Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wanderings: My Secret Pyramid

Somewhere in Mexico -- There are thousands of these places all over the country. No road signs point the way and there are no gates, guards or visitor centers. No maintenance crew keeps things neat and trimmed. Few tourists ever find them. And in most cases, these places remain much the same as they have been for centuries.

I have a secret pyramid. When I visit, it's all mine. I will tell you about it, but I am not going to say just where it is.

Of course it's not really a secret. It's located close to a highway and people live nearby. They drive cattle past it every day, and work in their milpas, cornfields, which dot the surrounding area. However few who live here give the pyramid much thought. It has always been there. Just like the sky and hills, the rocks and the trees, it's part of the landscape.

The government knows about it, and apparently official archaeologists once came out and took a look. But in a country with limited funding for such things and countless ancient sites scattered over tens of thousands of square miles, this one has probably never been thoroughly surveyed, and is unlikely ever to be excavated, restored and developed as a public park. To be truthful it's small, not awe-inspiring when compared to other well-known Mexican pyramids, and represents a lost and little-understood culture.

When I visit this pyramid, I normally have the place completely to myself. I always feel that I am the only one who cares about it as much as I do. I guess that's one reason why I like it so much.

I first came out here about a dozen years ago, and since I pass through the area from time to time, have visited the pyramid six or eight times since.

On my very first visit I went with a couple of locals who offered to show me around. The pyramid is actually one of several pre-Colombian structures in the complex, but the others are in such ruinous contition that it is hard to make out what they were. That day I enjoyed the hike. I climbed to the top, admired the view, and took a few pictures. Then afterward I found myself thinking about the place and felt the need to go back and spend more time there.

So I went back by myself. From where I normally stay when in the area, it is about an hour's hike through a pueblo, down into a small canyon full of pillar-like rock formations, jumping the stream at the bottom, and up the other side into another small pueblo. As I walk I occasionally pass traditionally-dressed indigenous women, often accompanied by children, carrying bundled firewood or tending small herds of animals. It's hard to get lost on these trails; foot traffic over many hundreds of years has worn deep grooves into the rock.

Passing through the pueblo only takes a couple of minutes. On the far side, an expanse of corn fields on both sides of the road opens a vista of the hills and valleys in all directions. Soon you climb a rise. As you come over the top, a hill comes into view. It is covered in shrubs and small trees, and at first looks like just another hill. Then you notice a level row of stonework near the top, and the design of the structure becomes apparent.

Sometimes, local children come out of their houses or materialize from the brush to shyly peer at me. The braver ones may approach and try to sell me artifacts they have found in their fields. I politely look at what they have to offer, shards of pottery, blades and points of translucent obsidian, and small objects of clay or stone. I then explain to the children that although they are very nice, it's illegal for me to possess artifacts like these, so I can't buy. The children speak Spanish poorly, having grown up speaking an indigenous dialect, so I am not sure that they understand exactly why I won't purchase their treasures. They are disappointed. They are reluctant to have their picture taken. After this exchange, the kids wander off and leave me to myself.

A local child displays obsidian points found near the pyramid.

From this point I am left alone, free to feel the wind, sun and rain, and enjoy animals, plants and the scenery. No one comes near as I wander, kicking at pottery and obsidian fragments scattered in the dust, the abundant litter of an ancient civilization. No one accompanies me as I eventually climb the ruins and sit on the top of this former spiritual center of a long-forgotten culture.

Nothing much happens at the pyramid. Sometimes I take pictures, write or sketch there. Mostly I just sit and watch my surroundings. It's a beautiful and quiet place with a solidity about it that few others in my experience possess. That's what it has to offer and that, it seems to me, is its great value.

The secret pyramid is a touchstone, a pilgrimage for me. It has become one of a small number of very special places in the geography of my life, places where I feel connected, content, and at peace. I suspect I will keep returning to it, from time to time, as long as I am able to do so.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Living Here: Getting Things Done

I had a plumbing problem a while back. After about a week it was fixed. Below is an image of the crew on the patio in the midst of a critical phase of the project.

You might say, "It took a week? No wonder, it looks like those guys just sat on their backsides drinking Coke and eating chips!"

Actually, the photo was made in the afternoon, normal time for a break, and the adhesive on the newly-installed PVC fittings needed to set before we could crank up the pump and check for leaks under pressure. So actually the guys timed their rest break to coincide with this halt in the work. This scene was all in a day's work, and fine by me.

