Friday, December 28, 2012

Blogging: Favorite Posts of 2012

I enjoy reviewing a year's worth of posts and selecting a few to share once again with readers.

It was hard to choose my favorite posts this year in part because the blog's focus has evolved. I started writing here several years ago to share my experiences and observations about the life of an Alaskan living in the Mexican state of Yucatán. The emphasis was heavy on travel, nature, culture, and life in a foreign country.

This year was a challenging one personally and in my family, but surprisingly I found myself content -- not one hundred percent happy, of course, but optimistic and centered in my place in the world -- despite a lot of changes and stress around me. That's what I wrote about. An Alaskan in Yucatán became more personal and introspective in 2012.

One of my January posts amounted to a resolution for the new year which still looks good to me eleven months later. It was titled, Contentment: If I Had a Million Dollars.

A few months later, reflecting on many things that had quickly and irrevocably changed in my life, I found myself considering how much I'd learned about maintaining a perspective and finding meaning, even in times of change and stress. The result was a post called The Splendor of Each Day.

You can read more posts on the theme of contentment here.

In keeping with the theme of staying positive and feeling good, early in the year I posted about the fine art of napping, Mexican style (photo at top). The Art of the Siesta summarizes what I have learned about the techniques and benefits of taking an afternoon rest.

In 2012 I didn't abandon entirely the sorts of things I wrote about when I first started blogging. I continued writing occasionally on animals and our natural surroundings. My favorite on the topic this year was about the pair of tortoises I adopted several years ago and which live in my back yard.

I also continued writing the series of posts called Living Here, which focuses on everyday life and adapting to the culture of Mexico. Earlier this year I tried to help a Yucatecan friend resolve a difficult legal and personal situation, so I plugged into my network of friends and contacts in Mérida. I was gratified and humbled by the way Mexicans can come to the aid of a friend in need. I told about this experience in a post entitled The Power of Relationships.

Two thousand twelve was not among my best years, but nevertheless it was a year of great learning, and I had many things to be thankful for.

Best wishes for 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The House and Garden Tour, From the Inside

Brent Marsh (center) leads a House and Garden Tour

I've never been the type who wanted to live in an Architectural Digest sort of house. So when my friend and real estate agent Jennifer Lytle approached me recently about putting my place on the Mérida English Language Library House and Garden Tour, I was a bit reluctant.

This tour affords the curious an opportunity to peek inside interesting homes within walking distance of the English Library in Mérida centro. The fee charged goes to support library programs. Most of the tour-goers are foreigners visiting the area, and many are considering living here at least part of the time.

My problem with throwing open the doors was that my house, even after nine years, remains unfinished. There are windows without glass, cabinets without doors, and the whole second story is only half-completed. The facade has not been repaired in decades and occasionally little chunks of it rain down onto the sidewalk. Stuffing pops out of furniture cushions. Nothing is really done.

To make matters worse, since the first phase of the renovation was completed six years ago, much that was finished, nicely painted, shiny and new back then is now peeling, a bit rusty or otherwise weather- and time-worn. The house is very comfortable, but in its current condition it is not a candidate for any design or decorating awards. And since that sort of thing is not an interest of mine, I doubt it ever will be. I do not worry about a little peeling paint or falling plaster here and there. These things happen to an antique house in the tropics. I am not about to dedicate an excessive amount of my time to maintaining my home in picture-perfect condition.

I have never been on the tour, but am aware that many of the homes included feature award-winning architecture and are among the most elegant and well-appointed in Mérida. I just wasn't sure my unfinished home,  set up more for comfort and convenience rather than impact, would fit with the program. But Jennifer convinced me that visitors would be interested in seeing a place that is "lived in."

So last Tuesday they came. There were about twenty on the tour, enough to make my ample front sala feel a bit cramped when they'd all gotten inside.

It was obvious that most of the tour-goers had done a little homework or visited other homes in the area. Mostly they asked specific, practical questions about the ins and outs of fixing up an old house in Mérida. Many were interested in materials not so commonly seen north of the border, things such as polished concrete floors and poured countertops and the variety of tiles and stone used in finishes. Some loved the copper sinks and basins from Michoacan. Others had questions about gardening and plants.

