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.