Saturday, April 14, 2012

Living Here: The Heat is on its Way

A short while ago in my kitchen, at the back of the house facing the garden, I began to hear the satisfied coos and clucks of parrots deep in the shade, munching the abundant ripe pistachios on my neighbor's tree. They continued doing so as I sat before my laptop at the table to start writing this post.

It's a sign of the season.

Another signal is that I find myself watering the garden more often, and despite this, some plants wilt or curl their leaves in the afternoon. Starting in late April, and running through May and into June, Yucatán bakes.

I notice these sorts of things, feel the dampness of my skin, and acknowledge that the hot season is beginning. We haven't had a long run of blistering days yet, but the temperatures in Mérida and the surrounding area already have reached about 40 degrees Celsius, or 104F, a few times this spring. Soon temperatures will climb even higher, and stay that way for days or weeks at a stretch.

At this point in the year we start seeing more heat-related stories in the local paper. There was one last week about temperature records and predictions of a long, dry hot season.

This is this time when the wisdom of high ceilings, found here mostly in older buildings, becomes evident, at least for those of us who live without air conditioning. The extra height gives heat and humidity space to rise above head level, keeping inhabited space near the cool tile floors more comfortable.

And speaking of high places, now is the time to start sleeping in the the upstairs bedroom I built with large windows for cross-ventilation that take advantage of nightly breezes. Exposed to the sun, the room is hot during the day, but at night when opened up it's like a tree house, cool and airy.

To keep the rest of the place comfortable, I have at least one ceiling fan in every room of the house, and about now is when I begin running them most of the time.

And this is the season when most folks around here with access to a pool or the beach start taking advantage of it. Nothing beats the heat like cooling water.

It is also a good time for a getaway. I find the hot months the perfect for a visit with family in Alaska, or to see friends in the cooler highlands of central Mexico. Even a visit to my parents in South Florida, which when I lived in Alaska seemed terribly hot, now provides relief. If someone ever had predicted that I would view a trip to Florida as a respite from the heat, I would never have believed them.

Related posts:

HeatI'm CoolPool TimeThe Rains are Here -- Almost

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Friends: Padre Luis

This piece about Padre Luis Quintal Medina was posted originally under the title, "An Unorthodox Priest." I haven't seen much of Padre Luis in the last year or two, so when I learned that he'd had open-heart surgery, I went to visit him in Hunucmá, his birthplace, where he is recovering and being cared for by family.

My friend Victor and I met Padre Luis several years ago in Maní, and stayed a few times at his place there, where we became "amigos del corazón," according to the Padre," friends of the heart." When we recently planned a visit to Maní and in contacting him found he was not there, he offered the use of his house ("es su casa") in his absence. We accepted the hospitality, but visiting Maní  and staying at his place last week was not the same without the Padre around.

After seeing him yesterday, I can report that Padre Luis is doing well, and in a month or so hopes to be back home in Maní. Meanwhile, with him in my thoughts, I repost this portrait of the Padre from April, 2010.

In Maní, as in most old pueblos in the Yucatán, the architecture consists mainly of a mixture of centuries-old colonial buildings and modern, utilitarian and often less attractive structures of cement block. Occasionally one will come across a much more ancient style of construction, the beautiful, elegantly simple oval Maya house, but these structures are fragile (they burn easily, and tend to blow away in hurricanes, for instance) and are only occasionally seen now because most people who can afford it want something more secure, modern and lasting.

However in Maní, located in the southern part of Yucatán state, if a carload of tourists were to become disoriented on their way to see the church and mistakenly turn down a certain rough side road, they might stumble upon an unexpectedly picturesque and bucolic scene. First they'd spy pointed roofs of palm fronds topping oval houses made of rough poles and plastered with red mud, scattered along the rocky cerros and shaded by native trees like pichcedro and chacà roja that dot the grassy landscape. The foliage, seed, flowers and fruit feed and shelter dozens of species of birds; parrots, cardinals, vultures, grackles, doves, woodpeckers, chachalacas, hummingbirds and a variety of multi-colored songbirds (to name a very few) that fly freely above and rummage in the brush. Wild orchids, some of which are species in danger of extinction, droop from the crooks of the trees.

This scene isn't, and yet it is, a dream.

The visitors have not inadvertently eaten a strange, hallucinogenic herb in their salad, or passed through a time warp back to an idealized pre-Colombian Mayan Eden. This place is real and exists in the year 2010. The lost tourists are not dreaming. They have found a dream.

The dream belongs to Father Luis Quintal Medina, known by everyone simply as Padre Luis, a Roman Catholic priest of Mayan descent who grew up in Hunucmá, near Mérida, and has made his home in the Maní area for many years. This compound is the dream's living incarnation.

One incongruity the tourists might have missed upon first glimpsing this idyllic vista is a steel column supporting large solar panels, which looms up above the rustic skyline. It's important because it is emblematic of this particular project.

A few more details about the Padre. Right now he does not have a parish, and the reasons are several. Technically, he is on sick leave, having had some heart problems. However, as he tells it, he also has had some disagreements with the church ("a church of the rich"), and is one of a small group of non-conformist priests that is at odds with the hierarchy in certain respects. That's about all he will say regarding the matter. But, from a little research and talking with others I learned that Padre Luis founded and led for years the well-known Escuela de Agricultura Ecològica U Yits Ka'an, in Maní, which teaches, tuition-free, environmentally appropriate, "green" agricultural techniques, until he was summarily relieved of the directorship and moved to another
parish awhile back. 

