A Case of the Crabs

“Bloody hell!” yelled Desmond, hopping out of the water on his left foot, instantly rasping his heel on a cluster of rock-encrusted, razor-sharp barnacles. Blood was welling up from the back of his right fourth toe, which had been pinched by a crab. Now he had injured his left foot as well trying to escape the crabs, of which there were hundreds — if not thousands — poised just below the waterline, their merciless claws open and at the ready for Desmond’s tender feet.

Desmond, cursing, collapsed on the nearest patch of rock-free sand, nursing both feet, his eyes blurred with tears of pain and outrage.

It was the first day of Desmond’s and Patrice’s month-long November vacation in Mexico. They had just left a foot of new snow behind them in Alaska the night before, and now, after 13 hours of flight, they were at the very rim of the warm, blue Pacific Ocean, 10,000 miles of salt water balm stretching to Asia, at their feet. They were about to indulge in of one of the main perquisites of their house, Casa Mariposa, on which they had lavished several hundreds of thousands of dollars just for moments like this.

Stepping into the Pacific Ocean on Day One of a Mexican Vacation was an inviolable and blissfulrite…  No, not a mere rite, but a right, bought and paid for with the sweat of one’s brow!  And now Desmond had been maimed by a crab, drawing blood!

Crabs are an irregular annual phenomenon at Paradise Point, rather like one of the Seven Plagues of Egypt, only this was the year 2011, in Mexico, and therefore completely un-Biblical. Biblical references aside, there was really a shitload of crabs out there, eagerto destroy the pleasure (and toes) of vacationing Gringos. The crabs were in their breeding cycle, so they were vicious and implacable, like a nest of pit vipers in heat.

Desmond was furious. “This means war!” he screamed, hobbling up the stairs from the beach as best he could, leaving a bloody heel-print on every other step, with drops of blood from his toe on the alternate steps.

It was four in the afternoon, the very hour that the housekeepers, gardeners and handymen were gathering for their rides back home to Otates, Ixtapa and Zacualpan. This was this unfortunate moment that Desmond, a Normally Staid and Respectable Owner, chose to lurch into view, like a red-eyed bull moose in rut, to demand a rake. Years ago, Desmond had gone crabbing for Dungeness crabs in Sitka, where an ordinary straight garden rake was the weapon of choice, as the crabs would glom on to it, and could be easily dumped into a bucket. So Desmond wanted a rake, right now!

Miguel Sanchez, the chief handyman at Paradise Point, quickly secured one, a diminutive, metal grass comb like a child’s toy beach rake, missing half its teeth. Holding it in front of himself as one holds a cross to ward off an approaching vampire, he gingerly placed it in Desmond’s outstretched, vibrating hand.

Desmond seized the rake then caromed off to Casa Mariposa to grab two orange five-gallon Home Depot buckets and a pair of heavy black rubber oyster-shucking gloves he had bought at Alaska Industrial Hardware a few years ago, which he had kept in abeyance for just such a Crab Opportunity as this.

Desmond had witnessed a minor Crab Bloom several years earlier, but without rake or heavy gloves, he had been powerless to act. Now, at the peak of a huge crab invasion, he was armed, thanks to Miguel Sanchez and Alaska Industrial Hardware, though he had no idea whether the rake would work, or if the oyster gloves would be better.


The rake proved worthless. The crabs skittered away from it, so Desmond tossed it aside. Now it was up to The Black Gloves.

Desmond and Patrice had invited The Russians from Anchorage to come down for the week: Dmitri, his wife Svetlana and their daughter Tatiana. Dmitri is actually a Finn, with a Russian last name, who grew up in Sweden during WWII and emigrated to Pennsylvania after the war. Svetlana and Tatiana are both engineers from Petrograd and work for a Really, Really Big Multinational Oil Company in Anchorage. It turned out that Tatiana, who is 25, had very sharp eyes, capable of near X-ray vision, and could detect crabs that had buried themselves in the sand, leaving just a faint crescent of a claw visible, which only Tatiana could see.

Killer gloves

Killer gloves

Tatiana had found a broken mop handle. She wielded it like a teacher’s pointer to show Dmitri precisely where the crabs were hiding. It was thena simple matter for Dmitri to scoop up the sand-bound crabs into the orange Home Depot bucket, and, within half an hour, the Desmond-Dmitri-Tatiana team had rung up no fewer than fifty crabs. Dmitri, however, suffered a scrape on the barnacled rocks, and was hemorrhaging from his arm.

Tatiana points out a crab

Tatiana points out a crab

Dmitri grabbing crabs.

Dmitri grabbing crabs.



It was at their very moment of triumph over the crabs, when Desmond and Dmitri, aided by Tatiana’s unerring X-ray vision, were glomming a crab every ten seconds, that Elizabeth Jane and Martin chose to venture down to the beach. Elizabeth Jane and Martin, stalwart Marin County ex-pats, lived next door to Desmond and Patrice, in the eponymous Casa Don Martín.

Elizabeth Jane and Martin were horrified! Crabicide in Full Swing at Paradise Point before their very eyes! Crabs — no matter they had invaded in plague proportions — were a Sacred Planetary Resource like snakes, caterpillars, bats, tree frogs, inch worms, moths of all species, iguanas (the list is quite long)… thoroughly unlike, say, dogs, cats or other common, useless, uninteresting critters.

Martin sidled over to glance down at the slaughter underway, a look of dour disapproval on his face, but said nothing: his expression said all. Elizabeth Jane, on the other hand, cheerily suggested that the einsatzgruppe might release all the females, which were laden with eggs. The exterminators neither looked up from their work nor acknowledged her suggestion, but assiduously kept at their task until the two buckets were filled, while Martin and Elizabeth Jane wandered off in disgust. The massacre ended with the setting of the sun, after which Tatiana could no longer spot additional victims for Desmond and Dmitri to seize. The buckets held a total of 254 crabs, mostly small ones, each not much larger than a drink coaster.

After the buckets were taken back to Casa Mariposa, water was heated to boiling in a 14-quart soup pot. Using a pair of long tongs, the crabs were dropped into the pot in cohorts of ten, until they attained a rich, rusty red color, and then were removed to a suitable receptacle to make way for the next batch.

About to Scald A Crab

About to Scald A Crab

By now the evening’s dinner was well under way. Elizabeth Jane had undertaken to create another one of her astonishing gumbos, with chicken, rice, chunks of sierra mackerel (but no duck).

Desmond thought that Elizabeth Jane might be interested in adding a few juicy, fresh whole crabs to the medley to enrich the flavor, so he took a bowl of 30 or 40 processed, red, dead crabs over to Casa Don Martín and left it on the kitchen counter, as no one was present in the kitchen at that moment.

Dmitri and Desmond returned to Casa Martín a little while later to sniff out any response. Elizabeth Jane was stirring about in her kitchen, the bowl of crabs sitting forlornly on the counter in pointedly obvious ostracism.

Both men had been of the mistaken impression that Elizabeth Jane, being a nominally open-minded gourmet cook, would at least appreciate the gesture of the crabs, of course granting her the right to reject them for her gumbo. It was merely a gesture, after all, not a veiled command.

