Friday, December 28, 2012

Blogging: Favorite Posts of 2012

I enjoy reviewing a year's worth of posts and selecting a few to share once again with readers.

It was hard to choose my favorite posts this year in part because the blog's focus has evolved. I started writing here several years ago to share my experiences and observations about the life of an Alaskan living in the Mexican state of Yucatán. The emphasis was heavy on travel, nature, culture, and life in a foreign country.

This year was a challenging one personally and in my family, but surprisingly I found myself content -- not one hundred percent happy, of course, but optimistic and centered in my place in the world -- despite a lot of changes and stress around me. That's what I wrote about. An Alaskan in Yucatán became more personal and introspective in 2012.

One of my January posts amounted to a resolution for the new year which still looks good to me eleven months later. It was titled, Contentment: If I Had a Million Dollars.

A few months later, reflecting on many things that had quickly and irrevocably changed in my life, I found myself considering how much I'd learned about maintaining a perspective and finding meaning, even in times of change and stress. The result was a post called The Splendor of Each Day.

You can read more posts on the theme of contentment here.

In keeping with the theme of staying positive and feeling good, early in the year I posted about the fine art of napping, Mexican style (photo at top). The Art of the Siesta summarizes what I have learned about the techniques and benefits of taking an afternoon rest.

In 2012 I didn't abandon entirely the sorts of things I wrote about when I first started blogging. I continued writing occasionally on animals and our natural surroundings. My favorite on the topic this year was about the pair of tortoises I adopted several years ago and which live in my back yard.

I also continued writing the series of posts called Living Here, which focuses on everyday life and adapting to the culture of Mexico. Earlier this year I tried to help a Yucatecan friend resolve a difficult legal and personal situation, so I plugged into my network of friends and contacts in Mérida. I was gratified and humbled by the way Mexicans can come to the aid of a friend in need. I told about this experience in a post entitled The Power of Relationships.

Two thousand twelve was not among my best years, but nevertheless it was a year of great learning, and I had many things to be thankful for.

Best wishes for 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The House and Garden Tour, From the Inside

Brent Marsh (center) leads a House and Garden Tour

I've never been the type who wanted to live in an Architectural Digest sort of house. So when my friend and real estate agent Jennifer Lytle approached me recently about putting my place on the Mérida English Language Library House and Garden Tour, I was a bit reluctant.

This tour affords the curious an opportunity to peek inside interesting homes within walking distance of the English Library in Mérida centro. The fee charged goes to support library programs. Most of the tour-goers are foreigners visiting the area, and many are considering living here at least part of the time.

My problem with throwing open the doors was that my house, even after nine years, remains unfinished. There are windows without glass, cabinets without doors, and the whole second story is only half-completed. The facade has not been repaired in decades and occasionally little chunks of it rain down onto the sidewalk. Stuffing pops out of furniture cushions. Nothing is really done.

To make matters worse, since the first phase of the renovation was completed six years ago, much that was finished, nicely painted, shiny and new back then is now peeling, a bit rusty or otherwise weather- and time-worn. The house is very comfortable, but in its current condition it is not a candidate for any design or decorating awards. And since that sort of thing is not an interest of mine, I doubt it ever will be. I do not worry about a little peeling paint or falling plaster here and there. These things happen to an antique house in the tropics. I am not about to dedicate an excessive amount of my time to maintaining my home in picture-perfect condition.

I have never been on the tour, but am aware that many of the homes included feature award-winning architecture and are among the most elegant and well-appointed in Mérida. I just wasn't sure my unfinished home,  set up more for comfort and convenience rather than impact, would fit with the program. But Jennifer convinced me that visitors would be interested in seeing a place that is "lived in."

So last Tuesday they came. There were about twenty on the tour, enough to make my ample front sala feel a bit cramped when they'd all gotten inside.

It was obvious that most of the tour-goers had done a little homework or visited other homes in the area. Mostly they asked specific, practical questions about the ins and outs of fixing up an old house in Mérida. Many were interested in materials not so commonly seen north of the border, things such as polished concrete floors and poured countertops and the variety of tiles and stone used in finishes. Some loved the copper sinks and basins from Michoacan. Others had questions about gardening and plants.

I even met a couple of readers of this blog.

It was an appreciative group, and I found it interesting to view my home through their eyes. Once again I was reminded of how fortunate I am to live in this place.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goodbye. These People Are Serious.

They are waiting. Hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of people. Tomorrow is the end of the world.

