Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Contentment: Fishing Days

When my longtime friend and fishing buddy Brian invited me to go wet a line during my recent visit to Juneau, I expected to write about it. Of all the activities that engaged me during a lifetime in Alaska, a day of fishing is one that bears closest resemblance to the kind of day I work toward having more and more of now in Yucatán.

Why? Fresh salmon is soul food to me, but the experience is more about having a day than getting a fish. In fact, Brian and I have a way of talking about going out fishing. We don't say we're going to go out and catch a bunch of fish. We just casually say that we ought to go and "have a look around."

Years ago I heard various Alaska Native elders talk about going out hunting. In some cultures tradition says that the hunter needs to be humble, because the animals sense human arrogance and will not give themselves to someone who is not respectful, not "right" in heart and mind. The hunter who says something like, "I'm going out to have a look around," or, "I'll just take a walk down river," might come back with meat for his family. Someone who offends nature -- "let's kill us some fish" -- will come back empty handed.

So we have a routine: I bring all the food, Brian gasses up his boat, and we head out for the day and start "looking around," with carefully-prepared bait trailing in the depths behind us, of course. 

And there is always plenty to look at: varieties of birds, fish, innumerable eagles, seals, sea lions, and often lots of whales. Interesting things float by. It is a day in which moment succeeds moment. 

The wind shifts, and we're in a chilly mist. I am sipping coffee as the tide ebbs. The sky changes and the day evolves. Clouds thicken and briefly a shower drenches us; the sun finds an opening and highlights the snow-capped Chilkat mountains and a distant glacier.

As the overcast dissipates, I warm up and begin to shed layers: raincoat, halibut jacket, wool shirt. I trail my hand in the water, and taste it as it drips from my fingers.

The peace and calm of observing nature and weather is punctuated occasionally by the quiver of a fishing pole, and sometimes that leads to the capture of a nice salmon or halibut. But more often than not, bait is snatched away and something down there has got a free meal on us, or we carefully release an undersized or unwanted fish. 

Or nothing at all happens.

Although not always a lot of it, there's talk. After about twenty-five years of fishing together we've shared a lot of experiences, so at times we retell old fishing stories: long hauls in his small skiff before Brian got the bigger boat; getting caught in bad weather; monster fish that got away; the time we hooked halibut and several species of salmon all in one day. We laugh about the time I got seasick on the brand-new boat and my trip to the ER with a hook in my thumb. The conversations range through many other subjects. Talk flows easily.

There's also the music, always jazz or rock oldies. And food. I habitually bring fat prepared sandwiches from the deli counter of a local store, apples, other snacks, drinks and Snickers bars. It's become a tradition. I only eat them when fishing, but for fishing you've gotta have Snickers. 

Breaking out the food used to be a good luck charm. It seemed that for years, no sooner would we have all the lunch goodies spread out than we would hook something. Inevitably some of the food would end up dropped and trampled on the deck, a casualty of the action. We've continued to try the "get out the sandwiches" ploy when fish aren't biting, even though it hasn't worked in years. Fishermen, like baseball players, are superstitious. Speaking of superstitions, there's my fishing hat, but that's another story.

We don't always connect with fish, but as things went on this recent day, we were watching some "rock jockeys," beach fishermen on North Douglas Island, when suddenly one of the poles started vibrating. It wasn't long before we reeled in a magnificent gift from Mother Nature in the form of a medium-sized King. As I looked into its eye and felt its fat but sleek body I felt truly blessed to be who and where I was and in the company of a good friend. 

I could not have wished then to be any other place nor to be doing anything else on earth. What more could one possibly ask from a day than that?

Every fishing day is different, but each "look around" is also a nostalgic repetition of something that could not be improved upon and that I wouldn't change in any way. Catching fish is not the main point. For a whole list of other reasons, every fishing day is a perfect day.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Living Here: I'm Cool

A few days ago, I walked home across downtown Mérida when the temperature was 37 degrees Celsius, or nearly 100 degrees F.

I noticed when I got home that I had barely broken a sweat. That's very unlike me. What's going on here?

