Mar 7, 2012

Matanchén Cove - Cauldron of Fish and Bird Activity

If you try to fail, and succeed,
Which have you done?
George Carlin 

Our favorite little boy at Ismael's restaurant, Oscar
We are sitting at anchor having a glass of wine at sundown in the cockpit. Nikki cannot seem to stand seeing me quiet and relaxed so she attacks my left leg, growling, playful – needing attention just like any kid.

A nice light breeze is keeping the jejenes at bay for a while. We are taking advantage of the ‘biting’ respite to enjoy the outdoors without extra layers of clothing or slathered with bug repellant. Although we both love the desert, we are discussing just how nice it is to finally be in the tropics despite these bugs.

Cannot really tell the scale of the amount of fish by this picture but we are completely surrounded by them
Déjàlà sounds like it is in the middle of a huge simmering cauldron with thousands of bubbles created by many small yellow and silver fish surrounding the boat. Not sure if these fish use the boat for shade or protection but since there are so many, we are also the target of the constant bomb-diving of pelicans (called pterodactyls by Nikki) hunting for dinner. Nikki tries to keep them at bay and does a good job of keeping them at least from landing on the boat and soiling it. However, there are no dry areas on the boat. Even the cockpit can get wet when these giants blast down ungracefully to catch their preys.

If/when outside, we have to protect computers or Kindles from unwanted splashes when the pelicans are nearby. As dusk comes there are fewer and fewer of them fishing. It seems junior and old ones are the last to eat, maybe they take a little longer to get their quota of daily food. Also found floating by are blue and purple crabs trying to swim to rocks or land. I think these crabs get caught in nets and need to find footing again after being extracted like this. It seems they are around us more after fishing nets are pulled back into pangas at the end of the day.

We spent a very short time in San Blas to finish re-provisioning before our next destination, hopefully Chacala if the anchorage area is not full. We have seen many Canadians and Americans who spend several winter months, and have done so for several years, in San Blas. Many own homes here even though San Blas is not considered a touristic area (yet!).

San Blas is in the State of Nayarit and by pure luck we came across our favorite coffee. We had not realized Capulin coffee was from this state in Mexico. Should you need to buy some, it can be found at the restaurant Wala Wala (note that the food there is not very good but you can go in to use internet or purchase coffee) by the ½ kilo or smaller. Capulin coffee is a known fair trade coffee where the money is better distributed to the growers and workers than brokers and sellers. The beans never touch water or any other liquid to take the husks away. Every bean is naturally dried in the sun and husked by hand. Since no liquids are used in the process, all the coffee alkaloids are still present; they have not been leached out with any fluids. It is a delicious strong coffee worth a try especially in Mexico where that type of coffee is hard to come by. It is somewhat like the Kona of Mexico.

San Blas is the first town where I feel I finally have to use Spanish. Since not so touristic, very few people know any English and you have to work harder to communicate with them and that is, for me, the best way to learn.

We did the semi-obligatory visit of the main plaza, the churches, the fort, the old church’s ruins, the view of the whole town from a promontory point, the community center as well as the community market. It seems most Mexican towns are laid out the same way so it is becoming easier over time to find anything. The only surprise here for us was not to be able to find a true panaderia (bakery). The one mentioned in the cruisers guide is no longer open.

Community Center in San Blas
Nice bench in San Blas
Church Ruins - San Blas
Inspiration to Longfellow who wrote poem: The Bells of San Blas
Small church in Matanchén
Upon our return to the cove, we stopped again at Ismael’s restaurant to try out ‘aguachile’, a type of spicy ceviche presented artistically in a nice oval pottery dish rather than just a bowl. It was delicious and the ‘chef’ who put it together is a young gentleman “Joe” who only works there on weekends, while going to culinary school in Tepic (40 miles away) during the week. This kid seemed so excited to go to school and learn. He was happy to make us an aguachile Mazatlán style since that is where he is originally from.

We love supporting the smaller businesses around the cove rather than the bigger stores in town. To be served what the family eats makes it a lot more real and less touristic. To be given the time to explain the various food offerings is a welcome gift as well.

On this note of small businesses to support, another one we found around the cove is “Nautilus Restaurant”; when open, the owner sells home smoked bacon, ham and beef jerky. These meats are smoked with almond, tamarind or lychee nut woods and the best smoked meats we’ve ever had. It is well worth the effort to look him up; he is only a 5-10 minute walk from Ismael’s restaurant towards the west end of the cove.