I took this photo of a white-clad group in the woods of the archaeological zone of Kabah last week. They spoke Italian as they wandered through the ruins of Kabah and climbed over the ancient buildings.

As we were leaving, I noticed that the group had congregated, formed a circle and were meditating. It made a beautiful, peaceful image and I decided to take a photo. I stayed at a respectful distance and did nothing to bother them or interfere with the proceedings. But immediately a man who'd appeared to be a group leader began waving his arms violently at me. If looks could kill, my world would have ended right then and there. I turned and began to walk away. I kept my eye on the group, though. The man was not meditating. He preferred to glare angrily at me until I was out of sight.

Then I recalled the miffed looks we had gotten from other members of the group. A couple of them had chosen to sit and meditate here and there in the middle of walkways on the site, and seemed to be upset that we were walking by and talking. I tried not to bother anyone, but I feel that if their meditation skills are so feeble that a little noise is a problem then they shouldn't have chosen to meditate in such a public place. These individuals were not a good advertisement for the peace and tranquility achieved through meditation.

A friend who was with us this day emailed me later to say that she had seen an article online about this very group, which apparently is wrapped up in some sort of Armageddon cult.

The point is that although these people seemed to be having trouble reaching bliss through meditation, they are serious. Maybe relaxing is a little difficult when you believe that the world is going to end later in the week.

The Diario de Yucatán today published a brief summary of past Apocalypse predictions, of which there have been a great many over the last couple thousand years. The Jehova's Witnesses have predicted the end at least four times. Various Christian sects and cults also have predicted the end on occasion based upon biblical writings. Of course there is Nostradamus. Scientists and mathematicians, including Sir Isaac Newton also saw the end coming at one time or another. There have been plenty of others. And we're still here.

The Diario also published an article in which an expert on pre-hispanic Maya culture states that modern western culture radically misinterprets the Maya calendar. "The Mayas were not able to predict the arrival of the end of the world, among other things, because in their worldview the linear view of time, with its apocalyptic mentality inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, did not exist."

There you have it. The modern view of it all is so different from the cyclical, pre-European point of view that we've got it all screwed up.

I went to La Flor de Santiago yesterday to have coffee with friends. I was the first to arrive and the only client in the place, so José the waiter talked with me for a few minutes.

José asked me what I thought about the end of the world. I told him I guess that the ancient calendar makers figured they were in good shape when they were a few hundred years ahead in their work, and that had they not been rudely interrupted by the Spanish, they'd have updated the calendar and added a few more centuries by now.

José laughed and nodded. "Pretty simple isn't it?" he said. "Lots of locos out there."

I have plans for the holidays and a brand new 2013 calendar. I've also got a few blog posts in the works. Look me up the day after tomorrow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Wanderings: Adventure on the White Road

Friday three of us were near Santa Elena, Yucatán, searching for a little-visited ruin known by a variety of names, but commonly referred to as Sacbe (Sok-BAY), which in Maya means "white road."

This was not a simple task. Maybe the several names were part of the problem. The fact that major Mayan highways connecting pre-Colombian cities also were called sacbe because they were paved in white limestone also could confuse things. And persons giving us directions were mostly elder speakers of the Mayan language, and that certainly didn't make communicating easier.

Valerie at The Pickled Onion, where we were staying, gave us simple directions to Sacbe and it sounded easy enough. But just to be sure, after we turned off the main highway as directed I stopped and rolled down the window to ask advice from a group of men on bicycles. They were coming from the parcelas, or farm plots, which was where we were headed. Immediately our little saga began.

Although I told them we were looking for the ruins of Sacbe, the first man apparently did not hear a word I said and assumed all foreigners wanted to go to the same place. He told us, "Kabah is back on the main highway. This is the wrong road."

When I said we'd been to Kabah and repeated that we were looking for the ruined Maya city called Sacbe, which was supposed to be down this road, another chimed in, "Hotel Sacbe is back on the main highway. You passed it. Better turn around."

After another minute or two of getting answers to questions I hadn't asked,  I decided to cut my losses and said "gracias." I said that I would turn around as soon as I found a wide spot. With that, we continued straight on down the dusty road past forest, occasional milpas and piles of irrigation pipe.

After a wrong turn that resulted in a hike down a long path to a bunch of bee hives, we finally thought we were on the right track. We'd driven past a whitewashed chapel and then an open gate as described by Valerie. After the gate, we were looking for a road off to the right.