While waiting for this crew to show up one day, I started thinking about the issue of efficiency and getting things done in Mexico, and a few thoughts came to mind.

The issue of time is a frustration that most expatriates here experience. To be quite frank, sometimes you arrange for a service and the people come hours late or simply don't show up. You sit around the house watching the day slip away, and the guy who you are waiting for to fix the fridge or paint your cabinets probably doesn't think it's a big deal.

Many foreigners move here because the way of life is less stressful, more casual, and "laid back." Americans I know here especially like the "laid back" part -- for themselves -- but some of these same people then want everybody else to stick to a schedule and for things to to happen on time. To those I would paraphrase an old saying in English, "you can't have your flan and eat it, too."

It is possible to find conscientious, punctual workers, but people don't operate in a vacuum. Sometimes there is a domino effect and people will be late, no matter what their intentions, because others on whom they depend hold them up.

Another thing that foreigners who've moved to Mexico may not take into consideration is that culturally we're the oddballs here, living as many of us do as singles or couples without a lot of extended family around. In most Mexican households there are mothers with children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, so someone is usually around. In addition, even middle-class families may have a household employee around during the day. For most Mexican families, a worker being late for a service call or repair job is not the big inconvenience it is for someone who lives alone and has to wait around "wasting time" when a worker doesn't keep an appointment.

The best strategy is to expect a wait, and then plan to do something useful or fun with that time. Prepare to work on projects or hobbies around the house that day so that staying home won't be a big inconvenience. And, if the washing machine repair guy says he will come at 10:00AM, don't commit to a lunch out with friends at noon. Invite your friends over and be ready for interruptions, or reschedule something for another day. And by all means, get the cell phone number of service people so you can check in with them if necessary. 

Another way to deal with waiting is if you have a trusted house cleaning person, try when possible to schedule repairs or other services when that person is working. That way you can go about your business while someone else is home waiting for service personnel to show up.

I find that generally although services here are not always as timely as is expected in the U.S., they usually are effective, especially considering that the cost of getting things done is often much more economical. I think it's important to examine your expectations. Define what result is needed. If you want everything to be the same as north of the border you will be unendingly frustrated. If you put the lower costs and more personalized service into perspective, you'll likely find that usually you are getting a pretty good deal. Get recommendations, and once you find good crafts, repair and technical people, stick with them. If you communicate effectively with those working for you and develop a relationship, you'll find that you generally get what you need and that the time factor is manageable.

In the case of this plumbing job, I waited for the crew to get around to me because they have worked for me for years, know the house well, and are trustworthy. I paid 400 pesos or about 33 U.S. dollars to have a check valve at the bottom of my well (which entailed disconnecting and raising a long section of pipe), a damaged valve and a cracked fitting replaced. It took a few days to get it done (they are busy), but the quality of the work is good, and I suspect I would have paid at least several hundred dollars in labor to have the same work done in the states.

Did I wait around some? Yes. 

Was it inconvenient? That depends upon your point of view. I've adjusted my expectations a bit. Overall it worked out fine, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Coast

One of the things that most attracts me to Yucatán is that there still are long stretches of beach that look and feel just as they must have when only Mayan people were here, living in small villages along this coast, fishing and producing salt for trade long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores on the Peninsula. In other words, there are areas still with no houses, no powerlines and very few people. When you are there you feel the sun and wind and see just birds, waves, miles of light-tan sand, and not much else. Occasionally you might encounter a family that appears magically as they quietly walk up an unseen trail through the dunes, or a skiff full of fishermen, or a boy on a horse. But just occasionally.

The ocean and beaches have always had a powerful allure to my family. When I was born our home was a log cabin on an Alaska beach, and with the exception of a few shorter periods of time, I have lived my entire life very close to the sea. I can't imagine living any other way. When I am away from a coast for very long I feel its absence and long to be near it.

As a small child, I viewed the beach as a barrier, a very real limit beyond which it was difficult to cross. We would wade carefully in, splash and swim in the waves at waters' edge, but could not venture farther. We cast in fishing lines, intruding just a little deeper into this mysterious space, waiting for something to take the bait on our hooks. I remember always trying to imagine the creatures out there, but it was difficult to clearly picture that other world just beyond reach. In my childhood days before technology made high-quality underwater films and television programming relatively easy to produce, the deep, dark underwater world did truly seem as vast and mysterious as outer space.

