Chocolate, Mole and Mezcal, Oh my!

 

We were picked up outside our hotel early in the morning for an all-day adventure called Traditions Cuisine.  Antonio and Ana were our hosts for the day, shortly to become friends and fellow-adventurers.  First stop was Teotitlan del Valle, about 45 minutes from downtown Oaxaca.  And first stop in the village was the village market, held once a week and a center for all things food, crafts and household goods.  Among the produce, we found the makings of Caldo Xóchitl con Flor de Calabaza or Squash Blossom Soup, which uses the blossoms, stems, leaves and squash of the plant, with a few chiles to spice things up.

juxtaposition of centuriesWhile in the village of Teotitlan, we paid a quick visit to the village church. What stood out was the incorporation of an old section of a Zapotec building or wall into the wall of the church.  The Spanish were resourceful — or terribly destructive — when it came to reusing materials from pre-Spanish buildings and walls to build their churches and administrative buildings.

We were invited into a private home to see–and participate in–how chocolate is made, starting with roasting the cacao beans on a traditional wood stove, although stove is something of a misnomer.  It is an open wood fire in a brick enclosure with a wide terracotta plate on which the beans are stirred until they darken and crack. Once “shelled,” the cacao beans, with added cinnamon, are crushed on a metate until the resulting paste is graced with a couple handfuls of raw sugar.  Fresh chocolate is mixed with hot water for a sweet drink; the rest is dried into small blocks. At home now, I’m shaving my chocolate blocks onto my morning oatmeal!

Hot chocolate was just an appetizer for mole and lunch.  Dahlia has built an outdoor kitchen where she cooks for her extended family and for those of us she hosts for mole negro demonstration and mole-covered chicken lunch.  Mole much anticipated since I have been making my own version of mole for awhile.  Oy, did I have a lot to learn about making traditional mole.

Mole - Roasting chiles and tomatoes for mole negro

First, I’ll need to build myself one of those open fire stoves and obtain a large terracotta cooking tray.  Next, a metate and mano.  While many of my ingredients showed up in Dahlia’s mole, my results come nowhere close using an electric stove, oven broiler and immersion blender.  At least I brought home the requisite Mexican chocolate, which proved to be a more minor player in Dahlia’s mole negro than in my own.

I think what surprised me more than anything during Traditions Cuisine was learning that these women, and women like them throughout Oaxaca, cook on these open fires, using metates and manos on an everyday basis.  Most do not have or do not often use , indoor kitchens with stoves of either gas or electric, both being quite expensive.

The day ended with parts a and b for mezcal.

I had not tasted mezcal prior landing in Oaxaca, the drink not being a bar familiar on the East coast, nor a dinner companion for any of my friends in New Mexico.  At a Oaxaca restaurant earlier in the week, I “kissed” a shot as instructed; one doesn’t throw back a shot of mezcal. Part a was a stop at a distiller of mezcal. We saw each step, from the pit where the agave hearts are roasted, to the grinding pit where a big stone is hauled around by one-horse power to crush the roasted piñas, to the fermentation barrel to the still.  Not sure that the Mexicans call it a still, but if you’re from the South, it’s a still!  The longer the resulting mezcal is aged, the smoother it is; and of course the type of agave used to distill into mezcal makes a difference as well.

Tasting mescal at an agave farm

Part b was a tour of a family-owned agave farm and nursery.  This farm is pretty young and since agave plants don’t mature for seven or more years, this farmer has a few years of patience and loving attention ahead of him.  But he has been harvesting agave on another family farm in the hills, and a relative doing the distilling, so we were treated to another tasting.  After some debate on how to get an unmarked bottle of clear liquid through TSA at aiport security points, I bought a bottle to bring home.

We balanced our day of living Mexican culture and cuisine with a trip to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit the archaeological site of Mitla ( Lyobaa to the Zapotec people), which was the main religious center for the Zapotec, pre-Spanish.  Many of the walls and buildings stand on ancient platforms, all constructed with rock that fit together so perfectly, no cementing was needed.  The Spanish, who arrived in the 1520s, deconstructed many of the walls and repurposed the stone into their chapels and church buildings.   Under the overhangs that protected the original Zapotec walls from rain, the cochineal-based painting is still visible, outlining the stonework symbols and including faces and fantastic figures.

The rest of our week was spent in Oaxaca city, eating, people-watching and enjoying the daily entertainment on the Zocalo.

