Adios Juan Gabriel

Juan Gabriel was one of Mexico’s most popular singers. He  came into the world on January 7, 1950, and on August 28, 2016 — he died.  All the years I have lived in Mexico, I have listened to his music, but until I saw a news reports about his passing, I didn’t even know his legal name was Alberto Aguilera Valadez. I had only heard him called, Juan Gabriel –-  Juanga –- or  El Divo de Juarez. 

Jorge and I go to very few BIG events, but we did attend one of his shows at the Kukulkan Stadium in 2013. My brother-in-law, Raul and sister-in-law, Lupita came with us and we had such a fun time that night. The venue was jumping — Juan Gabriel was an amazing entertainer. He drew energy from the crowd and sang for three hours straight.

Juan Gabriel did not come from a home environment with advantages. He was the youngest of ten children, and in fact, his father died before he was born. His mother tried to find work that would keep her family together, but in Juarez, Chihuahua, a housekeeping position was the best she could find . She sent her son to live at “boarding school”, a very lonely place for such a small boy.

He found solace in music and wrote his first song when he was 13 years old. Soon after, he began singing in local Juarez clubs, and in 1971, he secured a recording contract with RCA Records (now BMG)

He moved to Mexico City and took a new name , Juan Gabriel –- a tribute to the father he never knew, and a teacher who supported and inspired him during his lonely childhood years .

When he moved to Mexico City, he wrote and recorded the first hit of his career, No Tengo Dinero, (I Have No Money) That started him on the road to stardom. Over the next 40+ years, he wrote more than 1,500 musical pieces –- he recorded many of them, as did his admirers from the music world.

Juan Gabriel was quiet about his personal life. His flamboyant style and the periodic tell-all tabloid-style exposés led many to believe he was gay. But it is also well-known that he fathered four children with his friend, Laura Salas. He spent most of his free time with his immediate and extended family.

Doubtlessly he had emotional issues stemming from his difficult childhood –- and reportedly –- he suffered from depression. But in his effort to help right the scales, he gave 10 to 12 charity performances a year to support children’s homes. After concerts, he would pose with fans for a fee and then forward the proceeds from the photo-ops to Mexican orphans. In 1987, Juan Gabriel founded Semjase, a house for needy children  in Ciudad Juárez. It serves school children between the ages of 6 and 12.

He broke all social and class barriers. There are hundreds of accounts of his great compassion and empathy,  especially for children and families down on their luck. Juan Gabriel was an incredibly gifted artist and an extraordinary human being. He will be greatly missed by the millions of hearts he touched.

Chiles en Nogada

Every year I re-post this recipe.

There are four steps to Chiles en Nogada. The first three take quite a while

  • making the meat filling
  • preparing and stuffing the chilies,
  • making the walnut (or pecan) sauce.

The fourth  and final step – enjoying the signature dish – takes no time at all.

I know the preparation looks pretty daunting, but it is not that much so. It IS time consuming, but I enjoy cooking, so that’s fine with me… 

Let me know if you have any questions. 

CHILES EN NOGADA

 

The Picadillo (Meat filling)

The meat filling
The meat filling

Saute 1 kilo of ground pork with:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

Add salt and pepper to taste

When the meat is cooked, use a small molcajete (mortar and pestle) or coffee grinder to pulverize

8 peppercorns
5 whole cloves
1/2 inch stick cinnamon

Add the ground spices to the meat mixture with:

2 heaping Tbsp blanched and slivered almonds
2 heaping Tbsp dried citrus fruit peel and salt to taste

Cut in tiny pieces:
1   1/2 pounds of tomatoes,
2 pears, cored, peeled and chopped
2 peaches, pitted, peeled and chopped

Add whole: 100 grams of raisins

Mix everything together

The Chilies

You MUST use Poblano peppers.
You MUST use Poblano peppers.

Put  8 chiles poblanos (and you MUST use this type of chili) straight into a fairly high flame or under a broiler and let the skin blister and burn. Turn the chilies from time to time so they do not get overcooked or burn right through.

