To join me on a virtual sketching trip, download a travel sketch-journal here.
I add tutorials to them so you can learn the techniques and details you see in the sketchbooks.

My former workshop students asked me to upload my workshop workbooks to make them available to everyone. So you can also download a workbook and give yourself a workshop! Enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

My new relationship with Ramón

I've entered into a new relationship. His name is Ramón. I really didn't mean for things to get this serious, but maybe the time has come, and's the backstory....


ising 80-100’ into the canopy directly over my driveway, this year a large tree called the Mayan Breadnut or Maya Nut Tree, Brosimum alicastrum bore a LOT of fruit which plopped onto my truck and littered the ground until it got my attention   

The wildlife appear to relish the nuts, even when they’re green, peeling off and dropping the heavy rinds all over the place.  Occasionally a nut slips from their grasp and lands on my  roof, crashing like a firecracker -- think of a marble, crashing on the bottom of a tin bucket from 80-100' up. Yup, that's about right.  There is a Maya Nut Tree over my little Micasa, out in the jungle, too.

Here in the rainforest you never know what’s blooming or fruiting overhead until the trees drop their flowers or fruits, or some gluttonous forager loses a grip on its snack as it goes to pop it into its mouth. Possums,coatis, kinkajous, and other creatures chow down at night, and howler and spider monkeys, toucans, parrots, and other birds and mammals forage in the daytime, so you can often pick up “clues” about overhead tree identities on the ground after their feasts.

In early February I sketched a bunch of interesting seeds/fruits/nuts that had fallen from the canopy onto my walkway. The green fruit and shiny brown seeds on the right are the fruits from that tree, but at the time I didn't know what kind of fruits they were.

Now in early April, the fruits have ripened, and the green peels have matured to a bright orange.  They taste a lot like oranges, too. To make sure they were edible, I first asked Belizean friends what they were called, then found them in my (excellent) book Trees of Belize by Kate Harris, then went online to find out if they’d poison me if I nibbled on them. They won’t. 

And that was how I met and fell in love Ramón Tree.  { HA!  Gotcha! Right?}  I also discovered something else so interesting I thought you might enjoy it, too.  

It seems that the leaves of the Ramón Tree, named after the Spanish word ramónear which means “to browse,” were a favorite choice for chicleros seeking food for their mules.  In case you don’t know, the chicleros were the hombres who went out into the forest in the early- to mid-1900s to harvest the latex from the chicle tree (Manilkara sp.for use in making chewing gum.  There are still some working chicleros.  I actually know a chiclero (but his name is Erec, not Ramón). 

Chicle has been used as a chewing gum for a l-o-o-o-ng time-- as Wikipedia notes: Maya traditionally chewed chicle… as a way to stave off hunger, freshen breath, and keep teeth clean.”  You've heard of Chiclets, right?  They're nearly pure chicle latex, sugar added.  

Okay, so the chicleros’ mules ate the Ramón leaves. Then, their appetites sated, they hauled the bags of chicle out of the jungle to be sold in the markets. I have a couple of chicle trees about a hundred feet up the hill from my Ramón Tree, crisscrossed with ancient chiclero slashes from which the latex dripped into the gathering bags.

What really snagged my attention, though, was reading that as the chicleros chopped branches from Ramón trees for the mules, they’d often discover that the trees were growing up from the tumbled stonework of Mayan ruins.

The archaeological record from Mayan sites shows that Ramón nuts were apparently a dietary staple to the ancient Mayans, who ate the fruit and also boiled or baked the dried and ground nuts, which have more protein than corn, as a major part of their diet. Ramón nuts are still eaten in Quintana Roo (in Mexico) as survival food. 

So, in a Ramón nutshell, it appears that the Ramón groves discovered by the chicleros may be descendants of old Mayan Ramón orchards. What makes it even more interesting, is that my Ramón Tree is within twenty feet of the edge of what is said to be an unexcavated Mayan site in Mayan Circle here in the ecovillage where I live. So maybe my Ramón tree’s long-ago ancestor was planted by a long-ago Mayan.

