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B. Traven was long a cult figure by the time I stumbled onto his legendary adventure novels about Mexico when I traveled the gringo trail in the 70s. It seemed everyone on the road in those days had a copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stuffed into their backpack alongside a Spanish-English phrase book.

B. Traven’s books were required reading for anyone traveling south. Most of his novels, written between 1926 and 1952, were set in Mexico. His themes paralleled what was happening in that country during those traumatic, revolutionary times.

The tales were part adventure, part historical fact, couched in fiction, all taking place south of the border in a very different land. Secondly, his Mexico was a place where abandoned gold mines and bandits still existed. His Mexico was peppered with anarchy and rebellion. His Mexico had spice.


Best known to American audiences because of the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven most likely would have remained unknown if John Huston hadn’t turned the iconic greed and gold novel into a silver screen classic starring Humphrey Bogart as down-on-his-luck prospector Fred C. Dobbs.  Two scenes come to mind:  Bogart going mad, and the other sports one of cinema’s immortal lines, shouted by bandits on horseback imitating federales, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”

By the 1930s, Traven’s work was published everywhere else in the world but England and the US, in dozens of languages, but not a word in English until Alfred Knopf republished The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1935. His body of work wasn’t published in the US until the 60s. Today, Traven’s books have been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and are required reading in Mexico’s schools.

Because he lived in Mexico 35 years, Traven’s work evolves the grit and reality of Mexico: He watched his adopted country adapt to a string of dictators and revolutions. His tales dish out depth and emotion, with a sizeable serving of the oppression of the lower classes thrown in.

His epics read as though inspired by stories he could have heard while sitting in some outback cantina in a dusty pueblo anywhere in Mexico; or maybe he drew on his own slices of Mexican life that occurred while living there till his death in 1969. Or his supposed death . . .


At this point, I must explain that B. Traven was as much a character as those he created in his novels.  The jury is still out on his true identity. B. Traven was a pen name. At a Traven conference just 20 years ago at Penn State, scholars still debated what the “B” stood for, and if his nationality was German, English or American.

Traven’s biographers consider several possible identities: Either he was born in Chicago in 1890, to Swedish parents, and spent his youth in Germany where he started writing anarchist literature under the pen name Ret Marut, moving to Mexico in the 20s. Or he was Otto Feige, born to a German pottery worker.  After traveling widely in his youth, he worked as a manual laborer and actor, and then edited an anarchist journal in Germany before heading to Mexico. In the most recent scenario, presented by professor Michael L. Baumann, Traven was neither Marut nor Feige.  Baumann suggests, in his 1997 book, Mr. Traven, I Presume, that Traven could have usurped the real Traven’s identity and continued on with this man’s work, since his German published books were written in two distinct handwritings and full of “Americanisms.” Baumann also asserts that given what background was known of Traven, he should have been a much older man than the corpse claimed to be his after his 1969 death in Mexico.


In his biography, John Huston adds another question mark to the Traven identity search. While filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston invited the author to come to the set, but he declined, sending instead his “agent,” Hal Croves.

“Croves,” Huston wrote, “was a small, thin man with a long nose,” and carried a letter for the director explaining that Traven could not show up; Croves would answer all pertinent questions. “He had a slight accent. It didn’t sound German but certainly European.  I thought he might very well be Traven but out of delicacy, I didn’t ask.” 

It wasn’t until Traven’s death in 1969 when a photo of the author was published that Huston confirmed Croves was, in fact, B. Traven.
On Mexican government immigration documents from the 1930s, Traven claimed to have entered Mexico through Ciudad Juarez in 1914.  He settled first in either Tampico or Chiapas—there are mixed accounts on this—writing stories he sent to German publishers under the name B. Traven.  His first published book was The Death Ship, a story of an American sailor who loses his birth certificate and with it his identity and is forced to take a job shoveling coal on a ship destined to go down for insurance money.

According to one biography, Traven wrote about social justice, cruelty, and greed from the very beginning.  In the 1930s he moved near Acapulco. Around this time his books were banned by the Nazis.  Between 1931 and 1940 he published six of his Mahogany, or Jungle, Series, which included:  The Carreta,  Government, March to Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged and General from the Jungle.

These books chronicled the Mexican Revolution between 1910-1912 and lamented the plight of the indigenous people of Chiapas who worked like slaves in the mahogany forests. In Rebellion of the Hanged, he tells how one man is duped into working in the monteria where mahogany is harvested when his wife becomes ill. Before it’s over, the man’s wife has died but the he has signed a contract with the mill—a deal with the devil.  His struggle to stay alive in hellish conditions is duly recorded in Traven’s prose.
Upon Traven’s death in 1969 his ashes were scattered over Rio Jatate in Chiapas, and his widow, (translator Rosa Elena Lujan) was instructed to reveal that B. Traven was in fact Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago in 1890 and naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1951. However, in a later interview with The New York Times in 1990, his widow stated Traven told her he had been Ret Marut but she could tell no one until after his death due to his fear of extradition to Germany for his anarchist leanings.


