Friday, February 28, 2014

rubbing me wrong

One of the adventures of travel is finding new challenges in the bathroom.

I know I have written about it before (did you ever wonder -- ), but this shampoo bottle business still baffles me.  Do designers actually ever try to use their products in -- say, a hotel shower?

Because I no longer have a home in Salem, I now have to rely upon the kindness of well-paid strangers to provide my lodgings when I come to town for business.  On this trip, I decided to stay in what passes as one of Salem's best hotels. 

The logo says it all.  The Grand.  I thought that was simply the name, and not a rather accurate description of my bill for the three nights I would be in town.

Every hotel using the name "Grand" hopes to grasp a bit of the glory that was once the Grand Hotel of Berlin -- the Holy Grail of hotels.  Few manage to pull it off.  And in Salem, Oregon, we learn not to expect too much.

The place is pleasant enough.  I managed to book myself into a jacuzzi suite.  Having lost my hot tub several years ago, I long for the sybaritic pleasures of immersing myself in the hotel womb waters.  Even though, I am certain the tub has been put to uses that only a novelist of bluer tastes than my own could tell.

But that water is not the topic of today's essay.  After my morning soak, I headed into the shower to get ready for the day. 

When I reached for the shampoo, I found two small bottles.  Both looked quite artsy.  As if they had been purchased at some snooty bath store that had spent millions to look as if it were the general store in Boulder Flats, Wyoming.

As arty as the bottles were, they had one small problem.  In an unlit shower (for almost $300 a night, the hotel cannot afford light in the bathroom?), it was impossible to read the labels.

Now, I have made the mistake before of shampooing with conditioner and conditioning with shampoo.  The result is not pretty.  But I have also learned that the runnier of the two is almost always shampoo.

So, I twisted off the tops.  The designers get high marks there.  Even with wet hands, the bottles opened without having to indulge in nude man wrestling.

I tipped the first bottle over.  Nada.  It must be the conditioner.  The second bottle gave up its contents.  Shampoo.

Having a short memory span, when I was done shampooing, I picked up the conditioner bottle, turned it over, and nothing happened.  Just like the furst time.

I shook it.  Nothing happened.

I squeezed it.  Nothing happened.  The bottle was too hard.

Now, when it comes to matters of grooming, I am not a patient man.  The only solution I could see was spraying me in the face.  I stuck the bottle under the shower head, replaced half of the volume with water, and used the now shampoo-consistency conditioner on my hair.

And then I started laughing.  Whether or not the designer intended it to be so, they gave me a great adventure to start my day.  It was better than completing my morning crossword puzzle.

I am convinced that life is made up of these little challenges.  We can choose to be frustrated.  Or we can choose to improvise by stuffing them into little mental boxes -- and crushing them.

It is not quite the Zen solution.  But it keeps me happy on the road.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

clowning around

Send in the Sondheim analogies.

This morning's newspaper reports two related tragedies.  The first is that the clown population is declining.  Not simply in The States, where the memorial service for humor and wit was held long ago, but in the entire world.  Or so I thought.

The World Clown Association (and here I was thinking that was the United Nations) announced that its membership has fallen from 3,500 to 2,400 in the past decade. 

And then the other size 30 shoe drops.  It turns out that the World Clown Association is the largest trade association for American clowns.  So, it is a world association in the same sense that the world series is.  In other words, not.

But that is appropriate because clowns are not rooted in reality.  Their job is to make us laugh and look at our lives with new eyes.  Sartre in bad makeup or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight -- even though that sounds vaguely redundant.

The rival Clowns of America International (with its national socialist moniker) is in the same straits -- complaining that older clowns are passing away and that American kids are looking for "real jobs."

"Real jobs?"  Have you ever tried to make a birthday party of 8-year old boys laugh when all you have is a handful of balloons?