As we are watching people only spend one day here and leave the next, I am often wondering just how much they get out of discovering a place like San Blas in such a short while. We have been here over a week and it feels WE are still barely scratching the surface. We have thankfully seen the oyster divers, the pangas and their nets, the ever present ambulant sales people, a restaurant owner and his family, bakers (this place is known for its banana nut bread), historic parts of town, the jungle, the miles of beach and narrow dirt back roads, found great local coffee, yet there is so much more to explore. What we remember most strongly are the connections to real people like Ismael and his family.

The longer we stay here, the more I notice the very intricate networking going on. In the beehive of constant activity at the restaurant for example you will find bartering, selling, buying, teaching, babysitting, cooking, building, cleaning, etc.  People walking, biking, motorcycling or driving cars weave in and out of the kitchen area coming in or out with bags full of stuff – seafood, fish, tortillas, bottles, etc. I have yet to see money exchanged so I don’t know if they tally it all up and pay at certain times or is it true barter?

Each generation is taught the trade very early on. The kids are raking the sand, sweeping around the kitchen, wiping down tables and chairs as they see the adults do. The other day even Oscar, only 2 years old, the grandson of the owner, asked us if we were coming in to eat! Kids from various families spend hours around here. The older ones are babysitting others; some are keeping an eye on the new puppy, others playing at making and serving food or pulling weeds. It is a very safe place to be and play. There always seems to be an adult nearby watching whether they are customers or workers.

Other than cooking food to sell to folks like us (visitors), it seems local customers bring their own seafood/fish for Ismael’s team to prep and cook for them. It is a concept somewhat like the corkage fee on wine in the US except here it is with food. Since they are dealing with so many fishing folks, it seems to make good business sense.

We’ve even witnessed customers asking for bug repellent and the waitress would bring them a couple of types to choose from if they aren’t ready to bring smoking coconut husks nearby (usually embers are not available until the smoking of fish has gone on for a while).

Although tourism has been way down since 2009 Ismael is changing and adding to his palapa. He has to move it further away from the beach due to higher water, waves, and erosion. This restaurant is well known so during the high season he is booked solid. Palm leaves are split in half for roofing, new posts are dug, new roofing is laid, and old roofing is burnt away. Restrooms are built, kitchen moved further from beach, weeds are pulled to expand the parking area – it goes on like that all week long.

Most of these places, although they have electricity, do not seem to have freezers as we see huge blocks of ice delivered daily. They live simply and all seem happy that way. I have yet to see the kids with computer games and the likes. They play with what they find: shells, sticks, dogs, plastic bottles, hoses, sand, plants, bricks, hammocks, etc.  The good old days if you ask me.

There seem to be strong affiliations everywhere. Taxi drivers have their favorite restaurants they will ‘lead’ you to since they get a cut of the business (or it is a family business of their own). They’ll go to the extent of telling you something is closed down in order to lure you where they want. When buying cabbages the other day (a main staple used instead of lettuce in Mexico since it keeps a lot longer), we inquired about buying cheese. The gentleman pointed to a very old lady by the town square with only a red cooler next to her saying she had real Mexican cheese for sale. We purchased some to find out a few minutes later that right next door to the grocer where we purchased the cabbages was a place that sold various types of cheeses but he didn’t affiliate with them…

Other foods we tried while here: dehydrated and fried bananas salted that you eat with hot sauce – sounds odd but is actually quite good. The Mexican version of corn bread (pan de elote), cheese cake (pay de queso), or whipped cream cake (pan de nata). All delicious but quite rich – couldn’t eat them on a daily basis.

It seems all we are mentioning in this blog is Ismael’s restaurant but I think he is quite representative of the way most families live and work around here. We were just lucky enough to mingle extra closely with his family to see this more clearly.

These people are proud of their jejene (noseeum) bugs...
We are glad we came here despite all the exaggerated warnings of thefts and problems in the area. Some old paranoid person with a radio and some connections in San Blas is scaring many people from coming here and it is sad. We recommend this cove and its surroundings.

Since writing this post.  We have known people who have had problems with things being stolen, even in broad day light.  Be careful of your surroundings wherever you are.

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