Vanilla and Voladores

Buenos Dias, mi nombre es Diane Rockerhousen. My husband, John and I live in Xico (hee’ ko), a town of 30k nestled in the subtropical mountains of the state of Veracruz, Mexico. We retired here from Silverton, Oregon, and I’d like to share that story and a bit about our pueblo.

There are three little words that strike terror in the hearts of strong men, “I was thinking. . .”  Usually, John slaps a pillow over his head to filter out my next sentence. Eleven years ago with retirement looming on the horizon it was time to write next chapter in our lives; a chapter that didn’t include a large home on an acre of land in rural Oregon, but something smaller, while still having a manageable landscape. First step was selling the house, so we put it on the market in 2007 and didn’t see results until five years later.

We had friends in Oregon that were from the state of Veracruz, and I asked if they had family in the capital city of Xalapa. Silly us, of course they had family there, so I got a one way ticket, and made an exploratory visit. I loved the family, the environs, the climate, and the economy (in our favor), which resulted in us renting a house and beginning the process of moving nearly 3,000 miles south.

Why Mexico? Since John and I had traveled the US and Canada to our satisfaction, we decided to complete the North American trifecta, and head south for a new adventure.  Not a day goes by that we aren’t thoroughly confused, entertained or ask ourselves, “Why in hell did we bring that?” After several years of settling in, we’re still happy with our decision. It more than meets our wants and needs

Xico, Veracruz, Mexico
The pueblo of Xico in Veracruz, Mexico

Our pueblo is at the altitude of 4300 feet with an average temperature of 73°F and 66 inches of annual rainfall. It sits nearly midway between Mexico City and the port of Heroica Veracruz on the Gulf Coast.

This area of Veracruz produces a large crop of Arabica coffee that is shipped worldwide. Along with a variety of fruits and vegetables, our pueblo is known for its famous mole sauce (chilies, nuts, fruits and chocolate). If you shop Costco there is a brand named Xiqueno Mole in a jar that our town produces. Allow me to give you a brief tour around the state of Veracruz.

Papantla, Veracruz, Mexico (Latitude: 20.4465500 Longitude: -97.3249500)

Back in the early 1500’s when Moctesuma (A Spanish spelling variation of Montezuma-ed.) invited Hernan Cortez for a chat, the host served up a chocolate drink with a new flavor that the Spaniard had never tasted. Wanting to impress his guest and possibly keep his head, the Chief shared his secret ingredient . . . vanilla. To anyone’s knowledge then, it only grew in one place, Papantla, and was cultivated by the indigenous community of Totonacas. After years of pillaging and conquering, the Spaniards included some beans and vanilla orchid vines (vanilla panifolia) on their return voyage to Spain. The globe-trotting Spaniards were so enamored with the flavor they tried unsuccessfully to grow it in Asia and then Africa. Many expeditions later they discovered that a small indigenous bee (melipona) was the pollinator and only existed in Papantla. There are stories of entrepreneurs (priests) that built green houses with perfect growing conditions so when the orchids bloomed for only one morning per year, young nubile virgins with feather dusters would go from plant to plant pollinating.

Vanilla Guide
Our guide was a native Totonaca and he reveled the vanilla bean process. (Photo by Laura Henchman)

This man is a native Totonaca who was our guide through the natural orchid forest where you feel a part of the process of providing a product that gives pleasure to so many. The long green beans are the vanilla pods that take 9 months to mature. After harvesting they’re placed in the sun to reduce moisture until they are a mahogany brown and aromatic. At the end of the tour he touches your shoulder to give a Totonac blessing; it is truly a magical place to visit.

El Tajin Pyramid Site

El Tajin Pyramid Site
The El Tajin Pyramid has a niche, or cave for each day of the calendar year. (Photo by Laura Henchman)

El Tajin (600 to 1200 C.E.) is a World Heritage site since 1992, due to its cultural importance and its architecture. This architecture includes the use of decorative niches and cement in forms unknown in the rest of Mesoamerica. The pyramid of the niches has 365 “caves” representing the solar year with a direct connection to the underworld. Similar to post office boxes where you drop off your requests, then wait for the results, good or bad. As a side note, above one of the niches is a sculpture of a ceremony with a cacao tree included, leading historians to believe that the Totonacas created the chocolate/vanilla beverage that the Aztecs prized. The pyramids show evidence that many floors were of poured cement, up to a meter thick and perfectly flat.

The Voladores

The Voladores
The Totonacs created a dance team called The Voladores (flyers or bird-men) as a plea for rain during an extended drought. (Photo by Laura Henchman)

The Totonacs created a dance team called The Voladores (flyers or bird-men) as a plea for rain during a particular extended drought. The pole is 150 ft high with a square platform top where a flutist stands tooting while the dancers attach themselves by the ankles to ropes intertwined to the platform. Once the team commits to fall off the platform backwards the slow descent begins, unwinding the ropes while twirling through space with outstretched arms to a successful landing in front of an always appreciative audience that releases a collective sigh of relief that all is back to normal.

In March there is a festival celebrating the Spring Equinox (Cumbre Tajin) that is famous for its spiritual environment, bringing together a broad collection of artists and musicians. It’s the perfect place for finding life-balance for the New Year. Here is a Web Site that tells more about the festival: https://www.cumbretajin.com/

I hope you enjoyed my tour of our little corner of the world as much as I enjoyed writing it. Perhaps I can add to the story as I discover more secrets of Veracruz.

Diane

Los Algodones, Baja California

The Queen and I took time out of our busy schedule to make our quarterly dentist visit this week. Normally you’d think that would take maybe an hour or two at the most. For us, it’s more of a commitment than that. As seniors, our dental insurance is nil to none, so upon recommendation of a couple of friends, we found a good dentist in Algodones . . . Mexico, and that means an overnight journey to Yuma. Both of us got an addatoothtome, so on the first appointment was for a root canal and then an impression to send off to the lab overnight. The next day was for fitting the crown.

