Tuesday, November 30, 2010

a beach kind of guy?

When I moved to Mexico, I thought I knew exactly where I wanted to spend my retirement.

On the beach.

I love the water.  If I had retired in Oregon. I would have lived in Pacific City or some other non-tourist beach town.

The Mexico beach is pleasant in my little fishing village.  Sun.  Sand.  Sea.  Enough scenery to fill an Ansel Adams library.

But Melaque is not paradise.  The mosquitoes are everywhere.  Especially, the pesky Aedes aegypti ankle biters that carry yellow and dengue fevers in the fluids they so willingly swap with us.  And bite they do.  I just killed two while writing that sentence.

Top them off with hellish summer weather and the lack of any cultural stimulation, and the pleasantness loses a bit of its shine.

In the balance, I still like being on the beach.  But I have found myself getting a bit restless.  When I travel, I audition new places as the next place Mr. Cotton may set up shop.

That is why my ears perked up at the bloggers' conference when I overheard someone say: "They are beach people.  Not city people."

Beach people and city people.  I had never thought of the distinction before.  Even though I instinctively knew I gravitated toward the beach.  But I was soon to discover -- with the first two cities we visited in Yucatán -- that there is a difference.

Not surprisingly, Mérida is populated by city people expatriates.  It is known as "the Paris of Mexico."  The comparison is a bit generous.  Much in the same way as Tulane's boast to be "the Harvard of the south."

But I can see the reason for the nickname.  The city takes an almost Gallic pride in its heritage as the provincial capital of Yucatán -- an area that was effectively independent of Mexican government control for well over a century.

Its streets are more Left Bank than Champs-Élysées.  But the place has the feel of well-placed monumental buildings and boulevardier-occupied parks.  The Parque Principal that ties together the cathedral, municipal buildings, and arcaded cafés is a perfect example.  Almost as if Georges-Eugène Haussmann stopped by for a little tinkering.

The expatriates who live there reflect the same sensibilities.  They are a social lot.  Resuscitating old colonial homes.  Moving from art gallery openings to theatrical readings to lunches with the ladies.  And purchasing books in glorious book stores.

It is the echo of a world that would be easily recognized by people from Manhattan, Denver, or San Francisco.  What some call "urban lite."

The congestion of narrow streets, bustling sidewalks, and crowded stores are merely the energy that fuels the city folk's dreams of the good life.

If Mérida is the Yucatán capital for city people, Progreso is the beach people capital.  Or, at least the symbol of the beach people.

The town is only a half hour drive north of Mérida.  But it is a world away from anything that could be called urban.  Lite or otherwise,

With a population of 35,000, it feels more like a large village.  And it was once far more than that.

It is still a container port.  But it was once Yucatán's commercial window on the world.  All of that henequen produced at Hacienda Yaxcopoil had to find a route to Europe -- and Progreso was the launching port.  When the henequen stopped, so did a lot of the port's business.

You can still see one of the remnants of the era: the world's longest stone pier jutting out into the Gulf.  A pier that now serves as a route to disgorge American tourists from cruise ships into Oxxo stores where they are bewildered to discover clerks speaking Spanish and who are unable to provide the tourist with dollars in change for the purchase of a bottle of water with a twenty-dollar bill.

You can see the pier in the background of the photograph at the top of this post.

The beach at Progreso is its money-maker.  A place where urban dwellers can come for a day or a weekend and then leave.  In the not-too-distant past, the first families (by that, I mean the ones with lots of Spanish blood and even more money) of Mérida would spend the summer -- in their impressive beach houses.  The rich now find other playgrounds to cool their blood.  But the not-so-rich continue to show up.

Islagringo and I arrived on a Sunday afternoon.  The beach was alive with young families.  Young women in string bikinis.  Young men fresh from the gym in their Speedos.  All enjoying Progreso's impressive new malecon.

But the bustle was temporary.  Once the sun gave its nightly sunset performance over the Gulf, the town shut down. 

I mean -- really shut down.  We had trouble finding a place to eat dinner.  The only entrainment available was an illegally parked car playing techno-house music for three teenagers on the beach.

It is no secret I am a beach person.  The same with Islagringo.  Our beaches are a bit different -- his on the Caribbean; mine on the Pacific.

But we enjoy the same things.  The peace.  The scenic beauty.  The water.  We tend to be contemplative people rather than a social lot.

And that is certainly true for Progreso.  We heard from several sources that the villages on each side of the town -- Chuburna to the west, Chicxulub to the east -- do not care for each other, and they are not very fond of Progreso, either.

I know that model.  Melaque is between La Manzanilla and Barra de Navidad.  And we seem to be rivals right up there with the Yankees and Red Sox.

I am not certain what my friend meant by "beach people" and "city people."  But I know from my experience the terms aptly describe the tension I have felt in finding a place to live in retirement.

I love the peace of the beach.  It is the perfect writing site.  And I have learned to abide the weather -- most of the year.

But I miss the cultural urban life.  The restaurants.  The concerts.  The museums.  The social blob slothing from party to party.

This trip has helped me focus on what I need -- to live the overly-examined life.

But that can wait -- because we need to finish up talking about our Yucatán adventure.

Before I leave, though, let me show you this bonus photograph.  At the east end of the Progreso malecon is an amazing art deco house I can only assume was once occupied by one of Mérida's fine old families.  It now appears to stand derelict.

We will come back to it.  Some day in the future.  And maybe I will find out a little more about the place by then.

Until then -- enjoy!

Monday, November 29, 2010

big house on the prairie

When I lived in Britain in the 70s, I regularly visited the island's great houses.

Blenheim Palace.  Woburn Abbey.  Castle Howard.

