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I really don’t know clouds at all.

By Randy Jackson

I was in my early teens when I first heard the song “Both Sides Now,” a Joni Mitchell song first made into a hit by Judy Collins. Like my contemporaries back then, I was more into the burgeoning rock and roll scene, which didn’t include Judy Collins. But even though I first thought the song was more fitting for my parents’ generation, I was struck by its emotional power, which still resonates when I hear the song today.

It’s the first verse of the song, about the variability of clouds, that sets the stage for the subsequent verses on love and on life. As the song goes, clouds can be like ice cream castles in the air, yet they rain and snow on everyone. Clouds at times represent both the beauty of nature unfolding before us, and at other times they are the raw unleashed power of nature itself. It’s no wonder Joni wrote the line, “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

Clouds, whether they form ice cream castles or storms, are the visual manifestation of climate. Clouds (rain), or their absence (drought), have maintained and destroyed civilizations. Here in Huatulco, we are on part of the lands of the earliest mesoamerican civilization, the Zapotec, the people of the clouds. Although many of us are seasonal visitors here, avoiding the clouds, snow, and storms of winter, globally we continue to see more severe weather events, so it might be wise to know a little about clouds.

Four different cloud types – an interesting sample!

Cloud Type: Shelf Cloud
Photograph location: Yucatan, Mexico

A shelf or wall cloud has a dark bottom and a clearly defined structure low to the ground. Photographs of these clouds are among the most striking images of storm clouds. These cloud formations are very common (although typically not this clearly defined). They bring thunderstorms – if one is approaching, take cover.

Cloud Type: Anvil Cloud
Photograph location: Near the France/Italy border

An anvil cloud occurs when updrafts reach a point in the atmosphere where the cloud can no longer rise so it spreads out in all directions. This is also a thunderstorm cloud, with strong lightning wind and rain potential.

Cloud type: Overshooting Top
Photo Location: Greece

An overshooting top has such powerful updrafts that it bursts above the layer of an anvil cloud forming a dome much higher in the atmosphere. If this dome is sustained for 10 or more minutes, very severe weather is likely. If you see this formation, take shelter.

Cloud type: Roll Cloud
Photo location: Uruguay

A roll cloud is not a bad weather cloud. It occurs when there is a boundary like a cold front or certain breezes that cause a horizontal vortex, often over bodies of water. These unique clouds are fairly rare.

It’s no wonder Joni Mitchell’s line “I really don’t know clouds” has such universal appeal. Clouds are complicated. The International Cloud Atlas has two volumes with 224 pictures describing 10 main cloud families divided into 14 species. Do you know what the largest supercomputers in the world do (besides quantum mechanics)? Weather forecasting. And as we know, they don’t always get it right.

It turns out that clouds are a bit of a wild card in modeling climate change scenarios. Cloud formation modeling requires extremely fine-scale physics. The behavior of water droplets (what clouds are) in concert with temperature, humidity, winds, and numerous other weather variables, cannot be fully calibrated even with today’s supercomputers. However, advances in machine learning may have helped scientists take a step towards more accurate modeling of clouds. Author Chelsea Harvey, in “Clouds May Speed Up Global Warming” (Scientific American, July, 2021), outlines the results of recent machine learning algorithms on cloud formations and climate change. Unfortunately, new computer modeling rules out most of the moderate climate change scenarios. Although bad news for us all, at least knowing something more about clouds is helpful.

The scientific study of clouds is certainly over my head (pun intended, insert chuckle or groan). But there is one thing we all do know about clouds: they can be astoundingly beautiful. One recent morning at Santa Cruz bay, for example, a large bank of dark clouds dominated the horizon. The rising sun, just behind one corner of the cloud structure, was brilliantly illuminating the upper edge of the clouds while projecting geometric rays into the atmosphere. Down below, at the edge of the far horizon, rain clouds connected with the sea. And with the sea and sky the same slate gray color, Santa Cruz bay looked like a water ramp up to the clouds, meeting, as parallel lines seem to join at the farthest point of our vision. It was maybe one of a million beautiful cloud vistas on earth that day. I wonder how many other observers of such vistas, like me, started humming “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

*refer to the post in the magazine to see the photos of clouds with the descriptions

B. Traven – A Mexican Writer with A Mysterious Past

By Randy Jackson

I was first introduced to the works of the Mexican writer B. Traven in a Spanish class. We were assigned a short story by Traven, titled “Dos Burros.” I found the story compelling. There was something about both the story itself and the style of narration that appealed to me. So, of course, I googled B. Traven, and immediately plummeted down a curiosity rabbit hole about this strange and enigmatic writer.

In 1952, the Mexican government granted citizenship to Berick Traven Torsvan, a person who, by then, was a well-established writer, living in Mexico and writing under the pen name of B. Traven. How Mexican citizenship was granted to a person as fictitious as a character in one of Traven’s own novels is a mystery in itself.

To confuse his identity further, in Mexico Traven never appeared as Traven, but represented himself as Hal Croves, a supposed friend and agent of B. Traven. When the Hollywood producer John Huston paid for the movie rights to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he handed the cheque to a person claiming to be Hal Croves, a person with Power of Attorney for B. Traven. Both Huston and the main actor in the film, Humphrey Bogart, later claimed they always thought Hal Croves was B. Traven himself.

But why all this subterfuge? There are many reclusive writers, J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher In The Rye, for one, and Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, for another – there are many more. But Traven wasn’t the reclusive type. He actively sought to deceive others about his true identity. After his death (March 26, 1969, in Mexico City), we learned the identity Traven was trying to hide was that of Ret Marut, a wanted man with a death sentence on his head.

The Hidden Past of B. Traven

The early days of the Weimar Republic in German (following World War I) were tumultuous, especially in the state of Bavaria (later leading to the rise of Hitler). In April of 1919, a Bavarian Socialist Republic was proclaimed following a communist uprising. Ret Marut became a committee member of that new Socialist Republic. He was arrested just one month later by a Berlin-based militia, which crushed the upstart socialist republic. Ret Marut was put in with a group of prisoners who were being summarily tried and shot. Before his name was called, a sympathetic guard allowed Marut to escape. Marut found his way to London where he was imprisoned for a time for not registering as a foreigner. Eventually Marut found work shovelling coal on decrepit steam ships destined to be scuttled for insurance proceeds. That work brought him to Mexico in 1924.

In Mexico, Murat began using the name Traven Torsvan, writing stories under the name B Traven. Within about a year his stories began to be published in Germany, starting with the serialised The Cotton-Pickers (Die Baumwollpflücker, 1925, published as a novel called The Wobbly [Der Wobbly, the short name for Industrial Workers of the World union] in 1926).

The Writing Career of B. Traven

The stories of B. Traven quickly became popular in Germany (almost all his published works were written in German and published in Germany). He was seen as an adventure story writer. His writing was reminiscent of the very popular works of the American writer Jack London (1896-1916). Traven’s first major success as a novelist was in 1926 with the publication, in Germany, of Death Ship (Das Totenschiff). As a testament to this book’s enduring popularity, years later Albert Einstein is reported to have said it was the book he would take with him to a desert island. Death Ship is seen as autobiographical for Traven. It portrays the life of an international undocumented seamen who is treated like a slave, no doubt derived from Traven’s own experiences in getting to Mexico in 1924.