Scamps with Tails

I kneeled (knelt?) down to get a better camera angle on the little guy scooting up the bamboo post.  Next thing I heard was a lot of giggling from behind me and, glancing over my shoulder, saw the attendant grabbing a long prehensile tail and pulling.   Some little scamp had jumped up on my fanny pack and was unzipping one of the pockets!  If he’d been successful, he would surely have enjoyed my emergency-snack LaraBar!  There’s no doubt that those little fingers would have had the snack wrapper torn open in no time.

The Guadalajara Zoo is on par with the zoo I grew up visiting: Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC.  It is a smaller version of the San Diego Zoo, with trains to zip you from one end of the zoo to the other and an overhead SkyZoo, a cable ride with gondolas.  A highlight for me was the walk-through enclosure that housed a dozen nimble-fingered monkeys, neighbored by another walk-through enclosure that was home to an extended family of lemurs.  The day we visited was unusually warm so many of the animals were lulled by the heat to somnolence.  But not these little monkeys.

Guadalajara, like most of catholic Latin America, has a number of interesting and stunning cathedrals or temples as they are sometimes called.  A second highlight for us was the Expiatory Temple or Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, listed on TripAdvisor as the #1 must-visit.  Truly an amazing and breath-taking architectural achievement.

The Guadalajara Cathedral is on the main square in Guadalajara Centro; it also houses, in what may have been the monastery, a museum of sacred art.  Up a final set of stairs and opening from a small gallery dedicated to primitive art of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a door leads to the roof of the cathedral overlooking Centro from the pigeons’ viewpoint as well as a perspective from the foot of the smaller dome and steeple.

I stopped at a busy fruit and vegetable market to buy local fruit. Mangoes were fat as cantaloupes, the berries were picked not 1/2 hour away, and pineapples were fragrantly beckoning, and all at amazingly low prices compared to what we pay here for raspberries, blueberries and, lord knows, for fresh pineapple.  I couldn’t figure out the system, couldn’t read the signs and couldn’t ask for help.  All was in Spanish, of course.  I tentatively stepped up, caught the eye of one of the vendors, and pointed at what I wanted.  I can at least say uno and dos.  The vendor bagged my choices but instead of handing the bags to me to go pay, she gave me instead a little slip of paper with a stamped number.  I stepped to a window on the side of the market; or I should say I stepped into the crowd at the window on the side.  There seemed to be two lines and everyone but me knew which line to be in.  One and then another and then two more people noted my stamped number and tried to point me in the right direction — all in Spanish, of course.  Somehow just by the energy of their helpfulness, I ended up in the right line, got to the window and handed over my number.  That cashier retrieved my bag and told me what I owed; need I say…in Spanish, of course.  Previous experience led me to proffer a large bill and gratefully receive my change with my purchases.

Mangoes

I’m not complaining that many on the street and in the markets did not speak English, or very little.  I’ve traveled enough to know that English is not a forgone assumption and Americans shouldn’t expect that everyone should speak as we do, even though many American tourists do expect just that.  I was reminded that, before heading south of the border, I didn’t spend enough time  brushing up on my elementary Spanish from years-gone-by Adult Ed classes. And people everywhere — on the street, in the stores, at the markets — are willing to help and forgive if we at least have a set of basic phrases, mostly “Please” and “Thank You.” Plus, I know the Point and Pray method of cross cultural communication! Mi Español no es mui bien; lo siento, solo Englais.

Vibrant and Thriving on Lake Chapala, Mexico

Walking the dogs.Ajijic

Walking on the malecon, Ajijic

Fly into Guadalajara and take a 30 minute taxi ride for $420 MX pesos to towns that live alongside Lake Chapala: Chapala and Ajijic.  Find a little boutique hotel or rent a temporary home, don sturdy walking shoes and a wide-brimmed hat and start exploring.  Lakeside on the malecons is for people watching. Ajijic’s malecon is one of two town centers where everyone, local families and expats alike, get out to stroll, dog-walk, picnic and play.  Chapala makes room on its malecon for a couple of carnival-type rides and any number of vendors.  The town squares are shaded with huge trees, circled with cafes and graced with classic Spanish churches and chapels.

The lake is for fishing.  People with pop-bottle hand-lines hang off the end of the piers and walkways or fling nets from waist-deep. but they are clearly outfished by the egrets, herons and pelicans that stand on lake edge, pilings and boat rails or skim the lake surface with deep bills.

Ajijic, with its large expat community, is artistic and yummy.  Street art hints at the art, crafts and unique clothing waiting inside the gallery doors.  There are over 100 restaurants with cuisines representing most of the wider world, including Thai, Sushi, Italian and Spanish.

Finally, there’s nothing like ambling through the golden hour and sitting lakeside to watch the sun set over the water and the Sierra Madres.

