La Nautica: Latin America’s Oldest Merchant Marine Academy

DSC_0319Edited2Mazatlán has been renowned since colonial times as one of Mexico’s premier maritime and shipbuilding centers. It is thus quite natural that we are blessed with the country’s oldest merchant marine academy—La Escuela Nautica Capitán de Altura Antonio Gómez Maqueo, or “La Nautica,” as it is affectionately known. The school also distinguishes Mazatlán as home of the oldest merchant marine academy in Latin America.

Visiting family and I were fortunate to get up close and personal with the highly disciplined young adults parading in their dress whites during the school’s recent 137th anniversary ceremony. Watching hundreds of young people march in crisply choreographed unison during the golden hour at sunset was truly a sight to behold! We were invited to the bugle, drum and flag-filled festivities by Captain Rodolfo Cinco Arenas, who has taught at the academy longer than anyone on the staff—since 1982. Though Captain Cinco was able to retire a few years ago, the school persuaded him to come back as a contract teacher because he is a leading expert on ship stability and GMDSS, the global maritime distress and safety system. Walking around campus with the Captain was so much fun, as all the gorgeous young cadets saluted us as we walked by.

The Nautica is a public school operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Communication and Transportation’s FIDENA (Fideicomiso de formación y capacitación para el personal de la marina mercante nacional). It currently educates 653 students from throughout Mexico and Latin America as officers and engineers for all types of commercial vessels: container ships, ferries, fishing vessels, freighters and tankers. Cadets are nearly evenly divided between deck (mates and captain) and engineering. The school opened to women in 1994 and currently includes more than 50 female cadets. Since its inception it has trained 2500 officers who are able to sail vessels from almost any country around the world, frequently including Algeria, Brazil, Dubai, and Venezuela, though Canadian and US American vessels limit officers to citizens from those respective nations. Tuition is $67,000 pesos/year and includes everything: housing, food, books, classes and simulators. The experience is of course highly subsidized by the federal government.

Despite presidential decrees founding a merchant marine academy in Mazatlán in 1857 (Ignacio Comonfort) and 1880 (Porfirio Diaz), fates dictated that the Nautica’s first classes weren’t held until December 1888, when the Chilean vessel Buque México arrived in Mazatlán from San Francisco. The ship served as home to the school’s first class of 15 students. In 1921 the Nautica moved to 43 Calle del Arsenal, which today is where Venustiano Carranza meets the malecón; a plaque indicates this fact. In September of 1939 classrooms, workshops, dormitories, sports fields, a cafeteria and a small dock were constructed at the school’s current site at 2111 Calzada Gabriel Leyva. During World War II the school was temporarily transferred to the navy (1941-58), and for a few years graduates could opt for a degree as either military or merchant marine officers.

The curved façade of the main building of the Nautica is reminiscent of the bridge of a ship. Classrooms and dormitories form a large central square, where the ceremony was held. Spiral staircases, stone columns, carved wood, antique tile floors, student-painted murals and lush palm trees make for an impressive campus. From 1982 to 2006 the academy had an educational ship named “Nauticas México;” cadets navigated the vessel throughout the Americas and Europe. It was the only merchant marine training vessel in Mexico, but has never been replaced, as the government has decided simulators are cheaper and better for educational purposes. The Nautica today has 45 professors, 25 classrooms, 12 simulators, beautiful lap and diving pools, and Mazatlán’s only planetarium (built in 1986), which sadly is not open to the public.

Nautica cadets are civilians, not military, though education is military style. They reside on campus six days a week, and have strict regulations regarding uniforms (dress whites and blues, international and khaki in short and long sleeves), hair length, lights out, language and behavior both at school and during time off. Privileges include Saturday nights and Sunday mornings off campus, and visits by family and friends on Thursday evenings. Those privileges are easily and frequently lost, however, as we well know from our son’s friends’ experiences.

