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