Puerto Vallarta!

Thanks so much to Jill for generously hosting us in Vancouver! After a not-too-bad but loonnnnngggg day flying from YVR (up at 2:30 am for the taxi to the airport) through Mexico City to Vancouver, we arrived at the hacienda in Puerto Vallarta. We are staying at the Hotel Posada Lily, corner of Basillio Badillo and Olas Altas, the epicentre of Old Town tourism, until Feb 25, in the same room as last year, number 20. Slightly unfortunately, and surprisingly to me, there is construction right across the street at the Hotel Los Arcos. They are adding a wing that is another story or two higher than the original hotel, somewhat impacting the charm of this location.

However, in the early mornings and evenings, when the banging and grinding has stopped, the place is pleasant. Below is the view from our front balcony, out over the elementary school (may they never tear it down!) and the Lazaro Cardenas Park, zumba-central here in Old Town.

Our room has a small kitchenette and we cook lots and eat out on the balcony overlooking the activity below. On any given night we are treated to Aztec dancers, guys doing acrobatic tricks, young boys singing La Bamba (out of tune), the donut man, chess players, drunken tourists trying to cross the street, muscle cars with blaring Latin music, and huge crowds lined up, for some unknown reason since tacos are everywhere here, at the taco stand du jour across the street … the whole panoply of Puerto Vallarta life.

Maggie has joined us for the first month and is in room 19 next door; we have taken over the top floor of the Lily.

One of the first couple of nights we headed out to grab some pesos from the bank near the Church of Guadalupe, with its gorgeous silver crown lit up at night glowing in the dark, and to sample some shrimp tacos from Ty’s favourite taco stand near the Municipal Market.

Luckily, the tacos are still great and we savoured the street-side feast.

One of the great things about this location is its closeness to the Malecon, the seafront boardwalk that stretches from Old Town out to 5th of Diciembre; we walk it every second day, enjoying the scene; everyone from vendors to dog-walkers to joggers to cyclists to segway riders is out and about in the morning. As usual, Ty is accosted by folks trying to sell him pipes and other assorted smoking paraphernalia (pssst Mr Whiskers, how about some weed?) Volunteers are adding more beautiful mosaics to the grandstand area of the Park.

Pro tip: the best place to get a great cup of coffee is in Old Town at Page in the Sun. We stopped further down the Malecon at an Italian Coffee shop right on the Boardwalk where Ty was given a cup of dark brown liquid that looked like coffee but had zero coffee taste (the grounds had obviously been run through about 5 times before his cup, leaving nothing of coffee for him – weird). My cappuccino was ok, though. (First world problems!)

Also down here for two months are Pam, Cec, and Beatrice, in residence at Selva Romantica, a lovely condo complex quite near our place, where we have been treated to delicious dinners a couple of times.

Each evening around 9 there is a short burst of fireworks which we were able to see from their balcony, looking north.

Another sunny morning, another stroll along the Malecon. Below is part of Isla Cuale, the green oasis of art and culture in Puerto Vallarta.

Below is a photo of my favourite Malecon sculpture; I don’t know the name of the artist but every year we enjoy sitting on these bronze creatures’ laps. Each body has a different selection of animal extremities which I find very amusing.

I love how areas of the bronze have been rubbed golden by the thousands of hands and bottoms that have enjoyed these sculptured beings.

The Mexicans seem to love Surrealism, in art, literature, and film. These creatures remind me a bit of the monster with eyeballs in his hands in the film Pan’s Labyrinth from a while back.

Puerto Vallarta’s art scene is still lively, with new murals springing up around the city. The one below, on the Isla Cuale, is still one of my favourites. Every Friday afternoon expats and tourists play social bridge at the International Friendship Club, whose headquarters are above the HSBC across the river from the Isla Cuale. Maggie and I gave it a whirl, along with about a hundred other people at a forest of white plastic tables set out in the building’s interior and courtyard.

Although I had not played at all while up in FSJ, I wasn’t too bad, albeit rusty. I seem to have forgotten some of the finer details of the bidding, though, but Maggie did not get too exercised about my incompetence.

Below is the courtyard of the Centre; one side is occupied by the Friendship Club, the other by the University of Guadalajara.

Having worked up a thirst with our afternoon of cards, Ty met us and we headed over to the Island for a drink at one of our favourite watering holes, the Brazzas Cafe.

After a few tasty margaritas at the bar, we rolled over to Marisco Cisneros for their fantastic seafood soup.

Friday nights in Old Town see the local Folkloric Ballet company dancing in the Lazaro Cardenas Park to lively Latin music, featuring dances and costumes from several of the nearby States.