Vast ancestral estates  that fell on tough times, starting in the early 1900s when Parliament discovered it could levy heavy taxes on the landed aristocracy without sparking a blue blood revolution.

The owners of those estates were property rich, but income poor.  When the Vanderbilts and Astors ran low on rich American daughters to barter off to paupered dukes, the British came up with an elegant solution.  Give up your homes to the National Trust, you coroneted folk, and we will let you live in them.

On one condition.  You must allow the hoi polloi to wander your once-private halls.

Being as common as they come, I took great pleasure in slumming amongst the peers.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Mexico offers something similar.  Well, similar to the extent that there are great houses.  But, no English civility here.  Most of the owners were either booted out or shot about 100 years ago -- during Mexico's recently-celebrated Revolution.

Mexico, like most of Latin America, inherited a feudal property system from its Spanish overlords.  Like most of the European continent, all Spanish property belonged to the monarch.  The king allowed nobles to "own" vast estates in turn for service to the crown.  The notion of Spanish yeoman farmers was as foreign as common tongue Bibles in the home.

When Spain conquered Mexico, the conquistadores were pleased to discover a large Indian population to use as labor and huge tracts of arable land to further the interests of Their Catholic Majesties.  Slave labor and wide tracts of land were well-suited to the Spanish hacienda system.

Like most things Mexican, the hacienda system began with Hernán Cortés.  Carlos I granted Cortés the title of Marques des Valle Oaxaca -- along with an estate the size of a Mexican state and the power of life and death over every inhabitant of his estate.  A system not unlike plantations in the American south.

But each hacienda had two things in common: serfs and lots of land.  That combination was one of the driving forces behind the 1910-1920 Revolution -- and the breakup of haciendas in favor of communal ejidos.

That revolution was violent.  As a result many of the great houses were destroyed.  But a few remain.

You can find one of the largest just 20 miles southwest of Mérida: Hacienda Yaxcopoil.

And that is exactly what Islagringo and I did.  Found it.

It is hard to imagine exactly what the friends of Don Donaciano García Rejón Mazó felt in the 19th century as their carriages drove through the impressive gates of the hacienda.  I do know we were impressed -- arriving in our not-so-majestic Atos.

The exterior of the gray stone main house inspires as much awe as some of the minor palaces in the forests around St. Petersburg.  And just as decrepit.

But the house retains some of its ability to impress,  It has the same remnants of beauty found in aging silent screen stars.  In this case, the size alone is enough to ensure attention is paid.

It is no longer a home.  Instead, it is a preserved (but unrenovated) museum.  A museum with many of the house's original furnishings -- all within easy touch.

Chairs invite tourist caresses.  As if longing to be of service to human behinds. 

And then there are the surprises.  A foot stool that hides a chamber pot.  Or a dining room flower centerpiece that turns into individual ash trays. 

That old continental hedonist, Napoleon III, would have felt at home here.  (Wait a second.  He tried that.  Didn't quite work out.)

Despite the size of the house, it is easy to imagine the don and his family living lives of relative luxury in its rooms.  While the peones slaved at spinning henequen into pesos.

It is hard to believe that a mere plant could form the basis of the hacienda's great wealth.  But the Spanish Empire needed rope and twine.  And the Yucatan met the need.

The hacienda was more than fancy digs with two cool swimming pools.  It was a working farm and factory.  22,000 acres (34 square miles) of henequen.  All of it grown and processed on the property.

The family that purchased Hacienda Yaxcopoil in 1864 managed to avoid the ultimate excess of the Revolution -- being on the wrong side of a firing squad.  They kept their lives.  But not most of their property.

The Constitution of 1917 outlawed the hacienda system.  Hacidena Yaxcopoil was reduced to 3 per-cent of its original size -- but continued to operate as a henequen factory until 1984.

As a side note -- if you want a piece of history that spans the Mayan Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the Mexican Republic, step right up.  Hacienda Yaxcopoil is for sale. 

I have no idea what the asking price is.  But I am certain of one thing: if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it.

As for me, this visit makes me interested in tracking down other great houses.  Before real estate development finishes up the job that the Revolution started.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

gettin' there

I am not a Luddite.

Since the 60s, I have been an early adopter of new technology.  If it is new and electronic, I would be one of the first to buy it.  Whatever it was.

But not a GPS.

And I know why.

I love maps.  The colors.  The spatial context.  The frustration of unfoldability.

A GPS seemed to be at best redundant.  At worst, a nuisance.  I do not need a snooty computer voice telling me when it thinks I made a wrong turn.

My brother helped push me into the 21st century during our drive to Mexico last year.  He brought along his laptop GPS.  I must confess -- I was enthralled with its accuracy.  Even though the Mexico maps were quite primitive.  Just main highways.  And not all of those.

Because I want to travel more in Mexico, especially to places I have never been, I decided to buy a Garmin GPS after fellow bloggers told me the Garmin has great Mexico maps. 

And I did not look forward trying to drive through or around Guadalajara while clutching my Guia Roji in my right hand while trying not to miss the elusive exit to Guanajuato.

So, I bought a model with all the bells and buzzers you would expect an electronic geek to buy.  And put it to the test in Oregon.

I gave it a solid B+ up north.  The screen is bright.  The maps are easy to understand.  The voice directions are clear.  Amazingly, the voice does not sound computer-generated.  A bit snooty?  Yup.  But, after all, it is supposed to know where I am going before I do.

The only issue was its slow speed in finding points of interest by name.  It simply failed to find some very obvious stops -- like the Tillamook cheese factory.

On the Yucatan trip, I put it to the full Mexican road test.  After a week in the Yucatan (and a week here in Jalisco) using it as my navigator, I would give it a C+.