Anyway, here’s what the ripe Ramón fruits look like. If you come to visit me in in April and see a small orange fruit lying in the road (check the end of my driveway, just behind my pickup truck) stop and take a look.  It will probably be a Ramón fruit. As you can see, it looks like a tiny orange with a stem.  The seeds have a brassy appearance that's very distinctive.

If it's a Ramón fruit, give it a wash then nibble on the orange rind. It’s really tasty – citrusy and sweet. Yum! I didn’t try eating a green one earlier this year, because 1) I didn't know what it was then and I never taste unknown fruits, and 2) I'm guessing that the green rinds (like the ones in my sketch) would be horribly tart and inedible, and maybe taste like turpentine. 

I hope you'll forgive me (and Ramón) for trying to fool ya.  It was irresistible. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Creating an Art Studio Where There’s No Room For One

How many times have you heard people comment that they’d love to practice their art if they just had a place to work. But even a tiny dedicated space which won’t be disturbed (much) for other reasons can make a fine work spot if you really want it to.

Many artists have fantastic studios -- huge, lots of storage and workspace, marvelous lighting, a place for everything.  I had a pretty nice one myself not so long ago. But when I built my earthbag house in the jungle in Belize, an art studio didn’t seem important – my whole house could be my studio, I thought. '

But when I started “being an artist again” last November, I began yearning for a specific place to leave projects out, where they wouldn’t be in the way.

The only place I could find to set up even a tiny space permanently was my loft, and it was already in use storing empty suitcases, Christmas ornaments, off-season clothes, and similar odds and ends.  But it would have to do, so I set to work.

MAKING ROOM:  The first problem is that it’s L.I.T.T.L.E.  One wall is 7’ long, the other is 5’, and the remaining wall, 18” high, curves out over the living room leaving a floor space looking like one fourth of an elongated pie.  A 22” wide staircase eats up nearly two feet of floor space along the 5’ wall.  Like I said, little.

But, ever hopeful, I started shifting things around. Since I didn’t want to see my junk poking up above the 18” wall from the living room below, I couldn’t just pile things up to the ceiling.  But by stuffing all the Christmas ornaments into an empty suitcase and consolidating some other boxes, I was able to open up a space about 3’x4’.

SEATING:  On the veranda I had a canvas camp chair that was threatening to rip and/or collapse if someone large or squirmy were to sit down hard in it. With care, I can get a few months more life out of it, and it’s very comfortable – a lot better than a stump, a rock, or the cross-legged pose I assume while out sketching in nature.  It fits perfectly into the cleared space. We're on our way.

WORKSPACE: a flattened cardboard box makes a sturdy table top over a poly tub holding off-season clothes. Some 1/8” thick wall paneling cut into lapboards and table tops makes sturdy surfaces to draw or set things on. One 12”x18” piece of paneling makes a good lap board to work on – it’s lightweight, maneuverable, and fits within the arms of the chair.

LIGHTING:  a translucent skylight directly above offers perfect diffused light in the daytime, and while I haven't used the studio yet on a hot day, there is a screened roof vent near the skylight so heat should go right up and out – but that remains to be seen.

At night, the spotlight that was formerly trained on my lion door (which is now under the loft) shines right onto the lap board on my lap. I may add a gooseneck lamp to shine on sketch subjects at night.

TOOLS & SUPPLIES:  My art supplies are in a tiered artist’s toolbox which remains open and serves as storage and shelves for watercolor pencils, ballpoint pens, water brush, rag, water can, scissors, and a few other things I use for sketch/journaling.

SOUND SYSTEM: a 3”x 3” Bluetooth speaker picks up a signal from the wifi below to play music I select from the internet, a splendid bit of hedonism to my mind.

It looks more or less like this, drawn on a 1” grid so each little box is 1 square foot. The black outlines are the junk, under all little table top boards and the art box.  I’d estimate the whole loft is about 25 square feet, while actual bare floor space is about 12 square feet.  I may put up some shelves at some point, which would expand the space considerably.

Someday I may find another place for the junk, but until then, this works fine.  I know, because I sketch/journaled the tapir bone page there last week.  I’ll detail that in the next blog entry.

