I absolutely promise that this blog will not include any mention of the over bearing heat and humidity here and my inability to cope with it. It is clear that that theme has had the life banged out of it. So, for contrast I can report that I am currently wearing long sleeves, socks and a hoodie for the first time in 3 years. December delivered us delicious fresh air. Then unseasonal rains and for fun a few nights of proper chilliness. By New Year it was 4 degrees Celcius. That’s the coldest it has been here in this part of the Mexican tropics in living memory!
The cold nights are now the new absolute topic of every conversation. Everyone is unrecognisable and proper dodgy looking with face masks and hoodies. We are all wearing the pre-Covid outfit of the ne’re do well. When we poor souls try to gain sympathy from the rest of the world we get none. To be fair it might be that most of my Northern Hemisphere mates are shivering their blue bits off in snow and ice.
Biggest change is that we have a new jungle resident. Jake, my son, has finally given up trying to make a bearable life in the UK and has effectively moved to Mexico for the foreseeable future. He has been rudely thrown out of his world as a hugely successful cocktail guy in one of the best bars in the world. Now even trying to serve socially distanced beer and food out of a tiny brewery in the North of England is considered too dangerous. Inevitably he decided to come over here and look for opportunities. Easier said than done.
Trying to find a flight out of the UK to Mexico used to be an easy business with many sensible flight options at reasonable prices. Well that’s no more. The only flight we could find was cancelled due to the early December UK lockdown. The only flights from Europe were out of Paris or Madrid on AeroMexico. So, a plan was hatched to take an early flight out of Manchester to sit in an airport in Madrid for 14 hours then fly to Mexico City and then to Puerto Vallarta where we would meet him. We find a stand-by flight which is less than the price of a new car with the reassurance that in these times of relative insanity planes are half empty so there will be lots of availability. And relax.
The endless rock driveway project is crawling its way nearer to completion. The road now is built from the top of the hill to the bottom and one and half the highly decorative stone retaining walls for our gate are completed. The final wall will feature a small round hobbitesk person access door hinged in the middle. Our ongoing plan is to create an automatically opening/closing gate at the bottom of the hill to keep the bloody cows out. They eat everything and are covered in ticks. We spend way to much effort shouting madly while herding massive stupid cows and bulls off our land. To make things a touch funkier the artist who built Well Ed the Turtle has agreed that our cow proof gate will feature Draig-Twp a Welsh dragon we created complete with top hat and monocle. Now that will be worth waiting for.
Our latest challenge has been to keep our plants alive. The cows have been destroying everything they can chew and the ants have been stripping down everything else they can’t. The newest juiciest most delicious growth just doesn’t stand a chance. Our friend Ferdy has local knowledge of what grows and what doesn’t so has been helping us plan our gardens. We have planted vegetables, herbs and flowers. It’s anyone’s guess how many, if any, will survive or thrive. Our herb garden outside the treehouse has been an unmitigated failure. This was not entirely helped by me accidentally driving over it . We clearly have brown thumbs rather than green fingers and have managed to kill just about everything we plant there. Our basil, mint and rosemary lasts but days. Our most impressive skill seems to be killing thyme. We can’t get a healthy pre-grown plant to last more than a day! It’s sorta embarrassing. We have moved our newest batch of herbs to sunnier spots and repurposed the herb area to flowers to see how long we can keep them alive.
The email arrives within 48 hours of Jake’s flight to Madrid to let us know Spain now requires a negative Covid test within 72 hours to get into the country even for transit passengers. It looks like we will have to cancel and try again later… unless. By some miracle there is a single venue we can find in the whole of the UK that will give an adequate test result within 24 hours. It happens to be in the North of England 40 minutes from Jake. He finds himself in a car park at midnight collecting stuff to shove up his nose and posting it into a letterbox with the promise he will get a confirmation email a few hours before he is due to fly. He takes the train to Manchester and we wait.
The email confirming Jake is not currently infected arrives on his phone at the last moment and he is allowed to fly to Madrid. The poor girl in front of him in the queue is cruelly denied her flight home to Madrid because her negative test was taken 72 hours and 15 minutes ago. Wow!