But the decline may be reflected in the second bit of bad news.  Rasmussen Reports reports that 43% of Americans surveyed (I feel a bit like Richard Dawson) answered "no" to the question: "Do you like clowns?"  43%!

Certainly the ranks of the coulrophobic cannot be that extensive.  That means that Krusty the Clown and Eric Stonestreet's Fizbo are objects of fear or indifference, rather than of fun and introspection.

What is happening up here?  I have a theory.  And it is found in another of the Rasmussen questions.  When asked "Have you ever thought about running away with the circus, only 6% answered "yes."

Other than rafting down the Mississippi with an escaped slave, what could be more quintessentially American than running away to join the circus?  Or, at least, to think about running away to join the circus. 

Of course, all of that is projection on my part.  I have lived my life on the premise of running away to join the circus (another opening; another show).  It is almost like looking at a country I no longer recognize.

Or maybe Americans have become so distressed by their current political and economic circumstances that they can no longer even imagine the magic of life.

If Scott Rasmussen had asked me about clowns, I would have told him: I love them.  And if he then asked me if I had ever though of running away to join the circus, the answer would be easy.

Scott, I not only thought about it, I did it.  In Mexico.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

warming to the cold

One of the joys of air travel is that you can be sweating one day and shivering the next.
As you can tell, I am in Oregon.  Like much of North America above The Misguided Fence, Oregon has hosted some near-record snows and accompanying cold temperatures.

Most of that is in the past now.  But not entirely. 

My brother's place has some snow residue.  That type of snow that looks like the embodiment of dadaist poetry or one of those 19th century maps showing the Germanic states that remained loyal to the Austrian emperor.  Take your choice of cultural roads that diverge in the wood.

The photograph tells all.  We may not be experience freezing temperatures constantly in Bend, but it is chilly.

And that is fine with me.  I spent most of the summer in Melaque, and the weather never seemed to cool down much during this winter.  Plenty of hot days and sticky nights.

I suspect some of my Canadian readers will think I am nuts when I confess I would like to see a day or two of snow (Oregon snow, mind you; not Ontario snow) in Melaque.  Just for a change of pace.  The worst thing about Melaque's heat is its foolish consistency -- as Emerson would have it.

But I do not need to search out Ontario to find someone who thinks I am a bit daft to speak well of the Bend chill.  My sister-in-law is tired of it.  Thus do we speak of warmer climes in Mexico.

I will be here for two more weeks soaking in as much of this pleasant weather as I can.  But I suspect weather is like sleep.  You can't bank it up for the future.

And, just as an airplane quickly pulled me out of sweaty Melaque, another airplane will take me back. 

The world will be in balance -- with God in his Heaven.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

water sports

I confess that I am a bus tour snob.  And from some of the comments I have received concerning my Yucatán trip, I know that I am not alone in my elitist pretensions.

But I continue to sign up for Dan and Ruth's Mex-Eco Tours -- for a lot of reasons.  Primarily, because I always learn something new (often, about myself) and I get to meet some fascinating people.  (One of these days I will write a post about the universal phenomenon of strangers turning into travel buddies.)

One of the challenges of putting together a successful bus tour is to cater to the tastes of a group of
people with disparate backgrounds and desires.  This trip was no exception.

The reason I signed up is obvious.  As an archaeology hobbyist, I wanted to see as many ruins as could be seen in six days (snakes -- why did it have to be snakes?; rethinking chichén itzá; end of days).  For some on the trip, it was an opportunity to see colonial Mexican cities (a tale of two cities).

For others, it was an opportunity to get up close and personal with water.  That is not surprising.  All of us on the tour are beach people.  So, Dan and Ruth wove in several opportunities to get us wet.

On our trip from Mérida to Valladolid, we stopped at a cenote to swim.  As you already know from our earlier discussions,
Yucatán is almost billiard board flat.  The peninsula is a large slab of limestone and has no above-ground rivers in the north.

