Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Best Day in Mexico-Part 4

We set out for dinner as soon as we arrived back from our tour.  We knew if we dawdled, tiredness from the day would creep through our limbs and overtake our need for food.

We were on our way to town, but stopped part way to eat at Mandarina, the restaurant that is in the Casa Las Tortugas hotel.

The restaurant was busy, but we were still able to get a cozy table in a corner.  

The décor, as well as the other diners, had a European air.  Many of the guests appeared to be speaking French, or Dutch (we would discover the next day that the island had been taken over by Dutch travelers).  Men in khakis and pastel button ups, and women wearing flowy shoulder strap sun dresses, sat sipping glasses of wine at the white washed restaurant tables.We were still wearing our comfortable trekking- in- the- hot- weather- on- a- tour clothes and felt a bit under-dressed. 

We started off with mojitos. They were the best mojitos we have ever had. The problem most often with mojitos is that one ingredient, rum, mint, sugar, etc… usually over powers the others, but the mojitos we had that evening were perfectly balanced. Now every time we have a mojito we say, remember the mojitos we had at Mandarina?

Warm fresh baked rolls were set on our table, 

along with the tasty seared scallop appetizer we ordered.

For our entrees, I had the fish of the day served with a mango salsa and something that sounded strange, but turned out to be delicious, pineapple mashed potatoes.  

The pineapple tasted grilled, so it was not overly sweet. I wondered why I never had yummy pineapple mashed potatoes before. 

Shannon had the steak. He said that it was very good.

While we were eating our dinner a man entered the restaurant. He set down a little low to the ground chair, took out an instrument that we learned was a hang drum, and began to play.  He taped, taped, taped at the round drum, creating pretty, Zen like, soothing tones.  He played a few songs, accepted tips and/or sales of his cd, packed up his things, and left.  I wondered how one takes up hang drum playing.  Did he just make up the songs as he went, or was there actually music, and if so what does hang drum sheet music look like?

The next night we were walking through town and heard the graceful pleasing sound of the hang drum.  We followed the music like children following the Pied Piper and saw the hang drum guy in another restaurant.  We deduced that he must make the rounds each night playing at the various restaurants in town.  There were more questions to follow.  Did he live on the island? Was this a side gig, or did playing the hang drum at restaurants really pay the bills?  Is it a low stress job? How could I become a professional hang drum player? So many unanswered questions.

After our entrees, we were waffling on whether or not to get coffee with our desert, but after our French Canadian waiter informed us that in his opinion, they had the best coffee on the island, we were intrigued.  

The coffee was great, though I’m not sure any while- on- travels coffee will ever compare to our now defunct Panama Durand. 

The crème brulee we shared was good, but not overly exciting. 

It turned out to be our fanciest dinner of the trip. The mojitos were perfect, the food delicious, and the atmosphere elegant but not stuffy.  It was the cherry on top of an already spectacular day.

On the way back to the resort, we took a slow stroll along the beach, taking account of all of the wonderful experiences we had that day.  We stood on the beach and looked up at the star covered sky.We knew that it was time to go back to our room and go to bed, but it was difficult to close our eyes on, and say goodnight to the best day in Mexico.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Best Day in Mexico-Part 3

We slip into plastic chairs at the roadside restaurant we visited this morning.  

There are no novel length Cheesecake Factory menus; in fact, there are no menus at all. We are never told the name of the restaurant, but to the locals it is the place with the pork. If you come here, you are coming for one thing, yummy pork tacos.

A server sets down a bowl of salsa, and a plate of chopped red onions and lime wedges for the table to share.  

A basket of fresh warm tortillas are set down. We each get a large bowl of slow cooked black beans and a plate of pork. 

Then the assembling begins. 

I’m not exactly sure if the black beans are meant to be a side dish, or if they go on the tacos, but after watching our tour companions assemble their tacos and then dip them in the beans, I decide to follow suit. 