It is still very good at finding destinations with a full house number and street name.  It can find my oddly-numbered house in Melaque with no problem.

Unfortunately, few businesses advertise their addresses that way.  The GPS is of no help with the usual "near the corner of Calle 39 and Calle 40."

"Calle" is a good example of another rather annoying characteristic of the GPS.  It pronounces all Spanish words as if it were a guy named Merle from Des Moines. 

Instead of "ka/yae," it says "call."  You can only imagine what it does with "Miguel Hidalgo." 

But that is merely an annoyance.  As is the occasional eccentricity of the maps to recognize a spur road built years ago.  The GPS gave the impression we were driving through what was once a farmer's field.

The biggest problem is its inability to properly recognize one-way streets.  Most Yucatan cities and villages have a very logical grid pattern of one-way streets.  Even numbers on one axis.  Odd numbers on the other.

The Garmin has no problem recognizing one-way streets.  The problem is that it often thinks streets go one way when the traffic goes another.  More than once, we had to ignore that all-so-smarmy voice to avoid a head-on collision.

Those sound like rather bad defects until you weigh them against the number of times the GPS helped us find spots we would have otherwise missed on our own.  And I never had to ask where we were.  The GPS always had an answer.  It was almost like being married.

I am still a big advocate of my big red highway atlas.  But, tied with the GPS, I should be ready to travel wherever I want to go in Mexico.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

gettin' around

The statistics are not that impressive.

Eight days.  800 kilometers.  (Kilometers always sound more daunting.)

But we (Islagringo and I) packed in a lot of travel hours -- and a lot of sights and sites into those days.

"Packed in" says it all.  When I first saw the diminutive Hyundai Atos Islagringo had rented as our transportation for the coming week, I had some small misgivings.  Or, rather big misgivings about the car's size.

No need to call Dr. Freud on this one.  I just had doubts that we could fit two adult males and accompanying luggage into what was originally marketed as an Asian city car.  We were not going to be driving in Kolkata.  To me, it looked as if it could have been manufactured in Lilliput.

I was wrong. 

The car was a perfect fit.  Neither of us are luggage hogs.  Our large back packs slipped in easily behind the rear seat, and our smaller items had plenty of room.  No room to spare for hitch hikers, though.

Despite its grocery trolley wheel configuration, it provided a smooth ride -- both on cuotas and small rural lanes,.  As for the latter, Islagringo did yeoman work in dodging potholes that could easily have devoured the Atos -- let alone an axle.

Here was our itinerary.

Drive on the cuota from Cancun to Merida -- where we would particulate in the two-day bloggers' conference.  (I have already talked about it.)

Then north to visit Dzibilchaltun, a minor Mayan ruin, before spending the night in the shabby seaside town of Progresso.

Then south (past Merida) to visit to Hacienda Yaxcopoil, the grand Mayan ruins at Uxmal, and the church at Santa Elena with its eerie child mummies.  Overnight in Tikul.

The next day was Mayan ruin day.  Kabah.  Sayil.  Labna.  And a great night's sleep and an even better lunch in the market town of Oxhutzcab.

Our last full tour day was a drive through rural Yucatan villages to the Disney World of Mayan ruins: Chichen Itza.  And an overnight in the provincial capital of Valledoid.

Then back to Cancun and Isla Mujeres -- all on back roads.

Lots of driving.  Lots of sitting time.  Lots of things to see.  And the Hyundai served us well.

A larger car -- even my Escape -- would have been too wide for the roads we drove. 

There is something about small back country country roads.  They all have a familiar and similar ambiance.  Whether Greece, England, France, or Mexico.  Narrow roads.  Shoulderless.  Major shrubbery impinging on the line of travel.

And the promise of a farmer and his livestock just over the next rise or around the coming curve.  A promise too often kept.

Of course, there are always the unexpected surprises.  Like the replica of a New England clapboard house (gray with white shutters) in the middle of a little village -- cheek and jowl with traditional Mayan stick houses.

But the details of those tales will wait.

This is a paean to the virtues of our little Hyundai -- what done us well.

Friday, November 26, 2010

cowed thoughts

I know I promised tales of Yucatan road trips.  And then came the plagues of Egypt.

Well.  That is a bit dramatic.  More like the hurdles of daily life.

Two more were added yesterday.  The microwave decided to die -- and my wireless keyboard decided that s's were an unnecessary sound in English when the z key works perfectly well.  Only to be followed by lines of s's without a key being touched.

But that is not our topic for today.  Instead, I have animal tales.  Not the plague type.  Just interesting things.  Two, to be exact.

I started to open the gate Thursday morning to pull out my truck for some pre-Thanksgiving errands.  But the road was blocked by a team attempting to fix a water main that was turning my cobblestone lane into a bit of wilderness white rapids. 
I was going nowhere until the hemorrhage was stanched.  So, I started closing the gate.

Ants are everywhere in Mexico.  Including the gate area.  I had seen the evidence of their work -- tiny cones of sand -- between the paving stones.  But I never paid any attention to them -- until today.

I had dropped the gate key.  When I picked it up a tiny ant hitched a ride on my hand.  But she was apparently not a very happy ant.  I first felt a tickle, and then a sting -- what nurses now reassuringly call a "pinch" when they insert a hypodermic.

It turns out I have fire ants in my courtyard.  I remember years ago reading about farmers in the south who would run over fire ant hills with their tractors -- and suffer the consequence of ants swarming over the tractor and driver.  The tales had a certain Irwin Allen aura to them.  Frightening -- and just a bit fantastic.

Let me tell you, I am now a true believer.  If that little ant could inflict the damage it did on its own, I cannot imagine what a Ganny of her sisters could do.

