Sunday, December 29, 2013

Memoir: Life Changed Forever

The anniversary of a seminal experience in my life passed unnoticed last summer. I just realized it.

Recently I was taking down my oldest hammock as I cleaned around the house, when it occurred to me that I've had it for forty years. That hammock and the hat pictured above aren't mere souvenirs of a youthful adventure. I've treasured them because they represent an experience that altered the course of my life, and eventually brought me to live in Mérida, Yucatán.

I was sixteen and a high school junior when my mother suggested I attend a meeting to form a new group of teenage volunteers who would work the following summer in Central and South America. I was hesitant at first, but I went.

The organization, which has chapters around the country, is called Amigos de las Americas, and its founder, a soft-spoken Texan named Guy Bevil, was guest speaker at the meeting. He showed a short film and talked about his philosophy and the sorts of work and experiences that Amigos volunteers could expect. I liked Guy from the start, and after the meeting talked with him. It didn't take long for me to realize that I'd been waiting for an opportunity like this to come along.

Almost immediately we volunteers began training, dedicating Wednesday nights and most Saturdays during the school year to preparing for our assignments of the coming summer. Classes included Spanish, orientation in the history and cultures of the regions where we would work, and training in such things as giving immunizations, first aid, fitting glasses, building latrines and techniques for teaching health and nutrition workshops.

This was the first time I'd been deeply involved with a group of like-minded people working toward a common goal. We shared and bonded. We found meaning in our work. I trudged lackadaisically through my school days, but looked eagerly forward to Amigos training sessions.

The summer of 1973 I went to Colombia, where with two partners I worked giving polio and measles vaccinations in remote villages along the Magdalena River. We traveled by boat and sometimes by Jeep on roads in such primitive condition that occasionally we took to the brush, the rifle-toting doctor who was our host hacking out a new trail with his machete.

The most unforgettable image from that summer is of a tiny, naked child with distended belly, flies covering her mucous-stained face. She suffered from obvious parasites and other gastrointestinal problems as she squatted to relieve herself in the mud amidst pigs and chickens next to her stick-and-mud home.

The next summer I worked in Nicaragua, which just a year and a half before had endured the devastating Managua earthquake. Managua, still recovering, looked like photos of Hiroshima after the atom bomb.

That summer I was better prepared, but once again my comfortable world was shaken as I confronted houses built of sticks, mud and cardboard, dirt floors, muddy drinking water, sickness and abject poverty of a sort not often seen in the United States.

And as in Colombia, in Nicaragua I was repeatedly impressed by the human warmth and generosity of the poorest of people. Time and again, as we went door-to-door administering measles shots to hundreds of children, to thank us their mothers insisted on preparing for us fresh, warm tortillas and cups of sweet coffee, which often was all the food they had in the house.

I had many adventures during those two summers, but these are the memories that have endured over four decades.

What did I learn? The lessons were many and long lasting, but my most immediate impression was that the expectations and privileges of middle-class American childhood are not the norm in most of the world. I had never gone hungry; in fact I'd always had a wide variety of nutritious food available. Sometimes at home we snacked for fun, which seemed pretty incredible from this new perspective.

I'd never had to worry about health care, getting an education or having a decent, comfortable home with running, potable water and sanitary bathrooms. As a child I'd never had to work to survive, and had the love and support of two understanding parents.

In short, through no personal merit, I was extraordinarily fortunate. Of course, intellectually I had understood all of this, but my experiences with Amigos made the reality abundantly clear.

I live the longer-term influences of the experience to this day. My career, interests, worldview and ultimately my decision to live in Mexico are all direct results of my long-ago work with Amigos de las Americas.

My sixteenth summer was in many ways when my adult life began. I was still very immature, but I took on a challenge, and did it far away from the support of my family. The experience was a turning point from which I saw life stretch out before me in a vast panorama I'd never envisioned before. I saw new and exciting pathways before me, and felt myself pulled forward on them.

It was the summer when my life changed forever.

