Friday, January 23, 2009

Santa Cruz Fungi Fair

The Santa Cruz Fungi Fair is an established and somewhat surreal event; a mixture of science, nature, art and magic. We have attended for the last several years and it's always decadent to indulge in the Mushroom lasagna and the cream of Mushroom Soup. These foods always sell out early, and the live mushroom exhibits are best viewed on Saturday morning, so my recommendation is to attend early and to eat Mushroom Soup and Lasagna for breakfast.

I took this photo of this surreal purple mushroom on a night time hike in the jungle of Ecuador in 2004. We spent 3 nights at a remote Jungle Lodge. We took many nature hikes, keeping our eyes out for insects, birds and exotic plants. We swam and canoed in the jungle river, inhabited with pink river dolphins as well as piranha and visited an indigenous Achuar Indian Village.

The Santa Cruz Fungi Fair hosted lectures throughout the two days. John and I attended one lecture on the medicinal use of mushrooms. Turkey Tail mushrooms were a hot topic and we learned that these mushrooms contain powerful antioxidants, and that seriously funded pharmaceutical studies are ongoing. I took this photo of a Turkey Tail Mushroom in the jungle of Ecuador on a trip in 2004. It's name is certainly appropriate and I've seen this sort of mushroom on forest and jungle hikes around the world.

One large hall of the Fungi Fair is devoted to an extensive mushroom exhibit. The Boletus Mushroom is an edible mushroom that is commonly found in our Santa Cruz forests.

Several artists and gourmet food vendors displayed their wares. Here is a photo of Jeannine Calcagno Niehaus' clay mushroom covered jars. Her studio is in Santa Cruz and she participates in Open Studios each year. 831-427-0391

These exotic turned wood mushrooms were very cool too! They are the work of John Voydetich of Portland Oregon. 916-543-4275.

The sterling silver Magic Mushroom Charm is one of my designs. You can see more of my Savage Garden collection on my web site.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Todos Santos on New Years Day

This is a photo of our simple hotel in Todos Santos. Do not mistake this for El Presidente, Hotel Intercontinental.

We enjoy an ample breakfast at hotel Intercontinental and check out. The all inclusive rate for our 24 hour stay is even less than we were quoted and I charge just $236.00 to my credit card, a remarkable rate for soft beds, ample food and the New Years' Eve party. Nevertheless, I am glad to get out of our gilded cage and be on our way to Todos Santos. Art is once again the designated driver, having grown more comfortable with the Mexican traffic and within 30 minutes we are in Cabo San Lucas. We miss the turn to the highway North and retrace our path along back city roads until we connect with the highway North towards La Paz. The day is warm, the sky a brilliant blue and the single lane ribbon of highway slices through the desert terrain. We drive at 100 Kilometers an hour and in less than two hours arrive in Todos Santos. It is New Years' day and as expected much of the town is closed but we park around the corner from Hotel California and poke into the few open tourist arcades. Lunch is a high priority and on the recommendation of a local expat couple we choose a local cafe with just two items on the menu. Both the chicken mole and the spicy beef are excellent. After lunch we explore the few block radius of the historical old town. The historic district is small with just a few blocks of buildings remaining, but there are signs of renovation and the brightly colored buildings of purple, salmon and ocher are very picturesque. Hotel California is fully booked but the bare bone hotel across the street has vacancies and we pay our $35.00 for a double room and settle in. The aroma of pinesol penetrates the room, and the sheets are paper thin, but it's clean, the price is right and its time for a nap.

Todos Santos is famous for its surfing beaches so Art drives in the direction of the beach. The guide book mentions that finding the beach via the maze of dirt roads can be frustrating, but Art navigates the back roads and we soon arrive. We see a car up ahead, stuck in the sand of the dirt road that we are on, so we take caution, park and walk. For the next 45 minutes, Art, John and I do our best to help the man get his car unstuck. His three children stand along side of the car, wide eyed and watching. There is quite a bit of trash around and a large discarded piece of cement and a few boards, combined with push power eventually work. Our good deed done, we head to the beach to watch the sunset.

