Monday, October 27, 2014

Halloween (revisited)

This piece, originally titled Jack o' Lanterns, was one of my very first on this blog years ago and remains one of my favorites. I reposted it again on Halloween several years back since my readership was so low virtually no one read it the first time. My blog output is slow these days, so here I repost it for those who have not read it before.

Three years ago on a weekend off from teaching in the summer course at San Ildefonso Tultepéc, in the state of Querétaro, I took a hike on the outskirts of a tiny nearby pueblo named El Cuisillo. It's located close to the border between Mexico and Querétaro states. That makes it about equidistant from the towns of AmealcoQuerétaro and Aculco, Mexico, along a two-lane highway that in two or three hours takes you, if you flag down and jump aboard one of the dusty buses that occasionally passes by, from this very small place to the world's largest metropolis.

The people of El Cuisillo are very shy but friendly. In keeping with that spirit, it is an unpretentiously scenic walk along roads and paths through their land. From hilltops you can glimpse distant rock formations, ravines and cliffs, and the occasional small house with cornfield, or perhaps far away a small child with a stick trying to goad a slow-moving cow out to pasture. There are some interesting pre-hispanic ruins in the area. The ruins are just there. There is no visitor center with bored security guard, you'll fend off no vendors selling fake artifacts and bottled water, and you need not heed any "do not climb" signs nor thoughtfully consider pedantic interpretive plaques of questionable interest. There is no one else around; you can enjoy the quiet and imagine yourself the explorer.

For some reason here, I suppose it's the stillness of the air and the rock formations reflecting sound waves, once in awhile I mysteriously hear clear voices and laughter but see no people. Perhaps they are hiding in the bushes and watching this strange foreigner smiling and whistling to himself, writing in a little book and taking pictures of things that seem to them very ordinary and mundane. Perhaps, as many acquaintances of mine in Barrow, Alaska will attest, the "little people" do exist, and maybe they live here, too. It certainly seems like a place they would appreciate. It may be a mystery I will never solve, and I like that. I've walked in the vicinity many times over the years and always find something new to do or see. It's a place I have visited with others, but mostly I like to wander here alone.

Many of the families in the region are indigenous Otomí, like these boys, and live a subsistence way of life near the poverty line. Besides keeping some animals and planting a small garden and milpa, or cornfield, some families make fired-clay products to produce cash income. The area produces a lot of these ceramics, such as pots, planters, platters, small replica churches and houses, sun plaques and other decorative, kitchen and garden items. Apparently someone in the area realized that with well in excess of 20 million persons living within a couple of hour's drive, there might be a market for jack o' lanterns. It seems like every clay workshop produces them. Halloween is not a tradition in Mexico, but some families do observe the day.

When I passed by their house the boys ran up to the road with arms full of "calabazas," or

pumpkins, for sale. I purchased two at the asking price of about a dollar each. I managed somehow to get them back to Mérida in my luggage without breakage. They have served me well now for three Halloweens. I have yet to receive a trick-or-treater at my door, but if one comes, I am ready.

Happy Halloween.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Wild Neighbors: A Tiny Surprise

I'd pretty much given up on the turtles. Last September I wrote that the pair of young Furrowed Wood Turtles I'd kept in the patio for several years appeared to have reached sexual maturity. They were "trying," at any rate.

I've found a number of their eggs in various nooks and crannies of the patio, and none that I've ever observed has hatched. I've also seen a couple of broken shells, and assumed since I never saw young ones that the eggs (or perhaps the vulnerable newborns) had been scavenged by birds, opossums, iguanas or cats.

I discovered a couple of rotten eggs amongst the plants just recently. I've assumed that the couple was infertile, and stopped hoping for a turtle family. Then Tuesday morning I was greeted by a small surprise in the patio. The little thing appeared weak and very dry, as if it had been struggling for some time to extricate its hind quarters from the shell. I put it in a clean bucket and dribbled a little water over its head.

