Desert Critters

Bighorn Sheep at the Living Desert

It’s always a bit frustrating to look at zoo animals. They seem to be hyper-aware of the human gaze and prefer to avoid it. It reminds me of a former trip to Nova Scotia, where Martine was determined to find a moose. So we went to the Shubenacadie Wildlife Park north of Halifax to see their moose. Well, the moose was there, but didn’t want to be seen; so he hid behind some plants. When we tried to circle around to see him, we found the route closed. Not only closed but guarded by a determined naturalist. So much for that!

I have seen bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) only two or three times in my life: once at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County, and the rest of the time at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA. And not all the time, either. This particular day, they seemed to congregate in full view of park visitors.

Another Bighorn Sheep Right by the Fence

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I wasn’t particularly upset at the animals that were in hiding. I had visited three or four times before, and I was more interested in just taking it easy in the shade during a typically hot desert day. Still, it was nice to see the bighorns come crowding down from the hill.

A Botanical Garden Plus …

The big tourist attraction in the city of Palm Desert is the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. On my last day in the desert, while the male members of my family hiked Andreas Canyon, I decided to re-visit the Living Desert. Instead of frantically trying to see all the animals—many of whom, typically, were in hiding—I concentrated on the gardens, which are restful and lovely.

So I spent some time in the shade of a palm tree reading Philip K. Dick’s The Zap Gun, with a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water at my side.

There have been changes since my last visit. For one thing, there is a whole Australian section; and, in future, there will be a major rhinoceros exhibit in the African section.

Shown above is a Boojum Tree or Cirio from Baja California’s central desert. The scientific name is Fouquieria columaris, but the English name is taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark”:

“But if ever I meet with a Boojum, that day,
⁠In a moment (of this I am sure),
I shall softly and suddenly vanish away—
⁠And the notion I cannot endure!” 

Tomorrow, I will describe some of the animals I saw at the Living Desert.

Two Generations

Me with My Niece’s Oldest Son, Ollie

While many of my family members cavorted in the pool at a rental house in Indio, I sat reading James Boswell’s Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764. I had had a vicious siege of blepharitis that lasted for the better part of a year, so I was not about to subject my eyes to pool chemicals.

As I was eating my sister-in-law’s excellent orzo salad with olives, orange bell peppers, and feta cheese, my niece Hilary’s son Oliver came and sat down next to me. He had matured considerably since the time when, while rough-housing, he kicked me in the head. (Fortunately he was barefoot at the time.) Since that time, I have resolved never to rough-house with children. I could get hurt. Or worse, I can turn into my father and deliver an angry swat.

When my brother proposed I look after three children while their parents went elsewhere, I answered “No effing way!” Some people are not meant to be parents: I am one of that number. But then he knew, and he was only jesting with me.

In the Bosom of the Fambly

The Extended Paris/Moorman/Duche Family in Indio

Crouching: Oliver Moorman and Hilary Paris Moorman
Standing: Jennifer Duche, Me, Lori Paris, Ely Moorman, Dan Paris, Joseph Moorman

Just to get the relationships straight:

  • Dan Paris is my younger brother. He is married to Lori Paris.
  • Jennifer Duche is Lori’s daughter from an earlier marriage.
  • Dan’s daughter from an earlier marriage is Hilary Paris (and therefore my niece).
  • Hilary Paris is married to Joseph Moorman with two sons, Oliver and Ely.
  • I just happened to wander into the picture.

Ours is a widely diverse family, including anti-vaxxers, a Trump supporter, a Yoga instructor, a Seattle Parks & Recreation employee, two Hungarians, a Master Builder, a travel specialist, and me—perhaps the strangest one of all.

Joe and Hilary rented an Air B&B house in Indio, California, where most of the get-togethers were held.

In addition to family stuff, I saw the new James Bond film (No Time to Die) and liked it, and I visited the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, where I took pictures (which you will sample in the coming days).

The weather was a bit on the cool side, with a wild and windy rain squall on my final evening in the desert.


Emeric Toth’s Recurring Nightmare (Repost)

Chamula Girl with Plastic Bucket

This is a repost from my Blog.Com site on January 26, 2009:

It was a recurring dream that I would have at least once a week. In November 1980, I spent a week at San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. The town was known as a market town for the Highland Mayan peoples from San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán, Tenejapa, and other villages. In the city market, tourists are besieged by little Chamula girls selling crude handmade dolls. They come up to you, caress the doll, and coo to it softly. It was hard for anyone to resist. My Chamula doll is still propped up in my library in the Latin American literature section.

