Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Vecinos Silvestres" (Wild Neighbors) Part 2, Insects

If you have been following this blog, you know that living in a city here doesn't mean that I don't see wildlife in the neighborhood. When I found this moth dead on the floor today, I decided to post a few pictures of insect neighbors I have run across in the house and back yard. This moth does not appear remarkable until you consider its size. The wingspan of this specimen measures more than six inches/15 centimeters. They are nocturnal creatures, and sometimes end up in the house looking for shelter during the daylight hours, where they often die if I don't see
them and shoo them out. Due to this propensity, they are known locally by the Mayan name of X-majan naj (shma-HAN nah), which means prestador de casas, or house borrower. Due to their size, I have mistaken these moths in the dark for bats or lost birds. Although the coloring is not spectacular, the wings of these moths are beautiful, with a range of colors from black, through many shades of brown, gray and blue. I couldn't get a wings-spread picture of of this one because it was already dry when I found it.

These catarinas, or lady bird beetles, what we as kids used to call lady bugs, hatched on a plant in the patio. They are very tiny; the whole clump is no more than an inch/2 centimeters across. I watched them for a day or so, and they seemed to hang out by what apparently are their egg casings. Suddenly they were gone and I have never seen one with this color pattern again.

Mariposas...butterflies. There are so very many butterflies, but they are very hard to photograph. This one rested on a small papaya plant long enough for me to get the camera and return.

These wasps are only one of the many varieties in the area. They form small colonies, where I estimate that they raise no more than one hundred young at a time. They don't rile easily, and I find I can normally brush them away without inciting an attack. One time, however, I was stung in the face when I began to hack away at some overgrown banana plants, hot having noticed a colony of these wasps among the leaves. I avoided most of the angry swarm by jumping in the pool until they had dispersed.

I saved my favorite photo for last. This milpies, or millipede, was dead on the walk outside the kitchen one morning, of no apparent cause. It looked so perfect that it resembled one of those fake rubber worms we used to scare each other with as children. It took very little time for an army of black ants to show up and, working in perfect unison, begin hauling it away.

I'll write about more of my wild neighbors soon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Around Home: Fruit

The back garden of the house is not large, but it is spacious enough to provide a bit of fruit occasionally. Among the back-yard products I have been eating recently are naranja agria (sour oranges) and Roatan bananas.

The oranges are gone now; I may have just one or two still in the kitchen fruit basket. The tree has started to bloom again, but a couple of weeks ago when I was still picking the last of the oranges off the the tree, one day I found this.

All of the oranges that had remained on the tree were on the ground and cut open. The oranges were neatly halved, but the jagged cuts made it look as if someone had hacked the fruit open with an
old-fashioned beer-can opener. All of the insides had been scooped out, the the seeds crushed. It made a pretty big mess. After thinking a bit, I concluded that it must have been the parrots that are always lurking in the area. I can't figure out what other animal could have gotten all of the oranges down and consumed them so easily.

I have had lots of platanos, bananas, over the past month or so. Two bunches matured one right after the other, giving me enough to eat and to share with neighbors continuously since before Christmas. A bunch of bananas matures from the top down, allowing you to consume the bananas as they ripen.

When the plant can no longer sustain the weight, or a bunch begins to ripen, I cut the whole bunch off, and hang it from a hook in the wall of the interior patio of the house, which is just off of the kitchen. In this way I have fresh bananas available when needed, and fruit flies or dropped fruit don't dirty the kitchen. Pictured is the last of the second bunch, and from the looks of the plants in the garden, I won't have more for several months. Store-bought bananas are picked too green and just don't taste the same. I'll have to wait awhile for more home-grown bananas.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wanderings: One Day to Dzemul -- Afternoon

I wrote last week (previous post) about the first part of this short trip, a day dedicated to wandering and exploring in the Yucatàn countryside. My friend Victor and I spent a morning making our way to the pueblo of Dzemul, and after lunch headed out in search of the beach.

Instead of driving directly to the coast, we decided to stop off for a few minutes on the outskirts of Dzemul at Hacienda San Eduardo, an operating hennequen (sisal fiber) hacienda that appears to be in beautiful condition. A huge proportion of the old haciendas in Yucatàn have been divided up, some abandoned and often the buildings fallen into ruins, and most of those that are not in decrepit condition have been turned into guarded, private estates or hotels, spas, meeting centers, and other types of businesses and tourist attractions. Many are sumptuously redone and feature lush gardens, gourmet restaurants, pools, golf and tennis, wireless internet and all possible modern amenities. The reality of the haciendas was that despite grand and imposing architecture, most in their day were fairly remote, rustic, and not particularly luxurious places to stay. For this reason I think that San
Eduardo probably gives a better impression of what a hacienda looked like in the old days. It is a functioning plantation, and like any working ranch or farm, is a practical place and not primarily dedicated to luxury or leisure. We stopped several times to walk and look at the architecture, the old railroad, and a gorgeous, spirited dark-brown mare tethered outside a home. Hacienda San Eduardo seems friendly. I plan to make another visit and ask permission to go inside and see how they work the fields and process the fiber.

