Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Ensenada, Enchilada, Empanada…

on June 20, 2013

Three great Mexican things that begin with ‘E’ and end in ‘ada’. Two of them are of course delicious foods, and the third, a town in the peninsular state of Baja California on the north-western coast of Mexico, not far from the US border at San Diego.

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This is where my cousin Kirsty has lived and worked for the past 5 or so years with her husband Oscar and now her 2-year-old son Samuel. They work for an organisation called Youth with a Mission, which has bases all over the world. They do some amazing stuff here; Oscar mostly works with a program called ‘Homes of Hope’, building houses for many of the poor families in the area who cannot not afford proper shelter. Kirsty works with a children’s ministry called Circulo Andante (Walking Circle), where children in one of the communities where Homes of Hope are built meet weekly to participate in fun activities based around maths, reading and bible stories. The program hopes to teach children the value and importance of education and help motivate them to keep going to school. Their website is here if anyone is interested in more info on what YWAM is about: http://www.ywamsandiegobaja.org/

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When I arrived in Ensenada, Kirsty had arranged a room for me on the base with the lovely Kayla who was looking after hospitality. For a nominal fee I got my own room and 3 meals a day with all the staff and students living there. The base is about a 30 minute walk from the centre of Ensenada and overlooks the beach on the opposite side of the street. From the outset, everyone was warm and friendly and I felt very welcomed.
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My first few days in Ensenada were spent catching up on sleep and trying to find the Baja California Language College, where I’d hoped to do a couple of weeks of Spanish classes to help me get around a bit easier in Mexico and Central America. I phoned them and it turned out their building was not useable at present so they were running classes at the arts centre. After going there trying to find the school, it turned out there wasn’t an actual school there, they just ran lessons at the tables in the foyer! But the college had good reviews and you didn’t have to buy any books, so I put my name down for the following week.

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I ended up doing 2 weeks of classes, but got one-on-one tuition with my maestra (teacher) Lupita as there were no other students at the same level. It was quite intense, like real school! I was doing 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and always had homework as well. During my lunch breaks or after I finished class at 2.30pm, I would usually try to find something new to eat. There were tacos de pescado y camarón (fish and shrimp tacos) on the waterfront boulevard- they usually batter the seafood and serve them in a small flour tortilla and you then add salsa, mayonnaise, cabbage, tomato and coriander. I had tostadas de ceviche from a stand tucked on a back street behind the arts centre- raw fish or seafood with lime, cucumber, tomato onion and coriander on a crunchy fried tortilla (like a hard shell taco, but flat). Again you add your salsas, pineapple, lime, and the seafood is usually piled high so that you eat some off the top with dry biscuits down to a level where you can safely pick up the tostada to bite it! I found tacos de carnitas at a little stall just up the road, which are shredded pork tacos, and empanadas around the corner- deep fried pastries filled with sweet or savoury goodies. Everything was delicious!

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Some days Lupita and I did excursions for the last hour or so of class, to museums, where I got to practice my reading and expand my vocab as all the signs were in Spanish, or supermarkets, where I got to practice numbers and names of food items, tick off a bit Lupita’s shopping for household cleaning products, ogle at how many varieties of beans and chillies were available, see the cheapest vanilla essence ever at 32 pesos (<$3) for a litre, and inevitably leave with half of the panaderia (bakery) in tow…

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The panaderia is one of my biggest weaknesses. I cannot walk past without buying at least one, but usually several breads, pastries, or sweets. I got Sammy’s tick of approval though (maybe not his mum’s!); but he would shout ‘Pastel!’ (cake) upon seeing my purchases (an essential word in any two-year-old’s vocabulary) and was pretty happy to share! And boy did it need to be shared, the slices are enormous! They sure know how to make an extravagant cake here…