Entry to the academy is extremely competitive, open to high school graduates and those who pass very challenging entrance exams. Even when accepted, quite a few cadets drop out prior to graduation due to the rigor of the curriculum and lifestyle. Cadets live and study on campus July through December and January to June, with one month break in the summer. Graduates must pass their classes and professional exams, be able to swim, and have English proficiency to complete the four-year program. Once they graduate, they still need to come up with $50k pesos to pay for their professional title (título), something common across most careers in Mexico. Graduating from it, however, pretty much guarantees a lucrative career.

HoliFest Mazatlán 2017

17492362_1914048385496522_7744330507028052607_oYou will remember the “oohs” and “aahs,” the wonderment and joy, and the expressions of “it was so incredible!” from HoliFest Mazatlán last year. Kirana Yoga‘s Karina Barcena has, in three short years, grown Mazatlán as Mexico’s largest and best-attended HoliFest, out of the 19 such festivals held on the same day, at the same time, throughout the country.

HoliFest Mazatlán is a family-friendly cultural festival and a WHOLE lot of fun! It is also free of charge! Participating last year were groups of friends and work colleagues, extended families including grandparents and toddlers, able-bodied and people in wheel chairs; Mazatlecos, nationals from the interior, expats, snowbirds and tourists—all united in hope, love, equality and peace. We celebrated life, spring and our desire to bring a healthy lifestyle and sane values to our community.

Save the date!

Sunday, 23rd April from 4-8:30 pm
On the lawn in front of the giant mosaic
At the Mazatlán International Center (Convention Center)
Free admission

Please wear comfortable clothing so you can move and meditate easily.
Come early to get settled and enable things to start on time.

The tradition of Holi—the Festival of Colors or the Festival of Love—is grounded in Hindu legend, though which legend seems to vary by geography. I had always heard that Holi represents the triumph of good over evil; the story involves Vishnu-workshipping Prahlad’s triumph over his father, the demon-king Hiranyakashyap, and his evil aunt. That story is dark, however, and I much prefer the version Karina shared with us.

She told us how Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha Rani, painted one another in colors so they would look alike. The message of Holi then becomes, “I am you and you are me,” we are all one. Artwork of these two lovers, along with a song, can be seen in the video below.

Today Holi is celebrated worldwide as an expression of love, unity and respect. I am thrilled that Mazatlán is part of this international event, and encouraged that HoliFest is one more way we can build community, health and safety, fighting isolation, depression, anger and anxiety.

The colored powders will be sold at the event site. They are organic, non-toxic, non-irritating and washable; have no fear that they’ll be staining your clothing. Basically, they seem to be colored sugar. But throwing them over one another in a field of nearly 2000 people—that is a most wonderfully exciting, celebratory and love-filled feeling!

This year we can look forward to entertainment by Jazzpango—a world-renowned musical group that fuses huapango with jazz. Martin Zarate from Sadhak Yoga in Monterrey and Daniel Mesino from the Buddhist Center of Mexico City will join event organizer Karina Barcena in a yoga class as well as a group meditation. The event is inclusive of all physical abilities and all levels of practice; don’t worry, you are welcome! Dancers from two local dance schools, Dance World Center (Linda Lydia Chang) and Danzabel (Sergio Burgueño), will also provide entertainment. And there will be surprises! I am told that one of them will be tightrope walking!

2017 HoliFest Mazatlán Schedule

4:00      Welcome (please come early so you can have your space and be settled)

4:30      Jazzpango (music)

5:00      Group meditation

5:30      Yoga sequence

6:30       Countdown to the powder throwing, followed by more music and celebration

8:00 or 8:30 Closure. Please plan to stay and socialize with the community! We have over 10,000 square meters of lawn on which to enjoy ourselves.

The Convention Center lawn will be lined with booths, as it was last year; food and drink will be available for sale or you can bring your own (no alcohol please). You are welcome to bring a yoga mat, blanket or beach towel on which to sit in meditation and practice yoga. This year there will be a photo booth, plus a variety of local enterprises will showcase their offerings. A photo contest will be conducted in conjunction with the event, so look forward to seeing an exhibition of the 25 best photos when you attend.