We tried two roads on the right, parking each time to hike and scout the territory, all the time looking for odd piles of rock, worked stones or structures in the trees that might signal ruins. We even hiked a distance down one road on the left, just in case. We found more bee colonies and several times paused to watch birds, including Chel (Yucatan Jay), Ixchel (Green Jay), Yuyum (Altamira Oriole), Xtakay (Great Kiskadee) and Toh (Turquiose-Browed Motmot).

We drove on and finally saw an old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sitting in the shade of an irrigation pump house. When we asked about Sacbe he nodded and described just the ruins we'd been told about, and then said that we had come too far.

We climbed back into the car and followed his directions, backtracking and turning off on yet another dirt road, where we found a field full of grazing cattle he'd described. We passed through the gate, refastened it and began walking in the direction he'd indicated would take us finally to Sacbe. Almost immediately, however, a small herd of cattle, including one large, dark bull, began making its way very deliberately in our direction. Seeing this, we needed little convincing to change our minds about the idea, and trotted back to the gate, which we slid through and refastened securely behind us. As if to compensate us for this disappointment, in the area we observed a large, brown snake, noted wild orchids in the trees and found iridescent green wild turkey feathers.

I had been trying to call Valerie to clear up our confusion, but we had been out of cell phone range. Suddenly I noticed that here there was a signal, so I called. According to Valerie (who'd been to the ruins), way back at the pump house where the helpful man had advised us to turn around, we ought to have turned right. So we backtracked again and, waving at the man in passing, took the right turn.

We continued on for awhile, and the red clay cancab road suddenly became white and hard like a true sacbe. We joked that this must be a good sign. However, ultimately we turned around after talking to a man named Tomás who we found spraying his corn field where the road became too rough to continue in the car. Tomás had once worked a season assisting a team of archaeologists. He told us about many interesting ruins in the area, including a place where a trick of the full moon makes the ancient, abandoned buildings appear to be illuminated from within and another where at night voices can be heard whispering in a strange tongue. He offered to guide us to these mysterious places on another occasion, but did not know about Sacbe.

We were a little hot, tired and hungry at this point, and concluded that Sacbe was indeed best located with the help of a local who knows the area. So we promised to contact Tomás soon, and headed back to The Pickled Onion for a much-needed lunch and cool drinks.

Once again, as I often find, the original goal of the day was not met, but the unexpected adventure was well worth the effort. We saw interesting things. We'd found a sacbe, but not the ruins of Sacbe this time. We will return another day to continue the adventure.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Chance Encounters, Near Misses

"Would you mind trading places?" the man standing across the aisle asked me. "You've got the seat next to my wife."

We were in Cancún boarding a Florida-bound flight a few weeks ago. My ticket said "9-C" and his "9-D." We traded places so he could be next to his wife and a friend, who were seated in the center and window seats next to my assigned aisle seat. He was a tall foreigner, probably American, traveling with his Mexican wife and several others, including his daughter, son-in-law and mother-in-law. There were seven in the group, sprinkled in our row and the row in front of us. They talked back and forth, so it was impossible not to overhear that they were headed north to join a cruise in Fort Lauderdale.

I thought no more about them until ten days later when I boarded my return flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cancún. I again was in aisle seat 9-C, and to my surprise as I approached the row, the same man was standing in 9-D, as he had been on the previous flight. The whole group was headed home, in the same seats they'd had on the flight north. The man was looking expectantly down the aisle for the person assigned to 9-C so he could arrange a swap and sit by his wife, just as he'd done before.

This time I beat him to the punch. "Would you like to trade places?" I asked. "I believe I've got the seat next to your wife."

He immediately recognized me. After we chuckled and speculated for a few moments about what the odds must be against this sort of thing happening, we talked a bit about their cruise. When the plane was airborne, I had some time to think.

I realized that what had just occurred really is not terribly odd. These types of coincidences are actually common. It's just that much of the time when people with connections briefly pass by each other, we do not recognize the situation and never know what has happened. What was most odd in this case was, I think, that we recognized each other.

Exemplifying the point, during that same Florida visit I spent time with my cousin Greg, whom until a few months ago I had never met, nor even known existed. Due to a family misunderstanding in the 1950's, his mother, my mom's older sister, lost touch with the family in Baltimore and was never heard from again. Detective work on the part of another cousin, aided by Facebook, brought long-lost cousins together in Florida for the very first time earlier this year.

We discovered that my sister, who moved to Florida three years ago, lives only a fifteen minutes' drive away from Greg and his family. She has shopped routinely at the supermarket nearest her house, where incredibly, our cousin works as a manager. They may have seen each other many times, with no inkling that they were related. And we learned that our two families also had lived only a two-hour drive apart for four years in the early 1970's, complete oblivious to each others' existence.