Elizabeth Jane, however, did not appear to appreciate the gesture, and proclaimed, “These crabs are dangerous!”

Dangerous?” repeated Desmond, stupefied by the implication that his hard-won crabs could pose a hazard, particularly now that they could no longer pinch anyone’s toes.

“Yes! Dangerous!” repeated Elizabeth Jane.

Desmond, somewhat oiled after several rum-and-orange juices, immediately lost it. “Fuck this!” he muttered, quite loudly in fact, and stormed out of Casa Don Martín after snatching the bowl of crabs off the kitchen counter.

A new culinary war was on.


A glum, crabless gumbo dinner was held at Casa Mariposa in sepulchral silence, with little of the alcoholic jollity that normally accompanied the grand affairs which Desmond and Patrice, on account of their gigantic 90-inch diameter marble table, were fond of hosting. True to form, however, despite the chill in the air (though it was in fact 84° F), on his way out Martin handily pocketed all cigar butts longer than half an inch with accomplished legerdemain and ambled off to Casa Don Martín.

The following morning dawned bright, hot and pale blue, all vestiges of a rapid and unsubtlesunrise dissipating in less than ten minutes as the temperature soared to 90°. Desmond, a trifle under the weather on account of a slight indiscretion in the number and strength of the rum-and-orange-juice cocktails the night before, was tentatively navigating the jungle path to Casa Don Martín, a Bodum double-walled, insulated glass of coffee in hand, when he bumped into Elizabeth Jane, who, having already gotten up sufficient steam to allow forward progress, was advancing at one-quarter throttle in the opposite direction: she, too, had imbibed somewhat freely (of her own margaritas)  and was yawing a bit off course at several points of the compass, here and there bouncing off the stout stalks of the banana trees.

The cobbled path, being too narrow for the one to pass the other, demanded An Encounter, rather like the Billy Goats Gruff and the Troll, or the meeting of Robin Hood and Little John on the log over the stream. It should be noted, however, that neither Desmond nor Elizabeth Jane was in possession of goat horns or oak staves, so there was little other than banana fronds to serve for tilting purposes. Besides, neither was in the mood for confrontation.

Articulate Speech, that which separates us from the apes (with whom we otherwise share 99.2% of our DNA), was unavoidable.

“Desmond, I owe you an apology,” began Elizabeth Jane, looking askance at an overladen banana tree, and sounding justa trifle contrite.  “I was quite insensitive yesterday evening.”

“Insensitive?” Desmond responded. “You told me the crabs were dangerous. What did that mean?””

“Yes, I did use that word,” conceded Elizabeth Jane, shifting her glance to a subtle spray of lavender wild orchids, which Martin had illegally purchased from a professional orchid thief, “But what I actually meant was that the crabs would be dangerous to the flavor of the gumbo, not that they were lethal or anything.”

Desmond, an advanced amateur chef in his own right, had never heard the adjective “dangerous” applied to the flavoring of foodstuffs, so what Elizabeth Jane was telling him did not exactly compute in the Cosmology of Cuisine, nor, to use a more apt phrase, did it exactly cut the mustard. But a peace pipe of sorts had been offered, and Desmond, embarrassed by his rum-fueled outburst the evening before, decided to accept the offering. The two embraced awkwardly and hostilities were thereby called off.

I must apologize, Dear Reader, that the Great Crab War was settled so quickly without so much as a skirmish, that peace was negotiated beyond the ken of reliable witnesses, and for stringing you along in the hopes of reading about gruesome combat casualties, but such were the bare facts: far be it from me to make anything up! What you read here is the Truth, or may god (small “G”) have mercy on my soul if I am lying.


Nonetheless, we cannot end our story so abruptly: we must account for the ultimate fate of the 254 dead crabs, lest Desmond, Dmitri and Tatiana be hauled off to the Hague to stand trial for International Crimes against Crabs.

Were the crabs slaughtered in vain?

They were not. Desmond prepared an outlandish quantity of satiny-smooth crab bisque from the 254 crabs, which Elizabeth Jane profusely praised each of the six times it was subsequently served, after which there was still enough left over to provide the first course of a Thanksgiving dinner for twenty.

Cleaved crabs ready for bisque

Cleaved crabs ready for bisque

Blending the tomatillo/carrot/onion base for the bisque.

Blending the tomatillo/carrot/onion base for the bisque.

Trapping Mapaches

The word “mapache” is of Náhuatl origin, from “mapactli,” meaning “he who has hands,” an apt moniker given the mapache’s advanced manual dexterity. The professional mapache clan that overran the Point in the last couple of years had even learned how to work the child-proof latches on our kitchen cabinets.

The scientific literature describes them as “opportunistic omnivores,” which really means they will eat just about anything they can get their talented little mitts on. Well, there are exceptions: they disdain tomatoes and citrus fruit, but aside from these two exceptions to the rule, just about everything else is fair game: chicken, meat, fish, eggs, crackers, chips, avocados, melons, apples, chocolates, bread, flour, sugar… and even the waste bacon grease you keep in the tin can under the kitchen sink. This really makes a mess when it hits the floor! Eggs and flour are not fun to clean up either, or the kitchen garbage, tipped over and spread out over several square yards.

If they are really hungry and for some reason can’t work the latch of a cabinet, they will tear the cabinet door to shreds to get what they want.

In short, the mapache, (Procyon lotor mexicanus), a subspecies of the common raccoon, is a real pest if you happen to have an unlockable house, like so many on the Point. And if your house locks, but you leave a window open, you’re just as vulnerable.

So we decided to wage war.

A year ago we brought down a Havahart™ catch-em-alive trap — a large one — at great bother and expense. We faithfully baited it every night with bananas, fish, sausage, and caught… two cats, or rather, the same cat twice. Most mornings we found the bait gone and the trap un-tripped. Meanwhile, just to rub things in, the mapaches raided the house nightly. Our vacation ended without a single mapache inside the trap.

On our next visit, we doggedly set the trap each night with the same humiliating nightly failures. Then we tried a new bait concept, just five nights before we had to leave. We changed the bait to cookies known as Marias, the common kind our housekeepers make into various cakes and pies. And we fastened the cookies to the trap’s treadle with food bag clips, or with clothespins.

Wham! Bang! We bagged a mapache each of the next five nights. Big ones, a baby, medium ones. After we left, a neighbor used the trap with our new bait system at Estrella and trapped two more. They were all let go several miles away.

Now when a mapache springs the trap, you know it: the racket wakes you up, usually around 2 AM. He rattles the trap, he growls, he barks, he sends out a series of piteous chirps, like some kind of bird, and he tries to escape, sometimes abrading the skin off his wrists and his forehead. In their rage, the mapaches destroy the bait clips, (which are stout enough to resist easy bending by human fingers), turning them into lengths of denuded wire.

Ismael took our trap to a sheet metal worker in Ixtapa, who made four copies for about $350 pesos each, and three or four more were caught, one of which escaped by demolishing the trap.

On our next trip down, we brought along some orange day-glo spray paint so we could mark the trapped mapaches, to see whether they returned and were re-trapped; we set the traps nightly for three weeks and caught… none. Our kitchen was raided only twice. Our conclusion: the mapache clan that had claimed the Point as its territory had been effectively wiped out. We hope it will be a while before a new clan moves in, but if and when they do, we will be ready for them!


