Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pool Time


This is the one time of year when the weather forecasters in Yucatán can't go too far wrong. They could all take the next couple of months off and just send in the same report each day: It will be very, very hot.

Few would suspect they hadn't been checking instruments, satellite images and making observations because the prediction would invariably be right.

It is getting to be that season in Yucatán. It's pool time.

Earlier this week we had a couple of days in the 38 - 40 Celsius range, which for Fahrenheit people, is 100 degrees and above. As I began writing this yesterday afternoon, the temperature officially crept to 41.6C (nearly 107F). Although I don't think it reached quite that level at my place, it was pretty warm here.

Everything gets hot. Walls, furniture, clothes in the closet, toilet seats, the shower, drinking water...everything. A glass of iced tea left on a counter is no longer "iced" after about 20 minutes. A teacher friend of mine yesterday complained about how hot his classroom whiteboard was. Everyone is talking about it. Even the life-long locals have gotten into the act.

The newspaper notes that the temperatures this week have been abnormally high for the time of year. It also predicts a long run of high temperatures in April and May, which will be probably the hottest months of the year.

Mérida's principal daily newspaper, Diario de Yucatán in yesterday's front-page headline story predicted, "waves of heat." It is anticipated that in April we will to see 20 - 25 days above 40 degrees centigrade (above 104F). Spring typically is the hottest time of year here because daily rains, which cool things down, don't kick in until about June. This year the experts see little chance of rain until then, so the next two months will be particularly sweltering.

I wrote last year about living with the heat, and am putting into practice all of my regular strategies for dealing with the high temperatures. But it's early in the season. I'm not quite with the rhythm of the weather yet.

My solution to this situation? Pool time. I jump in at the break of day to shake away the sleep and get a fresh start. The heat of the afternoon is the most important time to cool off. And, a cool dip before bed eases me more gently into sleep.

It's nice to share pool time with friends. Yesterday I invited my friend Alondra and her not quite two-year-old daughter Aurora to stop by and cool off. Aurora has no fear of the water, so she is making great progress toward being an early swimmer. She enjoys a dunking and knows how to close her mouth and blow bubbles to keep from taking in water. Aurora loves to get wet and splash the adults -- which at these temperatures is a great pleasure for us.

I think I wrote last year that when I renovated my house there was only enough room left in the budget for a pool or for air conditioning. I opted for a pool, and after about five years now still have not gotten around to putting in the AC. The pool has worked out wonderfully.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Once in Several Lifetimes or, Vecinos Silvestres (Wild Neighbors), Part 4

It was a marvel I could not expect to experience again, even were I to live several more lifetimes. A tiny hummingbird, its heart racing, the large, clear black eye staring into mine, snuggled in my hand.

The bird had exhausted itself as it frantically bumped into the ceiling and screened doors of the house after mistakenly flying in through an open doorway. I tried to help, but wasn't able to do much until the little bird dropped, exhausted, into a catch-all basket that sits high on a kitchen shelf.

I thought the bird was dead. It lay there on its side, eyes closed, feet curled and motionless amidst the miscellany of candles, bug dope and small parts that accumulate in this container. But the moment it felt the touch of my left hand, the tiny creature startled from its swoon and began to struggle.

The reddish-orange and green bird calmed as soon as I had closed my fingers around its nearly-weightless body and held it upright. The bird actually closed its eyes again, I suppose either from shock, fear or resignation. I picked up my camera and carried it and my charge to the back patio. In a matter of a minute or two, the bird had revived and began staring unblinkingly at me. I noticed a few lost feathers and a bit of white dust on its head, probably the result of bumping into the ceiling. Other than that, the tiny bird seemed OK, but I decided to hold onto it for a few more moments in order to give it time to regain strength. And to pose for a portrait.

Later I sent the photo to my blogging birder friend Bev, who helped with identification. This is a Cinnamon Hummingbird, Amazilia Rutila, one of the most common species of hummingbirds on the Yucatán Peninsula. It is the largest hummingbird native to the area. According to guidebooks, they usually are found in arid scrub, pastures and brushy forest edges. This species lives year-round in the gardens of my urban Mérida neighborhood, and is particularly attracted by the flowers of nopal cactus and yellow mandevilla in my yard.

Figuring on getting a full-length photo of my guest as it took off, I readied the camera and slowly opened my hand. I was not quick enough. Instantly the bird rocketed over the back wall, trailing behind only the sound of its voice, a rapidfire, scolding, "tsit-tsit, tsit-tsit" that persisted in the air for a moment after this tiny neighbor disappeared from view.

Read about another animal close encounter here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Images: Conservatism or Simplification?

As I occasionally do, this week I selected a few recently-made images to share. As I looked through picture files, I was surprised by the formality of the compositions. The images follow traditional rules: lines are often straight and direct the eye, forms geometric, spaces neatly delineated.