In 1927, Traven published his most famous novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Der Schatz der Sierra Madre). This was the first of Traven’s novels to be published in Mexico (1931). Later it was also the first Traven novel to be published in English (1934). This story was made into the award-winning film of the same name, now considered a classic, by John Huston in 1948. The story of two down-on-their-luck Americans in Mexico who follow a prospector in the search for gold is well-known, especially for an inaccurate version of the lines delivered by the Mexican bandit Gold Hat, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”

Through the 1930’s Traven published a series of six novels that are generally referred to as The Jungle Novels. These books tell stories of repressed Mexican indigenous people, and their ill-fated attempts to push back against the harsh dictatorship of President Porfirio Díaz, leading up to the Mexican Revolution. It is for these Jungle Novels that the Peruvian novelist Luis Alberto Sánchez (1900-94) labelled B. Traven the author of the Mexican Revolution.

The last of the Jungle Novels, General from the Jungle (Ein General kommt aus dem Dschungel) was published in 1940, seemingly marking the end of Traven’s most productive period. His final four novels before his death in 1969 were Aslan Norval (1960; rediscovered after Traven’s death and translated to English in 2020), Stories by the Man Nobody Knows (published in Mexico as Cuentos de B. Traven, 1969), The Creation of the Sun and the Moon (published in English in New York, 1968), and The Kidnapped Saint and Other Stories (published posthumously, in English in New York, 1975).

Macmillan Publishers now reports that books by B. Traven have sold over 30 million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.

The Stories of B. Traven

As mentioned, my introduction to the writings of B. Traven was the short story “Dos Burros.” What I found compelling was his clear, down-to-earth narrative about a time and place in rural Mexico that were unfamiliar to me. I later read a number of his other short stories, the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I re-watched the movie made from the novel. I wish I had the skills to properly articulate what it was that attracted me to Traven stories. However, when I came across this description of Traven’s prose in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I thought this nailed it:

Traven’s works are harsh, filled with descriptions of danger, cruelty, and physical and emotional suffering, but his lean, direct prose has a hypnotic immediacy, and the narratives and themes are clear and compelling.

In the world of literary criticism, there is a perennial unresolved question: Do we need to know anything about a writer to bring more meaning to the works of that writer? Traven, who so desperately wanted to distance himself from his past, certainly had an opinion on this issue: “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.” I wonder whether Traven was aware of how his past and his world view so clearly impacted the stories he told. Probably the best example of this is his novel The Death Ship, which emerged from Traven’s own experiences. Traven (Ret Marut) was an anarchist with clear political leanings towards the underclass and social injustices, and against capitalist exploitation and greed. The Jungle Novels in particular clearly demonstrate these sentiments.

There are no happy endings in Traven’s stories. Of my readings of B. Traven, all the stories ended with my feeling as if things were left up in the air. Nobody ever seemed to come out ahead. A good example? The ending of the novel and movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, when the main character Dobbs (played by Humphrey Bogart) is killed and the gold dust blows away in the wind.

It is characteristic of Traven to never come down on anyone’s side, there are no winners in his stories. In “Dos Burros,” for example, a landless peasant is befriended by a wild donkey so ugly and unruly that nobody wanted him. But once people saw that the donkey was working for this peasant, two different people claimed the same donkey (dos burros), and the peasant ended up with no donkey at all.

No matter his up-in-the-air endings, or characters that never come out on top, B. Traven is read for the content of his stories, the adventure of his tales, the richness of his hapless characters, and his compelling narrative voice. B. Traven is a Mexican writer well deserving of his literary popularity.

Ghosts: From Manitoba and Mexico

By Randy Jackson

In Canada, back in the early 1980s, one could get a government grant to study French. Many college and university students, including me, did just that. I went to the University of Laval in Quebec City in the summer of 1982, a memorable summer of camaraderie amongst fellow students from across Canada.

The Haunted Manitoba Farmhouse

One evening, on the terrace of the Le Pub Universitaire, a brother and sister (students at the University of Manitoba) held a number of us spellbound with the story of their parents moving their family into a haunted farmhouse. They witnessed numerous poltergeist effects. which terrified them initially, but over time they came to see this ghost as more of a harmless trickster. This Manitoba farm family got to the point they liked having the ghost around. They told us the house would seem empty without it, and it kept unwanted relatives away.

Normally though, it’s the ghosts (not the relatives) that are unwanted. On that warm summer night in La belle province, the brother and sister from the haunted Manitoba farmhouse explained that ghosts were the trapped spirits of people who had died unexpectedly, or by suicide, and most often they died violently.

I now know this is a commonly held belief across virtually all civilizations of all time, from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica, from early Chinese civilizations to Polynesia. It seems that no matter what the various beliefs different societies hold about the afterlife, ghosts represent an aberration from whatever afterlife system a culture holds. As Obi-Wan Kenobi is supposed to have said, “I sense a disturbance in the force, Luke.” Ghosts are spirits that are not supposed to be here.

The Malevolent Ghosts of Mesoamerica

In all the pre-conquest societies of Mesoamerica, the cosmos, creation, and the afterlife, were the domain of malevolent supernatural forces. Chicunamictlán was the nine-level Land of the Dead to the Aztecs (for most but not all the departed). Here the departed suffered a four-year journey of great pain and hardships to reach Mictlán, their final resting place. At Mictlán they were met by the god of death who received them with vengeance. The departed lived (and suffered) there until finally being extinguished altogether. Spirits of departed people (ghosts), you’d think, would want out of an afterlife like that. But to the Aztecs, ghosts were feared and unwelcome spirits of the underworld who brought only bad news or the foretelling of doom.

To the Aztecs, even women who died in childbirth were not benevolent. These spirits (known as Cihuātēteoh in Nahuatl) returned to earth on five specified days each year where they were thought to steal children, cause madness, and induce adultery in males (I wonder how many Aztec men used that as an explanation for their infidelity). The modern-day Mexican legend of La Llorona may have had its origin in this Aztec belief. La Llorona is thought to be the malicious spirit of a woman who murdered her children. To some, she is believed to be a siren, who lures men to their deaths, or she steals children to replace those she had murdered. Hardly the phantom door knob rattler of that Manitoba farmhouse.

Another sinister ghost-belief of the Aztecs was the origin of the modern day El Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, although to the Aztecs, it was not the respectful, upbeat celebration of one’s ancestors, as it is practiced today. The original ritual was held in August, when family members offered food, water, and tools to assist their deceased relatives in getting through the difficult four-year afterlife journey to Mictlán where they were put out of their misery.

Christianity Rescues the Ghosts

Under European Christianity, this ritual morphed into the somewhat similarly purposed Christian observation of All Souls Day. To the Christians, All Souls Day was introduced in the 10th century for people to pray for their departed friends and relatives stuck in Purgatory. Purgatory was believed to be an afterlife realm for deceased persons who had sinned a little too much to enter the kingdom of heaven directly after death. So prayers on All Souls day were a type of appeal to the divine to reduce the amount of punishment for these souls, and get them released into heaven. And, although this can be seen as a kind of parallel to the original Day of the Dead ritual, there is one principal difference as well.

To the Christians, the afterlife is eternal. To the Aztecs (and earlier Mesoamerican civilizations), life after death was limited. It was believed, following a period of suffering, that existence in any form was terminated – full stop. And this distinction, I think, reflects back on the cultural view of ghosts overall. It seems to me, the ancient Aztec belief system where the endpoint of an afterlife is individual obliteration (ending one’s suffering), any ghost appearing in this earthly realm could only be malevolent. But in all other societies, including Mexico post-conquest, ghosts are seen as far less threatening.

