Thursday, March 25, 2010

It's Safe Here. Really.

Friends from up north occasionally comment to me that some day they will visit "when Mexico is safe again." They ask me questions indicating that they watch way too much screaming-match, sensationalist entertainment masquerading as news, leading them to believe that I undoubtedly live in a carefully guarded, walled resort community, and that if I do venture out accompanied by a bodyguard I have to avoid the bodies littering the streets on my way to the store.

The reality, I reply, is that most of them, especially those residing in the U.S., live in much more dangerous communities and spend a greater portion of their time tending to personal safety and security than I do. [Here's the place where nearly everyone asks me, "really?"] Yes, really. The only time I hear or see anything about the criminal violence now occurring in some isolated parts of Mexico is when I expose myself to the news. ["Really?"] Yes, really.

I live in Mèrida, Yucatàn, which like any city approaching a million inhabitants, has colonias where the uninitiated should go with care. As one would anywhere else, you figure out the lay of the land and act accordingly. But in my neighborhood there never to my knowledge has been a home burglary or assault since I bought my home in 2003. I don't live in an exclusive "foreigner area," fancy condominium complex or gated community. I live in an inner-city, largely working-class neighborhood and have good, Mexican neighbors. I have left my house for weeks at a time, with never a problem. I come and go free of worry; I lock my doors, and if I am going to be gone after dark I leave a light on. That's it.

A contributor to the Facebook page of The Truth About Mexico recently commented that, "digging into comparative statistics shows that the (approx) 70 biggest cities in the USA all have per capita murder rates higher than Mexico. Near the top of the list is Washington DC, for which I read a very revealing comparison this week -- a private citizen is more likely to suffer a gunshot wound in DC than is a soldier in Afghanistan. An honest State Department should warn citizens to avoid DC (and every other big city) ... and travel to Mexico where they would be safer!"

I do not know where these statistics came from so I have not checked them, but a look at a couple of different online sources for murder rates for US cities and for the country of Mexico reveals it is probably very accurate. And it rings true. I travel within Mexico, am acquainted with quite a few people in various parts of the country, and I do not know anyone who has been directly affected by the kinds of events seen in the news.
People here have become more vigilant, but in my experience are less suspicious, and more relaxed, honestly helpful and friendly than people in the States. People here generally are not running around scared, or staying barricaded in their houses. On the safety front, Mexico is little different than, for instance, living in California. I have friends living there who like it, feel secure, and go about their daily business despite the fact that there there were about 6.6 murders per day in the state, according to official statistics for 2008, the most recent data I found, and that gang violence is routine in parts of Los Angeles and other cities. These residents know where not to go, and how to reduce the risks of being victims. Although the violence is a sad reality and we wish it did not happen, it does not directly affect most people. Typically, victims are people involved in the buying or selling of drugs or sex, in crime, are people who get drunk or drugged, and those who go places, do things or hang around with people they know are dangerous.

It's the same in Mexico. The violence is mostly limited to some known areas, and usually involves criminals and their clients, corrupt officials who collaborate with them, or honest officials and soldiers who are fighting them, and occasionally people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just as I would avoid sections of those 70 major U.S. cities (and then some), I wouldn't go hang out in the area of Mexico's border states or Mexico City right now. In cities and areas I do not know well, I ask questions and take care. I dress modestly and do not call attention to myself. Most of Mexico is no more dangerous than the United States, statistically mostly less so, if one just uses common sense.

I always tell the curious that the current drug-gang-related violence affects me about as much as a disturbance in Los Angeles or Miami used to when I lived in Alaska. That's really the truth. Of course when we hear of people murdered and situations that are dangerous and out of control in far away places, it is cause for concern; it doesn't however, much affect us. Around Yucatàn we do see more police patrols and highway checkpoints now than we used to, and there are army patrols in the towns and on the highways as well, but the principal effect this has had on most people is a brief slowdown in traffic. I continue to walk around downtown Mèrida at any hour of day or night without worry. I lock my car doors, as I would anywhere, and drive just about where I please. I don't do those other things that get people into trouble. And life here is pleasant, friendly, safe and secure.

The facts that frequently get lost in the U.S. news media coverage of the situation are that most of the drug gang violence in Mexico is a result of the insatiable market for drugs north of the border and the importation of illegal weapons from the United States into Mexico. Refreshingly, this was admitted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a visit to Mexico this week.

"We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States," Clinton said.

I hope that this kind of candor will begin to shift the main focus on drug-gang violence in Mexico toward ways our countries can cooperate to solve the root causes: by providing more opportunities for education, training and well-paid honest employment to the south of our shared border, and promoting alternatives to the culture of drugs and guns to the north.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges

I really enjoy looking at architecture and the bits and pieces of cities that inform us about the past. It is easy to overlook sometimes that although evidence of the past may change form or context, it is still with us. Matter and space do not disappear; it's the arrangement that evolves.

