Here’s the Winter Home of Millions of Butterflies

After a one-hour cab ride, a three-hour car ride, a one-hour horseback ride and a long steep walk down the side of a mountain, we finally convened yesterday with the Monarch butterflies, who fly by the bazillions every winter to a small patch of forest in the Mexican state of Michoacan. This is one of the world’s greatest (and most mysterious) migrations. And it’s only four hours from where I live.

Stunning. HOWEVER, this was probably the biggest photographic challenge I ever faced. There were butterflies everywhere, yet, they don’t really show up in the photos too well…

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Those trees are literally dripping with large bunches of butterflies, who are crammed in all together. When the sun would come out, they’d fly out en masse. When a cloud appeared, back they’d go to the trees.

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We were around 10,000 feet elevation. It was cold and windy, even when the sun would come out. This particular migration area is accessible only by horseback.

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According to Monarch Watch, this is how it works:

“The sites the Monarchs use during the winter have particular characteristics that enable their survival. These characteristics are important because they provide the Monarch with the right overwintering conditions. Trees on which to cluster are one of the most important elements of the sites. The climate and the whole surrounding area are also important. Nearby trees, streams, underbrush, and fog or clouds all form an intricate natural ecosystem that is the monarchs’ winter habitat. These conditions are found in oyamel fir forests, which occur in a very small area of mountain tops in central Mexico. Overwintering sites are about 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) above sea level, and are on steep, southwest-facing slopes.

In particular, the butterflies need a cool place. When they are cool, they don’t metabolize, or use up, their energy reserves as fast. They also need to be protected from snow and winds. The surrounding trees serve as a buffer to the winds and snow. Because they also need water for moisture, the fog and clouds in this mountainous region provide another important element for their survival.

The butterflies choose spots that are close to but not quite freezing. They cluster together, covering whole tree trunks and branches, and cling to fir and pine needles. The forest floor in the overwintering sites is covered with young trees, shrubs, lichens and moss. When Monarchs fall out of the trees and are too cold to fly back up, they can sometimes crawl to the lower bushes to avoid predators. The tall trees make a thick canopy over their heads. Protective trees and bushes soften the wind and shield the butterflies from the occasional snow, rain, or hail. Fog and clouds settle on the Monarch groves. On sunny days, they often warm up enough to fly to nearby water where they will drink. They must fly back to the roost before getting too cold, and one can sometimes see them take off in flight, heading back to the roosts as soon as a cloud passes over.

Each of the above elements is important to the butterflies, and makes up the Monarch habitat – trees in which to roost, other trees and shrubs to protect them, the cool air, and the presence of water.”

I Made My First Neighborhood Enemy

Yesterday morning I took Charlie out for a walk, per my usual routine first-thang en la manana. We were walking down Calle Amsterdam, a lovely leafy street with a special walking path just for pedestrians.

A woman approached, walking in my direction with a German Shepherd off its leash. Before I had much time to react, the dog lunged at Charlie and all I heard was vicious growling sounds. Charlie tried to run away, and I got tangled up in the middle of the leash. I was scared, and screamed “Jesus Christ!”

The woman — instead of instantly grabbing her dog’s collar and pulling him off of Charlie — responded, ever-so-flippantly with “Oh, he’s just playing” in English. By this time I had gotten Charlie a few feet away from the dog. But since the woman hadn’t bothered to leash her dog, he lunged again at Charlie. Again I was standing in a tornado of angry teeth and fur. I lost it.

“Can’t you use a leash?” I shouted as loudly as I could. Then, not sure if she understood, I said “LADY: Use a leash. Por favor, use un CORREO!

“My dog is not aggressive,” she told me in English.

I was shocked — what?? are you kidding me?? — but instead of asking how the attacking was “not aggressive,” I said back to her “well, mine IS which is why he’s on a leash, to protect us.” (This is true.)

Her response?

“No, no no. Dogs are meant to be free!” She shouted it as if high on the dander of her damn dog. “FREE!!” She lifted her hands to the sky, perhaps to puppy heaven, where leashes don’t exist. “FREE” she repeated a third time, walking away with her unleashed dog, as I tried to get a word in.

The best I could up with to battle her mantra? (I am miserable at coming up with powerful-and-irrefutable statements in the middle of a stressful situation.)

“Then why do leashes exist???”

Suffice it to say, after the altercation ended, my heart was racing, I was sweating, and I seriously was harboring violent thoughts to strangle her by her sweatshirt cords. Per my usual reaction during a confrontation, I started crying before I even made it home. Then I brooded for hours. And now I’m writing this post for catharsis.

