Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Yucatecan Still Lifes: Ticul, Tecoh, Tekit

I took three days right after Christmas and drove around southern Yucatán, an area that I don't know well. I plan to write more about that trip, but meanwhile am posting a few extra pictures that I took along the way.

Ticul, Yucatàn: hat on a pew. I spent a night in Ticul, famous for clay pottery and a rustic red limestone that is very popular for finish work in construction in Mexico. In the morning after breakfast I walked across the street to the church, which was pretty much empty except for two very old men praying in one of the chapels. Apparently one left his Panama near the entrance as he came in.

Niche in the church, Tecoh. I stopped in the pueblo of Tecoh my first morning, after a couple of hours on the road, to take a short rest break. I walked through the church, took a couple of pictures including this one, and afterward stumbled upon a wonderful bakery, Panaderia Mayapàn, where I bought a bagfull of orejas and polvorones. I crossed the street and sat on a bench in the beautifully-tended garden of the main square, eating the delicious cookies.

Christmas tree in the chapel, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. I stopped by to visit Jonathan Harrington at his hacienda near Tekit. He has a tiny Christmas tree (on the small table) in the old chapel there.

Spare room, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. This is one of the rooms of the old casona on the hacienda, which Jonathan uses as a catch-all for storage of tools and materials. The roof caved in long ago, and when Jonathan bought the place, he built a new roof structure with trees from the land. A couple years back, I bought four of the old ceiling beams, which had rotted on the ends but were still solid in the middle. I trimmed them down to solid wood and they now form part of a structure in my patio in Merida.

Floor detail, Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Unique Christmas

Unooo, dozzz, trezzz, cuatrooo....

I was walking down a pedestrian-only street toward Mèrida's Mercado Lucas Galvez this morning to make a couple of last-minute purchases when I stopped to listen to this Salvation Army children's chorus. I wasn't terribly interested in diving into the crowds of last-minute shoppers, but this little break and the energy of the music gave me the fortitude to move ahead and get my errands finished. Along the way, I was able to stop for a minute to admire the many varieties of piñatas available this time of year for holiday parties.

I have participated in traditional, Mexican Christmases in the past and I had figured on blogging about that over the holidays. Most people here celebrate Christmas on December 24, La Noche Buena, and the day consists of being together with family, for faithful Catholics attending a late night mass or having a religious observance at home or with neighbors, and preparing and eating a meal together. Christmas trees, piles of presents, and Santa Claus are not such a big deal around here. This year after all I am not attending a family celebration, but there are many other things that make Christmas in Yucatàn unique for me.

Poinsettias, or Nochebuenas, are native to Mexico and although not indigenous to Yucatàn, large, tree-sized specimens can be seen growing in gardens along the roadside here. At least six color varieties have been commercialized and sold all over Mexico and exported. Yesterday on a drive in the country I saw this display, which included Nochebuenas, at a humble roadside shrine. These altars are common sites along roads. Friends or relatives of persons who passed away in highway accidents mark the location where the person's soul left his or her body by making a small altar on the spot. Someone also had planted two small plumeria trees, known in Mexico as flor de mayo. It is probable that these plants were favorites of the deceased or came from his/her garden.

Noche Buena beer is a Christmas season tradition in Mexico. This delicious amber beer is only available for a few weeks around the holidays. It reminds me a lot of Alaskan Amber, brewed in my hometown of Juneau. I have been nursing a twelve-pack for about a week now. I probably will buy another and hold onto it for awhile, to be able to savor this special seasonal brew into the new year.

Another holiday special that keeps giving in the new year: I have tomatoes ripening in my garden. Northerners are not accustomed to this. I expect to begin eating this new crop of tomatoes in the early weeks of 2010; it's a New Year's blessing available only to those living in the tropics.

Last Monday I went to a Christmas music concert at Mèrida's Cathedral of San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in Latin America. The cathedral was built in the early 1500's with stones taken by the Spaniards from the Mayan pyramid that stood on a site, just across the street, which afterward became Mèrida's zocalo, or main square. The concert was played on the cathedral's recently-restored organ, and sung by the children's and adult choirs of the cathedral. It is amazing to consider that nearly 500 Christmases have been celebrated in this building. The sound of the huge organ fills the cavernous space with vibrations. It's like being inside an enormous speaker. The human voices, though small, are clearly and sweetly audible over the organ's power.