In fact, ghosts in today’s western hemisphere, although generally considered scary, are not thought to be physically harmful. They even make great tourist attractions. And in this light, the story of a welcomed ghost in that Manitoba farmhouse has some degree of cultural believability. To an ancient Aztec though, such a benevolent spirit would be inconceivable. But then again, if this ancient Aztec first visited a modern-day celebration of Día de los Muertos, he or she could probably be convinced.

Tomatoes: Q & A

By Randy Jackson

Here’s a question that will brighten anyone’s day: “Hey, do you want a toasted tomato sandwich?” Of course you do, everyone does.

Ah, the tomato. We love them, but take them for granted. For example, when we listen to the lyrics of Guy Clark’s song “Homegrown Tomatoes” –

Only two things that money can’t buy –
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes –

we think, “Yeah, that’s true.” Nobody would sing about true love and an onion or bok choy. When you take something you love for granted, like the tomato, one day you wake up realizing you know almost nothing about it, and curiosity is aroused.

Questions abound: Where do tomatoes originate? Are tomatoes a fruit or vegetable? How many tomato varieties are there? Are tomatoes the most consumed thing ever? How big can a tomato get? What’s the weirdest shaped tomato ever? And the perennial question: Where could I go for a really good tomato fight?

The tomato is thought to have originated in pre-Inca Peru. Back then it was the size of a garden pea. Over the hundreds of years of pre-conquest Mesoamerican civilizations, a variety of types and sizes of tomatoes were cultivated. The Aztec (Nahuatl) word for the green tomato was tomatl (Spanish, tomate) and this is the word that stuck. Good thing too, because the Nahuatl word for the red tomato was xitomatl, which seems less marketable.

It was the Spanish who spread the tomato around the world. In Europe, documents mention the tomato as early as the 1540’s. For about 200 years, the tomato was seen as an ornamental plant for gardens and fruit-bowl displays, as it was generally considered poisonous in Europe. The first tomato recipe we have on record is 1692. But it took another 100 years before the Italians created the tomato sauce for pasta. The rest, as they say, is history.

Is the tomato a fruit or vegetable? Both really. Botanists classify it as a fruit. Nutritionists consider it a vegetable. This is because it is more savoury than sweet, and is often used in salads, not in desserts like most fruits. In 1893, the US Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable for tax purposes. Back then vegetables were subject to import duties, while fruits were not. It seems that the US Supreme Court changes its mind on some things, but has never re-addressed their tomato decision.

My guess was that the tomato would be the most eaten fruit/vegetable in the world. What with salsa, pasta and pizza sauces, ketchup, BLT’s, salads, soups, and on every hamburger ever eaten, what could top that? Well, potatoes. At least by weight and acres cultivated. However, before the potato can gloat over its top spot, we should recognize that most potatoes are used for French fries – and what is most often put on French fries? Exactly. Incidentally, potato chips are the second biggest use of the potato, and in Canada we have ketchup-flavoured potato chips – so there, potato!

There are over 10,000 varieties of tomatoes in the world. Most of these varieties are cross-breeds. About 3,000 varieties are considered “heirloom” tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are a sort of “purebred” tomato, traceable to a single genetic plant line. When it comes to the most popular tomato, beefsteak tomatoes seems to top most lists followed by the Cherokee Purple (heirloom tomato), and then Roma (paste) and cherry varieties.

The Guiness World Book of Record has the largest tomato weighing in at 4.9 kilograms (10 pounds 12 oz), with a circumference of 84 centimetres (33 inches). It was grown by Dan Sutherland in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2020. This tomato was the variety Domingo, which is a type of beefsteak tomato. And speaking of records, 121 is the largest number of tomatoes grown on a single vine. Possibly more interesting are the photos of weirdly shaped tomatoes that can be found on the internet. Often tomatoes grow pointed appendages out of their mostly symmetrical shapes. As a result, noses, pointy ears and penises are easily imagined. One tomato found in a British garden looked like the head of Adolf Hitler.

This off-beat aspect of tomatoes is topped by a festival in the town of Buñol, Spain, which holds an annual festival called La Tomatina. Forty to fifty thousand people crowd into this Spanish town for the world’s largest food fight. The only food thrown is tomatoes. You need a ticket to participate in La Tomatina, and only 22,000 tickets will be sold for the 2022 event (a ticket is 12 Euros or 250 Mexican pesos). The event will be held on August 31, 2022. About 100 tonnes of over-ripe tomatoes are provided for throwing at other participants in the town square. There are a few rules – most important is to squish the tomato before you throw it. Two words come to mind: stupidity and messy. As for being messy, the city is well prepared for the cleanup with street washers and fire-hoses all pre-stationed and ready to go after the event. Because tomatoes are acidic, the streets, buildings, statutes, and benches all gleam in spectacular cleanliness after the cleanup.

No longer will I take the tomato for granted. Already I am on the hunt for a Cherokee Purple. Of course, there are Brandywine Pink, Black Krim, Green Zebra, Gold Medal, Big Rainbow, Lemon Boy, Mr. Stripey, White Beauty … No luck yet, but I picked up some Yellow Pear tomatoes yesterday and tried them in a toasted tomato sandwich (lovely).

A Birdwatching Guide for Huatulco

By Randy Jackson

It’s almost as if humans have a special connection to birds. It is a heart-warming delight for all of us to see or hear a bird. I could even imagine some brutish invading Hun pausing his evil deeds to watch a little bird hop from branch to branch, singing a pretty song. Birds soften us all, especially little birds.

In my view, all of us are somewhere on the birdwatching spectrum. There’s that Hun at one end. At the other end of the spectrum is the fully kitted-out, pocket-ladened dude or dudette (ornithologist), who devotes a good portion of their time seeking even a brief glimpse of an avian creature.

On the birdwatching spectrum, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m more of a bird appreciator. I do own a copy of “Birds of Mexico and Central America” and I have a pair of binoculars. I also have a few birdwatching friends. It is through these friends that I have met an amazing birdwatching guide who lives in Copalita – everyone just calls him Cornelio.

Cornelio (Cornelio Ramos Gabriel) is well known for his bird-guiding prowess, both locally and online. Cornelio grew up, and currently lives, in Copalita. As a young boy, while out gathering wood for cooking, he was intrigued by a little red breasted bird. Flash forward to one day in 1998 when he was working at the Camino Real resort. Some tourists showed him a photo of a red breasted bird and asked if he’d ever seen one. Cornelio took them to the place he had seen that little bird as a young boy. To everyone’s delight, they found the very bird the tourists were looking for.

As Cornelio described it, “when I looked at that bird through the tourists’ binoculars, I fell in love with birds.” He then bought a bird guidebook, a pair of binoculars, and began walking trails seeking out birds in earnest. Even when on his motor scooter, if he caught sight of a bird, he would follow it until he could identify it. In this way, over time, Cornelio became an expert on the birds in the Huatulco area.

Around the year 2010, by word of mouth, people began asking for Cornelio to guide them bird watching. This guiding work continued to increase, so that by 2014 he was able to leave his hotel job. Guiding bird watchers became his principal job. This work is largely seasonal for Cornelio, who is also a musician.

Before the devastating effects of hurricane Agatha on Copalita, I was able to ask Cornelio some questions on bird watching in Huatulco:

What are some good places to observe birds in Huatulco?