I still take occasional siestas in the comfort of that old hammock, purchased in 1973 in a small Colombian river town. The experiences of my Amigos years continue to be a touchstone and guide, forty years later.

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Handful of Keys

I found myself walking down the street Thursday morning whistling Handful o' Keys, Fats Waller's 1930's swing classic.

Although the songwriter was talking about a piano and I had in mind a different sort of key, the happy melody suited my mood. I was on the way, for the first time as owner, to explore my new Mérida house.

This was a hectic week, with the sale of my old home sealed on Monday and this purchase closing two days later. But it all worked out. After we'd signed documents I passed the sellers their checks, and one of them handed me this large tangle of keys. The entry keys were isolated on one smaller ring, but beyond that the use of many of these keys was a mystery to be resolved.

But once past the front gate and main door, I put the jangling key ring aside and just wandered around.

I've purchased a two-story Art Deco house that's long been empty and under appreciated. The structure is sound, has a good roof and interior walls are dry and in good condition. With repairs and some thoughtful changes, it promises to be a wonderful place to live.

The reason for all the keys is that to accommodate three heirs the original spacious family home had been split years ago into three sections. The larger of these was later subdivided into rental apartments. This resulted in a property with three entry doors and chopped-up rooms, some with scant light and airflow where partitions were built and original windows and doors covered over.

I liked this house from the street when I first walked by it more than ten years ago. More recently I looked at it several times after it was put up for sale. The interior was a huge disappointment behind an inviting facade. The back patio was so overgrown and full of junk and ruins that although ample, it also felt small and claustrophobic. In addition, the original asking price was high.

One of the items I discovered in the house as I poked around Thursday was a prayer, written by hand on a sheet of spiral notebook paper, seeking spiritual help in selling the house. It was dated July 30, 2013. Not long after that date I revisited the house and began to negotiate its purchase in earnest. I guess that with my purchase the prayer was answered.

I believe the daunting interior appearance of the house and the elevated original price were reasons why it had been on the market for several years without arousing serious interest. But I spent enough time there trying to see through all of the clutter that I got far beyond my first impressions. I've bought two thirds of the original building, and will put the pieces of this house back together.

The exciting, creative work begins now.

My first project will be clearing of growth and demolition of partitions and unwanted structures indoors and out. With the removal of unnecessary walls and the hauling away of many truckloads of debris and rubble, the beauty of the original structure will begin to reappear.

Before purchasing, I went through the place with an architect. More appointments with him are on the calendar.

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


My Mérida home, the realization of a dream that began to develop on cold Arctic winter nights more than twenty years ago, is no longer mine. I sold it this week.

It all happened quickly. The house was never put on the market. I mentioned to a tour group from the Mérida English Language Library that I was going to sell the house, and an offer resulted. It has been a hectic month or two getting ready for the closing.

The goodbye resembled the hello. Monday morning before the closing I sat on the floor of the empty house one last time to contemplate and drink in the atmosphere much as I had ten years ago, nearly to the day, when I first took possession of the property.

I remembered the family who lived in the house when I visited with a real estate agent for a first look. There were four generations of Yucatecan women living there together. The great-grandmother was resting in her hammock in what became my bedroom, and we didn't disturb her. I didn't actually enter that room until I owned the house. The youngest addition to that family, a tiny baby, also was asleep in a bassinet in what became my living room. The dog was loose in the back yard and the owners told me he would bite. So I didn't get to walk to the back of the property, either.

I liked the place, and bought it anyway.

I reminisced about the neighbors I met and friends I made in this neighborhood. Soon after I moved into the house, one neighbor began to bring over plates of Yucatecan food for me to sample. Another neighbor seemed a bit abrupt when she introduced herself to me and then told me I'd paid "way too much" for my house, but we have become good friends.

I thought about how I met the closest friend I have ever had because of this house.

I recalled one hot night when I left the doors open as I slept and bats flew into my bedroom, circling near the ceiling beams as I stared in wide-eyed amazement from my bed.

