.
There was a ridiculous, unsafe policy that residents were not given keys to the front door of the building. The doorman had to provide access anytime we wanted to leave or enter the building. I tried not to think about what would happen if there was a fire and “el Poli” (as the doormen are known here) passed out before he had a chance to unlock the front door.
Apart from that, at the end of our lease, we had the chance to house sit and take care of a sweet dog in Todos Santos, Mexico. Free rent, and we were ready for a change of scenery. Vamanos!
While we were in Todos Santos, we went to La Paz about once a week for groceries, maybe a movie, and hang out in a coffee shop with decent wif. Each time we visited, I kept thinking, this town is interesting in a non-glitzy, non-Cabo kind of way.
So, after we finished up in Todos, we decamped to La Paz instead of Cabo.
A brief perusal of rents showed us we can live like ricos for about $900 a month rent, and live just fine for even less.
The other day, weighing options and tradeoffs, I realized we are not super fired up to move just now.
I’ve got some US travel coming up and hurricanes are brewing up along the southern coast of mainland Mexico that could definitely rain on our parade along our route back.
So, long story short, it makes more sense and, just as importantly, sounds more fun, to stay in La Paz for a few months.
A trip to a gorgeous beach and equally sublime swimming hole in the mountains sealed the deal. You’ll be hearing more about what we discover here in La Paz in the upcoming months.
This post covers one of the nicest surprise of all, that has no doubt colored our good impression of the town.
The Airbnb we are in right now is the best one we have stayed in yet, based our slow travel lens of staying more than a couple weeks and working online.
Here is a long term stay tip for Airbnb:
Try to stay at least a month because the discount can be substantial. In fact, even if we aren’t going to be someplace the whole month, I always compare the 30 day rate for the exact number of days, say 25 to 27 days. Often the monthly rate is cheaper.
I'll cover specific reasons why the current AirBnB is the best one we have stayed in so far. This is in the context of the fact that Sergio and I are very different travelers in one key aspect.
I share this perspective because you may have a similar dynamic with your partner.
He is the perfect travel partner in many ways - he is very open to new experiences, new people, and new environments. He has a lot of energy. He has lived outside of his comfort zone most of his life, so to him, change is not scary.
Sergio is more outgoing than I am, his Spanish is obviously better than mine, and his willingness to ask anyone about anything definitely opens up experiences that I could not have source on my own.
In Mexico, there is still a strong tradition of “ask the locals” if you need information. It is not uncommon for me to be on google maps at the same time he is yelling out the car window to someone on the street for directions.
Also, now that he knows sourcing local food is important to me, he makes it Job One to find out which señora has the chickens, who the local pig farmer is (if there is one), is there a local dairy cow, who sells honey, and times and location for the traditional tianguis.
The only major travel-style difference between us is this: His definition of travel necessities and mine are at opposite ends of the backpack.
To him, travel size toiletries include a jumbo shampoo from Costco and 2 spare tubes of toothpaste. We have boxes of kitchen spices and other mystery items that now follow us around.
For our stay in Todos Santos, he packed a big suitcase with a heavy coat and sweaters, which we didn’t need, and he told me later he couldn’t fit the fan in the car, which we definitely could have put to good use.
I’m not sniping at him behind his back, he knows this is a sore point for me and I know he wishes I would relax about how changing locations is beginning to feel like we are moving a small Mexican village. We have talked about this at length.
I’m not saying my perspective is necessarily “right”. Just because it doesn’t bother me to wear the same 4 things all the time, I can see how someone else would see that as boring, especially if that person is an artsy, extroverted, attractive Mexican man.
One of the challenges of slow travel with someone of a collecting mindset is this: it gives them more time to accumulate. This is probably worth its own blog post, and definitely worth a conversation if you are planning on travel with your partner. The compromise we have worked out is we each have our own suitcases and once those are full, no más.
Sounds good, right? Actual results vary as extra duffel bags appear out of nowhere, bigger suitcases replace medium sized “maletas” - oh well, its a work in progress.
Obviously, I am a fan of Airbnb. We make new friends, learn about the local community, and save a ton of money over hotel stays. I also rack up airline miles because I use my credit card to pay, something I couldn't do when we were paying a lease. We spend between $700 and $1000 per month with Airbnb. We have spent less, but rarely more.
We eat better and spend less on food because we can cook most of the time at home, even though home changes every couple of months.
Airbnb acquired most of the smaller vacation rental websites over the past few years. I wish they still had some real competition. It would force them to improve their website and core offering. More about that later, too.
