Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lake Chapala: a flowering paradise

Cascades of flowers decorate many walls. Ajijic possesses a nearly perfect climate, with only a little variation of temperature and humidity year-round. This climate gives us year-round flowers, some of which come and go with the seasons, and some which bloom virtually all the time. We are never without bursts of brilliant color around us as we walk the streets and shores of Lake Chapala. Some of the species of plants are native to Lake Chapala, and others arrived here from as far away as Africa and India. All seem to thrive in the temperate climate created by the largest lake in Mexico. The blue Thunbergia and red Bougainvilla, shown here against a brick wall on an Ajijic back street, grow rapidly and profusely and are almost impossible to kill. Location: a side street near Calle Revolucion in eastern Ajijic.

Poinsettia. Native to Mexico, Poinsettias were prized by the Aztec kings. European botanists took note as early as the 17th Century. American Ambassador to Mexico John Poinsett first imported Poinsettias to the US in 1828, thus the name. Norteamericanos normally think of Poinsettias as Christmas flowers, but here they enjoy a very long blooming season. They also grow to extravagant heights. The bush on which this flower blooms towers almost fifteen feet high. The flower shown measures about 18 inches across and about twelve inches high. Location: the gardens of the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic.

Agave and Sansevieria. The Agave cactus, whose large grey leaves are shown here, grows both wild and cultivated all over the Western Highlands of Mexico, particularly in Jalisco State. Agave occupies a mystical place in Aztec history. The plant supposedly sprang from the buried remains of Mayahuel, the beautiful goddess and wife of Quetzelcoatl. Mayahuel was killed by lightening bolts sent by other gods angry with the lovers. Anyone who has had the opportunity to drink tequila, made from the Agave heart, will understand the reference to lightning bolts. Tequila itself originated from the liquor known as mescal. There are an almost unbelievable number of varieties of tequila.

An import from West Africa, the Savsevieria plant thrusts up blade-like leaves all around the Agave pictured above. Sansevieria is also known as “mother-in-law-tongue,” for obvious reasons. The Sansevieria was imported from West Africa, and grows there from Nigeria to the Republic of Congo. West Africans originally used the plant to make bow strings.

Location: Calle 16th de Septiembre near Calle Revolucion in Ajijic.

Bougainvillea. A native of Brazil from which it spread to other South American regions, the Bougainvillea was named after an Admiral of the French Navy who first described it in 1768. Of course he didn’t really “discover” it, since it had been known to native people for thousands of years. Bougainvillea is extremely popular world-wide and enjoys the status of official flower in the islands Granada in the Carribbean and Guam in the Western Pacific, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and several cities in California. Location: a quiet side street near the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic.

Bougainvillea decorates many Ajijic walls. Bougainvillea, a woody vine, grows profusely in Ajijic and transforms bland exteriors into lush tumbles of color. Location: Calle Ocampo in Ajijic.

Morning Glory. The Morning Glory grows world-wide, but also figures in Aztec history. Ancient people in Mexico found many uses for Morning Glory. These included using it to convert latex from the Castilla elastica tree into rubber for their famous ritual ball games, and using the seeds as an hallucinogen during religious ceremonies. The Blue Morning Glory shown here is very common and, like the Bougainvillea, one finds it cascading over walls throughout the North Shore area. Location: a quiet, shady alley leading to the base of the mountains overlooking Ajijic.

Water lily. Occuring world-wide, the beautiful Water Lilies are highly invasive of ponds and shallow lakes and will quickly take over unless controlled by various means. In Mexico, the plants are also called Nenufares. The Mexican Water Lily was originally native to the Gulf Coast but has spread to many other other areas of Mexico. Location: one of the fish ponds within the lush gardens of the Lake Chapala Society.

Clivia. I was startled by this flower, resembling a star burst in an astronomy picture. Clivia is native to southern Africa. British explorers in Africa first gathered specimens in 1815. Cultivation of the Clivia now occurs world-wide, especially in South Africa, Australia, Japan, Belguim, the US, and China. The plant is amazingly drought-resistant. One was once left on a potting table with no dirt on its roots for a week in a warm brightly-lit room. When finally discovered, re-potted, and watered, the plant recovered fully with no apparent bad effect. Location: the gardens of the Lake Chapala Society.

Kalanchoe. This flower also struck me as other-worldly, and I imagined encountering it on some distant hothouse planet. However, the Kalanchoe also possesses the prosaic name “donkey ears.” I guess I can see it. The only useful information I could gather about Kalanchoe is that all parts of this plant are poisonous and should not be ingested. So much for lunch. Location: Lake Chapala Society gardens.