Jake arrives in Spain early morning for his midnight flight to Mexico City. The airport is empty and effectively closed. No food places or bars open so his much-anticipated long Spanish lunch is cancelled. Since he left the UK Madrid has declared a no travel zone from midnight. No-one can leave or enter the city without a very good reason. Tourism is cancelled. In anticipation, there has been a mad rush to leave Madrid on the very few flights that are operating. Jake’s flight is one of them. The previous flight was oversold by 14 seats. It’s not looking good. His standby flight may not work and he will have to navigate his way into a fully locked-down city where he is being told he’s not allowed to be.
He hasn’t eaten in many hours, there are no restaurants open but he finds a vending machine. It’s all sold out apart from a few remaining sad and suspicious looking sandwiches. He buys them before someone else does. He waits the final stressful hours at the check in desk trying to flirt with the check in girls while smelling of old airport shirt and vending machine crab sandwiches. His phone loses charge 15 minutes before the flight so we are entirely unaware of his fate. Is he sitting in a cramped plane wearing a stinky crab mask or trying to blag his way into Madrid for a night wandering the streets?
12 hours later we get a message from Mexico City. He has had to recheck and repack his bags to meet new weight restrictions but theoretically he is heading for the last plane and should be with us in a few hours. Most of his excess weight allowance is cheese and tea for us so we do feel slightly guilty. We head to the airport to meet him.
What arrives after a solid 72 hours travelling is a very pale exhausted and practically suffocated version of the Jake I remember from 2 years ago. We last saw each other when he boarded the flight back to UK after his last visit all bronzed and fit and charged up. He removes his face mask for the first time in days. His bright white UK winter lockdown skin is blindingly reflective in the sun. He takes some much-needed breaths of warm air and we head to the jungle.
A fitting introduction to jungle life is a close shave accident with potentially serious consequence. It sharpens the senses. The opportunity comes about by our need to manage the trees in our life. We have been introduced to Uri who is a local guy who is famed for his fearlessness in the face of gravity. This Mexi-monkey can climb just about any tree with the aid of a two-foot length of rope wrapped around his feet. It’s bloody terrifying to watch. We employ him to work with Ferdy to help us remove large lumps of tree that are threatening to land on our solar panels.
The most worrying of these is a huge Papelillo tree which is looming at a precarious angle over our battery house. The tree is a magnificent example of what is locally known as the Gringo tree. It is such named because of its red coloured paper like bark that peels off in strips like a sunburnt gringo. It’s over 100 feet high and its massive upper branches are waiting to smash our panels as the trunk cuts our battery house in half. These trees are also famous for falling down with no notice.
Uri fires a string attached to an arrow over the highest point on the tree which we use to pull up a rope. He puts his feet into a loop at one end and we literally haul him up to the top of the tree. He stands unsecured 100 feet up on a branch. He is smiling and far too relaxed for a sane person. The rope is lowered and a chainsaw pulled up. The rope is then removed and tied around one of the largest branches and the rest thrown down to us. In order to persuade the branch from falling away from our solar panels we are instructed to climb the hill behind the tree and wrap the rope around a palm tree three times and prepare ourselves. We hold the rope nervously as the branch is removed. The air is thick with fresh sawdust from the chainsaw. There is a loud crack as the branch slowly falls but is held by the rope just long enough to swing clear of the panels. We lower the hanging lump of wood to the ground safely.
We are dropped more string to recover the rope. We need to do that again. This time we plan to remove the upper section of tree. Its high and difficult to judge the size or weight of the limb but we know it’s big. When the rope is lowered to us we climb high up the opposite hillside and find a suitable tree. We wrap the rope around it three times and three of us hold the rope tightly in anticipation. There is a familiar cracking noise and the rope gains tension. Then a larger crack followed by the high-pitched scream of a rope being pulled through the jungle at lightning speed. As the rope flies off the tree and out of our hands we thrown ourselves to the ground. The limb hits the jungle floor completely unhindered by our rope. Thankfully a few feet away from our battery house. We pick ourselves up slowly and check ourselves for injuries. The rope knot hit Ferdy who is not doing well. His ribs and arm do not look good. Jake and I have rope burns on our arms but nothing worse. We are all very lucky. That could have been a heap more serious.
We gather our senses and check out Ferdy’s arm and are concerned enough to want to get him to the hospital to be checked out. He is a tough rough Mexican bloke and is happy to continue to work but we call it a day. We realise that Uri is still 100 feet in the air with no rope. Before we can deal with our wounds we need to get him down. I am tasked with firing an arrow above him. I’m not the most experienced of archers but give it a go. I learn very quickly that I need to aim a lot higher as the first arrow hits the branch where Uri’s head was moments before. Good job he was paying attention. My second attempt was more successful and we lower him down and drive back to town. The tree is many times safer. Ferdy arm and ribs are not broken but he end up very sore for a week. We all have a few extra story scars.