Even stranger was the fact that my mother and Greg's dad, who is the brother-in-law Mom never knew about, had lived simultaneously at the same nursing home for awhile earlier this year. They had probably seen each other passing in the halls or possibly said hello to each other without knowing the true story. And for that matter, sadly, when visiting his father there Greg may have seen my mother, his aunt, (who since has passed away) without knowing who she was.

And I've seen this sort of thing before. My first college room mate in Alaska graduated from the same Florida high school as I, and had lived seven or eight blocks from our home. We'd never crossed paths only because he was five years older and had left the area soon after graduating.

A couple of years later, I ran into a girl in Fairbanks whom I'd met and talked to once several years before, as we jostled in a jeep along rural roads in Colombia, where we went to do volunteer work.

Once on a beach in Portugal I conversed with a guy who was laying on the sand near me. We discovered to our great surprise that we both had been born in Ketchikan, Alaska. It turned out that I'd known his brother at the University of Alaska and we had common friends. Years later, although we had not kept in touch during the interim, we bumped into each other in a coffee shop in Juneau, Alaska, and picked up where we'd left off in Portugal years before.

Later I quit a photojournalism job in Anchorage and went south for a few months. Returning home aboard the Alaska State Ferry Columbia, the first night out I sat down in the ship's bar next to a guy who I was astounded to learn was moving north to fill the very position I'd left.

These are only a few of the many instances in which I have experienced chance meetings in circumstances that easily might not have occurred. I've run into friends in the oddest far-off places. I've also bumped into the same strangers time and again in different parts of the world. On numerous occasions I've met others who have close connections with my family, friends or places I know very well. Were I an extrovert, I am sure I'd have even more of these stories to tell.

What is interesting to speculate about is how many times we come very close to these meetings, but never quite make the connection. Twenty-five years after our meeting on the Alaska State Ferry, we recently discovered, my photographer friend was on vacation in Mérida, and stayed only a few blocks from my house. We had been out of contact and he didn't know I was here. We missed that opportunity.

Over time, and particularly when we travel, we briefly pass thousands of individuals, and to a fair percentage of these we may have some sort of connection. I have to conclude that these tangents to our lives are all around us and that near-misses happen fairly often.

What this boils down to is that when these meetings occur, the coincidences really aren't coincidences. We are all part of an incredibly complex social web of friends, family, less-intimate contacts, communities and places.

The world is a small place. We really are remarkably close to everyone else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Living Here: Earthquakes

There was a strong earthquake centered off the coast of Guatemala on November 7, and it was felt all over southern Mexico.

Sismos, quakes, normally don't merit front-page headlines in Yucatán, which is not known for seismic activity, but this one was felt in Mérida. I didn't notice it, but the newspaper reported the next day that the quake had been felt in the upper levels of some multi-story buildings in the north part of the city.

Various friends of mine in Mexico and Oaxaca states, closer to the epicenter, commented about the quake on Facebook. I called one friend in Oaxaca who reported that while startling, the quake seemed to have caused no damage in her area.

Since that time several more strong quakes have been felt in Mexico. All of this recent activity brought back to me a cascade of earthquake memories. All through my years in Alaska, quakes and smaller earth tremors were a normal occurrence. I also felt quakes as a teen in Colombia and later on visits to California. But fortunately the only loss we ever experienced from quakes was a few dishes and decorative bottles of Mom's that fell in the kitchen during a Fairbanks quake in 1967.

When the 1985 quake hit Mexico City I was in Israel, picking bananas on a farm in the Western Galilee. Several of my co-workers were Mexicans. What I recall vividly is how frantically they followed the news, and how one of them tried, for days before achieving success, to get word of her family. Now, interestingly, I know several chilango families who moved from Mexico City to Mérida in the aftermath of that event.

In August 2002, as I was searching for a home in Mexico, I visited the city of Colima, just a bit inland from Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast. I was enchanted by the area and its mountains, Colima's proximity to the coast, and interesting old houses in the city center. I looked at several that were for sale. Then a few months later back home in Alaska, I tuned in radio news one morning to learn that a massive quake had shaken the area. When I had time to watch video and see photos of the damage, I saw that some of the very streets and buildings that I'd looked at were now rubble. As a result, Colima moved quite a few notches down my list of possible Mexican hometowns.