Tuning up the home-made trap

A year after the above was written, we returned to the Point to find that another gang of mapaches had taken over, so we swung into action. First, we tuned up one of the locally-made traps. Then we baited it plus our original traps with Maria cookies, and we scored! It almost got boring, dealing with the full traps each morning, spraying the mapaches with day-glo paint, driving to the dump and releasing them. The day-glo paint job was to see if any returned to the Point (none did).One morning, we found a different visitor, a lahuache, or opossum. These guys climb the trees and eat the whistling duck eggs. They also come into our kitchen and wreak havoc.

Not a happy camper!

Not a happy camper!

This guy shot out of the trap like a rocket afire!

This guy shot out of the trap like a rocket afire!

A Persistence of Duck

Desmond decided on Thursday’s dinner early Thursday morning. He would rotisserie three chickens on the fancy Weber grill he had bought in Puerto Vallarta. The grill had cost twice as much in Mexico, but it was a “must have” for Desmond and Patrice’s coffee-table book house, Casa Mariposa, which they had built on the coast, a couple of hours north of the city. They rarely entertained at home in Alaska, but here in Mexico, on Paradise Point, large dinners were the norm, so it had to be three chickens.

Most of the meat and poultry in Casa Mariposa was frozen, bought on arrival in Puerto Vallarta at the new Costco and meant to last the three weeks of a mid-winter stay, so dinners were usually planned in the morning, sometimes the night before, depending on what had to be thawed.

Casa Mariposa had two refrigerators with large freezers to accommodate the purchases. Desmond always brought Bachoco brand chickens, which came two to a package. They were small enough so that he could cram three of them onto the Weber’s spit, each professionally trussed with the cotton butcher’s twine Desmond brought down from the States, because all he could find locally was cheap plastic twine which melted in the grill and burned inedible pink plastic nodules into the chicken.

For this winter visit, Desmond also had bought six frozen Costco ducks. But it would be Yucatan chicken with saffron rice tonight, a favorite of neighbors and assorted guests – there were sometimes as many as eighteen for dinner. The year before, Patrice and Warren, Desmond’s old friend and a constant guest, had ordered a round, custom-made marble table in Guadalajara. Almost eight feet across, it could easily seat most nightly crowds. The standing joke was that you needed a megaphone to carry on a conversation with someone across the table.

Three chickens would be plenty, especially since Martin and Elizabeth Jane, the next-door neighbors in Casa Don Martín, always brought a dish or two of their own, plus appetizers. Desmond and Elizabeth Jane were the principal dinner cooks, with Martin grilling huge chunks of marinated pork, or smoking the local fish. Patrice made bagels every other day and gave water aerobics classes in the Big Pool each noon. Warren made rye bread, pickles and popovers.

Desmond rarely interfered with Elizabeth Jane’s dinner preparations, whereas Elizabeth Jane did not hesitate to correct Desmond’s recipes, one time pouring a whole pint of potent lobster broth into his Bolognese sauce when his back was turned. Elizabeth Jane could be surprisingly quick.

Yucatan chicken was by now a traditional hit: Desmond marinated the birds in a mixture of achiote paste, garlic, onion, soy sauce and olive oil. Towards the end, he brushed the chicken with sweet soy sauce, which partially caramelized so that the chickens came out a rich golden brown.

Carrying the loaded spit to the kitchen island for carving generally caught everyone’s eye, for the chickens looked truly delicious. Desmond would choose a moment when most of the guests would see him bring it in. If they weren’t paying attention, he’d shout, “Make way!” Elizabeth Jane always applied one of her “A” adjectives to the chicken: “Astonishing!” “Amazing!” “Astounding!” Desmond liked Elizabeth Jane’s praise of his cooking even though he didn’t quite believe her superlatives.

Tuesday’s dinner was a local leg of lamb, bought from a butcher in Tepic, the state capital. Martin had studded it with garlic cloves, then rotisseried it on the Weber. It was really a leg of mutton, as the joint was oversize for lamb, so there was quite a bit left over in Elizabeth Jane’s fridge.

Wednesday’s dinner was barbecued duck – two of them – plus a third duck Elizabeth Jane had prepared in her oven, as only two ducks would fit on the Weber’s spit. Desmond’s ducks were briefly charred: he had neglected to scrape out the Weber’s drip pan, so the accumulated grease ignited, sending billows of acrid black smoke into the house.

Desmond promptly extinguished the blazing ducks, but they were already black beyond remedy. He chose a moment when no one was paying attention to bring them into the kitchen and didn’t cry out, “Make way!” Desmond was mortified by his culinary faux pas, so he decided to mitigate the disaster by drawing attention to it after all, presenting the charred birds as “Crispy Napalm Duck.” Everyone laughed. Desmond had wanted to call them “Vietnamese Napalm Duck,” but he thought it might be considered a trifle too insensitive.

Desmond needn’t have fretted: the intense conflagration had liquefied most of the ducks’ layer of fat, which had almost instantly burned off, leaving the meat done to perfection. At the end of the dinner five duck quarters remained, stowed in Desmond’s kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, along with some leftover saffron rice.


Desmond announced Thursday’s dinner plans to Elizabeth Jane and Martin at Casa Don Martín, around lunchtime. The two were sitting in wicker armchairs at their coffee table next to the kitchen, having late coffee when Desmond came in and joined them. Elizabeth Jane frowned, for she had other dinner plans.

“Can I have the leftover duck?” she asked. “I want to make a rice casserole with the leftover duck and lamb. Do the chicken tomorrow.”

Half-relieved not to be preparing the main dish that evening, Desmond promptly agreed, “Sure, take the leftover duck. It’s in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left. I’ve cut some off one quarter, but you’ll have a good four quarters to work with. I’ll put the chickens back in the freezer.”

Desmond was rather fond of leftover duck, and had quietly been slicing little pieces off one of the quarters all morning long. Although wary of Elizabeth Jane’s rice casseroles, he didn’t want to stir up that pot at the moment, so he decided to forgo more cold duck, if necessary, in order to Preserve the Peace.

A beaming Elizabeth Jane sailed briskly out of Casa Don Martín and returned a minute or two later bearing a Ziploc bag with the leftover duck quarters.

“I left the partly-eaten quarter for you,” she said, then asked, “Can I have the leftover saffron rice, too? I’ll add it to the casserole.”

“Yeah, go ahead and take it.”

Elizabeth Jane finished her coffee and sailed out of Casa Don Martín again. She quickly returned, this time scowling – and empty-handed.

“Dinner is canceled! They want the leftover duck for lunch!” kvetched Elizabeth Jane, bristling with indignation and gesturing with a vibrating, downturned hand towards the unseen Philistines next door in Casa Mariposa.

Evidently, one or more of the guests at Casa Mariposa had eyes on the leftover duck, too. Elizabeth Jane was furious that the duck was about to be pre-empted for a puny, ignoble lunch. Martin, puffing on one of the cigar butts he habitually looted from the previous dinner’s ashtrays, looked disgruntled as only Martin could look, like when he has to go shopping.