Hearing the Christmas was effectively cancelled in the UK makes us epically grateful we are here and Jake made it out just before things shut down entirely. Our Christmas, for the third time, was a pot luck outside jungle gathering at the bar. This time a social distanced affair. No traditional Xmas snogs this year. Folk are due to arrive throughout the day but are avoided all morning while we prepare ourselves by ingesting large quantities of British sausages and Heinz baked beans on toast. The finest of Xmas breakfasts.
Our new Covid-kitchen is soon christened. The sinks and oven are fully employed. Heating and serving and cleaning up all in one spot which makes things considerably easier. It turns out this is an opportunity for our mates to show off . We have further obscene amounts of outstandingly good food offerings delivered.
Our French restaurateur friend sets the pace by heading out to sea early morning to catch a huge dorado fish from which he creates the very freshest sashimi, ceviche & herb infused BBQ lumps of deliciousness.
Our friends from Atlanta bring the entire kit to deep fry a turkey. Deep fried turkey has so far only been a thing that Southern boys have told me about. My first taste was a few weeks earlier when we were invited to the American version of Thanksgiving Day. 45 minutes in a bucket of bubbling hot oil and what comes out is extraordinary. The skin is crisped up and tastes almost like bacon. The meat has cooked quickly at very high heat in its own juice. Untraditionally our Xmas turkey is neither boring nor dry.
A good-sized ham arrives and we add our contribution of a lamb leg. There appears a number of Xmas lasagnas (I’ve never heard of those before) and acres of creative side dishes. Our new neighbours engage in a competetive won-ton off… A Korean girl and a Chinese boy each creating their own version. We encourage such nonsense.
Notable by absence was my Mum’s Xmas cake and mince pies with chunks of strong cheddar cheese washed down with port. In truth, I didn’t much bother with them when they were piled up on our UK Christmas table but sorta kinda miss them now.
It was a proper feast and a great way to share Christmas. Throughout the day we must have fed over 40 visitors. It does not escape us how lucky we are to be able to host people in this way. Someone from my own family in the UK told me recently she hasn’t had human contact since March. That’s heartbreaking.
Jake’s birthday a few days later was a great excuse to take up an offer from our new friends in Sayulita to go sailing and whale watching. They have a 45-foot classic sail boat moored close by. We meet up and set sail in perfect conditions. Much as it’s always exciting to see whales breaching from the shore, from the bow of a sail boat it provokes a different level of adrenalin rush. They are truly magnificent creatures and big. Very big.
We spend the day, under instruction from our captain, celebrating Jake’s 26th year by pulling the right ropes at the right times and manoeuvring this very beautiful piece of art across the ocean through pods of dolphins while spotting humpbacks tails waving and sinking on the horizon. Perfect antidote to the awkward gap between Xmas and New Year.
We have decided that we need to be better bee parents. Our termite rotten hives that were rejected by the last swarm are done for so we make the jump and commit to a couple of brand new hives. They will arrive with swarms installed and queens pre-coronated. A better class of apiary is in our future.
Our favorite beach bar in Lo De Marcos s going through some changes. A brand-new bar area is being constructed beach side which will effectively be Sasha’s new home for almost all of his awake time and there is much to do. They plan to open on New Year’s Eve. We have been tasked to make grotty lumps of Parota wood into serving trays and table tops to class up the place. Our first efforts to create sexy serving pizza and burger trays hits a few snags. After much sanding, my enthusiasm to varnish proves unhelpful. The ridiculous cold snap colliding with the high humidity is making the lovely clear varnish dry milky and a heap less beautiful. We spend days re-sanding and varnishing those trays endlessly. We deliver a few but quarantine others due to my incompetence. They are well received as they make the pizzas and burgers look well posh. Tables next.
Our treehouse is a fabulous place to be. It’s set in the most perfect altitude to watch birds and see the shimmer of the vast palm leaves as the jungle breezes skip along the tree line. It is decorated with some of our favorite things that have somehow followed us here. It is, however, a small space. It’s a lofty 20 feet square which is plenty of space for two large folk and one and a half cats to coexist but no more.