Speaking of music, the last stop on my excursion yesterday was Izamal, about an hour's drive from Mèrida, where I ate a delicious roast-chicken lunch and visited the local pyramids. Izamal is one of Mexico's "Magic Pueblos," due to its superb colonial architecture, vast old convent and church, and ancient Mayan sites, including two pyramids right in town. The larger one, according to my calculations, covers a little over nine acres. Information I found online indicates that the Great Pyramid in Egypt covers about 13 acres. That makes this little-known pyramid in Izamal pretty darned huge. It is possible to see a great distance and spot many far-flung pueblos and haciendas from its peak. I climbed to the top to enjoy the view, and as I rested there, slightly out of breath, heard faint singing. Moments later the wind must have shifted, because suddenly the music became much clearer. It was then I could identify a child singing "Silent Night." The tender, fluting voice rose to my ears from somewhere in the pueblo far below as I sat almost alone high atop this fantastic work of ancient Mayan engineering, "Noche de paz, noche de amor..." What a wonderful Christmas gift, among many.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Friday, December 18, 2009

Food: Dulce de Papaya

The holidays are a time to get together with friends and family, and social get-togethers often revolve around food. Here is a recipe I'll be preparing for the holidays. It's probably not too useful for my readers in the north where green papaya is not available, but for what it's worth, here it is. Variations undoubtedly would work with other fruits.

I have never been a huge fan of papaya. I can eat it mixed in a fruit salad, and it's OK with a little lemon or lime juice, but there is something about the blandness that doesn't always agree with me. However, I eat a bit of papaya from time to time, and along with other fruit and vegetable trimmings from my kitchen, the uneaten parts end up as compost in the garden.

The result was this past year that seeds germinated and I have two large papaya plants in my back yard. I don't really have room for what amount to small trees, but I was curious and decided to let them be, just to watch them grow. Some months later, the plants are over ten feet/three meters tall, and producing fruit. I was wondering what I was going to do with all that papaya, when a friend of mine showed me how to make "dulce de papaya," or candied papaya, with unripe, green fruit. It is very tasty, and the flavor barely resembles that of mature papaya. Here's the recipe.

You need: green papayas; sugar; cinnamon; water; large deep skillet or stew pot with lid; sharp knife. There are no fixed quantities. This example was done with a small papaya of about 3 pounds/1.5 kilograms. You'll have to try it and adjust the recipe to your tastes.

Peel the papaya. As you do this you may want occasionally to rinse the sap that comes out by dunking the fruit in the sink or putting it under running water. The sap of the unripe fruit is strong and exposure may cause skin irritation. When the papaya is peeled, let it soak for a few minutes to remove more of the juices from the surface so it is easier to handle.

Cut the papaya in half and scoop out seeds. The fruit is hard, about the consistency of raw potato. This is a "Maradol" papaya. Some, like this example, are seedless.

Slice and soak the pieces in water for awhile to leach out more of the sap. Some cooks at this point suggest soaking the pieces in a solution of lime in water, I assume to counteract the acidity of the juices. I have tried it both with a lime solution and with plain water, and don't notice any difference in the end product. It's easier to skip the lime.

When the soaking process is about done, carmelize about a cup of sugar in the bottom of your skillet or pot. Lightly stir the papaya slices in the molten sugar for a few minutes, watching carefully to avoid burning the sugar. Slowly add water to partially cover the fruit. Break up and add cinnamon. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, gently stirring occasionally, until papaya begins to soften.
The papaya will take on a red-brown color. Add more sugar if you want it really sweet. Cook until the pieces reach almost the texture you want. If you want the results a bit firm, remove promptly. Drain papaya and allow to air dry until the surface is no longer wet. Sometimes in this climate anything sweet and moist will attract fruit flies. If this is a problem, I position a fan to blow over the drying fruit. This cools and dries it faster, and keeps flying insects away. To me dulce de papaya tastes best when still warm, but it will keep for days in the refrigerator and makes a nice dessert served chilled. I think it would be good with whipped cream on top. Some people sprinkle a little sugar or drizzle honey on the papaya when serving. I like it plain.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I just got back from a visit to Alaska. It's always a great pleasure to return, catch up with family and good friends, revisit favorite places and gaze at the very mountains that exist unchanged from my earliest memories.
It's a long trip that I have made dozens of times and it has become routine, but I have learned to enjoy the familiar transitions along the way. The journey typically begins as I lug bags past my hammock and under the arches of the patio to board an early morning taxi that delivers me to one of Mèrida's bus stations, and a morning bus, le lujo class (movies with headphones, drinks, recliner seats, nice bathrooms), for the four-hour trip from Mèrida to Cancun. It is easy to sleep on the ride; the scenery along the modern Mèrida-Cancun toll road is mostly the uniform green of the flat, forested Yucatecan plains. There isn't much variety in the view. I always plan a couple of extra hours for this trip, to allow for weather or bus problems, and normally arrive in Cancun with a little time on my hands. It has become my habit to trail my luggage out of the Cancun bus terminal, and eat a hearty lunch of enchiladas or a burger, followed by leisurely cups of coffee over the newspaper, at the Sanborn's restaurant across the street. Sanborn's is a large chain and a Mexican institution; I remember in the early 90's arriving in Guadalajara fresh from Barrow, and going to eat in the first restaurant I saw: a Sanborn's. Since then, Sanborn's restaurants have been a reliable and comfortable place to go when I visit larger cities in Mexico.