And, as was not unusual in older homes in this neighborhood at the time, there was a flimsy latch on the back door but no lock. In traditional extended families here, homes are rarely left empty. In these family neighborhoods in past times, crime such as burglary was a rare thing.

I remembered the many challenges of maintaining the integrity and feeling of this traditional home while renovating it to modern standards. I was frankly surprised by how well it turned out.

The new owner stopped by over the weekend to look around, excited and motivated, with a measuring tape and paint chip book in hand. I wish him well and hope he appreciates the place as much as I have.

I lived the happiest years so far of my life in that house, and the home I made and the life I led there, the good and the not-so-good, were rich learning experiences.

I will miss the house, but am moved on by the pull of new plans. I'll post more about those soon. 

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Face Lift: The Old House Gets a New Look

It took five weeks, but it was worth the time invested. The facade of my house is finished, and I suspect that the place has not looked better since the day construction was completed 90 or so years ago.

It started back in September, when I signed a contract with the "Programa de Rescate de Fachadas del Ayuntamiento de Mérida" (The Facade Recovery Program of the City of Mérida). In the contract I agreed to buy all materials for the renovation of the front of my house, with the city supplying the skilled labor free of charge. When the work crew appeared as scheduled in mid-October, the supervisor brought me an itemized materials list, with retail prices, and we talked about the details of the unfolding project. Scaffolds went up immediately, and under the hammers of the work crew, the cracked and crumbling original facade of my home was quickly obliterated, chunk by chunk.

As this began, the head albañil, a soft-spoken middle-aged Mayan man named Luis, began measuring and hand-cutting cardboard templates of the architectural details so they could be accurately reproduced as the wall was resurfaced. Despite careful placement of plastic sheeting on floors, windows and doors and constant cleanups, the entire house, along with those of a few of my patient neighbors, was enveloped in a thick cloud of fine, beige Yucatecan dust.

New concrete was mixed with modern adhesives to assure that the carefully-applied layers of the reconstructed facade will adhere well and be long-lasting. First, a rough coat was thrown onto the now-naked mamposteria stone walls. When this layer had cured sufficiently, a finer layer was troweled and smoothed on, to be followed when dry by the finish coat of silky-smooth white cement. At the same time, the facade's adornments were recreated using molds cut from sheet steel following the cardboard templates.

Every few days, Luis or the supervisor, an engineer named Marcos, would notify me of the materials needed for the coming stage of work, and I would walk five blocks down to the nearest building supply store to place and pay for the order. The materials would be delivered the following afternoon.

Which brings up the topic of patience. When materials were delivered, they were piled into my front sala, or living room, which had been emptied of furniture for the duration of the project. The sala also is where workers kept their tools and works clothes, and where often they ate lunch and rested out of the sun. When a homeowner decides to participate in the facade renovation program, he/she agrees to provide work space, storage for materials, a source of water, and a bathroom for the workers. They take over part of the house. They were polite and careful, but still there were half a dozen strangers in the house for more than a month. Doing the facade correctly is a painstaking process, and patience is required.

The house had been painted pink with white trim and ironwork when I bought it, and it remained that way for ten years. I'd decided to give the house a more dignified color scheme with the renovation, and am very happy with black metalwork against a white and cream background. The results give the place a more traditional, colonial appearance. My costs for this project were about $9000 Mexican pesos, or a bit less than $700 U.S. dollars.

Following are a couple more images of the final results.

Read an earlier post on the facade project here.

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson

Monday, November 4, 2013

Wild Neighbors: Parrots in the Patio

I've written about these guys before. 

One of the beauties of the inner-city block on which I live is the large contiguous tree-filled green space which is not visible from the street. Most of the neighbors' back yards are full of plants and trees, providing ample habitat for a large variety of wildlife, particularly birds.

I love watching all of the birds here, but I think my favorites are the parrots.

