Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beginnings: Alaska, Mexico, Lila...

When I moved south I considered starting a blog as a way to keep friends and family up to date on what I was doing. Now, more than four years later, I finally got around to it. A lot has happened in that time that probably will never make it into the blog: restoring my old house; travels around the country; exploring pueblos and stumbling upon ruins that seem to be completely lost in time; new experiences in teaching; tasty culinary adventures; learning about new plants, animals and environments; making many new friends and losing some; adjusting to a new culture; several dozen north-south round trips; just to mention a few.

The great thing about living where I do is that each day really is a new adventure. One of the reasons it took me this long to get started on a blog is that there is so much going on around me I don't spend much time at home on the computer. As long as I have the energy I will choose being "out among 'em," as Mom always says," over the alternative of hanging around the house.

OK, about Lila Downs. There are several reasons I have included pictures of her in this post. First and simplest, I just got back from Lila's latest concert in Oaxaca, downloaded my pictures from the trip, and it is on my mind. Second, she has been my favorite artist in current music for quite some time, and is someone from modest beginnings who has been internationally recognized but remains admirably close to her people and roots. And, for several reasons, in my mind she is permanently linked to my two "homes," Alaska and Mexico.

The same month in 2003 that I closed on the purchase of my house, in Merida, Yucatan, a dear friend invited me to a concert that Lila Downs was giving where I lived in Juneau, Alaska. Before that experience I had never heard of her. After it, I was hooked, bought all of her CD's, and began listening to Lila Downs and paying attention to what she was doing. During the next couple of years, my interest in getting out of the states grew in direct proportion to my utter disgust with the Bush administration and my keen interest in being in my new Yucatecan home as much as possible. The music became more inspirational and personal as I made decisions and began working toward making the idea of moving a reality. Within two years, my slightly-decrepit, entirely pink, old Yucatecan house in the historic barrio of Santiago, which I had planned to use for vacations and in some distant future as a retirement residence became, falling plaster, bats, leaking ceilings, dust, and all, my full-time home. Lila Downs' music accompanied me, with its beautiful spirit and as bridge between two cultures, as I initiated and then followed through on one of the biggest transitions in my life.

Lila's performance earlier this month in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, where she grew up, was the third of her Oaxaca concerts I have attended. The fact that the concert was presented to a hometown crowd made it especially meaningful. There were several welcoming events and ceremonies in the pueblo, including the unveiling of a plaque at her childhood home and a parade through the center of the pueblo, attended by a large number of press, fans, family and friends.

A very pleasant experience I had was being introduced to Lila's godmother Victoria at my hotel, and being invited by her to go down to the concert together. We had a long and interesting conversation, and through Victoria I met a lot of people. I was introduced as the person who had come all the way from Merida for the concert, and who first saw Lila perform in Alaska; as a result I answered a lot of questions. I was admitted backstage, and due to the identity of the person I was walking around arm-in-arm with, was announced by the security personnel as I entered as "Lila's Godfather." I didn't laugh until later that evening. Lila was gracious and although apparently suffering from a sore throat and tired, spent some time chatting with me. She and her husband, Paul Cohen, remember fondly their visit to Juneau, the warmth of the people, and especially a trip to the glacier.

The evening of the concert was by far the highlight, but the entire visit was fascinating. In Oaxaca it is easy to enjoy great food, beautiful scenery, the fresh, pine-scented air, and glimpse the unique cultures and adaptations they have made to this environment. In Tlaxiaco it is normal to hear the sounds of various dialects indigenous to the area as you walk around the pueblo or explore the market. And, as an

Alaskan transplanted to Mexico, I experienced pleasant moments of homesickness as I hiked neighborhoods and along a road out of town and passed many older structures, which look remarkably like their northern counterparts. The only real clue to the different environment in this photo is the red-tile roof. I have noted similar log construction in Queretaro and in Michoacan. Undoubtedly it also exists in other forested parts of the country.

Another reason I feel "a gusto" in Mexico is that it reminds me in some ways of the pre-pipeline and rural Alaska of my childhood (and of the older generations in the villages, still), when people really did know and look out for each other, spent time together doing things instead of talking on the cellphone, hovering around the cable-TV box or computer, appreciated how they were connected to their environment, and did a lot for themselves. Both Alaska and Yucatan also have a history of being culturally different, isolated penninsulas, far from the mainstream and centers of governemnt of their respective countries.

From what I have seen, there are challenges faced in both places that are very similar. As a teacher who has worked for many years in villages and with indigenous populations in both north and south of the border, I see the same issues, among which are: how to preserve culture and at the same time fit into a modern, rapidly changing world; how language- and cultural- minority children adapt to a school system that is based upon another language and a westernized urban culture that does not understand them; the terrible cycles of poverty and social disintegration that often accompany loss and cultural dislocation.