Wrap the chilies in a plastic bag and leave them for about 20 minutes so the sweat and the skin will be easier to remove.

Remove the charred skin.

Make a slit in the side of each chili and carefully remove the seeds and veins. Be careful to leave the top of the chili (the part around the base of the stem) intact.

If you want a little less heat, rinse the chilies and pat them dry. If you want to keep their heat, do not rinse them, just wipe them off with a paper towel.

Stuff the chilies with the picadillo until they are well filled out. Set them aside on paper towels then put them in the fridge to chill (If you wish, they can be refrigerated until the next day)

The Nogada (walnut sauce)

Chiles en Nogada - ready to be enjoyed
Chiles en Nogada – ready to be enjoyed

The day before you plan on eating the chilies, soak 2 cups of walnuts overnight in cold milk. This will take out any bitter taste in the nuts

On serving day:

Drain, rinse and pulverize the nuts, then blend them with:
1 L. light cream (media crema in Mexico)
1 1/2 cups cream
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
Large pinch of cinnamon

When the sauce is smooth, refrigerate it until it is cold.

 To Serve

Set the chilies on a plate and drizzle them with the walnut sauce. Then, sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley leaves and pomegranate seeds.

You can accompany this dish with guacamole, rice and tostadas.

Note: Although the recipe calls for walnuts, you can substitute pecans. The difference in flavor is there but barely.

More Guatemala: What Dreams May Come?

With all my heart, I believe that as we “grow up”, we don’t have to “grow old”. On a friend’s blog today, I read a piece of creative fiction about dreaming.  Her words inspired me to write today’s post.

Earlier this month when I traveled to Belize and Guatemala, I felt I was taking an adventure, not just a trip.  Jorge had not ever been to Belize and his last time in Guatemala was 50 years ago. Neither Efrén, nor I, had ever been to either country. Why, you ask – both are so close to Yucatán.

Concerns about civil unrest, being robbed, getting stranded, and worrying that the physical challenges will be too much for us are partly responsible – but so is the rut – the place we dig into and forget to stray out of.

But Carlos, our son who still loves to dream, kept after us. “Come on,” he said, “You’ll be fine.” Thanks to him, we took the leap of faith and I am so thankful we did.

On Day Three of our expedition, we visited Tikal – and what an amazing place it is. (Read about that here) We got an early start and saw the site in the morning, and so the afternoon lay wide open for more exploring. Even though we had trekked more distance than we have for some time and climbed about 400 steps, we felt energized and ready for more.

Carlos had seen a sign pointing the way to another Maya city: Uaxactun.

The site is located about 30 kms. north of Tikal. After a little asking around, we found a guide who would take us there. He mentioned he drove a 4 X 4, and once we started the journey, we realized why this was important.

A good patch of he road to Uaxactun
A good patch of he road to Uaxactun

The path (not road) cut straight through the lowland jungle. Potholes, debris from the recent hurricane, mud and encroaching vegetation made it hard going, but we saw monkeys and exotic birds just a few feet away (Carlos took beautiful photos you can see here)

When we got down from our vehicle, Jorge remembered seeing a drawing that the American archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley had made there in 1924. It depicts an early Maya astronomical complex, where alignments can be drawn between three buildings to mark the solar solstices and equinoxes.

Morley drawing

A little history… The Carnegie Institution conducted archeological excavations in Uaxactun from 1926 through 1937. The remains of several badly ruined late Classic era pyramids were removed, revealing well-preserved earlier temples underneath them. The study of these added greatly to our knowledge of the early Classic and Pre-Classic Maya.

The Carnegie team opened an airstrip and a small village grew around it. It soon became a center for the gathering and shipment of chicle from the Peten jungle. In the late 1970s the rough “road” was opened, connecting Uaxactun to Tikal and Flores.  Uaxactun is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park , and lies within the protected area of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Tikal and Uaxactun dominated the Guatemalan Peten during the Classic period. Although Tikal was definitely the stronger power, the Tikal rulers allowed Uaxuactun to keep elite prerogatives of monument carving, temple erection, and rich burials during most of the Early Classic era, The last inscribed monument in Uaxactun was dated in 889 AD.

