I-10, Our Nation’s Seemingly Endless Artery

Around Phoenix we caught I-10, the highway that flows from Los Angeles, CA to Jacksonville, FL. We pick this route during the winter because there is nearly zero chance for ice or snow. Anything north and your chances get worse. The first thing that comes to memory about this highway has to be that it is really, really straight and boring for many hours.

I try to pick out the subtile differences hidden under the homogenous American highway culture. Two nights ago while driving through the dark, I pondered upon the different words used for a small tributary of a watershed. What we call an arroyo in coastal California changes to a wash once you arrive in the Sonora Desert. I can see why, because when the rain falls, everything (especially the trash) washes down.

All this came to mind as I crossed the great divide somewhere in New Mexico and western Texas and I noticed a new term, draw. It looked identical to a wash, but now on the eastern side of these huge mountains, its name has changed. I guess here in Texas after a big storm, the water draws off the land (it doesn’t appear to wash anything).

We’re on our way to Houston where I believe our hydraulic feature of a landscape assumes the much more widespread term creek. In the comming days we’ll continue to chug along I-10, passing hundreds of more creeks, until we arrive in Florida, sometime next week.

We managed to make a nice detour from the interstate, bypassing the sprawl of San Antonio. For the second year in a row we visited Guadalupe River State Park in Texas. It seemed even more beautiful than we remembered it. Check out the pics below. We highly recommend visiting the Texas hill country if you find yourself in the area.

We woke this morning to a young kid’s voice talking to his father. They were walking by our camper, parked in a campsite at the state park. “That’s not camping”, said the boy. “Camping is when you get out. That’s not camping one bit!”. We both cracked up laughing. What a way to start the day.

Santa Cruz to Arizona

...until we meet again Santa Cruz.

It took an incredible amount of energy and some help from some of our closest friends to get us on the road last Saturday morning. After driving the entire length of the Salinas Valley, we made our first stop near Santa Maria. We drove the back roads and saw the fields planted with broccoli, cauliflower, and strawberries. The berry season will begin here in just a few weeks. The growers here aim for the early window of production, about four to six weeks earlier than the production starts in Santa Cruz county.

Coastal mountains of Santa Barbara county.

John’s job didn’t take long and we headed south into Santa Barbara county. While Amy was driving John kept looking for some surf potential. Somewhere west of Santa Barbara he turned his head all the way around to watch a nice set peel for over 100 yards, down a wind-protected point. Within 10 minutes he had his board rigged and was headed towards the water. It didn’t take long to satisfy his surf appetite, about five really nice waves. Before dark we were back on the highway and headed towards LA to visit Amy’s relatives.

Gettin' 5 on it...

From LA we traveled south and then east, eventually arriving in Arizona. We drove through the desert, passing date groves rising out of the dry earth. Here in the south eastern corner of California begins the agricultural oasis. The crops of baby spinach, spring mix, head lettuce, and celery grow best here at this time of year. The low desert’s mild winter weather keeps the supermarkets supplied with cool season produce from November until March. The dry air makes the pathogens and pests nearly non-existent in comparison to anywhere else in the US.

Afternoon SoCal lighting.

We followed the highway east, into the Gila river valley. We found a great spot to camp at Painted Rocks SP (free at this time of year). The spot is known for the unique petroglyphs left by two groups of people. They used small rocks to carve off the dark surface of boulders, exposing the lighter mineral inside. The rocks are part of a pile of boulders deposited in the middle of the valley, by a volcano to the SW.

Next post in a few days…

Naturally Beautiful Taiwan

Many times while on the road in Taiwan people asked us why we came. “Nobody from the west comes to Taiwan as a tourist”, they repeated. Some people asked it it was from the recently released surf magazine issue covering Taiwan. Still our answer was no.