Traven’s true identity is not important. He said so himself. But in reading his novels about a very real Mexico, truths are uncovered through his gripping adventure tales.  The original anarchist, it’s easy to see why he was so embraced by the 60s generation.

Who was B. Traven? As he said himself, “My life belongs to me—only my books belong to the public.”  According to his widow, he said, “I am freer than anyone else, free to choose the parents I want, the country I want, the age I want.”

No matter who the real B. Traven was, his works—still relevant decades after publication—speak for the man behind the mystery.

Nancy Drew Author Had Connections to Maya Pyramids and Central America

 Photo from Jennifer Fisher, founder of Nancy Drew Society, of The Secret of the Old Clock

Photo from Jennifer Fisher, founder of Nancy Drew Society, of The Secret of the Old Clock

Who of us girls, as young teens, did not love Nancy Drew? The sleuth with a voracious appetite for getting into scary trouble, being at the center of crime scenes and mysteries? Who taught us how to signal SOS with a tube of lipstick, break out of a window using spike heels, and to always keep an overnight bag in the car, just in case?


For years I thought Carolyn Keene was Nancy's author but later discovered that was a pen name for Mildred Wirt Benson who would write 135 books, and 23 of the first Nancy Drew detective tales that came to shape Nancy's "steely bravery" according to an article by Jennifer Fisher in Zócalo. Benson's image of Nancy would create "the tenacious, bold and independent heroine we have come to know." The real author of our favorite "girl" detective was an Iowa homegrown born in 1905, daughter of a country doctor, and the first student—male or female— to earn a masters degree in Journalism from University of Iowa (later home to the Iowa Writers Workshop). For fifty years Benson worked in journalism when not penning famous mysteries, covering the courthouse beat and crime and corruption at The Toledo Blade and The Toledo Times.


As a child Benson was an avid reader of children's classics. Her first short story, "The Courtesy," appeared in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, and won her second place in a monthly contest. Finding Iowa too dull for a woman with an agenda, she ventured to NYC and landed a job with an icon in publishing, Edward Stratemeyer. Fortune Magazine said of Stratemeyer in 1934, "As oil and gas has its Rockefeller, literature has its Stratemeyer."

Stratemeyer published The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys and famously hired ghost writers for a flat monthly fee. Benson's pen name remained a mystery until the 1970s when researchers discovered Benson was the Oz behind the curtain. During the Great Depression and WWII, parents were candid with their children, according to Fisher's article, and didn't hide life's gravities. Enter Nancy Drew, a new kind of heroine for a new age of young girls. Stratemeyer penned a three-page outline for Benson, and depicted her as an "up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy."


In 1973, Benson wrote an essay about her famous heroine, stating Nancy was treated as an equal by her father and by many in law enforcement and she never gave up when the going got tough. Her spirit struck a chord. Nancy Drew personified "the dream image which exists within most teenagers," Benson said.     According to Fisher's article, this 1930s teen remained culturally relevant for more than 80 years, eve as young women's roles changed dramatically. Mothers and grandmothers passed the books down to their daughters. "Women still tell me how they identified with Nancy Drew and that Nancy Drew gave them confidence to be whatever they wanted to be," Benson told an interviewer in 1999.


But Benson, perhaps, was her own best role model for the very Nancy Drew we all came to love. She trained as a pilot in the 1960s. Traveling solo, she flew down to Guatemala to view ancient Maya pyramid sites. She traipsed through crocodile-infested rivers and hacked her way through jungles with a machete. In a particularly harrowing very Nancy Drew like experience, she was even locked inside a room in Guatemala by locals who thought she knew too much about criminal activity in their town. Channeling Nancy, she overpowered one of her captors and escaped. "Like any good sleuth," Fisher goes on to explain, "she later returned to Guatemala to learn more about what had happened to her."


In the 1990s, twenty years after dedicated Nancy Drew lovers had outed Keene's pen name and id'd Mildred Wirt Benson as Drew's character creator, Benson donated a series of papers she'd written about her heroine, along with her trusty Underwood typewriter used for creating Nancy, to the Smithsonian where it sits to this day. And finally the mystery author got public credit in her native Iowa in 1993 when the University of Iowa had a Nancy Drew Conference. That same year, she was named Person of the Week by ABC's Peter Jennings.


Asked later if she would ever give up writing, Benson said, "The undertaker will have to pry me away from my typewriter." That's pretty much what happened. At 96, in 2002, she was sitting at her trusty Underwood when she died.