 It has some good points, for sure. No one is going to be casually walking through, I can duck and hide if I don’t want company, and I can’t possibly complain that it is too big to keep tidy.  But best of all, I've been using it, and my only complaint is that I can't get to the door downstairs very quickly when company comes.  I'd say that's a pretty minor complaint.

So if you've been thinking you don't have enough space to set up your studio, I hope this has given you some inspiration.

And just in case you are telling yourself "Well, pooh on you, I don't even have THAT much space!" take a look at the "desk" where I did about half the illustrations for my first book, America's Horses & Ponies, when I had only a bed to sit on.  At night, I'd hoist it up to the ceiling so I could sleep underneath it.  In the sketch below, I show it both lowered and raised. Where there's a will, there's usually a way.....


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Raising a Jaguar

As promised post before last, here's the pictorial history of the making of the jaguar mural. It took me from April to December, start to finish.

As the final image to complete the set, I had planned to do a really stunning Mayan depiction of the Serpent God, which would welcome visitors to my house.
But after much thought, I decided that I wanted to welcome people with something of my own, something that spoke to why I am here in Belize -- to live in the tropical world with its amazing flora and fauna -- and while a Mayan representation would be really cool, it would be something Mayan which I duplicated on the wall.  

Instead, I wanted the welcoming image to warmly greet people on my behalf, so I finally settled on a life-size realistic rendering of a jaguar, a potent figure in Belize life.

 I went online and found a photo of a jaguar which looked kindly, welcoming but also protective, and graphed it as I had graphed the Mayan figures. Soon had a handsome jaguar penciled onto the wall (for more about that process, go here.) 
this is the photo

All of the previous Mayan figures had been painted with vinyl outdoor paint on the cinnamon-colored natural clay walls of the house, but I’d discovered that the walls needed to be stabilized lest the paintings flake off within a few years. So I had painted (or rather, Freddy, my Sunday worker and I had painted) the house a lovely cream color, working carefully around the Mayan paintings
then varnishing the figures themselves.  all of the Mayan figures were finished, but since I hadn't yet begun the jaguar, I had Freddy paint over the large area where it would be before I drew it, stabilizing the wall and giving me a lovely, solid soft cream base for the painting.

The sky band, the colorful Mayan ribbon that connects all the figures, had two colors, cinnamon and ochre, which combined with the cream house paint could recreate the basic coat colors of the jaguar. 

So using the house paint as a base, I mixed in cinnamon and ochre and began applying color to my pencil outlined jaguar image.  To my astonishment painting the jaguar the base color without any spots produced what appeared to be a North American cougar.

Spots really do mess around with perceptions.

The jaguar’s eyes came next.  I always finish the eyes first thing so that whatever I am drawing will come to life as soon as possible.  Jaguars, like  house cats, have variable eye coloring, anywhere from golden yellow to jade green.  I used the green from the skyband to give my jaguar a penetrating gaze.

 Adding the black rims to the ears reduced the cougar similarity, as cougar ears don’t have black rims. As soon as the tawny undercoat had dried I penciled in jaguar rosettes.

Every jaguar has its own spot pattern, plus rosettes on their sides -- small spots encircled by a ring of spots, so I didn’t worry too much about making my spots exactly the same as those on the photo. In fact, I changed things around to make it distinctly my own, while still being true to typical jaguar markings.  Soon the jaguar itself looked calmly down from the wall.
At first, it was one-dimensional, as I didn’t do any shadows or shading on it.  I let it rest for a while, watching it as I would leave and enter the house over the next few weeks, trying to decide whether to leave it flat or give it a 3-D effect, and finally I concluded that I couldn’t stop half-way. 

Using a dry-brush technique – which simply means dipping the brush in paint then scrubbing much of it away until when you apply it to the surface it doesn’t leave a solid swath but more of a misty shadow effect – I shaded the body until it finally looked about ready to come down off the wall to check out visitors. 
Then I added the jaguar’s bristly white whiskers. 

I finished the sky band that connected the jaguar to the rest of the house’s Mayan images, curving it around under the jaguar’s paws as though it were on a curved surface to lend depth to the mural.

