Friday, December 30, 2011

Living Here: Contrasts

Life in Mexico becomes more interesting as my social world expands. It is also a study in contrasts. One thing I have discovered is that my social life is spread over a much wider and more diverse spectrum here than it ever was in the states.

Here's what I did last weekend.

Very early on Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena, I flew from Oaxaca home to Mérida and from here drove out to be with friends in a small Yucatán pueblo. After receiving arrival handshakes from the men and kisses on the cheek from the women, I was served tacos of relleno negro and wonderful pibil-style turkey. The animal, which had been raised in the back yard, was killed earlier in the day and cooked in the traditional Mayan way, wrapped in banana leaves, placed on a bed of hot coals and rocks at the bottom of a hole, and covered with branches, leaves and earth.

At one point in the evening, a prodigal son, who in recent years rarely had visited home and was not expected, suddenly arrived, to the great joy of his parents and sisters. It was a beautiful and touching moment. The party shifted into high gear.

After eating many servings of food followed by dessert, then lingering late over a few caugamas (liter bottles) of beer, the family group, consisting of a pair of elder parents, their numerous children, and some grandchildren, nieces and nephews, slowly began to hang hammocks throughout the small house and drift off to sleep. I was given a place of honor -- a hammock hung in a corner, near one of the two fans in the house -- in a room with seven other hammocks. A few family members stayed up very late drinking and talking in the back, and only lay down to sleep when hammocks were left free by the early risers.

On Christmas morning we sat around the table and drank coffee, ate leftovers, which had been boiled -- no fridge here -- and took a walk in the monte to observe wildflowers and visit a cenote. Later I helped hang new window screens, which were my holiday gift to these friends. I received a pair of beautiful, handmade pillowcases from the "mom" of the house. After a bucket bath, more food and a lazy afternoon siesta rounded out my relaxing "pueblo Christmas."

The activities of the days preceeding this could not have been more different. I was in Oaxaca to attend the baptism of Benito Xilonen, son of the singer Lila Downs and Paul Cohen. I'd helped my friend Victoria Dehesa, godmother to Lila and Benito, obtain a few items for the ceremony and she'd invited me to visit Lila and family with her and to attend the baptism and fiesta.

It was an elegant event. After the ceremony in a small church, we walked through the pueblo, led by a brass band and announced with voladores, skyrockets, to an old renovated hacienda. As the hacienda gates opened onto a vast lawn, waiters lined both sides of the walkway, offering trays of drinks and ice cream to cool and revive the arriving throng. It was a very eclectic group: lots of local Oaxacan and Mexican folks mixed with an international crowd of family, friends, musicians and artists.

After resting in chairs placed in the shade of large umbrellas, listening to live music and being served appetizers and more refreshments, we were ushered inside the large casona to lunch. Seated at long tables we  dined on a delicious mole as a jazz ensemble played. This was the first of five different bands to entertain us this day, one set each. Jazz was followed by a Oaxacan brass band, then pop music, Oaxacan dancers, and more traditional music.

 At one point in the afternoon I was invited onto the dance floor by Lila. Later, I danced as she sang La Sandunga from the floor nearby. Lila Downs has been my favorite performer and recording artist of Mexican music for many years. For a long-time admirer and follower of her music, these unexpected experiences were right up there with the best of Christmas gifts.

After about ten hours of fiesta I had to call it a night in order to get ready for an early morning flight back to Mérida and my pueblo Christmas, but as I said my goodbyes at midnight it seemed that the party was just warming up. I've enjoyed few such events more and was sorry to leave.

I had two very different experiences in different parts of the country last weekend, but they had much in common: the abundant hospitality, warmth, sharing of important traditions, and genuineness of the people were all very much the same. They were both wonderful celebrations. I feel blessed to be able to walk with equal comfort here in many circles.

To all of my friends and readers, Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Architecture: The Colonial Obsession

This is a photo of the street where I live. Interestingly, although I live in the center of colonial Mérida, there is not single authentic colonial building in this image.

I ought to clarify my terminology. To me, "colonial" is something dating from the colonial era, and built by the Spanish before Mexican independence in 1810. Anything newer might be "colonial-style," but it's not truly colonial. The houses in the picture above, including mine, were mostly built within the past 100 years or so on land that probably was a patchwork of cultivated areas and smaller, less-durable structures, such as Mayan houses, in colonial times. There are two or three buildings on the other side of my large block that might be colonials.  But the houses in this picture were most likely built when the spacious lots that surrounded most early homes, sometimes called quintas, were subdivided between heirs or sold off as Mérida urbanized in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I started thinking about the obsession with things colonial when I noticed that a house on my block, which has been renovated by a foreign investor as a vacation rental and is now for sale, being advertised as a "200-year-old colonial." The fact is that although the house has a traditional facade, it is a 20th century house, with steel I-beam-supported ceilings, probably built during the 1930s-1950s. The investor had the entire structure demolished except for the facade and front room, and behind this built an ultra-modern two-story home, painted in bright colors. One of the few original interior details that was preserved, a squarish entry arch, is very Yucatecan, but the Spanish never built anything like it during the colonial era.

The same investor also bought another house nearby, which before being altered unrecognizably inside was also a nice traditional Yucatecan structure, but likely not more than 70-90 years old. Now renovated this, too, is being advertised as a "colonial."

A twentieth-century home recently turned "colonial"
Then I noticed a large crew of albañiles, construction workers, laboring on a recent Sunday. Sometimes when construction crews work on Sundays it's because they've got a deadline, but more often it means that they are working on a project without permits. Sometimes the permits are impossible to get because the homeowners want to change the appearance of downtown historic buildings that are regulated by INAH, The National Institute of Anthropology and History. So, people do what I call "Sunday projects," which are completed quickly over a weekend when regulatory officials are off work. By Monday morning everything is cleaned up and no one remembers anything about it.