Why Did Frida Kahlo Become an Icon

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I wrote for an independent newspaper in the late 70s in a small California college town. As the only woman on the writing staff, early on I wrote a lot of features before my editor had enough faith in me to ask me to report on more relevant issues.

I covered an arts lecture given by a Kahlo authority whose name I no longer recall. That was my introduction to Frida. The lecture also included a slide show of Kahlo’s works. Needless to say I was intrigued, mesmerized, at times startled, by her work. I loved the vibrant colors, her style, the woman (Frida) as center of the universe.

And then there was the Mexico connection: Her flamboyant and colorful clothing, her raven hair parted in the middle, either pulled back in a tight bun or gloriously wild, the artsy jewelry. She appealed to me, in all her gutsy wonder. But I was not alone. She appealed to everyone, though long had she lived in her husband and mentor’s shadow. By the 70s, Frida was breaking out and breaking the mold. She was becoming, dare I say it, as popular as her husband, famed painter, muralist and revolutionary, Diego Rivera.

Frida became an icon because the world was finally ready for her. A strong woman who stood equally with an alpha male, years his junior, but as powerful in her way as he was in his. Rivera had prompted her, mentored her to continue to paint. A star was born. Did she overshadow her husband? Who can determine which painter held more power? That so many Kahlo paintings were self-portraits, that in itself was a symbol of a different spirit. She had been through hell and back (maybe Never back) beginning with suffering through polio and at eighteen, being injured in a trolley accident in Mexico City. She wore a metal body brace her entire life. Her poor tortured frame would not allow her fractured body to push out a baby. And each time she became pregnant, not only did she lose the baby but her body suffered immeasurably due to the added pressure on her lower torso. But that didn’t stop her from portraying her suffering in her artwork, for all the world to see. Her suffering became the gateway to her art.

Though she never carried a child full term, as an artist – she pressed on. Years later, when I owned my bookstore in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, her paintings hung front and center on the walls. My favorite was Frida in the jungle with the monkeys. Love you, Frida. You have been an icon for decades – why? Because you are/were talented, independent, colorful, a genius, and brave. And because you resonated with a spirit that became a universal spirit. Thank you for the beauty and the pain you portrayed, and shared, and were not afraid to share. We love you Frida.

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REVIEW: "Jungle of Stone: Stephens and Catherwood Take the Pyramids" by William Carlsen

In 1839 an energetic American writer and a talented British artist, adventurers to the core, braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras and became the first English speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only as Maya.

Though a lawyer by profession, John Lloyd Stephens fell hard for archeology after a two-year sabbatical took him to Europe and the Mediterranean in the mid-1830s. After trekking through deserts and ancient pyramid sites he came away fueled with a desire for more of the same. Simultaneously he discovered he could write and was dubbed “the American traveler” after he penned his first best seller about Egypt’s pyramids, the Nile, Petra and the Holy Land.

British artist Frederick Catherwood gained his footing during the “Egyptomania” craze that hit London in the 1820s. A bit older than Stephens, he reached Egypt and the Nile in 1823 and discovered he had an uncanny ability to portray ancient monuments and archeological digs with great accuracy. Egypt was the start of an odyssey that in the end would take him to Copán and Palenque, Uxmal, Labná, Chichén Itzá and beyond.


Serendipity brought the adventurers together in London, and shortly afterwards Stephens received a special ambassadorship to Central America from President Martin Van Buren to negotiate treaties with several Latin America countries. Stephens immediately contacted Catherwood and asked him to come along for the ride. After political issues were settled, they’d go exploring for ancient ruins.

The duo headed south and after an intense journey through war torn Guatemala and Honduras, Stephens finished what he could of his diplomatic workload. It was time for exploration with their first destination Copán. Spurred on by a letter written to the Spanish king about ancient sites with large stone structures from an explorer named Deigo Garcia de Palacio three hundred years earlier, Stephens and Catherwood followed the trail of Central American patriot Colonel Juan Galindo. Galindo had discovered the archived letter and traveled to both Palenque and Copán in 1834. Stephens and Catherwood would arrive five years later after pouring over sketchy site coordinates from Galindo’s report made to higher-ups.


Galindo believed whoever built these stone monuments had been an advanced civilization, and the artisans who created the works did so without iron tools. The monuments were covered in hieroglyphics and he conceived it was phonetic writing, which proved accurate, though it would take more than a hundred years to confirm his theory. He believed the site was the seat of a great power, a large population and a people advanced in the arts. The site had a grand plaza that could compete with the coloseum of Rome, he said. He emphasized that local inhabitants had little knowledge of the site’s history. And unbelievably, the account that pushed Galindo to explore Copán had accumulated dust in the archives of a Spanish court for more than three centuries. This mysterious and intriguing report was the reason Stephens and Catherwood found themselves in the depths of a Honduran jungle.

