The Community that Cooks Chilli Together…

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Yes, Jim and I are in Mexico once again. Theoretically, I am preparing for facilitating my writing retreat here in February, but let’s face it we are here to get out of the cold and rain of Vancouver and come home to our southern community.

I love it here for multiple reasons and Jim and I are starting to get inquiries of how we pull this off every year and how they can do it to, so maybe we will have to create a fun seminar about this.

DSCN3159Meanwhile, here we are in our little winter paradise, but this year is hotter than usual. Lucky me that this just happens to coincide with my getting hot flashes. I have both our ceiling fans going right now, but it’s not bad enough to want air conditioning on, but thankfully it is cooler this week than last. It forced me to learn my latest Spanish word, abanico, which is a hand fan. I tend to fall in love with 4-syllable Spanish words. My first year here it was desayuno, which means breakfast. Right now, my mantra during my hot flashes is abanico, abanico, abanico. I now have a few pretty Mexican Abanicos for 30 pesos each.

So, amid all this heat you wouldn’t think I would be looking forward to eating a ton of chilli, right? But I always am. Let DSCN3121me tell you a little bit about one of the events of the season here, The Annual Chilli Cook Off.

The cook-off is run by the Rotary Club here as a fundraiser for needed projects, mostly for improvements to local schools; children and literacy being a concern, but it is also one of the town social events for the season and brings together both Mexicans and Gringos, mostly Canadians and Americans or ex-pats now living here.

DSCN3154The competition itself brings in 30 competitors for two coveted prizes for the Best Chilli Awards, one for the professional restauranteurs, and one for the amateurs. There are also awards for the Best Salsa and the Best Decorated Booth.

These awards are given by the crowds who come and cast their ballots, not by professional judges, so it does become a bit of a sales and marketing and popularity contest too. But lets face it if your Chilli sucks, no one but your family will vote for it and they might lie about who they really voted for to your face as the ballots are secret and only one ballot per person.DSCN3141

So there are 30 Chillis to taste and this year Jim and I tasted a record 17 (that’s right you don’t have to taste them all to vote… hey folks it’s a fundraiser). Wow they were good, and so different, so I had to keep track on my notes and we developed a rating system. However, not to alienate any of our friends who had entered pots this year, who we voted for will remain unstated.

DSCN3134-001There always seems to be one person who does the fatal mistake of burning the bottom. Anyone who has made chilli knows that if you burn the bottom, even a  little bit, it will taste like someone threw cigarette butts into your precious pot.  Ugh!

The chilli tent row is a cave of booths and when they start serving it is so crowded you can barely move. Jim and I luck out as one competitor never showed up for their booth and we nab the table and chairs and start a tag team system, of one holding our great spot while the other brings in more sample cups of chilli.

Most are in styrofoam cups but some are in more creative containers, tortilla shell cups, Mexican clay pots (see the ballot photo above) and one comes with the chilli on a chilli dog. Yummy!DSCN3150

Sure this is about the Chilli competition, but really its about the community and a lot of gabbing and socializing goes on, and of course the musica, from a great Mexican band this year. Later on a duo from B.C. will keep us dancing all night long.

I love the MC brother and sister pair this year. His sister speaks the Spanish and he  translates to English or vice versa. After a barrage of Spanish the translation becomes, “same in English.” And we all laugh.

Later at the dance, I find myself as one of the ones initiating a conga line with my real estate friend, Sara, her employee, Alfredo, and our favourite maid, Nana.  In no time we have dozens lined up behind us trying to reproduce our crazy moves. It was hysterical and a great work out too.

Yes, mi Amigos, the sign of a healthy community is food, music and dancing.DSCN3136-001DSCN3143DSCN3152DSCN3149 With a little cerveza and margaritas thrown in for fun.

The CLC

Other than a mutual hatred of the cold that takes us to Mexico every winter, what Jim and I share is a love of having dinner parties. Jim denies it, but he first fell in love with me at his own dinner party.  How did I get there?  Well he was dating my best friend, Elektra, or trying to, as we were all part of a Sunday night dance crowd at The Yale, infamous Blues Bar in Vancouver. I even told him, they made a cute couple on the dance floor, but I didn’t know him well.  One night, after sharing a laugh together he asked Elektra  if she knew me well, and she said I had been her best friend for 18 years. “Invite her to my dinner party,” he said.  

