Friday, September 23, 2016

Ex-pats in Mexico – it’s the little differences

Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres
There’s a hugely popular website called Expat.com that specializes is communication between people who are scattered around the world, not living in their own country.  This week the discussion topic was: ‘how do you cope with being homesick?’  That’s when we realized we aren’t actually homesick for our country, but we are occasionally still a little discombobulated by the differences.


Beautiful shoes - important to the culture, 
Most of us realize before we leave our home country that there will be some big changes to our lives, but it’s the little differences that can catch you by surprize.

·        Mexico uses the metric system.  No inches, feet, miles, ounces, pounds, or Fahrenheit.  Yes, we are Canadian and our country switched over to metric in the mid-seventies to match the rest of the world, but in school we learned the Imperial measurements.  Change happens slower when you are older.  Buying shoes in metric is still perplexing, but most everything else has sorted itself out in our brains.  We can only imagine how confusing it is to our American neighbours, the last country in the world still using Imperial measurements.

We try - but we are still too early for everything!

·        Appointment times are all ish.  If four in the afternoon is when you are meeting a friend, or expecting a service person that is now four-ish.  Your acquaintance or tradesperson could be thirty minutes, an hour, or two hours late.  It’s not rude, it’s just the way it is.  The person will eventually arrive, all smiles and hugs or handshakes.  Life is good; they are very happy to see you, and therefore it follows, that you are very happy to see them.  Public events, parades, parties – everything is ish!  When we first moved here we always arrived at the suggested time, only to find the host in the shower, and the hostess decorating for the party.  It’s a little less embarrassing now that we don’t arrive exactly on time.

Buy fresh.  Buy often.

·       Street closures are common, especially in the smaller communities.  Why?  Usually for a family event, such as a funeral or a birthday party.  Most of the homes are too small for family gatherings and permission is usually granted to close the street for several hours.  No one gets upset, everyone just adjusts their schedule to work around the closure. 

·        Grocery shopping is a daily task for most locals, and we have changed from our Canadian habit of stockpiling once a week, to shopping every second day.  Produce is fresh, ripe, and doesn’t keep for any length of time.  Buy fresh, and buy often is the local habit. 


Driving in Mexico is entertaining.

·          Signs for small businesses are somewhat limited.  When asking for directions to an unfamiliar store or business, it’s always best to ask for a description of the building including colour.  Many small establishments don’t have signs.  The reasoning is; if you are a resident you know the location.

·        Driving in Mexico is entertaining, especially in the bigger cities.  The local drivers are very aware of traffic around them, and are pretty decent drivers.  The incentive to stay out of accidents is huge.  Get into a fender-bender and everyone goes to jail until the police decide on who is responsible, and who is paying.  Signs and traffic lights are treated as ‘suggestions’ not cast in stone, the exception being the raised striped crosswalks.  Traverse one of those when there are pedestrians using the crosswalk and you will rapidly find yourself having a lengthy personal chat with a police officer.  Been there.  Done that.  
 
My alter-ego, Minnie with island policewoman
·        And speaking of the police.  When we moved here we were told by many Mexican friends, do not ever interact with the police.  Don’t make eye-contact, or even smile at them.  We did that for a number of years, and then decided that we weren’t happy treating other human beings this way.  We’ve started to acknowledge the officers with a wave and a smile.  They wave, smile back, and chat when they recognize us. 

·        As for guns, contrary to what international television news suggests guns are very, very rare in Mexico.  In fact there is only one store in all of Mexico that sells guns, and you would not believe the paperwork. 

·        

   
Immigration in Cancun - lineups out the door. 
Bureaucracy is a fine art in Mexico.  Paperwork takes an inordinately long time to process, whether it is immigration papers, building permits, or simply renewing a driver’s licence.  Bureaucrats will test your patience.  It’s a good time practice the fine art of daydreaming as you loiter in the waiting room, linger in the line-up, or shuffle from paper-pusher to cashier and back again.  And smile.  Angry outbursts will guarantee that your documents find a new home on the bottom of the one-meter-high teetering pile of paperwork, waiting for the final stamp of approval. 


