Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’

The Halls of Montezuma – the Mexican Side of the Story

May 8, 2013


Most Americans are familiar with the opening line of the Marine Hymn “From the halls of Montezuma…,” which refers to the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec.  Two famous military men, better known for their roles in the U.S. Civil War (Robert E. Lee and George Pickett) played roles in the battle.   Although this was a victory for American forces, the Mexican side of the story  is the more poignant of the two.

In September 1847, American military forces attacked Chapultepec Castle, which guarded Mexico City to the west.  The castle sat atop a 200-foot (60 m) tall hill, which, in recent years, was being used as the Mexican Military Academy.  General Nicolas Bravo had fewer than 1,000 men  to hold the hill, including 200 cadets, some as young as 13 years old.  The castle itself was defended by only 400 men, including 100 cadets.

The Americans, under the command of General Winfield Scott, began an artillery barrage of the castle. Marines stormed the castle using over 50 tall ladders, and managed to erect an American flag above it.  General Nicolas Bravo ordered a retreat back to the City and was himself captured. 

Six military cadets aged 13-19 refused to fall back and fought to their death.  Legend has it that, rather than allow the Mexican flag to fall into enemy hands, the last surviving teenage cadet Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and jumped off the castle wall to his death. 

The six cadets are known in Mexico as the “Ninos Heroes” or “Boy Heroes.”  There is an imposing monument to them in the entrance to Chapultepec park, and many streets and schools throughout Mexico are named after them, both collectively and individually.  At one time, they were also featured on the Mexican 5000 peso bank note.  A metro station in Mexico City is also named after them.  I am currently staying at a house between the streets named Colegio Military (Military Academy) and Heroes de 47 (Heroes of 1847).

On March 5, 1947, a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Chapultepec, U.S. President Harry Truman  placed a wreath at the monument and stood for a few moments of silent reverence. Asked by American reporters why he had gone to the monument, Truman said, “Brave men don’t belong to any one country. I respect bravery wherever I see it.”






Noches en La Paz

April 24, 2013


Back in my party days, my girlfriends and I would drive down from Washington State all the way to Baja to party all day and all night.  Typically, we hit the beach, take an afternoon siesta, have a late dinner, hit the clubs around 11:00 p.m, dance, drink and flirt till about 4 a.m., drag ourselves home catch a couple of snoozes and then hit the beach again.

Now I’m an old married woman and frankly this just isn’t very appealing anymore.  I can’t bounce back from hangovers like I used to, and the only dancing I do is in the zumba classes at the gym.  Besides, I had to remind myself that, although I am spending two months in paradise, I am still working (albeit reduced hours) via the magic of the internet and need to get up in the morning to participate in telephone conferences, write briefs, etc.  So how have we been spending our evenings?

Strolling the Malecon

La Paz has one of the most attractive Malecons (waterfronts) in all of Mexico.  The Malecon has a 20-ft wide paved walkway that stretches from the Cortez Marina in the southwest end extending approximately 5 km, all the way to Playa Coromuel Waterpark in the northeast end.  The first 3 km runs along Abasolo, the main drag.  On the non-water side of Abasolo are countless shops, mid-sized hotels (no mega resorts), restaurants, ice cream parlors, etc.  It seems like everyone walks the Malecon, especially at night, when who families stroll the length admiring the sunset, the public artwork, buy ice cream, rollerblade, ride bikes. Etc.  John and I have both walked and biked the Malecon at all hours of the day and it’s enjoyable anytime.  Weekends, you will also hear musicians playing and everyone just seems to be having a wonderful time.  Unlike Cabo and other “resort cities” there are no trinket vendors or time share salespeople constantly harassing you.  La Paz’s Malecon feels very authentically Mexican, and was clearly built with its own citizen in mind – tourists are a mere afterthought.  It’s a lovely place to catch the sunset, and I took the photo above from the Malecon at sunset.  We reward ourselves by getting an ice cream at La Fuente ice cream shot, or a gelato and Giulietta e Romeo, or a paleta (homemade ice cream bar, sometimes dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts) at Casa Villa.  There are also parlors that sell bubble tea, frozen yogurt and smoothies, we just haven’t gotten to them yet!