I didn't get around to painting the rock the Jaguar was presumably perched upon until just before Christmas, also adding a jaguar glyph I had sketched at the Gran Jaguar temple at the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala in 2016.

I figure it took me about forty hours from start to finish.

The jaguar is approximately life size, and I feel he is a gentle guardian, checking out visitors to make sure they have good intent before letting them pass. I have discovered, though that he can apparently make himself invisible.  When people come to visit, I usually greet them at the edge of the walkway, welcoming them and inviting them in.  With their eyes on me, they pass so close that he could reach out and pat them as they enter, were he so inclined. If they DO see him, they always stop to admire him, so I know whether or not he is wearing his invisible cloak. 

Being a bit of a mischief maker, I ask ones who didn’t stop if they saw the jaguar on their way in.   Guests who had their eyes focused on me instead of the big cat look at me in puzzlement, so we return to the entrance, and they are amazed to see the VERY visible and imposing jaguar gazing down at them.  It’s a kind of magic.

The murals are finished now, although the Belizean kids who use the veranda for a study hall have been urging me to paint a jungle behind the jaguar.  I have to admit, it would create an amazing entrance, but it would be a huge task and I think I’ll rest on my laurels.

I have some other things on my platter, such as working in my sketch/journal; adding amenities to Micasa, my little retreat in the jungle; and lighting up neighborhood houses.  This last project is being very rewarding and maybe in my next post I will show you what I’ve been up to.  You’ll be particularly interested if you helped me out with the project when I was in Oregon last summer. 

Until next time… 

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Birth of a Graphic Image

TaDA!  Behold, the Turnip-tailed Gecko! 
(click image to enlarge)
If you've ever wondered about the process of getting artwork ready for reproduction online or in a book, read the rest of this blog entry.  If you haven't, well, co ahead if you don't have anything better to do.  Just sayin'.....

For people who aren’t practicing artists or designers, or are not comfortable messing around with graphics programs, scanning or photographing their art is the final step before posting it to the blog.  They post it as-is.

A scanner usually gives better results, but if a scanner isn’t available, it is possible to make do with a photograph. But unless lighting conditions are excellent, a photograph may not produce a very good image, and it may not be true to the original by a long measure.
The process that happens to photos or art between the production by the artist and the publication online or in a book can be compared to what happens to a musical performance before it is released to the public. The original performance is given, then an audio engineer mixes results from several microphones, adjusts the volume, bass and treble, speeds it up or slows it down, dubs in instruments or vocals, adds various effects and generally changes the overall sound of the music before it is released to the public. And oh yes, often the original music was electronically produced, not performed with traditional instruments.  The public praises the composer, artist/s and conductor, but the contribution and skill of the audio engineer goes unnoticed.  Alas, such is life.
What happens to art is similar to the audio-mixing process noted above. A lot of things can be done to make the captured image truer to the original art, and sometime things are done to make it better or different.  When I post art or photos, I usually at least improve the color/lighting.  Look what a difference just raising the light level in a graphics program can make in a photo:

Here in my kitchen, I was trying out a recipe for avocado toast on my comal (ko-MALL), a flat slab of aluminum or steel commonly used here in Belize for toasting, heating, and frying.  With the aid of the graphics program, I made the sun shine outside and turned on the light in the kitchen so you can see everything and sense the warmth of the room.  

So if my scanner is not working and I photograph one of my sketches, it can look pretty bad at first, like the first image of the gecko here, and I have to do a LOT of things to make it finally look the way the sketch actually appears in my sketchpad.  It may take me an hour or two of adjustments to reach a point where I am satisfied that I can’t improve it further. 