My revised edition of Michael Shawcross’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas City and Area Guide (San Cristóbal: Guadalupe de la Peña, June 1979) made reference to a local restaurant called Normita’s. In it, Shawcross wrote: “1E and 1S on Av. Benito Juárez. Pleasant, candle-lit atmosphere. Friendly owner (fine classical guitar-player). Try the Jalisco-style Pozole. The Huevos Motuleños are particularly fine. Beer/wine. Open afternoons and evenings only.” The 1E and 1S placed the restaurant one block southeast of the Zócalo.

Except, it wasn’t there. I had crawled all around the southeastern part of the city until I finally stumbled upon it. I spent all my small bills on the Jalisco-style Pozole, which was quite good and very filling. (If you’ve never had pozole, I suggest you try it on a cold day—and make sure it has a lot of hot chiles in it.)

When I emerged from a restaurant, I was accosted by a little Indian girl in tears carrying an empty plastic bucket. I could not give her anything because the smallest bill I had at the time was a 100-peso note, at the time worth about $12.00. Even if I were so warm-hearted as to have given it to her, her parents would probably have thought she stole it or did something nasty with one of the tourists, and then beaten her for her pains. I shook my head sadly and walked down the street, followed by the little girl, crying as if her world had tumbled down about her head. Had she lost something? Had she lost the money her parents had given her? I never knew.

That is my dream, being followed down a dark Mexican street by a poor little Indian girl with an empty plastic bucket, beseeching me for a few pesos which I didn’t have while drenched in tears.

“Cactus Slim”

One of My Favorite Places in the Coachella Valley

During my weekend in the desert, my brother and I didn’t get much of a chance to go gallivanting around. I did manage to introduce him to one of my favorite places, which, surprisingly, he had never visited. I am referring to the Moorten Botanical Garden on South Palm Drive in Palm Springs.

The garden was founded by Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten who had come to California during the silent film era and acted in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops films. By the 1930s, he had received a diagnosis of tuberculosis and was urged by his doctors to check into a sanitarium. Instead, he moved to the Palm Springs area and opened a cactus nursery. The story is told in Garden Collage magazine in a 2016 article by Molly Beauchemin which you can find here.

Acres of Incredible Cacti and Other Succulents

Dan and I enjoyed an hour exploring the paths overgrown with thousands of varieties of the desert foliage. The garden also does a land office business selling potted cacti to visitors.

One of the Most Photogenic Places in the Coachella Valley

Chester Moorten’s son Clark now runs the botanical garden. Plant varieties are carefully labelled with the plants’ scientific and popular names. There is even a greenhouse with hundreds of rare varieties which normally wouldn’t otherwise grow in the Palm Springs area.

For more information, you can visit the garden’s website: Moorten Botanical Garden.

Weekend in the Desert

Looking Up from the Book I Was Reading, This Was the View

It was good to see my brother again after four months of quarantining alone with Martine. Because she hates the desert (having lived and work for two years in Twentynine Palms), Martine stayed behind in L.A. and engaged in several cleaning projects which would have been difficult with me tromping about the place.

Dan and my sister-in-law Lori were, as usual, excellent hosts. Dan went out of his way to cook several gourmet meals including a vegetarian lasagna with eggplant and spinach as well as corned beef and cabbage with potatoes and carrots. We didn’t visit many places, because the Coachella Valley is still under a Covid-19 lockdown. But I did manage to read two whole books sitting in Dan’s back yard. The weather was perfect, an even 70° Fahrenheit (21° Celsius) with an occasional cool breeze.

The photo above was taken from the chair in which I was reading Hilaire Belloc’s Selected Essays and Jon Krakauer’s Classic Krakauer: Essays on Wilderness and Risk. (I love reading essays, as I consider myself to be something of an essay writer, but in a small way.)

My Brother Dan at the Moorten Cactus Garden in Palm Springs

Because Dan lives in the lower desert of California, I would not venture to visit him during the blazingly hot summer months. I hope that he can make it to L.A., or I will have to wait until the fall to drive out again.

Returning to Yucatán—After 28 Years

The Plaza Grande in Mérida

The Year 2020 for me began with relief and some elation. The relief because, on the day before I left for Mexico, I had turned 75 and outlived my father, who died at age 74. The elation was because, after 28 years, I was returning to one of my favorite places on Earth. I started coming in 1975, when I was 30, annoying my parents who wanted me to spend all my vacations in Cleveland with them. Then I returned several more times, once during such a fierce heat wave that I had to fly to the mountains of Chiapas for relief. The last time was in 1992, when I came with Martine and three of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems.