We do, however, have a frequent visitor that is testing our tiny boundaries. He lets himself in at all times of the day and night uninvited. He regularly interrupts our sleep by eating lemons remarkably loudly and wrestling with our pans. He is known to smash the odd glass and is stubbornly reluctant to leave. We have a possum squatter.
My attempts to scare the little twat with my aggressive nakedness throughout the night has been totally ineffective. I have acquired and mined the place with moth balls which we are told will dissuade him. They do not. He is sneaky and quick. We make a plan to borrow a trap from the local animal sanctuary. He will have to go.
Our new bee guests arrive. Each of the three swarms has been preinstalled into a hive which we set up. They are trapped inside by gauze for now. We place the hives carefully to allow the right amount of sun and shade then leave them for a few days. When they have recovered from their journey and are more settled we will need to remove the gauze, build the hives and feed them with sugar water.
The Possum trap arrives. Big long thing with a pressure pad that closes the door at one end. We load it with pineapple and lemons which we know the wee bugger loves and prepare for the catch. It is not long before we catch a cat. Twice. Two nights in and no fruit left, no sleep and no possum. The cat has finally learnt that it’s not the place for her but frustratingly the long-nosed freak is outsmarting us.
Our bees have been settling in long enough and need to be freed. Our co-apiarist Diego and I suit up and take on the task of building the hives. Each of the three boxes are packed with bees who are lively enough but do not appear aggressive. We have both been on the wrong end of a few too many wild bees so are mighty relived. I douse the area and the swarms with sugar water which seemed to go down well. We removed the retaining mesh on each box to release the bees who are now in sugar subdued and set up a second story on each. We install extra bags of syrup then pile rocks on the lids to prevent attack from greedy honey hunting Tahones (coatis.) We return to the treehouse in confident mood without a single sting. We now have three happy hives.
The Possum trap has been installed for over a week and so far, we have managed to feed the $%&# half a dozen lemons and a pineapple and yet we have caught no possum. The noisy long nosed %&*@ is being well fed while carefully avoiding the metal trigger plate on the cage floor. We get creative with the bait positioning but can hear him at 4am sniggering at us gratefully and loudly crunching mouth-fulls of pineapple.
Our new throwing axes and knives need an outing. It has been suggested to me very strongly that I must create a safe space before I get carried away and perhaps impale something or someone that may not be so keen to be impaled. I’m absolutely on board with avoiding non-consensual impaling so devise a plan. There is a perfect spot beside our Bodega which provides the right throwing distance and a huge wall to prevent any over throws. We have installed fabricated metal shutters onto our Corona-kitchen which has freed up a load of wood I had put aside to build wooden ones. This is now re-purposed and we create a target board and hang it on the Bodega wall. It’s perfect. So far after chucking very sharp metal things many times no one has yet been impaled.
I have lost patience with the possum. It’s 3 am and I have been awoken too many times. He’s taken to stealing cat food, he sounds like he’s chewing on gravel. It’s driving us insane. I take another long look at the trap. I stick celery sticks into peanut butter and stick them through the bars. I take a pad of paper and rest it on the trigger plate so theoretically it will make it more sensitive and have a larger area of effectiveness. I return to sleep.
Its 6 am and I am woken by the wondrous noise of a trap door shutting. One fat cocky possum all mine. We leave him in the cage to sulk till midday then I take him to the outskirts of town and let him go. There is a large field where he can bother no one. He leaps from the cage, doubles back on me and runs into a small roadside kitchen. There is a loud scream and I last see him being attacked by a shocked woman with a broom. No longer my problem.
New Year arrives at last. We’ve all been waiting for this one since March. Tomatina’s bar in Lo De Marcos starts the night off with social distanced live music played from the top of a bus. We then meet up with friends outside on the top of the hill overlooking the town and end up on the roof of other friend’s large house overlooking the beach. It was good to avoid the inevitable crowds in town.
Life throws in another spanner. My very good friend in New Zealand, Dave Lawrence (aka Hi Dive), takes his daughter and her friends to a roller disco. He is almost certainly showing off his most fabulous moves when he drops dead of a heart attack. He was my age but a heap fitter and more athletic. I attend my first, and hopefully last ever, zoom funeral. Dave was a good man and we have had far more fun that is strictly necessary in many parts of the world together. Travel well brother. The final kick in the balls from 2020.