Here are the steps, in the order that I do them:
  • rotate the image until it is level
  • crop and remove the coil because it would take a lot of work to make this one look good. I'll replace it later.
  • lighten the entire image globally
  • cut and remove most of the darkest garbage 
  • resize – if I am making a series, the pages all need to be the same size.
Now it looks like this:

Keeping an eye on the colors to make sure I don’t lose anything, I:
  • apply a Gaussian blur filter to the entire page with a radius of .5 pixels. This smooths out lines and softens the look slightly. This is important because some pixels disappear from light areas during adjustments, creating rough edges, but with the slight blur, any additional changes will work better.
  • hand darken (burn) and lighten (dodge) various areas to make the image even-toned
  • globally adjust the contrast levels of everything – the highlights, the midtones, and the shadows for the entire image, then hand dodge or burn areas that need more individual change
  • select all the text with the lasso tool and desaturate it to remove any color, then increase the shadow and midtone levels until the text is strong and black
  • hand dodge for highlights and burn to strengthen shadows and color tones  again until all the paper is white, all the text is evenly dark, and I haven’t lost anything important from the colors of the image
  • paste on a cleaned-up version of the sketchbook coil. I paste this same coil image on each of my sketchbook pages since they are a set.
 Now it looks like this:
The paper and text look pretty good, but the drawings aren't right yet, so I warm up, cool down, and slightly shift the color of the entire image. Then I make  final improvements and corrections to the original. 
I decide to:

  • select everything and reduce the size of the sketch to fit on the page better.
  • move the gecko’s foot and text in the lower left corner higher up on the page for better balance
  • put highlights in the eyes
  • clone markings on the gecko’s top side to closer resemble the original colors
  • continue to adjust color lighter and darker, more and less constrasty, adding cloned color markings where needed
  • remove speckles, erase some extra lines, shorten a front toe, correct text, and replace or improve some letters which were poorly executed.
  • add a 2-pixel stroke around the sketch page to outline it.
and I’m done.  If you compare the last two images below, you’ll see where I’ve

edited and improved the original to make it more accurate, tidier, or create a better design.  Like the orchestral recording, things have been changed and improved. In this case, it’s my own personal effort that changed my own personal art, and I’m glad I didn’t have to ask a technician to do it!  Here's the previous step next to the final one so you can compare.

Everything I’ve changed is something I would have done on the original if:  a) I could erase the ballpoint pen ink I use in this moist climate, b) I got everything perfect the first time around. 

Since I'm the technician (YAYYY!) I get a do-over. Can you find the toe I shortened?  Also notice my notes say the gecko had only four toes on the rear feet, but I later realized there were five. Highlights on the eyes make them look a whole lot livelier.

A scan is usually more accurate than a photo in producing the image, so it won’t be necessary to do so much tweaking to a scan to bring the paper up to white without also losing the color and shading in the drawing. But no matter how you upload the art, there are always things that need to be adjusted to accurately represent the original.

Fortunately, I think all this twiddling is fun.  Go figure.

Friday, January 19, 2018

New Sketches from my New Studio

It’s been cold here for the last few weeks, colder than I remember it being in the last three years, and it sometimes makes it difficult to do more than wrap up in a fleecy blanket in my armchair and read.  

I’m hoping {these folks} (click on the link) will soon get their solar grill to market and maybe between grilling gibnuts and chugging cervesas I can blow a fan across the top of the grill and heat my house during the several weeks of “winter” here.  It’s amazing how cold 63° can feel in an unheated house if there is no place to occasionally warm up  [blows on fingers, twitches blanket over legs].

Those of you who are experiencing sub-zero temperatures, wind, snow and Frozen Nozes are likely chuckling disdainfully at my so-called “problem.”  I understand.  I would probably be doing the same if I were way up north listening to such a lament from someone down here in balmy Belize.  Go ahead. Mock me.  I can take it. But I’m shivering nevertheless .

However, that being the case, and not to put too fine a point on it, I am pleased with the new art studio I have created up in the loft of my earth bag house. 

It is a relatively warm spot with unbeatable lighting both day and night, being directly under a skylight (which is three feet overhead) for daytime art and with spotlight lighting (originally meant to spotlight the lion carving on the bathroom door before I put the loft between the two) which is a perfect light for my sketchbook work after dark.

And so, I have finished two more sketches, the Cecropia Trunks and the Fungus. I did the initial fungus ink drawing at Micasa in the jungle in November, using a tree stump for an easel on my veranda. 
 I finally got the color onto the sketch last week. 