·        And the best difference we have noticed; we can actually wave and say ‘hello’ to little kids.   The families are close-knit and loving.  It is everyone’s job to watch out for the younger family members, but a wave and a smile are still allowed.  It’s a refreshing change.

As Ex-pats, living in a foreign country has been very beneficial to us.  We have been able to stop medications for stress and high blood pressure.  We seldom eat packaged or prepared foods.  We are happy and healthy. 

We aren’t homesick, this country is our home.

Hasta Pronto!

Lynda & Lawrie

http://www.expat.com/en/destination/north-america/mexico/

Friday, September 16, 2016

There’s music in the air


The musical talent on this little Caribbean island, Isla Mujeres, is amazing.  We recently asked a few of the musicians that we know if they would be interested in being featured in this week’s blog article.  Some are full-time residents, others live here in the winter months, and one well-known musician was born on Isla.  We started to write the article from our point of view, and then decided that since the musicians had sent us such great biographies …we’d use their words instead.  So here they are, in alphabetical order by surname.

Willy Chacon was born in Acapulco. He started playing guitar at age 11. He spent all his time learning American and British music. Willy formed his first band in high school and played in various venues in Acapulco.  In 1995 he moved to Isla Mujeres and started a band featuring international and Caribbean music.  He was a regular at Toninos Restaurant owned by his cousin, Juan Basto.  Other venues include NaBalam and Sunset Grill.  In 2000 he began playing at Faynes when it opened.  In 2005 he moved to Michigan and continued to play a variety of gigs and venues. In October 2015, Willy moved back to the island and joined Toso Martinez' band “Los Que No Son.”  He is currently adding a variety of music to his repertoire ~ bossa nova, reggae, rhumba, and flamenco.  On April 7, 2015 he was recognized with Toso and inducted as part of "La Trova Islena"....these musicians are preserving our local cultural treasure of traditional Isla music. Currently, Willy and Toso play together at Faynes with "Los Que No Son" and as a duo at Parque de Los Suenos.  In addition, he works as both a chef and entertainer for Dinnertainment owned by Javier and Marla Martinez.


Mike Davanzo has been playing guitar and singing professionally with a variety of bands since the age of sixteen in the New York area.  He has also performed in twenty American states, plus locations in Canada and Mexico.  Mike has worked with numerous old time rock n rollers including Lou Christie, Jimmy Clanton, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, Jay and the Americans, The Belmonts, The Crystals, The Vanilla Fudge, The Rascals and Tommy James and the Shondells.  Mike has been visiting Isla Mujeres for 15 years and now spends the winter here.  He plays and sings rock n roll of the 50's-60's- 70's during the November - March winter season at Miguel's Moonlight and Parque de Los Suenos, with guest appearances at Marina Paraiso and other venues.




Miquel and his son at Barlito's 

Miguel Angel Hernandez grew up in an artistic family in Mexico City.  At the age of twelve he started learning guitar, playing in a band with his uncles when he was a young teenager.  By the time he entered high school he had his own rock band that performed at school functions and parties.  By learning the harmonica, Miguel was able to find work with a Mexico City blues band, entertaining at dance clubs.  He also studied flute and guitar at the Escuela Libre de Muscia in Mexico City for two years.  By 1987 Miguel had discovered Isla Mujeres and a Louisiana band who played blues in Cancun and also on Isla at the Bad Bones Bar.  Then he switched to bass guitar for five years at the same island restaurant when it was re-named Ya-Ya’s, and still later when the name was changed to Jax.  In those years there was only work for musicians during the high season, the winter months so to keep himself employed Miguel traveled to Canada and Germany with other musicians.  Today the Isla Mujeres music scene is so busy he is employed throughout the year as part of both The Sol Rockers, and La Banda Sin Nombre as well as solo gigs.  Miguel says, “Music has been my love, and my life, and I am always available to play for private parties and weddings.”


