Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mardi Gras in Loreto Bay

It´s been a while since I´ve written about a party in these pages – not that there haven´t been a few “unreported” events during that time, but this week there was an occasion that demands to be reported!

Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – Carnival – the last chance “blow out” before the beginning of Lent goes by many names, but this past marked the date for a celebration that has set a new standard for “Fiesta” here in Loreto Bay!  Last year I had missed the first such Mardi Gras Party that was held at a private home in the Nopolo neighborhood that surrounds our development.  That party was organized by Shelia and Manfred, the same couple that has been the driving force behind the very successful Paella events that I have written about several times previously.

This year Shelia had much more ambitious plans for a celebration.  First of all she was able to secure the Golf Course Clubhouse as the venue, with the generous co-operation and support of Homex and the Inn at Loreto Bay.  Relying on a small core group of volunteers, mainly drawn from the recently formed Nopolo Property Owners Association, extensive planning and preparations were undertaken to organize a much bigger event this year with the proceeds to be divided between their Association and CARITAS, a local charity that assists the most disadvantaged in and around Loreto. 
The inner courtyard of the Clubhouse was beautifully decorated with lights and banners to make an ideal dance floor and tents were erected around the outside of the building where tables and chairs were arranged for the partiers and a service bar was set up in the snack bar area that was kept busy all evening serving wine and beer and the special cocktail of the evening, Hurricanes, the signature drink of New Orleans.  On the west side of the Clubhouse, food tents were set up where the appetizers, jambalaya, salads and desserts would be served.

Starting a few weeks in advance, posters were printed and wristbands were available for sale at various locations around the development – 250 pesos in advance, 300 at the door, and as the date got closer the buzz began to build as people made plans for masks and costumes to wear, which were encouraged, but not required.

Now, in a town the size of Loreto, which has more than adequate shopping options for the basics; food, liquor, simple hardware etc. – but when it comes to something like a mask, let alone a costume for Mardi Gras – well, suffice to say, I tried several of the toy and gift stores without any luck and I was wandering along the main tourist shopping street, wondering what to do, when all of a sudden the solution was staring me in the face – literally!

There, in front of one of the tourist shops was a display of “Luchador” (wrestler) masks, the unique full head masks traditionally worn by professional wrestlers in the “Lucha Libre” (free wrestling) events, popular throughout Mexico.  The small sizes in the display that caught my eye were obviously intended for children, but when I inquired inside the store, the proprietor quickly found a large plastic bag full of dozens of adult sized masks and I started looking for my Mardi Gras identity.

Although there were many colorful and elaborate masks to choose from, I had a clear idea of what I was looking for, now that I had a plan.  As unlikely as it sounds, in my wardrobe here I happened to have a Chinese “proletarian” suit I had picked up years ago on a visit to Chinatown in San Francisco – big baggy drawstring pants with a high collared jacket closed with fabric “frogs”, all black, trimmed in white at the collar and cuffs.  So when I found a black mask trimmed in white my costume was complete!

I had invited a couple of friends to meet at my place before the party, as I live nearby the Clubhouse, and when they arrived I asked one of them to braid my ponytail so it would stick out through the laced opening up the back of the mask.  After a fortifying cocktail we all headed across to the Clubhouse to join in the festivities which were well underway by that time.

The courtyard was decked out in lots of strings of lights and hanging paper lanterns with a small “L” shaped stage in one corner.  I was impressed to see that about half of the almost 250 people in attendance were in the spirit of the celebration and wearing some sort of mask and/or costume – ranging from sublime to the improvisational.  Some of these costumes had obviously been brought down specifically for this occasion, others had been made up on the spot from bits and pieces that were accessible, but whether it was a simple eye mask and a few strings of purple and gold beads, or an elaborate custom made costume, the spirit of Carnival was in the air.  Even those who did not participate by dressing up played an important role in the evening  – they made up the appreciative audience for those who were in disguise.

During the evening I was struck by how many of the crowd had made the effort at some sort of costume or disguise, and in addition to the familiar (or, depending on the mask and costume, not so familiar) group of Homeowners in attendance, it pleased me very much to see a larger number of Mexicans than I have seen attending previous social events here in Loreto Bay, and many of them were in family groups, with young children, often wearing masks and costumes and very much participating in the evening´s celebrations.

Soon after we arrived Los Beach Dogs took to the stage and the main entertainment began, but for this event the regular trio of Rich, Steve and George were complimented by the addition of “stray dog” Tony, who is also a Homeowner here, but not in residence fulltime, so he only adds his percussion skills to the group when his occasional visits coincide with their gigs – and this was one of those nights!  During breaks in the music there was additional entertainment, including a folkloric dance demonstration by a group of youngsters from town and a dramatic fire dance performed after dark on the putting green on the south side of the Clubhouse.

