Saturday, February 25, 2012

From Silly to Sublime

I've never posted about Mérida's Carnaval, this year's rendition of which ended last Tuesday. I guess that's because it's been covered many times, and also because I like to post good photos, which can be hard to get from behind a huge crowd, which is generally the position from which I've observed the parades in the past. And after a few years of participating fairly heavily in the activities, I cut back on my personal involvement in Carnaval. It's fun, it's an important part of the culture here, and I enjoy it, but now I appreciate it in smaller doses. I've gotten to the point where a solid week of daily parades, loud music and partying is more than I care to experience.

The parade route passes only a few blocks from my house. Even when I stay home, the noise and congestion are evident. So after attending one parade at the beginning of the festivities, I decided to leave the rumble and blast of Carnaval behind, and cut out for an overnight stay at the beach in search of a little peace and quiet. The contrast hardly could have been greater.

Upon arriving at one of my favorite beaches, I was immediately caressed by a perfume quite different from the normal salt-air aroma we always expect along the Gulf of Mexico. The stark, white sand beach smelled like a flower shop. And the source was not readily apparent, although I finally tracked it down to this fringe of tiny white flowers in full bloom right above the high-tide line. The lime-green of the foliage created a brilliant contrast against the sand in the glare of the sun.

I'd borrowed keys to an empty beach house, so the next morning, after a restful sleep in a hammock hung there, I headed out early to the nearby estuary. In this season the mangroves and brackish shallows here are home a great variety of migratory and indigenous birds. I climbed a palapa-roofed observation platform that permitted me to watch a distant grouping of feeding flamingoes, along with many species of ducks, egrets, herons, cormorants and pelicans.

Every so often a flock of flamingoes would pass over, yacking incessantly as they headed away from the sunrise in search of feeding areas. As each flock passed over, one or two pairs would suddenly wheel away from the group, and make a spiraling descent in order to join their fellows already wading and dipping their hooked bills in search of breakfast. The feeding assemblage of hot pink birds slowly grew as more and more joined in.

Ducks, congregating in large, tight clusters to repeatedly dive and surface in the shallows, created boiling disturbances on the black water as they pursued feed in the depths. Occasionally a large number would startle and take flight together, calling and creating a wet rushing sound as they flapped and surface-stepped briefly in order to gain sufficient speed to become airborne.

When I returned to Mérida on Tuesday, the party was still on.

There were the beer floats, with twelve-foot-high bottles of Sol and bikini-clad girls shaking for all they're worth to high-volume music. A float sponsored by a bottled-water company sprayed a fine mist of water on the sweltering crowd. Bands of drummers pounded away and the bass beat vibrated our insides. Fanciful, tall creatures walked by on high stilts. Thousands of costumed revelers entertained an estimated 800,000 persons along the parade route.

My view of the final Carnaval parade this year was somewhat different than usual. My friend Paul offered me a place in his palco, or box of eight seats, along Calle 60. This afforded a shaded, front-row view of the party.

Sitting in a front-row palco offers a lot of advantages. The view is fantastic. You can see everything, and many participants in the slow-moving parade love to interact with the crowd, so it's possible to talk with them, shake hands, and get them to pose for pictures.

Then there is the food. Carnaval sponsors toss out lots of treats, mostly snacks, trinkets and T-shirts. When you are standing in back of the throng, there's lots of competition, but from the relatively comfortable folding chairs of a palco, it's possible to catch them without a scuffle. There was plenty, and we shared with our neighbors. I ate a cheeseburger (snatched out of the air and handed to me by Paul, who's not eating much meat these days), a variety of cookies and candy, and drank a Coke. Not exactly health food, but it was all part of the party.

So it was a good Carnaval for me. I enjoyed it more than I have in the past couple of years.

Lesson one: Spending part of Carnaval week in a serene place away from the hullabaloo allowed me to appreciate the craziness more when I was back in it.

Lesson two: Have a good friend who offers palco seats to you. Or reserve a palco yourself (and be that friend to others).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Living Here: The Art of the Siesta

Some people are very casual about their siesta

I think that taking a good siesta is an art.

The traditional afternoon siesta developed for good reasons. Napping is a great way to escape the worst heat of the day and refresh one's self for the evening ahead.

Some people, like the guy pictured above, just casually plop down for a little rest in the afternoon. That's great and it works, but I think a siesta can be something more. There's a technique to having a really good siesta.

First, you don't want to sleep too long, or you wake sleep-drunk and spend too much time recovering your energy and focus. And there's nothing wonderful about waking up at dinnertime and realizing that you've accidentally slept a whole beautiful afternoon away.

