Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ISLA MUJERES: Whale Sharks

"Hello, and welcome to our underwater paradise... " That's what I imagine dolphins say when you jump in the ocean.

“Do you want to do it again?” our guide asked us. We had already been in the water twice. I was kind of tired, but I wanted to do it again. I looked at Tania. Tania shook her head, no. She was seasick. I’ve never had the pleasure of being seasick. And neither had Tania before this. But she was definitely sick. I had watched her puking overboard earlier. I wanted to take pictures of her puking, but I didn’t. One reason was because Tania is very vain and I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about being photographed in that position, but mostly because I was worried what I might look like to the other passengers. “What kind of a man takes pictures of his wife getting sick off the side of a boat? Disgusting!” And now both Tania and I are bummed I didn’t.

“No,” I said to the guide, “we’ll pass.”

Our guide looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and offered it to the next couple. They looked at me and asked, “Really?” I explained that Tania was sick and that I was going to stay with her.

Ole Pukedelic Patty. Blehhhhh...

A few minutes later while I was consoling Tania, I had a great big, “What the fuck is wrong with me?” We were on a little boat out in the middle of the ocean surrounded by whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. When the hell am I going to get the opportunity to swim with these giant motherfuckers ever again? We’d be crazy not to.

“No, no, no, we’ll go,” I told our guide, “we’ll go, we’ll go.”

We convinced Tania that she’d feel better OFF the boat and in the water, and she agreed. I don’t think that was actually the case, but it’s probably better to be sick and doing something cool, like swimming with whale sharks, than it is to be sick and sitting on a stupid little boat.

We wanted to swim with the sharks while we were in Belize. They were migrating at that time as well. But it sounded sketchy to me, for instance you might not see them, which would mean a big waste of time and money, and I was having a fine time without the whale sharks. “Fuck a whale shark,” I said. But Tania insisted that we do it on this trip. I’m glad she did because while it was a total tourist experience, it’s an experience I won’t forget for the rest of my life. Absolutely amazing.

We were going to buy our whale shark tour online, but thankfully we waited ‘til we got to the island and ended up booking a cheaper one at our hotel. At first we didn’t want to make a mistake and choose The Crappy One, but in hindsight, they’re all more or less exactly the same. Well, they all go to the same place anyway. Because when they all take off from the docks in the morning, they’re all using the same GPS to find the schools of feeding sharks. And all the boats are on the radio to each other. Once one boat finds the sharks, that’s where all the boats go. After sailing about an hour due east into the Gulf of Mexico, sure enough, we came upon a small armada of whale shark tour boats exactly like ours all filled with the sleepy eyed tourists we’d seen scattered about the deserted city at dawn.

Aircraft carrier? Oh, no, it's a whale shark.

We pulled in alongside all the boats and everyone’s jaws dropped. The whale sharks were everywhere. There were dozens of the giant creatures, some as long as the boat, slowly swimming just below the surface, with their tail and dorsal fins sticking out of the water, and their giant mouths open wide, trying to capture as much plankton as they could. It was bizarre and slightly eerie, and it was one of those instances where I ask myself, “I wonder, who was the first person that thought this was a good idea?” I think that when I eat raw oysters, too.

"Cage goes in the water. You go in the water. Shark's in the water… our shark."

By law, only two people (plus a guide) per boat are allowed in the water at a time. So that everyone can enjoy it, you only get about five or ten minutes in the water with the sharks. Unfortunately, our first dive with the sharks was just retarded. You could say I “biffed it.” I know how to snorkel, but I only get to do it like twice a year at best. So this wasn’t the most ideal time to reacquaint myself with the sport. It was kind of like not skating for six months, and then the first time back on the board I have to roll in on the mega ramp. “Okay, GO!”

“Okay. Shit. Flippers—flippers don’t fit, oh well fuck it—mask, snorkel, don’t forget to breathe, oh and you have to swim too, kick your feet, why can’t I see out of my mask? Oh it’s filled with water? Why is it filled with water? Don’t forget to breathe—NO! Not through your nose you idiot, through your mouth, through the snorkel! Watch out for the sharks. Wait, where is everybody? Where’s the boat?” Etc.

Yeah, I guess that could be a good screen saver, but that's what my first dive looked like.

On top of all that, I hit the wrong fucking button on the stupid camera. While I’ve been using the Canon Elph for years, and I know it inside and out, it was on the inside of a waterproof camera bag/case thing (these things are kind of ghetto and janky, but they work, and for $30, why not?) that makes operation a little clumsy. So while Tania and our guide were having a fine time swimming around dodging sharks, I was not only trying to stay afloat, but also trying to get out of “stitch assistant mode.” First run = no bueno.