This Sunday project was a house probably built in the 1940s or 1950s with higher ceilings, nice spacious rooms and a unique, very interesting facade. I saw the owner and asked him what was going on. He told me the facade needed to be "more colonial."

That's too bad, because Mérida has a lush architectural history, of which the colonial era is one aspect. To make it more interesting, many of the true colonials, often very plain structures, were modified with European and Victorian flourishes during the 1880s through the early 1900s hennequen boom when Mérida property owners had lots of money.

Twentieth century styles
Mérida also has a lot of nice Beaux Arts, Art Noveau and Art Deco buildings, along with interesting Mexican versions of these and 40's, 50's and 60's styles. These frequently are influenced by Mayan design, which preceded the colonial era and is the true native Yucatecan architectural style. Unfortunately these buildings often are not appreciated for what they are, and in fact some even show up on local real estate web sites labeled "colonial." And uninformed colonial-obsessed buyers often take the bait hook, line and sinker, thinking they are buying an authentic colonial. Then, if their new houses don't seem colonial enough, they go columns-and-arches crazy, and add the colonial touches they feel are lacking.

Traditional Yucatecan, not colonial
I have seen many lovely homes of various styles turned into fake colonials. One of the saddest examples is a very nice original art deco home with curved walls that was wrecked when all of the deco details were chipped off its facade. Then brand-new colonial-style doors and windows replaced the beautiful porthole-window originals of wood and wrought iron. A great many nice old Mérida buildings have had unique Yucatecan architectural features erased and pseudo-colonial facades added in recent years.

I can understand the interest in the colonial era. Colonial design is often very beautiful and is functional in this climate, with high ceilings, interior courtyards and large doors and windows. However real colonials in Mérida are not as common as people think. Many are more like my traditional house, which possesses many colonial-style design features, but although it is very Yucatecan, it is not colonial.

Although the colonial influence is still extremely prominent in Yucatán, this region's architectural history is a lot more diverse than that. I think it's sad that fascinating slices of the legacy are being homogenized and lost in the name of this obsession with the "colonial."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Good Cafe on Parque Santiago

I first drank a cup of coffee in La Flor de Santiago in 2003, the same summer I bought a house three blocks down Calle 70 from this historic cafe. The Mérida barrio of Santiago was already hundreds of years old when these heavy wooden doors first swung open for business in the 1920's. Now as the oldest operating cafe and restaurant in Mérida, La Flor has earned its own place in local history.

That's only one of several reasons why I was concerned a couple of weeks ago when I walked in for a session of backgammon with my friend Diane, to be told by her that there was almost nothing available from the menu. The place was getting ready to close down, according to one of the waiters. And it certainly looked that way. The baked goods display cases were empty: bakery closed. There was no espresso coffee: machine broken and not being fixed. As we ate toast, drank our cafe americano and rolled dice, workers walked back and forth carrying loads of buckets, bottles and boxes of miscellaneous junk from a storage area to the sidewalk. There, as soon as the items were set down, scavengers and recyclers scooped the items up and hauled them off.

A mesero waits for customers on a recent slow day
It was hard not to notice that we were just about the only customers. The few others were elderly regulars who drink coffee and while away the hours talking, reading newspapers and watching traffic pass by outside the large street doors. La Flor is a big place with a lot of staff, and overhead must be high. Selling cups of coffee to customers who hang out for hours, request lots of free refills and don't eat a lot probably doesn't pay the bills. Things weren't looking all that good for La Flor.

When I first lived in my house the kitchen was not functional, so I ate out most of the time. Hot mollettes, made from french baguette baked in La Flor's own wood-fired ovens slathered with refried beans, cheese and hot salsa, and washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and lots of hot coffee, became a frequent breakfast of mine. Or, I'd eat choco lomo across the street in the Santiago market and afterward cross to La Flor for coffee while leisurely reading the morning's copy of Diario de Yucatán.

After I got the house fixed up and started living in Mérida full time I patronized La Flor less, but it has always been a special place. And just over the past year or so I've been spending a lot more time there again.

To be honest, the coffee in La Flor is not the best in town. But there is more to a good cafe than just coffee. La Flor is a place to meet. It's part of the neighborhood and reflects local culture. It's a place for people watching. There are old timers, many of whom arrive at the same hour daily and order the same thing they have for years. The waiters are mature, professional, friendly and remember your likes and dislikes. La Flor is a real, traditional cafe. Very few exist these days.

Most contemporary "cafes," and particularly the popular chain versions, although they may prepare a good cup of coffee, just don't compare to an established, old-style cafe. I've seen a couple of the nice old cafes in Mérida centro close over the past few years. I've tried -- and abandoned -- several of the newer ones where the staff is young, poorly-trained and managed, the music is loud and apparently played for the pleasure of the staff and not the guests, and any ambience or personality that exists seems to be more superficial marketing strategy than anything else.

I've heard since that La Flor de Santiago may remain open, but that the owners are looking for new ideas to improve the bottom line. Let's hope they manage to stay in business without changing things too much. It would be a sad loss to the community if yet another tradition fades away.

Here's Hammockman's post on La Flor.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Living Here: Quiet Moments at the X'matkuil Fair

I always go to the Yucatán fair held each November at X'matkuil, on the outskirts of Mérida. Typically I go during off-hours, when there aren't too many people in attendance.

