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.