In retrospect, I don’t think this is a bracket fungus, as bracket fungi tend to make “shelves,” more like the one I sketched in my Oregon woods in 2011, shown here.

So I’ll have to get creative and paste a piece of paper with a more accurate descriptive name over the word “bracket.”

Alternately, and probably more simply, I could fix it in Photoshop. We'll see.

The Cecropia Trunks sketch got colored, too, and here's how it looks now. It turned out to be more complicated than I expected, but I managed to do a serviceable job.

When I compare it to the bracket fungus I did when I was sketching daily in 2011, though, I can see that I need to practice to get up to my old speed.  You'd think it would stick with you, but it's easy to forget little tricks and things one does to create effects.  I'll have to relearn them.

On a slightly different note, back in 2013, during the vacation trip wherein I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Belize, I made sketches along the banks of the Macal River about five miles south of here where I stayed at a resort for about a week.  It was my second stay there, the first one being celebrated in my sketchbook “Belize – Jungle & Beach Adventures.”

My life shifted gears at that point as I decided to fling caution and old age to the wind and change my entire life by moving here.  As a result of the following chaos, I never finished or uploaded those sketches – or any later ones done here in Belize – to the web for people to purchase and enjoy.  And now I am debating…..should I go back to these uncolored sketches and finish them to make a new Belize offering?  Then keep going with more?

I could start a series such as: “Belize – Along the Macal River” or “Belize – Sketches from my Jungle Cabin” or “Belize – Some Rainforest Wildlife” or “Belize – Orchids & Palm Trees”, or “Belize – A Mayan Healing Herbarium”  stuff like that that.  What do you think?  Do you think anyone would be interested? And if not, should I just do them anyway for my own entertainment?  Feedback, please????

My last (74th) birthday was spent at Micasa, which I mentioned briefly in the last blog entry, although I forgot to mention the lovely surprise birthday party Millie and the Riveras, my extended family,  gave me before I left. It was a complete surprise, and it made me feel very warm and beloved.  

Up at Micasa I managed to get a LOT done – I posted {a video} of some of it on Facebook.  I had measured the spaces for the shelves on my previous visit, bought the wood, and had Freddy cut them to length for me on his Sunday work day since they’re dense, heavy hardwood and I didn’t want to spend all my time at Micasa sawing them with a handsaw.

 Nacho, Darwin and Estuardo had to haul the planks the last 500 feet on their shoulders because the road was impassable. 
Putting the shelves up by myself was a challenge since they’re so heavy. I screwed the shelf braces onto the shelves first, then propped each shelf into place with miscellaneous boards, broom handles, whatever, while I screwed it to the wall.  It felt really good to get things off the heap on the table and up onto shelves.  

With the shelves up, I moved on to put shelf paper on the kitchen counter.  

Tiles would be nicer, of course, but I am now on a strict budget, having spent all my loose cash and beginning my life of austerity on Social Security. I just wanted to cover up the raw wood and make it washable.  I'll be interested to see how well shelf paper holds up on a kitchen counter.... Gotta say, it made washing off the possum footprints super easy.

The curtains add a bit of a domestic touch,  softening the roughness of the chainsaw-cut planks.  Dontcha think?

One of the things that interests me  is:  how much "stuff" and "polish" does one need to live a comfortable, satisfying life.  What difference does it make if the walls are painted, or whether the kitchen counter has tiles or shelf paper on it, as long as it's clean.  I do like nice things, but how much do I NEED them?   (Probably only as much as I "need" them to impress other people.)  Still, if I can also make it pretty..... as well as serviceable and please myself ... that's a fine goal, I'd think.  Serviceable. That's the keyword.

Micasa, last September. I'll take a new picture.
Next visit, I'll put up more shelves, install the rocket stove Nacho made for me, put screens over the possum cracks,  and get the solar panel and battery connected to the lighting system I installed last time. My tall ladder is the problem.  I keep hauling it back and forth from this house to that house in Nacho's pickup, but it always seems to be at the wrong house when I need it.  The road is still next to impassable, so I can't just go fetch it when I need it.