As I grew I learned to swim and dive, operate small boats and handle a kayak, and began to view the beach as an open entryway to a vast, three-dimensional world rather than a barrier and a mystery.

Back in the mid-sixties, we took vacations along Florida's Gulf Coast, primarily on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Lazy hikes down the long, pristine stretches of beach, swimming, surf fishing and collecting huge bags of shells along the edges of the warm Gulf waters are my fondest memories of childhood family vacations. There were at the time still a few old families around there living off the sea; that culture was still alive.

Unfortunately, when I go to those places now, changes caused by the intervening decades of development make a nostalgic visit difficult. Big hotels, condominiums and the presence of lots more people have changed the very nature of the places. The beaches themselves, as you stand and gaze out to sea, look the same, but to your back the congestion, commercialization and crowds make everything else different. The tranquility and old ways are pretty much gone, replaced by timeshare condo and vacation culture, which utilizes the beaches and water mostly as a backdrop against which to seek pleasure, and appreciates little of the important things that the environment has to offer.

A trip along large stretches of the Yucatán Peninsula Gulf Coast can be almost like a time-machine journey. Two-lane highways and sand roads predominate. There are sections of coast with no roads at all. Villages, still largely authentic Mayan fishing ports, here and there sprinkled with modest vacation homes, still exist. Most of these places offer rustic seafood restaurants, but there are large chunks of the coast where tourism is modest and hotel rooms are scarce.

In the places where there are rooms, they are often basic, as are the prices. This is great for those of us who are happy in simple quarters and have little interest in "luxury vacations," viewing the real luxury simply as access to big stretches of quiet, unspoiled coast. Things are changing, though. More development is happening. Highways to the coast have been modernized. On the outskirts of my favorite small coastal village an American contractor has bought a long strip of beach, stretched barbed wire and "for sale" signs across beach access trails, and is constructing enormous, million-dollar beach houses. These will probably never be permanent residences for anyone; more likely just occasional vacation getaways for the privileged few with little connection to the environment or local people.

Change is coming here, but I hope it happens slowly. I don't write in any great detail about my very favorite places because what I enjoy about them is destroyed when they become popular. Some things are better left alone.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Business: Mérida Home For Sale

And now a word from our sponsor.

Don't worry friends, I am not about to commercialize this blog. It's just that I have a house for sale, and I suddenly realized that since the readers here are a pretty select group of people seriously interested in Yucatán, it might be worthwhile (both for me and maybe for one of you) to post the information.

And after all, this blog is about life in Mexico and Mérida, Yucatán. The buying and selling of old houses is a part of life here, so actually this falls in with the general drift of my posts.

Last fall I bought this small house not far from my home in Mérida's centro historico with the idea of renovating it as a rental, but I have since found a different sort of project outside of the city. I already have my place in town, so I decided to concentrate my energies on the new opportunity instead of this house.

This could be the perfect lock-and-leave residence for someone living in Mérida seasonally. It also would be great for a beach or rural resident wanting a place to stay when in the city for shopping, doctor visits, or a weekend on the town. It's an ideal option for someone wanting to downsize and live economically but with style. It could also be a mother-in-law or guest house for someone already living in the neighborhood.

Old floor tiles in front room
The house is located on Calle 70, about three blocks from Parque Santiago and seven from Parque Santa Ana, with their well-known markets and restaurants. There are no buses and little truck traffic on the street. A movie theater, supermarket, and hardware, paint, dentists, doctors, auto mechanics and all manner of other services are available within a few blocks' radius. The Mérida English Library is practically around the corner. Mérida's main plaza is nine blocks, or about a ten-minute walk away.

The traditional thick-walled mamposteria (rock and mortar) structure consists of three rooms, plus kitchen, bathroom, and a cement-block storage room. Doors and windows are sturdy metalwork with glass. Beamed ceilings in the two front rooms measure about 4.5 meters (14.7 feet) in height. The lot measures 97 square meters (1044 square feet) with 83 square meters (893 square feet) of construction. The original floors (photos) in the first two rooms are in good shape and just need polishing. The roof is in good condition and there are no structural faults that I know of. Although everything is in functional condition, the house needs updated wiring, plumbing, fixtures and finishes to meet modern standards.