Back on the boat, I fixed the camera and got ready for dive number two. Dive number two, as it turned out, was a complete success. Confident that the camera was working, I was able to take pictures without aiming and instead enjoy my time with Tania and the sharks. On that second dive we really were swimming with the whale sharks. They don’t move very fast when they’re feeding. They just kind of cruise along, so you can swim right alongside of them. Close enough to touch them. Which is illegal, but I did it anyway. It was hard to get close enough because, while you’re right next to the beasts, they seem to have this weird sixth sense and they know exactly where you are and my hand was always inches away from their skin. I finally reached out really hard and grabbed one. Upon feeling my hand upon him, the beast gave a flutter and he was off in a flash, not before whacking me in the knee with his tail.

Woooo! Got some tail in Mexico! Spring breeeeeeak!

Tania's fixin' to get some. I was trying to get her to puke on a shark, but she said, "I can't." "You say you can't," I said, "but you really mean you won't."

They were all over the place and visibility wasn’t that great, so we shouldn’t really have been surprised when we found ourselves right in the path of a shark with its mouth wide open and coming straight for us. Tania screamed into her snorkel under water. I pointed the camera in the direction of the monster and feverishly pressed the shutter button like I was playing a video game while kicking as hard as I could to get out of its way. At the time, we felt we were lucky to have not ended up in the belly of the whale like Jonas, but in hindsight, I wish I had played chicken with the leviathan.

"AAAGGHHHH!" Shooting whale sharks is a lot like shooting skate photos. Some tricks deserve sequences. Like this drive-by by… actually I don't remember who this is? I think this is either PANCHO BUBBLES, or PETER PANCAKES. Some of our other underwater friends were RUSTY (he had a rusty tag in his fin), PICKLES, PINTO BEANS, and TORRALBA. The last of which is a sheperdess in Don Quixote that Sancho describes as, "A buxom, rollicking wench, a bit mannish, for she had a slight mustache."

I haven’t felt that thrilled in a long time. And that’s why I convinced ole Pukey to get back in the water for a third outing. Plus I had forgotten to get some video of us swimming with the animals. This task I left to Tania, and as you can see below, she got a fine shot.

When it was all over and we were heading back to shore, they handed out some ham sandwiches. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until they busted out that lunch. It was basically a prison baloney sandwich, but it was one of the finest sandwiches I have ever eaten.

I don't really remember the sandwich thing from the Dagwood cartoons. I just remember he always left the house without his pants on. I'm not sure why that was so funny... over and over again? Anyway, this is what that baloney sandwich looked like to me. Nom, nom, nom.

After the whale shark swim, they took us back to the island where we were given the opportunity to swim around this janky old reef with a bunch of stupid little fish. Pfft. I just swam with a 20 fucking foot long shark!

But the reef expedition was more of a stalling tactic so that the captain could whip up a proper ceviche lunch. Like the baloney sandwich before it, this was probably nothing more than a styrofoam cup filled with some fish and pico de gallo, but at the time, it was the best ceviche EVER.

At one point I wondered, "Does anybody eat whale shark?" After a quick internet search for "whale shark recipes," nothing really came up. The only evidence I found came from—where else?—the Chinese. I would love to see what Rachel Ray could do with that in 30 minutes. Yummo!

That fat white thing swimming next to the shark is not a Beluga. Although the "Carnluga" is a related species.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

ISLA MUJERES: The Ballyhoo

The beach on the west side of the island is protected from the rough Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean seas. The water is calm, clear, and warm as bathwater. Because it's so calm, the beach extends out into the shallow water for almost a mile. This is a pretty apt depiction of what we did every day.

At the risk of ruining one of our favorite vacation destinations, I’d like to say, “Isla Mujeres, Mexico, is one of our favorite places on earth.” (Although I’m pretty sure even if the entire FOD audience were to all visit at once, no one would notice the difference?) We’ve been there twice now, and plan on returning again and again. The first time we went was a couple years ago in December for my birthday. This time we went in the summer for Tania’s 30th birthday. Both trips are a couple of the best vacations we’ve ever taken. The best way to describe it is it looks like those Corona commercials: paradise. And the best thing is, it doesn’t cost shit. We’re broke, but we were able to scrape together $1500 that paid for our flights, a room on the beach, food, drinks, everything, and even a whale shark expedition (more on that later). I don’t often use the word “hella,” but that’s hella cheap for a six day vay-kay. And, yes, I said “vay-kay.” I just said “hella.” If you’re gonna say stupid shit, you might as well go all the way, you know?