The moisture seemed to revive the tiny creature, but when after another hour it hadn't made progress extricating itself and was barely moving, I began carefully to chip away at the edges of the egg. A tiny, hourglass-shaped turtle emerged, its carapace indented where the half-eggshell had restricted it from expanding and drying.

Within minutes the hind legs began to stretch out and move a little. After an hour, the newly-hatched critter was getting around fairly well. I picked it up and it snapped at me, so I took advantage of the situation and held out a tiny piece of banana. The turtle quickly snatched a sliver and after a moment swallowed it. I then tried out other food: tiny pieces of tuna and tender leaves of succulent verdolaga (purslane) that the adult turtles seem to like. It ate a little bit of each. A day or two later, the baby began to exhibit evidence that its digestive system is functioning properly.

As I write this, the little turtle is six days old. I put off posting immediately because her (I am not sure of the gender, but I am calling this one a girl) appetite and energy levels seemed low,  which along with the fact that she did not seem able to hatch unassisted raised the concern that perhaps she would not survive.

But now after almost a week of life this young turtle seems to be doing OK. And I've figured out a few things. She does not like to eat in the morning, but will take off running if I let her loose outside her temporary small habitat in the bucket. Physical activity gets her juices flowing and stimulates a hearty appetite in the afternoon. After the first days of only eating food that I held up to her mouth, she finally is finding and eating some food on her own.

Here's an image of the newborn with her mother. Mom seemed a bit aggressive when I put them near each other, so I think the smart thing is to keep the little one in her own area until she can take care of herself. I have a large plastic tub that will serve as home for the time being.

Read another post on the turtles here.

Text and images copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Secret Beach

I don't normally head out to the beach during the high season, but this morning the pull was so strong that I went anyhow. Some people go to church on Sundays. I find renewal swimming in the ocean and feeling the sun on my skin.

Today is the very last day of summer vacations in Yucatán. School starts tomorrow, so although hot weather continues for at least another month or two, the beach scene calms down after this.

But on a day like today, at most favorite beach spots, parking areas and restaurants are jammed, and the sand is lined with beach chairs, umbrellas and all types of fancy and home-made sun shelters. It seems that all of Yucatán and their cousins are swimming, building sand castles, listening to music and drinking beer along the fringe of the Gulf of Mexico.

So I headed out to Secret Beach.

This is undoubtedly my favorite beach in Yucatán, not because it's spectacular or beautiful, but because of the solitude. Today, on one of the busiest beach-vacation weekends of the summer, I took the above photo at this wonderful little spot.

Tracks in the sand showed the path of a horse and rider that had passed by earlier. Curious, I followed their trail for a bit, but the heat drove me into the water. They'd obviously been out in the morning when the sun was not so intense.

The bottom here is sandy and the water clear, warm and calm. Fish raced through the waves and jumped around me as I swam. Pelicans, vultures, gulls, overflying flamingos, and a few lizards were my only other company.

After a while, a fishing launch passed by and dropped a handful of tourists off a few hundred meters up the beach. I'd had enough sun, and now the place was starting to feel crowded. I walked the rustic path back to the car and headed for a shrimp cocktail and fish-fillet lunch under a palapa a little ways down the sandy road.

Creeping development is a threat to the wonderful solitude here, and things are slowly changing. Power lines sprouted along the road several years ago and fancy beach mansions are going up not far away. When they build the houses, they put up walls or barbed wire fences which block off trails and roads to beaches like this one. 

At least for the moment though, along the stretch by Secret Beach, access is still unrestricted and free.

I try to get out here and enjoy it while I still can.

Text and images copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Only Perfect Thing

I have missed blogging the past couple of months, but I just haven't been ready to write about other things until I've gotten this big one off my chest.

My father passed away in April. It was peaceful and without anguish or pain. And because we knew it was coming the family was together with him. We couldn't have hoped for more than that.

Now that a bit of healing time has passed and I have thought clearly about the big picture of it all, I realize that my family has a lot for which we can be thankful.

