Friday, May 28, 2010

Being Away: What I Miss

I am up north in the States right now. I am not a snowbird; I have lived year-round in Mèrida now for a few years. I typically make a couple of trips per year to
el norte to visit family and friends, including a spring visit in May or June. This time some other family business came up, so I am away longer than I would be on a normal visit.

Being away from Mèrida for an extended period makes even more evident to me why I prefer to live there. I enjoy visiting the States, especially Alaska, and always have a good time, but very quickly I begin to miss the things that make Mexico feel like home to me now.

Here are a few of the things I miss when I am not in Yucatàn:

Waking to birdsong as the sun rises.

Getting up when I feel like it (which usually is fairly early because I look forward to the day).

Shaking off sleep with a cool swim and hot coffee before breakfast.

Feeling no pressure to have a plan for the day and live by the clock. I only put on a watch (if I can find one and the battery is still working) when it's time to take a trip north.

Eating when I am hungry and not because "it's time to eat."

Breakfasting in the shade of an aromatic, flowering tree.

Truly fresh fruits and vegetables, and morning conversations with the vendors at the market, a five-minute walk from the house.

Working at things I choose to do because I like to do them, not at things I have to do for the money or because someone else thinks I should do them.

Coffee and conversation (or a few games of backgammon) with friends at a local cafe.

The delicious and affordable restaurant options within a few minutes' walk of home.

The friendliness, security and peacefulness of my neighborhood.

High ceilings and ceiling fans, which make living in a hot climate comfortable without air conditioning (most of the time, anyway). There is something about the soft whir and cool breeze of a ceiling fan that enables me to go to sleep anytime I choose, morning, afternoon or evening. I never suffer from insomnia when at home in Mèrida.

The tile floors found in many older buildings here, including my house. They are more beautiful, cooler and cleaner than carpets. I'll never again live with wall-to-wall carpeting.

Peace and quiet at home. I don't have a TV and forget how stressful (the constant bombardment of noise) and depressing (negative and meaningless content) television can be until I spend time where the box is everywhere and on constantly.

Being able to go to the countryside or the beach quickly. It's all close by. If the mood for a getaway strikes me, I am "in the sticks" or feeling the sand between my toes in no time.

If I keep thinking about it, I can go on extending this list, but that's not the point. The most important thing that I miss is something that is harder to put down in words. It is the feeling of the place, the way my heart is when I think about Yucatàn from a distance, and the joy and comfort I feel when I arrive home. It's the "there" there. That's what I miss the most. It's all of the things I listed above, and a lot more.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sex, Violence and Abandoned Children or, Vecinos Silvestres (Wild Neighbors) Part 3

In my back yard, wild sex, violence and child abandonment have been seen to occur.

[The title of this post is not a gimmick, although after blogging now for more than half a year, I am curious to see if including these words will increase the number of hits I get from the search engines.]

I have written previously (Part 1, Part 2) about the wild neighbors, vecinos silvestres, who share with humans the urban Mèrida neighborhood where we all live. Today I am going to introduce more of my wild neighbors. The kids are cute, the mother appears to be meek, and her mate is a brute. These are opossums, the common American variety known as the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis Virginiana) as far as I can tell. In Yucatàn, they are called zorros, which in most parts of the Spanish-speaking world also is the word for foxes.
I took these photos one morning when I discovered a "situation" under a bush in my back patio. But before I talk about that, I need to clarify a bit of terminology. I looked it up: a male opossum is called a "jack," and not surprisingly the female is a "jill." A baby opossum is called a "joey," just like a baby kangaroo.

Okay, back to my story. To put it delicately, when I interrupted them, this little family was in the midst of, well, producing more of the same. It's not pretty, the way opossums achieve this. I found poor Jill, five Joeys making squeaking sounds and attempting to cling to her fur, while at the same time Jack was busy doing what I guess is probably the only thing that Jacks are good for: making sure that Jill keeps having lots of Joeys. He is not very nice about it. Jill was scratched up quite a bit, and her partner had blood on his front legs and jaws, apparently from a scuffle or perhaps courting ritual that preceded the actual act. Or maybe he just forced the situation. Jack was busy for a good chunk of time, while she seemed more interested in gathering up the kids and moving on. But Jack, who is larger, did not let her go until he was good and ready.