After lunch, I cross back to the bus station and grab an airport bus, and upon arrival at the airport board a shuttle or take the ten-minute walk over to the new Terminal 3. The first order of business is to go to the Immigration counter for an exit visa. Next, to Alaska Airlines to check in, and afterward to pass through security into the boarding area. The new terminal was designed so that it is impossible to get to the boarding gates without walking through the duty free shops, which in addition to tequila sell exactly the same types of expensive perfumes, designer watches and other "luxury" products seen in duty-free shops the world over. Here, sunburned tourists can squeeze some final moments of enjoyment from their vacation by maxing out their credit cards, if they haven't done so already. Personally, I walk quickly though Duty Free. Once through the gauntlet, there's plenty of time to get a latte and relax.
It's a more-than-five-hour flight from Cancun to Seattle, which these days is my port of entry into the United States. Alaska Airlines has added additional flights and this is a good one; in the past we normally passed though customs and immigration in the noisy chaos of always-under-construction LAX before a circuitous walk to a different terminal and encounters with hollering, cocky TSA employees, in order to board the connecting flight. The direct Seattle flight saves time and line-standing energy, and at Seatac the formalities are calm, friendly and efficient. My itineraries usually include a long stopover in Seattle, arriving late in the evening and boarding a northbound flight early in the morning. Often I pass the seven or so hours on a favorite couch in a little nook of concourse "C" at the airport. It is secure and quiet after midnight and the only people you see are the cleaning crew. It is easy to sleep if you don't mind being watched by security cameras as you do so. I don't mind because I can really sleep; there isn't much worry that someone will pick my pockets or snatch my bag. And, mornings are calm there because my bags are checked through and I haven't passed outside of airport security. I simply wash up and change shirts in the spacious restroom, eat breakfast, buy a paper and coffee and wait to board my plane.
Occasionally in Seattle, I work out a longer stopover and go into the city. This recent trip was one of those. A friend since my Anchorage days in the early '80's, Paul picked me up at the terminal, and I spent a pleasant 22 hours in Seattle, hanging out on the houseboat he lives in on Lake Union, eating out, and catching up. My family lived in Seattle for several years when I was small; it's always interesting to look around and discover that, despite all of the growth and changes, many of the familiar landmarks of my childhood are still there.

Flying to Alaska from Seattle is always the same: there are friends and familiar faces on the plane. I often get to talking with old friends, former neighbors, coworkers or ex-students in the boarding area. Sometimes I see people I haven't seen in years, or decades. It's always interesting, and time spent waiting to get on the plane passes quickly.

Arriving in Sitka or Juneau, I am always struck first by the cool moisture of the clean-scented air, something that it's easy to take for granted when you live in Southeast Alaska all the time, but when I have been away, it is the first thing I notice. The exact nature of this aroma of home is something a little beyond words that revives distant memories and awakens feelings. When I walk off the plane, I know exactly where I am.

Speaking of home, sometimes when I pass through immigration when returning to the States, the officer who stamps my passport will say, "welcome home," as he or she returns it. Since I was born and lived most of my life in Alaska, it will always be home, however in more recent years I also feel very much en casa, at home, in Mexico. After my visit up north, I arrived back in Mèrida late in the evening a couple of nights ago, and in the morning when I woke up there was nothing to eat in the house. I decided to walk the three blocks to the market at Parque Santiago, where there are some small restaurant stalls, planning to order an omelet. When I arrived, the hot, tangy aroma of choco lomo, a breakfast broth with chunks of beef and served with onions, radish, cilantro, sour orange wedges and tortillas -- a very traditional Yucatecan breakfast -- reached my nostrils. I used to eat this breakfast when I first bought the Mèrida house, before I fixed it up and put in a working kitchen. Eating choco lomo is among my first warm memories of living in Yucatàn, and the unique smell brings back the sentiments and memories of those first exciting days here.