Javier Martinez Cen was born and raised on Isla Mujeres.  He writes: I can't remember when I picked up an instrument for the very first time, but when I was eight years old, my fifth grade teacher asked me to play Mexican songs for a school festival.  I asked my dad to show me how and it was fantastic, people clapping and smiling.   I knew then I wanted to be a rock star!
Year by year learning more from my musical family (my dad and his musician friends, The Vampers), I finally got my chance on the electric guitar.  I played everywhere I could including five government sponsored international festivals.  My favourite gigs were with La Trova Isleña, an association tasked with preserving our cultural music.  With La Trova Isleña I went to Cuba where I learned to play percussion.  A few years later I toured with my dear friends Sebastian and Miguel Hernandez, through Germany and Holland.  Later I met my beautiful wife, Marla Bainbridge, and we created a duo called Hammock for 2.  We toured through Chicago, Minneapolis, and Indianapolis doing private performances.  Fun!

Little by little I started my cooking business with Marla, where I can mix my two passions, cooking and music. Our Dinnertainment created the opportunity for my restaurant, Javi’s Cantina where I combine a taste of Isla Mujeres with international flavours.  I love what I do there; cook and play my guitar!
My gigs are Javi’s Cantina, Faynes, Adelitas, Zama Beach Club and where ever a costumer asks me to play.  La Banda Sin Nombre, my second family, is the oldest band in town.  Love all of them, Julio, Yasser, Miguel, Javier and my dad Toso, together play anything we want.  Music, music, and more music!



Ryan Rickman: Having started to play music at the age of eight, Ryan has always loved performing on stage and being a musician.  Once done with High school he immediately got a job with Club Med as the house musician, starting in the Bahamas and then landing in Cancun in 2003.  Lucky enough to find Isla for the first time on a day trip he fell in love with the Island and continued to visit ever since.  Having started many of his own bands in California and always working as a musician, Ryan has always been busy with music.  Being in the right place at the right time in 2012, Ryan met Penny Deming the owner of El Patio and he has been playing music for her establishments ever since.  His musical selections include, Smooth Island tunes, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s Soft Rock, Country, California Reggae, Jazz, and lots of originals too!  Never far from his side is his huge, but lovable four-legged companion O.G., who will steal your heart (and some of your food) the second you meet him.  He is part of the show!  Ryan loves Isla and is happy to be a part of the community here and being able to have the opportunity to help Isla evolve, grow, and continue to stay the beautiful island that we all love and some of us are so fortunate to call home!


Ken Wanovich: My first trip to the island was in 1989 just after hurricane Gilbert.  The impact on Mexican families made a huge impression on me. Now, twenty-seven years later, my wife Debbie and I are regular visitors to the island in February and July, where I play music as a soloist, and we work for our non-profit organization "Keys 4 Life."  When we are on the island, you'll find me playing music at Mamacita's, Chi's 'n Charlie's Beach Bar, Caribbean Brisas, Sardinian Smiles, and Nash's Tapas Bar.  It’s hard to put a title on my style, but variety comes close: Classic Rock, Trop Rock, Oldies, Country, and Pop. Our work with Keys 4 Life has allowed us to work with families in Guadalupana and La Gloria installing new cement floors over dirt, repairing and replacing leaky roofs, bringing school supplies & clothing, supplying paint for the soccer stadium and middle school, and recently, installing new white boards in each of the thirteen classrooms at the middle school.

There are more folks out there making beautiful music, folks that we weren’t able to connect with this time around, but we’ll do another article featuring island musicians - soon.   We hope you liked reading about some of Isla’s great musicians.

Local musicians honoured by La Trova Isleña


Get out there and enjoy the great tunes!

Hasta Pronto!
Lynda & Lawrie


Friday, September 9, 2016

Celebration time, come on, come celebrate with me ….

Día de la Independencia
Día de la Independencia in Mexico is celebrated annually on September 16th.   