I recall peering out a seventh-floor window of the Mendenhall Apartments in downtown Juneau, Alaska, where I lived, on and off, for many years. One day in the 90's I noticed, high on a building nearby, on a side now hidden from street level by more recent construction, a peeling, antique-style black painted sign for the San Francisco Bakery. The bakery was still there under another name when I was young, but the San Francisco logo was probably out of use before I was born. From the style of the lettering I guessed the sign was likely from the pre-World War One era. I did a little checking. The business opened in 1914. Bingo! What I noticed was possibly an original sign, long ignored and unnoticed, that continued nevertheless publicizing an enterprise, now closed for decades, that was selling bread when my grandparents were children. Although the ovens are now next door and the old bakery space is a dining room, the bakery tradition is continued in the same place after almost 100 years, now operated by the Silverbow Inn.

I also remember a multi-colored, billboard-sized 1937 Chevrolet ad painted on the side of an old brick building along Alaskan Way in downtown Seattle, which was visible from my earliest memory until the wall was altered or demolished maybe 15 years ago. I miss that sign. It was a little piece of history, forgotten and unappreciated, that spoke to me from the past. It is these kinds of experiences that have fed my interest in the detective work of discovering details about the past from the vestiges that survive, often unappreciated or uninterpreted, today.

Mèrida, where I have lived for the past few years abounds in these kinds of clues. And since it is a very old place, having been a thriving Mayan city before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, the vestiges of the past are varied and fascinating. I started thinking about all this some time ago when I began passing over the above advertising message, fired on tiles set in the sidewalk. It's placed like a welcome mat in front of the doorway to an abandoned building a few blocks down the street from my house.

The corner building, whose unadorned architecture and location indicate that it's quite possibly a true colonial-era structure, apparently once was a pharmacy that sold, "Roberina, 5 centavos, cures headache, toothache, rheumatism, colds." I wonder if Roberina was a patent medicine, or perhaps as a friend suggested, something made in Mèrida of local herbs. That is very possible. There is a vast treasury of traditional medicines used by the Yucatecan people, even today.

On my way to take the pictures above, I passed by this plaque on a building that stands at the corner of Calle 57 and Calle 70, not far from home and almost at Parque Santiago.

These plaques are to be found at intersections all over the historical center of Mèrida. In days when only clergy and the wealthier classes were literate, the rest of the people needed a way to navigate and find things around the city. Many of the important intersections were named after landmarks, objects or animals, and if necessary signs or sculptures picturing the identifying names were installed at the crossings. I live nearest the corner of "Los Cuatro Vientos," The Four Winds. Also nearby is the corner of "Dos Soldados," Two Soldiers. The Robelina ad and abandoned pharmacy is at "El Cardenal," The Cardinal. That plaque is visible in the photo of the building (above).

El Coliseo, The Colisseum, was the original bull ring of Mèrida, situated at this intersection which still bears its name. I figured out where the structure was located after seeing this sign. I noticed that, in a neighborhood that consists of very old buildings, there are two blocks, near this intersection, of much more modern architecture. When El Coliseo was torn down and replaced by a new structure in a different location several decades ago, houses and businesses were built in its place. So, although the original structure no longer stands (what a shame), its shadow remains still, for those who are willing to see it. A large and beautiful painting of El Coliseo, by the Yucatecan painter Mario Trejo Castro, hangs in the cafe La Flor de Santiago, on Calle 70 just around the corner from the plaque and a stone's throw from the site of the old bull ring. La Flor is a venerable establishment dating from the 1920's. I suspect in the old days that many of the conversations echoing off the cafe's walls were uttered by customers stopping in for refreshment either before or after going to a corrida at El Coliseo.

There are many more, often more ancient vestiges apparent to a person walking observantly around this city, and I plan to write more about them. However, this week I am going to end with evidence of a modern
corporation that did business in Mèrida, and was practically a household word in the United States through the middle of the last century. The above logo, incorporated into metalwork above the unused side door of a well-known downtown building, now a hotel, provides a clue. What was the name of the business, and what did they sell? To the person who first posts the correct answer below in the comments section of this blog, a free lunch for two at El Principe Tutul Xiu, one of the finer Yucatecan-food restaurants in Mèrida. Or, if the winner prefers and provides the transportation, I'll buy at the original location of this same restaurant which serves delicious poc chuc and other fine traditional dishes in the pueblo of Manì, Yucatàn, a place also rich in fascinating clues to the past.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Primavera: First Days of Spring

It just came to me that in Mexico this coming Monday, March 15, is a holiday. I was up north for a couple of weeks and am a little out of the loop, so it took me a minute to figure out what the holiday is.