Along with Tikal, Uaxactun was virtually abandoned shortly after that.

Subsequent exploration of Uaxactun has continued and in fact, while we visited the site, we saw a team of archaeologists restoring magnificent stucco masks.

Restoring stucco masks at Uaxactun
Restoring stucco masks at Uaxactun

As we climbed through a section of the site, a small boy named Wilson came up to me. He had a doll made from corn husks that he wanted me to purchase a souvenir of our time in Uaxactun. Of course I did so and we spoke together for a while. Wilson has dreams too. He wants to study high school in Flores – the biggest place he can imagine.

Wilson and Joanna
Wilson and Joanna

After an hour at Uaxactun, we bumped our way back to Tikal, and then to Flores. At our hotel, we enjoyed alternate dips in the hot tub and the pool, followed by a delicious dinner.

I fell asleep that night with the sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells of the day running through my brain like a 3D virtual reality movie. I awoke the next and felt pain in every muscle and bone of my body.

Tikal and Uaxactun gifted me with sensory and physical overload. Indeed the day was the stuff dreams are made of.

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Day Three: Tikal

After six hours riding the bus from Merida to Chetumal, crossing the Mexico – Belize border, another twelve hours of travel through Belize, and a second border crossing – Jorge, Carlos, Efren and I heard the bus driver announce that we had (finally) arrived in Flores, Guatemala.

The 900 kms of travel left the four of us feeling bone-tired, eager to find our hotel, get some food and crawl into bed. But when our bus rolled to a stop, we could see nothing at all – the electricity was out.

An authoritive-looking gentleman came on board and told us the starlings were to blame. Apparently, like Merida, Flores has an overpopulation of the shrieking black birds. That evening, their jostling and crowding along the electric cables caused the connectors to break loose from one of the tall wooden poles, and the electric company was forced to cut off the juice until the live wire could be put securely back in place.

I must say this is one excuse for a power outage that I have NEVER heard before – but nonetheless – I fully believed it.

By the dim glow of the interior lights of the bus and a few lanterns set in the shop windows, we collected our bags and huffed our way through dark streets to the Hotel La Casona.

Glory Be! Bright light produced by a private generator spilled out from the welcoming lobby. I was all set to start my happy dance, but when we showed our voucher to the receptionist, she told us there was no room at the inn. “We are full” (AKA oversold, thought I) “but don’t worry, we have a second hotel and they have ‘lovely’ rooms waiting for you. You’ll be just fine,” she assured us.

What could we do but pile into their van and go to the other hotel. The driver tried to comfort us by saying the alternate lodging was “even better” than the one we were leaving behind. “You’ll be just fine,” he promised. I figured – You’ll be just fine – must be a phrase their English teacher told them would rescue any situation.

But in fact, those young people were absolutely right. The Hotel Casona del Lago seemed to be the perfect property for us. After a speedy check in, we were escorted to our well-appointed rooms. We even had a spacious balcony overlooking the lake. I thought we should just stay put the next day and recoup in Paradise Found – but no – the three men traveling with me figured we needed to stick to the program and visit Tikal the very next day, departing at 4:30 am, no less.

After a shower, a delicious dinner and assurance that the hotel’s restaurant would provide coffee and rolls for us the next morning at 04:00 hrs, we tired travelers passed out cold. It had been a l-o-n-g day with m-a-n-y twists and turns but in the end, we felt – just fine.

The wake-up call blasted us out of bed at 3:30, and by 4:15, we sat waiting in the hotel lobby. Not even steaming coffee, flaky pastries or the anticipation of the day ahead managed to get our motors running. The van rolled into the parking lot at 4:30 on the dot and we hoisted ourselves onto the bench seats. With only six hours of shuteye during the night, we snored through the bumpy two hour drive to Tikal.

And thank God for that! When I saw the Bienvenidos a Tikal sign, I felt rested and ready for whatever would come next. I had dreamed of coming here for such a long time. I wanted to see the similarities and differences between this Guatemalan Maya city and the many Mexican ones I had visited over the years.