It is one of our favourite times of year on the island.  This week is traditionally the start of the festivities leading up to the big finale of this important national holiday featuring lots of fireworks, flags, banners, music, dancing and tasty food washed down with icy cold beer or shots of tequila.  

 But this week’s blog is also about the other celebrations that happen throughout the year.  Many of our Mexican friends don’t take the traditional two or three week holiday that we northerners are accustomed to, traveling someplace warm and exotic.  Heck, they already live in that place; warm and exotic.   Why go anywhere else?  

Like most countries there are several different types of holidays in Mexico: statutory (called feriados or días de asueto), civic, religious or family fiestas. 

New Year, Año Nuevo
To start the year off with a bang, (pun intended) the beginning of the New Year, Año Nuevo is an all-night fiesta in centro with fireworks and a twelve-piece band rocking the downtown area until dawn.  
As the party winds down many revelers will make their way to Punta Sur at the southern end Isla Mujeres.  This is the first place in all of Mexico for the first rays of sunlight to strike land and celebrants in their party clothes arrive by motos or golf carts or private vehicles to toast the New Year.  Government, banks, schools, and some stores are closed on January 1st, which is probably a really good thing after an all-night party.

Carnaval
The next big national celebration, Carnaval, takes place in late February or early March, depending on the date set by the church calendar.  
It is a full five days of parades, dance contests, and silly behaviour until the beginning of Lent on the following Wednesday.  
This is the time of year that people really let loose.  
It is not a statutory holiday, but it is one of the best experiences in Mexico.

President Benito Juárez




By the time the third Monday in March rolls around there is a quieter observance of the birthday of President Benito Juárez, who was born March 21, 1806.  
The day is usually marked with speeches and a laying of a floral wreath at his statue at the junction of the roads behind the naval base, and the end of the airport.  
It is a statutory holiday so banks, schools and some stores will be closed.


Day of the Flowery Cross

On the 1st of May is the Día del Trabajo or Mexico’s Labor Day commemorating the union movements Mexican workers.  While on May 3rd the Day of the Flowery Cross is a separate observance just for construction workers.  

Drive around the island and you will see a variety of decorated crosses adorning the rooftop of buildings under construction.  The workers are usually treated to a hot lunch, and a half-day of work. 



Día de la Independencia


And forget your misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo, as we mentioned earlier, September 16th is the real Día de la Independencia commemorating the beginning of its War of Independence, led by the famous Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla in 1810.  If you are in Mexico on September 15th sure to make your way into centro for the ‘Cry of Independence’ scheduled for eleven in the evening, followed by fireworks, and another all-night fiesta.  ¡Viva México!


Flowers and food for Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead (People) begins on October 31st and includes November 1st, the Day of the Dead for children and November 2nd the Day of the Dead for adults.  It is a 3000 year-old tradition of remembering relatives and friends who have passed away.  The historic tradition was integrated into the Catholic Church rituals in the mid 1500's.  Primarily a private family remembrance the beautiful altars and offerings have in recent years attracted a huge number of visitors to cities such as San Miquel de Allende, and the City of Mexico.  Here on Isla Mujeres it is a very low key celebration.
 
Día de la Revolución
November 20th Día de la Revolución commemorating the start of the Mexican Revolution by Francisco I. Madero in 1910. Observance of this statutory holiday is the third Monday of November.  Most of the local school children participate in a parade featuring very young mustachioed-revolutionaries toting toy guns and crossed banderillos of fake bullets.  The kids are a delight to see, so serious and desperately trying to keep in step for an interminably long parade. 

One of the numerous celebrations
Celebrated chiefly in Mexico and the southwestern United States, Las Posadas begins on December 16th and ends on December 24th.   The nine day-religious holiday is a time for honouring the pilgrimage of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus to Bethlehem.  In Mexico, the Aztec winter solstice festival had traditionally been observed from December 7th to December 26th marking the sun god Huitzilopochtli’s birthday.  