As Dad got more forgetful at home in Alaska, he used to joke that his memory had "gone south." Several years ago for medical reasons, with the family's assistance the rest of him made the same journey. My father lived most recently in a nursing home near my sister in South Florida.

Although back when Dad was better able to consider his options he never considered leaving Alaska in his old age, in later years it really didn't matter to Dad where he lived, geographically. The past -- career, accomplishments, losses, disappointments, his treasured Alaska book collection -- none of these mattered terribly much to him any longer, either.

What was important was the quality of Dad's daily life and the care that he received. Where he lived recently, the quality of these things was high. With his physical needs taken care of and limited by poor vision and a fading memory, Dad concentrated his attention on what was left.

Fortunately, what remained was the important stuff. Dad expressed love for those around him. It didn't matter who was there. They might have been family members, friends, doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, therapists or just other folks who happened to be there. Whoever it was, he loved them and he made sure they knew it. And because he expressed his love for people, the love was returned in abundance.

Relationships and simple pleasures that can be enjoyed in the here and now -- things like singing, listening to music and birdsong, feeling the warmth of the sun, eating a cookie, holding a hand, a hug -- these he still enjoyed to the fullest. And he seems to have found a good level of contentment in them.

Dad had long been interested in Buddhism and had practiced meditation. Thinking about all this, I realized that in his final years he refined the art of living in and appreciating the moment.

I have a close friend who often points out that "to love is the only perfect thing we do." I think that in this respect my father passed his final years in the most perfect way he could. Of course over the past few years there were moments of despair, stress and anxiety. We wouldn't be human without those. But now looking back, I know that Dad and the whole family endured it all because of the love.

And in that I can find comfort.

Text and images copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Huevos de Patio

If you like eggs, there's nothing else quite like them. They are called huevos de patio, or "back-yard eggs," here in Yucatán.

That means that these eggs come from hens kept in the back patio of a house. Of course quality varies depending upon how the chickens are fed and cared for, but usually it means that these are what a friend of mine used to call "happy chicken eggs."

The hens producing these eggs don't spend their lives in tiny cages under artificial lights, being pumped full of chemical-laden industrial feed and hormones. Instead, they run around outdoors, squabble amongst themselves, take dust baths, scratch for bugs, worms, tender green herbs and sprouts, and probably mate frequently with a rooster. In the world of chickens they lead social, fulfilled lives.

Last Sunday, as I occasionally do, I visited with friends in Abalá, a pueblo less than an hour's drive from Mérida. Often when I am in the pueblo we take a walk, visiting one of the local cenotes, birdwatching, searching for orchids and unusual wildflowers, or perhaps walking the paths out to the ranch and looking at the family's twenty-or-so head of cattle. However on this visit, by the time we got to the pueblo the weather was already pretty hot, so we spent the remainder of the day staying in the shade and not moving too much.

The result was that we had plenty of time to hang out with the chickens. We prepared the daily feeding that supplements what the birds find foraging in the yard and made sure they had fresh, cool water. A bit later we shooed the birds into the coop so that the hens could lay in clean, dry grass where the eggs would be easy to gather later on.

There are about a dozen laying hens here, and three roosters. Although they mostly look alike to me, I have discovered that their keepers know each animal individually. I now know which hens are the best layers, and that one, although fully grown now, has never laid an egg. She may be headed on a one-way trip to the kitchen one of these days. The same holds for a confused rooster who jealously fights to keep the other males away from the hens, but never mates with them himself.

I learned about the old great-great-grandmother white hen who continues to lay as prolifically as a youngster although at the age of five or six she ought to be far past her prime. There were some jokes that the secret of her youthfulness has to do with "getting plenty" of attention from a much younger rooster. She is prized for her large eggs and is a favorite, more like a pet, in this family.

Although they may know their stock pretty well, country people who raise their own food normally don't get too sentimental about animals. Chickens around here rarely die of old age. Although the old white hen may be an exception, most of these birds eventually end up in dishes like the rich mole we ate Sunday afternoon. The killing is not something anyone in the family likes to do, but it is necessary if they are occasionally going to eat meat. And culling older and less-productive animals makes room for the younger generations.