With that as a backdrop, here we go:
The current Airbnb we are in is the Best One So Far.
This is why:
Location: we are 2 blocks from the beach boardwalk, restaurants, and coffee shops. Also, La Paz is cheaper than CDMX. For the price of a typical one bedroom Airbnb in Mexico City, we are getting two bedrooms instead of one. We are paying $960 for this unit for 32 nights.
Condition: Newly remodeled, spacious and very clean.
Parking: A garage with a solid door, not just a gate.
Privacy: A freestanding apartment over a garage with lots of natural light. For now, it has no common walls with another unit . From our patio we have a view of rooftops, the ocean beyond, and signs of another unit under construction next door. It apparently not on the fast track, as no one has worked on it since we arrived. Fine by me!
It is very quiet. Much quieter than Todos Santos, which is a fraction of the size of La Paz but overrun with dogs, roosters and big beach trucks with speakers booming out the local top 40 Latin hits.
A nice long island that doubles as a project space or dining table on one end. The 6 burner gas stove is almost bigger than our entire kitchen was in our Mexico City apt. I was rubbing my peepers in disbelief at that one. Gas stoves are very common in Mexico, which is good news for people who like to cook.
New modern full size fridgie.
No dishwasher, but I have yet to see a dishwasher in Mexico, other than the young men in the back of the restaurants, powering through mountains of dishes. Perhaps the luxe rentals include one, I’ve never checked.
Sergio wouldn’t use it anyway, if we had one, he barely tolerates the modern washing machines. He declares they don’t get clothes as clean as the traditional scrub and rinse method his abuela, madre and tias all used.
Again, fine by me, there are only two of us, so the dirty dish burden is pretty light. The tradeoff is Mexicans do not believe in drying dishes. Every Mexican kitchen I’ve ever been in has a mountain of precariously balanced dishes drying in a drying rack. The bigger the family or event, the higher the altitude.
In many kitchens in Mexico, cooking is usually about to happen, happening, or just happened, so this means the dishes in the drying rack are a permanent fixture on the countertop.
As someone who really appreciates vast expanses of clutter free countertops, I have had to choose my battles on that one, and just grab a towel and start drying.
There is a cultural bias in Mexico toward saving and collecting, it is one of the things that makes it such an attractive emerging middle class market for Walmart et al.
As you might guess, Sergio is no exception. We are in an evolving negotiation so we don’t end up with every empty surface hosting an assortment of things that, in my opinion, would be much more comfortable behind the closed door of a cupboard.
To his eternal credit, although he doesn’t understand why you wouldn’t want as many of your belongings as possible out in plain sight all the time, he knows it makes me happy to have things put away, so he does try to do so.
Plenty of dishes and utensils for cooking.
A complete set of pots and pans. 4 knives for food prep, 2 of them are even sharp.
A toaster oven.
A Mr. Coffee coffee maker, but that doesn’t matter as I always BMOFP - bring my own french press.
Full size washer and dryer in a dedicated laundry room, not at the end of the kitchen, outside on a patio, or tucked under the counter in the bathroom. The space has enough room to turn around. This also almost never happens. We don’t use the dryer but it is nice to know its an option if we get several days of rain.
The decor sports a cute non-garish beach theme. There is not just one comfy chair but 2 sofas and a recliner. This is a miracle in Mexico where the seating is often spectacularly uncomfortable.
Big screen TV - we don’t watch TV so this isn’t a big deal to us. We have switched it on to watch soccer once or twice. I need to buy an HDMI cable so we can plug my laptop in and watch Netflix.
2 bedrooms! In this price range in Mexico City, 2 bedrooms would be a rarity.
Each with a big closet. One bedroom is big enough to put my “office” in the corner. Again, this almost never happens.
Plenty of hangers. We can put everything away, including empty suitcases. Can I tell you how happy that makes me?
Even apart from the awesome kitchen, THIS is the reason this Airbnb gets the current “Best in Class” award.
I don’t know why so many Airbnb hosts assume their guests don’t have more than a travel size bottle of shampoo and toothbrush to stash during their stay.
Even if you aren’t like my Meximan, who packs a year supply of products for every hygiene or medical contingency, the bathrooms in most Airbnbs are waaay short on storage space.
For us, the predictable result is that within 2 hours of arrival, our bathroom counter look like inventory week at the local Walgreens. Or, more accurately for Mexico, the corner Farmacia during a tres por dos (3 for 2) sale.