Our first inspiration came our cousins, Donna and Joe, who had their wedding photos done in 2009 around Taiwan. The photos blew us away. Giant mountains covered with lush forests, beautiful oceans and rivers. What else could we want? Surf maybe? While on the road in Mexico this year, I met a Japanese surfer who insisted that Taiwan had some good waves. He also told me winter was a very consistent time. Okay, well we already had planned to go to Donna and Joe’s wedding in Hong Kong in December. Why not fly over (1.3 hours) to Taiwan afterward to get some good surf and enjoy some sightseeing.

So far we’ve posted on the surf, the food, the agriculture in Taiwan. Here’s our final post on what brought us to Taiwan in the first place, the incredible natural beauty. We only covered a fraction of the island, concentrating our efforts in the southern sector, mostly around Kenting National Park. We will definitely return to Taiwan someday to discover more parts of the island; hopefully with a better understanding of Mandarin.

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What’s growing in Taiwan

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All that tasty food comes from somewhere. While in Hong Kong we heard the people say that they would try to purchase the most expensive food from Japan, followed by good quality food from Taiwan. Many tried to avoid the industrial garbage coming from China, for its notoriously not-what-you-think-it-is status.

The agriculture of Taiwan blew us away. Of anywhere in the world I have traveled, Southern Taiwan appeared to have the most diverse and advanced horticultural systems. Within one square kilometer we spotted orchards of cherimoya, guanabana, betel palm, coco palm, mountain apple, banana, mango, next to fields of onions, lettuce, choy, beans, and cover crops. In some areas the flooded paddies not only grew rice but taro and water caltrop. As I rode the train north along the west coast we gained an elevated perspective. The farmers were busy diverting the water in the fertile river beds to plant corn and other commodities. Next to the rivers, in protected vineyards, the family farms cultivated trellises of dragon fruit.

The average farm in Taiwan is only 2 ha (~5 acres). The slow food movement teaches that this correlates with diversity and economic stability. Unfortunately the industrialists of Taiwan don’t feel the same. I dug up this website full of big-farming propaganda (http://www.taiwan-agriculture.org/), stating that they need more consolidation of small farms to make more efficient agro-industry (bad idea guys).

Most of the agriculture we saw appeared to use conventional inputs (we spotted hundreds of empty bags of synthetic fertilizer on the margins of the fields). Numerous instances we saw small spray rigs, usually man-driven, working across the fields. Only in the flat paddies did we see use of cover crops on fallow land. If we could only speak Mandarin, we could provide a more complete perspective. Until the next trip I guess.

Good Eats in Asia

The top two activities in Hong Kong are eating and shopping. Probably in that order. In Taiwan there is no shortage of tasty food either. Check out some of the delicious and strange things we ate on the trip.

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What the F*@k is Betel Nut?

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For residents of a country that doesn’t allow most drugs, the Taiwanese consume an awful lot of their legal drug, betel nut. I learned about this drug (actually two plants and mineral) over eight years ago in my ethno-botany classes at the University. I had not yet had the experience until arriving in Taiwan.

My first night on the island I accompanied my new friends to dinner. Following the meal somebody broke out a bag of B-Nut (as they called it in Southern Taiwan). I partook but with a little apprehension that it would upset my stomach, wasting the previous tasty meal. I was wrong. The only side effects that I experienced were a numbness in my mouth and slight constriction of my throat. As for positive effects, I couldn’t tell. The only thing noticeable was that my breath smelled nice.

It took another three tries to actually feel the effects. I tried B-Nut for the fourth time in the mountains north east of Kaohsiung in the SW part of the island. I had been driving for about three hours and felt fatigued as we began to ascend the twisty-turny-technical road. I spotted a B-Nut shop, which was made of three sides of glass. Usually the shops employ a beautiful young girl without much clothing. I got lucky and found the only shop run by a mature Betel Nut beauty, well over 60. Her Betel Nuts worked the same. Within 30 seconds of chewing the concoction, my eyes were wide open and my mind tuned into my driving. I couldn’t remember the fatigue I had felt only minutes previously. The stimulating effects are different than caffeine in that I didn’t feel nervous or twitchy. My heart rate was elevated but not like the palpitations that come with strong coffee. I felt 100% but not high or wired.