We finished that evening by meeting Beatrice for music at the Mole de Jovita cafe, listening to singer and guitarist Neiri.

A nice find was the Bar La Playa right next to the Saturday market; sitting there sipping a cold one, we chatted to several people we knew passing by after visiting the Market.

Having had the Los Lirios Seafood restaurant recommended to them, Pam, Cec, and Beatrice invited us to join them for dinner. A small family-run place which does not take reservations, the restaurant was packed when we arrived. The one hour wait was worth it, though – our seafood burritas were huge and stuffed with hot, spicy shrimp – yum!

Puerto Vallarta is packed to the rafters this season. People have told us that they have never seen the place so full. The hotels are full and if you do not get to the beach by 10, a lounger is not to be had.

So naturally Ty and I were up and out the door early, to be the first people on the beach at Swell Beach Bar, one of our fave haunts on the Playa de los Muertos. Ty is getting into the swing of retirement, project-managing his consumption of cervesas in the most optimum manner.

Sunday is the day when all the local families come down to the beach with all their kids and gear, playing volleyball and frolicking in the water.

And Sunday night is the night for dancing at the main square with the Municipal Band, attracting both locals and tourists. The couple below have probably been dancing together for 40 years and they move together like magic.

I popped into Art Vallarta to see what was up there and to check out my friend Angie’s Pillars of Painting class in the centre’s downstairs painting studio. All four of the students were painting up a storm and seemed very happy with what they were able to produce in only 3 days.

Some of the works from the Women and Men Paint Women show were still up in the Centre’s Gallery, a beautiful, colourful space.

A new clay maestro from North Carolina, Rob, is in residence teaching ceramics and creating a clay portrait bust for the upcoming Magical Mar show featuring works about water and the ocean. The exhibition will feature one of my films, Awash, and paintings, ceramics, textile installations, and sculpture by local and international artists.

Veronica is also there, teaching watercolours to an eager crowd of beginners.

And Carol Anne offers acrylic pour painting, painting on silk, and fused glass classes weekly during the high season. The place was alive with creative buzz.

Lest you think that I’m doing nothing but drink beer and lie on the beach, here are some photos to show that I am easing into the art-making down here as part of the Puerto Vallarta Plein Air Painters, a group of people who head out into the streets every week to paint the local scene.

Every week the group paints at a different location; today’s was the back streets of Gringo Gultch, made famous by the lovebirds Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who canoodled here in the 60s while making The Night of the Iguana, the film that brought the world to PV.

This is the spot I chose to paint, first sitting on stone steps but then chased off by a constant stream of ants and a very affectionate cat who insisted on rubbing against me and all my gear. He also walked across my paint palette, leading Angie and I to franticly try rubbing all the turquoise paint off his four paws. We later learned his name is Pasquale; he is the cat of a local singer here, Sylvie.

There are quite a few street cats here who look to be in pretty good shape; the one below watched me balefully, definitely not as friendly as Pasquale.

I did the first layer of a street scene that I wasn’t particularly enamoured of, but will see how it looks after adding more colour, lights, and darks.

Here is Angie in the middle of working on her piece; she ended up staying there almost all day to finish it. As you can see, she has all the requisite gear for painting outside, including the umbrella.

See more photos here.

Moroccan Cooking in Mexico

Ty and I joined Nathalie and eight other food lovers to create a wonderful Moroccan dinner, led by clay-cooking Maestra Nathalie, in the kitchen high in the sky above the Art Vallarta studio. Photo below by Debbie Berlin.

Here’s the description from Nathalie’s website:

Food is Art when prepared with heart and soul. We will explore every aspect of la comida international. Down to the vessel it is prepared in, selection of ingredients, how the sauce is stirred and the moments of presentation & enjoyment.

Cooking Classes and Events will be held in an handcrafted Mexican tile ART Kitchen in the Romantic Zone. Puerto Vallarta on the 8th Floor of the San Franciscan complex over looking the fabulous Bay of Vallarta. 213 Calle Pilitas, Emiliano Zapata, half a block off Olas Altas in the heart of the Romantic Zone.

Holy Mole Moroccan Cooking Class – The Menu:

Pomegranate Mint Cocktail

Moroccan Meatballs with dipping sauce

Chicken Almond Bastilla

Dried salted tomatoes, olives, preserved lemons and vegetable fish Tagine

Traditional Vegetable Tagine with Lamb Merguez Sausage and Ras El Hanout spice

Preserved Lemons and Pomegranate Molasses

Rose water and spices steamed couscous grain

Traditional Yogurt Cake, orange blossom ice cream with fruits (Photo below by Debbie Berlin)

Wine, Mint Tea and Coffee

Each of us contributed to making the dinner, from slicing the tomatoes, to grilling the meatballs and chicken, to preparing the fillo pastry, to slicing the fish and preparing the shrimp, to grinding the spices with mortar and pestle.