Not this time! Hallelujah chorus, this bathroom has deep drawers so we can put all of our toiletries away. ALL OF THEM. This makes me so much happier than it should.
There is a big shower with natural light.
The toilet is low flush. This should be much more common, especially in the US. When I drove to LA and back from SF a few years ago during a drought, there were signs everywhere to conserve water. Sadly, the toilets in every hotel I stayed in, as well as all the restaurants along the way, were still the traditional whooshing waterchugging models.
And there you have it, many of the elements of a perfect Airbnb
The only complaint, and for me this is a biggie, is the internet is not reliable. At all. I thought it would be better in La Paz but it is actually worse than in Todos Santos. In Mexico City we had great internet, it rarely dropped out.
The Mexican government understands the importance of infrastructure, and Baja has received major upgrades to highways and telecom, especially after category 4 hurricane Odile slammed the area in 2014.
For La Paz, there are long term solutions in the works - a project to bury the trunk line from the mainland under the ocean floor will improve service here. Reports say it will be here by February, one can always hope but that seems optimistic even by Mexican standards.
Fiber optic is present in the city, and right now there are streets torn up to install more cables, but most of the residences do not have fiber optic access right now.
For now, the best upgrade is via the Mexican phone carrier TelCel. They have a high speed data package for residential internet. So now I have a massive craving for one of their little white modems.
You would think it would be simply a matter of dropping by the Telcel office and picking one up, right? Well, this is Mexico, so you would be wrong. More about that later.
What are your top 2 - 3 non-negotiables for a longer term stay? If you don’t know, here is a fun exercise I read about a few years ago that can help you figure that out:
Pack what you think you will need and put all the rest of your stuff away in boxes or a separate closet. Then live for a month with just those things. Keep track of what you miss, need more of, or don’t end up using at all. This is like a dry run for the real thing and can make your first long term trip packing experience easier.
Let us know if you try that, and thanks for reading!
PS - If you are interested in viewing this listing on Airbnb, click HERE.
As I experiment and play with different ways of connecting online, I am signing up for some podcast interviews. Originally the main intention was to spread the word more about The Ultimate System for Fab Videos, Finally Done, my program to teach female entrepreneurs who are the face of their business to create and leverage smart phone videos.
It quickly became apparent that there was quite a bit of interest in how I am building not just my company, but also this slow travel lifestyle. That makes me happy because years ago, when work was in one silo and "time off" (aka life) was in another, I felt like my persona was split.
I have never been good at pretending, and I didn't want to be one person at work and a different one outside of that role. I hated the feeling that I was living for the weekend.
Later, when I worked flex time, that fit my personality better, but the conundrum flip flopped. Work felt better, but with kids in school and a spouse that worked a traditional schedule, I felt like our family was chained to a M-F march.
When I turned my life upside down and shook it out 4 years ago to embark on the field trip of my dreams, one of my goals was to get to the point where all of my activities were aligned into one joy-full life. After this podcast, I thought about it and realized that goal sort of snuck up on me - I'm happy to report that I have arrived.
That doesn't mean I love every second of every day. That expectation is, of course, unrealistic and a formula for disappointment.
Like everyone, I still struggle with attachments to the way I think things should be, and sometimes resent Life when She doesn't cooperate. So, there are still some very "hard" days, but travel is a great teacher to broaden your perspective on hard work, risk, and struggle.
Seeing more of the world has shown me that simply because of where I was born, and to whom, I am incredibly fortunate and have no margin for feeling sorry for myself.
To the contrary, I feel like its my job to push even harder on the possibilities. To even have the choice to take on the risk to live and work this way and set the stage to achieve wider impact is nothing short of a miracle.
I haven't perfected the panning process, but I am finding gold in disappointments, boredom, hard things, uncertainty, being uncomfortable, money worries, stuff I suck at, and failing big time.
Thursday I was honored to be invited to speak on Louis di Bianco's Change Your Story, Change Your Life podcast. He is a walking library of book references about entrepreneurship, risk taking, and futurecasting. I could have talked with him all day!
In this podcast we talk about how I started on this journey, insights along the way, and basic steps to exploring the idea of slow travel, even before you make the leap.
Click HERE to listen.
"You’ll be engaged, entertained, perhaps even encouraged to live your own adventure as you listen to Kala. Here are a few nuggets from today’s podcast:
Thanks Louis! : ) Here is a link to the interview:
Be sure to check out the rest of his podcasts, too!
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