Food on Isla Mujeres worth writing about is sadly lacking. Because it’s a tourist destination, nearly every restaurant offers tourist food. The island is in Mexico, granted the furthest eastern tip of the country, but you may as well be in Ireland as far as Mexican food is concerned. Instead, the hype men on the street try to lure you in with pizzas, pastas, steaks, and hamburguesas. I kind of regret not trying a Mexican hamburger, but I did make a bunch of them on this last visit. “Hamburguesa” is my new word for “poop.” “Tania? Honey? You’re going to have to excuse me for a moment,” I’d say, “I have to go make some HAMBURGUESAS!” And then I’d go make little Mexican hamburger patties in the toilet. Plop! Plop! Yes, we cooked them “sous vide.” There is, however, as we discovered on this trip, good Mexican food all over the island. We found a bunch of new places we didn’t know about last time. But one of our favorites is still a place we found our first time there, The Ballyhoo.

The Ballyhoo is a little hut, with no walls, sitting over the ocean, in the middle of a dock, behind a gas station. It’s not a hundred feet from the main tourist street, but there’s hardly anyone ever there. I’m sure the gas station has something to do with that, and there’s always a bunch of dirty old fisherman milling about—the dock actually goes through the restaurant—and I think everyone knows what dirty old fisherman are like, right? Drunks. Not the type of people “Bill and Kathy” from Wisconsin want to mingle with on their vay-kay, right? But, if they just took a couple steps inside, they’d realize that The Ballyhoo is the place they want to go on their vay-kay because there couldn’t be a more beautiful location for a restaurant. They make the best margaritas (nothing special, they’re just normal and strong), and you can see the clear blue ocean undulating between the floorboards beneath your feet while you watch the fishing boats tied to the docks gently bumping into each other and the fishermen’s children frolic in the shallows with their tshirts on occasionally squealing at the site of a shark shaped piece of seaweed, and, best of all, you have a front row seat for one of the best sunsets on the planet.

Fish tacos at The Ballyhoo.

And the fish. I made the mistake of once mentioning to my mom that, “Tania doesn’t like fish.” And so now when we visit, or dine with family and friends, we hear, “So we heard Tania doesn’t like fish, so we made…” Tania does like fish, it’s just not her first choice on the menu. But you wouldn’t know it at The Ballyhoo: Tania eats the shit out of their fish tacos. They’re so good. And they’re simple. It’s just fresh grouper, deep fried, and covered with slaw in a tortilla. It’s yet another instance in which simple, fresh ingredients are all you need to make an amazing dish.

This is their hot sauce. The lady let me know immediately, "It's very hot. I tell everybody now." Apparently she gave it to some big dumb white dude who was too tough for any hot sauce and it knocked him on his ass. Pussy. This stuff is very hot, but it's really good. I immediately tasted the habaneros. "And olive oil," she said. Which is a weird one to me because, as you can see, it kind of separates. Still, it was really good.

We’ve watched fisherman come in from sea, tie up, and gut their fish on the dock. They bring the fish into The Ballyhoo and the little Mexican lady behind the bar cooks it up right there. One time, one of the old fisherman saw us sitting at the bar and offered us some of his fish. “Try some!” he said. We did and it was awesome. There’s just a really cool vibe there as well. Although it was at The Ballyhoo that we met one of the island’s shittiest residents.

Tania enjoying the view. Or scheming how she can steal a boat.

She wasn’t that bad, but she was Canadian and she thought of herself as a local. She had been living on the island for a couple years and had shacked up with a snorkel tour guide. I remember her as a white, pasty, ugly little blonde gal, but for some reason the image I have of her boyfriend is that of a handsome, bronze, Mayan warrior, ala Fabio. Huh? I don’t think we even met the dude? Anyway, she sucked. She was one of those annoying people that like to consider themselves “travelers” as opposed to the softer, less experienced, and uglier, “tourists.” In short, she was a braggart. For one, she was constantly letting us know how much better the island was when she first “discovered” it. Apparently it was a jungle paradise, completely absent of white people, just two years before? Because now, according to her, it was all crowded, and built up, and everything was going to shit. It’s been two years since then, even, and I can assure you it’s still a quiet little Corona commercial.

"She lived in the Colonias [the poor part of the island]," Tania said, "and tried to make it sound like she lived in a god damn tree in the jungle studying the habitats of primates. The reality is she was trying to romanticize the shack she lived in with her loser bf. She also kept talking about how she would mix up her own, weird, organic potions. Like organic face creams and cleansers, and perfumes. I kind of went in and out of her conversations because, like most Canadians, she was incredibly boring and one-dimensional."