I said "buenos dias" to the couple I sat down next to and ordered the choco lomo, with a Coke. Very Yucatecan. When it came, I put the garnishes in my broth, broke up the meat and liver chunks and began eating the meat rolled up in tortillas. It really tastes great contrasted with the cold, fizzy cola, sucked through a straw from the green glass bottle. A young man who makes his living selling sweets in the park whipped the tray off his head to display his wares and asked me if I wanted a meringue. An older man played an electronic keyboard and sang traditional songs for tips just down the corridor. It's interesting, but I realized while eating that breakfast that Yucatàn no longer feels foreign to me. I seem to be "going home" when traveling in either direction.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Wanderings: Hacienda Dreams

Sometimes I go on the road with a purpose. On other occasions I go just to see where the highway leads me. I rarely fail, in wandering around Yucatán, to return home with an interesting experience or having seen something thought provoking, mysterious, or beautiful. Recently I went, purportedly out of curiosity, but in reality just on an impulse to go, to spend a couple of hours tramping around a parcel of land that's for sale a bit more than an hour's drive from the house in Mérida. On the return trip, I took an old two-lane highway that meanders quietly, and with more bicycle and pedestrian than motor traffic, through hennequen plantations, ranches, and groves containing native trees like cedro, ramón, ceiba and chacá. Along the way it threads through several small pueblos and old haciendas. The road then abruptly melds into a more modern, divided four-lane highway, quicker and more efficient but far less satisfying, that leads back to the city.

I had passed through here before, but until this day had not noticed a gate and big old house, mostly hidden by very large trees, set back a bit from the road. The casona is situated on a straight stretch at the approach to a community; on past trips I must have been slowing down and watching more for animals, bicycles and topes, or speed bumps, than looking at the scenery.

I squinted. This was a hacienda. Large tracts, thousands of mecates of spiky blue-green hennequen plants grew here. When they were harvested, the pencas, or leaves, were bundled and heaped on horse-drawn trucks which ran on a narrow-gauge railroad from the far reaches of the property to the factory buildings, there to be
processed into sisal fiber, the basis of all variety of ropes and lines for the world's navies and merchant fleets, and baling twine for American Harvester machines. There probably was a huge chimney here, taller than the nearby church belltower, back when enormous, belching smokestacks meant progress, prosperity and wealth for Yucatán's landowning elite. It was a Golden Age. Mérida became fabulously rich on this trade. Due to the vast quantity of ships coming into nearby Sisal and Progreso harbors, it was easier to travel to ports in the U.S. or across the Atlantic than to go overland to Mexico City, and Yucatecans looked abroad. European-style mansions mushroomed on Mérida's boulevards. Women wore the latest in French styles and directed vast housholds of servants while ensconced in salas furnished with the finest, imported furniture and carpets; men smoked Cuban cigars and drank the finest whiskies, wines and liqueurs from across the ocean. Not only did hacendados send their privilieged offspsring to the Old World for schooling; the wealthiest are rumored as well to have sent their clothes for laundering there to avoid having the fine fabrics damaged by Yucatán's hard water. Haciendas like this one made it all possible...for awhile.

As the sun prompted trickles of perspiration to tickle my neck, I came out of my waking dream. The house is not terribly well-kept, but neither has it been abandoned to nature and fallen into ruin, as rapidly happens in this climate. Someone, probably a caretaker or watchman -- an older señor living in more modest quarters nearby -- keeps the weeds trimmed back near the house, most likely by putting a few animals out to graze on the place, and maintains gates, doors and windows in repair and locked. Nevertheless several other visible structures, farther back in the trees, are nothing but shells, their roofs long gone, columns vine-encased green cylinders, arches intact but no longer supporting the load they were designed for, and with mature trees dropping an ever-thickening compost of leaves onto floors where once people lived and worked and mopped away the dust.