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Tikal National Park encompasses 575 square kilometers of jungle and has thousands of structures – some restored and many in ruins. Just the central part of the ancient city contains 3,000 buildings and covers about sixteen square kilometers.

Archeologists estimate that early Maya groups settled in the Petén about 900 BC. Over the centuries, Tikal grew into an important ceremonial, cultural, and commercial center.  Most of the city’s huge temples were constructed during the VIII century AD when Tikal, the greatest city in the Maya world at the time, had a population of about 100,000. As was the case with Maya complexes on the Yucatan peninsula, wars, drought, famine, overpopulation and resource depletion played a part in Tikal’s decline.

My first impression of Tikal was not what I expected. I imagined it would be more like Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, cities where the main buildings are laid out – fully on display – as the visitor enters the site. To me, Tikal is more like Calakmul, Kohunkich and Coba – one must walk for quite a distance before the enormity of the site can be appreciated. The most imposing pyramids are separated from one another, and a 10 K trek is required to see the main restoration.

Now, this is NOT to say the site is any less magnificent than I thought it would be. I felt overwhelmed. The opportunity to gaze upon buildings that have existed for millennia makes my heart pound and sends my imagination into full flight.

I think about all the artisans, engineers and builders who erected the mega-ton constructions – did they believe their work had value or were most forced into their labor? Centuries later, what was the first impression of those who came upon the “lost” cities? After studying ancient civilizations in their classrooms, how do young archaeologists react when they see these cities for the first time?  How many of the tourists who climb the steps or walk in the shadow of the Maya temples experience the sense of wonder that I do?

I could write about the number of buildings, their dimensions, their positioning and astronomical relevance. But a good internet site like. http://wikitravel.org/en/Tikal  can better inform you of these facts than I can.

For historical perspective, you can read Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843)  by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, two intrepid XIX Century explorers who documented Maya sites from  Copan in the south to Chichen Itza in the north.  Stephens vividly recorded their experiences, and Catherwood made meticulous drawings that compliment the text.

Or, right here, you can link to a PDF version of the Sylvanus G. Morley / Robert J. Sharer classic text, “The Ancient Maya”.

What I offer readers of Writing from Merida is my enthusiasm for living in this wonderful corner of the world.

Certainly, there are days when I lose patience with some of the cultural conundrums I am faced with. Many days the heat and humidity exhaust me. Although I speak Spanish, sometimes I would prefer to explain myself in English – but the excitement of days like the one I spent in Tikal is ample compensation for the petty stuff.

When I began this post, I did not intend to compose an Ode to My Life –  but often writing takes me in a direction I do not anticipate.

If you live in the Maya World, I hope you’ll take advantage of your good fortune – get out and see these amazing places. If you don’t live here – come for a visit.

Either way, your heart and soul will thank you.

A Ceiba tree in Tikal
A Ceiba tree in Tikal

Day Two: The bus ride from Chetumal to Flores

Last week, I joined my husband, Jorge and our son, Carlos on a road trip through central Belize and the Petén area of Guatemala. At the last minute, a long-time friend, named Efrén also decided to come along. We were able to reserve some of our lodging and transportation, but Carlos warned us that the tourism infrastructure in Mexico is much more developed than it is south the border. “Flexibility is the secret to successful travel in Central America,” he advised us. Just one day into the trip, we realized how right he was.

The red line on the map roughly shows our path from Chetumal in Mexico, through Belize and across the border to Flores, Guatemala – approximately 900 kilometers.

 

A rough idea of our route from Chetumal to Flores
A rough idea of the route we traveled from Chetumal to Flores

We started with a 6 hour bus ride from Merida, Yucatan to Chetumal, Quintana Roo. We spent the night at the Hotel Marlon, which I wrote about a week ago. Every day, I intended to post more, but that didn’t happen – there was just too much to see and do. As well, Internet was somewhat sporadic, and I didn’t want to waste my time fussing around with that. After all, this was a holiday!