Shortly after leaving San Eduardo we were on a newer highway which bypasses Dzemul and just outside of the pueblo begins to curve northward toward the coast. Destination: Telchac Puerto, a little fishing village, sprinkled with summer homes, that I had heard of but never visited. Nearing the coast, we began to catch the rich, salty aroma of the mangroves. Suddenly the trees thinned out and we were crossing the estuary that parallels large stretches of the northern Yucatàn coast, separated from the open Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands or ridges of dunes, upon which are constructed most of the beach side towns.

I had my eyes focused in the distance, looking for rooftops, tall coconut palms and other telltale signs that we were nearing the coast, when suddenly I heard, "WOOOOOOW, LOOOOOOK!" and promptly pulled the car off to the shoulder of the road. "Que lindo, flamencos!" Hundreds, possibly thousands of hot-pink flamingos dotted the water, stretching from the edges of the road off as far as we could see.

To see so many of these beautiful birds in one place is a stunning experience, and to happen upon them without expecting to makes it much more exciting. But my friend kept Ooooo-ing and exclaiming in such an extended way that I asked him why he was so excited. He replied simply, "I have never seen real, wild flamingos. Only on TV and at the zoo." I expressed my surprise that he, a nature fanatic and lifelong resident of the area, had never seen these birds before. And, even as I blurted the question, "Why not?" and Victor began to explain, I realized that I already knew the answer.

A foreigner with the right attitude living in a new environment for a few years can begin to feel very at ease and comfortable in a new culture. You can learn the language, learn about the customs and fit in to a large extent. However, it is impossible to get completely out of one's own cultural and socio-economic frame of reference. A Mexican or another Yucatecan probably would not have asked, "why not?" My somewhat incredulous question was strictly based upon my own privileged experience. Although a school teacher like I am, Victor grew up in a hard-working family in a small inland pueblo, where they have never had a refrigerator or a car. Victor and his family financed his education through hard work, and sometimes his father would sell off livestock when tuition came due. American-style middle-class vacations, closing up the house and piling the whole family into the car for a trip, aren't a reality for much of working and rural Mexico. My instinctive assumption that because the flamingos are within an easy drive of his home that Victor would have had opportunities to see them was false, and after all this time living among Mexican people I should have known better. Lesson learned.

After our wonderful bird-watching experience we were a little disappointed by Telchac Puerto. It is the rustic, sleepy type of beach town I prefer, with a few little seafood restaurants, fishermen, and mostly dilapidated beach homes. However, there has been some strong weather and a bit of coastal erosion in the area, and when we arrived it was breezy, chilly, and the beach at near-high tide was covered with a thick layer of seaweed. We decided not to try swimming.
We did walk a little, watched kids fly kites, and enjoyed observing pelicans and cormorants fish among some old pilings. A couple of the restaurants looked interesting, and one had good live music, but since we had eaten, we decided to sample these attractions on another occasion. Soon I put the car in gear, and as we left the puerto on a sandy access road along the beach began to talk about the ride home, including the promise we had made in the morning to stop in Baca and check on prices of baby coconut palm. Once again I was abruptly stopped by an exclamation from the passenger seat, "WOOOOOW, LOOOOOK! COCOS!" There, between two boarded-up summer houses, in a narrow, coconut palm-fringed lane full of weeds and dried-up palm fronds, lay dozens of fallen coconuts, many of which were in the first stages of sprouting. Since this was a public right-of-way, and much of the debris, including the coconuts, appeared to have been tossed over the walls of the nearby homes as garbage, we assumed anything found here would be fair pickings. We gleefully loaded up the back of the car with sprouting coconuts. Some of those are now in my back yard, and the rest happily putting down roots on Victor's land back in his home pueblo. Passing through Baca on the way home with a little "moooo" and a chuckle, we didn't need to stop.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Wanderings: One Day to Dzemul -- Morning

Church, Dzemul, Yucatàn

I have become increasingly interested, after residing in Mèrida now for a few years, in the cultural, natural and human resources that the Yucatecan countryside has to offer. It is a bountiful place, but the riches are not always obvious. Sometimes you've got to look for them; all you need to do is exert a little energy and go explore. It is a tranquil and safe region. You can't get into much trouble if you use common sense. And you meet the nicest people and see the most interesting things in the countryside.