On the positive side, Mexico as well as Alaska retains a rich variety of traditional cultural knowledge, expressed in its enduring ways of life and survival. Here in Yucatan, folks still put out chairs and sit in front of their houses at night, rocking, talking and greeting neighbors in a way that seems hardly to exist anymore in the U.S. The last I recall of anything similar in the states was sitting on my grandmother's front porch on South Main St. in Wichita, Kansas during visits on hot summer evenings. When was that? Hint: while the grownups talked, I identified makes of cars by the style of their outrageous tailfins, and from that porch, amazed, we watched the Soviet satellite Sputnik track across the sky.

Here, people still say "good morning" to strangers, and manners are important. Here, adolescents are not embarrassed to be seen and to be affectionate with their parents in public. In Merida, it is still possible to live in an urban neighborhood where you can go to the market, cafes and restaurants, parks, the movies, galleries, theater and concerts, buy hardware or a mattress, get the car, shoes, a chair or a bike repaired, have your teeth cleaned, buy new glasses or visit a medical specialist, do all manner of errands or shopping, within a one-to-fifteen minutes' walk from the front door. Here, doctors still make house calls and a visit doesn't break the bank. In Yucatan, the abundant fresh fruits and vegetables are reasonably priced. In Mexico, safe, comfortable and economical long-distance bus transportation and safe, clean, and affordable hotels and restaurants still exist. In my neighborhood, a french-style baguette from the bakery down the street with wood-fired ovens costs about a quarter, and a beer in a local family-style cantina (no drunks or crude language allowed) served with abundant appetizers, maybe a dollar. Here, craftsmanship and individualized customer service and attention is still available, and home-delivery of products and services at no extra charge is common. Where I live, despite what the sensationalist, histrionic, news-tainment media would have you think, life is safe, secure, friendly and tranquil.

I am initiating this blog with the principal idea of keeping far-away family and friends more up to date. However, to old friends and new: if these topics interest you, welcome. The blog is still under construction. I'll add a few features as things get rolling.

Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, October 2009


  1. Marc, your writing style is warm and embracing. Thank you for the refreshingly honest and keenly 'Marc' style that you have always exuded. I love your post. Please keep it up. p.s. it's been a very long time since I've seen you. I miss the days in Barrow when you would share your jazz (Coltrane, Davis, Vaugn!!!!) with your penniless and music-less neighbors. Talk soon, Garrett

  2. very good post marc! keep them coming, i would love to hear more!

  3. You'll have to share some of her musics with us when you come north.

  4. Kindred spirits:

    "my interest in getting out of the states grew in direct proportion to my utter disgust with the Bush administration"


  5. Beautiful blog! Oh how your images and your writing make me ache to return back to Merida and the Yucatan. It's only been a few years but even that is ridiculously too long.

    I've had the pleasure of seeing Lila in concert several times in a small concert hall in my old hometown of Santa Fe, NM. Her music moves me the same way being in the Yucatan does - magical, ethereal and soulful.

  6. What a wonderful beginning and I love that you linked it to Lila Downs. I'm also a huge fan after seeing her in concert in Guadalajara many years ago. It would be wonderful to see her in her home Oaxaca, what a treat. I have all other posts to read now, I'm looking forward to it. We also share a love for this wonderful city and the monte around it. ¡Saludos!

  7. Marc, I got to close to u & your blog. I knew from paul's blog about yout name, finallyy are the guy from Alaska. I do love to reading different styles writing butm
    Most man knows what woman wants to hear from them. Tx, hope all we will get together in Merida my husband walter, suk, Tom , dabi, Paul, & his dulce. What happen your delce? I will figure it out. Good job. Xoxo suk

  8. Found it - read it - great! You touched on things that I love here in SMA - the families perched on their steps at night all talking - many generations at the same time.
    That people deliver things, never expecting additional payment.
    Their genuine pleasure at your happiness.
    That all traffic stops when you want to cross the street - even after 10 years, I'm still amazed and entranced by this incredibly rich, multi-layered country.

  9. I just discovered your blog, how amazingly beautiful. All the things you say about Yucatán an Especially Mérida perfectly describe how I feel about it. I've been deeply in love with Mérida for quite a while, the old part of it, of course. Anyway, I'm mexican, from Cancún dunno why I'm typing in english... Mis abuelos son de Mérida y vivieron en Santiago en los 30's y 40's. Yo estudié 3 años allí y entre las historias de mi abuelo y lo que vi, well, I'm smitten :). Estaré leyendo.

    1. Nenaah, gracias por comentar. Me da mucho gusto que hay gente Mexicana que les gusta mi blog.


  10. I have from time to time looked at your blog, and today I decided to go back and start reading from the beginning. I am a retired Spanish teacher from Ohio, and I have traveled frequently throughout Mexico for nearly 40 years. Now that I am retired, and not limited to summer vacations for my travels, most winters I spend some time in Mérida and the Yucatán. It is one of my favorite places in a country filled with wonderful places. On some trips I have brought friends with me to Mérida, and all have fallen in love with the city and its surroundings. Yours is one of the best written blogs that I have seen, and you truly capture the beauty of your adopted home. Congratrulations to you, and I wish you many, many years of happiness in Mérida.

    1. William, thanks for the fine compliments. I am glad you enjoy the blog. I hope you keep reading, and visiting. On your next visit, please let me know. Perhaps we can get together.


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