I encourage you to let schools know about this event; children and their families should definitely attend. Groups of seniors would enjoy this event, as would any groups of athletes, artists or friends. Pass the word and let’s build positivity and connection in Mazatlán!

HoliFest Mazatlán 2017 is still accepting sponsors, so if you are interested in supporting this incredible community effort, please contact Karina at kbarcena@hotmail.com.

Passion for Beautification

DSC_0002SignWe love Mazatlán. It is a breathtakingly gorgeous place, located on the world-renowned Sea of Cortés, a real working city that plays host to millions of tourists from the interior as well as abroad. We are proud to be featured in world-class travel and tourism magazines. We crow about hosting the 2018 Tianguis Turístico. We brag about the number and variety of cruise ships that visit our port every week.

Yet we do so very little to show respect for the natural beauty with which we are blessed. At sunset on the weekend, we see our beaches covered in garbage. Carnavál revelers throw their refuse everywhere you can possibly imagine. Our streets, empty lots and estuaries are frequent dumping grounds for all kinds of unsightly, unhygienic trash that suffocates our marine life.

Tourists get off the cruise ship or leave their hotels to take a city tour, going to the top of Lookout and Icebox Hills for the views. The panoramas, and the snapshots, are amazing—until you look in the foreground. “Aim that camera up higher, John. That trash in the weeds there ruins the photo.” Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We have a culture here in Mazatlán that condones littering. It holds us back as a city, as a community, and as a tourism destination, and it’s my fervent passion that we can change that culture!

One man giving his all to do just that is Don Nichols. He has led a clean-up and beautification campaign atop Cerro de la Nevería/Icebox Hill for the past three years, and the results are remarkable!

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Don Nichols

Don and his wife Lori live in a gorgeous house with killer views. He was an employment lawyer in Minneapolis/St. Paul for 40+ years, and they bought their home atop the hill eight years ago in preparation for retirement. They love living here seasonally, and like good Midwesterners, they take pride in their neighborhood. It pained Don to see how people would come up to his neighborhood at night to drink in the views and the beer, leaving all their trash behind. Unlike Cerro del Vigía/Lookout Hill, where there is a homeowner’s association, his neighborhood doesn’t have a street sweeper. So the trash just accumulated. And accumulated.

Don went to the city to complain and to ask for some clean-up assistance. When none was forthcoming, he took matters into his own hands—like the independent Midwestern he is. Along with Juan and Martín, an uncle and nephew who work for Don, he started cleaning up and hauling trash out of the area.

Don, Juan and Martín’s efforts could barely keep ahead of those who trashed the area, however. So, they got the brainstorm to impede access to the empty lots where most of the partying went on by installing fences and beautifying them with brightly colored bougainvillea. They surround the bougainvillea plants with a circle of lime-covered rocks, to discourage ants from killing the plants. When he can find the property owners, Don gets permission, but he has beautified a few parcels for which he’s unable to contact the owners.

During their clean-up efforts, they found sidewalks buried under the trash, brush and sediment that washes down the steep hill. So, their efforts grew to include hauling out dirt and brush to reveal sidewalks that haven’t seen the light of day in twenty years! Don figures that in three years time they have hauled 50 dump truck loads of crud off the hill. I so wish Don were my neighbor!

They installed and painted trash cans to encourage neighbors and visitors to help keep the area clean. The cans are bright pink, the same color as most of the bougainvillea. They get filled quickly, and Don is grateful that city crews come Monday, Wednesday and Friday to empty the cans. The cans have to be repainted at least once a year. He, Juan and Martín have painted a few concrete walls the same pink color, creating a vibrant theme in the neighborhood. They’ve painted electrical boxes green and recently even painted a sign on the side of the road—Mazatlán’s Most Beautiful Hill (in Spanish)—with hopes of instilling pride of place in the local community.

The beautification is a never-ending process. Run-off on the steep hill never ends, so dirt and rocks constantly fall down, covering the sidewalks and the road, and bringing trash downhill. If they don’t stay on top of daily litter pickup and frequent dirt and rock removal, the area will all too quickly return to how it looked before.