Because terrain in southern Mexico, western Guatemala and Honduras is a thick tangle of vegetation filled with rain forests and swamps, parts of the land were a mystery even to the Maya who lived there. Locals had no explanation for the stone blocks and imposing structures and knew nothing of their creators. So dense was the jungle that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within one hundred miles of Palenque in the early 1500s, never learning how near he was to a massive pyramid site. (The classic Maya collapse occurred around 900 AD).


Galindo’s revolutionary view of an ancient sophisticated civilization with no ties to their Northern European brethren fell on deaf ears. Early explorers of Palenque in 1787 insisted it had classical Roman and Greek influences, speculating somehow one of these cultures had crossed the Atlantic, conquered the native locals, built the structures, never to be seen again. Another explorer said it had to be the work of the Lost Tribe of Israel’s doing, underscoring how hesitant each and every western explorer who came in contact with the Maya was to give an advanced indigenous culture its due.

These discoveries continued to baffle western intellects and religious scholars alike. The existence of vast sophisticated cities hidden in the middle of Central American jungles threatened the biblical order of the known world. Where did these people come from and how old were their cities? One explorer, a crazy outlier named “Count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, made an accidentally correct claim when he stated Uxmal was at least one thousand years old, basing his claim on the concentric tree circles he counted from a tree that implanted itself in the building’s entryway after it was already in ruins.

It would take Stephens and Catherwood, seasoned with their old world explorations, to examine the evidence at the sites and forge a new, correct narrative.


 Though Stephens’ written descriptions of the sites were detailed and informative, it was Catherwood’s otherworldly sketches that would forever change the way the world viewed the mysterious, previously unknown Maya culture. On their first week at Copán, Catherwood would toss out countless attempts at capturing the Maya stelae (stones with hieroglyphs) that he found. At first his western mind could simply not contemplate, then draw, what he was seeing. To him, a western European, the gigantic Copán sculptures, some four to five meters high, were so profoundly different than the antiquities of the mideast that he had a difficult time rendering them. The two veteran travelers who had toured the wonders of Egypt knew they were in the cross hairs of an incredibly advanced civilization and they were now on “new ground” as Stephens wrote later in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, his best seller about the Maya world.

To capture the soul of the sculptures and to assist himself in so doing, Catherwood took photos with his Camera Lucida, the precursor to a modern camera, then from those drawings, he attempted to re-draw what he saw. Though it took him many tries, a slight shift in his perspective broke through and with powerful persistence, he finally got it right. He filled page after page with drawings rich in detail of the unfathomable hieroglyphics, monuments, sculptings. His drawings would prove so accurate that long into the future, archeologists would be able to read them when they finally broke the Maya code in 1976 at the famous Palenque Round Table.

But at the time, to convince an uncertain world of what they were seeing, it would take not only the stark beauty of Catherwood’s detailed drawings to put Copán, Palenque and other Maya sites on the map, it would also take Stephens’ energetic and romantic prose to seal the deal.

Copán and Palenque were just the beginning of Stephens and Catherwood’s Maya explorations. They would go on to view forty-four sites in all, many detailed in Jungle of Stone. The struggles they endured to bring this discovery to the world hit them hard. Both were forever plagued by side effects of malaria and other diseases contracted while chasing pyramids.


Even if you’re not in the mood for a long read, Frederick Catherwood’s incredible sketches shown in the book, many in color, make Jungle of Stone worthwhile.

Click here to view this article on Yucatan Today.

How the Margarita Got Its Name

Was there a Margarita behind the Margarita? Of course. But contrary to what you may have imagined, this woman was not a Mexican beauty, but instead a fledgling Hollywood starlet.

And though other Margarita namesakes have surfaced and vied for this distinction, this starlet has all the trappings of the real McCoy.

Years a go a eulogy aired on National Public Radio's All Things Considered for a man named Carlos "Danny" Herrera, who'd passed away at the age of 90 in San Diego. Although the name rang no bells, he left a legacy known far and wide. He had created one of the world's most famous cocktails the Margarita.

On a wistful note in recognition of Herrera's passing, host Noah Adams unraveled the tale of how Herrera came to invent the drink that is virtually synonymous with Mexico. It was 1992, and San Diego was paying homage to Herrera who had been born and raised in Mexico City at the turn of the century, but had moved to San Diego five years before his death.


According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Herrera had worked his way across Mexico as a young man, settling just south of Tijuana in 1929. Herrera and his wife built their house in the rugged countryside of Baja California. They added a bar in their home to entertain friends. 