Monday is the day set aside to celebrate the birthday of Benito Juarez, one of the most important and beloved figures in Mexican history. Born in Oaxaca and a Zapoteco, Juarez did not begin to learn Spanish or start to school until after his twelfth birthday. He went on to study law and hold various political positions before becoming president during a conflict-ridden period of Mexican history. Parts of his career he lived in exile; he spent a portion of his presidency on the run in various remote parts of the country, accompanied by his cabinet, with political foes in hot pursuit. And they weren't tagging along in hopes of having a polite meeting. Juarez is remembered for his efforts in support of equality, liberty and democracy, in favor of the separation of church and state, and for being the only Mexican president of one hundred percent indigenous roots. His actual birthday is March 21, but in order to create a three-day weekend, it is celebrated this year on Monday, March 15.

Juarez's birthday falls on the second day of spring, or primavera. This week is has suddenly begun to feel like spring in Mèrida. After a long, cool winter, spring-like weather arrived with a vengeance a couple of days ago, when the temperatures in Mèrida reached an official 40.8 degrees C, or a little above 105 F. I mark this time of year precisely, because it is now that the sun has come far enough north to begin shining into and heating up the back room of my house (picture above) in the afternoons, making the higher temperatures much more noticeable. Late spring here is the hottest time of year, with temperatures rising gradually through the season until a peak in May or June, when the thermometer in this region can reach 110 F, and afternoon readings in Mèrida are routinely around 100 or higher. The heat breaks with the beginning of the rains, usually in June.

Right now at my house, another sign of spring is the abundance of pea-sized oranges taking the place of the fragrant blossoms that I have been enjoying for the past month or more. The tree flowers excessively, the petals fall off and coat the patio and surface of the pool with a fine snow of white. A little later, during the driest weeks and despite my efforts to keep the tree watered, the tree sheds excess fruit, again blanketing my patio and pool. This time everything is covered with tiny oranges that look like something spilled by the Jolly Green Giant.

Now is when I start to think about trimming and pruning some of the plants in the garden. The thumbergia, which grows from a small patch of soil at the margin of the interior patio, had reached the roof, grown over onto the neighbor's house,
and completely obscured the fan window that illuminates the living room. I put off trimming it because of the abundance of flowers, but the thing was out of control. Now after cutting it way back, I can repaint the wall and install new guide wires. I'll water the thumbergia, shown here before and after trimming, and it will grow slowly, harboring its strength, I suppose, and at the start of the rains in June, it will begin to grow at the rate almost visible to the naked eye. By mid-summer, it will have covered the wall once again.

This also is a good time to think about any new planting I may want to do in the coming months. It's nice to have things in the ground before the rains start. The rainwater begins a tremendous growth spurt in all the plants and trees, and a serious gardener wants take advantage of that. I begin to look at the nursery that the pack patio has become, wondering where I will put the plants. Actually a lot of these small palms and fruit trees are in waiting for another space. I continue to look for a country property where I have a little more space for fruit trees and gardening. That search is a project that will continue this year.

Benito Juarez's birthday comes around the same time as the beginning of spring. Spring is a time of growth, a time to take stock, renew and plan. Juarez for many here is a symbol of positive change and growth in the history of the country. It is appropriate that in Mexico, as we plan for spring, we also observe his birth.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sorry, Mom, I've Got Great Tomatoes

Dear Mom,

I know how much you have always loved tomatoes. I remember when we kids were growing up that you always tried to grow tomatoes despite the fact that we lived in Alaska, which is not exactly tomato country.

You started the seeds indoors early in the spring. Then you patiently waited until the last frosts had passed before putting the little plants outside; sometimes you also kept some plants indoors along window ledges all summer long. All you ever hoped for was enough produce for a few nice salads. Some years you got good tomatoes, but mostly it was a struggle. I remember that many years the fall chill hit before the little hard green fruits had a chance to mature. Those years we would have little green tomatoes lined up on the windowsills. Sometimes they would just rot before they turned red. I remember several times when you had a celebratory meal of a couple of small tomatoes which were your only harvest after months of nurturing your plants.

These days I am eating giant, juicy tomatoes from my garden in Mèrida, some of which you can see pictured here. I feel that I almost do not deserve these tomatoes because I have never lifted a finger to plant or take care of them, and that's not because someone else is doing the gardening for me. It just happened. I compost the vegetable scraps from my kitchen, and some of the seeds germinated in an unlikely place, next to the pool. They were either dropped by me or spread by animals, but I am not sure. I think the plants are doing so well due to a combination of lots of water (when I do pool maintenance I drain the water in the garden) and plenty of sun exposure. I read recently in a blog I follow about another's experience with self-seeded tomatoes doing extremely well. This blogger theorizes that self-seeded tomatoes do better than ones we plant because they have adapted better to local conditions.

And the plants are happy. These tomatoes are huge. I wouldn't be surprised if the larger ones weight close to half a pound each.
The tomatoes are large, and so are the plants. I took out a tape measure a couple of weeks ago, and the largest plant measures more than twelve feet across, has covered the paved walkway and gone into the water. This causes come problems with walking around the back garden, and has pretty much done in some of the flowers I had planted nearby, but the good tomatoes are worth it.