Huatulco National Park, Sendero Candelabro (on Cornelio’s ranch in Copalita, http://www.facebook.com/senderocandelabro), and along the Copalita River.

How important or popular is bird watching in Huatulco?

Huatulco is a good area for birdwatchers. On a good full-day walk, one can observe about 100 to 120 species.

What is the season for migratory birds in Huatulco?

Northern migratory birds begin to arrive in October and they leave again in March. Birds migrating from the south are around Huatulco between April and July.

Have you seen birds in Huatulco that were well off course, possibly blown here by a storm?

Yes, I’ve seen a giant cowbird and a Tahitian petrel.

What is the rarest bird you’ve seen in Huatulco?

Northern Potoo

Any particular captivating bird watching experiences?

Once in the community of La Esmeralda [a five-hour drive northeast of Huatulco, on the border with Veracruz], in two days I observed 30 birds I’ve never seen before.

Cornelio’s reputation has spread to the extent that he sees increasing numbers of serious bird watchers who wish to see the endemic birds of Southern Mexico.

To contact Cornelio, many online links will put you in touch. Facebook, of course, or Tripadvisor, even a Google search for “bird watching Huatulco” will work. His own website is https://birdguidehuatulco.business.site/, or Whatsapp (52) 958-106-5749.

Note: At the time of writing this article, Hurricane Agatha hit the Huatulco area causing severe damage. The town of Copalita was severely hit. Cornelio’s family house was spared, but the homes of many friends and neighbours suffered devastating damage. Cornelio is involved in helping his neighbours out. One way of helping some people in Copalita is to send funds to Cornelio for this purpose.

The last word, of course, goes to the birds. Our relationships to these creatures holds an element of “uplifting of spirits,” somehow more so than with any other creature we see in nature. As Emily Dickinson has said “I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”

Then and Now, A Guidebook to Mexico

By Randy Jackson

When I was in the second grade, my family moved to a small tourist town in British Columbia in 1964. The welcome sign to the town proclaimed “55 Businesses to Serve You”; the running joke was that 50 of them were motels. Such places in those days only saw tourists in the summer months, and most motels sat empty for five or six months each year. The owners were rumoured to be in Mexico for the winter. One of the motels was named “La Siesta” and the sign out front showed a man sleeping up against a cactus with a large sombrero pulled down over his face. When the snow had piled up sufficiently, the only thing showing was the cactus, like a green middle finger, flippin’ the bird at winter.

Growing up, I was aware of a number of people from our little mountain town who ventured to Mexico. These were all overland journeys, seemingly packed with daily adventures. More than the escape from winter, Mexico represented a wildly exotic place. It seemed incongruous that such a different place could be driven to. And in keeping with the 1970’s, what my friends and I came to see as something we had to do in life, was to explore Mexico in a campervan. While still teenagers, some of my friends had already done just that. It took me a bit longer.

Of course this urge of young adults seeking adventure and exploration beyond their own familiar world was not new. The “Grand Tour” of Europe taken by young aristocrats dates back to the 17th century. By the 1970s this luxury became available to the burgeoning group of middle-class youth, the Baby Boomers. They took up independent budget travel in large numbers. In Europe this overland youth exploration route came to be called “The Hippy Trail,” which ran from Europe through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan to India. The comparable route in North America became known as “The Gringo Trail.” Although this “trail” stretches all the way to the tip of South America, for a lot of us wistful youth of the 70s, the destination was Mexico.

While my Mexico dreams were still formulating in the snows of British Columbia, Carl Franz and Lorena Havens had been exploring Mexico on the cheap since the 60s. Their meeting in San Miguel with John Muir (no, not THAT John Muir), who had successfully published the book How to keep your Volkswagen Alive in 1969 (various editions had co-authors), convinced Frans and Havens to publish The People’s Guide to Mexico. The first edition came out in 1972.

My copy is the 13th edition – 2006 (as I said, it took me a bit longer). This book certainly fueled my notion of an exotic land crying out for exploration. But it meant more. By the time I got to it, the book was a cultural reference to a time and place, a quintessential expression of the youth of the baby boomer years that still resides in the neurological stalactites of my personality cave. To quote the authors directly:

One of the main purposes of this book is to show the traveler how to accept, as calmly as possible, the sights and experiences of a strange place.

This “strange place” is probably intended to mean any place that is unfamiliar. But Mexico is the unique tableau on which such a laid-back, hippy-dippy, humorous expression of time and place shines through. Mexico’s cultural strengths and quirkiness enable this guide book to stand up against the passing decades. Where else, for example, would a story of policemen stopping someone to syphon gas from their vehicle so they could get to a gas station (and offer to pay for it), resonate – besides in Mexico? Or the advice to clear out a bug stuck in your ear by adding a little tequila.

More than a guide to Mexico, this book captures the energy of the coming-of-age youth of the 60s and 70s who travelled to Mexico on the cheap, seeking their own versions of freedom and independence. That energy wave echoed along a far-away valley in British Columbia, where I heard it rattle the windows of those closed motels. Of course, this group of travellers that I so desired to join back then, were but one of many different groups of migrants and tourists over the ages seeking something in Mexico. Independent travel in Mexico still requires that attitude of calm acceptance of things that come your way. Mexico, then as now, isn’t as easily anticipated as, say, Singapore or Denmark. For good or bad, Mexico leaves a mark.

I’m still connected to this little mountain town my family moved to in the 1960s. Needless to say things have changed. Motels now receive tourists throughout the year. This modern and charming village has its own library, and their catalogue will soon include The People’s Guide to Mexico. I will donate my copy in the hopes that it will fuel the aspirations of future visitors to Mexico.

Swimming The Bays Of Huatulco

By Randy Jackson

Here’s a question for people familiar with Huatulco: How many of the nine bays of Huatulco can you name (without googleandolo)? I conducted a non-random, non-representative survey amongst friends and acquaintances, and came up with a range of between 2 and 7. That’s OK. I wasn’t any better at it until undertaking a fun project with my friend John this season, to swim across each of the nine bays of Huatulco. There is nothing like direct experience as a teacher, as I can now name all nine bays.

But far more important than mastering a list of names, swimming each of the bays means having an experience with the bays in a personal way. It’s like the difference between knowing the name of a particular mountain, and having climbed it. What follows is some information about each of the “official” nine Bahías de Huatulco, and a little about our experience of swimming each of them in the winter of 2022. (NB: The order of the bays is by the dates we swam them, not the geographical order).

Órgano (January 14):

For me the memory of our swim at El Órgano is the “ghost body.” I saw something in the water, floating about 5 feet below the surface. Its shape and colour, obscured by my swim goggles and the water, caused my brain to fire-up an image of a body seemingly suspended in the water. Our brains do that. They instantly form a reality influenced by subconscious expectations. On a deserted bay on the coast of Mexico there is always some unconscious trepidation about swimming out into the Pacific. And when you see something brown in the shape of a leg, calf and foot – well, it stops a fellah cold. Freud and Jung both believed that dreams had equal impact to waking experiences. I wonder if at some advanced age, years from now in a nursing home, whether my remembered reality of the swim at Órgano will come back: The image of a ghost body, or the realisation after investigating, that it was a cloud of brownish algae-like substance, surprisingly clustered in the shape of a human leg.