These Red Lored Parrots come and go as the various fruits and nuts ripen. They've been hanging around lately chewing on the seeds of my neighbor's cedro tree. They'll drift away and then return as other seasonal food becomes available in the area.

These photos were actually taken last spring near the end of the dry season, when some trees are bare of leaves. Right now, it's pretty hard to get clear shots of the birds because they blend right into the dense foliage. Most often I know they are here when I hear their high-decibel chatter.

I've seen as many as forty of these parrots flying together. This flocking usually happens in the evening, when they head to their sleeping and nesting areas in a park a few blocks north of here.

Often when they are nearby, their mutters and shrieks are my morning alarm clock. Some times I will grab my first cup of coffee and sit in the patio to watch their interactions.

In any case, the parrots are entertaining and always interesting to observe. And I don't have to leave the back yard to enjoy their company.

Read a related post here.

Text and images copyright 2013 by Marc Olson

Friday, October 25, 2013

Wanderings: Sidelined in San Cristobal

One afternoon in July I was riding northward, descending through the mountainous highlands of Chiapas towards Palenque, homeward-bound to Mérida. As usual on bus trips, I was not paying much attention to the on-board video screens, until the familiar roar of a single-engine Cessna aircraft and voices speaking American English emanated from the bus speaker system.

The entire busload raptly watched an episode Flying Wild Alaska, a Discovery Channel reality show about the day-to-day adventures of a regional air service in northern Alaska. My fellow passengers appeared fascinated by exotic arctic vistas, the lives of Native people and the daring deeds of bush pilots in Unalakleet and Barrow. I ignored Zapatista signboards and spectacular scenery passing by the bus windows for thirty minutes and watched the show for another reason -- I was seeing images of people I've met, places I lived, and aircraft I may have traveled on when I lived in that region and flew with this air service some years back. It was a surreal ride.

This was only one of several novel experiences of the prior few days.

I had journeyed south from Mérida to see my niece Brittany Burton, who worked for Natik, an NGO in Guatemala last summer and came up to San Cristobal for a few days on business. Brittany and I never lived in the same town while she grew up, so I don't know her terribly well. And I'd never spent time with Brittany apart from her parents, so it was very worthwhile for me to visit San Cristobal to do a little sightseeing with her and tag along while she worked.

Brittany Burton, left, inventories and sorts products with other Natik associates
I was able to accompany Brittany and two other associates of Natik to the nearby pueblo of Zinacantán, where they met with an organizer of local artisans to inventory and pick up a load of handicrafts for Natik online sales (here and here).

Another day we visited San Juan Chamula, a semi-autonomous Tsotsil Maya pueblo near San Cristobal. The remarkable church there is run by the Tsotsil, who observe their religion and healing rites with a blend of Catholic and ancient traditional practices. Hundreds of candles placed on the floor illuminate the building's interior. There are no pews inside. The floor is covered with pine boughs, and their aroma mixes with that of incense as people kneel to pray aloud in their dialect to the statues of saints which line the walls. Visiting this place and observing this blend of traditions is a privilege and a moving experience.

Photography in Chamula is strictly regulated. Taking pictures inside the church or of traditionally-dressed individuals, ceremonies or dances without permission is prohibited, so I left with just my memories and a couple of self-portraits we made in front of the church. We explored the market where I stocked up on delicious organic Chiapas coffee, and had a nice lunch before taking the bus back to San Cristobal.

My most vivid memories of Brittany as she grew up include images of her bundled up on a sled being pulled behind one of her parents' dog teams. And I think that kind of life growing up helped form the confident young woman I met in Chiapas who shares interests in Spanish and this region with me. The person I hung out with on this visit was a competent young professional traveling alone in Central America, speaking good Spanish and adept and creative in her work.

Wandering and hanging out with Brittany for a couple of days, I realized that I would find her interesting and her company enjoyable even if she wasn't my niece. That's a good feeling.