There are rocking chairs on the front terrace of the old main house, but they are weathered silver, warped and beyond reclaiming, woven bottoms long rotted and the shreds carried away by the wind or nesting birds. The walls, once painted a rich "hacienda red," are streaked by many years' accumulation of black mold and at the same time bleached pink by neglect. A section of the delicate French tiles on the porch roof, molded and fired in Marseilles and imported to Yucatán more than a century ago as ballast on a returning hennequen ship, have fallen and shattered. It is easy to imagine that decades ago, one morning after breakfast, the doors had been locked when the owners left on a trip, and because of some incident lost to history they never again returned to live here. Thereafter, for a long time the house was perfectly maintained like a time capsule, ready for the owner's imminent return, only to very, very slowly edge into decrepitude as hope eventually faded and the household staff aged or dwindled.

I have dreamed from time to time of finding an old place such as this, fixing it up just enough, bringing in furniture and my books, hanging pictures and putting in a garden. Perhaps I would get a dog and keep a few other animals. I would eat my own wonderful fresh fruit, gather eggs hidden by the hens in far reaches of the garden, escape the heat by swimming daily in the ancient cistern's invigoratingly cold well water, and live a long, healthy life of genteel rusticity. Then I begin to wonder if I, too, perhaps out loneliness, isolation, illness, wanderlust -- for economic or some other reasons -- might one morning finish my coffee, casually lock up and drop the keys in my pocket, walk away, and never manage to make it back home again.

Friday, November 20, 2009

State Fair: Yucatán in the Snow Zone

"Have Fun in the Arctic. The Snow Zone, a Frozen Novelty," a promotion reads. The juxtaposition in this photo of a polar bear, a penguin on an igloo, and a palm tree, to say nothing of the elderly couple walking by, the señor in guayabera and señora in her traditional Yucatecan huipil, is a bit of a stretch for more than one reason. However, for the Yucatàn State Fair, held annually at X'matkuil, near Mèrida, novelty and excitement are the keys to a good time.
Folks going to this year's fair can watch an ice show, build snowmen and have snowball fights in the "Zona Nevada," or Snow Zone, as well as get their picture taken riding an innertube down an icy slope. It may not look like much to northerners used to real cold, snowy winters, but to some of these kids who have never felt cold weather, seen snow, or touched ice other than in a drink or popsicle, it is a small miracle.

This fair is no longer a backwoods event. Started long ago as an agricultural fair, X'matkuil has evolved into a 24-day spectacular with events and exhibits of interest for everyone. The traditional livestock exhibits, horse shows, midway rides and games are there. Anyone who grew up in the States and attended state or county fairs will feel right at home.

Organizers of X'matkuil are determined to keep people coming back. Other events include: concerts by nationally and internationally famous artists (Gloria Trevi is one this year); a dolphin show housed in a huge salt-water tank; a circus and clown festival; a boxing tournament; horsemanship and roping shows; Yucatecan music and dance events. A polo tournament, bodybuilding shows and group wedding are also on the calendar. All varieties of food are available, from simple tacos, pizza and sandwiches to fancy multi-course dinners, and beer gardens with live music and dancing run from afternoon until late into the evening.
Go carts, puppet shows, dance and martial arts displays and lessons, a display of birds of prey, other wild animals, orchid and edible and medicinal plants shows, a huge variety of traditional crafts and food items of Yucatàn, Mayan language recitals and a great deal more goes on during the fair. It's too much to take in on one visit.

Despite all of the fancy events, I enjoy the old-time stuff. I have the most fun wandering through the agricultural exhibits, where you can look at the latest in farm equipment, feed, irrigation technology, tractors and trucks, household goods, and all of the practical stuff that farmers and ranchers like to look at when they come to the fair. This is how it all started, and these displays remain a key function of the fair.

More than anything, I like looking at the livestock: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and tilapia (yes, fish farming), along with displays of horses and ponies and other show animals. The owners are usually around, and it is possible to ask questions, approach the animals, and maybe touch or help feed them if you want to.

My other favorites include the traditional crafts exhibits, where all variety of Yucatecan natural and handmade products are being made, are on display and for sale. The image shows a display of some of the baskets and containers made in the old way from creepers and vines gathered in the countryside. Other local products include clothing and fine embroidery, furniture, items made with hennequen fiber, gourds and wood, artwork, and many foods, including sweet drinks and delicacies made of fruit, liquors and Yucatecan honey, said to be among the best in the world.

There are a few displays of wild animals of Yucatàn. I'll end with this short video of ducks, because they are lovely, and I would like to have someone help me identify them. I am told they are indigenous to Yucatàn, but don't have a lot of other information.