However when the siesta is too short, I find it unsatisfying. I don't simply lay down. I make it special, and here are a few of my guidelines.

Although it's tempting, don't take a rest immediately after lunch. Stay up and get a little exercise first. It's better for your digestion. You'll rest easier.

Take off your clothes. Especially if the weather is warm, this is a good idea. It's more comfortable, and your clothes will feel fresher when you put them on again.

If daytime sounds bother you, create white noise. Soft music or a fan are good for this. Silence the phones to ensure quality time. If you are serious about your siesta, you've got to make sure there are no interruptions.

Try taking your siesta in a hammock or another place different from where you sleep at night. I think this signals mind and body that it's just a siesta, not a full overnight sleep and makes it easier to get up.

My favorite place for a empty beach house
Unless you are good at cat napping, set an alarm, and get up when it goes off. For me, 30 - 60 minutes is the perfect length for a siesta. However if you wake up after 20 minutes and feel good, go ahead and get up.

Jumping in a pool or having a cool rinse-off in the shower after a siesta really helps get the afternoon off to a good start. If you like caffeine, have a cup of coffee or tea. I like to drink my cup of hot coffee in the pool. On afternoons when I am having a hard time getting up, the dangling carrot of a cup my of favorite beverage in the cooling water helps get me vertical.

I find that the sleep of siestas is often deep, dreamless and less restless than at night. Taking a good siesta doesn't necessarily help me stay up later at night, but the quality of my evening improves when I have rested.

That's what works for me. Of course, here I am talking about siestas taken alone. The art of the siesta -- accompanied -- can be something altogether different. I am not sure I am prepared to write about that, in this blog, at least. But you'll know it if I do.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Contentment: Surprises and Small Pleasures

Photo by Eric Chaffee

Thursday my friends Eric, Paul and I decided to take a drive out to the coast and visit a favorite beach area not far from Mérida.

It was an uneventful but, as always, interesting drive. As we meandered through small pueblos where motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians vastly outnumber the cars, we slowed to eyeball roadside fruit stands, searching for hard-to-find tropical varieties that are uncommon and costlier in the city. Passing through stretches of countryside between pueblos we watched the changing scenery and identified a couple of rustic side roads that looked interesting enough to draw us back on some future exploration.

Soon we sensed the rich, organic aroma of the sticky black mud in the brackish lagoon. Suddenly on both sides of the road there was water, shallow, dark and dotted with clumps of mangroves, snags and the forms of various wading birds.

We were nearing the coast but still surrounded by the lagoon when we saw it: a scattering of dark specks against the blue sky, as if a giant had hurled a huge handful of black pepper into the blue. Eric stopped the car in the road and we jumped out to look.

The specks took shape, forming into straggling, irregular lines as they neared us. As they grew in size, the dots suddenly transformed into silhouettes revealing shades of hot pink in the morning sun.

We were watching a flock of flamingos, which had been flying along the coast and suddenly veered inland above us, making toward the lagoon we had just crossed.

Photo by Eric Chaffee

This flock passed over, and as it did so, another appeared in the distance, rising over the palms. This wave, too, took form and color and passed gracefully overhead. While it was still in view, yet another appeared. Then another, and another, each cluster connected to the preceding by a thin single file of birds. From looking at some of Eric's photos afterward I estimated that each wave consisted of between one hundred and two hundred birds. We saw at least seven or eight separate groups, which leads me to conclude that over a period of perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, we saw probably between one and two thousand flamingos.

The high point of the day had come early, but the rest of it was not a letdown. After spending an hour or two wandering and observing in a nearby nature reserve, a virgin coastal strip which includes beach and lagoon (and according to warning signs, is home to crocodiles), we came back to the pueblo to wander through the centro and go to a favorite seafood restaurant.

The waiter always remembers us and greets us with a smile and a handshake. As usual, the ceviche and fish filets were superb.

The sound system played Louis Armstrong singing, "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Palms and flowering trees swayed in the gentle, mild breeze. I savored my coffee as we sat under the palapa and talked the afternoon away.

Finally, we walked a meandering route back to the car, through a neighborhood inhabited by fishermen, along the beach, and out onto the pier, where we proceeded hats-in-hand, due to the strong breeze. We talked with two boys selling jewelry and utensils made of shells.

As frequently occurs around here, a day begun without a specific goal turned out to be one of surprises and small pleasures. A day of good moments. One of the best kinds of days.