I drove out to the fairgrounds Friday afternoon just a little ahead of the crowds that would mob the place on this, the last weekend before closing. I like to avoid the jostle and crush. The razzle-dazzle of lights and noise, the midway, huge crowds, and the throbbing music of the beer gardens, concerts and other attractions just aren't my style.

What I like about X'matkuil is the old-time country fair aspect: prize animals, agricultural displays, crafts and the horse-riding events. I enjoy wandering and observing in the nooks and crannies of the fair, away from the the bright lights, big noise and clamor.

One of the beautiful things I saw late Friday was this pair of lovely horses. I am not a horse person, so I can't say what kind these are or describe them in accurate horsey language. One was white with gray spots, with a deep brown-red "cap" on it head that flowed like a cape down its back, and strands of reddish mane that hung down its face. The other was a soft silvery gray, with wonderful chocolate-brown freckling all over its body.

The horses were well socialized. They both noticed me and moved closer as I began to take photos. Then, at once they moved together toward the division between their separate stalls and took turns stretching their necks across the divide to nuzzle and caress each other. All the while, they maintained eye contact with me, as if posing and communicating, "See, here's my good buddy."

I enjoy watching displays of horsemanship, roping and riding, so I moved on to the arena to see what the charros, cowboys in traditional dress, were doing. I witnessed a moment of pageantry as teams of competitors entered the arena to the rhythm-heavy clamor of a four-piece band. It was great to watch the riders salute as they rode their beautiful animals around the arena. It was moving to participate moments later as the competitors and audience removed hats and applauded for one minute in memory of a fellow competitor who had recently passed away.

I visited the butterfly exhibit, a large screened-in area full of native and non-native species. It's fun to be able to walk among hundreds of free-flying butterflies, who seem to be unafraid and go about their business. In this exhibit it's possible to observe various species up close, and also to watch butterflies hatch before ones' eyes. If you stand still, it's not unusual here to have a butterfly land on you. One perched on my forehead for a moment (leaving no time to get a picture, unfortunately) before fluttering on its way.

It is interesting to see so many exotic butterflies close up, and great fun to watch the children react to the situation. Many school groups were in attendance this day, and the younger crowd is particularly enchanted by the sight of so many of these colorful insects up close. They were equally fascinated by the fish in an artificial pond inside the butterfly area.

Then there were the pigs. What can I say? I like them, especially the native Yucatecan cerdo pelon, or hairless pig. They are small, dark and bald, and I enjoyed watching a group of them rapidly vacuum up a large container of leftover tortillas in about half a minute. This is a species utilized by the Maya and that was once ubiquitous on the penninsula, but whose numbers had fallen drastically over the years as many pork producers shifted to larger, faster-growing commercial breeds. However recent efforts to revive pure genetic lines of this native animal, which is perfectly adapted to the climate and forage available in Yucatán (reducing the need for small producers to buy expensive commercial feed), seem to be successful. The population is growing, and efforts to market products from these animals as specialty items appear to be paying off.

Those are a few highlights of my afternoon at the fair. I did get into the crowds some and enjoyed a bit of the music and high-energy activity, but these quiet moments were the ones I appreciated most. X'matkuil offers something for everyone, and tens of thousands of people attend the fair and find much to enjoy. I am completely content to forego many of the big attractions in favor of exploring the smaller exhibits and quiet corners of the fair.

Here's an earlier post about the fair at X'matkuil, Yucatán in the Snow Zone.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kindness For Strangers -- Pass It On

Fort Lauderdale, Florida -- A Mérida friend recently benefited from an act of kindness on the part of a complete stranger. This got me thinking about the value of kindness and other unselfish traits as we celebrated American Thanksgiving last week.

When we celebrate Thanksgiving a lot of what we are thankful for, beyond perhaps good health and the presence of loved ones, comes to us because of the unselfish actions of others. Most of these are people whom we do not know or who passed away long before our time.

I'll backtrack for a moment. When we consider the damaged economy and environment, the numerous conflicts and most of the other negative stuff that is going on around the world, it is evident that these problems exist to a great degree due to the selfish actions of a certain percentage of people. This blot stains societies, business, organizations and governments.

It all comes down to individual responsibility. Most of the good that we have is the legacy of people who have thought of the whole rather than always "looking out for number one." If the vast majority of individuals always practiced kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion and consideration in their dealings with others, many of our problems would diminish as quickly a cloud of dust whipped up by a brief windstorm.

I've thought about many kind acts I benefited from last week as I prepared for a Thanksgiving trip to see my parents in Florida, including:

My neighbor Ingrid asked about my parents' frail health. Ingrid also gave me a rosary, which had been blessed in her church, to carry on my trip. She said that even though I am not Catholic and may not share her beliefs, it would be a source of comfort and a reminder that she is thinking about and praying for us. Ingrid and her late husband Alejandro were among my first friends in my Mérida neighborhood, and used to bring me plates of food when my house didn't have a working kitchen.

Victor, the most unselfish person I know, ran my errands and brought me take-out food when I got overwhelmed with "to-dos" as I prepared to leave town.

Tony took me out to breakfast and wished me well the day before my departure.

Doña Tere, owner of the cocina economica where I often eat told me with a smile, "Don't worry, pay me next time," when I realized, after eating, that I had walked out of the house without a peso in my pocket.

Margarita woke up and drove me in the early-morning darkness to the bus terminal to catch my ride to the Cancún airport.

This is the sort of kind and thoughtful behavior that enriches the texture of my everyday life in Mérida. A part of the regular interaction between friends and neighbors who appreciate and help each other, it is something I am thankful for. However the act of kindness I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the one that my friend Debbie wrote about recently was more significant, and I think more important, because in that case someone took time to help out a complete stranger.