Don has found that the bougainvillea so far are a great idea. They have thorns, so people don’t want to walk through them. They’re gorgeous, so people usually respect them. Most of the empty lots he beautifies have no flat space on which to plant anything, however—it’s a very steep hill. So, he builds a wall downhill and grades the soil to make a garden bed.

The problem is, however, that the bougainvillea need water in order to take root. They can get by after a rainy season, but at least the first year the plants need fertilizer and regular watering. So, Don bought a motorcycle with an attached flatbed and put a tinaco in it. They fill the tinaco with water and then ride around watering the plants in the neighborhood. It’s a lot of work, but with beautiful results! His efforts have transformed the area.

He and his crew have also painted lime on many of the trees in the neighborhood, again to discourage the ants. He has met with a few setbacks. Bougainvillea he planted on the landings of the stairway were yanked out by someone, he’s not sure who. They are debating whether to replant or not. There is one place where someone has rolled back a fence they installed, in order to be better able to park their trucks, turn on their stereos and party. Don hopes to plant bougainvillea there and repair the fence, in hopes that the second time will be the charm. A third “failure” is a bed of trumpet vines he planted on the uphill side of the road. While they have grown significantly, they have never flowered, probably due to lack of sun.

Quite a few pulmonía, auriga and taxi drivers have thanked Don for his efforts, saying the beautification has improved tourists’ enjoyment of their tours. While he hasn’t gotten many thank-yous from neighbors, another expat chipped in some money to support his effort, and he’s only gotten one criticism. One neighbor complained that Don had removed sand that he’d been saving (the sand had been in a pile at the side of the road for several years). So, Don got him some new sand.

Don’s beautification efforts have helped increase the value of real estate in the neighborhood, I imagine, but he’s helped his neighbors in other ways, too. Frustrated at repeatedly finding human feces on one empty lot, Don learned that a man living next door didn’t have running water or a toilet. Well, for US$350, he had a shower and toilet installed in the man’s house, in exchange for the man’s promise to keep the lot next door clear of brush and trash. Most definitely a win-win!

Don obviously didn’t set out three years ago to make a full-time job for himself; it grew little by little. He very much hopes that his efforts will inspire other property owners in the area to maintain and beautify their properties, so that Icebox Hill can be not only the most beautiful hill in Mazatlán but in all of Sinaloa. He also very much hopes the city will assign a street sweeper to his hill.

Viajando Por La Libre

DSC_0037©Take a moment to think back on a time you jumped into the unknown with little more than trust? Maybe it was when you decided to move to Mexico. Remember the exhilaration? The joy and excitement? The blessings that flow from such a leap of faith?

Today we found kindred spirits in two twenty-somethings from Tijuana who are living life to the fullest in just this manner They are Sergio Vazquez and Iuvet Sanchez, who quit their jobs, sold their homes, cars, business and clothing, and set off with their two dogs, Ponyo and Ginger, on an open-ended journey through Latin America. These two adventurers prepared for their journey for two years, purchasing and renovating a VW bus (“combi” in Spanish) and starting a fan page on Facebook—Viajando por la Libre—so they might meet people along the way and make some new friends. That fan page currently has 13,000 followers, many of whom are eager to host the couple when they arrive in their city. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The two were married in Mulege, Baja California Sur, eight months ago. They began their honeymoon trip two months ago, traveling from Tijuana through Sonora and along the US border to Chihuahua and the Sierra Tarahumara: Casas Grandes (Pakimé in Rarámuri), Cuauhtémoc, and Valle de Jimenez. They went through Coahuila to Torreón, and then entered the state of Durango, where they visited the pueblo mágico of Mapimí. I’ve got to visit Mapimí; it sounds gorgeous, and their saint’s day is my birthday! Sergio and Iuvet also loved the nearby ghost town of Ojuela. In fact, they told me that the German engineer who designed the suspension bridge near there—Wilhelm Hildenbrand—also designed the Brooklyn Bridge.

