Saturday, August 25, 2012

Living Here: Waiting Around

Cancún Airport, Terminal 2
Cancún Airport -- I've been traveling a lot, and inevitably that means I spend time waiting around. I've found ways to minimize wait time, but occasionally am attracted by a bargain airfare that includes a less-convenient itinerary. I don't look forward to waiting, but I've found that such time isn't as heavy on my hands as it once was.

Take the trip I am in the midst of right now. Due to the nature of early-morning bus schedules and to avoid arriving late for morning flight out of Cancún, I took a bus from Mérida at midnight, arriving in Cancún around 4:00AM. This gave me some hours to kill before I needed to be at the airport.

So I did what I often do in this situation: I walked across the street from the Cancún Terminal to the Sanborn's restaurant, which is open 24 hours. After a leisurely breakfast and a long linger over coffee (which fortunately is pretty good there), I returned to the terminal and caught the half-hour shuttle to the airport.

As I write this, I still have quite a bit of time to wait, but it isn't bothering me. I watch people, walk around, read, and in this case, work on a blog post. Sometimes I find myself chatting with interesting people.

I think that living in Mexico has taught me patience, particularly with things I can't control. Waiting is something we just have to do. I try to make the best of it.

I don't believe that "time is money." It's much more valuable than money. I've also absorbed the fact that being "productive" or busy doesn't necessarily equate to virtue, so I am perfectly happy to be alone with my thoughts, or quiet my mind and drift for a little while. I don't feel like time spent waiting is "wasted" time.

An advantage of having plenty of time when traveling is that delays or occasional long lines don't bother me. I have little cause to worry about missing my flight. I can let others cut in line if they are running late. No sweat.

Passing through a busy destination like this one gives me plenty of time to observe people who are stressed, rushing around on their vacation, tensely glancing at watches and making phone calls while waiting in airport lines. I am happy to have left a lot of that way of life behind.

Cancún Bus Terminal, 4:00AM

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Good Mornin' America, How Are You?"

I had an enlightening experience in June. I was in the Baltimore/Washington, D. C. area, getting ready to head home to Yucatán with a three-day stopover in Florida on the way south, when I was told that for medical reasons I should not fly. My head was so congested and ears so plugged up that I could barely hear. The abrupt changes in pressure during plane travel would cause pain and possible damage to my hearing. I would be able to fly soon, but not in time to catch my return flight to Florida. I needed to give my medication time to clear things up.

Penn Station, Baltimore
After checking into options, I decided to take Amtrak's Silver Meteor train back to Florida, which would give my ears a few extra days to recuperate before my scheduled onward flight to Mexico.

Unexpectedly, I really enjoyed the trip.

The interesting part is that I haven't enjoyed traveling in the U.S. much in years, but generally have a good time doing so in Mexico. Sitting on the train for about 22 hours gave me plenty of time to reflect on this.

In the early afternoon I left Baltimore's old Penn Station on a local train for Washington, where I spent a few pleasant hours with my cousin Kim, who lives there. At 7:30PM the Meteor pulled out of Union Station headed for Miami, with perhaps fifteen stops along the way.

The train originates in New York. I boarded in the District of Columbia with backpack- and camera-toting tourists, families, dignified old ladies in big hats -- a diverse and cosmopolitan mix of people.

I was prepared for an endurance contest and at first my worst fears were confirmed: as a last-minute passenger I'd been reserved an aisle seat, and that was my only choice. The train was full. So much for slouching against the window and getting a few hours of decent sleep.

And my seat-mate did not make things easier. He was a young guy who, I realized after a few minutes, has some health and possibly developmental challenges. He spilled drinks on himself three times in the first couple of hours, and each event involved me getting up and standing while he pulled his huge bag out of the overhead bin, propped it up on the (my) aisle seat, and looked carefully and at length through what seemed to be all his worldly possessions for a change of clothes.