Oaxaca, Oaxaca: The red striped shirt and white hat popped out against a rectangle of shadow. This man was sitting alongside one of the buttresses of the La Catedral de Oaxaca. Directly above him was a large swath of pale green paint that had been used to cover political graffiti, which has become ubiquitous in the city over the past few years. I had one shot. The guy jumped up and walked away as soon as I had made this exposure.

It is sometimes the case as people get older that we become more conservative. We like structure, are less interested in novelty, and as the energies of our minds, bodies and health wane we take comfort in the routine and the predictable.

Skylight in old house, Juchitán, Oaxaca: I was attracted by the quality of light and the geometric shapes, especially the tiny triangle of light framed between handrail and balusters. I stayed two days in this house, which belongs to a friend of mine, but I didn't really see this stairway until the morning I left, when I noticed the shapes made by sunlight shining from a side window.

Looking at these images I began to think that in my photography perhaps I have become more rigid or conservative. These do not look much like the photos I took in my younger days, which many times were more immediate, off-balance and less composed.

Valladolid, Yucatán: I visited the Palacio Municipal, city hall, on the main square, and upon entering a gallery on the second floor was struck by the view of the church outside. The church has been beautifully lighted. I had taken some pictures of it outdoors, but when I found the frame of this balcony window I made my best image.

In most areas I am definitely not more conservative. Given the way things are in the world today, I cannot accept that the old social, political and technological approaches that have gotten us into a lot of these messes are the best way to creatively deal with the complex situations we find ourselves in.

However, as I get older I do find myself appreciating routine more and novelty less. Perhaps creating more structure in my photography is a way for me to feel secure by controlling what I share with others about my environment.

Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay: I fell in love with the landscape of this hacienda, owned by my friend Jonathan, when I first saw it a few years ago. The ancient and gigantic Pich, or Elephant Ear Tree, is a landmark, and the first visual sign, approaching on the long and winding access road, that the old casona is near. Visiting last weekend I was struck by this view of the Pich, seen through the hacienda gates, other trees and red bougainvillea. If I were a landscape painter, I would spend a lot of time on the hacienda with my sketchbook, canvas, brushes and paints.

After spending time working on this post, I have come to the conclusion that more than anything else, I am simplifying, eliminating the superfluous, making my life more straightforward. Is this conservative? I guess so, in a manner of speaking.

Another sign of the change is that I am not nearly as interested in travel as I once was. Often I am happy to stay at home and enjoy reading, creative projects, the garden, and getting together with friends and neighbors, often without leaving a few-blocks radius of the house for quite some time. I leave home less often, but when I do go I enjoy it more.

I and another friend stayed Friday and Saturday nights at the hacienda, a bit over an hour's drive from Mérida. The old house is large, and although comfortable, mostly unrestored and without electricity. Wandering in a side room I discovered this badminton raquet and a small religious print, hung casually on nails, not for effect but to keep them off of the unfinished floor. I like the haphazard arrangement against the nail holes and peeling colors of the wall.

One thing I enjoy about San Antonio Xpakay is that I have visited many times and feel right at home there. A couple of times (including the recent visit) Jonathan has not been at home when I arrive. He leaves the door open and food on the table. It is an uncomplicated place. It is easy to feel at ease there and enjoy the present moment.

It's possible I'm getting more conservative as I age, but what I am doing primarily is simplifying. I hope that this is a result of having learned a few things about priorities. I like to think that I am making wiser choices that enable me to enjoy more while needing, expending and consuming less.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mexico Blogs: The Mexpatriate

I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Cotton, an Oregonian living on Mexico's Pacific coast, last November at a gathering of bloggers in Mérida.

His posts about Mexico are interesting, sensitive and very well-written. He's a great wit, too.

I highly recommend
Steve's blog to anyone interested in Mexican history, culture, or the ins-and-outs of being a foreigner living here.

Today's post was particularly thoughtful. It is too bad that stories and analysis like this are not often found in the media north of the border.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not Up, Not Down, Just "Here"

You Are Here

A poem by Jonathan Harrington

It happened on the Sunshine State Parkway in Florida
somewhere between Orlando and West Palm Beach.
A young woman, well dressed, attractive
but obviously unbalanced,
wandered around the rest stop food court
where travelers fumbled their snacks and soft drinks.
I overheard her mumbling
as she stopped the elderly, sunburned gentleman
in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses
his finger poised on the button for M&M's.
I was buying Doritos from the vending machine beside them
as she asked the man, confused, babbling…
"Why are we here?"
The elderly gentleman cleared his throat
but did not back away,
looked at her oddly but without disdain…nodding.
"Where am I going?" She pleaded, nearly in tears.
"Where am I?"
The gentleman pointed to the map on the wall,
touched his finger, almost lovingly,
to the bright red arrow showing our position on the highway
and in a soft and kindly Southern drawl
read her the bold, black print beneath:
"Ma'am," he said gently, "You Are Here."

When in Alaska, I've always listened with interest to people who, when talking about the place, keep referring to "up here." As in, "Up here, it's really cold," or "We eat a lot of salmon up here." Statements like that.