But the best reason in my book for having chickens in the patio is for the eggs. These huevos de patio are organic and fresh daily. Eating these eggs, we know exactly what we are consuming. Sunday evening after getting home from Abalá I ate an omelet made from eggs that I had gathered, still warm from the hens' bodies, that very afternoon. It doesn't get much better than that.

You may be wondering why there are no photos of the chickens. The reason is that until I got home with the eggs pictured above and ate that omelet, I wasn't planning to write a post about this. But the omelet was that good. I'll try to write again about the backyard chickens, and include photos, in a future post.

Text and images copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Friday, March 21, 2014

New House: Little, Tiny Steps

For many years the only residents of my new house were a few neighborhood cats, who left abundant evidence of their tenancy in the form of stinky corners and sooty footprints under the ledges of broken windows they climbed through as they came and went.

Seeing these markings, I thought of the line about "little cat feet" in Carl Sandberg's poem "Fog."

I can't really come up with an apt use of the literary reference here except to say that the start up of this renovation project is creeping along as carefully and gingerly as a feral cat in an abandoned house.

There are reasons for the delay.

First, I've learned that taking time to plan a project like this is important. When I bought my first home in Mérida in 2003, I had all sorts of great ideas about what I wanted to do with it. I then inhabited the house, "as-is," for three years without doing any kind of work beyond some cleaning, painting and minor repairs. When eventually I finished the renovation effort I noticed that ninety-nine percent of my initial ideas had been thrown out the window. The time spent living in the house before making changes had allowed me to work out how I would actually use the space. That made all the difference in the quality of the results.

So although this time I won't actually move in and live in the new house before renovating, I am not in a huge hurry to start. I've been getting a feel for the place. The rental I am living in is only a short distance away, so at different hours of day or night I sometimes walk over to the new house to hang out. I've left a pair of comfortable, old chairs there, and have moved them around the rooms, sitting, observing and working through ideas. I've slung my hammock there and slept over a few times. This "think time" has produced good results and I have a good list of questions and ideas for the architect.

Speaking of the architect, Victor Cruz is on board and we've had a couple of planning meetings. His crew has drawn and measured the house and blueprints of the existing structure are in the works. In the past I've had Victor do a couple of smaller designs for me and I have seen a number of his projects. I like his work. I believe that Victor's style and skills will mesh well with this project.

Cleaned up, the floors look pretty good

The other delay right now is due to the fact that I bought two side-by-side properties. The original house was subdivided years ago and I am reuniting two houses with separate deeds. We can't obtain building permits to knock down partitions and open up doorways between two legally-separate structures, so I am waiting for my lawyer to work through the bureaucratic process and produce the single deed I need to restore the building as one house.

Added to that, I've got another new project in the works that could take priority and delay the start of construction for a few months. It looks as if this project may creep along on little cat feet for a while longer.

Text and photos copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Finding Stuff

As I work cleaning up my new Mérida centro house I find myself resuming a life-long pastime.

I've always liked to pick up interesting objects I find. I started as a child collecting rocks, shells and fall leaves. I collected whenever the opportunity presented itself.

I learned that certain rock formations and stream beds in Interior Alaska are rich areas for fossils.  As I grew I also found that historic long-abandoned dumps and derelict buildings far out in the country were rich sources of Alaska mining-era relics, such as old bottles, kerosene lanterns, tools and hardware. 

These types of discoveries excited a childhood passion for history, archaeology and random collecting in which as an adult I still indulge occasionally. I always enjoy the anticipation of finding something interesting.

In Juneau, Alaska I bought a historic house in the downtown area. As I repaired and renovated, the yard, dirt crawlspace, attic and walls of the house produced boxes full of gold mining equipment, coins, keys, silverware, dishes, marbles and many other everyday objects that were discarded or lost during the early days of the city.