There are days when I swear Allent Funt is hiding around the corner from my house.  When I next checked on the progress of the water workers, they were gone.  But just as I opened the gate, what should wander into view? 

A cow.  With a lead trailing behind in the mud.  Merely sauntering from one end of the street to the other.

It is moments like that when I feel an Eddie Albert moment coming on.  The only thing missing was Eva Gabor trailing behind in heels and chiffon.

Of course, my camera was back in the house.  But this photograph from one of my favorite spoof movies will do.

But we have some road trip tales to tell.

And they are coming.  Just you wait.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

giving thanks as it comes

This is Mexico -- and everything will turn out well in the end. Or, at least, I will accept whatever turns out.

So said I on Sunday -- even though that post did not show up until Wednesday.  And it turned out to be true.  That may be enough for me to be thankful for in this eventful year.

The travails I faced when I returned to Melaque -- mildewed clothes, dead truck battery, still-broken truck radio, fried internet modem -- would have been minor in the United States (with the exception of that pesky radio.)  Here, each one was a logistical challenge.

But that is part of the adventure I have come to love in Mexico.  In Salem, my life was comfortable.  So comfortable that I might as well have been brain dead.  And I feared that is what would happen if I retired in Oregon.

Down here, accomplishing little things give you a sense of true accomplishment.

The truck battery was a perfect example.  My friends Lou and Wynn picked me up at the airport on Saturday.  They knew my battery was dead, and were ready to help me.  But I could not find the truck key.  When I did, I realized I did not have a key to the gate to let Lou pull in his truck.

He returned on Monday once I had everything in hand.  The truck started right up with a jump.  I took it for a 30 minute spin -- thinking that would be good enough to charge up the battery.

No such luck.  When I stopped by Lou's house, and turned off the ignition, it would not start up.

It turns out the battery is original equipment -- almost ten years old.  So, I headed off to the local shop to buy a replacement.  The guy who sold it to me (for about $135 - USD), installed it and had me on my way in about twenty minutes.

And the clothes were just as simple.  An extra large pillow case full of smelly duds went to my laundress.  I left $7 behind, and got three stacks of folded, sweet-smelling clothes.

The radio and the modem were Mexican tales.  I needed to go to Manzanillo to take care of both tasks.  I drove down Tuesday morning only to discover that the Ford dealer could not repair my radio until the next day.  Just like in The States.  I needed an appointment.

As for the modem, I was given some general instructions (go past here, don't turn there) that I did not understand.  That was my fault.  I should simply have asked more questions.  It turns out I was within a half mile of where I needed to be.  But the six people I asked for directions had no idea where the Telmex office was.

I returned to Manzanillo early on Wednesday morning.  The Ford service department took about two hours to repair the radio.  When my truck returned, it had been detailed and the radio worked better than it had for years.  All for less than $40- USD.  Try getting that from your Salem dealer.

The trip to Telmex went just as well.  I knew my lack of Spanish skills was going to be a problem.  When I walked in the door, I must have looked like a drunk who staggered into a temperance meeting.  A young lady at a desk spotted me, and led me by the hand to one of those ice cream store number machines.  If you want to feel old, try living out that little scenario.

When my number was called, I asked the service representative if she spoke English.  She didn't.  I used up the twelve words I had rehearsed to tell her my modem had died.

And then came the moment I dread in every hierarchical institution.  "Did you report it to the office?  Do you have a report number?"

I did not feign ignorance.  I exuded the real thing. 

Could we call from here?  Isn't this "the office?"

No.  You must call before you come in.

She huffed and started entering words rapidly in my account.  I assumed she was completing my deportation papers to Arizona.

When she was done, she called over a young man in coat and tie.  Well-dressed, but obviously subservient to the woman helping me.

He started: "She says ..." -- the equivalent of "Your mother is not happy, and you need to listen this time."

Because I had traveled all the way from Melaque, she cut me slack and gave me a new modem.  But, when this one fails (those were her words: "when," not "if") I need to call a  number she very carefully wrote on a small piece of paper.

But the new modem has not failed -- yet.  Right now, it is bringing you this post.

So what am I thankful for this Thanksgiving?  A lot of things.

But I am thankful to live in a land where accomplishing rudimentary things gives me the same joy as when I learned to tie my shoe laces.

And, of course, for my family and friends who indulge me in this little fantasy.

A happy Thanksgiving to each of you.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

silence on the home front

I have arrived in Melaque on Revolution Day.

Only to discover I am without internet in the house.

So, here I am at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, The Frog, borrowing a bit of signal while I have dinner.

I assume I will have the internet issue resolved soon.  But, until then, there may be a short period of silence on this end.

In the few hours I have been home, I am set up and ready to enjoy my next stage of adventure in Mexico.  Except for one thing.  The battery in my Escape is dead.

But, this is Mexico -- and everything will turn out well in the end.  Or, at least, I will accept whatever turns out.

I guess it is the same thing.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

end of the road

My road trip is done.

But I am still on the road.  At least, until I fly out from LAX later this morning.

Islagringo and I returned to Isla Mujeres on Thursday -- after a full week of doing our Hope and Crosby impressions.  The only thing missing was Dorothy Lamour and her sarong.

The road trip was exactly the type of travel I have dreamt about since I moved to Mexico.  New experiences.  Challenging days.  Adventures around every pothole.

I spent a portion of my travel day yesterday organizing how to present what I experienced.  And this is it.

Rather than trying to stuff everything into an artificial chronological box, I am going to write separate topical essays -- I suppose just another type of artificial box.

Here's the list.  We will see how well I stick to it.
  • Transportation
  • That new GPS
  • City people vs. beach people
  • Touring haciendas
  • Mayan ruins
  • Mummies
  • Driving the Yucatan
  • Eating our way through the peninsula

And who knows what else.