Still, things are moving along nicely. It’s been nearly three weeks since my last visit, and I think it’s time for another trip to the woods and mi casa, Micasa.   

p.s.  Next entry, I’ll show you the finished jaguar art at my earth bag house entrance.  Maybe.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A Cacao Pod Mini-adventure

Sooking Cacao Beans.
Last Wednesday was our weekly Garden Share Day in the milpa at Better In Belize, the ecovillage where I live, and there were cacao pods on the share table, so I brought one home to my little earth bag house. In case you didn’t know, cacao pods are the source of chocolate in all its many guises.  Here’s the pod, about eight inches long, and a brilliant shiny yellow.  It grows from the trunk of the cacao tree – I have been watching a crop of them ripen from green to yellow in the milpa for some time now.  

When my friend José came today to use the internet I asked him to educate me about cacao matters. José is Belizean, and one of my go-to persons for advice and information.

“Well, first you split the pod with your machete,” he said, “then you open it up and the cacao beans are inside…” 

“Will you show me?” I asked, fetching my machete for him. And so began my cacao pod education.

José opened it carefully, first slicing down its length with the machete to open up a crack, then prying it apart with both hands to reveal the cluster of beans inside, each enveloped in a juicy, sweet, rose-scented silver-white jacket.  I caught the rose scent as soon as the crack widened upon opening.  

“Taste one,” he said, passing the pod to me. I shivvied one of the beans out and popped it into my mouth, sucking and tonguing it.  Heavenly!  

“Help yourself,” I motioned for José to enjoy them, too.  We talked for a while about the next steps in cacao culture as we popped and sucked the beans, and since José’s mom used to work on a cacao plantation in Guatemala, I expect he knows what he’s talking about.  

He told me the beans are removed from the husk, sucked if you wish (the sucking isn’t necessary if you are harvesting a lot of them), then they’re spread out in the sunshine to dry if they're to be shipped off to the chocolate factory. We had a good laugh imagining a production scenario where every bean needed to be sucked clean before drying -- “Hurry! Hurry! Suck faster! Faster!”

I’m sitting here plucking the slick, gooey beans from the husk as I write, sooking and sighing with pleasure then ejecting each now nearly naked inch-long bean into the empty half of the husk after the goodness has been sooked off. There’s not a lot to sook, but what there is, is delicious. “Sooking” by the way, is an old Scottish word I have a fondness for. It sounds so much more, well, sucky, than the word “sucking.”

Tomorrow, on José’s advice, I’ll put the cacao beans out on a plate in the sunshine to dry so that they won’t rot or get moldy. When dry, they can be planted by simply poking them into the soil in the rainforest, or they can be started out in grow-bags like any other nursery crop. 

“Hey, José,” I call out from my computer.  “Do cacao trees like sun or shade better?”
“They like to grow in shade,” he responds from where he is surfing the web out on the
veranda.  A moment later he adds, “with a little bit of sun, too.”

 I think I will plant a bunch of these at Micasa, my jungle retreat, and someday (about four years, I believe) I shall pluck a pod from one of my trees and make up a cup of steaming hot, sweet, homemade-from-the-get-go cocoa.  

And when my coffee plants also have a bit more age on them, maybe I’ll add a little of my home-grown, roasted coffee bean essence for a homemade-from-the-get-go mocha. Oh my!  The possibilities are endless.

[Later:  there were sixty beans in that pod. I shall have a veritable chocolate ORCHARD! ]

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Christmas 2017 -- Making Tamales

Happy New Year!  
banana leaves prepared for tamale wrapping 
Last year I shared the narrative of my Christmas festivities with people on my mailing list (I know, I know, I am incredibly old-fashioned in these days of Snapchat, Facebook, etc., but I really LIKE the easy-going ramble of email and blogging)  but people who are now reading this blog may not have seen last year's Christmas celebration, so I'll share the pictures of this year's good times which I enjoyed with my Rivera family and friends.