She also made a point of speaking to us in English, but whenever she spoke to the bartender or the help, she did so in Mexican. In shitty Canadian Mexican. And I suppose that’s the way you practice learning a language, and it’s a nice gesture to the local people, but the bartender spoke perfectly fine English, and she was doing it just to show off. And not very well. She was making a mess of the language. Which is what Canadians do with everything Mexican: food, language, they just need to put their pudgy little hands in their pockets and ne touchez pas. But I’ll never forget that stupid little lady because she was one of the first people to provide me with an example of the snobby world Traveler. She was something else. I mean, I'm bad, but I’m just a snobby world Tourist.

More Isla Mujeres adventures coming up.

Some people don’t know this, but Tania is an International Underwater Handstand Champion. She’s good. And most people don’t know that I’m the Tiger Woods of "Sunset Golf." In "Sunset Golf" you use a camera instead of a fucked up li'l club. But the object of the game is the same: get the ball in the hole.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Salsa Verde

One of the questions on the Newlywed Game was, “What habit do you have that your spouse hates the most?” I’m not sure which one I’d choose, because I’ve got a lot of them, but one near the top of the list would surely be, “Making salsa.” I’m a salsa tinker. Tania hates it. I’m always messing with salsa and hot sauce recipes. The operative word being “mess.” I’m a messy cook. To imitate me cooking, Tania waves her arms around. “You cook like this!” Waves arms around. Which isn’t so bad when something good comes out of it, but in the case of salsa, she’s indifferent to the results. She’s not a salsa head. So it’s a big mess with no payoff. And everything is covered in hot peppers. It's not cool. Still, I continue to tinker.

We just got back from mexico and learned our old friend heather roach was in town, so we arranged a last minute bbq. Just some steaks and my “famous” white beans. Robin and Brandi are fans of the beans, thus they’re famous. In fact, the promise of white beans is the only way to get Robin to visit. While at the grocery store picking up supplies, I felt the menu needed a little something else, so I decided to whip up a little salsa verde for the steaks. It’s cheap, it’s easy, I’ve done it before, and the results have always been good. Even if Tania doesn’t like it. “Tastes like pennies,” she always says.

That night there were some compliments on the salsa verde, and apparently Corbett has been asking for this recipe for some time now, so I thought I should put the latest version of this recipe down on paper.

Salsa Verde II

2 medium-large tomatillos, halved
½ white onion
a few garlic cloves
1 jalapeno
3 serranos
½ of a lime’s juice
¼-½ cup of white vinegar

Set oven to 350. Lightly oil a baking sheet and place the first five ingredients on it. Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes or until lightly charred. Place the roasted peppers, onion, and garlic in a blender. Pour in the lime, salt, and the vinegar and coarsely blend. Add the tomatillos and the cilantro to the mix and blend until just mixed. Add more vinegar or water depending on the consistency and taste you like.

Of course the recipe is up for interpretation. The amounts vary depending on the ingredients. Eyeball it and use your cooking sense. For instance, some members of our party found the above a little too hot for their tastes. I consider it in the “medium” department and would even add a habanero next time for more heat. I’ve also learned it takes very little to make a lot. A couple of tomatillos never seemed like enough, so I’d get half a dozen, and then I’d end up with a giant tub of salsa that would last over a month. And the salsa tinker can’t tinker with new recipes until the old one is finished. That’s one of our rules: I can’t buy or make any new hot sauces until I finish what’s in the fridge. The other rule is: clean up.

I can’t believe that I considered the first salsa verde recipe a competition salsa. I was going to have a salsa verde throwdown with our friend Josh in Colorado. It’s much better now. But I was apparently already considering naming and bottling that first batch because I just found a list of possible salsa verde names we created. This batch might be deserving of one of these fine names? Nah, probably the next one. I gots to tinker with the recipe some more.

Swamp Fire
The Algae Business
Goat Piss
Thomas Jefferson’s Bile Collection
The Eighth Ocean
Ancient Pond Scum
Thunder Snot
Yeti Urine
Swamp Wax
Monster Polish
Mexican Rain
Mean Green Wet Dream
Liquid Pollution
Verde Venom
Verde Vomit
Green Darkness
Cthulhu Blood
LA River Sludge
Camel Spit
Wharf Water
The Dreaded
It Came From The Cave
Spawn Juice
Death Drool
Monster Piss
Cobra Tears
Cobra Juice
Space Scum
Very Viscous Verde (VVV = 15)
Veni Vidi Verde
Poison Pepper Piss
Snake Piss
Chunky Green Poison
Super Scum
Filthy Hot Sludge
Hot Green Snot
Lagoon Gone Bad