At 9 am on Day Two, we traveled for 12 more hours, to Flores, Guatemala. We actually rode on three different buses – all of which featured rudimentary AC and shocks – we had to pack our own bags from bus to bus and across the borders. We felt grateful that we’d followed Carlos’ advice and packed light. “If you can’t carry it, don’t bring it,” he warned.

Belize is so different from Mexico, starting with the style of construction. Many of the houses are clapboard. High concrete walls, wrought iron fences, colonial style buildings, splashing fountains and flower-lined courtyards are not seen as commonly, as they are in Yucatan.

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For the first four hours, we drove through the territory hit by Hurricane Earl. Even though Earl was only a Category One storm, the damage to the countryside and the flimsy construction was extensive – lots of twisted aluminum roofing and broken tree limbs littered the countryside.

Broken limbs and rubble from Hurrican Earl
Broken limbs and rubble from Hurrican Earl

Belize is shaped like a rectangle that extends about 280 kilometers (174 mi) north-south and about 100 kilometers (62 mi) east-west, with a total land boundary length of 516 kilometers (321 mi). Most of the territory is flat, swampy coastal plain, although there are some heavily forested areas.  We found the climate very similar to Yucatan – hot and humid.

I looked up the statistics for Belize’s population, and the latest figure I could find was – 324,528 – from 2010.

A park in Belize
A park in Belize

The ethnic make-up of the country is quite different from that of south-eastern Mexico.

Belize has a diverse ethnic population
Belize has a diverse ethnic population

Although the Maya settled in Belize in the second millennium BC, much of the country’s original Maya population was wiped out by disease and conflicts between different Maya city states and with Europeans.

Creoles make up roughly 21% of the Belizean population. They are descendants of the Baymen slave owners and the slaves they brought from western and central Africa to work in the hardwood logging industry.

About 4.5% of the country’s population is Garinagu – a mix of Western / Central African and Caribe ancestry. Though they were captives, removed from their homelands, this group of people were never documented as slaves. It is believed that, in 1635, they were either the survivors of two recorded shipwrecks, or somehow took over the ship they came on. The Spanish employed them as soldiers, and they settled along the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Approximately half of the people in Belize are Mestizos – mixed Spanish and Maya descent. They originally came to Belize in 1847, to escape the Caste War in Yucatán. Spanish is the main language of the Mestizos, but most speak English and Belize Kriol fluently.

Thousands of Mennonites also live in Belize. They farm the land and live according to their religious beliefs. Some 4% of them are German-speaking. The vast majority are called Russian Mennonites – even though they too, are of German descent. During the 18th and 19th centuries, their ancestors settled in the Russian Empire. Most Russian Mennonites speak Plautdietsch – a German dialect – but use mostly Standard German for reading and writing. The Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites mostly immigrated from Europe, first to Mexico and then to Belize after 1958. There are also Old Order Mennonites who came from the United States and Canada in the late 1960s.

The remaining 5% of the general population are a mix of immigrants from the United States and Canada, and many other foreign groups brought to assist the country’s development.

Building costs are high, but the government of Belize has made tourism its second priority after agriculture. In 2012,  917,869 (with about 585,000 from the United States) visited Belize, and tourism revenue amounted to over $1.3 billion.

In Belize, there is infrastructure that caters to the high end tourism and there are services available for backpackers, but for middle-of-the-road tourists, the selection is meager. We found the country’s accommodation, transportation and food to be expensive. But the people certainly tried to provide all they could in terms of service.

Belize was granted independence from England on September 21, 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation because of its longstanding territorial dispute with the British colony, claiming that Belize belonged to Guatemala. About 1,500 British troops remained in Belize to deter any possible incursions.

Even though Belize is now an independent country, the structure of government is based on the British parliamentary system, and the legal system is modeled on the common law off England.   The symbolic head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. She is represented in Belize by the Governor General, but the country is led by the Prime Minister and his Parliament.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we did not visit any Belizean tourism attractions during the first half of our trip. I will post about what we saw there, after I write my impressions of Guatemala.

The coast of Belize
The coast of Belize

Writing and Intercultural Living…

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