Thunbergia. Native to India, the Thunbergia typically grows in clusters of three, as seen here. Although it looks similar to the Morning Glory pictured earlier, and is often found draped over exterior walls of local homes, it is an entirely different species. Location: I haven’t a clue, but almost certainly somewhere in Ajijic. Sorry.

Hibiscus. Tropical Hibiscus are hummingbird magnets. They can be found throughout the Lake Chapala area. I only walk two feet out my back door to encounter one of these wonderful large flowers, usually with a hummingbird zipping around nearby. Hibiscus are edible as well as ornamental and form a primary ingredient for some teas. In Mexico, Hibiscus is used in the drink agua de Jamaica or Jamaica water. It is supposed to taste something like cranberry juice. Hibiscus is also good for kidney problems and is a natural diuretic. Location: just outside the main entrance of the Lake Chapala Society.

Gazania. Another native of southern Africa, the Gazania is often used for ground cover. I haven’t found any other particularly useful characteristics, except that it looks pretty. I guess that should be enough. Location: grounds of the Lake Chapala Society.

Tabachin or Royal Ponciana. A native of Madagascar (Malagasy Republic), the tabachin or royal ponciana is widespread around the world from Thailand to Egypt to the Bahamas to Hawaii and Mexico. Tabachin blooms nearly year round. People have found many uses for the plant. Seeds are used as food and the pods can be used for fuel or making necklaces or folk art objects.  Carole recently bought a small handcrafted "critter" made from a pod. The Caribbean islanders call the tabachin "women's tongue" because the pods rattle in the wind. Location: grounds of the Lake Chapala Society

I took these photos at various times over the last year since we settled in Ajijic. I am no horticulturist, but simply selected my subjects because I loved their colors and shapes. Accordingly, I was faced with the dilemma of beautiful, but unidentified, subjects in my pictures. By a happy coincidence, our Spanish teacher is also a horticulturist trained at the University of Guadalajara. Joel Gomez, a very intelligent and engaging young man, was able to immediately identify nearly all the pictures I showed him, even though I had to use a black and white printer. Thanks to Joel, and a little internet research, I have been able to provide a some background on each with a link to further information for those inclined. It also turned out that Joel is a fellow hiker and photographer whose work I plan to include in a future posting focused on the many moods of the Lake itself. Stay tuned…

Monday, July 14, 2008

Pelicans & People at Petatan

Petatan's pelicans draw visitors from far and wide. Lake Chapala has many remarkable little nooks and crannies where the inquisitive visitor who is willing to go off the beaten track can find interesting and beautiful places to spend a few hours. Petatan is such a place. Located on the less-visited South Shore about 30 miles (60 kilometers) east of Jocotopec, this small fishing village can easily be missed by the inattentive.

Waiting for supper. Last winter, Anna and Norm, two Canadian friends from my Tuesday hiking group (see January ’08 blog posting in archives), joined Carole and I to photograph the White Pelicans of Petatan. I had heard about the pelicans on our very first trip to Lake Chapala in the summer of 2006, and in the winter of ‘08 we noted the arrival small numbers of White Pelicans along the North Shore. Petatan is famous for opportunities to view these huge birds en masse, so we decided to visit.

While Petatan is most famous for the White Pelicans which nest, mate, and feed just off shore, the village contains interesting aspects of its own. The drive to reach Petatan along the South Shore on a sunny winter day is a reward in itself. The South Shore is very lightly populated but is intensively cultivated since, unlike the narrow North Shore, the arable land extends several miles back from the Lake to the base of the mountains. The road sometimes follows the shore closely and sometimes climbs a broad shelf set back from the water, yielding spectacular views of the lake.

Enjoying the free entertainment. When the road dipped toward the Lake on the way to Petatan, we tried to reach a good spot for photography by driving down a steep slick road to the shore. The possibilities didn’t pan out, and we briefly stuck trying to back up the narrow cobblestone road. Three small boys watched with interest, entertaining themselves with our antics much as we were later entertained by the pelicans. When it appeared we couldn’t get up the hill without help, they immediately jumped down and came over to push. They asked nothing for their help, but we gave them a few pesos for their trouble and for the privilege of photographing them.

The eternal fisherman. This fisherman consented to my photography while waiting for his friend to arrive with the boat. I have been unable to learn much about the history of Petatan. Repeated Google searches yielded lots of pelican pictures, but little information about the village itself. Cone-shaped Petatan appears to have originated as an island a few hundred yards from the shore, possibly through volcanic processes. Sometime in the past, the space between the island and the shore filled in, either naturally or through human design. This created a narrow causeway over which the road into the village runs. One thing seems likely: Petatan has been a fishing village since ancient times.