Attending a guitar concert at an art gallery

My friend Judy, an American ex pat who lives in La Paz, graciously keeps me informed of, and invites me to all sorts of events.  A few weeks ago, we attended a lovely guitar concert at a local art gallery.  The guitarist played only music written by Latin American composers.  We sat outdoors in a courtyard under the stars below the canopy of a large tree.  During intermission, we looked at the art and purchased wine, coffee or tea.  The cost of the concert? 70 pesos, or less than $6 per person.  Varietal Spanish wine was less than $3 a glass.  It was chilly that night, but positively enjoyable.

ImageMovie at the community garden

Another night, we attended a free outdoor screening of Robert Redford’s documentary “Watershed” in one of three community gardens, just a few blocks off the Malecon.  We arrived before dark and toured the garden where Alex, Judy’s husband, shares a plot with a neighbor.  The park is full of whimsical murals, and even the water tank is brightly painted.

Image We munched on the sweetest cherry tomatoes, crunchy organically-grown carrots and jicama sprinkled with Tajin, a Mexican spice blend.  Various enterprising gardeners found ways to reuse all those discarded wine and beer bottles by inserting them into the dirt upside down around beds to use them as edging.  The movie itself was very informative, following eight communities in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Baja Norte and Sonora affected by the increased demands on water, the Colorado river compact and efforts to restore the delta.  One realizes how much we take water for granted and how precious it is.  Here in La Paz, the soccer fields are dirt because there simply isn’t enough water to maintain grass.  The arroyos are bone dry.  Baja Sur is one of the driest states in Mexico and depends on the Sierra Laguna for its water.  But 70 percent of the water is lost to evaporation, 15% ends up in the sea and only 15% makes it into the acquifer needed to supply the entire state.  Here in La Paz, the municipality turns off the water without warning and the pressure is so low, we fill our tinaca (water tank) by hand every other day.  Our drinking water is delivered in large bottles by truck.  Throughout the day, I hear the music from the various water companies and can now identify whether it’s the Coca Cola truck or another company.  Several days after seeing the film,  we drove down to Los Cabos and I cringed when I saw those lush green lawns and golf courses.

ImageHot Dogs!

One thinks of seafood tacos in La Paz, but hot dogs are also extremely popular.  This hot dog cart, Yapa, is just a few blocks from my house.  the owners originally just had a cart in front of their house but they became so popular, they set up indoor seating with a flat-screen TV, and serve other foods and drinks.  But it seems everyone comes for the hot dogs.  Pazcenos like their hot dogs wrapped in bacon, grilled and served on a toasty bun with onions (I like mine grilled rather than raw), jalapeno peppers, catsup (I hold the catsup), mustard and a drizzle of crema (mexican sour cream).  The best part, they only cost 10 pesos or about 80 cents U.S. The hot dog cart (and many in the city) is only open at night.


La Paz has its share of bars and clubs but is nothing like the insanity of Cabo.  We have actually only gone out at night to a bar once, and that was to the Tailhunter Fubar and Cantina, a popular sportsbar on the north end of the Malecon.  The owner, former California native Jonathan Roldan, also runs a sportfishing business.  We went there the night of the NCAA basketball championship game between Michigan and Louisville.  The game was on every screen in the bar.  The seats were filled mostly with gringos but it was not packed to the gills.  Great beers and a fun evening.

TV and movies at home

Mexico plays many Hollywood films at about the same time as in the US.  They are either in English with subtitles or dubbed in Spanish.  We don’t get the range of films seen in the U.S.  Most are action films of family-friendly films.  We haven’t gone to see a movie in a theatre yet, but there are plenty of multiplexes, just like in the States.  The house we are staying at has no TV.  We brought our computer monitor down with us and hook it up to the laptop.  Outside the US you can watch U.S. television on a website called It’s on an east coast schedule. We can watch network and basic cable for free. If we want to, we can pay a subscription for premium channels or DVR. But instead, we mostly watch netflix movies. We saw the entire series “House of Cards” with Kevin Spacey and are now watching “Mad Men.”