Opossums are interesting. They are nocturnal, have prehensile tails, and the females bear large numbers of very tiny young, of which only a maximum of thirteen can survive, because that is the number of nipples a female has in her pouch. The young live in the pouch until they are weaned, at which time, still small, they ride clinging to their mother's fur until mature enough to get about on their own.

This jill, when I saw her, had five half-grown offspring with her. The joeys were about the size of small rats, and not too different looking, although with their big ears, facial markings and curly tails they're a lot cuter. When Jack was finished and had let go of her, Jill wasted no time in getting away, but in her haste left two Joeys behind. These began to climb into a bougainvillea and call, apparently with the idea of attracting their mother.

This is where I came in. The male opossum lingered nearby, but with no interest in the joeys, except maybe as an "after" snack (I read they do this). There are also cats, owls and grackles in the area who would make a quick meal of these helpless critters. So I did the only thing I thought I could do. After keeping watch from a distance for awhile to see if their mother would return, I gathered the two joeys into a box, where they promptly went to sleep. I kept them in the house until evening, when I set them back in the same place where I had found them, hoping that they might rediscover their mother under the cover of darkness. They climbed into the brush, making the same squeaky calling noises that they had in the morning. I did see and hear an adult zorro in the back patio a little later that evening, but I do not know that happened to the two abandoned joeys.

I often see opossums around, normally at night. Lots of people don't like them, but I have come to be fond of them. They are cute in a slightly repulsive way. They are scavengers, and help keep their habitat clean of dead animals, cockroaches and other insects, and garbage. Opossums also kill and eat poisonous snakes. These animals have a useful role in the environment. And they do "play 'possum." One day I found one rummaging in an area of the garden where I was trying to nurse along some tender plants. I wanted the zorro out, so I grabbed a broom and tried to shoo it away. It rolled over on its back, eyes glazed, tongue lolling out of its mouth, and nothing I could do would rouse it. I left it alone, and a little while later when I checked, it was gone.

I have many more wild neighbors. More about them soon.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges, Part 2 -- Stones

There are places in Mèrida, Yucatàn, where once an elaborate archway welcomed people, and now there is a wall. Where once an important structure stood, now there is open space. I wrote in March about some of the unheralded bits and pieces of history that can be found in this city, evidence that tells stories about how
things were, and how places and spaces have changed over time. Sometimes the parts of the structure still exist, but in new arrangements. It is an interesting puzzle that I love to contemplate.

Many of the buildings in Mèrida Centro were constructed by the Spanish. Starting in the 1500's when they occupied the Mayan city of Th'o (sometimes spelled T-hò) on the site, they began demolishing the Mayan buildings in order to use the stone for constructing their new city. A large number of these early colonial structures still exist, although after hundreds of years of use, remodeling and reconstruction, many have been dramatically altered.

The style of this balcony window on a downtown Mèrida building (above) is one popular in Mèrida from the late 1800's into the early 1900's. During this period, when the city was rolling in money from the hennequen trade, many new structures were built and many older ones, like this building, were modernized to keep up with architectural tastes. The piece of an earlier Spanish colonial arch visible to the right of the window, possibly 400 or more years old, was uncovered when the facade was restored a few years ago. It strongly resembles the doorway on an unaltered colonial-era facade a few blocks away (above right). The "disappeared" colonial second-story window of what

originally was a home may have protected the honor of señoritas of the household from the gazes of rough men on the street, and their sensitive skin from the burning rays of the hot sun, while providing light and air to the home's interior. Now looking down on a congested, noisy street, this appears to be space that is unused, or perhaps devoted to storage, above what now are small storefronts on the street level.

When the Spanish arrived here, they discovered a sizeable city with a pyramid at its center. That pyramid was situated on space that is now Mèrida's Plaza Grande, or central square, also known as the zocalo. The Spanish conquerors dismantled the pyramid, stone by stone, quarrying its materials to build many of the structures that now surround the zocalo, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the Americas, which still dominates the scene.

I am told that it is possible to see original Mayan carving on some of the stones in the cathedral. Although I have walked around in and outside the cathedral in search of them, I have yet to find these stones. I'll have to ask someone who knows more about the building where to see them.