In November I took a day trip, accompanied by my friend Victor, a fellow teacher and Yucatecan of Mayan ancestry who is a human encyclopedia of the flora, fauna and culture of the region. We decided to drive through the countryside, visit several pueblos, eat lunch, and maybe stop at the beach in the afternoon before turning back toward Mèrida.

We headed northeast, which means crossing a good portion of urban Mèrida; it takes at least 20 minutes to get out of the city traffic and pass under the Periferico, or modern ring road, that encircles the city. In another fifteen minutes we left the divided highway and entered the pueblo of Baca, the Mayan name of which is pronounced about the same as the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I couldn't resist. Approaching the pueblo, I asked Victor if there really is any difference the way Yucatecans pronounce Baca and vaca. "No, not really," he replied. "You mean we're in Cow....Moooooo?" "I suppose," he said, as we both broke up laughing. Well...we thought it was funny...maybe you had to be there...

There are haciendas in the area, and Baca is located at an intersection of old highways. The centro of Baca contains numerous large old colonial buildings; obviously this was a significant commercial center in the heyday of the haciendas. For anyone interested in colonial architecture, it is worthwhile to take a look around. This pueblo is still far enough from Mèrida to have retained its country tranquility and its own identity. This is not a prettified, over-restored tourist trap. These venerable, sometimes slightly cracked and crumbling structures are still being put to much the same uses as they have been for centuries, as homes, workshops, warehouses, small businesses, schools and public buildings. Baca doesn't depend upon tourism and for that reason is authentic. That's refreshing and makes it more interesting.

We parked by the city hall and walked across the plaza to visit the church. As we returned to the car, a man I had spoken with for a few minutes on an earlier visit came up to shake my hand and chat. Within a couple of minutes, the subject turned to why didn't I marry a Yucatecan and then there was something about his sister. I figured it wise to make myself scarce before the conversation moved beyond the joking level, so with a handshake, smile and a friendly wave, we got back into the car and headed out of Baca, saluting as we got out of earshot with a friendly "mooooooo."

Pepsi break in Baca, on the plaza

On the main street out of town we saw a tiny nursery with small coconut palms for sale. Since my big coco malayo in Mèrida suddenly died a few months ago I have been thinking about getting another, and Victor wants to plant some coconuts on a lot he owns in his home pueblo. We speculated about prices, and promised ourselves to stop and check them out on the way home.

Between Baca and Dzemul, there are a number of old haciendas. One, on the outskirts of Baca, tempts the sightseer with a fantastic vision of old arches looming in the distance. Upon arrival, however, one comes face to face with scenes of neglect and rural poverty that contrast starkly with the opulence of the old house. Much of the population of rural Yucatan is of modest economic means, but many people have land, and it is possible to live well and provide for a family without too much cash. In these places you usually see busy people, healthy animals, well-tended fruit trees, and often flowers around even the most humble of homes. For some reason this hacienda seems to be different, with scant plantings or healthy trees, dirt and trash, dilapidated, drab houses, skinny dogs and people looking tired and staring disinterestedly into the distance. There's a story there, but I don't know what it is.

As if to revive our spirits, back along the road the wildflowers beckoned me to stop several times. This area is incredibly rich in flowers. Some of the varieties we saw this day are kinds I have never seen.

There are several interesting pueblos and haciendas located along the route. However, we were hungry and wanted to get to Dzemul, so we didn't make any more stops until we got there.
Arriving between the yellow-washed stone walls that mark Dzemul's entrance around noon, we parked across from Enrique and Rita's little lunch stand on the plaza, and stayed for grilled chicken, salad and pasta soup. A hearty lunch for two, including coke and an endless supply of salsa and tortillas, costs about sixty-five or seventy pesos, or maybe five U.S. dollars. After eating, we drank coffee and spent a good while chatting with the owners, lifelong residents of the area, who are extremely friendly and helpful. It's become my habit when in this area to eat and talk with these nice people. Lunch always takes quite awhile, due to our rambling conversations, and afterward I usually walk off the urge for a siesta in Dzemul's centro, enjoying the shade and looking at the old houses, which encircle the plaza.

Spanish colonial house, Dzemul

Older men talking in the shade, Dzemul

We did just that, and then briefly watched kids play soccer in front of the church before getting back in the car. We had a couple of unexpected surprises in store for us in the afternoon. I'll post part two of the story in a few days.