That does not mean the peninsula is devoid of rivers.  They are simply underground.  In places, the surface limestone has dissolved leaving what Floridians call sinkholes.  Being a more poetic people, the Spanish call them cenotes.

The Maya used them as wells and cisterns to water their civilizations.  In some areas, they still serve that purpose.  But an enterprising soul discovered it was possible to persuade torists to throw their dollars down the cenote by tarting them up to be tropical swimming holes.

We stopped at this one --
Ik Kil.

If you are from Indianapolis, you might be reminded of The Quarry.  Because I am from Powers, it was reminiscent of The Apple Orchard.  We all have some swimming hole stuck in our nostalgia bank.  Even if it is the YMCA.

Fresh water.  Rocks for diving.  Even a few wispy waterfalls to give an ethereal Hawaiian feel.

When we arrived on the Caribbean coast, our first stop was the Sian Ka'an Biosphere.  The place is hue.  780,000 acres of preserved coastal wetlands.

We visited a bit if the northern portion on a boat tour across a sweet water lagoon and through channels bordered by grasslands.  That is us at the top of this post wending our way through the maze.

Our goal was an island with a very small Maya temple.  But this was not a ruins tour.  It was a floating tour.

To improve their trade and agricultural routes, the Maya dug channels through the grass islands.  Where commerce once flowed -- American, Canadian, and German bodies floated.  The current is strong enough that a floater is propelled along the channel at a speed worthy of being on vacation.

Dan then offered us some free time electives.  Time on the beach at our hotel.  A trip to Playa del Carmen.  Snorkeling at Akumal.  The group gave high marks to everything except Playa del Carmen. 

Now, I need to do a little confession.  Even though I love living by the water, I am not fond of spending time in it.  Instead of taking advantage of the snorkeling trip to Akumal (which received outstanding reviews for the reef, fish, and turtles), I stayed at the hotel beach catching up on my writing.

And that is a lesson for me.  I came to Mexico for the adventure -- and to learn to not say "no."  Obviously, I am not quite there yet.  That Protestant work ethic grabs me when I least expect it.

But that is a minor quibble.  I thoroughly enjoyed this trip.  The places we visited.  The food we ate.  The past we experienced.  The universally pleasant people I met on the bus.

When we flew out of the Cancun airport to Guadalajara, I knew I had added one more layer of life onto what has proven to be a very wise choice to move to Mexico.

The question will now be: Will the rest of my stay in Mexico be solo?  Or will I have some news for you in the next couple of weeks?

As Indy's father in The Last Crusade laughingly said:
"I don't know.  We'll find out."


Monday, February 24, 2014

a tale of two cities

For those of us who live in Mexican towns with limited history, staying in one of the colonial towns is a real treat.

Sure, San Patricio and Villa 
Obregón have their town squares.  And churches.  And government buildings.  But the buildings surrounding them are not old enough to qualify for Medicare -- let alone have any connection with the conquistadors.

On this trip, we stayed in two of the classic colonial cities.  Mérida and Valladolid.  Both named after cities in Spain.  Both with everything you would expect in a colonial Mexican town.

Let’s start with Mérida.  Because that is where we started this tour.

The Spanish founded the town in 1542 -- building it on the ruins and out of the rubble of an ancient Maya city.  We have already seen how some of the Maya stones have been incorporated into the walls of the Spanish churches (rumbling over the rubble).

Mérida’s grand plaza forms the center of the historic district.  With the requisite religious and governmental buildings standing cheek by jowl -- representing the combined power of the Spanish crown.  Sword and cross.

But the plaza is not merely an historical anachronism.  It is the center of a modern city -- filled with working people savoring their lunches, children chasing pigeons, tourists being propositioned by drunk prostitutes (but that is another story).

Even though the French-inspired courting chairs (those white side-by-side jobs) evoke the time of Porfirio Diaz, they are more often filled with overly-earnest young people indulging in one of Mexico’s public pleasures.  Free wi-fi in the park.