The next house I owned, in Mérida, relinquished a small statue, vintage bottles, kitchen discards and broken pottery as we dug and built there.

So now I've begun accumulating interesting objects found as I explore and clear out my new property. Some of what I find is trash, and goes into garbage bags for removal. Other material such as metal, stone and cement block is sorted into piles for reuse or recycling.

Then there is the "other" category. Pictured are three items I've put aside so far.

I found the ceramic cable insulator still mounted atop a rotten, wooden pole in the patio. Although not terribly old, it's of a type no longer employed, and the brown glaze is shiny and undamaged after decades  out in the tropical sun. Unless I find a better use, it will probably end up on my desk as a paperweight.

The hefty bronze spigot, called a llave in Spanish, was on one of the rainwater storage tanks in the patio. Although it's old, replacement washers for it are still available down at the tlapaleria in Santiago, and it ought to work perfectly. This antique is of a lot higher quality than one I might buy today. It's threaded for a garden hose and undoubtedly will be put back into service as I restore the house.

The third item is a mystery to me. It's a stone disc with a hole through its center, about the size and shape of a large doughnut. If I'd found this on an Alaska beach, I would assume it to be a fishing weight, of the sort threaded along the bottom of nets to keep them hanging vertically in the water. Had I found an object of this design made of wood or cork I would assume it to be a float for these same nets. However I found this item in my Yucatecan patio near one of the wells. It's formed of natural local stone, not cast of concrete. The green stain is due to mildew that formed on the side which was touching the ground.

I have no idea what this is. I will show it to some local friends to see if they can generate any ideas. Meanwhile, in my spare time I continue to work my way through the detritus in the patio. It's hot and dirty work, but interesting because it has the aspect of a childhood treasure hunt. I never know what I may turn up next.

Text and photos Copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Friday, January 17, 2014

Water, Water, Everywhere

I lowered my camera into the hole

I stood in the patio of the new house and said to myself, "Well, well, well," then recognized the pun and added, "well."

That's four wells I have found so far on the long-uninhabited downtown Mérida property I bought a month ago.

In Yucatán, this is not unusual. This is a flat, porous land where water does not run off. It filters down; there are no rivers or streams. In a place where people have lived for many hundreds of years and city water utilities have existed for only a few short decades, wells have long been a necessity for human survival.

The Maya drew water from natural caves, cenotes and hand-dug wells, and also collected rainwater. The Spanish continued these same practices, and as Mérida grew, large numbers of wells were excavated.

Most of the older buildings in Yucatán have hand-built stone-lined wells, used to produce fresh water (a practice no longer common in the city), and now used also for runoff and for sewage. These wells are large enough in diameter for a person to descend into. For that reason they can be dangerous, especially where they have been abandoned, have partially collapsed and are hidden by undergrowth and debris.

As the back patio in my new place was slowly cleared of many years' accumulation of brush, weeds, leaves and trash, wells became obvious. One looks something like an old-time storybook water well. It's easy, looking down into its rock-walled cylinder, to see the water about eight meters (26 feet) down. The well straddles the lot line and is shared with a neighboring house. The wall separating the properties goes right over the top, a very common situation around here.

Another well in the patio is identified by a round concrete slab embedded in the ground, with a smaller concrete cap sporting a crude metal lift handle centered in its middle. Once brush was cleared, it was easy to see.

There's a well under this floor
Later, I got curious when I started clearing out a covered outdoor laundry area and saw that the drain tube went straight into the floor, which was finished with colorful, antique pasta tiles. By stomping with my foot, I found a hollow area beneath the floor. Later, I asked about it when talking with an elderly neighbor whose family had owned the house. She confirmed that there is a drainage well under the laundry sink.

That's three wells. The fourth was the most obvious, marked by a large concrete slab, recessed into a low rectangular stone foundation, with a pipe leading into it through a small aperture. A rusty, old-fashioned water pump sits to one side. All this is enclosed within what was a three-sided hut, now roofless. The size and proportions of this one made me think that this could be a noria, a larger, rectangular well, easily large enough to climb down into.

