A dispatch from lovely Mexico, where officials were slow to react to COVID-19

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All Photos Craig & Annie Okerstrom-Lang

Sayulita, Mexico – My wife, Annie, and I with our two Chihuahua’s (Olive & Bella) took a long-planned working vacation to Sayulita, Mexico and have been here since February 22nd.

Our three boys visited the first two weeks along with my Mom from Sonoma County, CA.

This is a beautiful, small surfing town about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta.

We rented Casa Mariluna, 1/2 mile north of the town center, from a friend we’ve previously rented from in California. She just happens to have a cottage in Sheffield, too! The casa overlooks the Pacific with a view of the south end of the bay.

Many homes have open-air living with the kitchen, dining and living area under a roof and only the bedrooms enclosed with four walls and AC’s.

Sayulita has an official population of 2,300 but it feels twice that size with all of the visitors and families from the US and Canada—a few Europeans, too.
The downtown streets have colorful hand-made fabric banners called ‘ojos de Dios’, Eyes of God, which thickly fill the sky and add to the festive atmosphere.
Locally owned shops and restaurants and a vibrant beach scene with restaurants and bars, umbrella and chaise rentals, surfing and hiking, make this an attractive home for many retired ex-pats and Canadians–both part and full-time. Smaller, less expensive towns dot the shoreline as you go further north.

The peso exchange was 17 per US dollar when we arrived a month ago and today it is 23.50 . The virus has weakened the peso.

Golf carts and walking are the main mode of transportation for visitors and can be parked wherever there isn’t a yellow curb (possible parking solution for GB 🙂 The streets are mostly cobblestone, in poor condition, so all vehicles are forced to drive slowly. There are no traffic lights but many “reductores de velocidad” (speed bumps) which forces vehicles to slow down. You see people of all ages driving golf carts including young teenagers.

The majority of dining is al fresco and most restaurants have tables set up along the sidewalks. The street entertainment arrives nightly making the rounds, from local music to break dancers and performers with fire. One evening a group playing near our favorite gelato stop was playing bosa nova music that made my wife swoon. Many street vendors go table to table offering everything from Mexican blankets and silver jewelry to beaded souvenirs and piles of a coconut dessert scooped by fingers into a sandwich bag. It is an intoxicating, fun-filled atmosphere.

The dining along the beach in open-air restaurants under giant palapas with tables and umbrellas out in the sand is lovely… a fresh ceviche and grilled red snapper on many menus. One of the restaurants becomes a popular dance club at night with music starting at 10:00pm and going until who knows when. Our three sons returned home at 3:00am the night before they left us and the dancing hadn’t stopped.

Then there are the food trucks and street food. Tacos from solitary stands are about 30 pesos. Our favorite food truck, the pink VW is at the north end of main street. It is permanently parked along the curb. Notice how the van is leveled and secured on the sloping street. Late in the day the 35 pesos Gordita, a delicious combination of tortillas w pork, sweet onion, avocado cream, crumbled cheese and cilantro… is served with candles and soft jazz wafting from the back of the pink van. Very sweet.

We also have a favorite spot to pick up a whole grilled chicken with coleslaw, rice, hot sauce and homemade tortillas for 150 pesos.

In the restaurants a cold cerveza is 5-6 pesos but a glass of wine ranges from 120 – 240 pesos; so we switched to Margaritas and cervezas quickly! We also got very good at making them at home for our ritual of “sundowners”, carrying our beach chairs down the 50 ft to the beach for sunsets.

The public art is beautiful! There are many small and large murals painted on the ubiquitous stucco walls with subjects ranging from nature to politics to cultural icons. So much talent and pride in these temporary works of art. Murals are around every corner in Puerto Vallarta and every small town… our appreciation of them growing more the longer we were here. We saw this blank-blue wall transformed with about 8 different murals that appear to have been selected by an arts committee to install. The photo taken of the woman flanked by leopards was painted during our visit and is not quite finished. That is the artist with Annie

This is also an area for whale migration, especially Humpback Whales. We took an all-day boat tour and saw many whales breaching out of the water.