Sadly, because she owns a dog and lives near me, the chances I will see her again are about 99%, meaning I have my first neighborhood enemy, and Charlie has his. (Who the rest of the day almost seemed to feel bad about what happened — he sat curled up next to me all day.)

She is just one of many people in this neighborhood who refuse to leash their dogs, but she’s the first one to be an unapologetic (perhaps delusional) jerk about it.

(And for all of you out there walking your dog in Condesa, watch out for a short, thin woman with dark hair walking a German Shepherd that’s about 8 months old. She and her dog are totally loca.)

It’s So True: Sin Agua, No Hay Vida

Last night we finally got around to watching the first two episodes of Planet Earth, the mind-blowingly well-done series of nature films by the BBC, all filmed in high definition and with the most incredibly complex camerawork I have ever seen. (The snow leopard scenes brought tears to my eyes, and once it started snowing, I was a mess.)

We watched it en espanol, which turned out to be a great idea: It has slow, simple narration in verb tenses we know pretty well (present and simple past), so we never felt miserably lost as we do when we watch most TV in Spanish. And many animals have very similar names in both idiomas: caribou, impala, leopardo,…

A few key vocabulary words that I really enjoyed learning (or re-remembering, as is so often the case for me) while watching La Planeta Tierra:

Arctic stuff:
las focas — seals
los polos — the poles (as in north pole and south pole)
las hojas — leaves
baja tierra — underground
cachorros — pups, for many species
reservas de grasa — fat reserves

Forest stuff:
las girasoles — daisies
las ardillas — squirrels
rayos del sol — sunlight, rays of sunshine
la energia del sol — sun’s energy
los monos — monkeys
los insectos — insects

Watery stuff:
los tiburones — sharks
grande blanco tiburones — great white sharks
las nubladas — clouds

Desert stuff:
huracanes de harina — dust storm (harina is more like flour, but you get the idea)
peligrosos tormentos de polvo — dust storm (polvo is dust and any fine substance)

Stuff that struck me as funny:
unico huevo — one unique egg, as in the penguin’s single egg each year
un banquete por todos los animales
— a banquet for all the animals
un epoca de abundancia — an era of adundance
padres dedicados — dedicated dads (about a type of fish)
los monos no le gustan el agua — the monkey’s don’t like the water, said as a group of monkeys hesitantly, if not prissily, waded through water
empieza el ataque — the attack begins, said each time a predator pounced on some prey

Not so funny:
no dura mucho — won’t last long, in reference to ever-shrinking ice caps
el futuro de la especie –– future of the species. In many cases, bleak.

Heartbreakers: Mexico City’s Street Dogs

Here I am petting a stray dog who lived on the beach in the Yucatan. From 2004.

Here I am petting a stray dog who lived on the beach in the Yucatan. From 2004.

There is nothing sweeter and more grateful than a street dog in Mexico. They always approach Charlie and me, but very shyly. If I stop and look at them directly, they cower, turn around and walk away.

Our neighborhood has about 6 full-time street dogs. At least two of them semi-belong to a street sweeper, because they follow him everywhere. I love it when he is sweeping on our block, because the strays come, too, and the really huge one, Ramone, sits outside our lobby. He looks like a really big, really scruffy Giant Schnauzer/Rottweiler, with big orange feet, a black body and big orange eyebrows and ears.

There’s also Solovino (sort of translates to “he who walks alone”), who has some mental problems. He sometimes barks furiously at cars for no apparent reason. Last week I watched him flip out when a woman walked by him, dragging a pull-behind suitcase.  The sound of the wheels against the concrete set him off — he started attacking the suitcase. (I know these dog’s names courtesy of my friend Susana, who helps take care of them).

In the U.S., we’d put these street dogs in shelters, and only the most cute and most tame would eventually find new homes. The rest? Well, you know how it goes.

Dogs in Taxco, Mexico. State of Guerrero.

Dogs in Taxco, Mexico. State of Guerrero.

In South Texas, where I was a volunteer dog walker, the huge amount of homeless dogs was overwhelming. There really was no way to house them all and not have to euthanize some of them.  People get angry about this, but when you actually work in a place like that, and realize a dog is only getting walked once every few weeks (hundreds and hundreds of dogs…and only a few volunteers), you come to accept it, or at least learn to put it in the back of your brain and try not to think about it too much.

In Mexico City, there are no shelters for animals (at least that I’m aware of), but the dogs and cats survive on their own, as they do throughout the world (I was kept up many a night by feral and frisky tomcats in NYC).

This morning a new dog was on my block. He ignored Charlie and me, and I could see some old injuries on his back. These guys are amazing survivors, I’m sure they have some of the strongest immune systems in the world:

A new-to-me street dog rests on the pavement.

