Friday, September 25, 2009

Green Sea Turtle Adventure at Night

I caught the last bus out to the Sian Ka'an a few weeks ago on a Sunday night, not sure what to expect, feeling a bit insecure, but excited to help with the baby sea turtle release.

It's the slow season at Cesiak right now so the staff of tour guides and boat captains are a bit more laid back at the end of their shift. They snack, smoke, drink a few (!) beers, and play a pretty aggressive game of dominos. The guys were all hanging out when I arrived, in great spirits, and made me feel immediately comfortable. I made the mistake of saying I play a mean game of dominos and of course I lost the first game - though I do have to say I was just getting warmed up and they have different rules than I'm used to! They bought me a few beers, I chatted with their girlfriends, and after a while the sun began to set and it was time to release the baby sea turtles.

We went down to the beach, while Alberto, the main turtle conservation worker, carefully brought out the halved gas container full of sand and baby turtles. A small crowd had gathered, children and parents, mainly tourists staying at Cesiak, and a handful of staff. A line was drawn in the sand and directions were given how to carefully hold the turtles and then place them in the sand to make their mad dash to the sea. We named them, cheered them one, fearfully watched for birds of prey and sighed in relief when the last turtle made it to the water. Then in a few seconds they were gone, having caught a current out to sea where they would be spending the next 25 or so years of their life before once again returning to the same beach to mate and lay their eggs. Such is the beginning of a sea turtle's life. Only one in a thousand baby sea turtles actually make it to adulthood, which is a staggeringly small number. Sea turtle conservation here is taken very seriously, the beaches are patrolled nightly for poachers and stranded turtles and obnoxious tourists, and much care is put into ensuring the peace and safety of the mature turtles that do make it back to these beaches to nest.

After the release, and another beer and some more hanging out, it was time to start the 8km round trip walk patrolling the beach. It was dark that night, cloudy, a few scattered stars and no moon. The soft, warm breeze was a welcoming relief to the heat of earlier that day. Alberto and I walked barefoot in the sand, talking barely above a whisper, scanning the beach for telltale marks of a turtle pulling itself over the sand. Soon we came upon our first nesting female. She was enormous. About 3 feet wide and 3 1/2 feet long, heavy, and focused. We sat a distance in the sand, occasionally feeling the spray of the sand she was flinging towards us from 20 feet away as she dug her nest and prepared to lay eggs. We cautiously walked back toward the water and continued down the beach. She would take at least an hour to finish her nesting.

We found a few freshly laid nests -big mounds of sand- and labeled them with the date and a nest number on a plastic bottle found among the trash on the beach. This bottle was buried into the top of the nest and a piece of driftwood was erected to mark the spot. We continued in this way for hours, occasionally spotting another nesting turtle and carefully measuring it, checking it's tags and writing the data in our little notebook. At one point we tried to help a female who was trying to climb up the dune over some tree roots, apparently to nest in the jungle. She kept slipping down, straining to get up the sharp incline, and eventually pulling herself over some sharp looking roots protruding like an arm from the side of the dune. She fell with a loud thud onto the sand and I winced imagining the impact on her. Alberto consoled me with the fact that sea turtles go through much tougher circumstances on the reefs and are hearty animals. We left her to figure things out, very aware of the effort involved of a water animal struggling to make sense of land.

A short while later we saw another great she-turtle nesting. This one successfully. Quietly, carefully, army style we crawled up to the back of her and with a tiny red light, were able to see her lay eggs. There are a few moments of pure wonder that stand out for me when I think of life/birth. Once I saw baby Alaskan huskies being born and that was pretty neat. But this blew me away. I was about 2 1/2 feet from her tail watching the gooey eggs drop by ones, twos and threes into the perfectly shaped 3 foot deep nest she had dug. Before each egg dropped I heard her inhale and then sigh as her efforts produced more eggs. She laid perhaps 100 or more. They were like soft white golf balls. Her hind fins were webbed and toe-like and had carefully dug that perfect hole without her ever even seeing it. I lay in the cool sand in awe. Huge and prehistoric, deserving of respect, from a whole other world. A sea turtle so vulnerable and intimate in that moment.