Unusual Landscape Vegetation
During our 30 day stay it did not rain a single day during their early spring weather and the temperature averaged 72 degrees. Hardly any cloudy days. It felt more like an arid-jungle climate, but the surrounding small mountains combined with the ocean bring in fog and mist, which seems to keep plants lush. That also creates humidity, so the bedrooms had AC units. The ocean felt warm to swim in but you have to be very careful with the wave action.

It was springtime there so many flowers were emerging and leaves starting to come out of their buds on deciduous trees. Their summer-hot season is June thru October.

A wide variety of plants we would normally grow indoors in the Berkshires, thrive here, including:

  • Aloe
  • Cactus
  • Ficus trees (huge like our Oak trees); they are deciduous also
  • Jade
  • Palm trees of many varieties and sizes
  • Peace Lily

The Virus

Though in the news, the Coronavirus had not yet become a thing in the US when we departed on February 22nd for Mexico. Since then life as we know it has changed for everyone. While Mexico was taking a hands-off “ignorance is bliss” position we were hearing the US and our local situation in the Berkshires getting graver and more frightening.

While cases were adding up at BMC and shelves were being emptied at our local stores, Sayulita had dances on the plaza, populated beaches with margaritas flowing and vacationing tourists doing what they do unimpeded.

It had been very difficult to reconcile these two worlds.

We kept looking for Covid-19 news in Mexico in the NY Times and The Washington Post but none was forthcoming…only that a two-day concert of 14,000 people was allowed to take place in Mexico City and that President Lopez Obrador was still big on walking through crowds and kissing babies.

Now in our 60’s should we stay here in relative safety or run the gauntlet of international travel to return home to a Covid-19 hot bed and self-isolation?

Our first concern was our three sons whom we’ve conferenced with regularly. Two are safe and working from home in Boston while our youngest, an actor in NYC, lost his restaurant job and was hunkered down with his girlfriend in his Washington Heights apt. All of them have been social-distancing to the point of paranoia, while going out for groceries, walks and one-on-one basketball between brothers. We are so proud of them all.

Alas, the reality of Covid-19 arrived in Mexico just this week. Health officials here have confirmed 203 cases and a second death. Suddenly the streets of Sayulita are quieter, the restaurants are thinning, bartenders are wearing masks, and Americans and Canadians are headed for the border and flights home.

Coming Home

At the news of New York shutting down we were able to get our son, Skylar, and his girlfriend, Jasmine, out of Washington Heights and to our home in GB. They are continuing their isolation-which is easy for lovebirds. And yesterday, when the state department said US citizens must return home asap or risk staying abroad indefinitely, we called American Airlines and changed our flight for the third time. We will return to the Shire this Monday, the 23rd. Back to reality… We know we will be coming home to a very quiet and changed Berkshires and Great Barrington and will be vigilant in how we handle ourselves, keeping our distance from everyone including, Karen, our longtime office manager, even from our sons.

Self-quarantine for Two Weeks
We look forward to being back in our own bed and we are fortunate that we can still do plenty of work from home, though site visits to my landscape projects aren’t possible. I can’t wait to get working in our own garden and the innumerable spring chores.

The memories of palms swaying, blue waters beckoning, and 5 peso cervezas will sustain us…and the understanding we are protecting our community… and that in two weeks we can hug our sons again.

We hope to visit here again, to this beautiful Nayarit Peninsula of Mexico.

Craig & Annie Okerstrom-Lang
March 20, 2020

Brief Update
March 25, 2020

So much is happening so fast with responses to the Corona Virus in the world. We are trying not to follow the news too much to keep our stress levels down and get updates as needed. Really appreciate the calm-straightforward talking by Governors Baker and Cuomo in our region.

We are simply glad to be home and near our 3 sons, friends and clients. We are done with our quarantines on April 7th. Hoping I will learn more on how to use social media, like Instagram and Facebook from my sons during this down time; plus reading books and cooking good meals with Annie.

I am touching base with our current clients and their projects via email, text and phone.

Best to all, Craig Okerstrom-Lang

End of Winter from Okerstrom Lang Ltd

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The ice storm of December 2008 hit the higher hills in Copake, NY. This image I shot is a view from the swimming pool terrace looking SW on the 25-acre property, which we created a master plan for.

For this entry drive to a new home we had to build up along the septic field using large native boulders for an 8’ grade change. The septic field is in the foreground and planted with a native field grass and meadow mix. Mass plantings of Dwarf Rubeckia and Russian Sage are grouped along the top of the boulders and they flow down the slope. Custom designed post lights with barn light company lights provide pools of light along the driveway.