A new-to-me street dog rests on the pavement.

He has an injury on his right side, behind his front right paw.

He has an injury on his right side, behind his front right paw.

Why I Hate Las Vegas

A few weeks ago, I attended a work conference in Las Vegas. It was my first time there, and with any luck, I’ll never go back.  Unlike most of the people who go to Las Vegas, at least I can say I went for my job.  But….ugh. I’m just going to cop out right now, and simply list my reasons Why I Hate Las Vegas:

Giant mega-hotels, stretching for miles. What is the fun in this? PLEASE TELL ME.

Disneyland prices and “entertainment.” We accidentally caught the “Siren Show” at Treasure Island and I thought my eyes and ears were going to start bleeding. Do people really like this shit?

Girls all glammed up like they have somewhere important to go. Wait, let’s be more honest, they were slutted out. But they’re in Las Vegas on vacation. Isn’t the point of vacation to not wear clothing that restricts your breathing? To not wear shoes that could send your ankles to the emergency room? Why not be cute and comfy and entirely not silly looking? Even the cocktail waitress at the Mirage pool played the part, wearing next to nothing to try and earn an easy tip from drunks (this doesn’t work so well when you’re waiting on me, and I only order one drink while I wonder to myself what you’re going to do with your life after you lose your looks and no one wants to give you big tips anymore. I hope you have plans, cocktail ladies.)

It’s not a walkable city. I had to attend a cocktail party at the Planet Hollywood Hotel. I thought this would be a quick walk from the Mirage, because looking at the map, it was four hotels away. But because these hotels must each comprise numerous restaurants, theaters, a casino and possibly some sort of egregious display of man’s triumph over nature (in my hotel’s case, a white tiger display and a dolphin area, as if tigers aren’t enough) these hotels streeeeeeeeeetch for blocks and blocks. So, I showed up late and…

I was so, so thirsty, I ran to the bar and demanded a club soda. And the rest of the trip, no matter how much water I drank, I felt like I had just eaten hot sand. I don’t mind the desert, I didn’t mind being thirsty, but I did mind my constant obsessive thought that an area so arid was and is not meant to support this ridiculous fake city.

The “you-are-going-to-have-fun-or-else” attitude. One day when Brendan went and visited an old high school friend who lives in Las Vegas, I decided to spend the day by the giant Mirage pool. Everything started out OK as I sat around with other solo adults, reading a New Yorker and listening to music on my iPod. Then, as the day wore on, the piped-in crappy 80s music got louder, and by the time I decided to take a dip, the pool was full of “Spring Breakers” — waxed, tanned men and women wearing plastic bead necklaces and wading around with drinks. Yuck, I thought, realizing they were all peeing in the pool. I had only one escape: my hotel room. It took 14 (crowded) minutes to get there, since the Mirage hotel rooms are hidden away and I had to walk past an indoor shopping mall before I could find the elevator, as if I might want to stop, shop and ultimately spend $20 on a snowglobe of the Mirage, to remind me of the urine-soaked pool.

The lines of tourists everywhere. Lord, save me, the lines. One morning, in search of breakfast and caffeine, we discovered we were at the mercy of the hotel and all the touristy traps outside on the Strip. First we tried one of the coffee places in the Mirage. The line was at least 50 people deep. No way (and who are these fools who pay to get in a long line for coffee?). So we went across the street to Denny’s – a 20-minute wait (to eat bad food and drink bad coffee!!). No way. So we went to McDonald’s, and yes, waited in line, finally ordered coffee and then went downstairs to Chipotle and ordered burritos for breakfast (I simply do not eat McDonald’s breakfast food, unless there’s a nuclear holocaust, and I’m running for cover, and the closest cover is McDonald’s). This was how the rest of the trip went: waiting in line for bad food and bad service.

– We got home to Mexico City to discover the Mirage charged us $75 for drinks ordered in the high-roller bar. AHEM. Not only did I not step foot in a high-roller area, I sure as hell didn’t order any damn drinks. But if I were to, I’d order more than $75 of alcohol. Dios mio.

THE TINY BITS I DID LIKE

– We rented a car (great idea if you didn’t really want to go to Vegas but have to) and drove very far north on the Strip, where it gets gritty, grimy and even somewhat cultural. We had a delicious cheap Cuban meal (and cafe con leche) at a tiny dive restaurant. And yes, no wait. Then we headed to a gigantic swap meet (even in late October, the heat was killer, so we didn’t last long).

-We also drove to Valley of Fire State Park. Nature, ah, nature. Always a good thing.

-I got to hang out with my work team, and they’re a great bunch.