Other cultural events

There are plenty of other cultural events in La Paz. I’ve received email notices for the ballet “Peter and the wolf,” a classical piano concert, a concert with the state orchestra. Admission to none of these events costs more than $9. La Paz is also celebrating its “foundation days” in early May (it’s 478 years old) with concerts, food, parades). I’ve been told, however, that there are no touring broadway shows or semi-professional musical theatres here. Maybe time to found a company!

A trip to the Mexican hospital

April 15, 2013


Sunday, the temperatures were in the 70’s and we thought it would be nice to go mountain biking.  John researched on the web and found a mountain bike trail on the north end of town. It was rated “moderately technical” with maximum climbs of 780 ft.  Seemed relatively easy.  We rode our bikes along the bike lane on the Malecon (waterway) – about a 3- mi trip and then turned in land at the trail head.  There was a nice wide dirt road into the desert.  The first 1 km was ugly because people had dumped their trash there (obviously against the law).  But after the road turned to single track, we followed it up hill.  In places the trail was hard to navigate because of soft sand and gravel, but we learned that “moderately technical” must mean rocky single track flanked on either side but nasty looking cacti.  The track was narrow enough that a few times, I couldn’t walk my bike because my bike and I were too wide to avoid the cactus on the side of the road.



During the entire ride we saw only one other person, a hiker who was resting underneath a large rock outcropping.  Vultures circled overhead and I joked to Johnny that they must like Gringo white meat.  The trail was short (only about 3- mi) then we crossed an arroyo over to where the hiker was resting and caught up another trail back to the trail head.

This trail was very rocky in places and I got off my bike several times to navigate some scary-looking rocks.  But as I approached an area that appeared to flatten out and the trail began to widen, I got back on my bike.  Stupid mistake.  as I came down the hill, the trail cut sharply to the right, marked at the curve by a an 18″ metal spike, a boulder about 2′ high and several smaller boulders.  My back tire hit loose gravel and I skid and I lay down my bike.  Fearing impalement on that nasty-looking spike I jumped off the bike and fell smack onto the boulder striking  hard my left ribs, elbow and bending back my left index finger.

My first thought was Omigod, don’t let there be a rattle snake under this rock I just overturned because he is going to be very upset that I disturbed him.  Fortunately, no rattlesnake.  Then Omigod, I broke my arm and ribs – the searing pain!  The third thought, “hey I’m going to live, the vultures circling overhead have left the area!

John, who had ridden about 200 yards in front of me heard my screaming and cussing and ran back. After gasping for breath for about 5 minutes, I did manage to stand, but couldn’t get back on the bike. We were still two miles from the trail head and had no choice but to hike back. I managed to walk back to the road without assistance and John walked both bikes.

When we got to the road, we turned left, walked another 200 yards or so, and entered a hotel parking lot where a small taxi was waiting. The taxi was too small to take our bikes, so I got in alone and had him take me to the hospital. The driver told John he was taking me to Salvatierra hospital. He apparently managed to flag down a larger cab, but still had to take the bikes apart. The cab driver took him to our house where he unloaded the bikes and then he proceeded to the hospital.

Salvatierra (shown in the photo) is a very modern-looking newer hospital opened in 2010. When it opened, President Felipe Calderon called it the most modern hospital in all of Mexico. From the outside, it is certainly shiny and new. Inside however, it did not have the sterile squeaky-clean look of an American hospital. I found the emergency department. They took my name address and birth date off my passport and asked me what I wanted to be seen for. I was not asked to fill out form after form and no one asked me about insurance. Then, wonder of wonders, after giving my information they IMMEDIATELY took me inside to an exam room and within one minute a young doctor came in to examine me. While waiting I looked around. The room had two examining tables but neither had paper on them (that would normally be changed between patients). I thought about my bike shorts that had been rolling in the desert dirt half an hour ago sitting on the table and the poor patient who would follow me, as well as wondering who had been there before me. There were overhead tracks for privacy curtains, but no curtains. There were two sinks, one of which had a prominent sign in Spanish “Do not use for washing your hands.” The other sink had no such sign so I assumed it would be okay to use it to wash my hands. There was liquid soap dispenser and paper towels but only the cold water work. Gee, I thought, I sure hope I don’t need surgery.