But it will be about Mexico -- the focus of this blog.

It feels good to be back in la silla.

bugging out

I am in Los Angeles -- awaiting my flight to Manzanillo.

I should be letting you know about my Yucatan trip in general.  But I could not pass up the opportunity to share this photograph.

Islagringo snapped it in the Tikul plaza.  It looks as if it could be the insignia of a colonel in the El Salvador Air Force.  But it is just the katydid I wrote about in angel on my shoulder.  My shoulder.  My insect.

A nice omen for a good flying day.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

back at ya'

I apologize to those of you who have left comments during the past few days.  I have read and appreciated each of them.

But -- until I get back to Melaque, I may not have an opportunity to give them the attention they deserve.

Keep on posting.  I will respond.

Until then, I will be rolling along to see one of the major sets of Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

angel on my shoulder

The broad strokes of this trip can wait until I get back to Melaque.  But certain events require contemporary reporting.

On Monday night we decided to take a breather in our "If-this-is-Tuesday-it must-be-Oxkutzcab" tour of the Yucatan.

It wasn't Monday.  And it wasn't Oxkutzcab -- though I do love writing the word.

We were in Tikul -- an equally fun word -- deep into conversation and our tortas cubanas in the town plaza.  Watching a bat hunt insects among the trees.  When we experienced a Clement Clarke Moore moment. 

No Saint Nicholas.  No lawn.  No sash to be thrown up.

But there was a clatter.  Almost like a child banging on a pot lid.  But just once.  From the top of the neighboring metal table.

Fox Mulder would have identified it as an alien.  I took a bit more moderate approach.

It was a katydid.  But unlike any katydid I have ever seen.  This one was the size of my hand.  And looked every bit as if it had been dressed for mardi gras as a leaf.

No insect is going to cow Islagringo and me.  Instead, we crept up on it with our cameras and started snapping away like a bus of Sapporo tourists.

The waitress kept her distance.  But she egged us on to pick it up.  And pick it up I did.

Rather, I let it walk up my hand -- and arm -- and shoulder.  The feel of its small clawed feet was interesting.  Almost a tickle. 

In the excitement, I forgot a basic fact about katydids.  They are hoppers.  And big katydids can hop big.

We had to retrieve it twice to continue our paparazzi routine. 

When we boys were done playing with our toy, I let it free in a shrubbery.

It was a small thing.  The moment, not the katydid.  But it will be one of my fond memories of this excursion through the remnants of the Mayan empire.

Monday, November 15, 2010

jottings from the front

I would make a lousy war correspondent.

Unless I have my chair, my desk, and a reliable internet connection, I start falling off on my posts.

That has been the case on this trip.  Writing from Isla Mujeres was easy.  I had the guest room with a good internet connection.  Merida was the same.  Hotel chair and table.  Good connection.

Since then, I have not been so lucky. 

Theoretically, there was a connection in Progresso -- on the Gulf coast, but no one on the desk knew the code.  Tonight we are in Ticul.  The connection is all right.  But I am balancing my computer on my lap while a television blares in the background.

Here is my deal.  I may need to wait until I get back to Melaque to put together some essays.  What I have seen is fascinating.  Islagringo purposely put together a survey trip of Yucatan -- great stops with just enough time to get a feel for each area.

Here are a few tidbits.  We have seen Dzibichaltun -- a small Mayan administrative center, Progresso -- a sea town on the Gulf coast, Uxmal -- a major Mayan political center, Santa Elena -- and its odd child mummies, and Ticul -- where I am now being entertained with the sounds of Revolution Day Eve. 

All that in two days.

For now, I will enjoy the experiences -- and share them with you in just a week or so.

Until then, I will be on the road.

See you soon.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

life on the half shell

The playwright formerly known as Mr. Marilyn Monroe once said: "The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it's so accidental.  It's so much like life."

Just like photography.

Some shots are framed.  Some just happen.  The photograph above is one of the latter.

I was on my way back to the hotel after the bloggers' conference sessions on Saturday.  In front of one of the local churches stood a bride.  All alone.  Waiting for her cue to start changing her name.

In attempting to capture a candid shot of her, I instead caught a shot of a young man walking by -- whose eyes were caught by the beauty in the plaza.  The irony, of course, is that we chuckle at him for doing exactly what I am doing by taking her photograph.

It is such slices of life that brought the Latin America bloggers together for this weekend's conference.  To discuss why we do what we do.  And to learn better ways of doing it.

We are a social lot -- a lesson we have learned in our adventures in Mexico.  So, we met at 9; not for business, but for coffee and treats.

Mexican at heart, we may be, but we have enough American and Canadian training to know that other people's time is precious.  We were scheduled to start at 10, and start we did.

Three bloggers volunteered to lecture (with audience participation) on: "Keeping Your Blog's Focus," "Internet Ethics and Copyright Law," and "Supporting Your Blog With Photographs."

Our mistress of focus was none other than Theresa of ¿What do I do all day?  We all know the problem.  Blogs that seem to have no purpose.  And, because they don't, they tend to run amok -- losing the interest of most readers.

To prove her point, she asked each of us to describe why we blogged.  And then asked whether we really focused on that purpose when we write.  It was a particularly valuable exercise.  Especially for me, whose focus has wandered during the past seven months.

We then heard from some self-important overweight retired attorney who no longer looks like his blog photograph -- on copyright law.  Not as an expert, which he is not.  But as a consciousness-raising exercise.  The bottom line: Keep your hands off other people's property -- unless they let you use it.

Marc Olson of An Alaskan in Yucatan was a new name (and new blog) for me.  A former photojournalist, he has a great eye for spotting narrative in photographs.  He shared a few tips with us to help us have a positive impact with the photographs we use. 