So what is the B-Nut? In Taiwan, green nuts from the Areca catechu palm are wrapped in a leaf from a vine, Piper betle, which have been swabbed with a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide) and water. In the past, pulverized coral or limestone was used as the alkaline mineral; modern lime is often synthetic. Other areas of the world have different variations and may add other herbs for taste.

Chemical action on the human consciousness is attributed to the arecoline of the palm nut as well as an array of allylbenzene compounds from the betel leaf. The lime acts to keep the chemicals in their freebase/alkaline state so that they can absorbed sublingually. The positive aspects of the experience (stimulant, learning enhancement) may be outweighed by the negative (red stained teeth and increased risk of oral cancer).

I observed a large amount of cultivation of both the nut and the leaf in southern Taiwan. The palms seem readily adapt throughout southern Taiwan, (west coast, lower mountain range, and east coast). Cultivation of the leaf was concentrated to the Taitung area on the east coast, nearly entirely under shade houses. When the trees grow in marginal areas and on vegetated hillsides, they appear to not present a significant detriment on the environment. While observing the intensive cultivation of the palm and vines on the flat land, I saw signs of soil compaction and runoff pollution (due to synthetic nitrogen soluble fertilizers). Many farmers maintain their palm plantations with herbicide; the soil appears ill and covered with slime molds.

All around Taiwan we saw the betel nut chewed by a large part of the population. Besides the popularity with workers, in one mountain town we visited nearly every older lady on the street had her cheek packed full. Drivers appear to consume the most B-nut. I think it’s a pre-requisite for entering the highway in some parts of the country. I have uncountable images in my head of the faces of scooter-ists, raging down the road with a mouth bulging of betel.

Mitla: Ruins and Culture in the Valle Central de Oaxaca

Not even an hour southeast from the city of Oaxaca lies the small town of Mitla. The main tourist attraction here, the Zapotec ruins, have very unique patterns on every wall (see slideshow below). Throughout our trip, we observed these patterns repeated in many other Mesoamerican ruins, as well as in modern Mexican artwork and design. These ruins were like a portfolio or library of Mesoamerican designs.

Recently we showed these pictures to our friend Ibu in Taiwan. She comes from an aboriginal mountain tribe on the island. She confirmed that her culture in Taiwan used many of these exact same designs in their crafts and textiles. Ibu also told us about the similarities she discovered between her and Mayan visitors who came to Taiwan on a cultural exchange a few years ago. Perhaps prior to Europeans arriving in either Taiwan or Mesoamerica, these cultures were interacting from different shores of the Pacific Ocean.

We ended up visiting Mitla twice during our trip. Unlike many Mayan ruins we visited (where the energy had completely vacated) the Mitla ruins were still the center point for a vibrant culture. Many of the residents still attended the church, which had been placed on top of the original Zapotec ruins. Even more gathered in the public spaces around the ruins to sell their hand-made clothes, crafts, and mescal to the hordes of visitors. We loved the unique style of handicrafts.

Our favorite items had to be the brightly painted carved wooden animals and “monstruos”, which Mitla is known for around Mexico. As we walked down the streets we caught glimpses of women working the looms, weaving the cotton and agave fabrics. We found some artisans who took exceptional pride in their work and left town with a dress for Amy and a shirt for John.

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Mezcal

On our way through Oaxaca we stopped at two mescalarias, or artesenal distilleries. “El Pequeño Martín” (the name of the distillery and the distiller) was nice enough to give me the run-down of his process of making Mezcal. Here’s my best summary:

The harvested "piña" of the maguey plant.

Once the piña (the base of the plant, which looks like a pineapple) is harvested from the maguey plant, Martín roasts it once while it is still whole. He then cuts it into manageable pieces and places them into a pit where he cooks them for at least a whole day. Once cooled from the fire pit, the cooked maguey chunks are placed on a cement pad, where they are ground with a large wheel. This turns the chunks into more of a shredded consistency, somewhat like coco coir.