The food is delicious, as only fresh food that you witnessed being made by careful loving hands could be. The salsa is particularly good. It is milder than I expected. The slow roasting gives it a deep, warm, smoky flavor with a slightly creamy texture. I clear my plate and then use a spoon to gobble up the remaining black beans.  The portion size was perfect. I’m satisfied but not stuffed.

Our next stop is the most touristy part of the tour. It is a stop at a tequila distillery complete with a  tequila tasting.  

I’m sure this is a highlight for the spring breaker college kids, but we’re not big tequila drinkers. Since it seems like some kind of Mexican law that all tourists must have at least one embarrassing wearing a sombrero picture, we feel the need to oblige with the tour guide’s insistence that we wear sombreros for the duration of the tour.  

Our tour guide from the distillery is quite the character and continues to encourage the taking of silly pictures as we learn how agave plants are turned into the main ingredient for margaritas.

Our final tour stop is the town of Valladolid. 

I love Spanish Colonial towns. Their brightly painted buildings and delicate architecture makes me want to take a million pictures.  

We consider going to the ATM to extract some money, but the ATM line is wrapped around the building, so we content ourselves with walking around the closest town plaza. 

  I have an affinity for town/city squares and plazas, they make my heart happy.  

On this day there happens to be some sort of event going on so there are extra vendors and things to look at. 

While walking around the plaza, we are approached by a young girl with a guitar.  

She strums a few chords, then launches into a song.  She is quickly joined by a young man with an accordion and an older man with a guitar. I assume they are family, but it is clear that the girl is the star of the show.  Her voice is beautiful. She is not merely singing a song, she is singing her soul.  

For a moment time stands still as I take it all in, the lovely colonial plaza, the passion etched on this little girl’s face as she serenades us, the smell of the vendors’ food wafting through the air, the moment buries itself into my brain, never to be forgotten.

We give the girl something for her song and she moves on. Before it's time to leave, we take one last lap around the plaza and purchase some coconut ice cream from a jovial vendor. 

Like the van ride on the way there, the van ride back is quiet.  I don’t mind. I take time to begin organizing the experiences of the day into future words. 

Celio drops us off at the ferry and we bid him farewell.  It seems more like days, not hours since we were here last.  The air is pleasant and cooling so we take seats on the outside benches at the top of the ferry.  

As the ferry skims across the water to Holbox island, the daytime sky melts into the most beautiful mixture of purples, oranges, and pinks. Not only did we just have the best day, but we are graced with a gorgeous sunset at the end…though it really isn’t quite the end…yet. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Best Day in Mexico-Part 2

We leave Chichen Itza as the sun starts to bake our skin.  It wasn’t very hot when we arrived this morning, but it is certainly hot by the time we exit.  A swim would be refreshing just about now. We’re in luck because we’re headed to cenote Ik Kil.

A cenote (see-no-tay) is a large sink hole. They were one of the reasons the region was so valued by the Mayans and conquer worthy for the Aztecs. Water was an important commodity.  

There are many cenotes in Mexico that have been turned into tourist attractions/swimming holes.  Different tour companies take guests to different cenotes. One of the reasons I chose Holbox Adventures was because they take guests to cenote Ik Kil. 

As soon as the van parks, we know that we are in for something special.  The grounds are lovely. Palm leaves dangle lazily from trees. Delicate pink and red flowers pop out from well manicured bushes.

One of the pluses of cenote Ik Kil is their facilities; clean and ample.  We split up and head into changing rooms to put on our swimsuits.  For a few dollars we rent a locker to ensure that our clothes stay dry. 

At the request of the cenote, we rinse off to remove anything (sunscreen, hairspray, etc) on our bodies that might contaminate the cenote’s ecosystem. 

We make our way down the stone tunneled stairs 

stopping for a moment to gawk at the view below.  The sight is magical. Pictures really can’t convey how cool it is to see the hanging vines reaching down to the greenish-blue water.

At the bottom, steps carved into stone advance to the jumping/diving ledges.  

I’m not feeling the call to the challenge, so I make my way to one of the ladders.  