The walk to the trailhead for Bahía del Órgano from the Hotel Binniguenda in Santa Cruz takes about 25 minutes. Once on the forested trail, it takes an additional 10 minutes to walk to the beach. Our swim at Órgano was out to a point of rock on the right side facing the bay, then across the bay to the roped off swim/snorkel area, then back to the beach. Swim distance, approximately 500 metres (half a kilometer).

Maguey (January 21):

Back in the day before Huatulco tourism development, Bahía Maguey was enclosed by lush vegetation stretching across its mouth. People could only access the bay with a smaller boat. There is also reported to be a “secret” cave, only accessible underwater. The cave was at one time rumoured to be a hiding place for pirates. I wonder though, how did the pirates know about the cave if it was behind the reeds and under water? However, neither reeds nor diving pirates impeded our progress as we swam across the bay and back again, a swim of about 600 metres.

Also relevant to both Órgano and Maguey is a news story (March 2021) that FONATUR had purchased back these two bays from Fernando Chico Pardo (Chairman of the ASUR group). Pardo had purchased this land for development in 2011. The land is zoned for hotel and mixed commercial use, but no development had begun (and presumably no development had even been proposed). I guess the “For Sale” sign is back up on the beaches.

Chahué (January 28):

In The Edge of Enchantment: Sovereignty and Ceremony in Huatulco, Mexico, author Alicia Maria Gonzalez notes that Bahía Chahué was an alligator-infested marshland up until the FONATUR development. The sand, gravel and rock from nearby construction was used to fill the marsh and create a lovely beach with a lifeguard, public washrooms (5 pesos), and showers (10 pesos). Caution is advised at Chahué for anyone not comfortable in the water. The beach descends quickly below the water and waves crash near to shore. There are occasional rip tides. Chahué is less sheltered than other Huatulco bays so there are often modest waves. These sea swells were moderate, in fact fun, as we swam across the bay and back. The bay is about 400 metres across at the breakwater, so about an 800-metre) swim.

Cacaluta (February 4):

The original name of this bay was Cacalotepec, translated as “the hill of crows.” To get to Bahía de Cacaluta, one drives or walks 5 kilometres from the Binniguenda hotel, passing beyond Maguey, to get to the trailhead. It is then a 20-minute walk along a maintained trail. Part of the trail is along a boardwalk with two viewpoints overlooking what in February was a dried-up wetland – so dry in fact that even the grass growing where the marsh used to be has turned brown. We may need the help of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, and the rainy season to replenish this (and other) marshlands.

Cacaluta Bay has two beaches shaped like side-by-side smiles. There is a small spit of land separating the smiles, and this point is closest to the rock island dominating the mouth of the bay. From that point, we swam across to the island, then across its rocky frontage (no beach), inside the roped-off snorkel/scuba diving area. We then closed the triangle by swimming back to our starting point, about 700 metres.

San Agustín (February 11):

It was about 10:30 in the morning as we wound our way along the gravel road (half hour drive), to access Bahía San Agustín from Highway 200. We followed a convoy of five large tourists buses on the way in. Our beach restaurant waiter at San Agustín, Cristian, thought there were about forty restaurants lining this bay. I didn’t count, but there certainly are a whole lot of them.

A central attraction at San Agustín is the coral reef located close to shore, in shallow water, and is more or less at the centre of the bay. The roped-off swimming and snorkelling area includes the coral reef and a rocky outcrop which is to the right while facing the sea. The boat access to the shore is on either side of this snorkel area.

My favourite part of Huatulco bay swimming is crossing over a coral reef. Not only for the underwater eye-candy this provides, but it also allows for a sense of movement not normally experienced in open water swimming. So even we slow swimmers feel as if we’re “ripping” when crossing over a reef. We did just that at San Agustín, but mostly we swam around the reef following the buoys along the outer edge of it, and then back, an estimated swim distance of 900 metres.

Conejos (February 18):

Some long-time visitors and residents might remember Bahía Conejos before the all-inclusive resort hotel Secrets opened in 2010. There used to be a walking trail, now fenced off, that led down to the beach and a restaurant run by local fishermen. Neither the trail nor the restaurant survived the arrival of Secrets and the subsequent fencing off of the adjacent property by the Melia Hotel chain.

Melia had announced in 2014 it would build a 500-room resort hotel on Conejos – it would have been located just east of Secrets, but as of yet, nothing but the fence and a security guard occupy the site. However, there is another trail down to Conejos west of Secrets, and two local restaurants on the beach.

Thanks to our swim quest, we rediscovered Conejos, and enjoyed the bay and beach from one of the restaurants. The trail access has a handmade sign for Conejos Bay just before arriving at the Secrets resort, about a 7 kilometre drive from Tangolunda. Conejos has the unique feature of a rock outcropping that partitions off a part of the bay. This spot is where the trail leads, and where the two restaurants are located. There is a slightly elevated, full view of the entire bay and beach access from this spot. The rock outcrop serves to screen the view of the resort leaving anyone at the restaurants with the illusion of a lovely undeveloped bay on the Oaxacan coast. In addition, while we were there for several hours, very few people from the resort ventured out onto the beach, solidifying this perspective.

Our swim was straight across from the two ends of the curved bay and back, about 650 metres in all.

Tangolunda (February 25):

Being a foreigner of the snowbird variety, with ten or more winters in Huatulco, it’s funny how much of an outsider I still felt at the resort-lined Bahía Tangolunda (“pretty woman”) bay. Yet for thousands of tourists each year, the view of this bay is likely what they take home as a memory of Huatulco. It’s a beautiful bay, in a resort-esque sort of way. The sandy curve of the bay is framed on one side by the impressive and ordered look of the reddish-orange Las Brisas hotel complex, and on the other side by mansions of Balcones de Tangolunda peeking out on the rocky cliffs.

Getting to the beach I couldn’t help feeling as if we were sneaking onto the king’s estate to poach deer. The public access is from the campground (parking 10 pesos). From here you walk along the chain-link fence of the golf course. The trail is strewn with tires and broken sand bags, placed there when the area was a bog. In February, of course, it’s bone dry. The walk is 3 or 4 minutes to the beach.

The Chontal name for this bay was tecualo, the place of rocks. We found this to be an apt description. The bay itself boasts prominent rocky islands, but there are also rocky mounds near the surface of the bay, cordoned off inside the swim areas. There are two buoy-lined swim areas, one in front of the Barcelo, the other in front of the Dreams resort. There is boat and jetski access between these two roped off areas.

We swam out and along one side of the Barcelo swim area, then further out to a point on the rocky island closest to the shore. From this rocky point we could see there was a line of rocks behind the island stretching out seaward. There is a break in the rocks about 10 metres wide, and through this break we could see the beach in front of Dreams (Camino Real Zaashila has its own cove separated by a rocky outcrop from the Dreams Resort.) We swam through this break in the rocks and across to the swim area in front of Dreams. Then back across the front of the bay to our starting point. This swim route was our longest swim in our swim-the-bays project – the full loop was about 1 kilometer.

Chachacual Bay (March 4):

Of all the nine bays of Huatulco, Bahía Chachacual takes the most effort to get to. It is accessible only by boat. We rented a lancha at San Agustín for the 20-minute boat ride to Chachacual. As you enter the bay by boat, the long playa Chachacual is on the left, stretching across most of the bay. To the right, is a separate cove known as Playa La India. This beach, often touted as a remote idyllic spot, was partially lined with beach umbrellas and tables. There was a beverage service. A lovely spot with boats anchored in the cove, shallow waters, and a nice beach, Playa La India was the end point of our cross-bay swim.