On January 14, I emplaned from LAX to Guadalajara, and after several hours from there to Mérida. No sooner did I step off the plane than I went through a kind of manic shock of recognition. I took a taxi to the Hotel La Piazzetta at Parque de la Mejorada, where I had a simple, clean, and comfortable room. (As with most of my accommodations, particularly at the beginning of a trip, I had reserved in advance.)

My Table and Chairs at the Hotel La Piazzetta

Although I arrived at the airport in Mérida around noon, I didn’t do anything special except walk around the city endlessly (developing a nasty blister) and having a spectacular lunch at the Chaya Restaurant on Calle 59 (whose dining room is shown below). I ordered a meal of Panuchos, fruit juice with chaya (also known as tree spinach), and flan, which is called queso napoletano in Yucatán.

The Dining Room at the Chaya Restaurant in Mérida

My vacation was to last three and a half weeks and take me all around the States of Yucatán and Campeche. I visited many of the great Maya ruins I had seen on previous trips, plus Edzna and Ek Balam. Would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat.

However miserable this whole coronavirus quarantine is, my year started with a spectacular vacation that lifted my spirits so high that, more than six months later, I am still not back to ground level. That’s only one of the things travel can do for one.

Mexican Folk Art: La Casa de los Venados

What It Feels Like to Stay at Home All the Time

I am about to take a break from my “Plague Diary” posts to remind myself that, somewhere, something like a normal life still exists. Toward the end of my vacation in Yucatán, I spent several days in Valladolid, home of one of the country’s best private collections of folk art at the Casa de los Venados. I loved the exhibits I saw throughout my trip of folk art. The combination of humor and brilliant color had me won over. Now that I am sitting out the plague in my apartment, sans restaurants, sans libraries, sans movie theaters, sans any humor or brilliant color. (Especially as it has rained all week.)

Dog Cart

Sometimes I feel as if North American culture is deficient, especially in the visual arts. It wasn’t always thus, but somehow I feel that abstract expressionism took all the fun out of painting. Seeing the collection at the Casa de los Venados, on the other hand, made me laugh out loud.

Mermaid


The amazing thing about Mexican folk art is that there is so much of it about and at such reasonable prices. Over several decades, you can have a great collection that might even rival the Casa de los Venados—and have loads of fun doing it.

Yucatán Yummies

La Chaya Maya in Mérida

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Mexico was the general high quality of the meals I ate. Following is a brief survey of some of the highlights:

Mérida. My favorite restaurant in Mérida was La Chaya Maya on Calle 55 near Parque Santa Lucia. In all, I ate there five times. The specialty there is Yucatec Maya food, such as papadzules, salbutes, panuchos, and the excellent sopa de lima. It was there that I discovered chaya, or tree spinach, which when mixed with fruit juice makes an incredibly refreshing drink.

Martine vividly remembers sopa de lima from her trip with me to Yucatán in 1992. La Chaya Maya’s sopa de lima was the best, with its shredded chicken and tart local limes.

Honorable mention goes to Marlin Azul on Calle 62, where I had a memorable ceviche de pescado for just a few dollars.

Santa Elena is a small town between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. The Pickled Onion is a B&B run by a British and Canadian expat by the name of Valerie Pickles. Although she no longer does the cooking, the breakfasts at her place were memorable, but the poc chuc (a Maya pork dish) I had one evening was superb. I treated my Maya guide to the Puuc Hill ruins to a meal there, and he was so enthusiastic that he wanted to bring his family there.

A Few Miles South of Champotón is a restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico shore where I had the best seafood lunch of my life: It was a filete de pescado a la Veracruzána (filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and olives) at a restaurant whose name had the word Tortuga in it. I only wish I remembered the exact name. I liked my lunch there so much that I kept ordering the same dish elsewhere, but it never was quite so good elsewhere.

Campeche. I ate twice at Marganzo near the Plaza Independencia in Campeche. The seafood was great, particularly a botana (freebie extra dish) of octopus ceviche, which was incredibly fresh and tender.

The only bad meal I had in Mexico was also in Campeche, at a Chinese steam table buffet called the Restaurante Shanghai where all the dishes were tepid.