The doctor came in and was friendly and introduced herself by her first name. She examined me and asked the right questions. We communicated in Spanish, but I suspected she could speak English too. She then referred me for X-rays. The x-ray technician came by within 2 minutes and escorted me to the radiology department. Again, no paper or other protective covering on the examining x-ray table. There was a glassed in window from which I could see where he operated the machine and a computer screen to view the x-rays. He x-rayed my arm from two angles and my ribs. I was not given a lead apron to protect any areas not being x-rayed. I saw him take the films into the next room and through the window could see him and presumably a radiologist looking at them on the computer. Then he came back into the room and escorted me back to the exam room where he handed the films to the ER doctor. She put them up on the viewing panel and showed me that I had no broken bones or fractures. A nurse came into to wrap and immobilize my elbow, which has swollen to twice its size. I had an abrasion on my knee but the doctor told me I did not need a tetanus shot, as I did not cut myself on any metal. She gave me a prescription for extra-strength Ibuprofen, handed me my x-rays to keep, and said I would be fine in a few days. My discharge papers did not contain any diagnosis or instructions for follow up treatment. But here’s the great part: the medical exam and consult, three x-rays and patch up cost me only $59. In the states I probably would have paid several thousand dollars and for the privilege of waiting for five or six hours to be seen for a total of 15 minutes. Salvatierra had me in and out in 45 minutes. I was discharged five minutes after John arrived.

Time to cook!

March 27, 2013


Okay the serious cook in me wants to hit the fish market, bakeries, produce markets, etc.  But on day one it was simply time to go to the supermercado to stock up and check out the prices.  Here’s a sample of what I bought today at Chedraui Supermercado, just two blocks from where we are staying in La Paz for the next five weeks.

700 ml tequila  $6.75

Bottle of Italian red wine  $7.84

Combo pack EVOO and wine vinegar  $7.48

Bar of bath soap (palmolive) $.76

1 quart bleach  $.60

Demiloaf artisan onion bread  $.66

Loaf of multigrain bread (Pan Bimbo) $1.72

6 handmade flour tortillas $.98

6 oz Di Giorno shredded parmesan cheese $5.29

Gallon fresh-squeezed OJ (unpasteurized) $8.13

½ gallon low fat milk $2.60

1 ½ dozen eggs  $2.84

Haas avocados $.78/pound

Jalapeno peppers $.64/pound

Roma tomatoes $.40/pound

Manila mangoes $1/pound

Bananas $.42/pound

Strawberries  $2.09/quart

Boneless chicken breast $2.59/pound

Medium shrimp heads off, shell on  $4.40/pound

Marinated flank steak  $6/pound

Here’s my kitchen.  Looking forward to start cooking!


The Mexican adventure begins!

March 20, 2013

Squirrel Mama is back!  About a year ago, John had been retired for about six months. We started discussing returning to my ex pat roots and living abroad.  We thought it’d be fun to live a couple of months in a country and then try another one, seeing if we’d like to settle elsewhere or just be global Bedouins.  The dream became a doable plan when I modified my work so I can work from anywhere there is a good internet connection.  I plan to continue working part time, while exploring other countries.

A friend suggested international house sitting, and we signed up for several international house-sitting sites.  One of the first replies we received was from a documentary film maker with a home in El Centenario, a sleepy town just outside of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. 

The El Centenario house-sit didn’t work out for this Spring (though we have a potential to house sit there late this year) but it sparked our interest in Mexico as the first country to exploreImage.  John had worked in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico for 10 months in 2008.  Most of you probably know that Ciudad Juarez has the highest murder rate in Mexico, and in much of the world, due to the narco wars.  Although he survived his experience physically unscathed (although he was “patient zero” for the H1N1 virus) he was not keen on returning to Mexico.  It has taken about four months to convince him that this was a trip worth taking.  First it was “I’m never going to Mexico.”  Then it was “I’m never driving to Mexico.”  Now it’s “Okay with Baja, but not going the mainland.”  We shall see! 

As for me, I’ve driven down to Baja (from Seattle!) many times in the 1980’s.  I’ve driven all the way down the Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas with friends (again in the 1980’s) and have fond memories of the road trip.  So this was a chance to relive my law school days when I was first introduced to Mexico by my friend Sandra, whose family lived in Ensenada.