We have dinner in the courtyard restaurant of Hotel California. The atmosphere is ambient and wrought iron lanterns cast dappled patterns across the cobblestone floor. The restaurant is busy, mostly with tourists and the food, but not the service, is reasonably good. Perhaps the first day of a New Year should be more remarkable, but its off to a good start and we close the day early and walk across the street to our simple hotel room.

El Presidente for New Years Eve

I'm awake before Art and John and I quietly make coffee and walk an hour alone on the beach in front of the marina. The fishing pangas' have gone out for the day but I see Arturo, waiting patiently to catch his "fish" and book fishing pangas for the following day. He greets me warmly with his toothy smile. Back at the hotel, I sit on the balcony outside our door and write, waiting for my sleepy family to awake.

El Presidente; Hotel Intercontinental

We arrive at El Presidente later than intended, but check in is easy and our room is ready. Our room is lovely, but no larger than our room at the marina. The main difference seems to be in the thickness of the sheets and towels and of course the amenities available to us for the next 24 hours. We have missed breakfast and are too early for the formal lunch, so we eat taco's and hamburgers at the pool side cafe. John takes off to explore the pools and find others of his kind. He joins in a beach volley ball game and is soon part of a pack of kids from Canada and Connecticut. We are glad that he is comfortable with himself and can make friends easily and it's good to have some adult space this afternoon. Art and I eat, nap and read. Our room steps up to a small separate alcove with a table and I write, looking out our window overlooking the main pool below. I watch the employees preparing for tonight's party; decorating and setting up sound and video systems. I realize that we have not been given a choice room, but I'm quite entertained watching the preparations.

El Presidente is the last resort hotel on the strip. Architecturally it blends in with the environment, just three stories high, terra cotta red and with the ideal location adjacent to the estuary, lush with palm trees and shore birds. There is a walking path along the estuary leading to San Jose del Cabo that we took several times when we were here before. Art and I enjoy the sunset from the beach and walk up the sandy strip to see watch the New Year's preparations going on at the other high rise resort hotels.

The three of us meet for dinner at the outdoor patio buffet, candle lit and ambient on this New Year's Eve. I don't think that any buffet can offer stellar food, but tonight's presentation is lovely and the food is reasonably good. It's good to see that the majority of the guests are locals, and we watch the well dressed couples and happy families celebrate together. Art and I are not late night party goers and It might be more fun to be here with another couple, but we wander and watch the events of the evening unfold. John is off with his pack of friends and checks in with us periodically. At 10:00 P.M. a contemporary live Mexican band starts its' first set. The female vocalist is excellent and we have fun dancing. The live band is followed by rather poor, pool-side floor show and after a few minutes of watching, we find comfortable chairs to occupy and wait out the midnight hour. Midnight arrives, champagne is poured and cellophane wrapped bags of grapes are passed around. I need to find out the cultural significance of the grapes? Corralling John at the midnight hour is a challenge, but we manage and the three of us retire to our room and watch the party wind down beneath our window. At 2:00 A.M. the music finally ends, the New Year is officially welcomed and we manage to sleep.

Fishing for Dorado

Art, John and I walk over to the marina at 6:00 A.M. and Arturo is waiting with hot coffee as promised. Art is uncertain if he will go with us, but Arturo assures him that the ocean will be calm today and after paying $13.00 each for three fishing licenses we board our super panga and meet our captain, Pata. I guess him to be in his late 50's , but his weathered skin and heavy jowls make him look much older. We motor out of the marina in the gray morning light, clear sky above and a thick cloud bank against the horizon. We have layered our clothing to keep warm and we pull our jackets tightly around us bracing against the wind. We head west towards a distant point where a dozen small boats are jigging for bait. One small panga pulls up beside ours and the fishermen scoop several net-fulls of sardines into our live bait tank. Pata hands him a folded bill in exchange. We turn back around and head East, the wind chill factor more intense. We motor for 45 minutes until we are just off shore of Punta Gorda. In the distance, I can see the house that we spent the first night in and recall, Michael, telling me that one of the best fishing spots, the Gordo Banks, was just off shore in front of the house. Pata is not a talkative man and with thick fingers, he ties and baits hooks and sets the lines for us. John watches the fish finding screen, excited to see the virtual fish swimming across the monitor. Within a few minutes I have a bite and 20 minutes later, after quite a fight, I have landed a glistening gold, yellow and blue, 15 pound Dorado. I have not planned to fish, only take photos, and when the fish first bites, I start to hand the pole to John but Art encourages me to play it out. Now as the captain congratulates me, I don't feel proud, only sad to have caught this fish.