All this has made me contemplate our role as stewards of this earth - it's animals and resources. For the most part we are not doing a very good job. Rarely do we treat with respect, respond in awe and work to protect what we have been blessed with. Think on that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Sian Ka'an

More of the Sian Ka'an

I have so many photos of this place that I could start a blog just about the Sian Ka'an. Here are some pictures of the canal and floating through the mangroves. There's also a photo of the strip of land that Cesiak is located on. On the left you can see the lagoon and on the right the Caribbean.
Just a quick note, I got a call from the Pirate that I will be helping with the baby turtle release tonight. I'm thrilled and will give you an update soon. By the way, the Pirate is in a film ( To The Sea Alamar) being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Imagine him with a feather in his hair, a bone his ear and tusks in his nipples and that's pretty accurate. Also, the film was shot here - so what you see is my extended back yard! Ha.

I love the Sian Ka'an

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. If you follow the spit of land south out of Tulum along the beach road eventually you will be on the Reserve. On one side of the dirt road is the turquoise Caribbean and on the other side tangled mangroves and the jade green lagoons of the Sian Ka'an. The Reserve is enormous, covering over 1.3 million acres. Sian Ka'an means "where the sky is born" in Mayan. After spending a day in the lagoons I understand why. The sky does appear greater here. Perhaps it is the vast amount of crystal clear water reflecting the sky, perhaps it is that when you stand up in the boat taking you through the canals in the mangroves, you can see for miles.

My first in depth experience with the Reserve was through Cesiak. This organization runs a small ecotourism center and runs conservation and education programs about the Sain Ka'an. All the money from their tours goes straight back to the local community and protecting the Reserve.

My friend Elisa and I had been anticipating the Cesiak tour for weeks. Since this is the slow season for tourism we were the only ones on the tour. We were picked up in town in a bus along with our tour guide, Antonio, and a bird specialist that most refer to as "La Pirata" - the Pirate. Imagine Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" if he was Mayan, tan, and had small boar's tusks as nipple piercings. You get the idea. These two men were our educators for the day, though most of our time was spent with Antonio - who's our age and passionate and knowledgeable about the Reserve. We spent spent about equal time learning about the Sian Ka'an as we did counseling him about his relationship troubles. Needless to say we enjoyed ourselves and felt very comfortable with him!

The van dropped us off at the arched entrance to the Sian Ka'an. We immediately followed a short path through the jungle to a cenote. Cenotes are fresh water caverns that supply all the water here in the Yucatan Peninsula. When it rains the water is filtered through the limestone foundation of this peninsula and collected in a vast underground system of tunnels and caverns. Eventually this water if further filtered by the mangroves and mixes with the Caribbean sea. The nutrient that this fresh water collects on it's passage to the sea is essential for the health of the Mesoamerican Reef. It is so amazing to learn about the interconnectedness of the ecosystem. I've never fully appreciated it until now.

We refreshed ourselves with a swim in the cool waters of the cenote for ten minutes or so before heading to our small motor boat docked on the lagoon. Elisa and I and our guide Antonio, along with our very capable boat driver began our tour of the canals of the Sian Ka'an. These canals that wind through the mangroves, frequently not much wider than our boat, were the ancient trading routes of the Mayans. These canals lead from the jungle to the sea and many a boatful of jade, obsidian, cocoa beans and salt made it's way through these waters to far off worlds.

With that in mind and our boat precariously navigating the snakelike channels surrounded by mangroves as far as the eye can see, we searched the treetops for birds. There are over 336 known bird species in this area and the air is full of their sounds. It was tremendously peaceful to feel the warm breeze in our faces and rest our eyes on the beauty around us. Nearly halfway though our tour, we stopped at an ancient Mayan ruin. After a bit of exploration we jumped into the clear water of our canal and sitting on life vests we began to gently float down the current. Our motor boat had preceded us and was waiting much further down. This was my favorite part of the whole experience. Imagine being at water level with the twisted roots of the mangroves, seeing the life all around you, the delicate birds nests, the yellow leaves in the jade colored water, the rich mineral smell of the air, the cacti and flowers growing out of their host plants, the mangroves. It was quiet.

We floated like this for at least half an hour. I didn't want it to end. When we reached our boat we still had about an hour left of touring the lagoon. We headed out to the wide open waters, the waters that meet with the sea. The blues and greens that converge at the tip of this estuary are breath taking. Since being in Mexico my appreciation of color has intensified. It's as if I've always had a foggy lens and now I can actually see.