We found short-term renters for our house in San Pedro for considerably more rent than we will pay to rent in La Paz.   Although we have nothing booked in La Paz until the end of the month, our renters needed to move in March 19, so our plan was to hit the road for the border March 19 in the a.m. and slowly make our way down to La Paz over the week.

Murphy’s law definitely applies to our travels.  it seems every time we are about to leave on a trip, something happens.  Once a water pipe developed a pinhole leak behind the wall.  Another time, water started leaking under the sink (this is why we always want the house occupied while gone). This time, that nasty “Homeland Security ransomeware virus” overtook my computer yesterday morning.  Fortunately, doing a system restore to March 17 seemed to fix the problem.  But it did set us back a few hours from our planned departure time.

The trip to the border was far less eventful.  We flew down the 73 toll road past San Diego to the border town of San Ysidro, where we filled the gas tank and made a pit stop.  Then it was into the lane of “no return” to the Mexican border.  Easy crossing, we weren’t even stopped by immigration officials, just waved through – John remarked how there were a lot fewer armed soldiers at the border than he used to see in Juarez.  Once crossing the border, however, we realized we were in the wrong line because, unlike those just going in for a few days, we needed to stop at immigration to get our tourist cards and our passports stamped.  We waved an immigration official down, who guided us the wrong way (against incoming traffic) to the customs building, told us to park and escorted us into the building (again against customs traffic) into a tiny office.  The building itself was very new, very shiny and very empty.  There was no line in the immigration office.  The very friendly and helpful immigration official helped us complete the tourist cards (very tiny type, John couldn’t read it – the eyes are the second thing to go), took the entry fee (you used to have to walk to a Bank to pay it) stamped our passports, gave us our half of the tourist  card and we were back on the road.

I had downloaded a map to get us from the border to the toll road, avoiding going into  Tijuana proper.  The first 1/2 mile goes directly along the Mexican side of the ugly border fence US border control has put up.  To the left (Mexico) are ugly concrete buildings with tin roofs, billboards and lots of construction activity.  On the right (U.S.) is a patch of bare land.  In the distance in the hills you can see the large tract homes with their immaculate lawns.  The biggest contrast in economic disparity at any international border, I’m told.

We almost missed the turnoff to the toll road to Ensenada (swerving into the left lane at the last minute).  They accepted U.S. dollars at the toll booths, giving us change in dollars and then we were on our way!  The road was in excellent condition (if narrower than US roads), two lanes each way.  In some parts the median was beautifully landscaped but there was no shoulder to speak of.  You absolutely had to keep your eyes on the road (and away from the gorgeous scenery unfolding) to avoid going off the six-inch edge and overturning the car.

Once on the highway, the ugly buildings disappeared and the landscape unfolded with one gated community, highrise or beach resort after another.  This area really didn’t look much different from southern California. Between communities we would see one beautiful ocean vista after another.

We rolled into Ensenada about 1 1/2 hours after crossing the border.  It was cloudy and cool (temps in the 60’s).  We checked into the the Best Western El Cid for $67/night (taxes inc).  It’s an older very Mexican looking hotel.  rustic and charming with lots of tile, dark wood, wrought iron, stained glass, molded stucco and Mexican artesenal artwork throughout the rooms.  The walls are VERY thin, though.  Our neighbors were having sex last night and I could have sworn then were right in our room. The ones upstairs sounded like they were playing basketball in their room.

The city itself has cleaned up tremendously from my college days.  The main drag is spotless and the cobblestoned sidewalksImage gleam.  Being a Tuesday, with no cruise ship in town, it was very quiet.  I could see a lot of empty store fronts and can see how the economy is hurting, not only from the worldwide downturn but also tourists scared over media reports of narco-violence.  But somethings never changed. It’s always been my tradition to hit Cantina Hussongs, a western-looking dive bar that has been in Ensenada since 1892.  Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen have all hung out there.  We walked it and it looked the same.  We were hungry though, and told the waiter we’d be back.  The taco stand next door was still there, with same menu and we had $1.35 tacos washed down with dark beer and agua de jamaica (hibiscus punch).  Returning to Hussongs (the only visible face lift was the clean bathrooms with self-flushing toilets and no smoking indoors).  Four beers and two tequilas later (and $12 poorer), we concluded day 1 of our Mexican adventure.