-Speaking of, I went with a few of them to the Double Down Saloon (way off strip) which serves ice-cold Shiner Beer, the best damn Texas beer. Finally away from slot machines, I almost lost the ringing in my ears. It was sort of like stepping into a bar in New York City, except it had video poker at the bar. I felt relaxed.

The Other-Half of the Year Has Returned

Mexico City has two seasons: the rainy and the not rainy.

After a long rainy season (which is beautiful but impractical for a city that sits atop a drained lake) the not rainy season is finally in full swing. I can’t remember the last time it rained, and my skin is dry. The forecast for the next six months will not vary at all, looking exactly like this one:

Wed
Clear
78° | 46°
Thu
Clear
77° | 44°

Fri
Clear
77° | 48

The Dominoes Queen Temporarily Bequeaths Her Title

*making frustrated groaning sounds*

Ahem, well, yo, la reyna de dominoes, in a FLUKE, came in 5th place tonight. As part of her (temporary) loss, she agreed to “publicize” the winner, Jeremy, in her blog.

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Nancy reluctantly takes a shot of Chinaco tequila after playing a double-dominoes she couldn't close. "CHINACO!" is the name of the game. Jesica and Erik (left) and Jeremy and Jonathan (right) watch Nancy try to sip it down.

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After a spread of food (including peanuts, chocolate-covered cranberries, jicama, hummus, joqoque seco, cucumber, black-bean quesadillas, and papaya-cantaloupe-coconut fruit salad), we finally get to the round of 1s -- a reason alone to ALSO enjoy some Haagen Daas chocolate ice cream. Which, pictured here, for some reason looks nothing like ice cream, more like salmon.

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A humble Jeremy holds up the score card, marking his unprecedented (and incredibly unexpected) win, forcing us to give him money from the U.S.A, Mexico and South Africa. Plus, a few cell phones, chili powder and a Talavera bowl, for good measure.

Death on Stilts

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The municipal cemetery in Puebla Mexico. Note the crooked yellow little grave-house on the left -- common in earthquake-prone areas with loose soil.

Last Saturday night, a group of friends and I ventured from the downtown area of Puebla, Mexico, to the outer edges of the city to visit the Panteon Municipal – the municipal cemetery.

As part of the city’s Dia de los Muertos festivities, the cemetery was going to be the center stage for some sort of event. Details were scant, but not wanting to miss out on a potentially amazing blog post, we went, via taxi, to the Panteon.

The four of us piled out of the taxi and onto the front steps of the cemetery, which had a grand columned entrance like a Greek ruin. At the top of the stairs was a group of hard-core bicyclists clad in bike pants, tight shirts, and fancy shoes, posing in front of their expensive looking bicycles.

They were also covered in make-up to make them look dead. They soon spotted us. “OOOHHHH” one of them said in a spooky pretend ghost-voice “GUEEERRRRROOSSS!” Gueros: white people. The true ghosts of the party had arrived.

Undeterred, and in fact, by now, quite used to be calling gueros, we headed into the cemetery proper. A long central walking path divided the huge cemetery, and all the graves were above-ground, like a mauseolem. The oldest and first graves, closest to the entrance, were the most grand, almost like small houses. In places, the ground had shifted, making some of the graves off-kilter, as if they were riding on a wave, or, more likely, had survived hundreds of years of seismic shifts we call earthquakes.

We continued down the long path. I, of course, immediately whipped out my camera and tried to take photos: I am walking in a cemetery in Mexico on Day of the Dead and therefore I must immediately visually document this experience! Was my basic train of thought.

Alas, as soon as my flash went off, a security guard told me: no photos, por favor. Damnit.

After a long walk, we reached the back of the cemetery, where a stage and tent had been erected. All the rows of seats were full of families, and so we stood in the back, perched upon an unmarked grave. Yeah, true story.

What unfolded was a three-act performance, first led by a Catrina, then a mariachi in scary skeleton makeup and lastly, Death himself.

Prior to Death’s debut on stage, I had unknowingly already been watching him. While Catrina performed I noticed a lanky grim reaper slowly wobbling way back, behind the stage. Back and forth, back and forth, the reaper swayed endlessly. I assumed he was some sort of “live” decoration.

But, after the mariachi wrapped up, death stopped wobbling, and started walking around and in front of the stage. On stilts.  Ah, the wobbling was making sense now.

He was nearly twice as tall as all the standing audience members (us), and his long black robe covered the stilts. He wobbled, slowly and ominously, among the crowd, pointing and poking at little kids, which, in a country that has such a different relationship with death than my own, only elicited giggles. Had I been a child witnessing this, I very likely would have wet my pants and had nightmares for years.