When word spread that the food was being served a line quickly formed at the food tent where plates were filled with savory rice jambalaya, a green salad and fresh coleslaw followed by homemade pastries and deserts – delicious! 

After the meal had been consumed it was time to award prizes in several categories including best couple and  all of the winners received gift baskets that had been generously donated by local businesses including Dali Deli and the Oasis Hotel in town and many of the new shops that have opened in Loreto Bay: Jovina´s Spa, the Fresh Market, the Wine Cellar, El Corazon and Machiatos Café.  Finally, the King and Queen of Mardi Gras were crowned; George, who made a very striking Zorro and Paulette (who owns a pie shop that recently opened in town) in an incredible “Queen of Pies” costume.

The dancing and festivities went on until almost 10:00 pm, or Baja midnight as we call it here, and that night the revelers on the Paseo made an unusually colorful procession as they found their way home to their Casas.  While it may have been my imagination, I could swear that I heard “Laissez les bons temps rouler” faintly echoing through our community that night – and whether or not it is Mardi Gras, that is definitely part of Living Loreto!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

El Corazon - the new heart of Loreto Bay

This is another posting in the series about new businesses that have opened this season along the Paseo here in Loreto Bay.  When I returned at the end of September, renovation work had begun on the large storefront across the street from my small Real Estate office. For more than the next two months a busy crew of workmen labored away inside the building, first of all adding several French Doors along the north wall to match the four sets along the street front.

But most of their efforts were concentrated on the interior.  Then, in late November, a full size tractor trailer was parked in front of the building and for most of that day box after box, bundle after bundle – all of the furniture and fixtures - were unloaded inside until the 50 foot trailer was empty.  This was followed by another couple of weeks of finishing work; including flag stoning and planting a small patio area across the front separating the French Doors from the sidewalk, repainting the front façade and generally tidying up the outside appearance.

Finally, in early December, just before my trip back to Calgary for Christmas, El Corazon opened its doors to the public!  During the renovation period the resident population in Loreto Bay had gradually increased in number to its pre-Christmas Holiday level and with it, the curiosity had built steadily as the work progressed – everyone was anxious to see what the finished product was going to look like – and we were not to be disappointed!

Inside the doors was a beautiful barista-style café, with an arrangement of tables and chairs, a counter bar with a view out onto the Paseo and in the back an inviting conversation corner with leather couches and chairs around a coffee table scattered with current glossy magazines.  Filling the other corner and far wall was an enclosed kitchen\prep room separated by swinging louvered half doors and a sleek counter area, anchored by a refrigerated glass food display cabinet, cashier area and the all important espresso machine (custom made in Italy and finished in gleaming Ferrari red). 

Along the wall behind the counter was more food storage and a preparation counter with all the tools of the trade; blenders for “smoothies” and shelves of glassware and mugs along with the bottles of flavoring and a small selection of liqueurs. In short, this long dark room (formerly a furniture storage and display space) had been transformed into a world class café that would not be out of place on the boulevards of any major city – and here it was, in Loreto Bay!

As you might expect, there is a story behind this transformation – and so, a couple of weeks ago I sat down on the sunny patio with the Owner, Jennifer, and asked her how she had come to create such a wonderful space here in our community.

Jennifer has been a Homeowner in Loreto Bay for almost four years, but due to the demands of a busy professional life in media businesses in Vancouver, Canada, her home here had sat empty and unfurnished for almost two years before she brought a trailer load of furniture and household effects down in May of 2010.  After finally getting her home set up over several trips that winter, she was beginning to feel settled and started to meet more people in her new winter home.  Soon she struck up a friendship with Paola, who was working in another business in Loreto Bay at the time, and as they got to know each other, these two entrepreneurial women spent time talking about business opportunities here in the development.

After considering several possibilities they settled on the idea of a café\bakery and in the late spring of last year they began the research and planning of what has become El Corazon.  Coincidentally, during the summer a new Property Manager was appointed for the commercial spaces along the Paseo, with the mandate to fully lease the available storefronts, and so in early August Jennifer and Paola, who was now the General Manager and partner in the venture, selected the space that was ideal for what they had in mind and began planning the necessary renovations.