Martin hates to shop, and has decreed that he and Elizabeth Jane can only stop at one supermarket on the way up from the airport, either Sam’s Club or the Mega, but not both and never at Costco, because Costco is quite a way down towards the city, the opposite direction from Paradise Point and going to Costco meant another hour’s delay in getting to Casa Don Martín. Martin’s distaste for shopping was a perennial burr under Elizabeth Jane’s saddle, but she used it to advantage whenever she forgot to pick things up that she had undertaken to get for Desmond and Patrice, because they couldn’t be found in the one store they stopped at – or so she said.

Elizabeth Jane, on the other hand, routinely asked Desmond and Patrice to pick up special pita chips for her at Costco, because Martin refused to go there and neither Sam’s Club nor the Mega sold the right kind of pita chips. Desmond thought all pita chips were alike, but Elizabeth Jane was an accomplished Marin County epicure who knew better. She cooked in tin-lined copper saucepans at home, and insisted, inter alia, that imported, ten-dollar-a-pound bronze-die-cut pasta from the Abruzzo was the only pasta worthy of her sauces.

Desmond and Patrice always went to Costco anyway, despite the distance and delay, because Costco was the only place that sold frozen ducks.

Now four quarters of those ducks hung in the balance.


“Well, why not wait and see how much duck is left after ‘they’ have lunch, and use that in your casserole?” suggested Desmond, trying to take some angst out of the rapidly unfolding imbrolgio.

Martin grumpily broke in from the depths of his cigar smoke cocoon, disclosing that he, too, had a keen interest in the leftover duck, “No! It was marginal at best with only four quarters. It simply can’t be done with fewer!” He subsided into a pout.

Martin and Elizabeth Jane had probably been plotting this revolutionary rice casserole dish starting the night before, so by noon on Thursday they had firmly set their hearts on it. Their disappointment was palpable. Desmond wanted only to get away.

“That Warren,” Martin erupted again, with a quiver of bitterness, “He’s so fucking headstrong. First he insists on making those fucking popovers every night and now he’s appropriating the leftover duck!”

Warren had brought down sixty pounds of American bread flour and all-purpose flour (not available locally in Mexico, even at the big box stores), for baking bread, and – a first on this visit – for making popovers, which he made almost every night in two heavy-duty cast aluminum popover pans he had also brought down, along with twenty LED flashlights, sixteen clocks, a couple of dozen ersatz Leatherman tools and numerous framed portraits of the staff, which he distributed as gifts on the first day.

Warren had glommed three extra pounds of sweet butter at Costco expressly for the popovers, of which he turned out two dozen at a clip. He tried cream puffs as well (Warren had an insatiable sweet tooth), but due to a miscalculation of one kind or another, they came out with the precise shape, size and heft of hockey pucks. Warren tried to use them as bait in the raccoon trap, but the raccoons weren’t impressed by his baking skills and spurned them.

Elizabeth Jane snatched up the Ziploc of leftover duck quarters where she had left it on her kitchen counter and marched grimly back to Casa Mariposa to surrender the duck to the leftoverducknappers.

Eager to Spread the Latest Gossip, Desmond got up from his wicker armchair to escape, saying, “I’ll keep the chickens out and do three cups of saffron rice, as planned. See ya later.”

Rice was a sore point between the two households. Elizabeth Jane had prepared a rice casserole the previous Sunday. Not much was eaten, so it re-materialized and re-re-materialized as a side dish at subsequent dinners through Wednesday, with few takers. One particularly unkind guest had dubbed it “stucco rice.” Desmond had suggested to Elizabeth Jane that she pat the considerable remainder into little rice casserole latkes and fry them in oil. Elizabeth Jane chose not to dignify his suggestion with a reply. She merely glared at Desmond.


Back at Casa Mariposa, Desmond told Warren about the canceled dinner, and what Martin had said about him and his fucking popovers.

Warren laughed. “I’m headstrong? Well, so what if I am? But it’s beside the point here, because I had nothing to do with the leftover duck. As for popovers, people seemed to like them just fine: they were gone every night and I don’t see any being recycled, like Elizabeth Jane’s stucco rice.” (Warren had been the unkind guest.)

“Anyway, here’s what actually happened with the duck,” Warren continued. “Frieda had a leftover duck quarter for lunch a little while ago. She said it was ‘super delicious,’ and told Dan, who was scrabbling about for food.”

Frieda is Warren’s daughter. Dan is Frieda’s always-hungry boyfriend. They had come down to Paradise Point for a five day stay.

“Dan went searching for the duck on the top left shelf of the kitchen fridge, where Frieda said she had left it. The duck wasn’t there, so Dan looked in the laundry room fridge, but it wasn’t there either. Dan asked Patrice where the duck was. Patrice said she last saw it in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, ”

Warren gave one of his chin-up pauses to let you know a punch line of sorts was in the offing.

“Just then Elizabeth Jane breezes into the kitchen to expropriate the leftover rice, and I ask her, ‘Elizabeth Jane, have you by any chance seen the leftover duck?’ ‘Yes, I took it,’ she says, her face falling and reddening at the same time, ‘I’ll bring it right back.’ And she did. Dan wolfed down two duck quarters for lunch, so now there are only two left.”

That explained why Elizabeth Jane had stormed back to Casa Don Martín to announce that dinner was canceled for lack of adequate duck, then stormed back to Casa Mariposa with the Ziploc of duck quarters and shoved them in the kitchen fridge, top shelf, left, and why there were now only two quarters left.


It’s half-past four. Desmond, in his red Casa Mariposa apron, is busy marinating his three Bachoco chickens, turning them over and over with a carving fork in a huge terracotta olla. The rice cooker is set up to go, with three cups of rice, some Knorr Caldo de Pollo and some allegedly Iranian saffron Desmond had purchased on eBay.

Elizabeth Jane breezes in, re-beatified.

“Hi Desmond. Can I have the leftover duck?” she chirps rhetorically, traversing the kitchen, opening the fridge and removing the remaining duck in a single, smoothly choreographed maneuver.

“What?!” objects Desmond. “You canceled dinner, remember? I’m grilling three chickens, OK? So why do you want the duck now?”

“I decided to make the casserole anyway,” Elizabeth Jane replies, no hint of rancor in her voice, as if the earlier duck contretemps had never taken place or had taken place in a parallel universe which she, Elizabeth Jane, did not care to revisit at this particular moment.

“But there are only two duck quarters left, and Martin said that even with four the dish was ‘marginal.’”

“Look,” says Elizabeth Jane, “You’re doing three chickens, right?”

“I just said I was. In fact, I have to turn them right now,” Desmond said, spearing the nearest chicken out of the olla with the carving fork and waving it like an inverted pendulum in Elizabeth Jane’s face, the marinade dripping onto the beige stone floor, making brown stains.

“Can I have one?”

“What the hell for? You just commandeered the leftover duck. For the second time today.”

“Right, I already have the duck, see?” says Elizabeth Jane, dangling the Ziploc tauntingly in front of Desmond at face level, “But when the chickens are ready, just cut one of them into small pieces for me and I’ll use them to extend my rice casserole.”

“Jesus Christ!” says Desmond. “OK, that’s fine by me if that’s what you want. How small do you want the pieces, E. J.? In quarters?”