And that was just the start. The details aren't important here but I'll report that my dreams of a good sleep were not fulfilled. And through it all the guy was so very likable, apologetic and polite that it was impossible to get annoyed with him. So I patiently smiled a lot, and realized that most of the other nearby passengers, witnesses to our little dramas, were doing the same.

That's pretty much the way it went. I enjoyed the trip for a couple of reasons.

My fellow travelers and the Amtrak employees I met were nice people. It was a mellow, helpful and friendly bunch. On the train you can get up and move around, go to the cafe car, take a walk. From the windows you see small towns and peer into back yards. You can view forests, lakes and fields of the countryside. You witness happy welcomes and occasional sad goodbyes of passengers at stations along the way.

Train travel is sedate and human-scale. I liked my trip on the Silver Meteor because it shares many of these attributes with bus travel in Mexico, which I happen to enjoy and do frequently. Human contact and a sense of the country is something we miss when we travel by plane and along sterile, homogeneous interstate highway corridors in the United States.

On the train, I learned something about the country. I grew up thinking that reasoned problem-solving, respectful disagreement, civil discourse and willingness to compromise are needed for a society and a democracy like ours to function. I haven't a great deal of recent experience with life in the lower-48 United States, having spent just about all of the past thirty-eight years in Alaska and Mexico. The screaming, hate, name-calling, disinterest in facts, rudeness and raging emotionality I see on current U.S. television, talk shows and web site comments often makes me wonder if I know my country at all at this point in my life.

The people I met and the things I saw on the Silver Meteor weren't like that. I realized that despite extreme challenges and severe problems, The United States of America could be in slightly better shape than I'd thought. And it's greener and more beautiful than I've noticed in a long, long time.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Friends: Backgammon Dates

In general, I don't like to have too much on my schedule, and I manage to keep my calendar pretty flexible. I am not one of those who needs lots of events on my agenda to feel useful or happy.

Diane and a curious observer
On the other hand, it's nice to have a little structure to the weeks and a few regular events to look forward to. One of the things I do every week is play backgammon with Diane. These sessions are regular, but never routine.

Typically we select one of several venues in Mérida centro, and meet on a weekday morning for a couple of hours to drink coffee, sometimes eat something, and play. We frequent several downtown cafes and restaurants, and have been known to venture up to Progreso to play at the beach. On occasion we meet for a session in the evening. That doesn't change the action much, except that at night we trade coffee for beer.

We have played the game together weekly for more than two years, except for when one of us is out of town.

And speaking of that, in June I had a problem. For a month, Diane was care taking a waterfront home in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, a good five hours by highway from Mérida. So, addicted as I am, I took the bus to Bacalar for five days of pure backgammon, punctuated by daily swims, good meals, and some exploration in the area. Not to mention lots of hot, strong coffee in the morning and a cold beer later on, as usual.

Bacalar back yard: a spectacular backdrop for a multi-day "BG" marathon

Since backgammon is not terribly well-known in the Yucatán, we occasionally find that curious waiters, children or passersby want to watch or know more about the game. Only once in all the time we've played together has an experienced player asked to sit in on a game, and that was a European who lives in Oaxaca. He played one game with Diane, and then reluctantly returned to his family, waiting for him at another table. He was a pretty good player. We exchanged email addresses; the next time I am in his part of the country I will look him up for a game or two.

Sometimes when I am intensely involved in a particularly close match I become so engaged that my surroundings recede into the distance, and all else is forgotten for a brief time. The world is reduced to myself, Diane and the game board. Recently when this happened I was surprised that the cafe had filled with customers around us while we played, and I hadn't even noticed. When I get into the flow of backgammon this way, I know I am having a good time and my brain is getting a good workout.

Diane and I went for a period of months recently during which I hardly ever lost. I began to feel badly about it, but must admit (a bit guiltily) that I did enjoy the winning. Back when we first began playing I was years out of practice and lost most of the time. So when the winning streak started I felt that I finally was getting my game back. Diane was a good sport, though, and didn't complain much.