It’s been an abnormally wet year for us here in the desert, so when we left Monday at daybreak under a cloudless blue sky, we felt as if we were wasting a good work day. The rains kept us cooped up all weekend while we have outside projects we’ve put off for dry weather. Instead, we were on the road for three hours for an appointment at 11:00 am.

As the sun came up we saw patches of fog, something we rarely get. The evening breeze pushed the ground fog to the base of the low ranges like they were door-stops. The dark hills popped out of the strands of white. South of Quartzsite I couldn’t take it anymore and pulled off the road to snap a shot as we passed through the KOFA (King of Arizona) Wildlife Refuge. Even so, we made it with time for breakfast before our appointments.

Ground Fog and KOFA Range
A rare sight in the desert is ground fog, but after a cold rain it collects at the feet of the low ranges. Here a ocotillo is foreground to the fog at the KOFA Range

Los Algodones is a retirees’ equivalent of Disneyland. The downtown commerce area is an eight block square along the east bank of the Colorado River. It’s an extremely tiny border town when compared to Juarez, Nogales, Tijuana or even Mexicali; sixty miles to the west, yet it’s still a Class A border crossing. That’s because of the large amount of foot traffic. There is some vehicular traffic crossing there, but most people pay the six dollars to the Quechan tribe to park in their huge parking lot and walk across.

The dominant feature is a multi-story steel beam structure like an unfinished building. It’s been unfinished since we first visited some twenty-five years ago and most likely won’t be different in the next twenty-five. Then there are the hustlers. Unlike Tijuana, they’re not trying to get you into one of the girly clubs (of which there are none); they’re working for the dentists, eye doctors, pharmacies or liquor stores. That’s right; the doctors got pimps. After you wander the town a bit, you realize the town is a medical amusement park. Within a block you can get glasses, a tooth implant, new hearing aids, a sombrero, and have a margarita for lunch while you’re waiting for the lab.

As a younger man, I never would have gone to a doctor in Mexico. I had heard the horror stories of shoddy work and surgery disasters, so why the change of heart now? It’s a combination of economics, a referral and desperation. We need dental work, but couldn’t pay what the local dentists where charging . . . even with insurance. So, if I had a problem with a tooth, out it came. After retiring and hanging out with other like-minded geezers, we heard some good stories and then got a couple of strong referrals.

On our summer trip, I broke two crowns, so when we got back, we scheduled an appointment to investigate. As we sat in the tiny waiting room, people our age surrounded us claiming our dentist was the best. The first exam was simple consisting of digital x-rays, tiny cameras, and some poking and prodding. Within fifteen minutes they printed out a chart of my mouth showing the work that I needed including the cost by tooth. Then they went over the x-rays and photos so I could clearly see what they were talking about. After that, they cleaned my teeth and then I was done . . . $25.00. When we left the office, we both had our charts and it was our decision about which teeth to work on and when to do it. All of the prices were less than what our co-pay would be in the States.

As always, the devil must have his due. What you save in money, you pay with time. I already pointed out, the waiting room is crowded with patients that are loyal . . . to a fault. Your 11:00 am appointment only means you’ll be seen sometime after that. If you need to see a specialist, they call an escort to take you there, where you can sit in another waiting room that always has one less chair than people. If you’re lucky, the TV has Discovery Chanel in Spanish, otherwise it will be CNN. If your visit requires replacement parts, the lab will have them ready tomorrow, always tomorrow. If you count on getting back on the road at a decent hour, give it up. You will only have enough time to grab a Big Mac at the Yuma Mickey D’s before the three-hour drive home in the dark.

Western Arizona is one of the weirdest places on earth. It’s all low-lying Sonoran Desert dominated by creosote bushes, Palo Verde trees, and an odd saguaro here and there. It also gently slopes downhill towards Yuma, the lowest place in the state. It’s also the warmest and driest part of the state, both winter and summer. No one lives there.

Yuma Crossing
All of the historical travel routes crossed the Colorado River within 300 yards of this spot. That includes the ferry, railroad, the first Ocean to Ocean Highway (US 80) and the current freeway (Interstate 8).

While driving to Yuma in September, we counted twenty-five empty RV parks along the road. Quartzsite, the halfway point of the trip, was a ghost town with most of the stores closed. On Monday’s trip they were all packed to the brim with people from Montana, Alberta, Idaho, Saskatchewan, Washington and British Columbia. They all come down to the warm desert and camp out under the stars. Except for an occasional Costco run, they never go into Phoenix and the Phoenicians aren’t aware that these people are out there. After all, who goes to Quartzsite? The campers also go to Algodones for doctors, prescriptions and booze.

On the Immigration Service Website, it says that the Algodones Customs Station averages over two thousand pedestrians a day. I’ve been there on days where you could walk right into the custom-house and be on your way two minutes later. This week there were over four thousand people waiting in line to cross the border. The line curled back from the custom-house and several blocks down the street. For over an hour we marched a step or two at a time, while chatting with our neighbors and carrying one bag of prescriptions and another containing one bottle of Kahlua or tequila.

Towards day’s end, the street vendors grab an armload of goods, abandon their stalls and make their way to the line waiting at customs. They form a gauntlet imploring you to buy a poncho, sombrero or a giant carved wooden turtle. On your other side, old women dressed in black hold a swaddled infant and offer Chiclets for spare change. They move on if you smile and softly say, “No. Thank you.” If you dare feel the lace or try on a hat, you’re dead meat until you agree on a price. Being a Baby Boomer, I can tell you that they’d really make a fortune selling street tacos and Margaritas to-go along that exit line.

Till then . . .

jw