They have obviously learned and seen a lot already, and their trip is just beginning! Their favorite stop thus far has been Durango, where they ended up staying for eight days because they had such a good time. There they were treated like a king and queen, VIPs in every respect: welcomed with a community dinner of discada, entertained in huge and simple homes, given a house in which to reside during their stay, taken out to dinners, tour-guided around, welcomed as friends. Vocho or VW clubs along the way have been unbelievably hospitable to them. Their bus has broken down three times, and each time the people repairing the bus refused to accept payment. Sergio and Iuvet are discovering how good and generous people are, happy to help young people get out and see the world.

Iuvet is a nutritionist who had her own office, and Sergio is an electro-mechanical engineer who worked for a maquiladora in the medical industry. They had good jobs, made good money, owned homes and cars. Neither of them were born to wealthy families; they are representatives of Mexico’s new and growing middle class. Though successful, they could both feel themselves part of the “rat race,” doing repetitive, mundane things in order to buy a better car, a bigger house and nicer things. Iuvet looked around at her female doctor friends, most of whom were very successful at work but not so successful in their personal lives, and she didn’t want that for herself. They were both convinced that life had a lot more to offer.

Sergio told me he has followed the journeys of other travelers for many years: Chilenos, Argentinos, a Frenchman. Most of them traveled in VW buses, and so that has always fascinated him; travelers in combis are “a brotherhood,” he says. The couple took a year-long class on Buddhist spirituality and psychology that they say changed them both as individuals and as a couple, and gave them the confidence to set off on their journey. Both of them see the trip as a chance to let go of ego, which according to Sergio can “grow and grow but never explodes.” They originally dreamed of traveling all of Mexico, but that quickly expanded to include all of Latin America.

Before they started their journey, there was an aunt of Sergio’s who was aghast that they would try to travel in a VW bus. “You’ll never make it up the Sierras,” she chided. Sergio’s eyes fill with delight when he tells me they climbed to 2500 meters and took a photo to prove it to her. While largely a positive trip, the couple has had a couple of scares, one of them with a drunk guy who was convinced they had stolen his van. Fortunately all ended well; they found a safe place to spend the night and left the town at earliest light of morning. They’ve also had a few naysayers on their page, people who scold them for being irresponsible and foolhardy. But, as Iuvet says, “if we don’t take the chance, we then let fear rule our lives instead of love and a sense of adventure, and I much prefer the latter.” We trust their good luck continues.

Iuvet tells me that the trip so far has been nothing like she imagined. In her mind’s eye she saw herself sleeping in the combi, cooking in the combi, bathing in cold water… In reality, during their two months of travel they have only spent a few nights sleeping in their bus, and have cooked only a handful of meals, thanks to the incredible hospitality of the people they have met. Iuvet imagined an austere lifestyle but, in fact, she has gained weight thanks to the incredible generosity of so many new friends along the way. They are fortunate, because looking inside the bus, it is a very simple lifestyle indeed!

Here in Mazatlán the couple are staying with Iuvet’s cousin, who works at Sea Shell City. They have been loving our beaches and seafood. This afternoon her uncle is barbecuing them some pescado zarandeado; they have plans to kayak to Deer Island, and to chill out on Stone Island. They met with the Mazatlán VW Club a couple of days ago.

The couple do not make plans, and are taking each day as it comes. They’re not sure how long they’ll be in Mazatlán, but want to get out of here before the craziness of Semana Santa and MotoWeek. They do intend to head to Tepic, San Blas and Vallarta from here, and visit her family in Guadalajara. They want to go to Aguas Calientes, San Luis Potosí and the Huasteca, and the Bahía: Querétaro, Guanajuato, and Puebla and Chiapas, before hitting Guatemala. They are not on a schedule, but are open to advice from people along the way on places they should go, things they should do, and people they should meet. They have a fan in Guatemala that corresponds with them nearly every day, asking when they’ll arrive. Their intention is to wind through Latin America until they reach Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego—the southernmost tip, though already Iuvet mentions the possibility of continuing on to another continent.