Death, after a long, dramatic entrance (and funny, too: he pretended to trip on some kids at one point) walked in front of the first rows, and started lifting up his black robe. Slowly.

I suddenly wondered if the actor playing Death might be insane, and suddenly about to flash the entire audience. But no one seemed alarmed, and he performed a little strip tease, removing his robe, gyrating his torso, and revealing that he had on only small black bike pants, and stilts. The audience started catcalling him. I was suddenly experiencing one of my most surreal moments in my many surreal moments in Mexico.

The more naked he got, the more vulnerable he got, too — and it hit me: Death is vulnerable, death is not something be feared, it’s something to laugh at. A very Mexican moment indeed.

He took off the stilts and climbed on stage, pulling a random man from the audience. He then forced the young man to mimic whatever he did. Of course, Death was a gymnast, a pantomime and a comedian all in one. The random dude could only haplessly perform cartwheels, or backflips, or advanced yoga poses, mimicking death as best he could, but failing, making the audience roar with laughter, as Death stood near by, enjoying his superiority.

Trick-or-Treating – for Pesos and Peanuts

Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos occur at the same time (by the way: not a random thing — the Spanish forcibly moved the Aztec death celebrations from August to All Saints’ Day as part of their whole conquering bit).

Although Day of the Dead still appears to be the predominant celebration, Halloween has definitely been at least partially adopted by Mexican kids. As in, trick or treating. And not just for one night – but an entire weekend of trick or treating, since Day of the Dead is actually several days long, and why limit trick-or-treating to just one night?

And while we’re at it, why limit it to candy?

DIEZ PESOS!

Last Friday night, Jeremy, Nancy, Brendan and I were having a few beers out on the leafy central plaza in Puebla, Mexico. Being that it was Day of the Dead weekend, there were many elaborate altars set up in the plaza, and hundreds of families milling about.

It didn’t take but a few seconds before we heard “calaverita???” We turned around to see a small child, dressed in a costume, holding up an orange plastic pumpkin.

Calavera means skull in Spanish, and sugar skull candy is one of the main decorations that adorns altars. But a calaverita (little skull) means something entirely different. In some instances, it can mean a little poem about death. And, more important to this story, it’s what kids here say instead of “trick-or-treat.”

AND, well, once you’ve been asked to give a calaverita, don’t expect to hand out candies in return. Kids here want money. Pesos. Thank god we’ve been in Mexico long enough to be aware of this “cultural difference” or else it could have gotten really awkward really fast.

It’s brilliant, really. Why mess with Smarties or Snickers when you can collect cold, hard cash?

Many of the kids that night who approached us were dressed in costumes, polite and accompanied by their parents. Perhaps because we were obviously tourists (no kids with us, and one of us is a 6’4” white guy) we got approached more than other diners around us.

As you can imagine in a country that is struggling so much with poverty, and in a situation where money is literally being handed out, street kids also make grand efforts for calaveritas, regardless of whether they have a costume. We had one such young boy approach us.

You’d assume that when faced with a street kid, you’d immediately feel a melting sensation your heart and feel compelled to give, right?

Wrong. He was a tough, old street kid, not interested in making any effort to elicit sympathy. You could tell he had dispensed with that long ago and replaced it with straight-up aggression.

He was maybe five years old, and clad in dirty clothes. He ran up to our table demanding “DIEZ PESOS! DIEZ PESOS” (10 pesos, which is similar in value and size to a dollar coin). Because of how brazen he was, we all laughed — “what a great opening line,” “this kid’s funny,” we thought.

We normally gave even the most polite children a peso (about a dime’s worth), and so, we did the same for him. Each time one of us plunked a peso into his pumpkin, he’d hold the pumpkin up to his face, peer deeply inside, and then look up at us with a pissed-off face. He kept demanding more, and so we gave him a few more pesos but had to eventually cut him off.

Finally, seething at us for not forking over sums of money he considered adequate, he (without asking) grabbed at a plate of peanuts on the table, took a huge handful, and started eating them, in front of us. After one big swallow, he did it again.

Again, you’d think this would immediately cause us to have a heart attack of guilt – he’s so hungry!!! — but this kid was 4 going on 45. He was arrogant about it, laughing defiantly and checking closely to see if it would piss us off more — a goal you could tell he was clamoring to achieve. His attitude was basically: We should be grateful he was eating our peanuts. Jeremy finally shooed him off (gently) and we resumed drinking our beers, a bit floored by the whole event, but not having much time to really think about what it meant to be this kid, and act that way, since after he left, it didn’t take long before more kids approached, Halloween pumpkins in hand.