I really like old Mexican architecture, but one of its problems is that although the stone, brick or adobe buildings with their thick walls are stout, they can be extremely fragile in quakes because they are heavy and built without reinforcing steel of any kind. Yucatán is not known for earthquakes, and Mérida has more intact colonial buildings than any city in the country outside of Mexico City itself. That so many of these very old, un-reinforced buildings are still standing was to me a good sign that Yucatán is a fairly earthquake-safe zone. A year after visiting Colima and eight months after the Colima earthquake of 2003, I bought my house in Mérida.

However, earthquakes do originate on the Yucatán Peninsula, according to an interesting news item published in El Diario de Yucatán a few days after the recent tremors in Mérida. The article relates that the most notable in recent times was a quake of magnitude 4.2 on the Richter scale, centered in Quintana Roo in 2010. This shaker was strongly felt in Ticul, little more than an hour's drive from Mérida.

The article quotes an investigator in the Dept. of Seismology at the Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mérida as saying that little is known about what seismic faults exist in the Peninsula, and for this reason temblors in the Yucatán are little understood. He urges additional research into the matter, stating, "We need to further investigate the active faults, to see if they are large or small, and to find out if a disastrous earthquake could occur in the Peninsula."

Mérida and the Yucatán's population is growing rapidly. We have lots of old buildings here, and new construction often is not built with earthquakes in mind. This suggestion sounds like a good idea.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Contentment: Inspired by the Birds

In a recent post I mentioned feeling restless.

It's not unusual that every so often we crave change, a new pace and new stimulation. I saw a study once that identified actual psychological reasons for the famous "seven year itch." I do not remember the specifics, but I know from experience that over time routines can stultify; stuck in a rut we live on automatic. But change stimulates. It keeps us moving and thinking, makes us more creative, and allows us to grow by looking at things in new ways.

In my life the "itch" has been a reality and the source of many of the good things I have experienced. Looking back at the big changes I made over the years, I can see a pattern of major transitions occurring roughly every five to ten years. The average of the intervals between major shifts is startlingly close to the storied seven years.

And here again I find myself, seven years after I moved to Mérida to live full time. It's been seven years and four months to be exact. For a while now I have been having recurring thoughts about making a change.

I am restless, but at the same time I really enjoy the life I've got: a pleasant, well-situated, comfortable house in a great town, close friends, low stress and freedom to do many of the things I want to do. As we age there is a lot to be said for this kind of stability. Although I feel the need to scratch the itch that calls for change, I really don't want to chuck everything and start with a blank slate, as I did on several occasions when I was younger.

So I was contemplating this problem yesterday as I cleaned out a storage area which, because it is partially open, attracts nesting doves, known here as tortolitas. Among the objects stored high on a shelf there is an old bird cage that has proven to be the platform of choice for their nests. After several years of hosting generations of these bird families, I'd decided to do something to encourage them to move elsewhere. I took the cage off the top shelf with the goal of removing the currently-vacant nest, and cleaning up the litter of twigs and grass, broken egg shells and the encrusted droppings that had built up there.

It was then I noticed off to one side the egg, apparently infertile or dead, which was left by the last pair to occupy the nest. I had noticed that instead of the normal two they raised only a single chick, which fledged last week. Apparently this egg was pushed aside when it didn't hatch. I placed the egg back in the nest and hung the cage on a hook outside while I cleaned up the area.

Instantly I noticed the possibilities of a good image, and as I arranged the scene and took photos, realized what an apt solution for my "itch" conundrum the picture suggests. It is natural for birds to escape from and to stay away from cages whenever possible. The tortolitas who built this nest purely by chance created a startling image, and gave me an idea: Instead of abandoning our "cages," we can look at them in new ways and use them for new purposes.

Although I will not leave Mérida, I have been thinking about selling my house and making some serious changes, much as I did in the past. Perhaps that's not the right tactic at this point in the game.

The challenge is to, as the timeworn saying goes, "think outside the box," or as the photo suggests, outside the cage; not to abandon it or toss "the old" out, but to find ways to utilize what we've already got to hatch new, creative perspectives. This is a concept worth consideration.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Living Here: Cool, Cool Water

Swimming at my house is not the same as it was a month or more ago. The water in the pool is cooling rapidly.

I notice this situation each fall. Around the equinox in late September, abruptly the sun is far enough south that the tall trees in my neighbors' yards shade the pool for a good part of the day. Without benefit of the warming afternoon sun, within a couple of weeks the water temperature has plummeted.