At the party, there was increasingly noticeable  attention paid to me, and less to Elektra. Not that it worried me a lot as Elektra had already told me that there was no sparks there for her, but it was a little embarrassing.  I was not looking for something, I was just enjoying being at a dinner party that wasn’t my own for a change.  But when I made a comment that indicated that I not only knew the artist Jim had on the stereo, B.B. King, but I knew the name of B.B. King’s guitar, Lucille, he started to fall heavy for me, and asked me out right then and there in front of all his friends. His friends, by the way, I had liked so much I had already invited them to dinner at my house in three weeks time, so it was kind of hard to say an outright no.  The whole story of the final pairing of us is longer, but here it can be said that a mutual love of dinner parties was a launch pad, and continues to be a main stay in our life together.

Fast forward seven years and we are in our beloved town in Mexico for another winter and we want to have a dinner party. We want to introduce two American couples together that we know and love but they don’t know each other…yet. Huff and Eileen, former Californians, and Jimmy and Juanita, living between Texas and Mexico are all great people, but I am curious to see if they are going to hit it off, because you never know. In particular, I am concerned because Jimmy is a expert level surfer but, Huff is a jet ski expert.  I don’t know enough about the battle over the surf, but I believe surfers and jetskiers are not always compatible. Am I setting up two species that don’t belong together?  Like the faux pas of asking a very right-wing Republican to dine with very left-wing Democrat, but instead of political differences, am I setting up a surf turf war at the dinner table?  I know that these are things Jim never considers or stresses over, so I take a page from his book and leave it alone.

The party starts with some beverages at the pool and gets lively quickly.  Not only do these two couples get along but the stories and laughs are flying.  Jim and I are not introverts at all, yet for the first time I felt like we were being polite Canadians and could barely get a word in edgewise to these gregarious Americans. Then the subjects of jet skiing comes ont he table, I look carefully at Jimmy, who I’ve known a little longer to see if he is trying to mask any disgust… Texans do play poker right?

Well, did I call that concern wrong, pretty soon it is out in the open that we have a jet skier with a surfer and they start to talk about the love of the waves that they have in common.  Now, in addition to being a surfer Jimmy is a business owner in Texas and Mexico, and suddenly I see a side of this man who is in great shape in his 50s partly due to his avid surfing, in a whole new light.  I had never heard him talk surfer dude talk before, suddenly if I had a dollar for every time he said “gnarly” and “bitchin” that night I would have made a tidy profit.  But I don’t recall ever having heard him say these kind of words before.

Huff and Jimmy start to launch on their tales, tragedies and triumphs of the tides, and I am reminded of the scene in Jaws where they are comparing shark encounter stories (coincidentally, I just heard that 75% of shark attacks are on surfers, and I am sure jet skiers aren’t far behind). I bone up on all kinds of surf talk like Pointbreak and a Barrel and in the process learn that jet skiers often tow surfers out to their favourite surf spots. “Less paddling, dude!” The long and the short of it is, I did not need to worry about these two not getting along.

Well, so starts our friendship of couples… or maybe it can best be called dating.  As Nora Ephron said, “couples date each other.”  Well, if that was true we seemed to be having a threesome dating experience.  Even when we were alone over at Eileen and Huff’s, inevitably Juanita & Jimmy would bang on the door and we’d all be together again.  It was Juanita who noted that all of us owned corner lots within two blocks of one another. And while we have yet to build on our lot, Juanita said “Let’s form The Corner Lot Club.”  Thus The CLC was born. Just for fun. I was so hoity toity and contradictory to the people there, that we just had to do it.

Out to the coolest, cheapest or best places to eat, sometimes all three in one, in our town or the four or five surrounding towns in the area, was part of our new group social adventure. Or having dinner parties and feeding each other, or one evening we fed the crocodiles together (see photos). The CLC is now our little institution.  I Skyped with Jimmy the other day and they just went to a Chinese restaurant run out of someone’s house, someone who was actually Chinese which is a little more rare in our small Mexican town then say…Vancouver.  See there are good things about Vancouver.

I guess the reflection today is how people’s lives change when you invite them over to dinner. Breaking bread with others will always be on of the great rewards of anyone’s life, from the poor to the mega-wealthy, aren’t we lucky.