While we worked the multi-talented Froylan Hernandez serenaded us on his guitar.

All the dishes were cooked on the gas stove-top in clay vessels, including a beautiful tagine made by Froylan, topped with a delightful little ceramic blowfish.

After everything was prepared and cooked, we sat down to dinner on Nathalie’s delightful terrace overlooking Banderas Bay to enjoy the fruits of our labours – fantastic!

See more here.

For more info about Art Vallarta click here.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Temples, Food, and Christmas Spirits

Kuala Lumpur – food, temples, and shopping … shopping … shopping. ‘Tis the season to shop here in Malaysia; however, neither of us is a shopper, unless we’re talking about electronica (Ty) and vintage clothes (Lisa), but luckily, given that there’s zero room in the ol’ luggage, I’ve not found any vintage shops here yet. It’s the Christmas season in KL, and surprisingly, for a muslim town, there’s plenty of Christmas cheer, including santas, elves, trees, and stockings, to go around, even if we’re not buying much.

We got here two days ago, multitudes of bags in tow, and are ensconced at the Nest Guesthouse in Bukit Bintang, the so-called “golden triangle” of KL, the shopping and food epicentre – who knew? Unbelievably, for two people who love food as we do, this is exactly the right place to stay in KL; there are fabulous restaurants, bars, and street vendors everywhere in this area, and a huge variety of food to be had at about one third the cost of what we’d pay in Vancouver. Fine dining, ethnic, fusion, steam boat street food, dim sum, pizza, Vietnamese, Thai – whatever we fancy, it’s here.

The Nest is a small three story place just recently opened and our room is quite tiny, with a window opening into the interior of the building, a window we’ve not yet opened. It boasts a pantry for breakfast, a psuedo living room w couches, TV, and computers, and a tiny balcony for die-hard smokers. Our first night we wandered through the neighbourhood, had dinner at a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant, walked through Jalan Alor, a street-food-vendor mecca, and around Jalan Bukit Bintang, the streets of which were full of people, noise, music from a live band, hookers and their customers, and mega foot massage parlours. KL is a foot fetishist’s dream. We had a drink in a couple of places and watched the action before staggering back to the Nest and to bed.

Our first full day was spent walking from our place, through Chinatown’s Petaling Street, to a Chinese Temple, in which the faithful were burning paper money for the gods, and the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, in which priests were placing offerings at various shrines to the accompaniment of flute and drum music.

Both temples were lively and luscious sense-surround experiences, after which we had lunch at the Reggae Bar nearby and wandered back through the crowds. Later that night we headed out to the nearby restaurant strip and stumbled into El Cerdo, a Spanish restaurant, for great tapas and paella, which, unbeknowst to us until after, is rated the second best restaurant in KL. We thoroughly enjoyed it; the food and service was fantastic. I took quite a few pictures of the Christmas decorations and great colours of the bars and restaurants here, complete with Santa-hatted wait-staff.

Today the weather was crap but we headed out in a cab to the Thean Hou Chinese Temple on Robson Hill, the largest Chinese temple in Malaysia (no public transit goes near here). This place is enormous and is built on several levels. Unfortunately, it was absolutely pissing and the temple is currently under renovation, so the visitation experience was less than optimum, given the scafolding etc everywhere. After investigating the parts of the temple still open to the public, we headed down the back stairs to the turtle and tortoise pond out back. This area, with two pools, a small waterfall and decorative shrubs, is home to many, many turtles, both large and tiny. Apparently, some people believe tortoises represent longevity, so when a child is born, the family buys a little tortoise and donates it to the temple to wish the child a long life. In addition, in the grounds outside the temple are animal sculptures representing the signs of the Zodiac, as well as a large Goddess of Compassion and a scholar statue. (Since the weather was so bad, my pictures are less good than I’d like … ah well).

Nightime saw us down the road once again at Bijan for dinner, a restaurant that specialises in Malay food and is also one of KL’s best – we’ve sure been eating well here in KL – getting spoiled!

See more pictures here.