During this season I still get in the pool, but instead of an extended, soothing, leisurely soak, now the experience is brisk. If I need a little help waking up in the morning, I know exactly what to do. A brief plunge accomplishes the task. I often take these morning wake-up dips with a steaming cup of coffee on hand. Poolside cold drinks are out of the question for the next few months.

Gone for a while are the relaxing afternoon or evening "floats," when I hover between the earth and sky on a cushion of warm water and observe nature, or snooze. I'll miss those tranquil, meditative moments and the calm but energized way I feel when I leave the water afterward.

Swims for the time being are quicker, more active affairs. My pool is not long enough to allow me to get up any momentum swimming laps, but I kick energetically, dive like a seal, and tread water for exercise. It is reported that there can be health benefits to plunging or swimming in cold water. All I know is that when the pool is cool I feel invigorated when I get out.

Either way, whether the water is warm or cool, a little pool time makes me feel good.

A side benefit of the cool months in Yucatán is that pool maintenance is easier. That's because algae that sometimes grow on pool sides and bottom reproduce much more slowly in cool water. Microorganisms and bacteria that cloud water are in the same boat. I use less chemicals and work less often at keeping the pool clean during the cool season.

I continue to swim in all but the chilliest weather. Normally there are times from December into February when I don't swim much at all. It just seems too cold. It's funny to remember how I participated in the Polar Bear Swim in the Chukchi Sea at Barrow, Alaska some years ago. That day we splashed and swam amidst large chunks of ice. On the coldest Yucatecan winter days, my Mérida pool water would seem absolutely tropical by comparison.

Read another post on enjoying the water here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Story: La Princesa, Part 2

Recently I posted the story of La Princesa (read part one here), wife of a 19th-century owner of the Yucatán hacienda San Antonio Xpakay who was brutally murdered by her husband for infidelity with a hacienda employee. She bled to death in the main house, known in Yucatán as a casona, more than 150 years ago, but locals believe that her unhappy spirit still lingers on the hacienda. Here I tell about my experience with La Princesa. Verse by the Mayan poet Briceida Cuevas Cob, translated into English by current San Antonio Xpakay owner Jonathan Harrington, helps tell the story.

When Jonathan bought San Antonio Xpakay about ten years ago, there was a family that had been on the hacienda for twenty years still living in one of the houses, and Jonathan kept them on for awhile after he moved in. Jonathan reports that Basilio, long-time hacienda employee and father of the family, his wife and children all had stories about La Princesa. these moments in which the blood of the sun
is scratched by the limbs of a tree
like the blood of my heart
is scratched by the claws of solitude. (1)

She appears as a faint female figure normally seen at a distance, wandering around the grounds in the evening. She is beautiful.

The children reported seeing a lone female moving along the albarradas, or stone fences, at the far ends of the garden. And they were pretty sure it wasn't just some neighbor. San Antonio Xpakay is located in the midst of wild monte, which is forest or what we in Alaska might call The Bush, kilometers away from the nearest pueblo or other house. It is reached by traveling over horse trails or rough ranch roads and has no close neighbors. The area is remote, can be dangerous, and is an easy environment in which to get lost. Occasionally in the Mérida newspaper there appears a story about a skeleton or just a few scattered human bones found in the monte, which if they are ever identified, usually turn out to be the remains of someone who had been reported missing. Authorities and family members often can only speculate how and why the deceased died alone in el monte. The wild country around San Antonio Xpakay is not the kind of place where someone, especially a woman alone, would be out wandering in the moonlight.

Basilio's family did not go out after dark.

Night falls, and the crickets begin to sing again,
once again the night sinks into my sadness. (2)

Late one night not long after moving in, Jonathan was asleep in his bedroom in the casona when he was awakened by the clap-clap of sandaled footsteps on the tile floors. He went back to sleep and thought little of it until the next day, when he casually asked Basilio why he had come into the house in the middle of the night. Basilio swore that he had stayed in with his family after dark, and had not been in the main house the night before. Basilio was not surprised because the explanation was easy: it was just La Princesa.

After posting the first part of this story last week, I decided to go back out to
the hacienda to talk once again with Jonathan about La Princesa and to take more pictures. Although the murder room (right) has undoubtedly changed a lot since La Princesa died here more than 150 years ago, it still exists just off of a main living area used as a guest bedroom, where I usually sleep when I visit. The large room measures five by ten meters, with six meter ceilings (16 by 33 feet with 20-foot ceilings). It is sparsely furnished with several small tables, shelves, and a bed with mosquito net, and is accessed by three doors and two windows.