The ground maguey is then loaded into a large fermentation tank, where it is inoculated with some of the culture from the previous fermentation. For days the fermentation takes place until the mash has mellowed (no more bubbles/activity). When the mash is ready, Martín loads 250L at a time into his distilling apparatus. The mash gets loaded into a copper container that sits above a small furnace.

The chopped piña is roasted for at least a day.

The wheel that grinds the piña.

Active fermentation.

Final fermentation of the mash.

The heat from the furnace separates the alcohol from the mash. The vaporized alcohol travels up the copper pipe and then down through the cooling tubes, which are bathed in running water. The cool water condenses the alcohol vapor and pure alcohol flows out the bottom spigot.

The furnace - the mash is loaded into the copper container above the heat.

Following the tube from the furnace, the alcohol vapor condenses in coils bathed in water. The blanco comes out the spigot at the bottom.

The blanco ages in the barrel until it becomes reposado - Martín is titrating a sample for me.

Martín and the author with a bottle of the reposado.

The grade of mezcal produced from this process is called blanco. Martín loads the blanco into a large wooden barrel for storage. He titrates off samples using a bamboo cane through the top plug of the barrel. After two years of aging the grade of mezcal is called reposado, which has light amber color (due to the tannins in the wood). I found the taste of the reposado to be much mellower (less burn in the throat) than the blanco. I ended up buying a 500mL bottle of the reposado for 40 pesos.

Cañón del Sumidero, Chiapas

With the engine whirring the bow of the boat lifted up into the air as we sped down the river. In a Cuharhe river collective boat wearing matching orange life vests, we approached the entrance to the canyon with about 35 of our closest canyon friends (mostly Mexican tourists). Only a few minutes down river from the embarcadero, our guide pulled over to the right shore and pointed out several spider monkeys and a tejon in the same tree. The spider monkeys swung to and fro and yelled at us, while the tejon nimbly ran up and down various limbs. Upon passing the entrance to a federal park fee area we held up our arms to show the ranger our $25 peso wristbands that granted access to the reserve.

Our guide explained that the river has its origins in Guatemala and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. After a heavy rain, trash from the surrounding areas washes into the river. On our visit, there were two floating machines dedicated to collecting debris from the waterway.

Further downstream the entrance to the canyon rose up dramatically in front of us. Our guide explained that in many parts the walls of the canyon are 100 meters and at the highest point 300 meters high. Bromeliads, cacti, and vines clung to the canyon walls. Egrets and pelicans flew alongside the boat, keeping up with us or speeding ahead as they pleased. As we traveled further along, boys fishing along the shore held up their catch to show us and waved. It turned out that crocodiles are the toughest animal to spot in the canyon. Several times our guide claimed there was something to look at but we couldn’t see it. Eventually he pulled over near a rock and there were piles of baby crocodiles!

We saw two flowing waterfalls in the canyon, and another area that looked like it might be a waterfall at other times of the year. Our guide only stopped at the biggest one and even steered us through it. We loved the feeling of cool water splashing on from high above in the canyon.

We decided that based on the amount of time spent outdoors and the substantial collection of tips in his hat, being a river guide must be one of the better jobs in Mexico. Our guide deftly avoided hazards like the occasional rock formation jutting past the water, or a board with a few nails in it. Otherwise the river is slow and there is no boat traffic besides other tour groups.

We definitely recommend doing a boat tour of the canyon. For $175 pesos we enjoyed nearly 2 hours in the boat. After asking the staff, we were even allowed to camp there for the night and were serenaded by eerie calls of unseen birds in the darkness.

Baby crocodiles try to get some sun.