On the Zocalo of Oaxaca, MX

Oaxaca Puppets.1 First came the puppets, 2 stories tall, marching down the street.  Under, around and behind them came bands of brass and drums.  Swirling among the bands and the puppet carriers were the youth and sponsors, dressed in their cultural finest.  This festival honored the youth from the Zapotec and Mixtec villages and communities of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Soon, the Zocalo was brim full of color and flash.

Oaxaca Celebration Announcements were made, hands were clapped and everyone settled down for an afternoon of performances.  Lo siento, but I don’t speak Spanish, so I couldn’t understand what was said.  I could only enjoy and save through my lens, the afternoon of music, slapstick and dance.

There was a slapstick comedy based on a children’s tale, with an evil witch complete with magical powers–  Oaxaca Slapstick Performer There were dancers on the plaza —

The festival went on well into the evening.  We had to leave early the next morning for home; we went to sleep to the sounds of pounding feet on the Zocalo stage just beyond the doors of our hotel.

Tell me what! Tell me who! and tell me how!

Here’s where the big cat sat for a few minutes watching; how small a sign for so large an animal.  See these digs on the edge of the road? This is where that cat bounded down, rear feet sliding down the mounded dirt, digging divots in the soft substrate, front feet barely landing before the cat was across the road.  Look around. There are cat tracks in the duff between the “sit” and the bound.  There are other cats’ tracks on the other side of the road and trailing into the bush.  Make up our own stories about what these animals were doing together: play? Mating dances?

javalina hair - hunter-killed

Javalina hair

Who’s hair is this, left in piles along the edge of another little road?  And what to make of that black, odd-shaped pile of something?  A javalina met its end here and was gutted out.  The questions are: how and by what?  and where is the rest of the critter? Follow the disturbed leaves and soil up and across the road, under the bush, across the stream bed and over under that oak.  Not hard to see – if you know what to look for. And the question remains: what killed this animal?  If a mt lion had made this kill, it would have look like this: [scatter/scrabble/draganddisappear].  If coyotes had killed the javalina, this is how things would look: [dragdrag/gnaw/scatter].  That’s not what happened here.  This javalina was killed by a hunter over there, gutted, skinned and probably stripped of best parts of meat. Here are the tell-tale signs: knife marks.  Coyotes probably dragged what was left here and chewed on the rib ends.

deer lay

White Tail Deer lay

There were many more opportunities during the weekend to sus out tracks, to tangle with strides and pace, to dance left or right foot and front or back, to read that the rabbit leaped away or where the deer rested in the sand. Gopher mounds versus javalina rootings. A branch chewed off by small teeth and scrapes on branches by young antlers.

 

Stories upon stories told by tracks and scats and sign.  Learn to read the sign to read the stories.  Look around.  Expand my view.  Go from ground level, nose a few inches above the soil, to circling the sign, to searching the surrounding landscape to get the bigger picture.

This is what I learned in an advanced tracking workshop.  I thought I knew a little bit about tracking – emphasis on “a little bit.”  I spent a weekend getting tested and evaluated.  Whether I passed or not wasn’t my concern (I did), and how I would manage without my tracking book (that was the hardest constraint to master).   What I learned was, first: what I don’t know.  Then to listen, watch, absorb, sort and remember.

Casey- racoon track morphology

Racoon on the Gila

When the rain comes…

Jay on Oak.2-17-18

Scrub Jay on Scrub Oak

Here in the ecological intersection between high desert, pinion-juniper and coniferous forests, sitting on the Continental Divide, people speak of “moisture.”  As in: “we sure need some moisture, it’s so dry.”  We welcome any kind of moisture–rain, snow, heavy fog.  Well, perhaps not fog, since it does nothing more than wet the leaves and leave garlands of itself girdling the mountains.  When it rains, this is the only place I know where we all run OUTSIDE to stand under the falling drops, faces tilted upward.

Golden Oak.2-17-18When the rain comes in late winter-early spring, the gray or scrub oaks turn golden brown and begin to drop their leaves. Gray/scrub oaks do not shed in the fall like  respectable deciduous trees in the East. Oak leaves hang on green until a little spring rain triggers the growth cycle of new buds, causing the old leaves to color, dry and fall away.  When we moved here, I learned quickly how both flora and fauna are rain-dependent; both time their reproduction cycles to the season most likely to provide moisture and food to sustain the next generation.

Grasses after rain.2-17-18There is a feast of colors when the rain comes. Rain intensifies colors in amazing ways.  Maybe that’s true everywhere and I just never noticed before.  Dry fields of grass just look like…well, grass!  Various shades of tan.  Nothing particularly exciting on the color palate.  After a couple of days of gentle rain, grasses show true colors of gold, gray, gray-green, and most particularly, red.