We jumped off the boat at the entrance to Chachacual bay, opposite Playa La India, where there was a small roped off snorkel or dive area along the rocks. From there we picked a large boat anchored at La India as our line of sight and began our swim. For this swim, John and I had company. John’s niece, Schuyler, an experienced open-water swimmer, joined us for the swim; John’s wife Deborah and her sister Priscilla were the boat spotter crew as we swam across the deep waters of the bay. Our swim distance at this, our final bay, was about 900 metres.

Santa Cruz:

Bahía de Santa Cruz sees the most open-water swimmers. Each morning between about 6:30 and 8:30, there are a fair number of regular swimmers. Besides the ease of access for most Huatulqueños, there are markers for the different swimming abilities. From the beach looking seaward, there are some green buoys that can be used as swim objectives. The first green buoy, referred to by the regular morning swimmers as “El Primero,” is at the end of the cruise ship pier. The distance out and back is about 700 metres. The next buoy further out is at the entrance to La Entrega (round-trip, about 1,500 metres). Most of the longer distance swimmers, if going this far, swim to the beach at Entrega. The Entrega beach is approximately 1 kilometre in each direction from the Santa Cruz beach.

John and I separately do a fitness swim at Santa Cruz each week, so we didn’t include it in “Swimming The Bays Of Huatulco” project.

In all, a fun and interesting project for John and me this season. The swim across each of the nine bays of Huatulco has enhanced our experience of Huatulco overall, and provided us with unique experiences of each of these lovely bays. There will be another swim project for us next season in Huatulco. I hope the above descriptions and swim information are useful and encourage other open-water swimmers to explore Las Bahías de Huatulco.

Randy Jackson: box95jackson@gmail.com

Private Medical Services in Huatulco

By Randy Jackson

Like so many regular winter visitors to Huatulco, I’ve strolled countless times along the sidewalks and the tree-lined pedestrian walkway of Boulevard Chahue. Shopping and errands so often have my sandaled feet swishing me along while taxis toot, traffic zips, and grackles whistle and “eak.” Sometimes though, a shadow crosses this lighthearted perambulation when I pass the IMSS hospital (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social). At such times I am reminded of the phrase, “whistling past the graveyard.”

No doubt this phrase can be interpreted in different ways. For me the meaning is a humorous depiction of a particular human condition – that of nervously ignoring the inevitable. The thing I have been nervously ignoring for too long is the inevitable need of having to use medical services here. But finally, I have resisted the gravitational pull of procrastination, and set out to obtain the information I would need to access medical services in Huatulco.

More specifically, I am interested in private medical services in Huatulco. Mexico has public health services, like the IMSS social insurance system and its hospitals, but for foreigners (like me), it is the private medical services you would need to access. I am happy to share the results of my investigation, which, to be clear, is not a comprehensive review of the private medical services in Huatulco, but rather one person’s findings when seeking to answer three questions:

(1) What are some of the private medical facilities available?
(2) How does one access private medical services?
(3) What do you do in a medical emergency?

Private Medical Facilities and Services – Clinics:

There are numerous private medical clinics in Huatulco. At the most basic level, some pharmacies have a doctor available for consultation. A consultation by a physician at one of these pharmacies costs 50 pesos. There are other charges if needed, like to have your blood pressure taken (20 pesos), or to have your ears cleaned (55 pesos). As inexpensive as these consultations are, I think it is safe to say they do not represent the best of what Mexican medical schools can produce. There is a high turnover of doctors at these locations, and I understand that part of their remuneration is a commission on prescriptions, which typically includes vitamins. Do not expect that English will be spoken at these facilities.

Another private clinic I noticed in my investigation was Medico en Casa. These are clinics where you call a central number (call center), or use their website (contact details below) and set up an appointment to meet a doctor at one of the clinic locations, or have the doctor come to your home (as any doctor at any clinic will). These clinics are part of the Hospital San Miguel enterprise, discussed below.

There are numerous stand-alone private medical clinics around Huatulco. As private medicine is a competitive business, however, clinics come and go. One example is the very modern looking Clínica Médica Integral (across from Casa Pepe), which has closed, after having only been open for business for six months.

I interviewed doctors at two private clinics that have been in Huatulco for some years, Dr. Ricardo Antonio Carrillo at Medico Quirúrgica Huatulco, and Dr. Angel Juárez at Clínica del Ángel (contact details below). One question I posed to each of them: if they would recommend tourists/snowbirds establish themselves as clients with their clinics for easier future access. In both cases the response was, “No es necesario.” Keep in mind the vast majority of foreigners will have, and want to have, primary medical care in their home countries. So most doctor visits here are for more urgent medical needs, rather than longer term health management.

Private Medical Facilities and Services – Hospitals:

In Huatulco, all private hospitals are also clinics, and some private clinics are also hospitals. By this I mean, at the two private hospitals I investigated, they are also set up for general clinical consultation. They advertise this, and have access to a full range of specialists that can be seen there. In the case of Dr. Carrillo at Medico Quirúrgica, he has an operating room and a two-room hospital with 24/7 care when required.

There are two more traditional hospitals, which from my perspective are fully equipped medical facilities, open 24/7, with a doctor on the premises and the ability to handle medical emergencies or medical procedures at any time. These are Centro Médico Oromed Huatulco and Clínica Hospitalaria San Miguel (contact details below). It should be noted that although there is emergency care at both of these hospitals, as of this date, there is no intensive care unit (ICU) at any facility in Huatulco (private or public). However this will apparently be addressed. Oromed will have their ICU completed in 2022, and San Miguel is planning to build one.

Medical Specialists

Huatulco is well served by a wide range of medical specialists operating privately. Of note; although many specialists have full time practices here, others visit Huatulco to see patients on a regular basis. Although no referral is necessary, an appointment with a specialist is most easily set up through a clinic or hospital. To get a sense of the breadth of the specializations available in Huatulco, here is a partial list of the specialists I have seen listed at Clínica del Ángel and Oromed:

Physiotherapy, radiology, plastic surgery, pediatrics, neurology, gastroenterology, cardiology, urology, orthopedic surgery, gynecology

How to Access Private Medical Services

Excluding the walk-in pharmacy consultations, you need to phone first for an appointment to access a private medical clinic. Normally you can make an appointment for the same day, or the doctor will come to your home for a higher fee. At the two private hospitals, you can just show up and wait to see a doctor.

There are, of course, a number of other clinics throughout La Crucecita and Santa Cruz. There are online directories of medical facilities in Huatulco, although they are not necessarily complete or up to date; in general, these sites will let you click through to the web page of the facilities they list.

Guia Medical: http://www.guiamedical.com
Directorios Mexico: http://www.directoriosmexico.net

Here is the contact information for the clinics and hospitals I visited.

Dr. Ricardo Carrillo, Medico Quirúrgica Huatulco: This is a clinic with an operating room and hospital rooms available as needed.
Phone: 958-587-6055 (Ph/Whatsapp); receptionist: 958-587-0600
Location: Sabali 403, La Crucecita
Language: English and Spanish
Fees: Consultation fee: $100 USD at clinic, $150 USD home visit, $250 USD home night visit. Credit cards accepted.