Another interesting feature of the cathedral is the presence of slits in the facade, which would allow defenders to shoot down on the approaches to the front doors. From time to time, from the conquest up until the late 1800's when The Caste War, La Guerra de las Castas, finally fizzled out, violence erupted in Yucatàn between the indigenous people, who mostly lived in the countryside, and the descendants of the conquistadores, who mainly lived in a few larger towns, the most important of which was the capital city of Mérida. In case of serious conflict, one of the defence tactics was for the population of take refuge in some of the stronger central buildings, including the cathedral. Many of these structures in the center of the city are connected by a series of tunnels. Some of these were re-discovered only in the past few years.

More Mayan stones, which quite possibly also came from the pyramid, can be seen here, partially exposed in the facade in another original 1500's building, just across from the Cathedral and the zocalo, which otherwise has been greatly changed over the centuries.

It's fascinating for me to think that most of the original pyramid of Th'o actually still exists in Mèrida. It's like an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose pieces have been scattered and mixed up for close to 500 years. The pyramid's footprint is evident in the form of the zocalo. It's a bit late and entirely impractical to think about putting the pieces back together, but it's interesting and comforting in a way to know that although we don't generally recognize it, the great pyramid of Th'o is still with us. In fact, when we walk in the vicinity Mèrida's zocalo, it practically surrounds us.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Yucatecan Still Lifes: Small Things

This is a praying mantis little bigger than my thumbnail, found scurrying up a plant stem one day alongside a road near the pueblo of Kantunil. Its dull green body was the color of the new leaves; its golden eyes sparkled in the sun. These insects know no fear. It sat confidently in my hand. When I neared it with a finger, it held its ground. When I moved my finger away, it rapidly chased as if in pursuit of prey.

I love to find beauty in small and unobtrusive things, and end up with interesting photos that don't really fit into a topic for this blog. So, this week, I'd like to share images of some small things, details that do not call attention to themselves, scenes unknown or easily missed by someone passing quickly or without paying careful attention.

Huayalceh is a hacienda south of Mèrida, where massive ruins of old colonial buildings dominate the scenery. However off on a side path exists a grotto whose well-worn stones indicate that people were likely coming here to dip cool water from a pool in its depths long before the Spanish came along, divided the land up and build these structures. You don't really notice the place unless you walk up close. The huge, gnarled trees and roots hanging over the cavern's entrance give it an ancient, mysterious feel. This looks like a good place to see aluxes (a-LOOSHes), the Mayan mythological equivalent of elves or little people who live out in the woods and possess supernatural powers. This might be an interesting place to visit under a full moon.

Later the same morning on which I passed through Huayalceh, I was looking for a store where I could buy a cold drink and stumbled upon the preschool in Junku, another hacienda a bit south of Mèrida. Junku is small, and there is likely only a single teacher in this one-room schoolhouse. I wrote recently about my love of the simple and elegant traditional Mayan house. Here is a beautiful one, curved white walls as perfect as a fresh chicken egg, constructed of plastered and whitewashed stone, with the traditional guano (palm frond) roof.

One day when I was looking at property near Izamal, the agent asked me if I wanted to see an old hacienda nearby. She knows the owner, and said it would be OK to take a look. There's a caretaker and the owner has slowly been restoring the main house so it's in pretty good shape, but still has an abandoned feel to it. The house was wide open and no one was around, so we walked through. It is a nice old place, with only a few rooms, but spacious, and apparently a true colonial, judging from the architecture. Among the interesting details are these original window openings, the design delicately molded into the plaster around the frames.

Where this orchid grows is a secret. I will say no more than that it grows somewhere in the state of Yucatàn, because I promised the friend who showed me the place that the location would remain protected. This bloom is one of more than one hundred similar blooms on a single plant. The stem on which the flowers grow reaches to above my waist; some examples are even larger. There are not just a few of these plants growing here. This is a colony of rare orchids, largely unappreciated by local residents, and therefore the plants remain unmolested.

Unfortunately here, as in places all over the world, publicity and popularity often destroy such wonders. If crowds come, there will be paths, trash, damage to the ecosystem, and flowers will be plucked and plants stolen. Many of the native orchids in Yucatàn are in danger of extinction due to agriculture, burning, and harvest of firewood, which destroys habitat. The other danger to the plants is that they are valuable. Orchids are pilfered from the wild by traffickers who sell them to collectors. I am glad that this place remains unknown, unappreciated, and in its natural state. I'll visit it to enjoy the spectacle and to take pictures, but I will not spread the word.