 

Wet lichen.2-17-18

 

 

Complementing the rainbow of grasses, wet lichens become emerald jewels against the rough bark of pinion trees and branches.

 

 

 

Fragrance of juniper.2-17-18The rain frees a fragrance that is unique to the Southwest.  You catch it the moment you step outside anytime there’s been enough of a sprinkle to wet the leaves.  After a steady farmer’s rain,  the air is sharply saturated.  Follow your nose to a halo of scent.  If it were visible, it would be a shimmering ether; even not visible it permeates the atmosphere, intoxicating.  More than ozone, here, it is literally the smell of rain: the Juniper tree.

 

 

 

 

With this rain event, we have received an average across the area of 2 inches, a hopeful sign where we worry about the threat of summer wild fires.  I stand outside and soak in the moisture; I walk and look and breathe.

 

On Twin Sisters Creek

Twin Sisters_

Twin Sisters in the background

Three people striding along, hiking poles marking their yards.  Two helmeted men pass on mountain bikes, as I pull Pumpkin off to the side.  Greetings exchanged, I recognize one of the riders: Happy Sunday, we smile.  Pumpkin insists on a bit of a gopher hunt, off in the grass.  Something over there is unseen but smelled, heard; she stops on point, ears forward.  C’mon, Pumpkin, here’up, pup.  At the intersection of trails, here is a couple with a small canine, pick-up-able.  “Which way are you going? I’ll take that way.” A jogger with her dog,  on leash but curious.  She pauses and the dogs’ noses touch briefly; a bit of Labrador in both, hers black, mine mahogany.  Another mountain biker, slowly negotiating the narrow trail through the grasses and across the stony stream bed.  Move Pumpkin into the weeds on the side and receive a grateful nod.  She’s off again on a nose-hunt.  Pushing through the grass, snuffling, stopping to sneeze out the dust.  Through two gates and a couple of miles down the trail, we come to our turn-around point.

Target Practice.Ft BayardThis old metal frame is another bit of  Fort Bayard history.  According to my historian friend from our Tuesday hiking group, this frame was in the service of target practice for the Buffalo Soldiers.  Behind the frame is a bit of hill embedded with wooden boards that served as the backstop for the balls that pierced either the targets or with poorer aim, the metal frame itself.

On our way back to the trailhead, we are passed by yet two more bikers, these with a dog off leash, panting along in pace with them.  The dog hesitates slightly at sight of Pumpkin but keeps moving in response to the demand of the bikers.

We encounter a hiker unfamiliar with this trail.  Once I’ve told him where the trail goes and where it intersects with trails more familiar, we chat for several minutes.  Knees, hips and legs — an organ recital typical of folks our age; a touch on politics, just enough to admit that he is Libertarian and tends to avoid political discussions (altho he brought it up) and an avowed tree-hugger (me, since he mentioned having a few as friends).  Actually I just wanted to make sure he knew what specific topics to avoid as he avoided the general topic of politics.  3.7 miles later, we were back at the truck, sharing a granola bar.

It was a beautiful Sunday as so many of our days are, here in the high desert of the Southwest.  It was a good day to be on a trail along a creek lined with magnificent old cottonwoods, with the Twin Sisters in the distance in one direction, and the Stars and Stripes flying over the veterans cemetery, visible just over the ridge, on the grounds of the old fort.  Our public lands.  We are healthier, physically, emotionally, spiritually because those lands exist, because we can hike them, hunt them, bike them, bird them.  It’s a fact!

Wagon Ruts of Ft Bayard

High on the side of the hill, the slick rock has preserved a bit of the history of Ft Bayard, Grant Co, NM.  

The fort was established in 1866 and manned primarily by Buffalo Soldiers as a protection for settlers in the region against the Apache.  Ft Bayard has a storied history, though it is now unused and falling into ruin.

At the time of the Buffalo Soldiers, Ft Bayard was powered by wood.  The surrounding hills provided an unending (or so it seemed) source of trees to be cut and transported down to the fort for firewood; wood hauled in wagons with wooden wheels, which had iron rims.

Even stone cannot resist repeated friction forever.

 

Ups and Downs

CDTrail over Goat Canyon.1-30-18

I don’t like “up” very much. To be honest, it depends on how much “up” there is, and whether “up” is complemented by “flat” and “down.”  Too much “up” pushes my breathing and burns my thighs.  Working against me on “up”:  I grew up at sea level; I never hiked much until moving to 6,000 feet; I’m not 40 anymore.