Thailand: Koh Phi Phi redux

Yesterday we rented a long-tail boat to take us to Phi Phi Lei, the uninhabited island made famous in the 60s by one James Bond movie, possibly Goldeneye, in which James comes roaring out of this canyon of emerald green water and high jagged cliff faces in a super-fast speedboat. It was all over for PP then, I’m afraid, although PP Lei is magnificent. It juts out of the water just south of PP Don and can be reached by long-tail in 20 minutes or so. It’s very steep rock cliff-faces jut vertically up out of the water and have been weathered and eaten by waves and wind for thousands of years into sharp, jagged formations. Clinging to these cliffs are twisted and gnarled trees hanging on for their lives. The bottom of the cliff faces are undercut into many caves, some very deep and the locals are harvesting swallows nests in one particularly large cave. The cliff walls open up into the “James Bond” canyon lagoon where the water is calm and emerald green; a tiny beach is nestled into one side of the cliff face. We slowly toured through here on our long-tail.

After emerging from this lagoon we stopped along with several others at a rocky knoll to snorkel. Ty and I had fun looking at all the variety of small fish, many gold and yellow, some larger ones iridescent blue and green. In areas of the seabed the coral reef has been destroyed, likely from the tsunami and is just beginning to grow back. My portable camera bit the dust (or water) here. Somehow, water got into its supposedly waterproof body and that’s that for that. Ty got some footage of the fish on our small video camera.

After our snorkel we travelled around to the west side of the island and into Maya Bay. It was also made famous in the same Bond movie and in The Beach, a schlocky 70s movie featuring a young Brooke Shields, I believe. As a result, the Bay was packed with longtails, tours boats and, most annoying, speedboats from Puket (on the mainland), screaming in every two seconds and creating huge wakes. We decided to pass on visiting the tiny and enormously crowded beach. The island itself is really beautiful and better to be visited as early in the morning as possible for the plague of tourist boats arrive.

In the afternoon we took a long-tail taxi to Long Beach, just around the point from our place and tried snorkeling along the rocky wall into the water there. We were able to see quite a few fish because the water is clearer there than on our beach, where construction projects and thousands of boats coming and going have stirred up the silt and clouded the water. Many construction projects are going on here; new bungalow and storefront developments are blasted into the rock right along the water, leaving a residue of cement bags and mud. Guys with small wheeled carts haul construction material through the cobblestoned paths, in and around the tourists obliviously walking in their way.

In behind all the chi-chi shops developed for the tourist trade are the usual corrugated and rusted tin hovels housing the local people who man these shops – not too many tourists venture into these parts and if they accidently do, they scuttle out quickly. The contrast between the two parts of town is more striking here than on any of the other islands that we’ve seen. Two nights ago we ate in a local hangout; we were the only farangs there until an old, fat white guy showed up with his new young Thai “girlfriend”. We were given the tourist menu and likely paid enough for our dinner there to feed a family of four for a week or possibly a month. Neither of us felt bad about paying probably 10 times what the other diners were paying for their meals – the disparity in wealth between us and them is huge. Our motto here is “Spread the wealth”.

We’ve seen quite a few really old white guys with beautiful young Thai women here – the men are shameless, possibly quite proud of themselves, and being taken for every penny, no doubt. Before Viagra, these guys would not have merited even a one second glance – I guess both parties deserve one another, although I’m more sympathetic to the women, for whom the tourist men are a way out of their corrugated shacks. Almost everyone here is opportunistic; the beach dogs, the cats who proliferate in the stores and restaurants meowing piteously for scraps, the myna birds who hang around on our deck, calling to us for food, the tourist touts, the off-island owners of the “Irish pub” and the Italian coffee-bars, the tourists looking for cheap sex and cheap booze … In the evening herds of youth stumble around holding plastic buckets of cheap liquor – it’s always Happy Hour on Phi Phi Island.

For Chinese New Year we decided to have grilled sea food in one of the beachfront restaurants. The first one we tried had sullen and surly young male servers who did little serving and much horking into the palm trees. After being presented with what looked like reheated prawns in tinfoil, we sent them back and bailed fast. We ended up instead in Mama’s Resto on the main drag, a restaurant owned by an Italian man who helped me pick out a nice bottle of white wine and served us fantastic, and huge, grilled prawns, so big that we just could not quite finish them all. Good food, good service and a pleasant atmosphere with local oil paintings on the wall. Here we paid a fortune for our dinner – 3000 baht, including tip, but figured that Chinese New Year on Phi Phi Island will only come around once for us and so it was worth a splurge.

Our last day on Phi Phi was spent on Bamboo Island, off the north coast of PP. We rented a long-tail and headed off through the pounding waves, getting a wet and wild ride. Once there, it was deserted and beautiful – we saw a black, white and yellow spotted moray eel, many beautiful angelfish, a barracuda and two blowfish.

We’re off to the much less developed island of Koh Jum tomorrow – more later.

See pictures here.