I even met a couple of readers of this blog.

It was an appreciative group, and I found it interesting to view my home through their eyes. Once again I was reminded of how fortunate I am to live in this place.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Goodbye. These People Are Serious.

They are waiting. Hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of people. Tomorrow is the end of the world.

I took this photo of a white-clad group in the woods of the archaeological zone of Kabah last week. They spoke Italian as they wandered through the ruins of Kabah and climbed over the ancient buildings.

As we were leaving, I noticed that the group had congregated, formed a circle and were meditating. It made a beautiful, peaceful image and I decided to take a photo. I stayed at a respectful distance and did nothing to bother them or interfere with the proceedings. But immediately a man who'd appeared to be a group leader began waving his arms violently at me. If looks could kill, my world would have ended right then and there. I turned and began to walk away. I kept my eye on the group, though. The man was not meditating. He preferred to glare angrily at me until I was out of sight.

Then I recalled the miffed looks we had gotten from other members of the group. A couple of them had chosen to sit and meditate here and there in the middle of walkways on the site, and seemed to be upset that we were walking by and talking. I tried not to bother anyone, but I feel that if their meditation skills are so feeble that a little noise is a problem then they shouldn't have chosen to meditate in such a public place. These individuals were not a good advertisement for the peace and tranquility achieved through meditation.

A friend who was with us this day emailed me later to say that she had seen an article online about this very group, which apparently is wrapped up in some sort of Armageddon cult.

The point is that although these people seemed to be having trouble reaching bliss through meditation, they are serious. Maybe relaxing is a little difficult when you believe that the world is going to end later in the week.

The Diario de Yucatán today published a brief summary of past Apocalypse predictions, of which there have been a great many over the last couple thousand years. The Jehova's Witnesses have predicted the end at least four times. Various Christian sects and cults also have predicted the end on occasion based upon biblical writings. Of course there is Nostradamus. Scientists and mathematicians, including Sir Isaac Newton also saw the end coming at one time or another. There have been plenty of others. And we're still here.

The Diario also published an article in which an expert on pre-hispanic Maya culture states that modern western culture radically misinterprets the Maya calendar. "The Mayas were not able to predict the arrival of the end of the world, among other things, because in their worldview the linear view of time, with its apocalyptic mentality inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, did not exist."

There you have it. The modern view of it all is so different from the cyclical, pre-European point of view that we've got it all screwed up.

I went to La Flor de Santiago yesterday to have coffee with friends. I was the first to arrive and the only client in the place, so José the waiter talked with me for a few minutes.

José asked me what I thought about the end of the world. I told him I guess that the ancient calendar makers figured they were in good shape when they were a few hundred years ahead in their work, and that had they not been rudely interrupted by the Spanish, they'd have updated the calendar and added a few more centuries by now.

José laughed and nodded. "Pretty simple isn't it?" he said. "Lots of locos out there."

I have plans for the holidays and a brand new 2013 calendar. I've also got a few blog posts in the works. Look me up the day after tomorrow.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Wanderings: Adventure on the White Road

Friday three of us were near Santa Elena, Yucatán, searching for a little-visited ruin known by a variety of names, but commonly referred to as Sacbe (Sok-BAY), which in Maya means "white road."

This was not a simple task. Maybe the several names were part of the problem. The fact that major Mayan highways connecting pre-Colombian cities also were called sacbe because they were paved in white limestone also could confuse things. And persons giving us directions were mostly elder speakers of the Mayan language, and that certainly didn't make communicating easier.

Valerie at The Pickled Onion, where we were staying, gave us simple directions to Sacbe and it sounded easy enough. But just to be sure, after we turned off the main highway as directed I stopped and rolled down the window to ask advice from a group of men on bicycles. They were coming from the parcelas, or farm plots, which was where we were headed. Immediately our little saga began.