This is often a sign to me that the speaker has moved from somewhere else, and in spite of perhaps having lived in Alaska for quite some time, their "center" still exists on an important level somewhere "down" south where they came from.

When someone says, "up here," I figure that the person is either new to the state, has never really become Alaskan at heart, or is living in the area to take advantage of an opportunity but will one day be heading back "down" to the center of civilized life somewhere in the lower forty-eight states.

What makes them feel that where they live is "up?" Why aren't they just "here?" It's as if they haven't fully taken to the place where they live; they have failed to put down life-sustaining roots. They still are deeply, and probably permanently, centered somewhere else.

The same phenomenon happens in Mexico, among the foreigners, at least among expats of U.S. and Canadian origins. Except, of course, in Mexico we are all "down here." Folks live somewhere away from the psychological center of their lives, or where they came from --"home"-- and have left enough of themselves behind that they forever feel the separateness, and don't feel completely "here" anywhere else.

A well-known geographer named J. B. Jackson offers this explanation:
It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity.*
This certainly makes sense and explains a few things. People unwittingly signal with their choice of words something about their identity and sense of place in the world. Given the conventions of how we look at a globe, with north up on the top and south down on the bottom, it's not surprising that people use these terms to describe where they are on earth, using the position of "home" as a point of reference.

An interesting thing is that some people never talk in this way, and I am a member of that group. When I am in Mexico, as I am at the moment, I don't feel like I am down here. I just feel here. When I am in my birthplace and longtime home in Alaska I don't feel like I am up there. I am just there.

Which beings me back to a favorite poem by my friend Jonathan Harrington, You Are Here. It poses three questions. The first is, "Why are we here?" Well, I am not going to attempt to tackle perhaps the biggest philosophical question in all of human history in the space of this post. But I can easily answer the other two questions.

"Where am I going?"
Where is not nearly as important as the quality of the journey.

"Where am I?"
I'm not up. I'm not down. I'm just here.

You Are Here reproduced with permission of Jonathan Harrington

*Jackson, J. B. (1984). Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press: 152.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Contentment: A Do-Nothing Day

Yesterday was a Do-Nothing Day. That does not mean it was unimportant, uneventful or worthless. I didn't spend hours numbing my brain by staring at a TV or computer display. I actually accomplished a lot yesterday.

Here I often spend those days

Do-Nothing simply means that I do not start with an agenda. There are no concrete goals. I just concentrate on the moment and find out what the day will bring. Do-Nothing Days are luxurious. Usually a Do-Nothing Day is the best kind of day.

Do-Nothing Days are not only a luxury, they are a great privilege, not to be wasted. With so many people around the world struggling every day of their lives with survival, or demanding jobs, social and family obligations, being able just to exist for a few hours or a day without worrying about food, shelter, health, safety, appointments, or taking into consideration others' opinions of what you are doing, is a blessing and a responsibility.

And others' opinions -- criticism -- is what you sometimes will hear if you tell people you are "doing nothing." You're a good-for-nothing, lazy, a bum, a slacker. In our culture, the standard wisdom is that you should always be doing something: you must accomplish. It's your social and patriotic duty to have a job and earn money so you can contribute to the economy by going shopping, and by doing so to create jobs and keep the whole, increasingly precarious house of cards that is the world economy standing. Idle hands are the devil's tools. You must be productive.

Frankly, I think one of the best things one can do for the planet is to have a Do-Nothing Day. It is peaceful; you are not destroying anything, polluting, contributing to global warming or wasting resources on superfluous and silly things. And if you like, it's free, without cost.

A Do-Nothing Day consists of simply appreciating the good there is in the world and enjoying without consuming, without wasting. How does one do that? Here are some things that
I try to do:

Be in the moment, here and now. Be constantly aware of your surroundings and of what you are doing. Try to silence the inner critical voice, the internal dialog that goes on inside your head. If you just asked yourself "what internal dialog?" well, that's the voice I am talking about. Don't fret about problems or unfinished business. Do not plan or think about tomorrow. Do not criticize yourself. Just observe and be self-aware in the current moment.

Concentrate on the gifts nature has given us. Use your senses to appreciate what is around you: colors and textures; air movement and temperature changes; aromas and tastes, natural and human-created rhythms and sounds. This is easier to do at first if you concentrate on one sense at a time.

Breathe and smile. No further instruction needed. This makes you feel good.

Dedicate time to think about the good things, all of the positive things you have in your life.

If you talk with friends, really listen. Practice listening, making contact and focusing on that person.

Do-Nothing does not mean you have to stay home and sit in a chair, although for me spending some time alone in a pleasant place is important. These can be good days to work on creative projects, or mop the floors for that matter (but you shouldn't do those things unless you feel like it). Many of the things I list above can be done while you are involved in other activities.

Do-Nothing Days often turn out to be days of pleasure and accomplishment. They are days of full living, because to-do lists, obligations and "work" take a back seat to just enjoying being a sensitive, thinking animal alive on this planet.

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