The water is chilly but I waste no time and submerge my whole body.  It was the right thing to do because the water quickly transitions from icy to refreshing.  I splash around. I swim back and forth under the waterfall because it’s super fun. It makes me giggle.

Little grey fish skillfully dart around my body, never coming into contact with my skin. When you are in a pool you always have the ability to find an area where you can touch down/stand, but not in the cenote. It's deep, deep, deep. I imagine that it could be a little disconcerting for those who are not experienced swimmers. 

Shannon and I switch spots for a moment so we can get pictures, then we tuck our stuff in a safe corner and swim together until it seems like it must be time to go.  

This is the best day. I take it all in for one last moment. I’m sad that I must leave this beautiful place and I wish that it wasn't so far away. How nice it would be to hop over to the cenote on any old Saturday for a nice refreshing swim. 

We change back into our dry clothes and make our way to the van. I suddenly hear a rumbling sound in my stomach. Swimming really works up an appetite and as fortune would have it, lunch is our very next stop. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Neil Gaiman Gives me Arm Tingles

There are three writers who inspire me the most to write, Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, and Aaron Starmer.  I love their vast, bizarre, crazy imaginations. If you are a writer you might be familiar with the feeling.  You read something by a writer or you hear a writer speak and it begins, an effervescent feeling in your brain like a glass of newly poured soda.  The feeling moves from your head, down your neck, then into your shoulder.  From your shoulder it rests briefly in your elbow before swirling its way to your wrist. Finally the tingles seep into your hand, to your very finger tips. You know that if you cannot find a pen, or a keyboard, a hammer and chisel, your arm will explode .  That is how the above mentioned writers make me feel.

Now unless I encounter him in zombie or ghost form, there is no possibility of meeting Roald Dahl. I've not only met Aaron Starmer, but I have had the extreme fortune of having him as a teacher for a writing class. Then there is Neil Gaiman. It seemed that every time there was a chance to hear him speak, something would happen, and the opportunity would slip through my fingers.  The more missed chances, the higher Neil Gaiman rose on my bucket list, so as you can imagine, I practically sprained my fingers to acquire tickets when I saw that he would be speaking at The Tower Theater in Pennsylvania. 

During the evening Neil worked back and forth between answering audience questions (written on note cards prior to the show's start), and reading from his works.  He is a marvelous storyteller, which is what makes him such a marvelous writer.  Every question that he answered elicited a beautifully crafted story, from his first encounter with Terry Pratchett to meeting Benedict Cumberbatch (if only you could have seen the joy on my face during that one).  

Some of my favorites from the evening-

Favorite personal life story- Neil explained that when he was 11, he dreamed about finding a parallel universe where he existed, but J.R.R Tolkien did not. He would bring Lord of the Rings with him to that universe, commit a robbery, then use the money to hire an adult to re-type Lord of the Rings. He would then have to kill that adult, and then he could pass off the Lord of the Rings manuscript as his own.  This is when he had second thoughts about being a writer, because it seemed like rather bloody work.

Favorite story about his own writing- He explained how Coraline was inspired by a story his  daughter used to tell him when she was five.

Favorite piece of writing advice- An 11 year old asked what advice did Neil have for an 11 year old who wants to be an author.  Neil first stated, read everything. He then went on to say that built up in your arm are about 100,000 rubbish words. What you have to do is write them out.  You must write, and write, and write, and write so that all of those rubbish words can move down your arm and out. Eventually  when all of the rubbish words have moved out of your arm, the good words will work their way down and onto your page.

Things to be excited about- Something that sounds like a show or mini-series that will air on BBC (he couldn't give details yet), working with Bryan Fuller on the American Gods television series, and another episode of Doctor Who because he promised Peter Capaldi he would write an episode for him (though not this season).  

I could have listened to Neil Gaiman speak all night, and not just because of his cool accent or his kind of Alan Rickmanish melodic tone. Everything that he said was smart, funny, and inspiring. Hopefully my writing tingles from experiencing this incredible evening will last far into the future.