Although I told them we were looking for the ruins of Sacbe, the first man apparently did not hear a word I said and assumed all foreigners wanted to go to the same place. He told us, "Kabah is back on the main highway. This is the wrong road."

When I said we'd been to Kabah and repeated that we were looking for the ruined Maya city called Sacbe, which was supposed to be down this road, another chimed in, "Hotel Sacbe is back on the main highway. You passed it. Better turn around."

After another minute or two of getting answers to questions I hadn't asked,  I decided to cut my losses and said "gracias." I said that I would turn around as soon as I found a wide spot. With that, we continued straight on down the dusty road past forest, occasional milpas and piles of irrigation pipe.

After a wrong turn that resulted in a hike down a long path to a bunch of bee hives, we finally thought we were on the right track. We'd driven past a whitewashed chapel and then an open gate as described by Valerie. After the gate, we were looking for a road off to the right.

We tried two roads on the right, parking each time to hike and scout the territory, all the time looking for odd piles of rock, worked stones or structures in the trees that might signal ruins. We even hiked a distance down one road on the left, just in case. We found more bee colonies and several times paused to watch birds, including Chel (Yucatan Jay), Ixchel (Green Jay), Yuyum (Altamira Oriole), Xtakay (Great Kiskadee) and Toh (Turquiose-Browed Motmot).

We drove on and finally saw an old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sitting in the shade of an irrigation pump house. When we asked about Sacbe he nodded and described just the ruins we'd been told about, and then said that we had come too far.

We climbed back into the car and followed his directions, backtracking and turning off on yet another dirt road, where we found a field full of grazing cattle he'd described. We passed through the gate, refastened it and began walking in the direction he'd indicated would take us finally to Sacbe. Almost immediately, however, a small herd of cattle, including one large, dark bull, began making its way very deliberately in our direction. Seeing this, we needed little convincing to change our minds about the idea, and trotted back to the gate, which we slid through and refastened securely behind us. As if to compensate us for this disappointment, in the area we observed a large, brown snake, noted wild orchids in the trees and found iridescent green wild turkey feathers.

I had been trying to call Valerie to clear up our confusion, but we had been out of cell phone range. Suddenly I noticed that here there was a signal, so I called. According to Valerie (who'd been to the ruins), way back at the pump house where the helpful man had advised us to turn around, we ought to have turned right. So we backtracked again and, waving at the man in passing, took the right turn.

We continued on for awhile, and the red clay cancab road suddenly became white and hard like a true sacbe. We joked that this must be a good sign. However, ultimately we turned around after talking to a man named Tomás who we found spraying his corn field where the road became too rough to continue in the car. Tomás had once worked a season assisting a team of archaeologists. He told us about many interesting ruins in the area, including a place where a trick of the full moon makes the ancient, abandoned buildings appear to be illuminated from within and another where at night voices can be heard whispering in a strange tongue. He offered to guide us to these mysterious places on another occasion, but did not know about Sacbe.

We were a little hot, tired and hungry at this point, and concluded that Sacbe was indeed best located with the help of a local who knows the area. So we promised to contact Tomás soon, and headed back to The Pickled Onion for a much-needed lunch and cool drinks.

Once again, as I often find, the original goal of the day was not met, but the unexpected adventure was well worth the effort. We saw interesting things. We'd found a sacbe, but not the ruins of Sacbe this time. We will return another day to continue the adventure.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Chance Encounters, Near Misses

"Would you mind trading places?" the man standing across the aisle asked me. "You've got the seat next to my wife."

We were in Cancún boarding a Florida-bound flight a few weeks ago. My ticket said "9-C" and his "9-D." We traded places so he could be next to his wife and a friend, who were seated in the center and window seats next to my assigned aisle seat. He was a tall foreigner, probably American, traveling with his Mexican wife and several others, including his daughter, son-in-law and mother-in-law. There were seven in the group, sprinkled in our row and the row in front of us. They talked back and forth, so it was impossible not to overhear that they were headed north to join a cruise in Fort Lauderdale.