More and more people dropped in so they decided to open for business, and a few years later, they added a restaurant. Then came ten hotel rooms and a swimming pool along with a booming clientele from across the border. Rosarita Beach just down the road was becoming a fashionable getaway for the Hollywood crowd and Carlos' place was an easy pit stop for a quick refreshment on the dusty Baja road.

By 1935 traffic was heavy. Carlos was a friendly guy with a quick wit and his bar-restaurant, named Rancho La Gloria after his daughter, attracted stars and socialites who stopped in regularly before continuing south to Rosarita Beach or Ensenada.


Among the bar's clientele was an actress named Marjorie King. While all her friends were taking advantage of Carlos' talents as bartender, Ms. King did not partake in the afternoon revelry. She had an unusual problem. She was allergic, so the tale went, to all alcohol except tequila. 

What luck, Carlos cajoled. Tequila is the national drink of Mexico, he said as he poured the actress a straight shot of the clear, strong liquid, brought out a plate of fresh limes, and set a salt shaker beside her on the bar. Marjorie wrinkled her pretty nose, gave Carlos a "not so fast" look, and informed him she hated the taste of it.

What was a girl to do? In those wild and reckless days not long after Prohibition, how could one sit idly by and not join in the fun? Herrera was determined to put an end to Ms. King's misery. He went to work.


Herrera decided he would create the ultimate concoction for the attractive actress. He started experimenting and came up with a winner: three parts white tequila, two parts triple sec, one part fresh lime juice, a pinch of sugar. As the day was hot, he added shaved ice and blended the mixture with a shaker. Ms. King liked the looks of the drink immediately, Herrera reportedly said.

But how to serve it? Marjorie King was no ordinary gal, and Herrera wanted to pay tribute to her sense of style. Something special was needed. He grabbed a champagne glass, dipped its rim in lemon juice, and twirled it in a bowl of salt. Re-shaking the contents, he then poured the frothy liquid into the champagne glass and presented it to the starlet.

The result: the soon-to-be famous Margarita, shaken, not stirred. And what a coincidence. The drink included all the ingredients of a traditional tequila shooter -- tequila, lime and salt, but in a more appealing package.


How did this drink become known as a Margarita? Since Marjorie and her gang of friends came often to Rancho La Gloria, whenever their car caravan pulled up outside the bar, Carlos would spot the bunch, see Marjorie, and greet her with a hearty, "Margarita! Margarita!" the Spanish equivalent of her name. Then he'd start preparing her special drink.

It was instant name recognition. What else could it be called? Margarita was the perfect name for this sexy new drink. Meanwhile, Marjorie (a.k.a. Margarita) went back to the States where she hung out with her swell friends and introduced the drink to bartenders at some of the finer dining establishments in Los Angeles and San Diego. When asked its name, she explained that Danny Herrera, the bartender who'd invented it, called it a Margarita.

The name stuck and by the 1950s Margaritas were being served everywhere in Southern California. Soon after that, the Margarita began to make its way around the world as Marjorie's Hollywood friends were globe trotters and took their love of the cocktail with them wherever they went. 

So the next time you're taking a sip of that marvelous frothy concoction known as the Margarita, think back on a time when Baja California was still just a rugged strip of sandy desert, and Cancún didn't even exist. Think about a little bar with big views of the Pacific Ocean, and thank Carlos "Danny" Herrera for paying homage to a Hollywood beauty by inventing a delightful drink to brighten up her day. Bottoms up.

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Have You Ever Dreamed of Retiring on a Beach in Mexico?

Aaah, sweet bliss. A white sand beach, a hammock and not a care in the world. Imagine running away to the Mexican Caribbean and never coming back.

That dream became reality for author Jeanine Kitchel and her husband who traveled to the Yucatan in 1985 and a decade later left their Silicon Valley jobs to pursue a relaxed lifestyle in Puerto Morelos, a small fishing village on the Quintana Roo Coast south of Cancun.

Kitchel’s travel memoir–Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya–is now available at Amazon on Kindle for $9.99. Here’s the first chapter.

The Umbrella—Highway 307 on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula stretched like an asphalt ribbon before us. The Maya named this place Sian Ka’an, or “where the sky is born.” It was untouched, this open, desolate wilderness, except for the narrow strip of pavement beneath us.
Standing there at the crossroads on the highway, more like a swath cut from the low scrub jungle than the major thoroughfare for the state of Quintana Roo, I wondered if the bus would ever come.

The year was 1985. We were sixty miles from the sparkling new resort city Cancun. It seemed unfathomable that just an hour’s drive on virgin highway separated us from the traffic and noise of a city, and then, as if by sleight of hand, we were transformed into a world of sky, clouds, jungle. We were in the heart of the Yucatan, land of the ancient Maya and their pyramids.
We had embarked on an extended vacation, escaping our city jobs for a few weeks to relax in the Mexican Caribbean. Another four hours south and we could be in Belize, but we had other plans that day.