You can see the top of the cathedral in the plaza photograph, but you cannot see its salient feature.  When I first saw the cathedral, it looked less like a place of worship than like a fortress.  In fact, most of the churches in the Yucatán had retained an outdated Romanesque fortress appearance while the mainland churches were being built in baroque flourishes.

It turns out there was a good reason for that look.  I have mentioned that the Yucatán was one of the last areas of Mexico to be subdued by the central authorities in Mexico City.

The Maya repeatedly attempted to wipe out the European settlements.  You can still see the narrow slits in the cathedral walls, where Spanish gunners would attempt to protect the townspeople gathered inside.

One of the most violent periods was the Caste Wars, where the Maya targeted any non-Maya (including mestizos).  That rebellion did not end until 1905.

The oldest house in
Mérida is the Casa de Montejo -- the Montejos being the founding family of the city -- built in 1549.  To call it a house is to exaggerate.  It is now merely a facade for a bank building.  But, at least, that much has been preserved.

The historical buildings impress me.  But they would not be enough to entice me into moving to Mérida.

But the culture would.  Mérida is a town that honors its cultural life.  Where else could you find an entire plaza of bronze busts dedicated not to a group of obscure politicians, but to musicians?

The capitol of culture, though, is the Teatro José Peón Contreras.

By now, you do not need my guidance to inform you know that this French-inspired building was built during the reign of Porfirio Diaz.  It could just as easily be found in Lyon or Rouen.

I was a bit disappointed that I could not see the interior.  And, unfortunately, there were no tickets available for evening performances while I was in town.

As luck would have it, blogger pal Debbie came to the rescue.  Sort ot.  If you want to know what goes on behind the walls of a similar theater, take a look at i went out of town last night.

Culture would get me to move to Mérida.  But, as far as I could tell, there is little along those lines in Valladolid -- the other city we visited.

Valladolid was founded on a mosquito-infested site in 1543.  The Spanish apparently disliked the blood-suckers as much as I do.  In 1545, they moved the entire settlement to its current location.  Once again mounted on the remains of a Maya city -- which proved to be a simple quarry for building the new town.

The church facade tells the same story as Mérida’s.  The place was a fortress.

Again, for good reason.  Valladolid suffered Maya uprisings from its founding.  The city was captured by the Maya in 1848 during the Caste Wars. 

Visitors can still see some of the weapons the Maya used in the war.  This rifle, along with the rest of the weapons of the local Maya, were thrown into a cenote at the Convent of San Bernadino de Siena at the end of the war.

When I was last in Valladolid, the church was locked up so tight I thought another Maya revolt was underway.  On this visit, it was open.

There is nothing special about the interior.  Other than this odd alms box apparition.

I will avoid the priest-choir boy references -- only because I am a paragon of good taste.  My first reaction was the cast iron figure must be the Yucatán equivalent of a lawn jockey.  For all I know, this boy may be on his way to the scrap heap of history.

Valladolid never appeared on any of my “possible places to live in Mexico” list.  And it isn’t there now.  But it is a good place to get a dose of colonial history.

Mérida was on my list.  And there is always the possibility that I could show up on its Frenchified streets -- where encounters with ladies of the night are always a possibility.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

the end of my tour days

Yesterday (end of days), I made the point that Tulum had the honor of being one of the last last remnants of the ancient Maya civilization.  But it was not the end of days for the Maya.  Their descendants have surrounded me this past week.

But it is the end of days for this tour. 

By the time you read this, I should be back in Melaque after a late evening flight into Guadalajara -- and a scheduled bus drop-off around 1 AM in Melaque.  This afternoon, I will be on another airplane headed to Oregon.

I like these bus tours with Mex-Eco Tours because they give me a vacation from retirement.  And they are always  well-planned with a variety of activities.