Then just recently the tide turned and she started kicking my behind around the block. The game is always unpredictable and always interesting. And in my mostly appointments- and schedule-free life, it's something engaging "to hang my hat on." I like that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Blogging: Writing From Mérida

My friend Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado, author of one of my favorite blogs, Writing From Mérida, sent me an email not long ago.

Joanna had a technical problem that resulted in a large part of her blog, consisting of hundreds of posts, being inaccessible to her and lost. So, although she was able to salvage some of her old material, she is re-starting her blog at a new URL. I told her I would do what I can to help readers find her at the new address.

Joanna writes on a wide variety of topics having to do with Yucatán and Mexico. I've read interesting articles and commentary on arts and culture, history, politics and current events, issues concerning women, as well as notes about holidays,  food, family life, worthwhile causes and a host of other topics. But her posts typically revolve around aspects of writing or intercultural living.

A Canadian who some time back became a Mexican citizen, Joanna has published an interesting book, Magic Made in Mexico, which tells her story of nearly four decades living in this country. She writes honestly about the challenges she faced as a young foreign woman coming to Yucatán, meeting her husband-to-be Jorge, making a home and having a family, building a career and with Jorge founding a successful college. Along the way she has experienced successes and difficult times. From all this Joanna distilled many valuable lessons about intercultural living and making dreams come true. She has a fine way of interpreting Mexican life and culture for those of us who have less experience living here.

Joanna also is a tireless mover behind the annual Latin American Bloggers Conference, held every November somewhere in Southeast Mexico. It was through the conference that we became friends.

Even if we weren't friends I still would read Joanna's blog. It is an informative and thoughtful resource for people, particularly English-speaking foreigners, living or interested in Mexico. So by all means, if you didn't click on it above, check out Writing From Mérida now.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Living Here: Annual Storm Rehearsal

The patio in a tropical storm, 2007

We're watching the approach of tropical storm Ernesto, forecast right now to touch the continent a good distance southeast of Mérida, probably as far south as Belize, early on Wednesday.

No one is concerned at this point that Ernesto will amount to a significant emergency in Mérida. Most likely we will just have some rainy days and a bit of wind. However, Ernesto is noteworthy because it's our first real tropical storm warning of the year. At some point in the earlier stages of every hurricane season an event occurs that makes us realize that it's time to check our storm readiness. Ernesto is that take-notice event of 2012.

We did have a brief windstorm in April that brought hurricane-force gusts to Mérida, but that was an oddity, over in less than an hour, and unconnected with hurricane season, so didn't cause too much excitement about storm preparedness.

An April windstorm was too early to cause much excitement
This morning after checking the weather news, I made a new list of things to check, do, and buy.

Today I am pruning and cleaning the yard, roof and terraces of debris and objects that might blow, be damaged by wind or impede drainage. I'm also making a mental inventory of things like planters and outdoor furniture that will need to be secured in case of high winds.

Tomorrow I'll shop to bulk up the larder. I will buy mostly food that doesn't depend upon refrigeration and that can be readied and consumed, if necessary, without the use of electricity or the stove. I don't eat a lot of prepared foods, but canned tuna, hard cheese, fat-free tostadas, along with fruit and vegetables that keep well are at the top of my list. I also will make sure I have at least a week's worth of purified water on hand.

I've checked my supply of candles, matches and batteries and made a short list for the hardware store which includes spare batteries, tape, some rope and wire. I also today pulled out the sheets of plywood I salvaged some time back to protect the front door and windows. I think tomorrow I will have time to measure, cut these to size and check the fit, and then number them so they can be installed quickly some day when we have a real hurricane.

On my list for the eve of the storm, in this case Tuesday (if anything develops) is to charge the cell phone and radio, to make sure I can stay in touch if the house loses power. This is the day to check the gas level in the car and top it off, if necessary. Were a real storm getting close, this would be the day I would hang the plywood, tape glass, gather up the rags, squeegee, mop and buckets, and secure things around the property.

At that point there won't be much else to do but stay close to home and wait to see what happens.

And after this dress rehearsal, I will be mostly ready for whatever may occur during the rest of the hurricane season, which extends until the end of November.