Most of us can learn a lesson from the anonymous man who helped Debbie. The challenge is to enlarge our circle: to treat people we do not know with the same consideration, compassion, thoughtfulness and kindness we habitually reserve for family and friends. I think that receiving this expression of respect and love from strangers prompts people to return the favor. It builds upon itself.

At the very least, these acts make us, and hopefully someone else, feel good. The truth is that in helping others, we also help and fulfill ourselves. In a world where many things are not well and the problems make us feel ineffectual, this is something positive and concrete that we actually can do every single day. Like the beads on Ingrid's rosary, one following the other in an unending loop, the acts of human kindness passed on from stranger to stranger will make a difference.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Anthropology: Urban Vestiges, Part 3 -- Abandoned

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by ruins and abandoned houses. I still am. So, since moving to Yucatán, where uninhabited haciendas litter the countryside and empty mansions still dot the Mérida inner-city landscape, I am in a kind of heaven.

A friend of mine sells real estate. As a dabbler in the business myself, sometimes I tag along to take pictures for her, just to have an excuse to nose around old houses and maybe find an interesting opportunity. One day I went with her to look at a house that the owners were putting on the market. The prior owner had died years ago and left the home to relatives, two of whom met us on the street in front of the high, decorated facade of the colonial-style structure.

Many keys were produced, but none seemed to work in the lock. All the keys were tried a second time, and this time one was found to rotate slightly. A small can of oil was located, and with liberal application of lubricant and gentle force, ultimately the lock was made to open. Then the door, apparently swollen by humidity and its hinges stiff with corrosion, would not budge. Finally after some kicks and heavy shouldering, the door scraped open. A large pyramid of unopened mail from banks and utility companies had accumulated beneath the letter slot. This yellowed, wrinkled heap, which with dampness had congealed into a pulpy mass and stuck to the floor, had been partly to blame for our problem with the door. Along with this, the reek of rodents, humid, stale air and enough hanging cobwebs to furnish several Halloween Haunted Houses were evidence that no one had been inside for a long time, perhaps years. One of the owners would not pass over the threshold. He didn't say why. He peered inside while standing safely back on the sidewalk, and then returned to wait in his air-conditioned car.

The interior was much the same as in many of these forlorn old Mérida homes. There was a story here of a life, in this case of a man who had passed away years ago, leaving roomfuls of furniture, files and hoarded treasures to heirs who didn't really care to deal with the mess and did not want to live in an old, crumbling house in centro.

Another old home near mine also was uninhabited for many years. It was easy to see through cracked, uncurtained windows that it remained fully furnished in the style of the 1930's, with crystal chandeliers, bric-a-brac, old paintings and family pictures still intact. A dusty baby grand piano was clearly visible through a missing pane in the padlocked and chained front door.

In some of these cases,  there are numerous heirs who can't agree, or there is no will, so houses remain locked up and in limbo for years, sometimes decades. An acquaintance of mine tried to buy a fabulous old home whose owners had died intestate in the 1920's. Their numerous children and many of their grandchildren were now also gone, leaving dozens of great grandchildren and other relatives to dispute the estate. The family feud over inheritance is so intense that no one lives in or cares for the property. Likely the dispute will continue until the house falls down or is confiscated by the government as a nuisance or for back taxes and bills. There is a beautiful old house on my block that's been in much the same situation since the owner died in 1951. The remaining original heirs, who would like to sell, are now in their 90's. I suspect none of them will ever see their money.

Occasionally, a house you might think abandoned, isn't. It turns out an ancient man or woman, or sometimes a younger family, to all appearances without funds to maintain the place, hangs on, often living in a couple of back rooms that are still in habitable condition. They may be owners, heirs, caretakers or squatters. Whatever the situation, it's interesting to see a fabulous casona still in use, but with chickens running in the gardens, laundry drying along the colonnades, and humble hammocks swinging beneath ornately stenciled, beamed ceilings.

I appreciate the restoration efforts that have brought many old Mérida homes back to life, but feel it will be a sad day when progress has eliminated the last of the abandoned and ruined old mansions. These old, un-beautified relics are romantic time capsules. They add a touch of color and mystery to the city.

These remnants also remind us of the glories and follies of the past in a way that restored and modernized examples do not. They help me keep in mind the temporary nature of everything on this planet, and particularly the fleeting qualities of wealth, status and power, which many of these crumbling edifices were constructed to symbolize.

If you enjoyed this post, you also might like Wanderings: Hacienda Dreams, Urban Vestiges Part 2 -- Stones, and Urban Vestiges, Part 1.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Blogging: Another Year of Favorites

I finished my second year of writing this blog in late October, and celebrated by attending a conference with fellow bloggers in early November. The interchange of that gathering recharged my batteries and gave me new ideas. I intend to make the blog more readable, make post titles more explicit and to focus more on favorite themes.

Speaking of themes, as I look forward to improving An Alaskan in Yucatan, I've been reviewing the past year. As I did on the blog's first anniversary, I would like to share a few favorite posts from the past year.

Interesting travel experiences are among the most popular posts I write. One of my most interesting wanderings this year was to a spring, a magic place up in the hills of the Bajío in Querétaro. I wrote about this hike in a post titled Magic Places.

Also while traveling in central Mexico, I visited another magic place, a pyramid I have visited many times but whose location I do not share with others. I wrote about this in My Secret Pyramid.

Late last winter I traveled south of Mérida to visit Santa Elena, and there walked in the footsteps of the nineteenth-century explorers Stephens and Catherwood, authors of the famous work, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I followed the trail of these adventurers and wrote posts about their and my visit to the isolated site of the ancient Mayan city of Xcooch, which has changed remarkably little since they were here in the 1840s. 