That "variety of activities" comment may seem odd since I have written only about the archaeological sites we visited.  There is a rationale for that.  The reason I come on these trips is for the archaeology.  But this trip was far more than that.

We visited
Mérida and Valladolid.  We swam in a cenote at Ik Kil, and floated down an aqueduct constructed by the Maya in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.  And we stayed smack dab on the Caribbean at Paa Mul -- where some of our group visited Playa del Carmen and Akumal.

I will tell you a bit more about the rest of the story in a day or two when my rolling-about stops.  As I write this, I can see and feel the waves of the Caribbean seducing me into another immersion.

My next report will be from Oregon -- but about the

How is that for international inclusiveness?


Saturday, February 22, 2014

end of days

There were seven of them.  Mainly women.

A tourist family stooped over in the Maya crouch of reverence physically required to enter through one of the arched gates of Tulum.

When each of them emerged into the light, two sights awaited them.  To the right, an ancient Maya house.  To the left, the Caribbean. 

To a person, they took a quick glance at the ruin and immediately whipped their heads to the left with exclamations of "el mar."  A series of selfies with the sea in the background ensued.

That family was Mexican.  But the other tourists reacted the same way.  Building?  Meh.  Sea?  Kewl.

Yesterday my buddy Isa Gringo commented: " I will be interested in what you have to say about the ruins of Tulum.  Spectacular location, boring site."  I am surprised he did not mention the hordes of tourists pouring through the city gates like so many conquistadors.

As it turns out, the tourists did not bother me that much.  (After all, I am one.)  But I fully agree with Isla Gringo on one point -- the location is spectacular.

Tulum sits high on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean.  During its heyday in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a trading post between the inland Maya and the rest of Meso-America. 

Goods of all sorts flowed through the city.  And, because these Maya were the Ferengi of their time, a little tax and profit would be applied to each transaction.

It was never very large -- with a population of less than 2,000.  But it has one honor amongst the Maya city-states. 

When the Spanish arrived, Uxmal was gone.  Chichén Itzá was gone.  But little Tulum was still chugging along when the first Spaniard spotted it in 1518.  And it survived almost 70 years of incursion by the conquistadors.  But it too fell.

From an archaeological point of view, it is very important.  It is the only city where the invaders actually saw a Maya city in operation.

And here is where I part company with my buddy Isla Gringo.  I did not find it boring.  In a certain sense, it is my favorite of the archaeological sites we visited on this trip.

You may recall I have a prejudice in favor of small sites.  I find it far easier to relate to the human scale of small cities.  It is easier to see how people lived their lives.

Tulum is a perfect setting for that.  Its temples are readily accessible without the monumental dehumanizing of the larger city-states.  The place has the feel of some Mycenaean sites.  But that is probably just the effect of the sea.

There are even a few clever architectural details.  Such as this face.  A motif we have seen at other sites.

But nothing like the more intricate mosaics we discovered at Uxmal.

At Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, stone was the basic building material.  By the time the Maya power structure was flickering out in Tulum, stucco had become a common construction medium.

Cheaper.  More pliable.  Less time-consuming.  It is almost as if the builders perceived the end of their culture.

It is hard to imagine this plaster god being honored in the same way Chac was honored in stone.

Tulum is a bridge between the last vestiges of a Maya world, that was once lost to us, and the European world that changed Mexico's destiny.  In that sense, it is a sad place -- a reminder to that all great nations eventually fade.  (As an American, it is easy for me to see my country reflected in Tulum's decline and fall.)

But Tulum is still here teaching us other lessons.  Maybe that Mexican family had it right, after all.  Cities and nations may fade, but the sea where the traders of Tulm sailed is still there.  And the descendants of the Maya continue to trade with distant parts of our world.

Maybe it is the continuance of days, instead of the end.

Friday, February 21, 2014

rethinking chichén itzá

My indifference to Chichén Itzá is a matter of record (working on my yucatán).