I enjoyed myself on this trip despite feeling a bit under the weather. Being ill resulted in another first. After a couple days of feeling mediocre and toughing it out, I decided I needed to see a doctor. In Mexico, often the easiest thing to do in this circumstance is to go to a Similar. Similares are a chain of Mexican generic-drug pharmacies. Each Similar has a licensed general practitioner on staff who will consult with walk-in patients for $30 pesos, or about two and a half U.S. dollars. I wouldn't go to a Similar to deal with a serious illness, but when you have an upset stomach in a strange town, it's just the thing. The doctor was professional and efficient, and in about 20 minutes I was back on the street with a couple of medications that had me feeling much better within a day or so.

And as it turned out I had plenty of time to rest and recover. On the morning I was to return to Mérida, a series of civil protests closed all roads out of San Cristobal for several days. Brittany couldn't head south and I couldn't head north. We whiled away a couple of extra days waiting for authorities and protesters to work things out. Finally, on a morning when highways were reported to be open I hugged her goodbye, only to receive a message later saying that her bus had been turned back near the Guatemalan border by new protests and that she was returning to San Cristobal. For another day or so, Brittany kept up with work from Internet cafes. We drank a lot of coffee and a few beers, ate some nice meals and had more time to explore this fascinating city before finally heading on our ways.

On the way home to Mérida I ran into a friend in Palenque. But that's another story.

A friend of mine says he loves living in Mexico because he wakes up each morning not knowing what novel experiences he may have before the end of the day. This trip to Chiapas was a perfect example of what he's talking about, what I've come to think of as "The Mexico Effect," in which daily surprises and challenges keep us active, thinking and living in moment. At home or on the road, life is always interesting and rarely dull around here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Face Lift: The Beginning

At long last I have gone and done it. After ten years of avoiding the issue, I am getting the house a face lift.

I actually liked the patina that the front of the place had developed over the years. My house has a pleasant, traditional design. It's a classic of its kind with a stately presence, but with the wear and tear it has endured over the years, it has blended into the street, and I like that.

I always figured that an unkempt facade provided a small measure of security, assuming that any potential house robbers would be less attracted to places that did not look well-to-do. And these old stone houses are notoriously difficult to keep fresh looking anyhow. It's easier just to relax and not fret about frequent touch ups and repairs. After all, if a house is this old, why can't it look its age? Those of us humans who are at peace with the aging process decide to take care of our health but not worry excessively about normal wrinkles, sags and graying or falling hair. Cracks, peeling paint and mold streaks add character to an old house in the tropics and can be gracefully ignored in my book, at least to a certain extent.

But things deteriorated beyond the "gracefully aging" stage. This was brought home to me not long ago when I walked out the front door one morning and found several chunks of the facade, each about the size of a large candy bar, laying where they had fallen on the sidewalk. I realized that despite my affection for the house's patina, for reasons of safety it was in need of a face lift.

Actually, for years neighbors had been asking me why I didn't redo my house. "I thought gringos liked things nice and new," one said. A number of buildings on the block have been redone and freshly painted over the past couple of years, and in its scruffiness my place was beginning to stand out from the rest.

The city has a program to preserve and restore the city's architectural heritage, officially called, "Programa de Rescate de Fachadas del Ayuntamiento de Mérida." Literally that means, Facade Recovery Program of the City of Mérida. The program employs a squadron of skilled artisans who repair and carefully reproduce deteriorating facades of historic buildings in the city. The work is done free of cost. All a building owner has to do is get on the list, wait for the work to be scheduled, sign a contract, and provide needed materials. It's very organized. A detailed budget of materials and their costs is delivered beforehand and the contract describing the building owner and city's responsibilities during the project is explained in detail.

That's a pretty good deal, and the quality of the work is top notch. Construction makes a bit of a mess of the house, but will be worthwhile in the end. The historic facade will be renewed and ready to accumulate another few decades of patina before it needs serious attention again. I was a bit tired of living with the pink prior owners had painted the place years ago anyhow, so now I can make a change. And more important, no innocent passerby is going to get clobbered in the head by a falling chunk of my house.