Dr. Angel Juárez, Clínica del Ángel: This clinic has a number of doctors and consultations are available with numerous specialists.
Phone: 958-587-1630 (landline); emergencies: 229-109-8375 (Ph/Whatsapp); receptionist: 958-109-6721
Location: on Blvd Chahue across from Cruz Roja).
Website: http://www.medicadelangel.com (The website lists all medical specialties.)
Language: Dr. Juárez speaks English; doctors or specialists with the clinic may or may not speak English.
Fees: A standard consultation fee is 500 pesos at the clinic, 1,000 pesos for a home visit. Credit cards accepted.

Medico en Casa: This is a call center for medical referrals operated by the San Miguel clinic. Once you have made contact, you ask to see a doctor at one of the clinic locations (Santa Cruz, San Miguel Hospital [Sector I], , or Sectors U2 or H3), or have the doctor come to your home.
Phone: 958-117-4029, 958-186-4825
Facebook Page: medicoencasaintegral
Language: The call center has English speakers available, although you will probably have to wait on hold for English service (my experience).
Fees: A standard consultation fee is 400 pesos, although it will vary depending on location. Credit cards accepted.

Centro Médico Oromed Huatulco: A full-service clinic and hospital with emergency service and a doctor and nurse on staff 24/7. X-Ray, Laboratory, Pharmacy, Operating Room, full list of consulting specialists. All doctors and a paramedic I interviewed recommended Oromed as their preferred private hospital for Huatulco because it has the highest standards of professional medical services.
Phone: 958-121-4104 (Ph/Whatsapp)
Location: Behind Marina Park Plaza in Chahue near the Municipal building
http://www.oromed.com.mx
Languages: Some English is spoken, depending on the person you are dealing with.
Fees: A standard clinical consultation is 500 pesos. There are fees for all additional services. Credit cards are accepted.

Clínica Hospitalaria San Miguel: A full-service clinic and hospital with emergency service and a doctor and nurse on staff 24/7. X-Ray, Laboratory, Pharmacy, Operating Room, full list of consulting specialists.
Phone: 958-112-1473 (Ph/Whatsapp)
Location: Blvd Chahue, turn at Goodyear Tire, go two blocks
http://www.clinicahospitalariasanmiguel.com
Languages: Some English is spoken, depending on the person you are dealing with.
Fees: A standard clinical consultation is 500 Pesos. There are fees for all additional services. Credit cards are accepted.

What to Do in a Medical Emergency

Huatulco has a 911 emergency call service. There is a call center for the coastal area of Oaxaca, including Huatulco. Do not expect that any English will be spoken by the call center operator. In my interviews with doctors, I was told that a 911 response is slow (although ‘slow’ was not quantified).

As a result, I personally would prioritize my response in this order:

FIRST: If at all possible, drive the patient or get a cab to Centro Médico Oromed Huatulco.

SECOND: Call a physician for an emergency home visit. The physician will assess the situation and arrange an ambulance if required.

THIRD: Call 911, when the ambulance arrives tell the paramedic to go to Oromed Hospital.

Note: Cruz Roja is a private, or at least it is not part of the public, medical service in Huatulco (and in Mexico overall). They can be accessed by phoning 911 or directly at 958-587-1188. Do not expect any English will be spoken. Cruz Roja responds to about 25 – 30 calls a month in Huatulco. They have 4 ambulances, a private, fee-for-services clinic, and a doctor on call. Cruz Roja is staffed 24/7 by volunteer, fully qualified paramedics. There is no cost for ambulance emergency response with a paramedic. You will be taken to the hospital of your choice.

Other Notes on Private Medical Services in Huatulco

Travel Insurance: As of March 2022, there doesn’t seem to be any private medical service in Huatulco that would be paid directly by foreign travel insurance companies. In my case, with travel medical insurance purchased in Canada, I could be reimbursed for my out-of-pocket medical costs IF I had first phoned the 1-800 number to clear the expense with the insurance company. I would then have to submit a receipt to the insurance company for reimbursement.

Medical Evacuation Insurance: Available for Huatulco through commercial providers. You would need to make these arrangements in advance of any emergency; policies are complicated, some do not offer much, and there can be age restrictions. Research required.

Air Ambulance Service: Available in Huatulco. It is arranged by a doctor. Both Dr. Carrillo and Dr. Juárez have arranged air ambulance transfers. The cost for an air ambulance to Mexico City – where there are world class private hospitals – is currently about $10,000 USD. It is my understanding that the cost for an air ambulance, i.e., medical evacuation, to the USA or Canada would be substantially higher, in the $50-60,000 USD range. The ambulance transfer cost to the Huatulco airport is currently 5,000 pesos. There will also be a cost for the doctor to arrange the transfer.

Thinking Ahead: Before visiting a doctor, I would recommend that you write down the Spanish words for the symptoms experienced. Also (you might want to practice this), using Google translate on your phone, you can touch the microphone symbol and speak in English – this will be translated to Spanish text.

In summary, I have found that Huatulco has private medical services for substantially all medical needs. Also, there is no shortage of capacity, so the services can be accessed with little or no waiting (remember to always call first). We have all heard stories from the United States of outrageous hospital charges, but that is not the case in Huatulco or in Mexico overall. Costs for virtually any private medical service are most likely easily affordable for most foreigners visiting Huatulco.

On Sand and the Making of Castles

By Randy Jackson

To build a snow fort or sand castle? That is the (real) question. At this time of year, some northerners enjoying Huatulco might be wondering if their snow-fort building skills are transferable to constructing a sand castle. The short answer is no. But the desire to create an objet d’art out of something you try not to track in the house shows the right attitude. To build a moderately impressive sand castle involves five simple steps following the acronym LWBSF, and remembered by the phrase: Leave Winter Before Soul Freezes. Just two pieces of equipment are needed: A good sized bucket for hauling water, and something to sculpt with.

LOCATION: Choose a location. First choose a beach, one of the bays of Huatulco based on the type of sand. The more powdery the sand, the better it will compact for a lasting structure. Grainy beaches like Cacaluta are not good for sand castles. Once on the beach, choose the location of the castle itself. A place where the sand is moist below the surface is best. The farther from the water, the longer the water-hauling trips. And, of course, you want a spot above the high tide line.

Sand: As an avid hiker in the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes stand on some majestic rocky peak and grapple with the time scale it would take for the rock beneath my boots to become sand on a beach. It will, eventually. Sand is ground or eroded rock. Ocean waves do some of the work bashing against rocky shores, but streams bring most beach sand from rocky areas to rivers, then to oceans, where currents and tides deposit the granules back on land to make a sandy beach. Once a granule is chipped off a rock somewhere on a continent, it takes about one million years to move that granule each 100 miles along waterways. Think of the eons of time we could save if we all brought a jar of sand down on the plane.

WET DOWN THE AREA: Often a good location for a sand castle is closer to a beach restaurant where beverages can be supplied to the castle builder, but this usually means the sand is dry. Mark out a six-foot square with your foot. Then haul buckets of water up to this spot to soak the sand at least to the depth of one foot.

Sand: Not all sand is the same – there are some differences in the sand even among the bays of Huatulco. Around the world, sand comes in six different colours: white, grey, black, pink, green (yes, green – the most famous is a green beach in Hawaii), and the most common, golden or brown. Consistency of the grains also varies widely. Desert sand differs from beach sand. Beach sand and sand mined from river areas is in great demand, whereas desert sand has few uses. The issue with desert sand is that the grains of sand journey to the desert overland, blown by the wind. This makes the desert sand grains smooth and rounded, and rounded grains don’t bind well even in concrete. It’s the angular grains delivered through rivers and oceans that allow for bonding between grains and allows for compaction. Dubai, for example, has imported millions of tons of sand from Australia to build their new islands for condo towers. Their own nearby desert sand is of no use.

