Thursday, March 29, 2012

Living Here: Monday Morning Coffee

It started only a couple of years ago, but has become a ritual for us. We congregate Monday mornings, around the shiny, wooden tables of a local cafe. We sip coffee from heavy old china. Spoons and cups clink against saucers, to a background of soft voices and faint music.

The core group consists of three: Paul, Eric and myself. From time to time others sit in but often it is just us three.

A few other morning regulars do the same nearby as white-guayabera-clad waiters move between tables, pouring refills and bringing food. Newspaper softly crinkles as someone scans the morning news or sports section. Sometimes a whiff of woodsmoke sifts in from the huge, brick bakery ovens out back. The place is old, and has changed little over the decades. Sitting here it is easy to imagine one has been transported back the 1940's.

Except of course that in the 1940's we likely never would have gotten together, because we first became acquainted through blogs. We are bloggers. When we talk about blogging, it's usually about comments or topics brought up in the community of blogs we follow. But mostly we dive into a variety of other subjects.

Eric and Paul
Although we don't get heavily into politics, it's there from time to time, along with occasional doses of philosophy and faith. We talk about the many things that interest us, and as mature people do, sometimes we reminisce a bit. But I think mostly what it gets down to is we're all interested in getting the most out of the years we have left to spend on this planet, and we like to share ideas along those lines. It's always an interesting and enjoyable conversation.

That's pretty much the way it is Monday mornings at La Flor de Santiago, when a few friends reunite to sip coffee and converse.

We don't exactly solve the world's problems, but sometimes we feel that perhaps we've made a little headway. That's a pretty good way to start the week.

Things are about to change. Eric leaves this week, as family and other obligations call him north. And Paul will do the same soon. I'll miss them and our Monday morning coffee sessions until they both return to Mérida in the fall.

Read Paul's blog here and Eric's blog here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Living Here: Flat Tires and Car Trouble

Trying to avoid a pothole while driving through a small pueblo last week, I misjudged, hit the curb and blew out my right front tire.

I stopped and took a look, confirming that the tire was shredded and completely flat. Fortunately I'd been going slowly, so there was never any danger, just inconvenience. I turned at the next corner onto a side street, and began the process of changing my tire.

People in Yucatan's pueblos generally are pretty nice, but they are not usually outgoing with strangers, especially foreigners. If you say "buenos dias," or ask a question they will respond, but often unless a stranger makes the first move, the locals will watchfully but quietly pass by without overt demonstrations of friendliness.

I quickly got off the old wheel and put on the new, which is one of those little, temporary-type spares. Lowering the jack, I realized that the spare was nearly flat. As I stood there looking at it and wondering what to do next, a young man who'd apparently been silently observing the whole process from beyond the wall of his front yard hollered that he had a tire pump. He appeared a moment later from around the corner and handed me a bicycle pump. I connected it to the valve stem and began the slow process of inflating the tire. After watching for a minute or two, the young man offered to help. With younger, stronger arms, in about twenty seconds he'd gotten the pressure up to an appropriate level. I thanked the guy, and saying, "de nada" -- it was nothing -- he walked off, carrying his pump.

This reminded me of another experience I had in Mérida centro some years ago. My prior car was not terribly reliable and one day it abruptly stopped in the middle of a downtown intersection. I got out of the stalled vehicle while horns honked and a traffic jam developed around me. Within half a minute, a traffic cop appeared and helped me push the car through the intersection and over to the curb.

The officer offered to call roadside assistance, which I took to mean a tow truck. However about five minutes later a black municipal police pickup truck with flashing lights and marked Auxilio Vial (roadside assistance) parked behind my car and a uniformed officer jumped out. After asking me for details of what had happened, he grabbed a tool kit and began to troubleshoot under the hood.

I'd heard of and seen "Los Angeles Verdes" -- The Green Angels -- federal highway officer/mechanics charged with safety and security on the nation's highways. These officers help stranded motorists changes tires or make minor repairs along Mexican arteries, particularly in heavily-traveled areas in the central part of the country. But I'd not known that the City of Mérida boasts a similar service.

We stood on baking asphalt in the heat reflected from surrounding buildings. I walked to a nearby store and bought three cold drinks. The traffic officer and I moved to the shade of a nearby building to sip ours while the third guy sweated under the hood of my car. After spending a few minutes checking wires and connections he waved me over and said, "try it." To my amazement and delight, the car fired right up. There were big smiles all around. I vigorously shook the mechanic's grimy hand. I think I even slapped him on the back.

I asked the officers if there was a charge for the service, and they responded, "No, it's a service to the public." We stood for a few moments chatting while the mechanic finished his drink. After taking my name, address and license number and having me sign a form, the mechanic offered to follow me home in case I had more trouble. I thanked him again, but declined.