“Nope, smaller than that. I need at least a dozen pieces.”

Desmond agrees. Then Elizabeth Jane spots the open rice cooker with the three cups of rice, already filled to the mark with water, the allegedly Iranian saffron pooling red-orange on the surface.

“You … are … making … RICE?!” she accuses, in ascending prosecutorial stridor, instantly back on the warpath. “We can’t BOTH make rice!”

“Why not? I already told you I was making rice tonight, and you didn’t say anything then.”

Ignoring any inconsistency, because “then” had been in the now-uninhabited parallel universe, Elizabeth Jane heatedly continues, “Because if you make your rice, no one will eat my rice! I’ve already spent hours on this rice casserole. It’s a masterpiece! I don’t want all my hard work to go unappreciated!”

Desmond suspects Elizabeth Jane has had an early margarita, or something. “She’s totally serious about this,” he thinks, itching for a good culinary brawl but scoping out the nearest exits all the same.

Elizabeth Jane sometimes gets that way. A year or so earlier, Francisco, the night watchman, killed a snake that was under his hammock, bashing it with a shovel, and Elizabeth Jane had to be physically restrained from firing him on the spot, because Elizabeth Jane venerated snakes.

“It’s an odd Marin County trait,” Desmond reflected whenever the matter of snakes came up, which was pretty often, because there were lots of snakes at Paradise Point, some of them six-foot boa constrictors, who slithered up the oil palms to eat the black-bellied whistling duck eggs. No matter that embryonic ducks were somehow less precious than snakes in Elizabeth Jane’s cosmology.

And no matter that Francisco had felt his life was in danger, that he understood no English, that Elizabeth Jane spoke no Spanish, that Francisco did not work for Elizabeth Jane but for the homeowners’ association. Elizabeth Jane had had a margarita or two that time, Desmond recalled.

So now Elizabeth Jane was snake-mad over some rice, and considered Desmond’s proposing to make three cups of it an epic betrayal.

“Elizabeth Jane, would it be OK if I made just one cup of rice, instead of three?” Desmond asks, slowly edging out of the kitchen, hoping she’d say “Yes,” so he could keep increasing the hypothetical volume of rice to see exactly where Elizabeth Jane’s betrayal threshold was and still be able to get away fast.

Elizabeth Jane ponders a scant moment. “One cup would have been OK, but not three.” she declares, sliding out the kitchen door with the Ziploc of doubly-leftover duck and making extraordinarily rapid headway towards Casa Don Martín, leaving a wake of incredulous silence behind her.

“Fuck the saffron rice,” Desmond mutters. “It’s not worth it.” He drains the water from the rice cooker and puts the cooker insert into the fridge for a future dinner.


Thursday dinner at Casa Mariposa is preceded by two pitchers of Elizabeth Jane’s margaritas. Like the legendary ultra-dry martini, where the vermouth’s cork is ceremoniously wafted like a censer over a glass of gin containing a cocktail olive, Elizabeth Jane’s margaritas are straight eighty proof booze, with a feeble tincture of lime, crushed ice being the only diluent. Emmett, their Irish neighbor, has three, a serious misstep.

When the chickens are done, ostentatiously borne into the kitchen and removed from the spit, Desmond dutifully carves one of them into small pieces and asks a courier guest to deliver them to Casa Don Martín, where Elizabeth Jane has repaired for final ministrations to her ricelamb- duck-and-now-with-added-chicken chef-d’ouvre. Five minutes later, a radiant Elizabeth Jane appears in the doorway of Casa Mariposa’s kitchen bearing a heavy, red-enameled cast iron casserole gripped between two huge yellow potholders.

The various dishes, including the centerpiece casserole, are now all deployed on the kitchen island and guests are called to start serving themselves. Desmond, as host, serves himself last; by the time he reaches the casserole he finds it rather shy in the duck department. He gingerly probes under the rice with a fork to make sure, but no luck. “Too bad,” he thinks, “But what can one expect with only two duck quarters and ten people to feed?” Desmond loves duck; he fleetingly regrets hosting the dinner in Casa Mariposa, because had it been hosted in Casa Don Martín instead, as a guest he could have been at the head of the line and not be bereft of duck on his last Thursday in Mexico.

Thursday’s dinner is languidly consumed, punctuated by Emmett’s hilarious off-color Irish jokes and home-town stories about the endless number of village idiots he grew up with, and how they are still village idiots forty years later, when he goes to visit the Old Sod, all the more hilarious because of the three Elizabeth Jane margaritas he has imbibed, not to mention because of the Elizabeth Jane margaritas (or the four bottles of Concha y Toro) imbibed by the dinner party. Emmett emigrated to Canada decades ago, has a moderate Irish brogue, but when he’s had a few, the brogue stiffens like a meringue, so you can cut it. Emmett is at least two sheets to the wind, if not three.

In between Emmett’s jokes and stories, delicately-couched, elegantly polite compliments are proffered on Elizabeth Jane’s rice-chicken-duck-and-lamb casserole, but an “Astonishing,” “Amazing,” “Astounding” quantity remains clotted in the casserole dish, whereas none of the the Yucatan chicken is left.

Flan, Tres Leches cake and local ice cream are served for dessert and Warren distributes Habanero cigars to the smokers The evening winds down. Last out is Martin, after his customarily surreptitious selection of choice cigar butts, which he executes with quicksilver precision.


It’s Friday lunchtime. Desmond plans a big pasta dish for dinner: he’ll make the sauce and Elizabeth Jane can make a kilo of her die-cut Pasta Abruzzese. There’s plenty of basil coming online in the garden, and the local Roma tomatoes are very sweet at this time of year. A marinara sauce with lots of fresh basil seems like the ticket. Almost at the end of their three-week stay, there’s still a good chunk of imported Parmesan to grate.

“Shouldn’t be too controversial,” Desmond muses, wending his way through the banana trees en route to Casa Don Martín to break the dinner plans to Elizabeth Jane. Desmond finds Elizabeth Jane at her big glass-top dining room table, about to have lunch, with a New Yorker propped against a vase overfilled with scarlet zinnias. Knife and fork in hand, she’s about to happily attack what appears to be… a leftover duck quarter.

Coming up behind her, Desmond stops cold.

“Elizabeth Jane! Is that the leftover duck you’re having?” Desmond squeaks, as much at a loss as if he had seen the sun rising in the west that morning, not yet grasping the magnitude of the Great Chicken-for-Duck Swap that had been perpetrated on him and his guests the evening before.

“Yup,” Elizabeth Jane replies, smirking vaguely. “Sure is. The last quarter is over there in the casserole dish, under the rice. Want it?” She gestures with her knife towards her pink marble kitchen counter while at the same time forking a sizeable chunk of leftover duck into her mouth. Martin, in his wicker armchair, engulfed in Thursday’s dinner’s cigar-butt smoke, shoots an anguished glance in Elizabeth Jane’s direction, like a comic-strip character who has just seen his life savings go up in smoke, depicted as a huge yellow dollar sign with wings, ascending into the Blue Yonder.