It was another Tuesday, another foray into the Gila National Forest with the “Tuesday Group.”  Our hero route suggestion-er proposed Goat Canyon, a favorite of his, and frequented by us individually and as a group.  It lies next to Saddle Rock Canyon, and a canyon over from Black Hawk, and so on.  These Gila hills are only hills because of the canyons that define and divide them!

A Forest Service road climbs out of Goat Canyon up to a ridge threaded by the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).  While ones of us (often me) frequently request not too much “up,”  this morning we were more interested in sun, given that it was about 19 degrees at 8 am.  Off we went to Saddle Rock, and up Goat Canyon we headed.  The canyon itself is  beautiful, approaching “slot” width in places, heavily trafficked by cow and atv, and bounded and strewn with the amazing variety of rock that makes up the skeleton of the Gila mountains.  Still shadowed, the canyon air was chill and, chilled, we set a fast pace.

We reached the Forest Service road and started up.  Oh no.  Really “up.”  I kept hoping that every turn would bring us to “flat” or even, maybe, a little “down” where I could catch my breath.  Every turn opened up more “up.”  Shortly, I was the last of the line, with another hiker graciously keeping me company, despite my breathy assurances that he could go ahead and I’d catch up.

It’s a truism about hiking groups:  the faster ones stop to wait for the slower.  By the time the slower ones catch up and want to rest a minute, the faster have rested and set off at pace again.

We finally reached the end of “up” and the crossing of the CDT. Turning up the trail, we moved through native rock gardens, little groves of oak and pinion, and shouldered the hills on trails wide enough for one pair of feet.  But the views…oh, the views.  This is why I keep breathing through “up”–because my senses and soul expand with the views.  With the space and blue and clouds and distant mountains.

We who live snuggled up to the Gila National Forest are fortunate.  Our Forest, with its three Wildernesses, its cliff dwellings, forests, plains, rivers, elk, mountain lion, wolves, is not under threat of shrinkage, of undoing.  But there are other public lands that are.

Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall led a group of 18 Democratic senators in introducing Senate Bill S. 2354 to enhance protections for national monuments against the Trump administration’s unprecedented attacks on public lands. The America’s Natural Treasures of Immeasurable Quality Unite, Inspire, and Together Improve the Economies of States (ANTIQUITIES) Act of 2018 reinforces Congress’ intent in the Antiquities Act of 1906: only Congress has the authority to modify a national monument designation.
If you are a public lands advocate — or simply a public lands user — this is a Bill to love.  More importantly, it’s a bill to support.  19 Senators will not be force enough to get this through.  But 51 would be.  If you have a moment, think views and trails and critters.  Think future and preservation and protection and national heritage.  Write you Senator today to thank him/her for support or encourage him/her to think “up.”

Dragonfly

 

Dragonfly

A dragonfly. A circle. A hand and other signs carved into rock millennia ago by the Mimbres people.  The Dragonfly Trail is one trail among many on the edge of the Gila National Forest, part of the Elk Preserve and edging Ft Bayard.  Three miles from the edge of town, five from my driveway.  Miles to walk, think, study, meditate, and encounter.

We just got a new dog.  ‘Bout time, I say, having watched our last die of stroke and lethal injectionPumpkin in May of 2017.  This is Pumpkin, a 3 year old female.  She was listed by Albuquerque Animal Shelter as a Chocolate Lab mix, and mix she is indeed, right down to her natural bob tail.  For the nonce, she’s a little scraped up from a scrap with her former home-mate, another female dog with whom she didn’t get along.  It was the fight that determined her surrender and our fortunate adoption.  We knew she had to be ours, because…well…our last three Labs have been named after food groups.  Blackberry. Black Pepper.  Nutmeg.  So when I saw her listed as Pumpkin, her fate and ours were pre-determined. At three, though, she has rather more energy than Nutmeg had at 15.  And I did say that I needed the motivation to hike more often.  So on day 2 of her residency here, we headed for Dragonfly Trail and her introduction to the wilder side of her life-to-come.

Over the course of about three hours, Pumpkin had near encounters with several other dogs, whose owners graciously put them on leash or took them off trail so that we could pass, unmolested and unmolesting.  She also discovered the remains of a deer: backbone and ribs with one leg attached.  Not sure if the deer met its demise from four-legged or two-legged hunters, but Pumpkin found the bones interesting.

I’m assuming that she lived a city life before coming to us.  Now, she has a world, not just of deer, but of coyote, fox, bobcat and the occasional mountain lion and bear to discover. Oh, and rattlesnakes.

What riches our public lands, like the Gila National Forest and Dragonfly Trail, provide: an immersion in natural systems, a meditation of colors and sounds, a chronicling of human presence.  And great places to take a new dog.

 

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