BUILD A VOLCANO: When the sand in your spot is sufficiently soaked, build a base in the shape of a volcano. Dig the sand up around the sides of a base about three feet across and keep piling it on, up to a height of about three feet. Keep flattening the top as you go. Once the sand volcano is high enough, scoop a crater out of the flattened top.

Sand: Sand is the second most-consumed natural resource on the planet, right after water. Cement is by far the biggest use for sand. But there are other substantial uses as well. Asphalt, glass and computer chips use significant quantities of sand. Civilization as we know it could not exist without the buildings, roads, and computer chips that are made from sand. Although in geological time, sand is a renewable resource, on a human timescale sand is a limited resource.

Demand for sand is outstripping supply. Most Southeast Asian countries have banned or restricted the export of sand. Sand mining has completely obliterated at least two dozen islands in Indonesia since 2005. The main culprit – Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer. Singapore wants to make more land, and sand is the best material for that. The Times of India has reported that the Illegal sand trade amounts to $2.3 billion per year. There have been hundreds of killings between “Sand Mafias” in India. Even beaches themselves are a source of demand for sand. The US Geological Survey estimated that two thirds of Southern California beaches may be gone by 2100 – only 80 years down the road. Moreover, virtually all of California’s water flows into the ocean are dammed and used upstream. This means the natural erosion of beaches is outstripping the natural sources of supply.

Remember in the movie, The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) says to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), “I just have one word for you – plastics”? He could have said “Sand.”

SOAK THE VOLCANO: Haul more water and pour it slowly into the crater on top of your sand volcano. Physics experiments have shown the optimum strength in sand structures has the ratio of eight parts sand to one part of water. Keep patting the sides of the volcano. Haul sufficient water until the flattened top of the volcano seems solid when you push down on it. Once this is done, flatten the top out further so it no longer looks as much like a volcano. You will now have the base of your sand castle, and it should last for more than a day.

Sand: Given sufficient geological time, with the gradual erosion of continental mountains into sand, will the earth one day be a planet of sand, as in the book/movie Dune? No: Very slooooooowly, rock makes sand, and sand eventually makes new rock. Sand settles in certain places where winds and currents leaves it. More gets added, and more and more, and the weight of the sand compacts and pushes the sand deeper and deeper into the earth. Pressure, temperature, and chemical reactions eventually transform sand into sedimentary rock. Yada yada … , and eventually tectonic plates push that sand-made-rock up to form new mountain ranges.

FREEHAND SCULPTURE: Here is where you need a wood sculpting tool. A wooden ruler is ideal, although one of the wooden book markers that vendors pedddle on the beach works OK, too. Begin by squaring out the sides of your flattened sand volcano. Next, scoop sand into your bucket, about 1/3rd full. Add to that enough water to easily cover the sand and let the sand settle into the bottom, below the surface of the water. After a minute or so, scoop out a handful of wet sand from the bucket and work it between your hands until enough water is pressed out to make a mucky ball. Place the ball on the top of your sand base, near the edge, making small piles about eight inches high. Each pile you make will become your castle turrets.

Once your blobs have been arranged all around the edge, use your sculpting tool to carve the sides into circular turrets. Notches can be carefully carved out of the turret tops. Use your sculpting tool to make a brick looking crosshatch in the turrets and the base of the castle. Use the soaked sand to add other features like walls between the turrets and a drawbridge.

Knowing a bit about sand makes the construction of a sand castle a kind of celebration. Celebrating that in the face of geological forces and time scales beyond our comprehension, we are here on a beach, making something from a substance the earth itself uses like playdough. True, our structure lasts a day, mountain ranges somewhat longer. Yet, both are temporary, on different time scales. But then again, who tries to contemplate all that when the air is warm, the waves are washing ashore, and you’ve built an outdoor structure without having to wear your snowsuit!

National Identity and the Mexican Revolution

By Randy Jackson

One hundred years separated Mexico’s War of Independence and the Mexican Revolution. The War of Independence (1810 – 1821) may have severed Spanish European rule from New Spain, but it left this new country of Mexico to sort through the competing power structures left behind. These were the Catholic Church; the privileged economic structure of the encomiendas (estates owned by the descendants of the conquistadores); and the indigenous and mixed-race underclass majority that had been cemented in poverty since the time of the conquest. These grappling power structures, along with foreign invasions, beset Mexico with a century of wars, coup d’etats, uprisings, and assassinations.

These blood-soaked events of the 19th century led to the 20th-century Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920), which hammered out a constitution and a process of governance in 1917. But only a sense of national identity could hold these new structures in place. For this we turn to the mightier pen, to the artists, the poets and philosophers. Around the time of the Mexican Revolution, there was a diverse group of artists, professors and students called Ateneo de la Juventud Mexicana (Mexican academic youth group). This group stood for (among other reforms) the value of a Mexican identity against the “Ideals” of President Porfirio Díaz, who saw Europe and America as ideals for a future Mexico.

José Vasconcelos Calderón, a philosopher and writer (later politician) was a member of this group. One influence on Vasconcelos was the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó. Rodó argued against what he called “Nordomanía,” the influence of Yankee materialism and the cultural megaphone of the United States. Rodó saw this influence as a threat that would drown out the regional identities of Latin America. For a century, Latin American philosophers were aware of the decline of the Catholic Spanish empire and the ascendency of the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant paradigm. Finding a foothold of identity amid this cultural erosion was something that Vasconcelos tried to establish for Mexico.

Beyond the support for unique Mexican and Latin American identities, Vasconcelos was philosophically opposed to Social Darwinism, which proposed the superiority of certain races. This concept was gaining ground in parts of the western world around the time of the Mexican Revolution. In 1925, in response to these ideas and influences, Vasconcelos wrote “La raza cósmica” (“The Cosmic Race”) an essay that became highly influential in Mexican political and sociocultural policies.

In “La raza cósmica,” Vasconcelos looks back to the ancient civilizations of the Americas and the mixing of people following the Spanish conquest, to produce el mestizaje (the mixed race). Vasconcelos writes, “Spanish colonization created mixed races [whereas] the English kept on mixing only with the whites and annihilated the natives.” Vasconcelos proposed that el mestizaje would be a “fifth race” that would hold the best aspects of their various forefathers, and in time would become the universal humanity. This was a message of hope for the people of Mexico at a time when national identity was beginning to be articulated.

Vasconcelos and his work are not without controversy. Modern scholars point out his own period’s racism, which Vasconcelos himself held and displayed in his work. Yet his influence lives on. Under President Álvaro Obregón (1920-24), Vasconcelos was made the head of the Secretariat of Public Education. Along with an expanded budget for education under the Obregón administration, Vasconcelos expanded the public education system, initiating a large number of texts for use in schools.

Vasconcelos’ work on modern Mexican identity influenced many artists and philosophers. His work is said to have direct influence on Octavio Paz’s most famous work, El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude). Under his secretariat, Vasconcelos commissioned artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, to paint the insides of Mexico’s most important public buildings. This gave rise to the Mexican muralist movement.

The Mexican Revolution was an unfortunate protracted civil war with tremendous loss of life. It does, however, mark a turning point in Mexican history and the birth of a unique national identity. Individuals like Vasconcelos contributed to defining the fascinating and tumultuous history of Mexico and initiating the formation of a Mexican national identity.