Pool and pool house in backyard of a new home in Great Barrington, MA. Our firm designed all aspects of the project. Pool house is connected to town sewer and water systems. Shaded nook has large array of outdoor furniture and a small wet bar. Dwarf ornamental grass (Hamln) defines the pool terrace and pathway to the lower level of the house. Outdoor pathlights are scattered along the pathways.

Hopefully the snow and ice are easing off…we have had a cold winter but a severe lack of snow. The snow insulates the ground for all of our plants; hopefully we will not see winter-kill of trees, shrubs and perennials.

March 19, 2020 is the official first day of spring, hurray! The signs of spring for me are the return of migratory birds like Robins, Cedar Waxwings and Warblers.

Early spring is the time to re-assess your property for:

• Winter damage & repairs to architecture, landscape and hardscape.
• Review how you would like to improve your landscape & gardens by landscaping and hardscape.

Please contact Craig Okerstrom-Lang, ASLA, RLA for a consult at 413-329-6165

Our 30th Anniversary from Okerstrom Lang Ltd

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Okerstrom Lang Ltd, Landscape Architects is celebrating their 30th year in business.

Established in 1990, the firm was created by Craig Okerstrom-Lang, RLA, ASLA in Great Barrington, MA. Since its inception OL Ltd has played a significant role in shaping outdoor spaces in cities, towns, camps and private homes throughout the Berkshires.

Specializing in design, master planning and construction management, the firm works in the tri-state region (CT, MA, NY) surrounding its design studio in downtown Great Barrington.

Clients include both the private and public sector where we collaborate with a wide variety of team members.

Our design studio has been above the 1902 Harland B Fosters cast iron building on Bridge Street for the past 20 years. Foster’s Hardware is gone but Hammertown is our new neighbor downstairs. Please stop in and say, “hello”.

Visit our WEB page for ideas for your projects and property. We are thankful to our clients for their trust in our services and continued business.

My wife Annie OL and I love to walk with our Chihuahuas’, ‘Bella & Olive’. This picture is of us along the McAllister Park walk in Great Barrington, MA and our guest pooch, ‘Ginger’ Blechman.

“Scissor Garden”, Richmond, MA designed in collaboration with our clients, Ken & Cathy. This garden is the entrance to the swimming pool, which is about 5’-6” above the garden entrance. Split-face bluestone steps (from Herrington’s, Hillsdale) are juxtapositioned, on angles, up the pathway.

Very low perennials fill the voids created by the scissoring steps. The masses of perennials provide blooming all summer and the ornamental grasses continue thru the fall. None of the plantings exceeds 24” in height so views from the pool terrace are not blocked.

Please contact Craig Okerstrom-Lang, ASLA, RLA for a consult at 413-329-6165

Loose ends, planning & holiday time

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November is predictable for the hard frosts and the leaves have fallen from most of our deciduous trees. The structural beauty of our trees is now in view. I like to consider the bark structure and texture of trees we use in our landscape design. Start to study these for your landscape. What is un-predictable is what weather we will have starting at Thanksgiving Day weekend. I have experienced ice storms and snow on that weekend and being the start of winter. This shuts down all outdoor construction. Have also experienced sunny, mild temperatures for the whole month of November and December. One year we laid sod along a new swimming pool the first week in January! Enjoy your Thanksgiving with family and friends.

October News

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The air is crisp, we are wearing layers of clothing while being outdoors hiking and working in our gardens. It is one of my favorite times of the year, as long as it not rainy.

My best prediction for best fall colors in the Berkshires is the 2nd week of October. In 2018 the fall colors seemed dull here but in Northern Michigan they were spectacular, while we were in Traverse City, Michigan and Leelanau County.

So enjoy your last days of decent outdoor weather. This is an excellent time to plan any projects for spring 2020!

End of Summer, stirrings of Fall

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New swimming pool that was started fall 2018 and finished for the 2019 Memorial Day weekend for a young family in South Berkshire County. Designed to accommodate large family gatherings, this 18’ x 50’ pool has a bench seat along the entire length (to the left side of image). Automatic pool cover keeps the pool clean of most debris and saves energy.