Sergio’s parents have been very supportive and encouraging, urging them to travel while they are young and able. Iuvet says her father “almost had a heart attack” when she told him she was giving up her successful medical practice to travel. Now he is respectful of her decision, though he can’t quite understand it.

When I asked what they’d like me to be sure to say in this article, they replied, “Get out and travel! It opens you to new worlds! Don’t put limits on yourself, such as you don’t have enough money. If you want to do it, you can!”

Sergio and Iuvet have been selling t-shirts, cups and stickers to help pay for gas and fund their journey. However, those items have pretty much sold out, and they only sell them live and in person. Greg and I told them about our local t-shirt maker, but something tells me they’re not interested in doing that right now with the ocean calling. So far they are not set up to receive donations, but they may eventually try to get some sponsors for their journey. Sergio loves to write and take photos, and would very much enjoy publishing an electronic book of their adventures. Iuvet enjoys making videos, and has started a YouTube channel.

Readers, I trust you will be able to meet Iuvet and Sergio while they are here. They are upbeat, enjoyable people whose excitement for life is contagious.

Best of luck to both of you, Iuvet and Sergio! We will most definitely be following your journey as well as your advice, and sending very positive travel energies!

 

Disrespected Beauty

dsc_0107Mazatlán is blessed with estuaries, lagoons, the ocean, rivers, and all the water fowl and marine life that go with it. Everyday we see glistening fishing boats casting their reflections in the water, and we are blessed to eat the delicious product of their labors.

Perhaps because we are so spoiled by all the natural beauty surrounding us, Mazatlecos all too often seem to take it for granted. Without thinking, seemingly, people throw trash on the beach or the coastline, and that trash ends up in our waterways and all too often into the stomachs of our marine life, murdering them. Especially harmful are fishing nets, lines and plastics, as they entangle marine life and kill them.

One of the saddest of such beautiful places in Mazatlán for me is Estero del Infiernillo. It’s the body of water to the north of Avenida Gabriel Leyva as you go over the bridge, between Avenida Juan Pablo II and Avenida General Pesqueira. I love this place! It is gorgeous! Yet, it is horribly, heart-wrenchingly awful. The photos in this post were taken from where the star is on the map below.

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I know the area fairly well, because our son was a Scout. The Scouts went out to Estero del Infiernillo about once a month for years and years to clean up the garbage. We, and mostly they, would pack dozens and dozens of trash bags full of garbage and remove them from the estuary. It would feel so good! Nature had a chance to shine again after our cleanups! Alas, the following month, you’d never known we had done a clean up, as the trash had somehow always reappeared. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

People in the neighborhood tell us that Mazatlecos come to the estuary specifically to dump their trash. The city has a big sign posted, warning that there should be no dumping of garbage here. The sign is obviously widely ignored. There are many fishing pangas that anchor here, making the area all the more scenic. It’s my guess that these fishermen, also, frequently throw entrails and other trash onto the shore, making the area stinky and unsightly.

Estero del Infiernillo is gorgeous! It has good views of the military school hill and the faro/lighthouse, and in the other direction great views to the cranes of Parque Bonfil/the port. Despite the trash strewn everywhere there are loads of water fowl, and on a sunny clear day the muddy, brackish water looks blue.

A couple of years ago the Municipio put in a nice park at the estero: a basketball court and soccer field combination, jungle gym and swings. Later, they added in one of the gyms we are fortunate to have all over town. At the time they built the park, there were plans for the city to clean up the area and to have kayak rentals in the estuary; plans that have never come true. Now it’s still usable but pretty run-down; the most remarkable thing are the many shoes hanging from the wires.

Kayaking in the area would be absolutely beautiful, even with the trash, but if we as community members could find a way to come together and re-educate ourselves, so that Estero del Infiernillo, and other waterways in town, stayed free of trash, how much better all our lives would be! I shudder to imagine anyone eating fish caught amidst all the garbage flung in that estuary, yet fish there they do.