After spending the night in a rustic hotel at the Tulum pyramids we planned to explore the Gulf Coast and to visit the undeveloped island Holbox new Rio Lagartos. Someone had told us to catch a bus at the crossroads, where we now waited. The bus route would jog past the pyramids at Coba and then head north through the heart of Maya land.

In a lackadaisical way, I suppose we were searching for something in this flat, wild territory that just forty years ago had been called the most savage coast in Central America. We had no idea in a few years’ time we would be buying property and building a house in this foreign land. But at the moment, we were deep in the Yucatan jungle, on a side road to seemingly nowhere.

Paul, my fiancé, had traipsed ahead of me, carrying the bulk of our belongings on his able shoulders. Nearly six feet, he looked much younger than his forty-three years. I noticed the morning dampness had caused his sun-bleached hair to curl slightly at the ends. My own hair, light brown and should length, was well on the way to a bad hair day.
Rain was coming. Unbearable humidity and not yet 9 a.m., but this was typical weather for the neo-tropical rain forests of southern Mexico. Moments later, when the skies opened delivering a heavy downpour, we moved beneath the branches of a Ceiba–the Maya tree of life–for shelter. Steam began to rise slowly from the asphalt, hovering about ankle height. Still no bus.
Then rounding the corner careened a small rusty Honda. Brakes squealing, it screeched to a stop in front of us. We had no idea that our future would be determined by accepting a ride with the man who drove this car. He would lend us a yellow umbrella. It seemed a simple act at the time, but the desire to return that umbrella changed the course of our lives for it introduced us to the place we would one day call home, Puerto Morelos.

The driver, Alejandro, was in his late forties with the dark, good looks of a Castilian. He waved us over as his girlfriend, Karla, rolled down the window. She looked and dressed like an American, ten years his junior, with her brunette hair cut stylishly short. Both were smiling broadly, as if they already knew us.

“Where are you going?” he asked, barely an accent to his perfect English.
“Up to Isla Holbox, through Chemax,” Paul answered. Chemax was a Mayan village forty miles north, known for its church, one of the oldest in the Yucatan.
“Well, hop in. We’re going to the Coba pyramids for the day and we can give you a lift to the crossroads.”

It didn’t take long to organize our things and crowd into the back seat. What a relief. Number one, we were out of the rain. Number two, the driver spoke our language. As we progressed in a westerly direction, Alejandro spoke casually about himself, where he was from, the San Francisco area like ourselves, and their day trip to the pyramids. He had the air of a storyteller, recounting tales of spider monkeys and crocodiles that lived at the pyramid site near the lake, explaining that Coba had been one of the largest Mayan cities in the Yucatan, with over 200,000 people, although at present, only five percent of it was excavated.

The man radiated charisma, flashing comfortable smiles at Karla as he chatted easily, all the while fascinating us with his accounts of the Quintana Roo jungles. And if these tales weren’t enough, hundreds of iridescent blue Morpho butterflies engulfed the car in a cloud of turquoise just then, adding a touch of Fellini, or better yet, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

He definitely had our attention. Then he told us about the house he was building in a small fishing village called Puerto Morelos. We were intrigued.

“Where is that?” Paul asked as he tried to locate the map from his duffel bag. “We’ve been traveling through the Yucatan looking for smaller towns. It doesn’t sound familiar.”

“Puerto Morelos is twenty-five miles south of Cancun. Have you seen the Pemex station between Cancun and Tulum? The only gas station for one hundred miles?”

Even this simple statement reminded us how far from civilization we were. As Californians it was hard to fathom one hundred miles of road without a gas station anywhere on the planet, no matter how far into the rain forest jungle one might be.

“Turn at the Pemex,” Alejandro continued, “and head towards the beach. In a few minutes you’ll be at the town square.”

As we approached the Coba junction, the rain continued to fall, now in a more menacing manner. Alejandro slowed to a stop at the crossroads that led to the pyramid site, his destination, or the Maya outback, ours. He fumbled beneath his seat and grabbed something. A yellow umbrella.

“Take this umbrella,” he said, holding it out, bouquet fashion. “This rain won’t be stopping anytime soon.”

“We’ll be fine. It can’t last forever,” I replied, not wanting to impose more on this accommodating stranger who already felt familiar to me.

“No,” he insisted. “Take the umbrella.”

“Only if we can return it to you,” Paul interjected, apparently sensing my hesitation.

“Sure, why not? If you do, that’s fine, and you can see my house. If not, don’t worry about it. Directions…When you get to Puerto Morelos, take the first left and head all the way out the beach road. Once you pass the hotel, my house will be the first on the beach. It’s Mediterranean style, you can’t miss it. Who knows,” he continued as we locked eyes, “maybe we’ll see you later. Hasta luego.”