While Jennifer, back in Canada, sourced the equipment and furnishings and planned the logistics of building a North American style café, Paola, who is a Mexican citizen and perfectly fluent in both languages, went about setting up a Mexican Corporation and securing all the necessary permits and licenses to operate the business here.  During the summer, Paola also went to Portland and took a one week crash course, training her in the necessary barista skills, while Jennifer, for whom food has been a long time passion, began to test and collect recipes for the baking and light meals that would be offered from their kitchen.  They also sourced the finest fair trade Mexican coffee beans and arranged to have them fresh roasted and delivered from the Mainland weekly.

But their business plan went beyond coffee and the food that goes with it, they saw El Corazon as a gathering place for the community, a cultural hub that will offer film, art, music and other special events including kid´s matinee movies, performances by Los Beach Dogs as well as using the space for exhibits and other things that will add to the quality of life here for all Homeowners and Visitors.  There is another symbol of the thought and “soul” that has gone into this enterprise, tucked away in the back corner stands an elegantly mirrored corner table with two small black and white photos – pictures of Jennifer & Paola´s mothers, to whom they have dedicated their venture.

To accomplish these ambitious goals, not to mention run a thriving business, requires a small but dedicated team.  Key to that team is a professional barista, Ryan, who was recruited from Vancouver where he had an impressive career operating and managing coffee based hospitality businesses large and small.  As well as bringing his expertise to the espresso machine, he is also in charge of training the other staff and getting the day to day operations right.  That staff includes Lupita, who is in charge of the kitchen and has quickly become locally famous for her cinnamon buns and other tasty specialties like their pulled pork sandwiches, and Christina who prepares the menu of snacks and sandwiches and keeps the premises impeccably clean and tidy, dealing with the steady stream of cups and dishes that their patrons use.

From the outset, Jennifer and Paola have had a bicultural vision for their business, and they are rightly proud of the acceptance that El Corazon has found with both their local and foreign clientele, Homeowners, vacationing Visitors, workers and other businesspeople from the neighborhood all of whom are regular customers in the busy café.  This cultural sensitivity extends even to the name and logo of the shop, incorporating a familiar folk art rendition of the heart – “El Corazon” – an historic symbol from the Mexican lottery tradition, that is often seen over cafes in all parts of Mexico.

While there have been many challenges and lessons learned in the complex process of creating a business that would be at home in any major city in the world, here outside a small town in the Baja, Jennifer and Paola have been uncompromising in their vision and the results bear witness to her success so far.  El Corazon has quickly become a focal point within the community – not just for great coffee and delicious food – but for the realization of a goal - to become the “heart” of Living Loreto!           

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Herzon comes to Hoyo 19

We now have several restaurant choices here in Loreto Bay, but one of the first to open over a year ago was Hoyo 19, or the 19th Hole, located in the Golf Course Clubhouse.  Naturally enough in the beginning, they catered to the Golfers, serving breakfasts and lunches in a small snack bar off the courtyard of the Clubhouse, with patio seating overlooking the putting range and central lake dividing the 10th and 18th fairways.

The restaurant was opened by Juan Carlos, who owns and operates Mita Gourmet, one of the most popular dining places in the town of Loreto, located on the edge of the town square, but, from the beginning, Hoyo 19 was managed by his daughter Mita, (who his restaurant was named after) and her husband, Carlos (same name as her father – are you getting confused yet?).

After a successful start-up last year, the restaurant survived a quiet summer season, when the heat and the resulting small numbers of golfers was a challenge.  But this Fall renovations were completed to reclaim and decorate the Clubhouse Dining Room that was located several steps above the courtyard area.  There is a central room which contains most of the tables, with a smaller annex on one side offering more intimate seating, and a wide patio for dining “al fresco” with beautiful views through archways to the back nine and the Sierra de la Gigante mountains beyond.

The opening of this tastefully decorated room, with its white tablecloths and comfortable furniture, created a new option for fine dining right here in Loreto Bay.  For those of us who live here, this takes on even more significance because it gives us an alternative to driving the 30 km round trip into town when we feel like enjoying a nice evening meal in a restaurant.  Not to mention avoiding the potential hazard of an unexpected nocturnal encounter with stray livestock on the highway.

Recently, Mita and Carlos have added a new feature that has proved to be a very popular attraction to their evening clientele – Herzon, a local guitar virtuoso, now plays his blend of Jazz and Blues styling´s in the Dining Room on Thursday evenings.  Herzon has been a popular fixture at the downtown restaurant for several years, entertaining on the open air patio of Mita Gourmet, and now, here in Loreto Bay, we can also enjoy the pleasure of being entertained by one of the best local musicians while we taste fresh local seafood in a convenient neighborhood setting.