This is just a quick overview of X'matkuil. There is lots more to see and do there. I went in the afternoon because I wanted to take pictures, and because I prefer to attend when the crowds are thin. On weekends, tens of thousands of people flock to the fair. Going out to X'matkuil is a good way to learn a lot about this region, and appreciate many of its unique qualities.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Huck Finn Summer in Yucatàn

I feel I was fortunate growing up mostly in Alaska, where I was able to spend a lot of time outdoors, enjoying the experiences and type of education that only wild or remote country has to offer. This kind of living is something increasingly uncommon in our developed, interconnected world.

I now live in the city, but often sneak away to places where I can breathe a little more freely. From time to time I visit my friend Jonathan Harrington, a writer from the States who has a hacienda southeast of Mèrida, where he lives by himself in a large old house set in the midst of a lot of land. One reason I like to visit is that Jonathan's place provides a complete break from the city. There are few roads, fewer people, there's no electricity, and there is no noise beyond the natural background that birds, animals and wind in the trees provide. When last I visited, in August, Jonathan's twelve-year-old son Trevor, who lives in New York City, was there enjoying the waning days of his summer vacation.

Jonathan looks forward to Trevor's summer visits, and they spend their time exploring, traveling around Yucatàn, and just hanging out on the hacienda. Trevor is a city kid, but has been coming to Yucatàn for years to spend time with his Dad, understands a lot of Spanish, and seems to fit in naturally at the hacienda and in the nearby pueblos, places like Tekit, Mama, Teabo and Chumayel. You would never guess that much of the year he lives, plays, socializes and goes to school in Manhattan.

The second morning of my visit, while Jonathan was busy Trevor and I decided to go out and take a walk. He was going to show me a grove of bamboo, which is an interest of mine, and we wanted to try to find a flock of wild turkeys he had spotted the day before. Trevor slung an old rifle of his Dad's over his shoulder and readily led the way through the brush, just like a native. It reminded me of the way of life of many kids who grow up in rural Alaska, with confidence, maturity and responsibilities that their urban counterparts often lack, at least until they are older. Trevor knows how to handle a weapon, find his way around the bush on the hacienda and safely maneuvers the old stick-shift pickup on rustic roads within the property. I am sure he has his moments, just like anyone does at his age, but this kid doesn't seem the type to complain much about no TV or computer, tàbanos (biting horseflies), or about time spent hauling up water, bucket by bucket, from the deep well when it's time to take a bath and the windmill that normally pumps is on the blink. Not to mention gathering firewood, no hot water, no shower, or the pale, wriggling, multi-legged "aliens," crustaceans or insects that live in wells and cenotes and sometimes come up in the bath water. Trevor is a guy with whom you can converse just about as you would with an adult, and he is good company.

Anyhow, Trevor and I went out, walked around the monte and talked and looked at things for awhile. We didn't locate the turkeys. When we got too hot we came back to the house and started hauling up wash water from the well. We counted the "aliens" in the bucket as we threw them back. Nothing really happened, but it was a great morning.

Jonathan's hacienda, San Antonio Xpakay, is itself worth another story or two. I'll work on it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Vecinos Silvestres" (Wild Neighbors) Part 1

The racket from my back patio in the early morning can be outrageous. In describing these particular neighbors, I prefer the Spanish word, "escandalo," uproar with hints of scandal, indignation and disorder, to the mundane "ruido" (noise). When the neighbors have a noisy

party, maybe drink a little too much beer and crank up the music to "eleven," or perhaps the music and party spills into the street and a heated discussion breaks out at 2 or 3 in the morning, Mexicans may refer to it as "escandaloso." And when these particular non-human neighbors are around, they remind me of nothing more than unruly guests at a "fiesta escandalosa."

One of the culprits who has awakened me on various occasions is pictured here, breakfasting on pistachios from my neighbor's back-yard tree. A fairly large population of these Red Lored Parrots (at least as far as I can identify them) or "Loros," has adapted to and lives in the very center of Mèrida, a city with a human population of nearly one million. I have been told conflicting stories about their origins: some say that these parrots are native to this area, others say that a population was established when some pet birds escaped. My reference books indicate that the Red Lored does not live in Yucatàn, but does exist along the southern fringes of neighboring Quintana Roo state, bordering on Belize, and presumably the range extends south of there. Although I don't think so, perhaps I have mis-identified the bird. There is a similar-looking species that is native to Yucatàn.