So, I did not have high expectations for our Wednesday visit.  I had even toyed with the idea of visiting Ek' Belem, instead.  But the logistics proved to be difficult.  And I have so enjoyed the company of this touring group that I decided to give Chichén Itzá another once over.

I am glad I did.  The visit turned out to be far too short.  The place needs a week or so to really appreciate.  But our short visit was enough to make me revise my original impression of the place.

In the process of walking about and analyzing this great commercial city, I think I have discovered why I was so indifferent to the place four years ago.

There is a rumor that Steve Cotton is a contrarian,  He is.  If the general opinion of anything is that it is popular, Steve Cotton will strike the pose that anything popular is bound to be déclassé.  In short, Steve Cotton acts like the very people he loves to lampoon.

And if the popular "whatever" receives cheesy accolades such as "One of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World,"  it doesn't have a chance to be taken at face value.  No matter how grand it might be.

Something about el castillo -- the much-vaunted symbol of all that is

Chichén Itzá -- rubs me the wrong way.  It may be its over-reconstructed facade that looks eerily like the face of a San Miguel de Allende matron.  Along with its intentional dehumanizing scale.

It is not Chichén Itzá that leaves me indifferent.  It is el castillo.

If Uxmal is Greece,
Chichén Itzá is Rome.  Uxmal developed a very pleasing architectural style of its own.  As we saw yesterday (snakes -- why did it have to be snakes?).  Its public spaces were well-balanced and designed to reflect the beauty of its era.
Chichén Itzá adopted a grab bag of of styles during its 600 year history -- from 600 to 1200 AD.  It may lack a unified style, but it makes up for it in a rather bustling style of the commercial center it was.

Starting with one of the oldest areas of the city where the architecture is very reminscent of Uxmal's pure Maya style.  Such as the observatory -- with its advanced system of tracking the stars, planets, and seasons, to predict the arrival of what kept this water-starved land thriving.  Rain.

And there is the face we have come to recognize immediately -- Chac -- that adorns buildings in the older section of the city.  Along with the sacred rattlesnake.  In stylized form. 

But this was also a center for the Maya to show their individual talents.  On the largest ball court in Meso-America.

And because the game also had its sacred aspects, the captain of the winning team would be led to a platform where he and his family would be honored with his ceremonial decapitation.

This tablet commemorates that act.  You can see death carrying away the captain's head, while an eagle eats a human heart, and the rattlesnake brings fertility to the earth.  It is certainly no accident that the myth of the rattlesnake and the eagle is quintisentially Mexican.

If you take El Castillo out of the mix,
Chichén Itzá is a fascinating spot.  You might meet the souls of more merchants than artisans, but the city offers up its past where you can meet the dead on their own level.

And, for one brief moment, you can live their lives with them.  In a place you will never be able to go.  But a place where you can touch another world -- and take away what it gives you.

Amongst the snakes and the eagles.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

snakes -- why did it have to be snakes?

History is a cruel mistress.

Nations rise.  And, just as Newton taught us, they inevitably fall.  One day you're cock of the walk; the next day, you're a feather duster.

You know how difficult it is to get "Guantanamera" out of your head after being assaulted by a street musician whose voice and guitar are strangers to a common key?  Well, that is the same difficulty I experience when touring Maya ruins.

What happened to cause the builders of these monuments to abandon their work?  The fact that there probably will never be an answer does not make the question any less persistent.

When I moved to Mexico, one of the major factors in choosing a place to live was "archaeological sites within driving distance"  (moving to mexico -- the questions).

Melaque scored about a zero.  After all, I am older than the oldest building in town.

Not so the Yucatán peninsula.  Ancient Maya cities are as common here as
arcane analogies in my writing.

On Tuesday, it was Uxmal; yesterday it was Chichén Itzá.  Both are monumental in scale.  But they have always been quite different cities.  Uxmal was built to be harmonious. 
Chichén Itzá was a commercial center.