And with that, he and Karla departed. We watched them drive in the direction of the pyramids as we began walking down the wet and isolated jungle road, with forest so thick on either side of us it seemed to be on the verge of devouring the asphalt. Just two days earlier we’d seen an eighteen-wheeler hanging–or suspended–in the roadside thicket as if by velcro, all wheels well off the ground. The jungle had sucked it in when it crashed, offering a surreal resting spot. Getting it out would be another story.

As for us, we were on the road again. Time for another adventure as our path curved northwards away from the coast and inland, to Maya country.

Days later, worn out from touring various villages in the northern Yucatan and visiting Isla Holbox, we were ready to return to the calm of the coast. We were still searching for an ideal place that hadn’t materialized. But the seed was planted. Maybe Puerto Morelos would be that paradise.

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Milagro Gato AKA Miracle Cat in Mexico

When we moved to Mexico in 1997, we took our three month old cat with us, too. His name is Max, he was born on the 4th of July, and we got him from the San Francisco SPCA on Union Square where they’d set up a tent and were trying to unload kittens. There were little charmers in the cage and Max was the most bodacious of the bunch. Even when a two-alarm SF fire truck went raging past, he didn’t back away while I was trying to pet him through the wire. He was the one.

He’s been neutered and had his shots. That was his life story–and what was ours, the SPCA authority asked. Well, we explained, we were leaving for Mexico in a few weeks and wanted to take a cat with us. We were cat lovers and we trusted the SPCA when looking for a kitty.

Ohhh, not so fast, we were told. How could they be sure we’d provide a good life for the cat south of the border? In Mexico!

Wait a minute, was this really happening? Were we being questioned about our capacity to provide a risk-free life for our new kitty by the San Francisco SPCA?

Apparently so. By this time we had over-bonded with newly named Max, and just thinking about him not in our lives was almost unbearable. Paul, my husband, must have done some real talking about then, because in half an hour we were trotting away with Mr. Max.

Oddly though, in looking back over the past 14 years, we came to see that Ms. SPCA may have had a leg to stand on. Max has endured some unbelievable ordeals, many man made. Let me elaborate. He didn’t get the nickname “Milagro Gato” or Miracle Cat from our trusted Cancun vet for nada.

First of all, Quintana Roo in those days was very unsettled and downright wild as far as critters go. It was literally a jungle in much of Puerto Morelos and our house sat a mile out of town. We had very few neighbors back then and the mangroves across the sascab road were full of, well, varmints:  gray foxes, crocodiles, boa constrictors, monkeys, and coatamundis.   Also to add to the neighborhood combat list — beach dogs and stray cats. Non-neutered cats.

As life rolled along I realized Max was probably the only neutered cat in all of Quintana Roo. All the strays still had their testosterone.  I could tell by the midnight cat fights that woke me; I’d jump out of bed, open the screen door, and clap my hands a few times to curtail the fight. That usually worked and Max would haul his battered buns inside the house to sleep off his late night wake-up call, and to realize he was indeed a stranger in a strange land.

By now of course he was tri-lingual: English, Spanish and Mayan, but somehow his 4th of July birthday must have given him away and every stray seemed to know he was a gringo through and through.

He’d cat around in those early days, and often when we went back to the US I’d hear neighbors say, Max was over, or we saw Max in the mangroves. When we went back to the US for months at a time we left him with caretakers. Basically their only job was to feed him. I received an email from a neighbor that said he’d lost all his hair and he was as skinny as the pink panther so obviously something was amiss.

We’d assumed the simple task of feeding him was taking place but when we returned home we saw a raggedy cat with no fur from his midsection to his tail. The caretakers said he wasn’t eating.   After checking his food supply –now Whiskas–what happened to the bags of Science Diet I’d left–I discovered it was moldy.  We dragged him to the vet.   Malnutrition had caused the hair loss and the ungas. Ung-what?   It was a fungus, the vet explained, and if  we applied a topical cream it would go away. From then on we asked the neighbor to check in on him while we were gone.

Although Max was usually an outdoor cat who’d use a flapper door for easy in and out privileges, about a year ago he shrank from any open door for a good two days. We were flummoxed because he liked being outside rather than in.  A day or so later the gardener found a four-foot boa in the front yard, and we assumed this was Max’s reasoning for avoiding the outdoors.  We marveled at what he saw on those dark jungle nights, and how he managed to stay alive.  But there was no way he’d stay inside full time.  Not his style. Early on he’d cavort inside and out of our gated property throwing caution to the wind as he ran across the street. But a few years ago he started avoiding going out the gate as the road got busier (it’s paved now). He hung back and restricted himself to being inside the high walls. His nine lives must have been knocking. Over the years we saw why our vet called him the milagro gato. When we first took him to see the vet at the tender age of 6, he’d nicknamed him that.  Why milagro gato?  Why miracle cat?  we’d asked.  No cat can live in the jungle that long! he’d explained. He’s ‘un milagro.’  And that he is.  To this day.