Being happy and successful living in Mexico is the theme of many posts. One entitled Language Learning: Why Bother? dealt with some of the issues and benefits of learning a foreign language. This post generated a lot of interest, and resulted in more comments that any other post in this blog, ever. Another post, Successful Expatriates Do This, was a digest of some observations I have made of foreigners living in Mexico over the past few years and why some achieve remarkable things.

I occasionally write about my observations of Mexican culture. A Moment of Joy describes a wonderful scene I stumbled upon one Sunday, an experience that revealed some important aspects of life here. In another post, titled Socializing, I reflected on simple old-fashioned hospitality and the warmth of family social gatherings.

Wonderful Moments seem to occur fairly often around here. Some happen by chance: one gray day day I unexpectedly found myself holding a tiny, live hummingbird in my hand. I wrote about this fascinating experience in a post called, Once in Several Lifetimes. Other moments are ones we create. I wrote about one of the ways I create periods of peace and contentment in The Pool At Night.

I appreciate my readers, especially the ones I have gotten to know -- those who take the time to comment or write. A number of these people have become my friends. I look forward to the coming year of An Alaskan in Yucatán. I hope you will continue join me here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Blogging: Okay, I'll play along...

Nancy and Leslie, Mexico bloggers whom I respect and follow regularly, nominated me for what's called The Versatile Blogger Award. A number of my blogging friends have been so nominated. One of these, Steve, sceptically accepted his nomination and made some interesting comments.

I know nothing about the award, except that I gather it was created as a tool for bloggers to network, get to know each other and maybe rack up more pageviews. The way it works, each nominee is supposed to tell seven things about themselves that readers don't know, and then nominate 15 favorite blogs for the award. Steve commented that it seems like a big chain letter, which is true.

I am not much of a math whiz, but it appears to me that if everyone nominated did indeed in turn nominate 15 blogs, with everyone following the rules it would only take a handful of generations to have nominated every blog in the 'sphere. Fifteen to the seventh power is something like 38 billion. That's a whole bunch of versatile blogs for each and every individual on Earth.

But that aside, it seems interesting, these bloggers are my friends and I am willing to give it a go. Despite the fact that I blog about my experiences, I haven't ever intended to make this blog about "me." But I am curious. I'll play along...

1. Once I hung out in a hotel room with '60's acid guru Timothy Leary ("turn on, tune in and drop out") and talked with him for about an hour. What I remember of his words seems even more appropriate now than it did then: "We are dealing with the best-educated generation in history. But they've got a brain dressed up with nowhere to go."

2. I worked as an extra in The Godfather, Part 2. I achieved my tiny sliver of fame -- a blurry second on screen, not fifteen minutes -- (Warhol exaggerated more than once), when I was seventeen years old. The most interesting part of that three-day gig actually was in makeup on the first day, where I sat in a chair next to Pacino while we both got our hair styled.

3. While living among native people in Alaska's arctic, I regularly ate caribou, seal and whale meat they shared with me.

4. I was born in a log cabin...well, almost. My family lived in a small log home when I was born, in Ketchikan, Alaska, but actually I gasped my first breaths in the General Hospital. Later when I was running for treasurer of the student council in third grade, my father (a PR man) suggested I begin my campaign speech by telling my fellow students I was born in a log cabin (just like Abe Lincoln). Although I did not turn out to be student council material, the myth has stuck with me ever since.

5. Summer volunteer work in rural Colombia changed my life forever when I was 16.

6. There is a file on me somewhere deep in the musty archives of the former-Soviet KGB.

7. Contrary to the advice I give to everyone who asks me about buying a house in Mérida ("rent for at least six months"), I bought my house here on my very first visit, after a total of about two weeks in the city.

Now for the difficult part. There are many, many good blogs out there and it's hard to pick and choose. Besides that, a number of my favorite blogs already have been nominated for The Versatile Blogger Award. So I  am stealing an idea from Theresa, who seems to share many of my feelings about this deal. I am wiggling out of making individual nominations. I believe that all of my friends from the Latin American Bloggers Conference deserve The Versatile Blogger nomination.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Photography: Up-Close Simplicity

I am finishing up a presentation on photography for this Saturday's bloggers conference. I have been looking at lots of pictures and trying to distill what I have learned about making good images into about a 40-minute talk.

What I keep coming back to is, "as in life, as in photography." If you've read this blog for awhile, you know that I value simplicity in all things. 

Leaf in the garden

The most effective and striking images are typically extremely simple. In photography, the skill is in the use of angle, composition, light, focus, and camera position in order to eliminate what is unnecessary and emphasize what is important.

Hanal Pixan flower petals, fallen on the sala floor

But the easiest way to start eliminating the unwanted from images is to move in close. Closeup images by their very nature are often simple. On the surface, moving in begins to eliminate distracting trees, telephone poles, overhead wires and shadows, for instance. It also allows the photograher to observe the subject closely. I am not talking so much about zooming in with a telephoto lens, although this is often useful. I am talking about getting physically very close. I am talking about getting intimate with the subject of the photo, whether it's a living thing or an inanimate object.

My unmade bed (with apologies to Imogen Cunningham)

One of the things I am going to emphasize in Saturday's talk, where I will address an audience with photo skills ranging from hobbyist to professional, is that a good way to practice the discipline of simplification is by moving in close. As a photography teacher of mine once said, "If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough."

A bitter orange leaf floats in the pool

With the exception of the top photo of the church in Santa Elena, these images were taken around my house this morning with a point-and-shoot camera that has a macro mode. Expensive equipment is not required to make interesting photos. Simplicity in cameras also has its merits.