Whatever the facts of the matter are, these parrots are flourishing in Mèrida. The birds are always present, but their appearance in my own backyard depends upon the seasonal availability of fruits and nuts. At times they bed down in neighboring trees and begin their raucous chatter, which sounds to me like parakeets on steroids, at sunup. When food is not available nearby, I see or hear them flying over early in the morning, leaving nesting or sleeping areas to feed, and then again in the evening on their return to shelter for the night. I have seen flocks of more than thirty but it is more common here to see two to twelve together. Even at a distance or in poor light they are easy to spot, due to their constant chatter and distinctive look, with plump bodies, big blunt heads, stubby tails and short wings that they must exercise with comical rapidity to stay aloft.

The meek and tranquil personality of this wild neighbor could not be more different from that of the first. This "Tortolita," or Mourning Dove was one of many who have chosen to nest amongst bananas that grow along one side of the back patio and provide me with breakfast fruit most of the year. The only sound I have ever heard these birds utter is a very soft and sad "ooWOO, ooWOO," which appears to be associated with mating; a similar sounding call may be used by adults to attract strayed young.

These birds are ubiquitous. I have seen up to a dozen in my back garden area at one time, and have had as many as three pairs nesting in my yard at once. The females are a dull gray; males a dusty rose color. This one peering suspiciously out at me between green bananas is a male; Mourning Dove pairs appear to equally share egg-sitting and food-hunting chores. The great thing about this nesting situation is that the cupped form of the hands of fruits and large leaves of the banana plants provide natural protection, not much nest-construction is required, and the eggs can't roll out.
The two eggs develop and chicks grow at an amazing rate. Evolving from a tiny, thimble-sized, naked black lump upon hatching to a fluffy hen-egg sized fledgling, takes only a couple of weeks.

Something that surprises those of us who grew up in northern latitudes is that birds like these can manage to bring up several new generations of young in one season. I witnessed one pair of these birds raise three broods this past summer. And inevitably, they lose young, either to predators, like cats, possums, rats, and other predator/opportunists, such as Great-Tailed Grackles (known here by their Mayan name as K'aues), or from parasites, chills suffered during sudden drenching rains, and falls from nests. I have witnessed the drama of all of these accidents of nature in my own few square meters of back yard.

I usually let nature take its course. One nest this year was inside my house, in a vine that grows in the interior patio, which is walled in but open to the sky. One evening I heard a hollow smack, like the sound of an orange dropping on pavement, and sure enough, one of the chicks was on the floor. It looked badly injured, so rather than try to lift it back up to its precarious perch in the nest and possibly spooking the other chick, I made a nest on the floor, right below, out of a rag, expecting that its returning parents would find and take care of it. It was no use; the chick only made it until morning. I think that the adult birds know when a cause it lost. To my knowledge they never attended to the injured baby. They did manage to nurture the dead bird's nest mate to young adulthood.

On other occasions I have taken a more active role. I have a laundry and storage room that is not completely enclosed, and flying animals can easily enter. Tortolitas frequently attempt to nest inside, and usually I spot their nest building in time to discourage them before they have laid their eggs. However, they build quickly, and a few times I have come home to discover a new nest, complete with eggs, in the area. Here are a couple of examples.

The nest on top of the door failed because the ledge was too narrow, and eggs kept rolling off. After finding the second smashed egg on the floor, I figured I was doing the birds a favor by taking away the nest and forcing them to look for a new nest site. The nest on the shelf by the water heater was a different story. When first I noticed the nest, eggs were already present. All went well until the chicks were starting to test their wings. They would fly around in the safety of the laundry room, and each night end up back safely on the nest, until one night, not paying attention, I went in, flipped on the light and spooked the whole family. The adult flew out the open door, one chick ended up under the washing machine and the other behind the water heater. I managed to wedge the chicks out of their predicaments, and kept them in the house until the next morning when I was able to place them back in the laundry area, on top of the washer, where they reunited with their parents. A day later, they were all gone. About a week later I saw the same pair of adults, accompanied by one of their offspring, now nearly identical in size and appearance to its father, resting in the orange tree.

Here are Mom and Dad, on another occasion, surprised in their sleep among the oranges.

I have many wild neighbors. More about them later.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Weather: Feels like Southeast

In my last post, I wrote about all of the flowers there are to be seen around Mèrida, while up north, "fall color" has as different meaning. I was able to get nice, saturated colors in my pictures, and flowers were looking especially fresh and lush, due to the fact that it has been gray and raining here for several days...not something that's a frequent occurrence in Yucatàn. Here, during the season which typically runs from June through about November, an afternoon rain following a hot day is usually the thing. This week's weather looks more like rainy Southeast Alaska than sunny Southeast Mexico.