I thought no more about them until ten days later when I boarded my return flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cancún. I again was in aisle seat 9-C, and to my surprise as I approached the row, the same man was standing in 9-D, as he had been on the previous flight. The whole group was headed home, in the same seats they'd had on the flight north. The man was looking expectantly down the aisle for the person assigned to 9-C so he could arrange a swap and sit by his wife, just as he'd done before.

This time I beat him to the punch. "Would you like to trade places?" I asked. "I believe I've got the seat next to your wife."

He immediately recognized me. After we chuckled and speculated for a few moments about what the odds must be against this sort of thing happening, we talked a bit about their cruise. When the plane was airborne, I had some time to think.

I realized that what had just occurred really is not terribly odd. These types of coincidences are actually common. It's just that much of the time when people with connections briefly pass by each other, we do not recognize the situation and never know what has happened. What was most odd in this case was, I think, that we recognized each other.

Exemplifying the point, during that same Florida visit I spent time with my cousin Greg, whom until a few months ago I had never met, nor even known existed. Due to a family misunderstanding in the 1950's, his mother, my mom's older sister, lost touch with the family in Baltimore and was never heard from again. Detective work on the part of another cousin, aided by Facebook, brought long-lost cousins together in Florida for the very first time earlier this year.

We discovered that my sister, who moved to Florida three years ago, lives only a fifteen minutes' drive away from Greg and his family. She has shopped routinely at the supermarket nearest her house, where incredibly, our cousin works as a manager. They may have seen each other many times, with no inkling that they were related. And we learned that our two families also had lived only a two-hour drive apart for four years in the early 1970's, complete oblivious to each others' existence.

Even stranger was the fact that my mother and Greg's dad, who is the brother-in-law Mom never knew about, had lived simultaneously at the same nursing home for awhile earlier this year. They had probably seen each other passing in the halls or possibly said hello to each other without knowing the true story. And for that matter, sadly, when visiting his father there Greg may have seen my mother, his aunt, (who since has passed away) without knowing who she was.

And I've seen this sort of thing before. My first college room mate in Alaska graduated from the same Florida high school as I, and had lived seven or eight blocks from our home. We'd never crossed paths only because he was five years older and had left the area soon after graduating.

A couple of years later, I ran into a girl in Fairbanks whom I'd met and talked to once several years before, as we jostled in a jeep along rural roads in Colombia, where we went to do volunteer work.

Once on a beach in Portugal I conversed with a guy who was laying on the sand near me. We discovered to our great surprise that we both had been born in Ketchikan, Alaska. It turned out that I'd known his brother at the University of Alaska and we had common friends. Years later, although we had not kept in touch during the interim, we bumped into each other in a coffee shop in Juneau, Alaska, and picked up where we'd left off in Portugal years before.

Later I quit a photojournalism job in Anchorage and went south for a few months. Returning home aboard the Alaska State Ferry Columbia, the first night out I sat down in the ship's bar next to a guy who I was astounded to learn was moving north to fill the very position I'd left.

These are only a few of the many instances in which I have experienced chance meetings in circumstances that easily might not have occurred. I've run into friends in the oddest far-off places. I've also bumped into the same strangers time and again in different parts of the world. On numerous occasions I've met others who have close connections with my family, friends or places I know very well. Were I an extrovert, I am sure I'd have even more of these stories to tell.

What is interesting to speculate about is how many times we come very close to these meetings, but never quite make the connection. Twenty-five years after our meeting on the Alaska State Ferry, we recently discovered, my photographer friend was on vacation in Mérida, and stayed only a few blocks from my house. We had been out of contact and he didn't know I was here. We missed that opportunity.

Over time, and particularly when we travel, we briefly pass thousands of individuals, and to a fair percentage of these we may have some sort of connection. I have to conclude that these tangents to our lives are all around us and that near-misses happen fairly often.

What this boils down to is that when these meetings occur, the coincidences really aren't coincidences. We are all part of an incredibly complex social web of friends, family, less-intimate contacts, communities and places.

The world is a small place. We really are remarkably close to everyone else.