It's a tradition in Belize to celebrate Christmas with tamales. Grinding the corn for the tamales, preparing the ingredients to put in the tamales, wrapping the tamales, steaming the tamales, then eating them and taking some to share with neighbors who might not have a large family with which to enjoy such festivities.  We did all those things. 

Nacho and Nora prepare the masa
By the time I arrived at Riveras' house at 8:30am on Christmas Eve Day, the banana leaf wrappers had already been cut and held over flames to soften them, and Yesenia a neighbor who had come for the day with her little girl Caroline, and Gaby, the only girl in the Rivera family, were cleaning smoke off the leaves. So I cleared a space on the outdoor kitchen table and joined in with the task with a damp cloth. 

As we were finishing, Doña Nora and Don Nacho returned from Benque in the truck with a five gallon bucket of the masa, corn flour made from corn they had just taken to town to be ground at the tortilla factory (a little tienda in Benque with a grinding mill).

Kevin stirs the masa as it thickens
We mixed the masa with water in dishpans, squishing it between our fingers until it made a slippery gruel, then Nacho poured it into a cauldron and added water while Nora stirred. Then they put it over an outdoor cooking fire to thicken under Kevin's vigorous paddling. 

When it was properly thickened, José was set to stirring the home-made tomato sauce over the fire while four of us -- Nora, my friend Millie who lives with the oldest Rivera son Oscar, Gaby and I -- set out piles of banana leaves, chicken and pork chunks, the masa dough, and the tomato sauce when it came off the fire. 

Jose cooks the tomato sauce
First, a large spoonful of masa dough was patted onto a double layer of banana leaves.  Then a piece of chicken or pork was pressed into it and a spoonful of sauce was ladeled over it.

Nacho had to teach me again how to wrap the banana leaves around the tamale so no sauce could escape and no water could enter when they would be later steamed. 

It's fun working together. That's me on the right.
Soon my fingers recalled the dance from the many tamales I had made last year, and we all spent a couple of hours spooning, scooping, patting, folding, and piling our finished tamales on the table to be snatched up by Kevin, the tamale-runner, who stacked them in a big tub to await their debut in the giant cauldron, which would soon be emptied of masa, scrubbed out, and filled with tamales for steaming. 

Tamale making as spectator sport
It was a warm, fun time, with laughter, joking, an occasional "Ooops!" when a banana wrapper would split and need repair or replacement before being carried away by Kevin.  This was Gaby' first year making Christmas tamales, as last year she just watched. It IS a bit of a spectator sport as you can see here. 

Total immersion is a great way to learn Spanish

It was a lovely sunny day, in the 70s, perfect for our energetic activity on the wooden table next to the clay cooking fogón where Nora and Gaby prepare family meals.  My Spanish is still rudimentary, but now and then I understood an entire sentence, which was a great pleasure to me.

That night, we feasted on the perfectly cooked tamales, and after dinner Nora, Millie and I carried a stack of them to Millie's father and stepmother, who live about half a mile down the road, then stayed to chat an hour or so until Nacho came to find us. We walked back to Riveras by the light of a half moon, accompanied by cricket chirps and a couple of refrains of Feliz Navidad.

Wrapped tamales, ready to steam
I particularly enjoyed the tamale delivery, because it was the first time I had been able to see how my Lights for Students project lights up a family's house at night (I have been purchasing and installing solar lighting in the homes of neighborhood students so they can do homework after dark, and the entire family benefits from this project -- maybe I'll do a blog about that later). 

All in all, it was a lovely day. We ate tamales the next day, too, Christmas, but it seems that most Belizeans celebrate Christmas and New Years Eves, for the most part, and just eat and socialize on the actually holiday. 

Micasa, my little jungle house
So that was my Christmas. A few days later I spent my 74th birthday solo (by choice) at Micasa, my tiny Belizean house in the jungle which I had built this summer, and which I am still working on -- shelves, curtains, stuff like that. 
It's gradually becoming my second home, with a few little adventures along the way -- like this one which I journaled my last morning there: 
I'll blog my progress with Micasa later, too. 

And with that, I leave you with my fine memories of 2017 in the Belizean jungle, and with hopes for many more good ones in 2018 for us all.  Happy New Year!

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