As the morning warms we shed our layers, get a few more nibbles, but hook nothing. I am worried that John might not catch a fish. Pata motors the panga to a different fishing spot and another two hours pass with little action. Suddenly, Art gets a bite, and seconds later, John too has a fish on his line. Both have caught 3 foot needle fish that put up a good fight. We ask Pata to release them and he aptly removes the hooks from their long serrated snouts and pushes each forcefully back down into the sea, forcing water through their gills so that they survive. Each fish swims off, a silver blue streak beneath the water. In the next 30 minutes, Art and John catch three more needle fish, all of which we release. Our fish monitor starts to indicate more action and Pata chums the water, tossing a few of the live sardines overboard. John gets another bite, that we think is a Dorado, not another needle fish. John patiently works the fish, letting out line, pulling up and back on his pole and reeling in; releasing more line, pulling up and back and reeling in. We see the fish jump and confirm that it is a Dorado. A few minutes later, Art also hooks a Dorado. Both of my men have an excited twinkle in their eyes and for the next 45 minutes, I watch and take photos of the process. John brings his fish in first and I am again awed by the beauty of this pelagic fish, glistening gold and pink with brilliant blue fins. Dorado is a fitting name for this fish, better known back home as Mahi Mahi. When the fish is along side of the boat, Pata quickly hooks it and clubs the fish to kill it quickly. This shocks me and I turn away, saddened again that we have caught this fish. Art plans to release his fish, but when he
brings it along side of the boat, Pata asks if he can have it and we concede that he may.

Our fishing trip is at an end and Pata motors the boat back to the marina where our three fish are taken by wheel barrow, up to one of many covered fish cleaning stations; large square cement counters equipped with double sinks. Other boats have come in with their catches and the efficiency of the fish filleting is remarkable. I watch as a man slices diagonally just below the head and tears back the skin with one confident pull. He fillets one side of the fish, flips the fish over and repeats the process with the other side, making sure to stack all of one fish together. Another man stands beside the one wielding the fillet knife, scooping the heads and skin into a bucket, thus keeping the counter clean. The fillets from each fish are stacked in plastic bags and the counter sprayed clean with fresh water. Our three Dorado are filleted in the matter of minutes and Art tips the men for their service. We hand one bag of fish to Pata and return to our hotel giving the kitchen a large fresh fillet to cook for us this evening. The remainder we freeze in the hotels freezer intent on taking it home.

We rest for two hours, tired from the early morning, the sun and the sea. The hotels' outdoor cafe is only open between 9:00- 5:00 so we enjoy a late afternoon meal. They prepare the fish perfectly, sauted in butter and garlic, but perhaps it would be hard to go wrong with such a fresh catch.

We need to figure out our plans for the New Year and Art suggests that we at least check into the possibility of celebrating at one of the all inclusive hotels near bye. 4 years ago, we spent a week at Hotel Intercontinental, El Presidente. At that time we were with my parents and it was a good place for three generations to be together. We walk into the familiar lobby and inquire at reception. The man behind the desk asks us where we are currently staying and Art tells him at a house in Zacatitas. We find out that the New Years' Eve party, including dinner is $125.00 per person or that we can buy a day pass for $66.00. I ask how much it would cost to spend the night and he mentions a figure in the mid $350.00 for all of us, but suggests that it might be less than that. We thank him and leave to walk on the beach and ponder our options. Returning an hour later we wait for the same desk attendant and ask him for his best rate. He punches his computer, makes a phone call and performs his magic. He offers us the "local" rate of $258.00 all inclusive which we gladly accept. We will return in the morning. John will be able to use the pools, play volley ball and meet other kids, while Art and I relax in the elegant bubble of the hotel.