I have been working on improving my photography skills for the past year, and his advice rang true -- even though the photograph at the top of this post violates at least seven of his tips.

After lunch, Johanna of Writing from Merida gave us some extremely interesting writing tips.  Most we knew.  But knowing and doing is two separate things.  And it is always good to double check old habits.

We then split into two discussions groups: Blogger users (led by Debi of Debi in Merida) and WordPress users (led by Jonna of blah...blah...blah... Ginger!).  This turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference.  We have all struggled with our blogger software.  But we were able to find some solutions merely by sharing with one another.

To top the evening off, Islagringo and I joined several fellow bloggers at the premier of the Merida Theater Group.  As they style themselves: English-speakers "who enjoy the theater and miss the opportunity and pleasure of experiencing English language theater."

They did well.  Putting together a series of costumed readings under the umbrella "Life is --," they played to a sold out audience.

It was a full day.  Informative.  Social.  Entertaining.

But a day full of life.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

news from the front

The conference has just been called to order.

But I could not avoid the temptation of using the wireless connection in the room to give you the news as it happens.

And we are off.

my kind of town

I am in Mexico.  No doubt about it.

Geckos chirping to attract mates.  Clear skies.  Pleasant temperatures.

But everything else today was new to me.

We were up early to catch the ferry to the mainland to pick up our rental car.  And pick it up we probably could.  It was small enough.  The tires seem to have been borrowed from a grocery trolley.

But it is just the right size for squeezing through urban traffic in Merida -- and into tight parking spaces.

The urban experience, however, was four hours in our future.  Between Cancun and Merida was a long stretch of road through the Yucatan scrub jungle.  I think I now know how a mole feels tunneling through a lawn.

Islagringo and I laughingly tried my new GPS.  Laughingly, because we could have used a ruler and a sheet of paper to draw our route.  The road is that flat and straight.

Anyone who has made the trip knows there is not much to report outside of the car.  Inside, we had a great conversation about the type of things two guys discuss on a road trip.

We are staying at La Reforma Hotel.  The hotel reminds me a lot of Venice.  Aging, but with grace.  If it came to life, it would probably be a dowager duchess.

The rooms are hardly luxurious.  But four rooms open onto a lovely terrace living space.  You can see it at the top of this post.

After checking in, we headed over to the English Library for the bloggers' conference meet and greet.  And we did exactly that. 

I met new people who write blogs I have not yet read.  I met a couple of people who have commented on my blog over the years.  And, of course, I met some people, like Jonna and Mimi, who are directly responsible for my adventure in Mexico.

For me, the most interesting aspect of these gatherings, is that we may not have met before in person, but we know each other well enough we can launch into conversations as if we had been friends for years.  Which, of course, we have.

After the meet and greet, Jonna and Mimi invited me to attend an art gallery exhibition.  Even though we have some differing views on art, it was great simply to have that type of conversation.  That, in itself, was a new Mexican experience.

I am now back in the hotel.  The hotel lobby, actually.  There is no internet in the rooms.

As soon as I finish this post, I will complete my speaker notes for tomorrow.  And head to bed.

It is going to be a full day of blogomania.

Friday, November 12, 2010

through a mirror -- not so darkly

Today is one of those days I need to remember when my friends ask: "Why do you live in Mexico?"

Isla Mujeres is one of those places where it is difficult not to enjoy yourself.  If Walt Disney and Frank Zappa got together, they would probably think up something like this island.  Tourist fun with a nice layer of Mexican spontaneity.

The weather has been perfect.  For this Oregon boy that means not too hot, not too humid.  Clear skies.  Beautiful water.  White sand.  This is the stuff that vacations are made of.

We had a late breakfast at Ballyhoo's on the water this morning.  Good food with an obvious nod of the head to visitors.  But a favorite of my resident tour guides.

Then we were off to tour the island from north beach to south point.  Five miles of island.  And an amazing amount of diversity for such a small area.

Islagringo has covered all of this in his blog over the years.  My attempts to repeat it would be a pale copy.

But tonight my hosts outdid themselves.  We joined a Mexican friend, who is answering the call of love in Scandinavia, and two Canadians at a restaurant that easily ranks among the best in my experience.  Mediterranean food.  Run by two Israelis with an emphasis on Moroccan cuisine. Not exactly the usual mix I have found in Mexico.

If you come to the island, don't miss Olivia.  It is not just for special occasions.

We then stopped by one of the clubs that islagringo has featured in his blog: Adelita's -- with its fractured mirror bar.  I could not resist temptation.  To take a photograph of me taking a photograph, that is.  Evidence attached.

Good music.  Good friends.  Good food.

A perfect start to my return.

Tomorrow we are on our way to Merida.  And the conference.

More on that tomorrow.  I hope.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

mexico redux

Every good play deserves a revival.

I think of my return to Mexico a bit like that.  Or maybe it is simply act two -- with a long interval in The States.

Either way -- I am back.  And to an area I have never visited before.

I have long wanted to visit the Yucatan.  In the early 60s, the television critic for The Oregonian, Francis Murphy, would put down his pen and head south to the Yucatan to indulge in his other passion -- archaeology.  I suspect he is somewhat responsible for planting that bug in my head.

Until yesterday I had not set foot in this part of Mexico.  Sure, I had visited Cozumel on cruise ships.  But that is like saying you have visited Japan because you had a layover at Narita.

That changed yesterday.  I flew into Cancun and taxied my way over to the ferry terminal -- where I was met by one of my favorite bloggers: islagringo.

And there he was --waiting for me.

I felt as if I had known him for years, but this was our first meeting in person.  We were able to jump right into the middle of our conversation -- as if we had been having coffee with each other for years.  It is one of the amazing attributes of blogs.  Turning strangers into friends.  The alchemy of social networks.