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On the few days where I couldn’t get picked up from school, I walked home, occasionally being approached by randoms. One of these was a guy who would sit on the pavement and follow the same spiel in both Spanish and English each time: “Tengo dinero? Do you have any money”, to which I’d reply “No, lo siento” (No, sorry) and then he’d yell out “Muy bonita senorita! You’re very beautiful!” as I went by. Sorry, still no! Another time I met a guy I called ‘Lupe el borracho’ (Lupe the drunk) as he smelled quite strongly of booze. He popped out from a side street and asked for money because he was hungry (even though he was strangely holding a bag of tortillas at the time) and I said I could buy him food but I wouldn’t give him money. He agreed to this deal (despite his load of tortillas) and we went into the nearest restaurant. Lupe at first wanted to order 20 buffalo wings (which I thought was a little excessive, not to mention more expensive than I was anticipating!) so he decided he would have fries and coke. I probably should have got him something more nutritious but oh well… I did get some good repetition in practicing my Spanish, because we went through introductions 3 times in the 15 minutes or so I was with him! After, he offered to walk me home, but even though he seemed harmless, I thought it wiser to politely decline than let a drunk follow me back to the base! He didn’t seem to mind too much, thanked me for the food, went his separate way, and I didn’t see him again.

Outside of school I managed to keep pretty busy too (surprise!). On my first weekend, Kirsty, Oscar, another YWAMer Brandon, Sammy and I went for a drive out on the ‘Ruta del vino’ (Wine Route) in the Valle de Guadalupe, a major wine producing region in Mexico. We first visited L.A. Cetto where we went on a tour of the wine making facilities (with Kirsty whispering translations to me as we went) and then got to try some wines.

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They have this new rule that no-one under the age of 18 is allowed in the bar area so we had to tag team, with Brandon and Oscar keeping Sammy company outside while Kirsty and I went in first. When we came out, Sammy had taken off all of his clothes and was prancing around in his nappy! Classy boy :-p  Kirsty just shook her head and said ‘I don’t know why all the other kids can keep their gear on but my son can’t…’ (Some days, she will get him all dressed and then go to get herself ready, but by the time she’s done, Sammy has pulled off all his clothes and thrown them on the floor! Really not a fan of clothing…) We then went to another winery (Sammy still refusing to don any outerwear) where we indulged in an antipasto platter and a woodfired pizza for lunch. It was a lovely day in all.

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On the Sunday that weekend there was an inaugural International Food Festival on in the main plaza which we were pretty excited to check out. They had the flags of all the different countries up as we approached (including Australia, Canada and Switzerland who all had representatives in our party) but when we actually looked at the stalls, it turned out ‘international’ only really encompassed Mexican, Spanish and Italian food here. The Mexicans thought it was overpriced and weren’t overly impressed, so we walked up to the old faithful ‘Corner of Goodness’ at the corner of Castillo and Juarez St where we ate amazing tortas, Mexico’s answer to the kebab- flat rolls filled with meat, cheese and salad. This corner also has awesome fish tacos and aguas frescas– soft drinks like fresh limonada (lemonade), agua jamaica (‘hibiscus water’, a sweet Ribena looking and tasting drink made from hibiscus petals) and horchata (my fave, a milky, cinnamony rice-based drink). After the tortas, we went back to the festival for dessert (some pretty tasty gelati) so were all well and truly stuffed!

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It was decided that the YWAMers would have to get involved and expand the cultural diversity of the festival next year. Kirsty has started forming grand plans for her Australiana stall, with an Aussie style sausage sizzle, home-made lamingtons and perhaps imported meat pies… Rheanne needs to figure out how to do poutine in Mexico and Mirjam can bring some Swiss delights too 🙂

The YWAMers are all a social bunch, so there were plenty of other events to keep me occupied during the week too. We had a birthday dinner at one of the couples Tammy and Eddie’s house, with home-made tacos de carne asada (roasted meat). The night ended with Mexicanos vs The rest of the world in bilingual Cranium, with the middle of the table becoming la fronterra (the border)! Another couple, Danny and Danae also had their housewarming, which featured a delightful sangria. There was also a very competitive group Pictionary round robin on night, we learned how to make tortillas with Oscar’s mum, another evening went to a free salsa class in town (run in Spanish by an Argentinian lady who spoke 90 miles an hour!), and also a fun day at a nearby water park where aside from the giant wedgies, we enjoyed the straightforwardly named waterslide, Tobogan (Slide).