Some of the benefits:

Front room
Economy: Property taxes on the house last year were $77 pesos, or about six and a half US dollars -- that's the tax bill for the whole year. Garbage collection (three pickups per week) costs less than three dollars per month, and many other costs are similarly affordable. This truly is a place where people could manage well on a small pension. More on the economy of living in Mérida in this post.

Easy redo: For someone who wants to renovate the existing structure without making huge changes or adding rooms, it could be a very economical remodel. I estimate that it is possible to rewire, replumb, renovate the kitchen and bathroom, repair and paint, build a small dipping pool in the patio for under USD$20,000., and have a fantastic urban retreat. It is also possible to build up (the house next door was recently enlarged this way) to add bedrooms and a rooftop terrace.

Security: I have had my home just down the street since 2003 and to my knowledge there has not been a single home breakin, robbery or assault in this neighborhood during that time. It is possible to walk around the area, even late at night, without worrying about safety. Police patrol cars roll down the street on a routine basis and police headquarters and a fire/rescue station are located just a few blocks north. Clinica de Mérida, a high-quality medical center with emergency room, is just a few minutes drive away. The neighbors are nice people, the sort who still put their rocking chairs out on the sidewalk at night to talk and visit with friends. The area generally is quiet, and there are few businesses in the immediate vicinity. More on safety and security in Yucatán in this post.

Here's one more post on some of the nice things about living here.

For more details, comment below or email me:

Sale price: USD$42,000.  SOLD

Middle room

Third room with bath


View from front room looking towards back of house

Patio and storage building

The first two rooms have high, beamed ceilings
Old pasta tile floor in bedroom

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Living Here: A Tabloid Moment

It was an evening out of the tabloid press.

As I walked out of baggage claim in Mérida's airport Monday night following a return flight from Mexico City, crowds of young women began to holler and mob several of the younger men from my flight who'd stepped into the reception area just ahead of me.

Back in the boarding area of Terminal 2 in Mexico City's Benito Juarez Airport, I'd become aware that what I assumed was some sort of pop music group was waiting with me for the Mérida-bound flight. I didn't recognize them, but from the garb and talk I assumed they were on their way to Yucatán for a performance. This deduction was more-or-less confirmed when I was pressed in the crush of autograph seekers and picture-takers as I tried to wheel my bag through the arrivals area in Mérida.

I had to wait for a minute or two while my neighbor Margarita (who was there to pick me up) jostled to take a photo of her teenaged daughter with a lead cast member of La Academia, actually a television program that is a Mexican combination of Big Brother and American Idol. The cast and production crew visit different states of the republic where they shoot a series of programs in which local young talents live together in a large house and then compete with each other by performing, with the obligatory drama of social friction and weekly eliminations, all of which is documented and edited into program segments. This apparently garners a large national following. Winners are given recording contracts and some go on to become well-known performers or recording artists. The program was to begin casting in Mérida the following day for its next series of shows based upon Yucatecan talent. My friends were very impressed that I had been on the plane with this famous TV cast. They were even more impressed, or should I say incredulous, that I had no idea who these TV stars were.

Margarita told me she had also just taken her daughter's photo with a famous plastic surgeon who had arrived. I guess he's a guy who does lots of stars and famous people in Mexico. Her suspicion was that he was in Yucatán to "botox" a certain key political figure with rumored higher political ambitions.

Speaking of politicians, my neighbor mentioned that while waiting she'd noticed lots of party operatives hanging around in the terminal, apparently there to greet a few prominent pols who got off my flight. This was due to the fact that the governor was giving her annual report to the people later the same night, and obviously important people were arriving to attend the event. Margarita had recognized some, and had shaken hands with a number of them.

One of these, she said, looked like the brother of ex-president of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and she indicated a small cluster of men in dark slacks and white guayaberas against one wall. She'd said hello to the man and shaken his hand, although she didn't continue the conversation to confirm his identity because she felt out of place wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, having just driven in from the beach to pick me up.

Well, when I opened the newspaper the next morning, I discovered (and Margarita later confirmed) that she was wrong. It wasn't Salinas' brother she's spied. It was the ex-president himself. Carlos Salinas apparently had been on my flight.

So I'd jet-setted with them all: reality-show stars, the celebrity botox-and-boobs surgeon to the rich and famous, and an ex-president of Mexico.

I had a tabloid moment, and I'd had no idea.