When I arrived at San Antonio Xpakay, Jonathan was not there, so I located a hidden key and let myself into the house. It was afternoon, so I put sheets on my bed, readied some food I had brought along, and after a short walk decided to take a siesta while I waited for him to get home. Laying on the bed, I looked straight up at the high ceiling, with the mosquito net, designed to cover the whole bed and lowered on a rope by means of a pulley attached to a ceiling beam, directly over my head. The drape of the suspended mesh reminded me of the hems of an old-fashioned woman's dress. I began thinking about my first night in this room, several years ago.

On my first overnight visit, after a long day on the hacienda and in the nearest pueblo, we stayed up late in the dark, sitting on the front terrace and talking. Jonathan had told me stories about the hacienda, mentioned that there had been a murder in the house and that people believed that the ghost, called La Princesa, still haunted the area.

Finally I went to bed in the big room, and Jonathan went to his adjoining bedroom. Nights in the country can be noisy, and when you are not accustomed to the variety of sounds, it takes awhile to get comfortable and to sleep. I am not accustomed to sleeping in such a large room, and it is not cozy, with its numerous open windows and doors.

It took me a long time to get to sleep. Besides all of the noises, including frogs, crickets, owls and other night creatures, the house has its own set of sounds: creaks and bangs of the old metal kitchen roof, scurryings of unidentified creatures, the sounds of the metal windmill and its tower, and many small knocks and rustlings.

Although there were not many insects about, I had lowered the mosquito net over the bed. In the candlelight it glowed a soft yellow. Another candle flickered twenty feet away inside the bathroom, where La Princesa died so long ago. It took me awhile to get there, but I slept.

In the middle of dreamless sleep I suddenly awakened with the feeling that someone had closed a cloth bag or pillowcase over my head. Although I lay in the middle of the double bed and the mosquito netting formed an ample tent overhead, the netting from the right side of the bed was now pushed inward toward me, covering my face and head. Startled, I lay still for a few minutes, listening and moving only my eyes back and forth in an attempt to figure out what had happened. Sensing nothing, I calmed down and rearranged the netting. Although I observed no air movement, I attributed the event to a maverick wind blowing through the open windows, and after tossing and turning for a good long time, eventually went back to sleep.

Now you suffer.
You remain in the sounds of the deaf night. (3)

Later, I was having one of those dreams in which I am scared, being chased or hiding from something that I never can quite recall after I awake. Suddenly it GOT me. I was enveloped and suffocating, and I awoke with a gulping for air, to find the gauze of the netting again in my face and over my mouth. This time I did not stay still, but bolted up and groggily pushed the net quickly away with a flailing of my arms. I sat still and looked around the room. Not a breath of wind wafted through the windows, but again the tent was deformed, the netting to my right pushed inward toward me. I could see that the candle in the room where La Princesa died was no longer burning. Nothing else was disturbed. I wanted to say something out loud, but I didn't know what to say, or to whom.

Where is your voice?
Where have you lost it? (4)

I never figured out what happened and it does not matter. There did not seem to be wind, and my arms were not tangled in the netting when I twice woke with a start, so I did not think that I had somehow pulled the material over onto myself. It was an interesting experience and it makes a good story, no matter what the cause. Although I like to think that I had an encounter with La Princesa, it will remain another of the occasional mysteries I come across around here that keep life interesting.


(1) from the poem, In These Moments, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(2) from the poem, Like the Morning Star, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(3) from the poem, Hypocritical Moon, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(4) from the poem, Your Voice, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Halloween Story: La Princesa, Part 1

Occasionally I like to resurrect favorite stories that were published before I had many readers on this blog. So in the spirit of the Halloween season, here is an authentic Yucatán ghost story, the true tale of  The Princess of San Antonio Xpakay, originally published in July, 2010. This is the first of two parts.

On a recent Friday night I slept in the midst of el monte, or forest, and it was the noisiest night I have spent in a long, long time. I had driven out that morning to Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay, owned by my friend Jonathan Harrington, the poet, translator and writer, to spend a couple of relaxing days enjoying the remoteness, to read, and to have a rambling conversation with him about one of our favorite topics: translating poetry.