This past week I suggested having dinner there to a couple of friends who were making a return visit to Loreto Bay after over a year´s absence.  Jackie and Cliff had been involved in the sales department with the original Developer, and had lived in Loreto during the early years of the project, so they were very interested in seeing the many improvements and new services that have been developed since their last visit. 

I had invited them for a pre-dinner drink at my home, and so we arrived at Hoyo 19 a bit later than our 7:00 o´clock reservation, which I was very glad I had made, since all the tables in the restaurant were taken, except the one they were holding for us closest to the corner where Herzon was set up.  As we waited to be seated and I looked around the dining room I was struck by one of those “only in Loreto” moments – I knew most of the people there!  How many other places can you walk into a restaurant filled with over 50 people and know, or at least have a nodding acquaintance with almost all of them – only in Loreto!

When we were seated, we immediately relaxed and started to enjoy Herzon´s music and then ordered a bottle of wine.  Simplicity of life here extends even to the wine selection, no list, just the first obvious choice – red or white, and then several varietals; we chose one of two Argentine Merlots and toasted the evening. 

I gathered that most of the other patrons must have arrived just before we had, as the staff were kept very busy taking orders, serving drinks, and first courses, so, since we were thoroughly enjoying the company, the music and the wine, we were in no rush to place our dinner order – for a while – but at the point that I thought that we might have been overlooked, I caught Mita´s eye and soon we had our menus.

The selection here is straightforward, but more than adequate, with several salads and soups to start with, a few chicken and meat dishes along with a good variety of pasta preparations and a choice of noodles, but not surprisingly the specialty of the house is seafood.  Grilled filets of the catch of the day (often sea bass at this time of year) are served with half a dozen sauces including ingredients like; chipotle, garlic, lemon and cilantro with butter cream and olive oil.  Many of the same preparations are offered with shrimp and both are served on vegetable rice with a medley steamed veggies.

We started with a Caesar salad for three which was served on a large platter, full leaf style with one of the best house-made creamy dressings I have had in a long time, generously garnished with freshly grated parmesan and studded with large toasted croutons – delicious!  After our salad plates were cleared we settled back to continue to enjoy Herzon and await our mains. Due to a late lunch, Cliff and Jackie had opted to split a serving of fish with the cilantro sauce and I also ordered fish with butter and garlic.

Herzon plays an amplified acoustic guitar with a synthesizer providing rhythm & percussion and he has a strong repertoire of classic Jazz and Blues that he performs with flair and panache.  He had apparently started playing a couple of hours before we arrived and when we left about 10:00 he had not stopped or taken a break throughout our dinner – truly the hardest working musician in town!

Mita returned to our table shortly after we had ordered and informed us that due to the large crowd they had served that evening she was sorry to tell us that they had run out of fish filets.  What can I tell you – you know it has been a busy evening when a seafood restaurant runs out of fish! But she suggested substituting their shrimp for the filets and keep our choice of sauce and preparations the same.  We agreed and a few minutes later our main courses appeared – we were not disappointed!

After a delicious meal with fantastic music, we made the short trip back to casa mia, where we continued the evening by playing the Herzon CD that Cliff had purchased from him as we were leaving the restaurant. Eventually, when it was time for my Guests to leave I made sure to loan them a flashlight to help them find their way back to where they were staying – an essential piece of equipment for safe navigation of the odd dark spots when walking through the neighborhood at night.

As I tidied up after an evening of good friends, good food and good music, I couldn´t help remembering how far we had come over the past few years in making life in this community a rich and rewarding experience.  Thinking about how recently the idea of having an evening like this, here in Loreto Bay, was beyond what many of us expected in the foreseeable future, made me really appreciate how far we have come, Living Loreto!        

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Of Computers - Old & New

This week I experienced one of the apocryphal events of the modern world – the ´´motherboard´´ of my laptop computer had a meltdown.

While I had heard about this sort of disaster happening to others – whispered tales of woe shared behind closed doors – I had previously never experienced the life-as-we-know-it threatening consequences myself – until Monday afternoon.

I was in the Office watching a short video on a website, which I had noticed was taking a long time to ´´buffer´´ when, without further warning, the screen went blank white with hundreds of multi-colored dashes arranged diagonally. Being unable to escape this, I eventually powered the computer down by unplugging and pulling the battery, but when I tried to restart it my trusty HP laptop would not re-boot.

To say that I saw my life flash before my eyes would be perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but I definitely did have a ´´this can´t be happening to me´´ moment as the magnitude of all of a sudden being deprived of such a central part of so many aspects of my life was hard to grasp! Now I realize that all of you now reading this have your own relationship with the devices you are reading it on, but a computer, and particularly internet access through that computer, takes on an even more important role in our lives here in this remote part of the Baja.

