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.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Contentment: "The Road... enlightenment isn't paved."

My friend photographer Paul Brown of Seattle saw this quote printed on a poster aboard a British Columbia Ferry he was riding last year and posted an image of it on Facebook.

To this I commented, "None of the worthwhile roads are paved."

I've been feeling restless lately, and this phrase keeps coming to mind.

I think that is because of my life experience. In the past, when I have exited the easy and expected way, and turned onto rougher, rockier and sometimes harder tracks, the growth and success I achieve has been unexpectedly satisfying. The rewards of risk-taking can be much greater than those realized by staying on the more-traveled route.

As a teen for the first time I read Thoreau's Walden. It made an unmistakable impression on me and over the years I recalled this particular quote, which pretty much sums up the whole book:

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

This statement made sense to me when I first read and pondered it as a high school English assignment, but has gained real meaning as practical advice over the intervening years.

My first acquaintance with the less-traveled road was when as a youth I spent a couple of summers volunteering in Colombia and Nicaragua. When the opportunity first presented itself I wasn't too sure I wanted to go, but my parents pushed me a bit, and I have been grateful ever since that they did. Leaving my comfort zone was a life-changing experience that set the stage for many things I did later.

Three times over my career I quit good jobs without new employment in sight. In each instance I knew it was time to make a change, but wasn't sure what to do next. Rather than stay on when my heart was no longer in the work, at these transitions I took off to volunteer, travel and think. Each time, taking the plunge and following my interests led me to new, more fulfilling experiences. I look back at those times as some of the most fruitful of my life.

I've taken many other less dramatic turns off the easy road. A few of those were not completely successful on the surface, but were valuable because of what I learned from them. By and large, each time I have steered off the main trail and onto interesting side roads of life I have been very happy that I did so. I may not have become enlightened, as the saying says, but at least I have grown, succeeded and enjoyed in unanticipated ways.

The last time I took a big turn off the paved highway was when I moved to Mexico. I left the best job and best boss I'd ever had, sold almost everything I owned, and moved into a decrepit old house I'd bought in Mérida. And although I miss my deep roots in Alaska (and visit often), I've barely looked back.

That's because the life I have here now is something I starting imagining during that first eye-opening trip to Colombia thirty-nine years ago. Although I did it unconsciously for quite awhile and was sidetracked often, I've moved fairly consistently in the direction of that one dream all this time. Stepping off the paved roads made it possible.

Photo by Paul Brown

Photo at top: A country road in Yucatán

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Rotten Year for Pitahaya

My poor pitahaya all have ended up like this one. It has not been a good season.

I love pitahaya, and normally enjoy a modest harvest of what's also known in English as "dragon fruit" from plants that grow along the wall of my patio. But this year I have not had even one taste of this delicious treat from my own garden. It has been literally a rotten year for pitahaya in Mérida.

In July I was excited when the plants began to bud and the pitahaya flowers to bloom. One evening I had more than twenty of the enormous blossoms open at the same time, and sat nearby in the dark to witness as the bats flew in to pollinate them.

The abundant blossoms in July were cause for high hopes.

But my happiness was short-lived. Pitahaya is very sensitive to humidity for a few days during the critical flowering and early fruit-formation stage. And it rained. The developing fruit yellowed and fell off within a few days.

In Mérida, this has been the pattern all summer. I have lost in excess of one hundred pitahaya this way. And now, just as the pitahaya season is drawing to a close, when I should be savoring cool glasses of agua de pitahaya and fruit salads garnished with its delicate taste, the plants have valiantly given it one last try. Feebly they flowered again over the past ten days or so. However the almost-daily drenching rains we have been having for the past few weeks made short work of the young flowers and fruits. Not one has matured this year.

So it looks as if I will have to wait another ten months or so before I can again hope to enjoy this wonderful tropical fruit. I love to wake in the morning, pick one or two fresh pitahaya in the garden, and prepare my morning drink of agua de pitahaya. There are few nicer ways to start breakfast around here.

But I will move on and try not to think about what I've missed this season. One thing that I have learned living in tropical Yucatán is patience, especially with nature. And I think less and less of life and existence as having a timeline; it's more like a spiral. Everything comes around again, sooner or later. Pitahaya season will be here again before we know it.

Here's an earlier post about pitahaya, including a recipe for making agua de pitahaya.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bumps on the Road in Oaxaca

Oaxaca -- I know it's a lousy photo, but it's the only one I managed to grab in the situation.

I went on the road a couple of weeks ago, leaving Mérida by bus and passing through Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas. There I changed buses and went on to Oaxaca, where I spent time with my friend Victoria in Juchitán.

One day we decided to drive through Tehuantepec and up to Salina Cruz, about an hour away, for a seafood lunch. We were nearing the port when abruptly traffic on our side of the four-lane highway was stopped behind several large tanker trucks blocking both lanes of the road. At least a hundred vehicles were inextricably caught in a jam.

People from vehicles ahead began jumping out and waving at the rest to back up, and started chaotically shuttling cars, making three-point turns and driving back down our side of the divided highway, against traffic. Accustomed to the tactics of civil disobedience in the area, they didn't want to waste time and chance getting stuck in the blockade. The backed-up traffic and milling people, what we'd first thought was an accident, was in fact una manifestación, a demonstration, and everyone not involved wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible. We maneuvered the car and followed the others, with lots of flashing of headlights and honking of horns, back against traffic flow.

We drove with the rest onto unpaved side roads in an improvised bypass around the blocked area. At one point a man had placed a log in the rutted dirt track, apparently trying to charge a toll. Choking on dust, we tail-gated a pickup as it blew right past the guy. Eventually we emerged again onto the highway, just beyond the far end of the roadblock, and continued on our way to the beach.

Suddenly a similar sight loomed ahead. Large rocks and more large trucks in the highway formed another blockade, this time with a good-sized crowd milling around. We pulled into a U-turn niche in the median and sought advice from some men standing there. "We just want to go down to the restaurants on the beach," Victoria said with a calm smile. They nodded and pointed us to a side road that took us away from the highway and down to the sand. "As long as you don't want to head down the highway," they said.

On the way home, we had similar adventures as we again passed the blocked areas. Interestingly, no police were visible at any time during the afternoon. One friend said it was probably a move on part of the government to avoid any excuse for a confrontation, given recent history in the region, but it left ordinary folks who happened to be caught in the situation in a no-man's land as far as law-enforcement was concerned. However, the whole situation seemed calm, with volunteers directing traffic, and the general public taking the situation in stride.

Even so, I decided to ignore my instincts as a one-time photojournalist, which hollered at me from within to record this event. I left the camera out of sight. No sense getting more involved than I wanted to. Taking out a camera meant running a risk that someone might think I was taking pictures that could be used by authorities to identify participants. I grabbed the shot above as we sped by one of the roadblocks, with the milling crowds safely behind. There was little point in messing with an otherwise pleasurable and interesting day. We had a very nice, long lunch and I dipped my big toe in the Pacific Ocean here in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

We later learned the demonstrations were organized by local fishermen who are in conflict with Pemex, the Mexican national oil company, which has a large tanker-loading operation in Salina Cruz.

There were more bumps in the road on this trip, but I'll save them for a future post on traveling by bus in Mexico.