This was the view from my kitchen yesterday afternoon:

Yesterday, we woke up to the news that a tropical depression which rapidly formed off the coast of Nicaragua had quickly become Hurricane Ida, and was predicted to graze the coast of Quintana Roo, affecting the coastal resort areas including Cancun, which is not far from here as hurricanes blow, about Monday. I recall a week or so ago having a conversation one cool day with an elder neighbor, a lifelong resident of the area, who confidently told me that once the cold fronts started coming through, as they began to some weeks ago, hurricanes are just about impossible. Well, Ida seems to have remained officially a hurricane long enough to do damage in Nicaragua, and then began to weaken, but not before I spent a few minutes running down a mental checklist of preparations I would have to quickly make should we be threatened with a real storm. Now it looks as if the storm will strengthen again as it heads over water, that we will get rain and wind this weekend, but probably not much worse than we have been experiencing. However, that could change.

The good news is that it is raining. The bad is that it came a bit late. We had a very, very dry summer rainy season here with terrible heat, and lots of crops failed. This burst of moist weather is good for us, but won't help the producers, particularly small farmers and campesinos in the countryside who lost corn, vegetables, and animals over the last few months.

People here are talking increasingly about the erratic weather as yet another signal from Mother Nature about global warming, and there are frequent articles in the local paper on the topic. Weird weather of a sort that the oldest and wisest folks have not seen in their lifetimes, serious coastal erosion and loss of habitat are things that I read about in the Alaska news; the identical topics are on the agenda here. It's about time we started taking these things more seriously. If you haven't seen Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, please watch it. If you have seen it and done nothing, please take the time to watch it again. It's available on YouTube.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fall Colors: Not what you think

This morning I was reading a family member's blog in which she published a photo showing the snowline edging down the mountain, the cold mist and weak sunlight yesterday in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska. After signing off I walked out of my house, into the cool but comfortable morning, and was immediately reminded why I like living
where I do this time of year. When my friends and relatives up north are wearing sweaters and parkas and already exercising their snow shovels, in Yucatàn I am still enjoying fall colors.

NOT the "fall colors" they might expect. As I went out, I immediately noticed the first purple blossom of the
thumbergia that grows up one wall of the house. Buds are forming all over this huge plant, whose climbing branches can reach 45 feet/ 14 meters in length, and soon it will be full of cascades of hanging flowers. Seeing it, I went back inside and grabbed my camera. This is what I saw around the back patio this morning.

Way out back I saw that there are still some flowers on the neighbor's white plumeria, here known as Flor de Mayo, which hangs over my garden. True to its name, this tree usually begins flowering during the month of May. This one just keeps on going, although by this time of year the blooms are getting scarce. Near it, the sensuous flaming-orange blossom of the granada, or pomegranate, above, is the first one this year that has not shriveled and fallen off before reaching maturity.

Bougainvillea, bugambilia in Spanish, blooms just about all year round. The peach variety, above, is in a small planter and has never grown much. The hot pink plant was just a little stick when I put it in about a year and a half ago. Now it measures over 12 feet/4 meters high, and is growing like crazy. It is hard to prune due to its sharp thorns.

Yellow irises continue to produce fresh blooms for months. The one seen here unfolded shortly after I took this image. Pink and yellow mandevilla, below, will grow together but are quite different. The pink is extremely delicate; the yellow very hardy and grows at a dramatic rate.

I thought astromelia was a smaller bush. This one has grown to be way above my head.

I do not know what this wildflower is. I suppose the seed was dropped by a bird. Several have sprouted in the garden. One reached more than 3 feet/1 meter across and had hundreds of blossoms.

Two fruit-producing plants: creamy white papaya flowers with yellow centers; strong pink nopal cactus flowers perched atop their tunas, or fruits, which make good eating when mature if you are very careful about their needle-fine spines. Hummingbirds love the nopal flowers.

This is known locally as Copa de oro. This plant reproduced like crazy. I started with a couple tiny pieces of root, and now have dozens of them. Hummingbirds visit these, too. They actually perch on the flower and come to rest while feeding.
Does anyone know what this is? A friend gave me some seeds months ago, and it has produced hundreds of flowers. The blooms last one day, and usually drop off by evening. The good thing is, there are always more.

I only know about these plants what friends and neighbors tell me. If anyone reading this has more information or better names, please leave a comment or email.