 And, so, the adventure in Mexico begins again.  This time with a guide who not only knows the area, but knows me.

I am ready.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

up in the air

My oft-vaunted (and, some would say, flaunted) promise to return to Mexico is at hand.

If all goes as planned, I will be getting on an airplane at Portland Airport in about 20 minutes.  And later this afternoon, we will set down in Cancun.

A blogger friend and I will then head over to the Latin American Bloggers' Conference -- and we will then spend a week touring Mayan ruins, colonial churches, and post-modern eateries.  We will be covering the Yucatan world.

But you know all this -- other than the fact that I am actually heading back to Mexico.

To my friends in The States who urged me to stay, I have one request.  Come on down!  I will show you a great time.

And now for the ironic twist.  I have no idea when I can next post -- even at the bloggers' conference.

But if you hang in there with me, I will be back.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

thanksgiving 2010

In Canada, it is celebrated on the first Monday in October.  In Liberia, the first Monday in November.  In America, the fourth Thursday in November.

The world has its schedule.  The Cottons have theirs.  And Saturday was Cotton Thanksgiving.

For some reason, our family does not celebrate holidays on their designated date.  There is the obvious reason that we are a clan of contrarians.  That explains much about the tone of this blog.

But there is a more rational (and gracious) explanation.  Our schedules simply preclude getting together.  We are a people who find joy in work.

This year there is another reason, though.  I fly away on the morning of 10 November -- and I wanted to be part of my favorite holiday.

I have always enjoyed Thanksgiving.  It is a value-laden holiday without the adrenalin and bile of Christmas.

It is a time to enjoy family and food in relaxing surroundings.  This year, the setting was not one of our homes, but a favorite restaurant: Huber's in Portland.  Where turkey dinners are always the specialty.

We are not a large tribe.  There is my mother, my brother (Darrel), his wife (Christie), my niece (Kaitlyn), my nephew (Ryan), his wife (Sara), and their son (Collin).  Darrel flew in from Virginia -- just in time for dinner.  (That is a photograph of my sainted bother and his grandson, Collin, at the top of this post.)

The turkey at Huber's is always good.  But the chance to share the evening with some of the most clever and witty people I know was even better.  Four generations of people simply enjoying one another.

And I am thankful for every one of them.

Now, I just need to figure out some plan to get all of them south of the border on regular visits.

Friday, November 05, 2010

smell of the crowd

I am an actor.

Well, I have the soul of an actor.  I love performing in front of a group of people -- almost anywhere. 

That is one reason I looked forward to coming back to my former employer -- if only for a brief stay.  I wanted to -- metaphorically -- put on the grease paint and strut the boards.

It didn't quite turn out that way.  I returned as a mentor-trainer for my replacement.  That meant I did not get to do all of the general training and related appearances that made my old job so much fun.

But I have a new outlet for my frustrated thespian gene.  I just finished putting the final touches on my presentation for the
Third Annual Latin American Bloggers' Conference -- on a topic most of us should find interesting.  And I am looking forward to doing it.
The conference will mark my return to Mexico -- and my return to road trips.  I will tell you a little more about that in the next few days.

For now, I will simply tune up my vocal chords.  There is some serious acting to be done.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

table manners

Like politicians, I break my promises.

I once wrote that this blog was not a place for politics.  My advice then:  take it outside!

But here I am babbling away about my former hobby.  Three posts in a row now.

And if my favorite magazine, The Economist, had not published the table at the top of this post, I would have moved on to some other mundane topic.  But the table is too interesting to ignore.

Americans love trashing the party in power.  We saw that most recently in 2008.  Mid-term elections are the perfect time to swing a sharp elbow at the guys on top of the heap.  Keeps them humble.  Lets them know who is boss.

Losing some seats in Congress is not unusual for the party holding the White House.  Only twice since the end of the Second World War has the White House avoided losing some of its purported political allies.

Some years are more remarkable for the size of the losses.  The classic examples being Truman's losses in 1946, Eisenhower's losses in 1958, Johnson's losses in 1966, Ford's losses in 1974, and Clinton's losses in 1994.  Each one signified a major political sea change.

But, look at the chart.  As major as those changes were, they were smaller than the tsunami that just hot the Obama White House.

Of course, bad political news is not necessarily disastrous news.  The midterms were bad presidential news for the Republicans in 1960 and 1976, and for the Democrats in 1980.  But both Truman and Clinton managed to survive re-election with polar opposite strategies.

All of that merely shows history is far more interesting than it is determinative. 

It will be interesting to see if the president tries the "Give 'em Hell" Harry or the "steal their clothes" Bill approach.

Anybody care to wager a few pesos?


Wednesday, November 03, 2010

the long count

The year was 1988.  After nine years of private law practice, I decided the time was right to start my political career.

If someone had dropped off their election crystal ball earlier that year, I would have saved myself the trouble.  I did not choose wisely.

I lived in a legislative district where the voter registration was about evenly divided.  The current state representative had served two terms.  And even though he was strongly disliked by most of his colleagues in Salem, he had managed to put together a local coalition of voters based on some groups that should have been my natural supporters.

I also knew I would have a strong primary election challenger -- the political director of a group in Oregon that was stirring up bad blood over some hot button issues.  And I was correct.  After a bruising primary campaign, I won -- just barely.  There was no reconciliation.

This was the year that President Bush the Elder ran for president.  Oregon was one of the swing states, and one party (not mine) sunk millions into getting their adherents to the polls.

Even with all of those hurdles, I almost won in the general election. 

But, "almost" counts in horse shoes and hand grenades.  It is worth nothing in politics.  And I had to wait almost a week to get the result.  The race was that tight.