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The Fading Glory of Merida

If you’ve ever read Dickens’ Great Expectations like I did in high school, the ghoulish side story of Miss Havisham probably lingers in your imagination.  No doubt you recall she was a bride jilted by her groom at the altar, and forever after, refused to remove her wedding  gown, barricaded herself into the parlor with all the wedding trimmings – presents, bouquet, cake – which decayed along with her til she gasped her last breath.

I just came back from a three day trip to Merida, and the fading glory of the city struck me like a hammer.  I have to admit, Merida bore a distinct likeness to Miss Havisham’s slow decline.  I’ve traveled to Merida countless times in the past 15 years, for business and pleasure, and always take delight in the metropolis, in part because it bears no resemblance to the beaches of Quintana Roo where I live,  and  because of its colonial city grandeur.  But the grandeur is fading.

I’ve noticed in the past few years that many small hotels and restaurants, some tried and true staples, have passed on and even some good handicraft shops (though believe me, Merida is not lacking in shops!) are gone, as well. In the past certain parts of the city were always in need of paint, but this time, it seemed almost everywhere was in need of a little spruce-up. Even on grand Paseo de Montejo, every other mansion was for rent, for sale, or vacant.  Alack and alas, it saddened me, as I truly do love Merida.   In years gone by there was always enough new white wash to make up for those faded gems, but this time, the faded gems won out.

Decoration aside, we still ate our way through the city. We tried La Tratto on Paseo Montejo for the first time and enjoyed it immensely, returned to El Argentino for great Argentine food, and could have bypassed Slavia, also on Paseo Montejo, except for its flare and ambience -Thai and Hindi art, glass chandeliers, velvet lampshades, Greek statues, golden Buddhas, silk throw pillows.  Go for a drink, but don’t bother dining there.

If you’ve never seen Merida do make it a stop on your Mexico itinerary, as it really is unparalleled. It may be showing some wear at the seams because many tourists now come only to the Riviera Maya;  in the past it had a good slice of the tourist pie.  The old world charm is still there, along with the teaming streets, a  gigantic market where you can literally buy anything, and the cheapest hammocks in Mexico.  Worth a visit.

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Still a Small Beach Town in Riviera Maya

Amazing as it may seem, the Riviera Maya, that white sand stretch of endless beaches  in Quintana Roo, still has one beach town that has defied the odds and retained a spectrum of that “je ne sais quois”  factor we all hope for in our search for Margaritaville.  It’s small with great beaches, a little town square or zocalo, walkways in front of the beach with benches and palapas for idling, and a handful of nearby restaurants of almost every persuasion for snacks and dining. Where is this little gem?

Why Puerto Morelos, of course. Just 30 miles south of Cancun and about 20 miles north of ever popular (and overrun) Playa del Carmen. Even Cancun locals have discovered Puerto Morelos in the past couple years, and Sundays are very popular so come early to reserve your spot on the beach, and stay late and enjoy antojitos or dinner in one of the town favorites – Pelicanos, Hola Asia, Posada Amor Restaurant- all on or very near the square.

The town has become a magnet for foreign travelers in large part because it has a town center, grocery store,  a variety of restaurants, ATM machine, and is self contained without the feel of big city Cancun or the glitzy hotel zone.  Many foreigners own beach villas here which are rented out,  some for sale – as is Casa Maya, just north of town and listed on Sotheby’s at www.sirrivieramaya.com (#196) or google Casa Maya Puerto Morelos – and others listed for rent or sale on  informative websites such as MayanRivieraProperties.com and MexicanVacationVillas.com.

Small hotels are plentiful, with still reasonable rates, and now there are a handful of all-inclusives, too. But the small town feel is what brings people back year after year. It’s the type of place where you get to know the waiters at the local restaurants.

Located at the edge of the low jungle, on the other side of the highway, there’s a Sunday Mayan Market run by former Floridian Sandra Dayton who initiated this project 15 years ago when she helped Mayan women in Puerto Morelos buy two sewing machines so they could earn money by sewing clothing to sell. The market has blossomed and now includes food, Mayan massage, and a variety of handicrafts.  Dayton is a character andher knowledge of the jungle is incredible. If she still offers a jungle tour, sign up for it, because it is well worth every peso. Contact Dayton at starseed@prodigy.net.mx.

Puerto Morelos still has the feel. Try it, you may like it.

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