Morelia, Michoacán

How lucky we were to have had the chance to visit Morelia the way that we did! It all started one night when John was walking down the beach at Saladita. He almost stepped on a dead puffer fish, half buried in the sand. Luckily he felt the first prick on his toe and dodged the disaster. He then buried it in the sand to make sure nobody else had the same experience.  A group of five travelers saw the short event and invited him over to talk. One of the travelers was Andrea, now one of our good friends in Morelia. Later in the evening, Andrea and her friend Lily invited John to hang out with her uncle, Nacho, his girlfriend Rousi, and his sister Gela.

The entrance to Casa de Nacho.

After a great night of drinking, playing songs on the beach, and practicing their Spanish and English, Nacho invited John up to Morelia to stay at his guest house. It has been over a month now (Amy’s back on the trip), and we’re hanging out at Nacho’s incredible house – a little garden oasis in the city which they rent to exchange students and other visitors (Click here to send an email to Nacho.). It’s only 10 blocks from the center of town and minutes from great food and markets.

Combis pass by every two to five minutes.

It’s a great spot within walking distance of the main market on Sunday and the centro, and it’s an easy walk to the main thoroughfare of Madero to catch a combi (mini-van) costing only 5 pesos for anywhere you’d like to go.

Tasty Taco: Homemade Guacamole, Arrachera (steak), and Sweet Peppers!

Nacho and Rousi are friendly hosts who have shared everything we need to know to enjoy the city.Having the local connection is definitely the best way to practice our Spanish. We’ve met all the family members and friends who are musicians, artists, craftsmen, even plastics recyclers, and we’ve tagged along to fun parties and carne asadas (barbeques).

One rainy afternoon, we ascended into the hills and enjoyed a beautiful view and then an amazing spread of cecinas (think grilled beef jerky) and chorizo (sausage) laid out with beans, tortillas, guacamole, salsa and grilled onions at an adorable homestead and restaurant in the mountains.

Morelia sits just east of Pátzcuaro, atop the altiplano of Michoacán. It lies in a flat valley that was formally an agricultural area. The city used to be known for it’s flour refinery and steel refining. Now this city, the capitol of Michoacán, is known for it’s nightlife.

The cathedral, aqueduct, fountains and other structures are illuminated at night creating a wonderful evening ambiance.

The town has multiple universities and a healthy job market for young professionals. These characteristics makes it one of the most expensive places to live in Mexico. Everybody under the age of 40 seems to want to live here! And why not? Every night there’s another fiesta or salsa bar full of beautiful, drunk people!

The centro area is fun to explore, with shops and cafes tucked into five-century old stonework. At Chiapas Cafe, we found not only tasty french-press organic coffee and agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea), but books on how to start your own fruit cooperative, how to grow organic coffee and reports on organic agriculture in Mexico. Que chido (how cool!).

As foreigners here, we found the people to be exceptionally welcoming and warm. We had multiple people on the street wish us a good day and tell us to have a good time visiting Morelia. Many young people here study English and were willing trade off speaking English to us while we spoke Spanish to them.

Plaza de las Rosas.

The local music scene appears to be flourishing, with reggae as a favorite of many. Our friend David plays in multiple local bands. We had the opportunity to listen to many of them because they practiced right behind our room at Nacho’s house.

Morelia has a little bit of everything. One moment you feel like you are in Spain sipping coffee at a shady cafe and admiring statues and ancient stonework. Later that evening you can drink pulque (fermented juice from the maguey plant) and listen to indie and reggae music at hipster bars. Walk a little further, and you are eating late-night tacos under a neon sign at La Cueva de Chucho (Chucho’s Cave – Chucho is a nickname for Jesus). We’ve attended free concerts at the Museo del Estado, shopped for regional candies at the sweets market, and eaten blackberry tamales from the Sunday market. Thus far into our journey, we’d recommend Morelia as the most fun and accomodating colonial city to visit in Mexico. We could have easily stayed another two weeks, but decided instead to chase waves in Oaxaca, post coming soon.

Amy & Andrea at the Bandera Monumental overlooking Morelia. A tip to the night watchman extended visitor's hours.

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