It rained Friday afternoon, and roused by the moisture, as soon as the sun went down the frogs, ranas in Spanish, began to call. When the frogs on Xpakay start up, you can't help but notice. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of them, and their groaning, ribbeting chorus is a wall of sound that they begin constructing at dark and maintain into the morning hours of the next day. In addition there was an occasional breeze, which meant that the old windmill next to the house would begin to turn from time to time, adding its rusty screech to the din. A broken rhythm was added to the mix by the fruits of the ramón trees whose branches overhang the back of the house. With an irregular-regular beat these fell tapping like hail on the metal roof of the kitchen, and then rolled slowly down its canted surface to drop on the ground. To this, Jonathan's calf and sometimes owls or other animals of the night added their voices. Romanticizing the atmosphere, there is no electricity at Xpakay; flickering candles provide the only illumination.

After getting used to this music it is possible to sleep, but the erratic nature of the cacophony makes for a wakeful night. A weird thing that happens is that suddenly, coordinated by a signal that we humans cannot perceive, the frogs all stop at once, both the ones close by and all those barely audible in the far distance. This abrupt silence wakes me with a start more certainly than any sudden noise. When I awoke at these silences and found myself unable to go right back to sleep, I began wondering what kind of signal it could be that would prompt all of the frogs over a wide area to stop together so suddenly. Whatever it might be, it is something I am unable to detect. I then, watching long shadows thrown by a single candle flame play on the high beamed ceiling, began thinking about another mystery on the hacienda, that of The Princess, known here as La Princesa.

I was reminded of the stories of La Princesa earlier that day because Jonathan and I were reading over his translations of work by the Mayan poet from Campeche Briceida Cuevas Cob. She writes in the Mayan language and has translated some of her poems into Spanish. Jonathan is working for a publisher in the United States on English versions of some of these poems. The themes of Cuevas Cob's writing, often revolving around love, longing and loss, frequently remind me of the story of La Princesa.

Some time in the early to mid 1800's, La Princesa was the wife of the hacendado, the owner of Hacienda San Antonio XpakayHacendados didn't usually live full time on their haciendas, preferring to overlook their business interests from the comfort of Mérida or another larger town, and to leave the dirty day-to-day running of things to managers, called encargados. However for a period this hacendado was on the hacienda, accompanied by his wife. Apparently La Princesa became interested in the encargado. An attraction that began perhaps with small smiles or a glance held a little longer than appropriate eventually became something more.

Because your heart, you handsome boy,
is a red firefly that winks in the darkness of my existence. (1)

We do not know how it began or how long it lasted. We don't know whether it was love or just a strong physical attraction. But one can imagine a protected, younger wife (why else is she called La Princesa?) who is tired of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, bored with her pampered existence and distant, busy husband. She feels irresistibly drawn to the muscular, energetic hacienda foreman in his wide-brimmed white hat. Perhaps she observes him through a barred and partially-shuttered window as he supervises work around the main house. Possibly he notices her watching, and occasionally glances toward the house to see if she is still at her window. There is more eye contact. This goes on innocently for awhile, but at some point they find themselves alone together, and the situation escalates.

What do I care?
I love you down to my bones!
What the devil do I care if our love goes to hell,
if I go by your side. (2)

The story goes that the hacendado walked one day into the bathroom and discovered not just that his wife was being unfaithful. There he saw that she was willing to perform the most intimate of acts with his employee -- things that a proper woman, lady of this era should not even have known about, much less done -- things that, if the hacendado had ever experienced them, he probably paid a prostitute to do.

This very day
the knees of my soul are sore,
because they have knelt down to cast off your sins,
because they have gone down to receive the lash of your voice, Sir:
...this day you have dismantled my soul (3)

In his rage the hacendado stabbed his wife to death on the spot. Whether the encargado fought or ran, the story does not mention, but considering the customs of the times, to fight El Patrón probably would have meant a death sentence whatever the short-term outcome. The encargado most likely fled and was never able to return to the area. After the murder, possibly the hacendado did not return either. What we do know, if the stories told by local people can be believed, is that the restless spirit of La Princesa, brutally killed by her husband and abandoned by her lover, never left the hacienda.

Come back.
You must realize that if you are not with me,
the night does not fall. (4)

It is believed around the hacienda that La Princesa still lingers at San Antonio Xpakay. I have mentioned La Princesa to others but have rarely told the whole story, in part because I don't want people to think that I have cracked or started having hallucinations from drinking rot-gut mezcal. I'll tell the rest of this story, including my experience with her, in my next post.

Part Two of this story will be posted soon.

(1) from the poem, In the Darkness, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(2) from the poem, By Your Side I Go, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(3) from the poem, This Very Day, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.
(4) from the poem, Come Back, by Briceida Cuevas Cob, translation (in draft) by Jonathan Harrington.