The Mexican Chistmas Burro Boogie

Do you ever wonder what your Christmas would be like if you weren’t doing any of the traditional things you usually do, perhaps in a far away land… perhaps in Mexico for example?

I did not have to wonder this year. This Christmas eve, I spent trying to speak in three different languages: English, French and Spanish.  We were surrounded by our Québécois Mexico friends, Guy, Ramona, Alice, Luc and Joanne. Each person had different levels of fluency in different languages but we muddled through, and of course alcohol tends to help.

They took us to a restaurant in the neighboring town famous for its service where they make quite a show of it.  For example, we had seven people at dinner, so, when our orders are ready, seven waiters come to the table. They synchronize it perfectly and put each order in front of each of the guests simultaneously.

We laughed, told stories, in multiple languages, and then we walked through town where all the families were having their parties; lights, fireworks and firecrackers galore.  All night long, music, fire crackers, and party, party, party.  Everyone.  All ages. This makes for a pretty quiet Christmas morning, since everyone is sleeping in, or at least until we heard something we had never heard before.

This was the moment that I really knew I wasn’t having Christmas at home. We both heard what we thought at first was a very strange horn. Jim poked his head out the window and said, “Get a look at this, you won’t believe it.”  I did, and if I hadn’t seen it myself I might not have. To the entertainment of the neighborhood a donkey, really a burro, had gotten lose and was galloping down the middle of the street braying at the top of his lungs.  I had never heard an animal, relatively small, make such a big sound.  It was like a call to Christmas morning. With all the parades and re-creations of the nativity we had witnessed in the weeks leading up to Christmas, with a donkey always carrying a Mary and a baby Jesus, it was like the donkey was yelling its freedom from all this Christmas stuff at the top of his lungs. Everyone in the neighborhood was laughing.

After our novel alarm clock, we decided to go to brunch at my favourite breakfast place, La Casa de Mi Abuela, The House of My Grandmother.  I rode my little vintage folding bike that makes me feel like I am twelve again while Jim walked.  Despite the recession making a noticeable drop in tourism this year, the street side Abuela cafe is packed. Good food and service always attract.  There is always a range of 7 to 10 different kinds of fruits on their fruit plate and I always have to have the pancakes.  By accident, Jim and I discovered a new taste sensation.  Since the Mexicans put lime on everything, one day I tried it on my pancakes with maple syrup.  Damn if that wasn’t the best taste combo discovery I have ever made in my life. The sour lime and the sweet maple syrup compliment each other perfectly, and with Abuela’s fluffy pancakes, it is “to die for,” as my sister would say. Well I could go on about their spiced potatoes and their excellent complimentary condiments like granola, yogurt. jams and marmalades, and cookies with your coffee, but I think you get the idea.

We were also sitting beside Bonny and her partner, also here from Vancouver. She is a Jazz singer who comes here every season and will be making appearances in some of the nicer restaurants.  We make small talk and the usual gratitudes of how lucky we are to be here.  She admires my bike.  Again, I feel as proud as a preteen.  We talk about the Vancouver music scene and I mention to her that I noticed that in the women’s washroom  in the restaurant, on the back of the stall door is a fan club bumper sticker for a local Vancouver band, Brickhouse, from The Yale.  We both think this is pretty funny that it wound up here, but given how many Canadians are here maybe not so strange.

We return home to encounter the donkey across the street eating garbage at the empty lot.  I am worried for the donkey.  They will eat anything and we hatch a rapid plan to catch it.  Fortunately, we document the whole event with video and photos, and I add some music and commentary and post it on YouTube, calling it the Christmas Burro Boogie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MszDtbqE_L4 , it has a moral to the story which I will let you discover on the video rather than repeating it here.

The big revelation is that this was definitely not a “normal” Christmas, and while I love traditions, I am very happy forging new ones and discovering Christmas Mexico style.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Ano!

