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.