Other posts on photography.
Other posts on simplicity.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


This piece, originally titled Jack o' Lanterns, was one of my very first on this blog two years ago and remains one of my favorites. Reposting it is becoming an annual Halloween tradition. I'm taking a few days off from writing to prepare a presentation on photography for the Bloggers Conference, which takes place Nov. 5 in Mérida.

Three years ago on a weekend off from teaching in the summer course at San Ildefonso Tultepéc, in the state of Querétaro, I took a hike on the outskirts of a tiny nearby pueblo named El Cuisillo. It's located close to the border between Mexico and Querétaro states. That makes it about equidistant from the towns of AmealcoQuerétaro and Aculco, Mexico, along a two-lane highway that in two or three hours takes you, if you flag down and jump aboard one of the dusty buses that occasionally passes by, from this very small place to the world's largest metropolis.

The people of El Cuisillo are very shy but friendly. In keeping with that spirit, it is an unpretentiously scenic walk along roads and paths through their land. From hilltops you can glimpse distant rock formations, ravines and cliffs, and the occasional small house with cornfield, or perhaps far away a small child with a stick trying to goad a slow-moving cow out to pasture. There are some interesting pre-hispanic ruins in the area. The ruins are just there. There is no visitor center with bored security guard, you'll fend off no vendors selling fake artifacts and bottled water, and you need not heed any "do not climb" signs nor thoughtfully consider pedantic interpretive plaques of questionable interest. There is no one else around; you can enjoy the quiet and imagine yourself the explorer.

For some reason here, I suppose it's the stillness of the air and the rock formations reflecting sound waves, once in awhile I mysteriously hear clear voices and laughter but see no people. Perhaps they are hiding in the bushes and watching this strange foreigner smiling and whistling to himself, writing in a little book and taking pictures of things that seem to them very ordinary and mundane. Perhaps, as many acquaintances of mine in Barrow, Alaska will attest, the "little people" do exist, and maybe they live here, too. It certainly seems like a place they would appreciate. It may be a mystery I will never solve, and I like that. I've walked in the vicinity many times over the years and always find something new to do or see. It's a place I have visited with others, but mostly I like to wander here alone.

Many of the families in the region are indigenous Otomí, like these boys, and live a subsistence way of life near the poverty line. Besides keeping some animals and planting a small garden and milpa, or cornfield, some families make fired-clay products to produce cash income. The area produces a lot of these ceramics, such as pots, planters, platters, small replica churches and houses, sun plaques and other decorative, kitchen and garden items. Apparently someone in the area realized that with well in excess of 20 million persons living within a couple of hour's drive, there might be a market for jack o' lanterns. It seems like every clay workshop produces them. Halloween is not a tradition in Mexico, but some families do observe the day.

When I passed by their house the boys ran up to the road with arms full of "calabazas," or

pumpkins, for sale. I purchased two at the asking price of about a dollar each. I managed somehow to get them back to Mérida in my luggage without breakage. They have served me well now for three Halloweens. I have yet to receive a trick-or-treater at my door, but if one comes, I am ready.

Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Living Here: Embracing Color

Some foreign residents of Mérida have taken the plunge

Foreigners from cooler northern climes often comment on the uninhibited, sometimes chaotic color sense of many Mexicans. The foreigners don't always warm to it. I used to feel that way, too.

In my family home the color scheme was what I might term midwestern conservative. When I was small, our walls were always beige and furniture shades of brown. When we moved into a new house in the late '60's and my mom chose "harvest gold" shag carpet, upholstery in muted green and reddish tones and an avocado refrigerator, we thought it was pretty hip. But that was about as groovy as we ever got.

Although it's changing, where I grew up things still look pretty dull. In Juneau, shades of brown, tan and gray seem to be the predominant color choices for the exteriors of houses and buildings. I am sure these are not everyone's favorite colors. So why, in a climate where the weather is often dull and dark, do people paint their houses in dull and dark colors? And in Mexico, especially tropical Yucatán, why is it so vibrant? I suppose it has to do with culture and what we are used to, but I wonder how environment influences our feelings about color. That's something to look into.

My friend Paul, originally from the midwest, blogged about the time he allowed his maintenance man to choose colors for some accents as he painted the patio area of Paul's Mérida home. Paul was "stunned" by the choices, but they didn't seem all that wild to me.

I realized at that moment that I've changed. I have come to enjoy the cacophony of color in Mexico, and now see it as pretty normal. When I travel north on a visit, it seems like a pretty drab place. When I return to Mexico, I am immediately dazzled by not only the brightness of the sun and the heat, but by the color. No holds are barred. Rules are made to be broken. And as far as I am concerned, that's good.

When I moved here, I changed the way I did a lot of things. I wanted to be less inhibited and open to new ideas. One thing I decided to do was to paint every room in the house a different color. Now I have a red living room, green bedroom, and the kitchen/dining area is multicolored, with green and orange predominating. Tile patterns clash. Checks and curlicues abound. It's great. I love the feeling of the place.

Oh yes, although it still wears the same coat of paint it did the day I bought it, the front of my house is pink. One of these days I'll do something about that, but I am not in any hurry.

I am just one of a crowd of foreigners who've moved here and have taken the plunge into color. Embracing color is a simple way to break out of a routine and celebrate the unlimited possibilities of life. It creates energy. It's a manageable form of chaos.

In any case if you later have regrets, paint's not all that expensive.

Home sweet home

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wanderings: La Barranca

San Ildefonso Tultepéc, Querétaro -- Every time I go back to La Barranca, I have a different kind of experience. I teach at a summer school in this pueblo, where, on my time off I sometimes walk down the barranca, Spanish for a ravine or small canyon, to relax and explore.