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And how could I forget the soccer! It’s quite the event going to watch the YWAM soccer team play (starring Oscar). One of Oscar’s friends Walter has two gorgeous dogs, Bella and Maverick, who he took along to watch also. Pretty much as soon as we arrived I was given dog sitting duty as the guys had to go play. At first Bella and Maverick were super excited and I thought it was going to be the longest game ever. In addition, Bella is a big shepherd and looks intimidating, even though she’s the sweetest thing ever, but everyone was freaking out walking by her, and I felt like everyone was looking at me like ‘Why would you even bring the dogs to a soccer match?!’ (which I was kinda starting to wonder myself!) Anyway, they soon settled and were fine and then at the end of the match got loaded back into the 11 person van… along with 19 people squished on top of each other in seats and in the boot! So it was a cosy and fragrant ride home…

Driving in Ensenada (even when not in a van full of pets and sweaty men) is another fun experience. The roads are a bit bumpy and haphazard due to being close to a fault line and the earth constantly shifting, so I learned to drink most of my coffee before riding to school otherwise half of it ended up on my jeans. Another feature of Baja California driving which warrants a mention is the crazy ‘4 Altos’ (4 stops)- a four way intersection where every car has a stop sign. WHAT?! When I asked ‘Who has right of way at these intersections?’, I was given the obvious answer… ‘Whoever gets there first.’ Sounds simple enough, but if two cars arrive at a similar time, there is almost always uncertainty and one just waves the other on. Excepting a case involving a red-headed Mexicana (who shall remain anonymous) who demonstrated the finer manoeuvre of just barrelling through and cutting off whatever other vehicles are at the intersection (which may or may not be police cars…)

On our way to San Diego one weekend, said red-headed Mexicana was somewhat vocal in the lines of traffic at the US border, finding it infuriating that people did not follow a logical pattern of ‘give and take’ merging- one from one line, one from the other. There are perhaps some latent road rage issues which have to be dealt with after 5 years in Mexico… 😉

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Up in San Diego, Kirsty and I received a big package mostly full of chocolate from our wonderful nan, and then were excited to go to San Diego Zoo, which had an Australian Outback section opening in Spring 2013- since it was the 19th of May, we assumed it would have opened recently. But we were out of luck, as it didn’t open until May 24… 1 week prior to the end of Spring. Grrr!

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There was an Australian café, ‘Sydney’s Grill’ open however, and we were excited to see sausage sandwich on the menu. Kirsty was going to cry if it came with a frankfurt/hot dog style sausage but it was a legit meat sausage thank goodness. Unfortunately the rest of the sandwich was rather ordinary… oh well! Smother it in tomato sauce (not ketchup) and it’s all good 😉

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The San Diego Zoo is huge and very well kept. Anchorman was not lying when making a big deal out the panda exhibit… it is by far the most popular animal there! The line was ridiculous, and we decided not to waste our entire afternoon queuing so unfortunately did not get to see what was so amazing about these famous pandas… But I saw a red panda instead. As well as some polar bears, the hippo’s butt and one of my faves the sunbear.

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We also went on the ‘Skyfari’, a chair lift across the zoo grounds which was pretty impressive, and Sammy got to play in the kids’ section (as soon as he saw a playground, he would charge towards it shouting ‘Playyyyy!’). He went up and down the slide countless times, each time looking as excited as the last. Until the time came to leave and the tanty would look like it was about to start… Kirsty bargained with him that he could have one more slide, but wasn’t allowed to cry afterwards. So he climbed back to the top and then just sat there, looking like he was thinking, ‘well, if I wait here, then I’m still having my last slide and I won’t have to go yet…’ but eventually coming down and keeping his end of the bargain! So despite not being able to visit the outback, we had a great day out.

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One great bit of hanging out in Ensenada so long was getting to spend time with Sammy too. He is such a gorgeous kid and at such an exciting age where he’s starting to talk and his personality is coming out. He just graduated into his ‘big boy bed’ while I was there, which he was pretty stoked about as he was free to come and go and didn’t wake up upset that he was trapped in his cage (crib). He is really into trains at the moment, especially Thomas the Tank. I left Ensenada knowing all the words to the theme song… That and the Veggie Tales song. Which is when Kirsty said, ‘Mandy… I think its time for you to get outta here!’

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Sammy speaks a good amount of Spanglish, though he does have a few characteristic words of his own! Sammy is ‘Nammy’, Mandy is ‘Manny’, Mickey is ‘Kikky’, his Mickey shoes are ‘Kikky sheeoos’, his chair is ‘chayarrr’ (my favourite one!), and popcorn is ‘co-co-co-corn’. He had Kirsty and Oscar in fits saying popcorn over and over again! Another funny thing he did was when he was running around in his superman outfit and people would ask, ‘oh! Are you superman?’, he would reply ‘No. Super Nammyyyyy!’