On our way back to the Cesiak base we saw a crocodile! Antonio had been talking about crocodiles a lot, which was not much of a comfort considering Elisa had dreamt the night before about a bloody croc attack and we had just been leisurely floating in that water! Granted, the canal that we had floated down had been used by Cesiak for the past ten years with no crocodile incidents, but still.... I was glad that I had been in the water before I saw that croc, not after! He was big.

At the Cesiak center we were treated to a delicious dinner of fresh fish with garlic, rice, beans, and tortillas. It was so delicious. After dinner a quick swim in the sea and then we climbed to the top terrace of the building for a spectacular sunset. Cesiak is on the narrow strip of land between the lagoon and the sea. The view is magnificent. It is surreal watching the sun set over the lagoon and the Caribbean behind you painted pink with it's refection.

Full, content, and rosy from an amazing day, we headed back to town. I am now deeply in awe and in love with this place. I hope to be volunteering with Cesiak soon and helping the Pirata with turtle conservation and the native plant nursery.

Monday, September 7, 2009


If you take the second class bus to Coba at 7:10am, you may have to spend the 45 minute trip standing, swaying, nodding off and being the only tourist on the crowded bus full of locals. However, this is definitely the best time to go to the Coba ruins. When we arrived, the parking lot was empty and we were one of the first visitors to the site that morning. It was still moderately cool (high 70s) and peaceful. Caleb's sister Michaela and I ate our little picnic breakfast at the base of the first temple pyramid.

Coba was once a large Mayan civilization with over 50,000 inhabitants. Most of the site dates back to 400-1100AD. It's impossible to comprehend age like that. To view these amazing ruins surrounded by jungle and have their age actually sink in is very hard. I found it fascinating that these ruins were not open to the public until 1973 and that most of it's 6,000 structures are still coverd under centuries of jungle growth. There were no roads to this place until the early '70s. The current town of Coba didn't get electricity until the 1980's!

We rented bikes for 30 pesos and began to explore. It's a really lovely, slightly bumpy ride on wide jungle paths. Birds were singing and the air smelled rich. There are many great ruins to explore, but the one that blew us away and nearly made us catch our breath Nohoch Mul. It is a 140ft temple pyramid whose presence dwarfs everything else in it's surroundings. Rising out of the jungle like some great tower of Babel, this pyramid alone was worth the trip. And here is the most astounding thing - you can still climb this pyramid! It is trecherously steep, a bit crumbling and the only thing to grab in case you stumble is a two inch wide rope that hangs from the top and is draped to the bottom. Like climbing a huge set of stairs, we made it to the very top and Oh! what a view! We could see across the jungle for miles. And for miles all we could see was jungle. Green, and dense and stunning. A tiny indent in the trees indicated the town of Coba, but other than that, there were no other buildings, roads, or civlization in sight. It made me think about what this land was like, Pre-Colonial times, when it was just the Mayans and the jungle.

Michaela and I sat for a long time up there, at the top of the world, watching eagles soar around us. When we finally headed down the very steep steps, hoards of tourists on bikes and in pedicabs were flooding in. We visited a few more ruins and headed out as more busloads of tourist were unloading. I must say, we had the perfect experience at Coba. We got there early, avoided the crowds and the heat and had the place mostly to ourselves. We patted ourselves on the back for a job well done and then headed to a tiny restaurant for some grilled chicken.

The restaurant was no more than three plastic tables and chairs in a cement block porch. The mouthwatering smell of chicken cooking on their grill next to the road, stopped us in our tracks and drew us inside. We ordered, a little unsure of what we would get, but when our food arrived we were delighted. We each had half of a grilled and marinated chicken, beans, rice, cabbage and carrot salad, salsa and tortillas. Quite the feast. The tortilla factory was not more than ten feet away and our server, the owner, went over and bought us steaming hot, fresh tortillas.
I watched a very old Mayan woman with a bucket of maize, go into the tortilleria, dump the bucket into a grinder and scoop out armfuls of cornmeal dough.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Meal at Home