It is dark by the time we drive into old town San Jose Del Cabo to poke around the shops and get a light bite to eat. The Zocolo is festive with holiday lighting and we sit on a wrought iron bench eating ice creams and people watching.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Happy Birthday, John! December 29, 2008

I wake to the gray light of dawn and survey our house in the soft morning light. The house sits a few lots from the beach and it has a 360 degree view of the ocean and the mountains behind. I am able to light the propane stove and boil water for coffee. I packed coffee filters, freshly ground coffee, powered coco, tea and sugar. I also brought along 6 small scones for John's birthday breakfast. I drink my coffee, rich with the thick cream that we purchased at the tiny Mexican market yesterday. The house has been empty for three years but apart from a bit of dust and sand upon the floor, it is clean. The problematic issue is the lack of water and I wish for a shower and a means to flush the toilet. All three of us have "watered" the cacti behind the house in lieu of working plumbing. Art and John continue to sleep while I read and ponder the day ahead of us.

At 8:30 A.M. an S.U.V. pulls up our driveway and parks. A man steps out, our age, and climbs up the stairway to our house. I assume it is Herb, the caretaker of this house, and I wake Art before stepping out onto the deck to greet our visitor. He is accompanied by a pit bull puppy and I greet both man and dog with pleasure. I am hopeful that he can solve the water issue. Herb is a character, formerly from Santa Cruz, but now firmly ensconced in this expatriac community. We learn that he is in a band, manages numerous properties in the area, and that last night, when we went to bed hungry, he sat eating and drinking with half the community, in an unmarked restaurant, just across the road. The mystery is now solved as to where the people in the neighboring houses disappeared to. I think wistfully, how different last night's experience would have been had we known about the restaurant. Herb also tells us that we should have driven the well graded mountain road, not the coastal road that was washed out and damaged during the winter storms. John crawls out of his sleeping cocoon, awakened by kisses from the puppy. We share ownership of our daughters Pit Bull and the wiggly greeting from this dog, was one that John welcomed on the morning of his 16th birthday. Herbs' visit is short, but he promises to order water that may or may not be delivered "manana." There is also the question of who will pay for its delivery, so the water issue remains unclear. After Herb departs, I serve John a gourmet breakfast of hot coco and scones. Spoiled by the frothy mochas back at home, John shows little appreciation in the drink that I set before him. When I pull out the scones, both Art and John question why I didn't serve the scones for "dinner" last night?

Getting beyond all this, the three of us walk down to the beach beyond. I have left footprints on beaches around the world, but this pristine beach ranks as one of the most beautiful. Although the shoreline is steep, the fine white sand is soft on my feet and gentle waves wash up onto the beach leaving their foam tipped patterns on the sand. Weathered granite beds, tilted and layered with quartz veining jut along the shore line. Art comments that the rock formations look like an Andy Goldsworthy installation, perfectly aligned with striped delineations. Were we at Disneyland, we might think that they were artificial. We walk a mile up the beach to Punta Gorda, a small mountain rising up sharply from the oceans' edge; the bookend, marking this end of the long curved shoreline. A dozen stylish homes line this mile of beach, several quite architecturally stunning. Most have beautiful gardens, lush with palms and bougainvilleas, and all have stairways descending from terraces, down to the beach. We retrace our steps, greeting a few other beach combers, fishermen, and kayakers enjoying this remarkable strip of sand and water. We pack up our things, cleaning up as best as we can and load them into our tiny red car. As I do the final room check, I imagine that lacking reverse,we will need to coast back down the drive way, and need to push the car to turn it around. I find Art sitting in the drivers seat, reading the cars' user manual in Spanish. We are all relieved when he comes to the transmission diagram and discovers that there is a ring on the gear shift that must first be lifted in order for the car to engage in reverse. We drive over to the near-bye restaurant to check it out and Angel, one of the owners, invites us inside. She and her husband are from Oregon and just this past October, opened this restaurant to the cheers of all who live in the area. We expect we will return on another night during this trip to enjoy the restaurants ambience, the food and the tropical drinks. Art takes the high mountain road back towards San Jose Del Cabo. Although the road is dirt, it is wide and well graded except for one steep incline. The desert terrain is dotted with an array of cacti, while osprey and buzzards circle the bright blue sky above. I am delighted and amused by the nipple shaped mountains, conical, pastel cut outs, shaping the horizon. Although the drive back into town takes 40 minutes, happily, it is uneventful.