Ever since I began living in this climate I've done a number of different things to stay cool, like wearing a hat, keeping to the shade, and avoiding the streets and strenuous activities during the hottest hours of the day. But that is not always enough. The high temperatures can get to me, and I end up overheated, shirt dripping, and on the borderline of dehydration if I am not careful.

What was the difference the other day? How am I managing to keep cooler in the heat?

I think what has happened is that I am losing what I'll call my "northern gait," for lack of a better term. I'm doing what the locals know to do without thinking about it. I'm slowing down in the heat.

We all know it's a good idea to take it easy when it's hot, but sometimes slowing down is easier said than done. Any day here you can spot northerners, especially tourists from the northern U.S. and Canada, simply by the way they walk: a "purposeful stride," males with arms swinging and sometimes hands closed, gaze directed ahead, bodies inclined slightly forward, and moving right along down the street. It's as if they are hurrying from air-conditioned building to air-conditioned building, which may in fact be what they are accustomed to doing. The truth of the matter is that if they just slowed down, they wouldn't need the AC as much.

Contrast that to many Yucatecans who move a lot more deliberately down the street.

Of course I am generalizing here. There are plenty of slow-moving foreigners, and by the same token quick Yucatecans. However I think that the climate we grew up in can affect the rate at which we naturally move around. Where I grew up in Alaska, for a good part of the year moving quickly has the advantage of keeping you warm. I am sure that if I had grown up in Yucatán my natural rate of moving around would be adapted to the hotter climate here.

Anyhow, it looks as if I have lost my "northern gait" to some extent. Instead of stepping off the curb to pass the phalanxes of slow-moving pedestrians on Mérida's narrow sidewalks, like I used to do, I now fall in and flow with the current. I also stop to chat with friends I meet, or to cool down for a few minutes in one of the many parks or cafes in the downtown area. It's a natural and healthy adaptation to living in the heat.

I still sometimes find myself walking at a quicker "northern" pace and have to tell myself to slow down, but I have to think about this less and less.

I'm slowing down. And I'm cool.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Rains are Here -- Almost

This was the scene on my street yesterday afternoon. After several hours of humid-smelling breezes, rumbles of thunder and darkening skies, the clouds finally turned loose just a little and we had about an hour of moderate spinkles in my neighborhood. It wasn't really much of a rain by local standards, but it was a start and a hopeful sign that more is on the way.

We haven't had a significant rain in months. Rainy season normally runs from late May or early June until about November. So the rains are a little late. In nearby pueblos and in the outskirts of Mérida people report some recent squalls but in the city and many parts of the region, we haven't had such luck. Right here in centro the few very light afternoon drizzles we have had evaporated as they hit the ground and did little more than make the streets feel like a sauna.

The Wednesday Diario de Yucatán featured an article stating that 40 percent of the country is experiencing the worst drought in 70 years. Things are pretty bad for a lot of folks. A good thing about Yucatán is that most of the peninsula pretty much floats on a huge fresh-water aquifer. Just about anywhere you can drill a well and come up with abundant water. My well here in Mérida, on the coastal slope and fairly near the Gulf of Mexico, is seven meters or about 23 feet deep. The water I pump for my garden and topping off  the pool is cool and crystal clear. We're in the city so I wouldn't drink it, but it is perfectly safe for swimming. If a situation ever arises in which other sources of water fail, I could easily treat my well water and use it for drinking.

So although it is very dry, in Yucatán we're doing better than many other regions.

Although it wasn't a big rain, yesterday's fall was enough to qualify as the season's official first at my house: I always discover a new roof leak during the first significant rain of the season, and yesterday was leak-day around here. I was walking through the bedroom after the shower when a drop hit me in the forehead. A good-sized puddle had formed on the floor.

I went up on the roof and looked at the spot. Sure enough, I found a hairline crack in the waterproof coating I thought I had thoroughly checked about a month ago. Today I climbed back up with a glob of thick roofing tar and a spatula and sealed the crack. 

The work didn't take long, and I was happy to be doing it. The annual roof-leak ritual marks the imminent end of the hot, tedious final weeks of the dry season and the beginning of the rains. It's a sign that we will soon be enjoying lower temperatures, less dust, fresher air, and will witness a rapid, lush greening of gardens, parks, and all of the Yucatán countryside.