The result of my successful shopping trip was a simple, home cooked meal. I made a mixed green salad and pasta in a red sauce with zucchini, capers, anchovies and basil. I even baked a cake. This was an adventure in and of itself.
I bought what I hoped was baking powder, flour (which smelled strangely sweet), and what I hoped was plain unsalted butter. The only cake pan in the store was about half the size of what I was looking for, but it was cute with scalloped edges, so I bought it. I chose an easy peach cake recipe and made it with canned peaches. I mixed all the ingredients in a soup pot since I don't have a mixing bowl yet and stirred everything in with a fork. Easy enough.
I'm very grateful for the Internet since it not only provided me with a cake recipe, but also converted Fahrenheit to Celsius so that I could figure out what to set the oven on.
Well the cake turned out fine. Not amazing, but considering most people here use their ovens as extra storage, I felt just using it was a success. The next day I made a tasty Seville orange sauce to go with the remaining two pieces. Believe me, if we didn't have airconditioning I would also only be using my oven as storage!
I had bought a cheap bottle of wine to celebrate my minor culinary success. Caleb and I sat down in front of the monitor to watch "Redeye", pasta bowls in hand, the smell of cake in the air, and it felt so good and routine, and right. Tradition. An evening at home, and that could be anywhere, with a glass of wine, dinner and a movie.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Touche, Kathleen Walker!

A little while ago my friend Kathleen posted this gorgeous picture of the fresh produce she picked up at the farmer's market in San Francisco. It made me salivate and and a wee bit jealous. See, it's been a bit of a challenge cooking here in Tulum.
I love Mexican food. It goes without saying that the ingredients at the grocery stores and markets here are full of anything you may need to make great Mexican food. However, we've been eating out a lot. And why wouldn't we since we can buy the worlds best tamales from Angelo at the Oxxo station for less than $1 a piece. His chicken and green salsa tamalitos are to die for. The same goes for Angela's sopes, Urge Taqueria's mixto ceviche, and Charlie's enchiladas poblanos. So, why would I cook Mexican food when everybody makes it so much better than me?
Now, if you want to make something other than Mexican food, it's a bit of a challenge. Not only are there large bags of mystery spices and piles of unknown herbs and produce to navigate, most things are unlabeled. Even armed with my trusty pocket dictionary, and grabbing every bag and shoving it in my face for a good whiff, many items are unidentifiable. What I can identify is black pepper, ground oregano, chile powder, cinnamon, and cloves. That is the primary spice selection at our local store. So along with the 95 degree heat and the bicycling from store to store to find basics like a real loaf of crusty bread, fruit and veggies, cheese and meat, I've been feeling rather uninspired to cook.
Hence, I've still been feeling like a tourist and not like I actually live here. We usually eat breakfast and lunch at home, but there is something so homey and grounding and downright domestic about cooking dinner.
I had a breakthrough the other day. I learned from Lorena at the Italian bakery that there is a store called Frutas Y Verduras Pool. They have actual fresh arugula and basil!!! Granted you have to know it's in the back and ask for it (which was an adventure in pantomime and trial and error). However, my creative juices started flowing, and I spent a good long time looking at every bag of dried hibiscus flowers, mystery spices, coconut milk, olive oil, and root vegetables and thinking about actually cooking.
Here's what I ended up with: Arugula, basil, chayote, zucchini, red pepper, local avocado, a carrot, cucumber, big bananas, and tiny cute ones, penne pasta, capers, anchovies, a can of tomatoes, oolong tea (the first black tea I've seen!), real tasty wheat bread from the Italian bakery, a croissant!!!, and to top it all off, fancy food for Tugboat because I finally found the one and only bona fide vet.
This may seem like a totally normal and average shopping list, but to me it's the beginning of really living here and being able to cook.


I have a guilty confession. I love Nescafe. I know, I know! Enjoying a cup of instant coffee isn't such a big deal, but I'm a professed coffee snob. Working three years at a really great coffee shop in Seattle, working as a barista, snubbing those Starbucks lovers..... we'll next to our organic, fair trade coffee is a jar of Nescafe. And that's what I drank this morning. Two cups actually.
There's just something so delightfully simple about a spoonful of little coffee crystals melting into my microwaved hot water.... okay, I'm a coffee hypocrite, I'll admit it.