It seems that the Padre, a conservationist, is a bit liberal in some other areas. He is known for incorporating traditional Mayan rites into the Catholic mass. The words "liberation theology" pop up in the conversation. The heart of the matter is that Padre Luis is controversial, a priest without a church, maybe because he was too popular or too powerful. I am not positive, but this is the idea you get in talking with people who know him. At any rate, what really matters is what he is doing now. Although not being paid by the church, he still assists with things like masses and weddings when asked. But he spends most of his time these days planning and building, planting and growing.

The compound is being constructed as much as possible with traditional, local, renewable materials, and will consist of about a dozen houses, each of a slightly different design, and having kitchen, bathroom, living and sleeping areas all constructed in traditional style. Each house also has a kitchen garden and a pond, which could be used for raising edible fish. Some of the houses are wheelchair accessible. Construction is done by local crews, and furnishings are made by local craftsmen. Water for human use and for irrigation is pumped by solar energy. Although construction is not complete, Padre Luis invited us to hang hammocks and stay the night. The house (pictures below) was quiet, cool, comfortable, and the natural surroundings a pleasant escape from the rest of the world. Sitting in the house's entry area, I was able to tick off at least 20 species of birds, some of which I still have not identified, in about a half hour. Benches situated throughout the grounds provide shaded spots to rest and observe.

Among his projects, Padre Luis is dedicated to raising and propagating the endangered abeja melipona, or Yucatan species of stingless bee. He keeps his bees right on the property, situated amongst the houses. This insect was domesticated long ago by the Maya, and is still kept in traditional hollow-log hives. The honey is of extremely high quality, and is reported to have medicinal properties. 

The complex also will boast a restaurant, an underground museum in a cave that is currently being enlarged and cleaned out and an amphitheater-like area for holding traditional Mayan wedding ceremonies and perhaps performances. There is also a small section of elevated sac be, or "white road," a recreation of the paved highways that linked Mayan cities in ancient times. The partially-completed sac be looms like an acropolis along one end of the multi-acre property. The Padre hopes to rent the houses out to ecotourists interested in Mayan culture, sustainable development and the environment, and to people who just want a pleasant, stress-free place to rest for awhile.

It looks as if while Padre Luis is a priest without a parish, he is not a shepherd without a flock. He is very popular in the pueblo and seems to know everyone. Although he didn't say so, it appears that this project is a continuance of his past work with the agricultural school, educating people and promoting sustainable and environmentally friendly methods of survival, based upon the best of ancient and modern technologies.

The world could do with more dreams like this one.

Monday, April 2, 2012


My back kitchen/dining area this afternoon.
I learn new words best when I associate them with an experience. Today's unforgettable new Spanish word is: turbonada -- a sudden storm or squall.

We are in the midst of a serious dry spell. There were predictions last week of electrical storms with chances of some precipitation, but nothing much happened. Then, today in the midst of a very hot afternoon, thunder rumbled and dark clouds actually appeared.

But what started out as a welcome afternoon thundershower quickly escalated into something more. As lights dramatically flickered I hurried around the house unplugging appliances. Not long after that, I left the shelter of my bedroom in an attempt to secure a back kitchen door that was banging after being wrenched open by hurricane-force gusts. When I entered the kitchen area, I discovered that some light-weight rattan dining room furniture had scooted several feet across the floor and mosquito screens had been blown in.

Two large potted coconut palms which live outside on the patio had blown over and had their tops lying inside the dining area. The wind made a clean sweep of the kitchen counters closest to the open door; everything was on the floor. Rain pelted horizonally through the back of the house. Artwork from the walls lay on the flooded floor.

Large fallen branches fill my neighbor's back patio
Howling winds uprooted trees and downed power lines. An old ramon tree lost large branches, leaving the neighbor's walled patio looking like an Easter basket full of fake green plastic grass, waiting for colored eggs. A metalwork trellis, which I had built along the top of my garden wall, failed completely and fell, carrying with it a couple hundred pounds of vines and leaves, on top of my flower garden. Many plants in the ground and many of those in pots ended up crushed or lying horizontally.

The garden plants and shrubs suffered the worst.

My vented skylights leaked. As soon as the lightning stopped I climbed to the roof and discovered why: the downspouts were plugged with branches and leaves, and my flat roof was covered in more than six inches of water. This began to drain as soon as I had cleared the debris.

During the storm, I'd heard hail the size of peas pelting the doors and windows. Afterward, I discovered many garden plants had their leaves shredded. Bits and pieces of this blender-residue debris is sort of wet-pasted all over the exterior of the house and on window screens.

Walking down the block later, I noticed one cable down on the street, and intersections flooded. I was told that falling branches have damaged a lot of cars. My friend Jonathan out at Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay called to report that his kitchen's sheet metal roof had blown away.

I suffered little real loss from the turbonada. A young palm tree was uprooted, but I suspect that once propped up it will recover. The metalwork that was damaged will cost me a bit to repair, but not that much, really. Most of the plants will survive. The house is messy with blown leaves and dirt, but in a day or two will be presentable. The pool is murky and full of garbage, but a couple hours of elbow grease and a few dollars worth of chemicals will take care of that.

I guess today was a good practice, in its small way, for hurricane season. Now I have a few new ideas about things to be taken care of before we get a real storm one of these days.

As I began cleaning up with squeegee and mop, I took time out to buy some beer and order a pizza. It arrived late. However, although it was a bit cold, the pizza tasted good.