I felt the echo of a knot in my stomach this morning as I read about yesterday's election. 

Three US Senate seats were still too close to declare a winner, as was the Oregon governor's race.  But the legislative races were the most interesting.  The Republicans and Democrats had 28 seats each in the House -- with four seats undecided.  In the Senate, the Democrats had 15 seats, the Republicans 13 -- with two seats undecided.

I felt for each of those hang-fire candidates.  Hearing that you have lost is a disappointment.  But being forced to watch final votes trickle in  -- and see-saw back and forth -- is pure torture.

It appears Oregon's voters (who have recently been reliable supporters of Democrat candidates) have been affected by the same malaise as the rest of the country.

As for me, I am taking my mood south of the border.  I am going to miss a lot of things here in Oregon.  But politics is not one of them.

Note:  The House races have now been decided.  The split is 30-30.  And one of the Senate races has been decided for a 15-14 split, with a good possibility of a 15-15 split.  No matter who wins the Governor's race, there is going to be a lot of horse-trading in the next two years.

I cannot let one disturbing development pass unnoticed.  Oregon elections are startling to take on the patina, if not the rust, of Illinois politics.  State-wide races always start with a big vote count from the Portland area.  Then the down-state votes are counted.  Only then are the remainder of the Portland votes tallied -- usually tipping the election to the same party in every close election.  Maybe we want to be known as the Louisiana of the Pacific Northwest.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010

stamping my ballot

It is election day in America.

For Oregon, it has been election day for several weeks.  We tend to be a bit eccentric -- both in our politics and in our political institutions.

We have not had polling places for several years now.  Instead of greeting our election board neighbors and the raptorian poll watchers every two years or so at the local school, we have reduced the civic exercise of voting to mail-in ballots.  So, my fellow citizens have been voting and mailing for a couple of weeks.

I understand that most other states have eased up their absentee ballot procedures -- to the point that some voting districts receive a majority of their ballots before election day rolls around.

The best part of the early-voting process is that it throws off the candidates and their campaigns.  Political advertisements once built to a climax on the weekend before election day.   

No longer.  We are now barraged for weeks on end.  With candidates hoping they can manipulate us into a moment of weakness -- just as we are looking at our ballots.

Without television, I miss most of the nonsense.  But I have seen a sample this year. 

I was on the exercise bike at the club the other evening.  I usually read my Kindle while I try to pedal away a bit of fat.  For some reason, I glanced down at the built-in television on the handlebars.

The news was on.  But during a break -- that I swear lasted five minutes -- the political advertisement started running.  They were all attack ads.  And they were often positioned with each opponent's ads being juxtaposed -- making each of them sound like five-year olds trading "did"/"did not".

Attack ads have classically been designed to suppress voter turnout -- or to enrage the true believers.  And they appear to be working this year.  In most states, the Democrats are dis-spirited.  And the Republicans and Independents are invigorated.

I saw that recently.  I was talking to a Democrat friend of mine this weekend.  He was tidying up his place, and I noticed that one piece of mail he was throwing away was his ballot.  When I asked him about it, he simply said he had no interest in voting this year.  He was disappointed with all politicians.

The sentiment is one I can appreciate.  I long ago stopped thinking that politicians could do much good.  If America proposers, it will be despite its political leaders.

But, I cared enough to vote this year.  Not because I am invigorated or enraged.  It is simply something my generation does.  Like bringing flowers on the first date.

And I want to followup later this week on that topic.  Generational politics.

But for today, we will simply wait to see the mood of the American public.  I suspect the outcome is going to be challenging.

Monday, November 01, 2010

old and kicking

Old geezer fantasies are a classic recipe for Hollywood.  The last two Indiana Jones flicks being perfect examples -- especially, Kingdom of the Numbskulls, or whatever it was titled.

To avoid the few children that come begging for candy on Halloween, I headed off to the movies on Sunday night.  And saw one of the best geezer fantasies I have seen in some time.

The best of those films usually involves an older man retired from some physical activity, who returns to his old job and shows up all the young pups.  Sometimes, he even gets to indulge in the pornography fantasy of winning over the much-younger woman.

Red has it all.  And does it well.

Bruce Willis is a retired Black Ops agent, whose bleak suburban life is spiced up by talking with a young government clerk, Mary-Louise Parker, about his lost pension check.  A check he destroys monthly merely to continue the flirting.

All of that changes when an assassination squad tries to bump him off.  The plot goes on a roller coaster spin where Willis kidnaps Parker and joins forces with Morgan Freeman (who trots out his noble Mandela for us), John Malkovich (who can play loony and paranoid with the best), and Helen Mirren (imagine Elizabeth II as Annie Oakley).

Willis's old gang -- and his new love interest, Parker -- then take on the entire power structure of the United States to do The Right Thing.  What that Thing is doesn't really matter.  It is the fact that old people are doing it -- and doing it well.

Watching Bruce Willis pummel a twenty-something agent in an old-fashioned bar fight is enough to get the Geritol Set's blood rushing.

But this isn't all fantasy.  Three years ago, several Americans on a cruise were visiting Costa Rica.  Three robbers accosted them and demanded their valuables.  An American, in his 70s, put one of the robbers in a head lock and broke the robber's clavicle.  The two other robbers fled.  The injured man died.

I remember when that story appeared in the newspapers.  The guy who defended his fellow cruisers was an immediate hero.  To no one's surprise he was a retired Marine.  My Marine friends like to point out: "Once a Marine, always a Marine."

Red is a fantasy.  But it has a germ of truth in it.  Many of us may be retired, but we are not gone.

And we have a lot of good years to offer.  Just not in our old jobs.