Getting ready for the next New Year's Eve fiesta
The parallel in time between this Aztec commemoration and the birth of the Christ lent itself to an almost seamless merging of the traditions in 1586.
Traditionally, Navidad or Christmas is observed on December 25th as a secular and a religious holiday.  People attend Mass, relax, catch up with family and friends, and eat leftovers (recalentado) from Christmas Eve’s Noche Buena dinner.  

And there are more, lots more celebrations!  Come join the fun!

¡Viva México! Long live Mexico! 

Hasta Pronto!
Lynda & Lawrie


Friday, September 2, 2016

Bonnie and Ariel the faces behind Sea Hawk Dive Shop & Suites

Ariel - a few years ago before Fenix Restaurante existed
“Do you ever take a day off?”  I asked Bonnie Hamilton early on a Sunday morning last week. 
She flashed her high-wattage smile and said, “In hurricane season,” which probably meant; we do if it is raining like hell and the weather is too rough for our boats, otherwise no, we don’t take a day off.  
   
Bonnie Hamilton and Ariel Barandica and staff  Dec 2015

Well-known islanders Bonnie Hamilton and Ariel Barandica met on Isla Mujeres in 1985, when Ariel was operating his Sea Hawk Dive Shop from the beach near what is now Fenix Restaurante.   Every morning he stuck a colourful umbrella in the sand, and placed a dive tank under the umbrella then added a sign proclaiming Sea Hawk was open for the day.  His boat was either anchored in the bay, or tied to the bridge that gives access to what is now the Mia Hotel.
Diver and turtle - photo by Tyto 
Originally from Veracruz, Ariel arrived on Isla Mujeres in the late 1970’s.  He had been working the oil rigs near Campeche for a few years, before deciding the work was too dangerous and there had to be a better way to make a living.  Ariel originally operated his business from another beachside location at the south end of the island, before it was designated as Garrafon Natural Reef Park.  The snorkeling was outstanding with thousands of nearby fish inhabiting clear blue waters.  By 1981 the reef was beginning to show signs of decay with too many boats dumping effluent, and people carelessly walking on the coral not realizing how delicate it is.  Ariel and friends petitioned the government to protect the reef from abuse.  It’s an ongoing problem.
Eagle Ray - photo by Tyto
Married in 1987, Bonnie and Ariel’s two adult children have dual citizenship - Canadian and Mexican.  
Their son Jerson is an engineer by trade, but an award-winning soccer player by passion.  He learned to play five-a-side futsal on Isla Mujeres, utilizing sand lots, streets, basketball courts, soccer fields and beaches.  
Any level space would do. He is currently the Head Coach of the Women’s soccer program at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, and a coach for the White Caps High Performance Academy.  Also well-educated, their daughter Leira enjoys traveling the world and helping out at the dive shop whenever she returns to the island.
Omer & Avital, Israel - going to swim with Whale Sharks
By 1999 Bonnie and Ariel had built their current Sea Hawk Dive Shop & Suites facility on Avenida Carlos Lazo, near the Convention Centre and just block off north beach.   Their cozy little hotel has six rooms, allowing guests easy access to snorkeling or diving tours, diving lessons, and trips to swim with the beautiful whale sharks.   The cool thing about booking a whale sharks swim with Sea Hawk Dive Shop is they supply wet suits for all of their customers.  Wearing a wet suit in place of the mandatory and clumsy life vest provides buoyancy but a lot more flexibility when swimming. 
According to Ariel, here in Mexico we have the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world and it is very interesting to compare the prices for a day trip to see these gentle giants.  Australian tour boats charge between $600.00 and $650.00 USD per person per trip, while the tour companies that arrange trips from Playa del Carmen Mexico to see the pod that congregates near Isla Mujeres charge between $300.00 and $400.00 USD per person.  If you deal with an island tour boat the cost is typically $100.00 to $125.00 USD per person.  Shop local!  Save money!
Zephyr & Megan from USA, Roberto & Tyto

Marine biologist Tyto Morales is the dive master and Roberto Leiva is the boat captain at Sea Hawk Dive Shop.  The two guys work hard to make your experience fun and informative.  A number of the gorgeous photographs, labeled Atlahua, on their Facebook page and in this blog article were taken by Tyto.  