Keeping watch. The homes and other buildings are built around the cone in steps up to the peak on which sits the village church. One can take a leisurely walk all over Petatan in an hour or two. Boat slips, fishing sheds, and small restaurants line the arc of the village shoreline which faces across the Lake to the North Shore mountains over Mezcala about twelve miles away. (See post on Mezcala in February ’08 archive) The buildings create a handy lookout point for the local egrets.

Preparing the pelican feast. Pelicans mass at Petatan to feast on fish scraps left over from the village women cleaning the day's catch. The scraps are thrown into the water and, with a wild scramble and much flapping of black-tipped wings, are consumed with great gusto by the pelican bystanders. The pelicans, no fools, figured out long ago that fishing for scraps is much easier than chasing live catch. My one regret on this visit was that we missed the daily feeding, which occurs in the late afternoon at which time we needed to be well on our way back. Maybe next time.

Pelicans on patrol. Between feeding bonanzas at the shoreline, one can observe the pelican flocks patrolling off shore for live catch. Pelican appetites are quite extraordinary. The patrolling is very synchronized, like a fleet of naval ships all zigging, zagging, and turning at the same time. The behavior is apparently aimed at herding small fish like Charales close to shore where they can more easily be caught. It also looks like plain old fun, a little like country line dancing.

Charales are enjoyed by people and pelicans. Charales are small fish about 2-3 inches long, about the size of sardines, and are fished by birds and humans both. People eat Charales whole as “street food”, either dried or deep-fried with squeezed lime. The uncertain water quality in the Lake makes them risky to eat, I am told.

Hangin' out with friends. When not patrolling or feasting, the White Pelicans roost on small rocky outcrops a few dozen yards off shore, or float quietly in small groups. They seem to enjoy each others’ very close company, and an amazing number of pelicans manage to gather on the few yards of rock protruding from the water.

Putting things in order. Pelicans also engage in a lot of preening behavior in order to keep their feathers in good order. The air-filled feathers help keep them afloat.

"Try a little bit more to the left." In some cases, pelicans appear to be critically evaluating each other’s grooming efforts.

Hopping to a takeoff. The pelicans are quite entertaining to watch while taking off and landing. The takeoff involves a considerable effort given the size and bulk of the birds. As they flap their huge black-tipped wings, the pelicans hop along the surface of the water several times, leaving behind a series of regularly spaced splashes, until they have gained enough airspeed to lift off.

Gliding in. When landing, the pelicans exhibit considerably more grace. With their wings spread fully, the birds glide in, sometimes just skimming the surface of the water for a considerable distance.

Touchdown! Finally a pelican will drop its “landing gear” and water ski along on webbed feet, slowing to a gentle stop among a flock of their friends.

A Great While egret, two American Coots, and three American White Pelicans. The pelicans are not the only birds one can observe along the shore of Petatan. Egrets wade in the shallows and flocks of small black American Coots shadow the pelican flocks and sometimes intermigle. The Coots may be looking for scraps from the pelicans’ meal, just as the pelicans are looking for scraps from Petatan's human inhabitants.

"I suppose you're all wondering why I called this meeting..." While the pelicans are visitors during the winter season, egrets are year-round residents. The two large birds seem to get along well enough, as long as the egrets don’t encroach too much on the pelicans’ turf. When encroachments do happen, the pelicans will turn as a group and attempt to stare down the offending egret, as appears to be happening here. The egret seemed a little intimidated at first, but quickly recovered his poise.

Egret wins stare-down contest. When the silent stare doesn’t work, the frustrated pelicans rise as a group and flap away to another spot. You can almost hear them grumbling “#!!% egrets!” However, since the pelicans fish while swimming some distance off shore, and the egrets look for their meals while wading along the edge, the two don’t seem to compete for food. This probably accounts for their generally amicable behavior.

Bellying up to the bar. After leaving Petatan we continued around the lake until we arrived back at Ajijic. Along the way, Norm persuaded us to stop and sample some of the local tequila. Carole bought a bottle which she enjoyed, but since she is no real drinker she took almost six months to finish the bottle. Tequila, made from the agave cactus, originated in Jalisco State. The center of the industry is the small town of Tequila, surrounded by vast agave fields. There are almost as many varieties as there are tequila drinkers. Almost.

Hasta luego, Jim & Carole