Desmond, his eyes lighting up, sidles over to the counter, takes a fork, and like Jack Horner pulling out his plum, extracts the final leftover duck quarter from under a mantle of congealed rice, where it had been cached after Thursday’s dinner, in the same way a French peasant woman conceals her money under the mattress. He plunks it onto a plate, grabs a knife, and vengefully consumes it, crushing the bones with his teeth and sucking out the marrow. Elizabeth Jane and Martin pretend not to notice.

Desmond and Elizabeth Jane then plan Friday’s dinner. It’s Elizabeth Jane’s Abruzzese pasta with Desmond’s basil-marinara sauce. It serves fourteen and not a bit, thank God, is left over.


Whistling Ducks Return to the Point

Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna autumnalis), also known as pijije, chiriría or sirirí, are found from the southernmost U.S. to south-central South America. In Mexico, they confine themselves to narrow coastal regions.

As their Latin name implies, they are Tree Ducks, building their nests high above the ground; at the Point, they prefer the oil palms, where their eggs are safe from predators — except for tree-climbing boa constrictors, who have a penchant for duck eggs.

These odd ducks, with their long pink legs, large orange feet, cartoon-like whistling, and clumsy landings in the oil palm treetops, remind us of Daffy Duck. They spend their days in early summer feeding in the estuary, and come dusk they return to the Point in couples, flapping madly, flying very fast, circling their target tree a few times, often missing their landing, then disappearing for some moments to return to try again.  In the early part of their season at the Point, competition for preferred trees is intense.  One sees the ducks precariously landing in a popular tree, jumping and jostling, pushing one another till one falls off and another flies away. All this is accompanied by intense vocalizing, which subsides as trees are finally settled on, and, as night falls, competing territorial demands are ultimately satisfied without bloodshed.

The whistling commences again at dawn, as the ducks leave their perches to head to the estuary in tight, swift flights of three to ten birds.

The ducklings, offspring of monogamous parents, usually hatch in late summer, and are adorable.  They leap from their nest within 24 hours of hatching, and usually plunge to earth unharmed.  The parents then marshal their broods and march them, single file, in the tradition of Make Way for Ducklings, across the Point, down to the estuary, and into the mangrove swamp, where the hatchlings stay with their parents for up to two months.  They return to the Point as adults to serenade us.

Jackfruit Ice Cream, Anyone?

California may be home to a number of World Capitals of various agricultural products: Castroville proclaims itself the Artichoke Capital of the world, Indio the Date Capital, Yuba City the Prune Capital and Gilroy the Garlic Capital, but I don’t think California can claim to be the jackfruit capital of anywhere, as that honor belongs to the charming burg of El Llano, which is arguably the Jackfruit Capital of the solar system, with jackfruit orchards lining both sides of the highway mile after mile and stretching as far as you can see.

Sra. Elizabeth Rosales Climaco, president and CEO of El Llano’s Frutas y Legumbres Climaco, states on her website that she will deliver a minimum order of 18 metric tons of jackfruit to you each month at a price ranging from $0.60 to $0.80 USD FOB per pound,, depending on the season and the spot price of diesel fuel. Now, one cannot dispute that this is really, really world-class and that Sra. Rosales is a Major Player in the global jackfruit market.

El Llano itself is a modest and well-swept six-tope town on the Carretera Ixtapa-Mazatlan. At each of its topes you’ll find a jackfruit stand flanking both sides of the highway, tempting you with all manner of jackfruit commodities, from the obscenely huge green fruit itself to salted jackfruit chips, jackfruit juice and jackfruit bread.

Each stand is staffed by two to four generations of a family, with the eight-to-ten year olds competently collecting the cash and delivering the goods while their elders gossip or just gaze at passing motorists and foot-and-burro traffic. No matter that the stands are supported by stout tree branches instead of concrete columns, no matter that credit cards are not accepted: these are not your typical neighborhood lemonade stands, but the front end of a gigantic multinational enterprise.

But what is this jackfruit, anyway? Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, is nothing but a giant green mulberry, which is its distant cousin, of scant commercial value other than furnishing fodder for silkworms. So, a jackfruit is a sort of a giant green mulberry on steroids. Also a cousin of the breadfruit, jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit bar none, attaining dimensions exceeding those of champion watermelons (more than 100 lbs. is the record). In southeast Asia its wood is used for musical instruments (especially drums), furniture and house construction. Buddhist monks use its heartwood to dye their robes a dusty brown hue. But we in the West know it mainly for its gargantuan fruit.

Since the first writing of this article, I have heard from a journalist in Kerala State, India, where Jackfruit is also grown as a cash crop. The journalist, Shree Padre, wrote that the Guiness Book of World Records evidently does not consider Kerala State to be part of the world, as it cites a 100-lb jackfruit, grown in Hawaii, as the World Record. “Small potatoes!” said Shree, because his neck of the woods, 100 kilogram jackfruits are not uncommon. To prove it, he emailed me a photo of two guys hoisting an absolutely enormous jackfruit.

Anyway, back to El Llano: sooner or later your better judgment will fail you and you will purchase a whole jackfruit (known locally as jaca) at one of those tope stands, lug it home in the trunk and then ponder how to open it. Obviously, with a knife, but top-to-bottom, across its midriff, peel it? Slice it open any which way and you immediately have an impossible mess of yellow-orange pulp, dozens of slimy acorn-sized seeds and what seems like a gallon of sticky resin with the color and consistency of rubber cement.

The goo is so tenacious that it’s used to mend cracked engine blocks and hold dentures in place; it’s sort of like nature’s very own Gorilla Glue. It’s impossible to get off your hands the same day or off anything you’ve spilled it on, like your clothing, which must be discarded or recycled as rags. Prepare to dedicate a couple of hours to the chore… unless you have someone like Moña Delgado, our Colibri chef, who deftly quarters the thing, then covers her hands with olive oil and lays into the pieces like a human Cuisinart, generating a neat heap of sweet, sticky seeds in less seven minutes flat.

Enough about the sometimes malodorus fruit (known in its post-ripe state as “stinkfruit”). Let us dismiss it as a Good Thing To Stay Away From it in its natural condition. It is a Good Idea to leave its preparation to others, just as we generally do not slaughter our own beef, pork or poultry.

Jackfruit chips are fine, though usually needing extra salt. Jackfuit juice is cloying but more palatable than wormwood. What about jackfruit bread? Well, jackfruit bread, banana bread, zucchini bread, date-nut bread or any of those moist, spongy breads made from agricultural products that people always harvest too much of, you can keep. Anyway, they’re minor members of the cake family, so they don’t even deserve to be called breads in the first place.

Jackfruit ice cream is a different matter, though, and you can buy it in a regular little ice cream shop in El Llano, one that’s not on a tope with little kids thrusting whole jackfruits through your car window. It’s called Carlos’s Jack Fruit, Nieve de Jacka, has a little bamboo awning over a tiled sidewalk, and is owned and run by Mar, a youthful-looking 38 year old woman whose parents loved the Pacific Ocean so much that they named her after it. Note the punctiousnesss of the apostrophe-S on Carlos’s sign, a grammatical nicety rarely seen used correctly in English-speaking countries, not to mention in Mexico, where “Hamburgers’ With Fries” is the norm.