Daniele & Assuna, Italy going to swim with Whale Sharks
Bonnie and Ariel are busy, community-minded islanders who donate a lot of time, money and energy to the betterment of the island.  When she isn’t working at their businesses, Bonnie might be practicing dance routines for the next Carnaval parade, typically held in February or March, or perhaps teaching yoga in the evenings at NaBalam Hotel.  Some evenings you might find her live-trapping feral cats to be spayed and neutered, in an attempt to keep the island domestic cat population manageable.  
Anytime you see a cat with a notch out of one ear, it’s a pretty good bet that the cat has paid a visit to the local veterinarian to be altered, compliments of Bonnie and her like-minded friends.   It’s a smelly and thankless job, but she is committed to helping out.
Bonnie dancing for 2016 Carnaval 
Next time you want a snorkeling trip, dive on a wreck, learn to dive, or visit during the whale shark season drop them a note on their Facebook page, or email them at seahawkdivers@hotmail.com – you’ll have a great experience.

Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/Sea-Hawk-Divers-144655245615133/?fref=ts
Hasta Pronto!

Lynda & Lawrie



Ariel smiling as always!

Friday, August 26, 2016

Why is the Caribbean Sea so blue?

Knock-your-socks-off turquoise!

It’s a knock-your-socks off turquoise.  An eye-popping azure.  A multitude of shades and hues.  

The first time you see the Caribbean Sea it usually causes a stunned, jaw-dropping reaction. ‘Oh, my god that’s beautiful.’


Youngsters enjoying the beach near our casa

So, why is the Caribbean Sea so blue?  We’re not trained scientists, just observers and we read a lot, and this is our version of the reason. 
The colour of water is controlled by a combination of factors – depth, the floor of the sea, suspended particles (soil and pollution) and plankton.   Plankton are those tasty little organisms that are the base of the food chain for the big, hungry ocean creatures. 

1987 north of Puerto Vallarta
Depth – well, generally the deeper the water the darker the colour due to less reflected light.  
However, in our opinion the deep water of the Caribbean is a brighter sapphire blue when compared to the light jade green of Gulf of Mexico in the north, or the deep cobalt blue of the Pacific Ocean on the west coast of Mexico.  So what else is going on here?
Sand made from coral and sea shells reflects the light 

Well, another big influence for determining water colour is what is on the floor of the ocean.   Pale pink or bright white sand made from coral bits and degraded sea shells – mixed in with a little bits of lost pirate treasure - reflects light better than the fine darker sand found in the cooler waters to the north.  
Then, as we mentioned the amount of plankton and other particles suspended in the water contributes to the colour.  Phytoplankton, for example, harbors chlorophyll that absorbs red and blue light and reflects green.  The more plankton, the greener the water.  The Gulf of Mexico also has a high concentration of river silt and fertilizer nutrients, added daily by the rivers draining into the Mississippi River basin.  All those bits contribute to the pale green colour.
Isla Holbox in the Gulf of Mexico
Even just a few miles north from Isla Mujeres you will see a dramatic visual difference between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.  The Gulf of Mexico water surrounding Isla Holbox is light green and filled with plankton and nutrients.  The Caribbean Sea water is turquoise and has less plankton.  The colourful ocean critters that live in our area have apparently adapted to surviving in an environment low on nutrients.   


View of Caribbean Sea from Isla 33 condos 

Whatever the reason, the Caribbean Sea is just outright gorgeous.  The clarity of the water makes it a diving and snorkeling paradise.  

Or if you prefer a more sedentary form of exercise hanging out by the water’s edge is a totally relaxing way to spend the day.  Staring at the colour, listening to the gentle ‘shush’ of the waves, or immersing in the warm salt liquid.   

Heaven on earth.

Hasta Pronto!

Lynda & Lawrie

Hanging out in paradise