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In terms of his diet, he is pretty much a carnivore, eating 3 serves of meat off his taco before he’ll even think about eating the tortilla (and only after Oscar says ‘No mas carne!’). Veggies are not his favourite- he will pull a mushroom out of his mouth if it sneaks in with the meat in his lasagne! And sometimes you also have to remind him to take bites, as you’ll catch him trying to stuff an entire quarter of a sandwich into his little mouth- he’s definitely a boy! He’s a big fan of desserts like his Aunty Mandy, thoroughly enjoying pastel and crepas! He also loves fruit, though he is fussy about its appearance… One day I was cutting a mango and Sammy could barely wait for me to get it out of the skin, but when he came across a piece which wasn’t shaped like a square (like one of the slivers off the seed) he would throw it back at me with disdain! Ooook, uniformly shaped mango only in this house, thank you very much…

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One big highlight of my visit was my birthday weekend, where I got to go out with Kirsty, Oscar and a team from Texas to help on a Homes of Hope build. Last time I was in Ensenada I was lucky enough to get to participate in some builds, but this was the first time I helped from start to finish and it was an awesome experience. Everyone works hard as part of the team, nailing up the frame, the walls, the roof; or trimming the windows and interior walls; and even a lot of the local kids got involved with the painting.

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On Saturday, Kirsty got a cake brought down to the site, as it was my birthday, Marina’s birthday (one of the girls from the kid’s club Kirsty helps run who had decided she wanted to come and help on the build too) as well as one of the guys from the team Jackson’s birthday in 3 days. Luckily we escaped the Mexican ‘mordida’ tradition where you take a bite of the cake with no hands and your face is pushed into it, as I hear Oscar is somewhat intense when it comes to mordida!

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On Saturday night I did manage to get out for a celebratory beer with Ricky and Miriam (when Ricky managed to pour it in the glass anyways… :-p ) Afterwards we randomly ran into Kayla, DJ and Natalie in the carpark whilst buying a late night snack of elotes (corn) in a cup, and were lucky enough to score a lift home in the back of their pick-up! A memorable birthday all round 🙂

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On Sunday morning, it was back to the build site. After a solid few hours’ work, the family cooked us all a delicious lunch of tacos de carne asada with fresh tortillas before we again went back to put the finishing touches on their house.

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This team had also chosen to furnish the house, and it had a double bunk bed, complete with bedding, curtains on the windows, lampshades on the lights, an oven and gas bottle in the kitchen, a dining table as well as cutlery and crockery. It was all colour co-ordinated and looked fantastic! Some of the team also went shopping and bought a whole lot of household goods and groceries for the family too.

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It was truly incredible to see that from a concrete slab and many piles of wood on Saturday morning, grew a complete two room, fully painted, wired up, and furnished house for a family up in the colonias by Sunday afternoon.

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The best bit of the day was the key ceremony, where the keys are handed around to everyone involved in the build. When the keys come to you, you can share your experience and give your well wishes to the family. The gorgeous 6 year old Carly had quote of the day, saying ‘I had so many parties I was meant to go to this weekend at home, but I had even more fun here than I would’ve had at any of them!’ When the keys finally get around to the family, they get to open the door and go inside to look around. They shut the door, and after a minute, we all knock and they invite us in to be the first guests in their new home. Inside the home is blessed and we say goodbye. It’s a perfect culmination of all the weekend’s work.

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If anyone is interested in looking at a slideshow of the weekend made for the team: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKBbyXb56pY

Or at the full collection of photos to see just how much work went in from everybody to bring it all together, you can find it here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ywamsdbaja/sets/72157633792538249/

I finished my YWAM visit up in Tijuana, where the YWAM conference on the theme of community development was running. It felt like going on a little holiday, as I’d been in Ensenada a while and the base in TJ is pretty swanky!

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I got to enjoy the first 2 days of the conference, but then the time came to say goodbye to Kirsty, Oscar and Sammy and my newfound friends 😦 I left to fly down south of the Baja Peninsula for some new experiences with couchsurfing!

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