Mar likes to travel through Mexico during the ice cream off-season: her sparklingly clean shop is decorated with masks and statuary from other Mexican states as far south as Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mar’s freezer holds about a dozen flavors of home-made ice cream, most having the consistency more of sherbet than, say, of Haagen-Daz.


Besides the ubiquitous jackfruit, you can take home vanilla, oreos-and-vanilla, chocolate, mandarina, strawberry (with whole strawberries), limon, butter pecan, mango (the creamiest of all and highly recommended), coconut, coffee and piña colada. Mars tightly packs the products into half-liter or one-liter Styrofoam cups and labels each with a fat Magic Marker.

Mar’s stuff isn’t cheap: it’s $80 pesos a liter. Despite the price, though, she has a pretty steady stream of customers, most of whom buy a Dixie-cup sized serving. She also sells home-made pastries, with samples on the counter.

Next time you go to El Llano, or San Blas, take along a cooler and come back with at least a couple of liters of Mar’s ice cream. And a whole jackfruit or two. If you haven’t rented a compact car, that is.


Meet Aurelio the Armadillo

Aurelio is a nine-banded long-nosed armadillo we met in our garden one April evening just before sunset. He seemed unafraid of us, and let us photograph him for fifteen minutes before lumbering off.

Aurelio, a nocturnal feeder, had been spotted a few times after dark two or three days earlier, insouciantly clattering down our rock stairs in his amazing Samurai-style suit of armor, which is actually ossified, but on this particular evening he clocked in for work before dark to allow us a leisurely gander at him in the fading daylight.


“Armadillo” is a Spanish word meaning “little armoredone.”  The nine-banded, long-nosed variety, less familiarly known as Dasypus novemcinctus, is the most widespread exemplar of the genus, found in North, Central and South America, but mainly in the semitropical and tropical regions thereof, as it has both a poor thermoregulatory system and a crummy metabolism, making it difficult to maintain its body temperature in cool or cold climes.

Its body temperature is lower than that of other placental mammals, which allows it to host Hansen’s bacillus, a.k.a. Mycobacterium lepræ, the causative microbe of leprosy, a bacillus that’s so finicky that it has thwarted every effort to grow it in the laboratory, but it’s happy as a clam when introduced to an armadillo.

But not to give M. leprae too nasty a rap sheet, it seems that Europeans gave the disease to Aurelio’s forebears in the last 400 years or so, and not vice-versa, as scientific studies have shown without any doubt that no leprosy existed in New World armadillos before Columbus set foot in the New World…

Armadillos are a leading source of the 150-250 new leprosy cases each year in the United States. I haven’t seen any statistics for Mexico, but the fragility of Mycobacterium lepræ once they abandon the armadillo is such that far more than casual contact is needed to contract the disease. Leprosy is not as contagious as, say, pneumonic plague or even the common cold. But the disease is patient, if anything.It’s estimated that as many as one-third of Americans infected with M. lepræ either hunt armadillos or handle or consume armadillo meat, which supposedly tastes like pork, not the obligatory “chicken” that everything else wild and odd tastes like. Whether like pork or like chicken, it’s unlikely that Armadillo Bourguignon, Armadillo Amandine or Armadillo Burgers will be on Colibri’s dinner menu any time soon.

On a slightly less morbid note, here are a few perhaps more sanguine factoids about armadillos, with apologies to the squeamish:

•    Armadillos have powerful, clawed front feet, meant for digging in search of grubs and insects. They also have sticky tongues, like anteaters and aardvarks, and have a predilection for termites, which are a real scourge. Termites can gobble up your three-by-twelve roof beams in a couple of years, reducing them to the structural strength of a wet sponge, whereupon your roof collapses.

•    At Punta el Custodio, armadillos destroy the roots of some plants, killing them, not because they eat the roots, but because the roots are collateral damage in the armadillos’ relentless hunt for insects, worms, larvae and grubs.

•    Armadillos never give birth except to four identical quadruplets at once (no more and no fewer) – all from the same egg and all hooked up to the same placenta. No other mammal can make this extraordinary statement!

•    Armadillos are good swimmers; they gulp air into their intestines to make themselves buoyant (otherwise they’d sink like a torpedoed ironclad), and, in shallow water they can walk along the bottom for up to six minutes on a single breath, slurping up larvae.

•    Armadillos may give birth up to two years after being inseminated, as the female can put off implantation of the all-important, quadruplet-destined fertilized egg during lean times, implanting it only when the gravy train looks like it’s barreling down the tracks again. For this reason, paternity suits are virtually unheard of among armadillos.

•    An armadillo does not roll himself up into a ball to escape predators. His tough armor plate is usually sufficient, and, when not, he can bury himself rather quickly with his powerful front feet. Armadillos are such good burrowers, in fact, that they have up to a dozen burrows they hang out in from one day to the next, sort of like having a house in New York, London, Paris, Biarritz, Palm Springs, Aruba, Wilkes Barre, Tuba City and other elegant venues. This makes the armadillo a sophisticated cosmopolitan critter.

Power Play


The Mexican constitution of February 5, 1917 (amended 130 times) requires that the electricity sector be federally owned, with the Federal Electricity Commission (Comisión Federal de Electrícidad, or CFE), effectively controlling the whole electrical sector in Mexico. CFE holds a near-monopoly on a power grid consisting of 27,000 miles of high voltage lines, 28,000 miles of medium lines and 370,000 miles of low voltage lines. At Punta el Custodio, we get our electricity from the CFE substation in San Blas about 25 miles to our north, so we are literally at the End of the Line. The communities to our south, beginning with nearby Otates, receive their power from Las Varas.

Cost and Billing

CFE bills on a bi-monthly basis. The bills arrive at the little grocery store at the top of the cobbled road going up to the highway from the beach; the store’s owner, Marta González, is a CFE agent. Our property manager pays the bills and charges each of us accordingly.

Did you know that Mexican domestic-use electricity is billed on a graduated scale, like the U. S. income tax? The more electricity you use, the higher the cost per kilowatt hour (kwh). The first 150 kwh per month are billed at about $0.05 US, the next 150 kwh at about $0.09 US, the next 500 at about $0.17 US and, if you use more than 800 kwh a month, about $0.23. If you fall into the highest category, “Domesticas de Alto Consumo,” you are stuck at that pricing level for six months, even if you use less than 800 kwh/month for those months. Nice trick!

To make matters even more confusing, in addition to your consumption level, CFE pricing also factors in time of year and prevailing temperature. If you’re a bean farmer, and run, say, an irrigation pump, you qualify for about a 50% discount. Commercial users, such as factories, pay the highest rates. The net effect of this apparent crazy-quilt of rates is to subsidize the smallest users of domestic power, as well as agricultural users, at the expense of large businesses and residential energy hogs, like most Gringo and Canadiense ex-pats, with our big refrigerators, air conditioning, pool pumps (and a few electric pool heaters), accent lighting, and so forth.

Criminal Problems

Most of us in Mexico have experienced periods of brownouts and blackouts. Our little community of Punta el Custodio is served by a three-phase high-voltage distribution system, consisting of three cables strung over a series of concrete poles which run along the highway between San Blas and Platanitos, and then up a rocky road to our Gatehouse. A good part of the cable run, however, is through mangrove swamp and jungle, sometimes as much as a mile from the highway.