In a place where some complain about hassles and bribe-taking on the part of officials, in my moment of need I came into contact with two police officers who are honest and proud of their work. I've got to say that my experience was about as easy as a roadside breakdown could possibly be.

Life certainly is not perfect anywhere, but more often than not around here, I run into people like these. Like the officers and the young man in the pueblo, there are plenty of folks in Yucatán who observe simple, old-fashioned rules about getting along, hospitality and helping others. It is one of the things that makes living here such a pleasant experience.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Wanderings: Learning From Nature's Call

Regular readers know that occasionally I jump into my car and take to the back roads of the Yucatán. Whether or not I have a destination in mind, I always try to allow plenty of time for stopping or meandering off-course. Wandering in remote areas, and taking plenty of time to do so is a wonderful way to discover new things, and a guarantee that you will experience aspects of the Peninsula that are not found in any guidebook.

And it may seem funny, but I have seen some of the most interesting things when answering the call of nature along the side of the road. So this is a post about things seen during a "comfort stop" along Yucatecan back roads where formal facilities are few and far between.

Once, while in the middle of my business along a swath of thick roadside brush, I heard a loud sigh, which seemed to be coming from very close by. Startled, I jumped back, and only then did I notice that just on the other side of the bushes was a large, black bull. Heart thumping, I backed slowly toward the car, no harm done. This frightful moment was an exception, however. Most of the sights I encounter in these situations are of a less startling, quieter variety.

The act of stopping the car, getting out and stepping off the road gives me a chance to notice things that I would miss completely otherwise. Often, these are small things. For example, this fruit which apparently had recently split open to flash a brilliant yellow interior studded with shiny, red seeds, grew along a road near Telchac. A more obvious advertisement  for "eat me" is hard to imagine. I do not know what this plant is, but a local friend confirmed to me that the seeds are favorite food of various birds, who obviously aid in spreading this species of plant around.

Another time I was driving along a dirt road, noticing the numerous, multi-colored butterflies arising and flitting in and out of the roadside bushes. When I stopped, however, I was able to observe these insects congregating in the mud of a dwindling puddle. The car had startled them, but as soon as unfamiliar movement stopped, the butterflies began to return to this source of much-needed moisture. I was able to crouch and watch as the white, yellow and green creatures slowly congregated on this damp spot.

It pays to look upward.

This unusual-looking tree, known in Spanish as bonete, is native to the area, but apparently is less seen than in the  past. A friend tells me that it's in danger of dying out. Once eaten by the Maya of the countryside, the fruit is now little-used, and many town and urban residents do not even recognize what it is.

The disinterest could be in part  because the hanging fruits, which with their fin-like structures bear a striking resemblance to a cartoon bomb or Buck Rogers space ship, never fall to the ground. Humans either must climb the tall trunk or use a long-handled collector to harvest the fruit. In nature, the tree depends upon birds to liberate and spread seeds when they eat the bonete, apparently aided by the protuberances which I am guessing may aid the birds' grasp as they hang on. The inside resembles a papaya. The seeds readily sprout. The two green bonetes at right, which I managed to get down and take home, never matured to an edible state once off the tree, but after throwing them in the garden to compost I now have a number of small trees.

Ruins can pop up just about anywhere in rural Yucatán, and sometimes they are so overgrown that one must stop and look carefully to see them. The arch above is part of an old hacienda I noticed when I pulled off the paved road and onto on a dirt track near Ticul. The arch, and a number of old buildings, are completely invisible to passing cars, but their odd shapes become apparent, as breaks in the regular patterns of brush and trees, if one takes a moment or two to observe.

Here is another tree with interesting-looking seeds, seen near Santa Elena. The seed pods are red, and when they dry and curl open reveal shiny, dark seeds dangling from tufts of white fiber. When I first saw these, my reaction as a northerner was that they looked just like late wild blueberries capped by an early snow. I still have no idea what this plant is, either, but I guess knowing really isn't all that important.

What is important to me about all this is that it points out how much we miss along the side of the road. In zooming along the highway en route to some destination, we don't see even a small proportion of the interesting things we pass by.

This is the way many of us live our lives. A great number of people spend the workday looking forward to quitting time, the week looking forward to Friday night, the year in anticipation of a vacation, and a career looking forward to retirement. As we do this, we allow many wonderful moments to pass by unappreciated.

I try not to do that, preferring now to enjoy every day by heeding "nature's call." I am not completely successful at it, but have noticed that it's a lot easier to do in Yucatán than it was up north. And the more I practice, the easier it gets. Boredom does not exist. Every day is an interesting day.