It is past noon and we are all hungry when we pull into the new marina, intent on reserving a fishing panga boat for tomorrow. We are approached by several different "booking" agents and we inquire about the sizes and pricing of the various boats. The choices are confusing so I tuck several cards into my pocket and we defer making our decision until after lunch. After an unmemorable lunch at the marina's Barefoot Cafe, we drive the short distance into San Jose Del Cabo with the intent of exchanging money. 4 years ago, we were here with my parents and the lay out of the city is familiar but new jewelry shops have sprouted up, most of them selling Mexican fire opals. John and I are quickly absorbed in looking at opals, but Art quickly glazes over and agrees to go to the bank on his own while John and I continue to shop for the perfect stone. There are thousands of opals within a few block radius and the pricing and quality is all over the place. Almost every shop has a handful of remarkable stones, plus trays of clear
orange opals and opal doublets. These unexciting, tourist quality, stones are of no interest to us, but the struggling merchants, judging us from our crumpled appearance, do their best to interest us in these mundane opals. Art returns with pesos and we tear ourselves away from the eye candy opals and return to the Marina to secure a panga for the morning.

It's after 4:00 P.M. when we walk into the courtyard of Gorda Banks Panga, intent on giving them $270.00 to reserve a fishing trip on one of their 25 ft. super pangas. We are disappointed to find that all of their boats have already been reserved so we drive down to the marina in search of Arturo. I spot him quickly, a tall, thin man with weathered features and crooked yellow teeth. He flashes us an eager toothy smile, and we walk along a line of pangas moored in the marina. He makes several hopeful calls, but all of the boats are reserved. He suggests a smaller panga, but John has his heart set on a larger one, and with three of us aboard, the super panga with a steel railing encircling the boat gives me the illusion of being more stable and sea worthy. After several failed attempts at finding us an available panga and captain, Arturo is successful and we seal the $275.00 reservation with a $20.00 bill and a handshake. He promises me his best hot coffee in the morning when we will meet, at 6:00 A.M.

The La Playita Hotel sits steps away from the marina. We checked their rates earlier today and now walk over hoping that there are still rooms available. A smiling Kelly, welcomes us back and checks us in. She is a cherubic woman in her late 40's with a sing song voice. Her wavy dyed blond hair is perfectly coiffed and she wears a full, white embroidered cotton dress. John notices a photo of an iguana in her office and we inquire about the photo? She beams and we are soon meeting her pet, Charlotte, a juvinel green iguana. Our spacious room is upstairs, overlooking a courtyard, a small pool below. The room has two queen beds, a terracotta tile floor and high ceilings. Best of all there is hot water with good water pressure and I am the first of us into the shower washing away two days' grime.

After resting we drive into San Jose Del Cabo for John's birthday dinner. He gets to choose the restaurant and we spend an hour wandering the quaint back streets before he picks Morgains, an upscale restaurant with candle lit tables clustered in a courtyard. We are seated upstairs on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and although there is an open fire place beside us, our table is too dark. We share a mussel appetizer and John, true to form, orders the most expensive item on the menu, filet and shrimp. Although the food is reasonably good, it's quality doesn't match the prices, so we are all somewhat disappointed in the birthday extravaganza. After dinner we poke into a few stores and John and I educate Art on some of the finer points of Mexican Fire Opals. In one of the better shops, John spots a smallish green and orange stone, blazing with fire and the zealous sales man takes it out to show us. It is breathtaking; 7 carats and $7,500. Art begins to catch the opal fever and to understand how challenging the
search for these Mexican Fire Opals can be.

Escaping to Baja

Our family is spending a few days in San Jose Del Cabo, between Christmas and the first few days in January, 2009. We land late afternoon on Sunday, December 28th. Escaping to Baja is relatively easy from Santa Cruz, California, and there is no jet lag to deal with. Growing up as a geologist's daughter provided me with many trips into Mexico and even though my Spanish is almost non existent, I always feel comfortable, welcome and happy to be in Mexico.