Kathrin Lake, Story Coach, helping others discover themselves through stories and to write amazing books and speeches.  See our online group coaching for a low rate and our February writing retreats in Mexico: www.survivaltothrival.com

Letting Go of a Baby Tortoise

Well we are back in our beloved Winter home in Mexico. For a full week now we are perpetually meeting and greeting all our friends and fellow snowbirds, and do the usual settling in and putting things in order.  The gringos here help each other out, and Guy lends us his van to collect supplies in Manzanillo and coincidentally also allows us to pick up our friend Danielle who is travelling through Mexico.  Like us, Danielle cannot tolerate the lack of sunshine and warmth that a Canadian winter forces us to endure, and is here to get her dose of ultraviolet, vitamin D, and give the sinuses a break.

We have been showing off our little town to her and she is much impressed.  Not just with the scenery but how we drop in on people at any time and they welcome us in.  Even people who we don’t know invite us in, as long as we say the name of someone that they do know.  This is our Mexico, filled with friends, lots of info sharing, many small adventures that give us amusing and interesting stories that would never happen back home.  One of the best for me happened to us tonight.

Tonight, while having a drink in our favourite bar at the end of the beach, a volunteer from the Tortuga (Tortoise) Shelter came in and asked us if we understood Spanish and if we would like to help release the baby Tortugas that were hatched only an hour ago.  We all jumped at the chance.  Coincidentally, Jim and I had been by the shelter two days before.  We peeked in at the fenced off section of the beach with the little flags indicating where the tortuga eggs are buried below the sand. We had often done this before, but this time we read the cards on the flags. On the cards it said “Proximo Nac.” and a date.  I tell Jim that this means the next time for their birth, but we look at the dates and Jim notices that the dates are all this week and over the next few weeks.  But we continue on our merry way, not knowing that we will be pressed into service two days  later in the early evening to release these babies to the ocean. 

Now a bunch of us gather around a bin of sand with dozens of baby Tortugas, only and inch and a half long, all struggling to get out and move forward to the ocean.  The volunteer gives us a little history.  The babies are only one hour old and they release them after sunset, about seven p.m., so that the birds won’t pick them off. They show us that in the tummy of these little creatures is the area that contains the mysterious locator that will ensure these tortugas will return to this exact spot, fully grown, in 15 years, and ready to lay more eggs each season. Over their lifetime, (which is up to 150 years old) they will hatch 900 eggs, of which only a small percent will survive.  They ask us to never take part, or condone in the consumption of Tortoise eggs (a delicacy). 

They tell us to take off our shoes and socks, and roll up our pant legs as we will be getting wet. They prepare the palms of our hands by smoothing a bit of sand across them, so the tortugas are oriented with the sands they will be returning to in 15 years.  Then we each get a baby tortuga, so small and new, placed in our palms. They try to wriggle up the mini beaches of our sand-laden palms, instinct pulling them to the ocean.  We have to keep re-placing them to the bottom of our palms or they will get away on us.  I am amazed to think that this wee creature will one day be as large as the kitchen table I am now typing at.  Out of Jim, Danielle and I, Jim is the only one who has seen the magnificence of a full grown Tortoise in the ocean, while he was sailing in these waters a few years ago.

Now the volunteers are taking us down to the ocean and explaining that we have to go to the edge of the surf with our wriggling babes, and after a wave the volunteers will tell us when to release our tortugas to their fates.  The wave comes crashing in and christens our ankles up to our knees. “Ahora!” the volunteer calls, “Now!” In we place them, and as the water from the wave withdraws the undertow sucks the babies out into the ocean, the small creatures left up to their destinies in the vastness of the Pacific.  I am overcome with emotion, and call out “Good luck!” the only thing I can think to wish the small babe that was entrusted to me for mere minutes before I had to release it. My voice is lost in the waves, but I put up a silent prayer as a surrogate mother wishing a long and happy life to this one. And that is all any of us can hope for.

I reflect how nature has prepared these little ones to go straight out into the world and handle all that befalls them immediately, unlike us humans.  After nearly 50 years I still don’t know if I am prepared for all that life may throw at me.  But perhaps we always do have everything we need. A little luck and our persistent wriggling through is the only thing we ever needed and ever will need.  Whatever our life here on the planet will be, I am once again eternally grateful to be part of the mystery, the adventure, and yes, even the struggle. For life is a vast and deep ocean which none of us can fully fathom, yet to help others, all creatures great and small, seems to give us an ethereal joy, and may be our highest purpose.

Kathrin Lake, author of From Survival to Thrival www.survivaltothrival.com

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