When one of the three lines is down, we have a brownout, with low voltage in some of our household circuits, and normal voltage in the other circuits. When two or three lines are down, we have no power at all.

While many of these interruptions are brief, ranging from a few seconds to an hour (probably related to work along the line, when power must be interrupted for various reasons), some last hours and even a day or more, causing not only discomfort and inconvenience, but spoilage of perishable foodstuffs that require refrigeration.

Foul weather causes power outages by wind damage to the lines, with branches or falling trees causing short circuits or cable breakages. Lightning strikes are also a major cause of damage and large birds roosting on the lines can sometimes cause outages (and carbonized birds).

But recently there have been major outages due to theft of copper high tension cables. Some of these outages have lasted more than 24 hours. With the world price of copper approaching $4.00 US per pound, copper cable is an attractive item for crooks. One can find numerous shops along the main highway down to Puerto Vallarta, with crudely-painted signs proclaiming, “I buy gold. I buy silver. I buy copper. I pay the best prices.” (The gold and silver are merely a smokescreen: these guys are buying copper.)

Also along the main highway are equally numerous little stands selling bright ornamental copper pots and basins, some the size of large laundry tubs. One does not need an advanced degree in criminology to figure out that the purloined copper cable is being “recycled” locally — a real Shot in the Arm, economically speaking, for the numerous underemployed roadside communities. Very ecologically and economically sound! A local army of coppersmiths gains rewarding employment, CFE workers get paid lots of overtime (and so do the contractors), CFEhappily passes on all the costs to its more opulent customers via an elastic billing system…So everyone is happy, right? Not!

The cable thieves usually strike just before sunset, while they still have enough daylight to do their dirty work, with darkness quickly falling to conceal their getaway. They steal anywhere between 150 and 2,500 meters of cables. The crooks use a home-made insulated high-tension fuse puller to disconnect the lines they wish to steal. They then bring the wire to the ground, quickly rolling it up into loops that will fit in their vehicle, and take off in the dark. Their favorite part of the line has been about 4 km north of Platanitos, at the El Espino turnoff. These guys are so good that one cannot help but wonder whether they are former (or current) CFE workers. Or, if not pros, perhaps they lug off any electrocuted buddies in the truck along with the cable, rather than leaving them to the buzzards.

In early February, 2012, the Nayarit police apprehended a gang of three copper robbers who had been causing blackouts up and down the Nayarit coast for a number of months. After only 10 hours in custody, they “confessed” to a total of 10 copper cable robberies and eagerly provided the name of the fence they had been selling to. Here is a photo of them and their loot posed in front of the Nayarit State police department’s armored car, known as “The Rock,” which apparently serves no other purpose besides serving as a backdrop for perp photos of all sorts, as no one has ever seen this vehicle on the road. Note that the three unfortunate prisoners (whose bruises do not show in the photo) are holding a home-make wooden high-tension fuse puller (professional models have yellow fiberglass handles).

The Arrow Points toward the Scene of the Crime

After the most recent theft, a group of us drove off around two in the afternoon to find Scene of the Crime. Going north towards El Llano, we found a fluorescent orange arrow spray-painted on the pavement, pointing down the rutted road to Lemoncitos Beach.

This was probably put there by the CFE scouting party, to show which way the repair crew should go, so we decided to have a look for ourselves. We soon came upon an old farmer heaving large rocks out of his mango field into the roadway (always in need of large rocks). We stopped to ask him whether he had seen any trucks going down the road the day before.

“Si. Ayer antes de la puesta del sol pasaron unos tipos en camioneta. Con escalera.” [“Yesterday before sunset some guys passed by in a truck. They had a ladder.”]

These were the thieves.

“Y hoy por la mañana pasaron otros tipos, sin escalera.” [And this morning some other guys passed by, without a ladder.”]

These were the guys from CFE.

We thanked the old man for this intelligence; he resumed methodically heaving rocks into the road as we continued further into the jungle. We found the cable already repaired, but for some reason, the power was not restored until 7 PM.

By stealing cable near the end of the line, the fewest people are pissed off, effectively blunting any civic rage or reaction. And who cares about those rich Norteamericanos up on the hill anyway? So they might miss a nightly session in the Jacuzzi for want of power to run the jets. Because the population density is greater to our South, and because those lines run in plain sight along the highway, as opposed through unpopulated jungle and mangrove, the copper thieves avoid them (though they did make off with Turtle Beach’s costly step-down transformer, which was only a dozen yards from the highway).

“Theft outages” have a mandatory overnight duration, as the CFE crews cannot work in the dark. At daybreak, the damage is located, and crews of local contract workers, with just a few CFE guys to deal with the dangerous stuff, swarm over the area. It sometimes takes several hours, however, for the CFE crews to find the break.

Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

New cable is draped over the pole stringers, which have pulleys except on the first and last poles, where the cables are anchored. A truck-mounted winch is used to tighten the cables using a system of blocks and tackles, the replacement cables are connected to the grid at both ends, the circuit breakers are activated, and voila! we have power again… at least until the next theft. The new cables are aluminum, with a scrap price of about $1.00 US per pound, the same price as scrap lead.

Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

Aluminum High Tension Cable on the Ground.

With thefts occurring almost every other day, it seemed as if the thieves would keep it up until all the copper line between San Blas and Platanitos was stolen… or until they got caught. One evening, just before sunset, the lights went out again.

CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

CFE Truck in the Jungle. This truck has a winch for tightening the cables onceon the poles.

Were the thieves caught? Reports are conflicting. Some say they were; some say they were not. In any case, the thefts continue right up to January, 2012. And what, pray, would be so difficult about apprehending the thieves? The moment the lights go out, the police are notified: they place a roadblock at either end of the cable run, stop all vehicles and look for cut-up copper cable.

But, no. This does not occur. As a general rule, in Mexico the police are the last to be called in the event of a crime, as those who call in a crime are often the first to be arrested.

CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

CFE Local Contractors Laying Aluminum Cable Through the Jungle. (One of them did not want to be in the photo…Could he be one of the copper thieves?)

CFE Experts Hanging High Tension Cable: They Don’t Leave this Job to the Contractors.

Local Solution

In the meantime, we’ve acquired generators to keep us going during the outages. In the case of Casa Colibri, we took a Honda 6.5KW gasoline generator and converted it to propane, so that we can run for 28 hours on one 30 kg cylinder. Propane is handily delivered to us by Global Gas, in contrast to gasoline which we must buy at the nearest Pemex station 12 miles away, in 20-liter containers. Then we must siphon it into the gas tank of the generator, which will run only seven hours on a tankful. Plus, propane never goes stale and never gums up the carburetor, like gasoline. Propane rules!

Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Generator Hooked up to a 30 kg Propane Cylinder: Runs for 28 Hours! Green Wire is a Ground Wire.

Since installing the Little Honda, we went Whole Hog and bought a huge 48 kW Kohler propane-fired unit that serves eight houses. This baby runs on a GM 5.2 liter automotive engine — the same model that GM used in Chevrolet cars. We have a 2,000 liter propane tank. The Kohler can run about six days on one tank of liquid propane