Although I have reserved a rental car in advance, renting the shiny red, sardine can, is stressful. I'm not 100% certain that our auto insurance back home will cover an accident, and I am confused and pressured to buy the extra Mexican insurance. Paperwork finally completed, Art navigates us out of the airport, anxious over the unfamiliar road signs, traffic, and rental car, muttering many 4 letter words that I won't document here. Our plan is to stay at a friends beach house in Zacatitis, but the directions to the house are vague. Several days earlier, Art searched for the house via google satalite and mapped out the route as best as possible. It is already after 5:00 P.M. and the sun is low on the horizon when we come to what we surmise is turn off towards the new Marina and ultimately the dirt road that will take us 9 miles to the house. There are several identical round-a-bouts leading to the marina and we take the first one; the wrong one. We circle back, and around again, drive a short distance to a second round about with a vertical row of directional signs, one of which points to Zacatitis. Initially, we choose the paved road up towards the mountains when we see two young women walking along the side of the road. Art stops to confirm directions and offers them a ride. Veronica and Stephanie pile into the back seat beside John and draw their version of a map on a piece of scratch paper, while Art courteously drives them back into town. Veronica is 19 and her English is much better than our Spanish. Stephanie is quiet and wide eyed, cautious of the gringos that she is hitching a ride with. We thank them and retrace the road, this time finding the coast road towards Zacatitis. As the sun dips lower on the horizon, my anxiety rises. I want to reach the house before dark so that we will be able to unlock doors and settle into the place before nightfall. We know that there may not be electricity or running water unless we can prime the pump and hook up the generator, a difficult task even during daylight. Initially the road is paved, but as expected, it soon turns to dirt. I keep my eye out for Buzzards Restaurant, a landmark we have been told to look for, just 4 miles before Zacatitis. We plan to return there for dinner after settling into our house. As the road worsens, John gets excited, sensing adventure, while Art and I fear a flat tire and being stranded. We wish for a 4 wheel drive vehicle to navigate the pot holes and washes. We seem to have rented a car with no reverse gear and we are alone on a remote coast road surrounded by cacti and sage brush, the ocean just beyond. The fading sun casts a sensual pink glow on the iridescent water and the setting sun paints the clouds a silver edged salmon. Under most circumstances this would be a magical transitional time of day. We come to a junction in the road and spot Buzzards Restaurant, but are dismayed when we see that it is closed; possibly up for sale? We have come too far to turn around, all the more difficult without a reverse gear, so we continue on the worsening road. Many potholes and another 30 minutes further on, we arrive at an enclave of homes, and spot the white archway, designated as the turn to "our" house. We recognize the house from photos we have seen and pull up the curved dirt driveway. John is out of the car in a flash, upstairs and into the house. Although I have keys, we find the house and the garage unlocked. The 360 degree view is breathtaking and the single upstairs room is divided into sleeping, sitting and kitchen area. A multitude of candelabras sit atop the cement kitchen counter and bar. Before heading out for the house we stopped to pick up jugs of water, a lighter and some cream for the mornings coffee. John lights the existing votive candles and I pull more from my suitcase and soon the room is awash with ambient light. A double futon will sufice for Arts and my bed, but there is no mattress for John. We explore the garage with flashlights and find a cot for John, but ultimately, John chooses the floor for his bed. We have our own sleeping bags and all would be adequate if we only had food and running water. Even if Buzzards were open tonight, it would be dangerous to navigate the return road in the dark, so it seems that we will be going to bed without dinner. John climbs up on the counter and finds a small can of vegetables and two rusted tins of smoked fish. Botchillism is not top on my list so the fish is out. I have brought along a large bag of almonds and three granola bars. In an effort to save the evening, I suggest a walk on the beach. John happily accompanies me and we head off with flashlights. Many of the near bye homes twinkle with lights and I vaguely hope to spot the shadow of a figure out and about. When we arrived, we saw people outside of an elegant home just below ours, but they have vanished, leaving on lights and windows and doors open. John and I drop down the steep sandy bank from the road to the beach. There is only a sliver of a moon tonight so even with our flashlights, we can't see a lot. We return shortly and I gaze out our upstairs window at lights on the near bye hillside, hopingfor signs of life, but I see none. John eats the remains of a sandwich he bought at the Phoenix airport while I nibble on almonds, washing them down with bottled water. By 7:30 P.M. we are prone, inside our sleeping bags trying to sleep at this early hour. Ordinarily, I am a good sleeper, but this is long night and I hear John and Art toss and turn frequently and wonder how uncomfortable John is, sleeping on the hard floor.