I couldn't see anything by looking into the tiny opening, and it would be dangerous to try to stand on the deteriorated roof over what could be a very deep hole and try to lift the concrete well cap by myself. I concentrated instead on a pile of wood and old doors and windows, weighted down by rocks and concrete blocks, covering the other end of the large slab. After letting scorpions and thousands of ants disperse, I moved one final panel of termite-eaten wood and discovered a round opening leading down into darkness.

Not having anticipated the need for a flashlight, I was unable to see much, so I lowered my camera by its strap into the hole and took a few flash pictures. They don't help much to clarify what's down there, but there definitely is stone construction below ground. However, parts of the cavern look irregular, raising the possibility that the well may have been built where a natural fissure or cenote already existed. There are many cenotes in Mérida, including a small one under the patio of the house I am renting right now. It's a possibility here, too.

Only time and further investigation will tell what I've really got there under the patio.

Meanwhile, I may have detected another large hollow, possibly indicating a cistern, well or cenote under a floor inside the house. More exploration is on the agenda to sort that one out.

Text and photos Copyright 2014 by Marc Olson

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New House: The Secret Garden

Inpenetrable in the beginning

I've been cleaning up and getting to know the house I bought last month.

On my first visits a year or more ago to look at the long-abandoned Mérida centro property, the back yard -- called the patio in Yucatán -- was so overgrown and full of debris that I wasn't able to appreciate it. 
Cleared, but still a maze
Then in August, at my request the sellers paid someone to remove out-of-control thorny brush, creepers and high weeds. This enabled me finally to walk to the back of the lot. Until then, I'd been limited to looking at it from the house, staring into a mass of green from the rear doors and peering over the railing of the second-story terrace. From these vantage points I made the logical assumption that the high walls I could see out there in the tangle were the limits of the property.

Even after the lot was cleared, the patio was a maze. Two large, round rainwater storage tanks dominate the area near the house. Old property-line walls, roofless rooms and what look like a chicken coop, laundry areas and kitchen, split the lot lengthwise and from side to side. I hadn't yet seen the plat and didn't have precise measurements, so the dimensions of what was on offer were still indefinite.

The lot widens out at the rear
By ducking through low doorways, twisting and turning through this labyrinth, I was delighted to find that the lot widens out toward the rear by including a five-meter-wide rectangle of land behind the neighboring house.

Then came a bigger surprise. When I walked to the end of this section I discovered an opening that leads back in the direction of my patio.

This entry led to a space behind the high wall that until then I had assumed was the rear of the property. Here I found what I've been calling "the secret garden," a walled-in, secluded strip of land running across the back of the lot, containing the remains of an animal pen and some sour orange trees.

The Secret Garden
The existence of this space probably is due to the fact that the patio, like most in Merida centro, has been in use for many generations. The property was split up when passed down to heirs, who later further divided it into apartments. The divisions reflect changing uses of space over time, primarily for keeping animals, washing and drying laundry, and growing lemons and sour oranges (which no true Yucatecan kitchen can do without). All of this construction and division resulted, probably unintentionally, in a sliver of land completely isolated and invisible from the neighbors, the rest of the yard and from the house. You only see it when you are there.

My lawyer did the legal due diligence and all of the paperwork was in order. To be certain, before signing a contract to purchase I returned to the house with copies of the deed and plats to put the puzzle pieces together, measure and be sure that all of this belongs to the house.

It does.

So that's my secret garden. It would be tempting to plant aromatic herbs and flowers in this space, bring in a little table and chair, and maintain it as a secluded place to enjoy my morning coffee. 

However my plans to make the best use of the land mean that the high stone wall probably will come down to incorporate this tiny refuge with the rest of the patio. I guess I'll have to enjoy it while I can. But then who knows, perhaps I'll get inspired while I'm hanging out back there, and figure out a good way to keep the secret garden intact.