One July day I took an afternoon hike here with two fellow volunteer teachers, my friends Yulma and Antonietta, who hadn't been before. We walked down a side street in the pueblo, passing little stores and a group of men drinking beer and pulque, to where the corn fields begin, only a block or so from the highway. What looks like the results of simple erosion, tiny rivulets that can be stepped over, quickly deepens as the terrain suddenly drops. We walked and slid down a steep but passable crevice in the rock, and in moments found ourselves in a different environment, completely hidden from the houses of the pueblo just a couple of minutes' walk away.

Cactus, maguey and other plants adapted to arid lands loom over the rim of the barranca above our heads, while around us on the damp bottom, water flows even in parched weather. Ferns and moss luxuriate in the shade of verdant trees, which keep the temperatures noticeably cooler than in the dusty, sun-baked open spaces above. In places, water seeping out of overhanging cliff faces drips in a perpetual shower onto hikers passing below. Dark algae contrasts with orange and lime-green lichens that grow in the microenvironments of shaded rock faces. There are many organisms living here that are not seen just a short distance away, straight up.

As we descend, the high cliff walls spread apart and the view expands. Here the floor receives more sun, beginning a slow transition back to the drier state of the environment outside of the barranca. As we mount a trail that hugs the right side of the widening gorge, suddenly a yawning, black cavern, overhung by the cliffs, comes into view. Under this roof we enter an ancient potters' workshop. The cavern is stacked with hundreds of half-finished clay comales, flat platter-like utensils used for heating tortillas over a fire.

I once met an elderly man working here. He digs his own clay from the walls of the cavern, hauls water from the stream below to moisten the clay to the right consistency, and forms his comales on the dusty floor of the cavern. When the clay has dried out, he then fires the ware in a rock kiln, using brushwood he has cut in the nearby forest. This man hauls the finished products on his back, up the narrow trails to the rim of the gorge and back to the highway. I've often wondered how many generations of local clay artisans preceded him. The thick accumulation of discarded, time-worn pottery shards on the paths approaching this place indicates to me that people have worked here for a very long time.

Although the scenery is beautiful, I usually find the most interesting things to be the small or unexpected. I have seen at least three species of hummingbirds in this place. The wildflowers are fabulous. I've noticed evidence nearby -- scatterings of artifacts -- of an ancient settlement. 

On several occasions over the years I've been startled as I suddenly find myself looking into the dark faces of solemn, silent Otomí women as we cross paths, I with my high tech daypack, bottled water and digital camera, they with their herd animals, dogs, many children and enormous bundles of firewood. The realities of our different worlds brush past each other for a moment, but just barely intersect. In the evening I will be in a dry, clean, cozy house, uploading photos online in order to write my blog post. They return to the laborious and sometimes grim business of survival.

Antonietta, Yulma and I had a meeting of this type, although we'd heard a dog barking down the path so weren't completely surprised when a pair of indigenous women appeared as we rested in the shade. After glancing furtively our way they looked at the ground as they walked silently, which is normal behavior unless the stranger says something first in greeting. I think Yulma spoke, wishing them a good afternoon, to which they replied in kind, in accented Spanish, "buenas tardes." To my surprise, they slowed and made further eye contact. Perhaps this was because, accompanied by these women I was no longer the lone, foreign male on their path. I'm not sure.

The women took a breather as they shifted their loads. The older one who was in the lead did not smile, but her expression softened as she looked at us. After a few seconds, she tilted her head up and directed her gaze ahead, as if to say, "goodbye, we've got to get on with it," and they started up the steep trail.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Living Here: Taking the Bus

I was the only passenger on a long-distance bus Thursday. I had the entire first-class coach to myself. It was just me and the driver. This was surprising to me considering the high level of bus ridership here, and is an experience I have never had before in Mexico, even though I have traveled a lot by bus.

I make a lot of trips between the Cancún airport and Mérida. This typically has entailed a half-hour shuttle between the airport and the Cancún downtown bus terminal, and the four-hour bus ride between Cancún and Mérida, or vice versa. Recently I have been able to use a newer ADO (Autobuses del Oriente) service that takes passengers directly from the Cancún airport to Mérida, skipping the shuttle and bus station segments entirely. In Mérida it stops in Alta Brisa and at the Hotel Fiesta Americana.

This is a great service and although it costs a little more, if it dovetails with one's arrival or departure schedule, it will save an hour or two. However, I have been on this bus route several times now and have never had more than one or two fellow passengers. At this time there are only a couple of departures from the airport per day, both in the afternoon. From Mérida there are only midnight and 10:00AM departures. With the kinds of flights I've been taking lately, I've only been able to take advantage of the Cancún airport to Mérida run and not the other way around.

The novelty of riding alone in the big bus this week prompted me to recall past bus experiences. When I first traveled by bus in Mexico nearly 20 years ago, I was amazed by the habit of Mexicans to close all the curtains in order to sit in the dark and watch movies or sleep. As a curious traveler, I always prefer to enjoy the beauties of the countryside and see where I am headed. It frustrated me on several occasions, as we passed through spectacular countryside I'd never seen before, when a fellow passenger asked me to close the curtain to eliminate glare on the video monitor so they could watch a vapid, violent movie. Even after making the trip dozens of times, on these cross-Yucatán runs I still often prefer to watch the countryside pass by, monotonous as it may appear along the toll road, than to watch a movie or read. There is always something interesting to see.

I also recalled my surprise, some years ago, at seeing a Jalisco bus driver hurling his cola bottle, junk food wrappers, plastic plate and bags out of the bus window one by one after finishing the various courses of his on-the-job lunch. No one said a word.