In addition to our contact with friends and family, and the rest of the world, through email and other services like Skype which allow us to phone and video conference at little or no cost, there is, of course, the World Wide Web – providing news, entertainment, and access to the collective wisdom of the planet . . . not to mention Spider Solitaire! In my case, add to that running my Real Estate business, and of course, the small matter of this Blog.

To put this crisis into even clearer perspective, as I think I have confessed on previous occasions, I consider myself only barely computer literate. Like a well trained dog I know how to do what I do on a regular basis, but, get me out of my comfort zone and into any of the vast uncharted wilderness surrounding the small well trampled paths that I am familiar with in my day to day routine, and I am lost and afraid – very afraid.

(Being largely self taught, I have often told the story, as an example of my lack of my savvy with computers, of being on the phone with a Help Desk [years ago!] with an apparently young and highly skilled techy Nerd who was attempting to explain some esoteric programming details to me. I was feeling completely LOST so I interrupted him and said: ´´Excuse me, but before we go any further I think there is something you need to know – I saw the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan!´´ Following which there was a long pause on the other end of the phone, and then the Nerd slowly and patiently began again with the explanation on a suitably ´´primary´´ level of complexity!)

So when I was faced with this obviously serious – potentially fatal – crisis I sought out advice from the neighborhood IT specialists, Evan and Fox, who also conveniently run the local grocery store here in Loreto Bay. When I described my problem their initial prognosis was not good – Fox said that it sounded like the motherboard was ´´fried´´ but he would not be able to say for sure until he could take the computer apart and it would be a couple of days before he would be able to do that.

Later in the day, I was telling my sad tale to a neighbor and they suggested calling Francisco Medina, who had a computer service business in town that they had had good experiences with in the past, and see if he had any advice. I called him right away (he spoke excellent English) and made arrangements to bring my ´´dead´´ laptop to him the next morning and he assured me that he would have a diagnosis for me by noon.

I found Francisco´s shop located behind a medical lab near the Police Station and returned a couple of hours later to be told that in fact it was the power converter circuit on the motherboard, and while he could possibly order a new board it was probably advisable to replace the computer, considering it was 3 ½ years old and had reached the end of its reliable life.

Through this process, I have come to understand that most popularly priced laptops, in particular, have an expected lifespan of about 8,000 hours, beyond which they are on borrowed time and can have a fatal failure at any time. Considering my daily usage of up to 12 hours, my computer was well beyond that limit and so I was prepared for this judgment and asked Francisco to quote me on an upgraded replacement that I had been advised was a more ´´rugged´´ model that used better components and would presumably have a longer service life than the standard model I had been using all these years.

In the meantime, I had been doing some research online and knew what the retail price in Canada was for the new computer, but I also had determined that it would have to be ordered from the manufacturer, as I could not find this higher end product available in stock for sale at any of the regular retailers. The next day when Francisco quoted me a price it was about 25% higher than I would have paid in Canada, which was accounted for by the duty Mexico charges on goods from China, but the surprisingly good news was, that if I ordered it that day (Wednesday) he thought he could have it delivered here in Loreto from his Supplier in Mexico City by this Friday!

Having no immediate alternative plan, and not knowing who I knew that would be coming down here in the near future that could be imposed upon to bring a computer with them from Canada, I decided to go ahead and order it from Francisco. After passing a couple of very unusual days without access to a computer, I became very aware of how many ways I had become dependent on it for a large part of my life routines. I was conscious of how my presence in the online world was shut off and my ´´footprint´´ in cyberspace was gone – my unthinking (bad) habits of checking for email dozens of times a day and regularly visiting various websites were stopped ´´cold turkey´´. Snippets from the song: ´´You don´t know what you´ve got ´till it´s gone´´ played over and over in my now strangely quiet brain.

So, to make a short story long, it all worked out! The new computer did arrive on Friday and Francisco transferred all of my files from old to new and then delivered it to my home that evening. A few adjustments were required that he did on a return visit Saturday morning at my Office and now I am the proud owner of a beautiful new Toshiba Tecra 850 – twice as fast, 3 times deeper memory and pristine. One minor and unexpected adjustment is that, since it was purchased here in Mexico, it has a Spanish keyboard (of course) with a few unique features like Ñ, and ¨, and ¿, among others that I´m sure I will eventually find.

But, more importantly, I´m BAAAACK! And through this experience I have come to appreciate how different life would be here if computers were not such an indispensible part of ´´Living Loreto´´!