I remembered a couple of long, long rides, when a combination of winding mountain roads, those always-closed curtains, heat and questionable roadside food led to the most disagreeable travel experiences I have ever had. Despite those bad trips, I enjoy taking the bus.

I thought about my very first Latin American bus rides, when in the early 70's I did volunteer work in rural Colombia -- the romantic heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez country. These were true pigs-and-chickens buses. The surplus early 1950s American school buses were painted bright colors and had beads and bangles hanging in the windshields. All of our baggage was piled on the roof, accompanied by a few passengers, young men whom we later suspected of having passed the trip reviewing the contents of our luggage. We sat eight abreast on closely-spaced wooden bench seats as the buses slowly ground along muddy, potholed dirt roads. As we reached a stop, people would swarm on and off the roof, passing down boxes and bundles, and despite the fact that we wanted to watch this process in order to make sure our bags were not stolen, we remained seated in order to not lose our places in the crowded interior. We once waited hours in line at an isolated sun-baked, steamy ferry crossing on the Magdalena River. My most vivid memory of that experience is the very poor campesino family who offered to share their meager food, thick tortillas and some overripe fruit, with me as we waited.

Modern long-distance bus travel in Mexico is a far cry from that long-ago trip and is vastly superior to similar services in the United States. Buses are safe, run frequently, generally run on schedule, and make connections to small towns and pueblos. Buses here are for everyone. Middle-class families and even business executives take the bus. The deluxe buses, such as Platino here in southeast Mexico and ETN in the central part of the country, are more comfortable than first-class airplane cabins, offering roomy reclining seats with full leg rests, snacks, cold and hot drinks, comfortable, clean restrooms, and for those who like that sort of thing, movies -- with headphones -- so the rest of us don't have to listen to movies we have no desire to see.

Second-class and country buses are more interesting, but slower and less reliable. However the people on these buses are wonderful. I can't count the number of times seat mates have offered to share food and drink with me, just as that family did decades ago in Colombia.

I love the bus system here because you can easily go just about anywhere without a car. Taking the bus often costs less than driving, and although it may take longer, it is certainly less stressful. It also affords the chance to really look at the countryside (most of the time), and sometimes to meet interesting people. It's my preferred mode of travel in Mexico.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Lesson from Xpakay

It started out as a normal August afternoon.

Late in the month I drove out to spend a couple of days with my friend Jonathan at Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. It was hot, and as well as Jonathan, who'd been in town on business, my friend Victor was in the car as we drove out Mérida's Calle 42 and trundled along the back roads, through tiny pueblos and haciendas, out to Xpakay.

I've mentioned this hacienda many times. It's one of the magic places in Mexico that have taught me a great deal about the country, its culture, and about greater things.

We'd thrown hammocks, machete, water, food and extra clothes into the car. We stopped several times along the route to observe sights that caught our interest, buy cold drinks in a tiny mom-and-pop store, and later to attend to the necessities of nature after consuming the cold drinks. It was a pretty typical drive in the country.

A typical drive, that is, until we got to the hacienda road.

There are butterflies, mariposas, all year here but the population hits its apex in summer. When it is hot, the butterflies often stop to drink in damp areas around sources of water. The rainy-season puddles in the ruts of this road must provide the most accessible water source in the area. Anything that disturbs the resting butterflies, a wandering cow, a person, or a passing vehicle, scatters them.

There were plenty of the multi-colored insects fluttering around as we entered the 3.5-kilometer dirt track to the hacienda, but we noticed nothing remarkable. Then we rounded a curve in a low spot. Startled by the car, dense waves of the insects began to rise in front of us. It was a breathtaking sight. We slowed to a crawl. As they fled the car, the tendrils of escaping insects seemed to curve into the distance like smoke.

The rapid opening and closing of wings made the swarms of butterflies seem to sparkle jerkily, as if this real-life scene was a primitive film animation. A swarm  -- also known as a rabble -- of such magnitude must contain many thousands of insects. Perhaps tens of thousands. This day they were mostly white, yellow, orange, and shades of light green. These are not large, ornate, showy species, but the types with wings of one solid color.

I'd seen butterflies along the back roads of Xpakay on a number of occasions, but the numbers I'd viewed here in the past were nothing like what we saw this day. We must have hit the very height of the season for several species. The sight made me think of other species that mass together in impressive numbers: the salmon, for instance, of my home state of Alaska. Although still numerous in some areas, the populations of these species are mere shadows of what they once were.

I thought of the American buffalo, slaughtered by the tens of millions for meat, hides and target practice in the 19th century. I thought of the Passenger Pigeon, once so numerous in North American that their flights darkened the skies for days as they passed overhead. It led me to consider other vital parts of the natural world we have lost and continue to lose by daily increments. Many are not as spectacular or attention-grabbing as these examples, but important still in the overall scheme of things.

I suppose that such masses of butterflies were once much more common all over the world, but due to destruction of habitat, contamination and the use of pesticides they now are rarely seen. Because the destruction has taken several human generations to occur, we have become accustomed to their now-meager numbers. In most cases, we don't know anything different, so we don't realize what we've missed.

We've lost a huge amount and we keep losing more due to our tremendous fascination with consumption. The incredible numbers of butterflies here in Yucatán make me think. There are things we can still save. What are we doing about it?

My regular readers will ask me, "Where are the pictures?" The truth is that it happened so quickly, and I was so enchanted by the sight, that I took no pictures of the butterflies, preferring to enjoy the moment as I experienced it. Here's an earlier post on butterflies at Xpakay.