On each of my visits, I have reacted quite differently to each site.
Or indifferently in the case of
Chichén Itzá.

Uxmal is the older of the two.  Even though it was founded in 500 AD, its major buildings were not constructed until a hundred year period between 850 to 950 AD -- about the time England was starting to form as a nation.

It must have been a strangely beautiful city in its day.  Like all archaeological reconstructions, there was probably no time that all of the buildings we now see existed simultaneously.  But what we have is evidence enough that this was an urban gem.

The crown jewel of the site is a massive temple at the site entrance -- whimsically named by the Spanish as the Pyramid of the Magician.  It is actually 5 temples in one.

When the Maya updated their structures, they would often build the new temple over the old.  In the case of this temple, each of the five buildings are exposed and functional.  All of them to Chac - the Maya rain god, whose face is the facade of temple IV.  The priest would appear to emerge from Chac's mouth with the word of the day.

The architecture of the surrounding buildings echo and complement the themes of the central temple.  What Michael Knox Beran would call "public beauty."

To the Maya, as to most people, there was no distinction between their social, personal, and religious lives.  Each informed the other.

What they observed around them became part of who they were.  Such as their reverence for the rattlesnake.  A symbol of life and fertility.  Stylized snakes decorate the facades of several buildings.  As you can see at the top of this post.

Or the classic lines of this building that is believed to be part of a school complex.  Simultaneously simple, but ornate.  An ancient Athenian would feel comfortable with its form.

The great pyramid at Uxmal has almost no decoration.  In fact, the functional part of the building is solely its heavily reconstructed (and extremely steep) stairs.

But the view of the site from the top of the pyramid is worth the exertion.

What we now see was the city where the elite lived.  The small class of aristocrats who created and kept the customs of what we call Maya civilization.

And then it all came to an end around 1100 AD -- just a few years after the Norman invasion of England.  The entire population abandoned the city.  For a reason still unknown.

Uxmal slipped into obscurity until its "re-discovery" and recreation during the last 150 years.

And that would naturally lead us to
Chichén Itzá.  But I have kept you in class long enough today.

Tomorrow, we will take a stroll through a city less beautiful that Uxmel.  But far grander in its own way.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

on vacation from retirement

You should be reading about the fun time I had at Uxmal yesterday.

How I climbed the great pyramid (not the one at Giza).  How I learned a bit more about the complexities of Maya civilization.  How I drank enough chaya juice to refuel a camel.

Instead, I went out on the town with friends and had a great time learning about this multi-layered city and its food.

If all goes well, I will give you my overall impression of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá tomorrow.  Or I may wait until the trip is complete on Sunday.

That is the joy of being on vacation from being retired.  I get to do as I like -- on so many levels.

You should try it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

rumbling over the rubble

Mérida has more nicknames than a two-bit boxer.

The White City.  The Paris of Mexico (then why doesn't Paris call itself "The Mérida of France?")  And a new one to me -- The City Built on Rubble.  Our guide may have said "of rubble."  I admit my tired mind wandered.

As you may have guessed our 2 AM departure from Melaque has produced its stated goal.  I am now in Mérida -- with nineteen of my travel companions.

If you are curious about the rubble comment, there is no dispute that Mérida was built in the mid-sixteenth century on the site of the Maya city T'hó.  As they did elsewhere throughout Mexico, the Spaniards put the local ruins to good use.  Stones that were once pyramids to the glory of Chaac were recycled to the glory of Yahweh.

You can see an example in the photograph at the top of this post.  That fragment of Maya stone is now part of a wall of the Templo de la Tercera Orden (Church of the Third Order).

I have always liked Mérida -- despite its oppressive heat and big city diesel smells.  One of my pleasures has been following the past and continuing exploits of bloggers who have restored some of Mérida's dilapidated French-inspired homes.  I once imagined myself doing something similar.

But there will be more tales tomorrow after we wander through the monumental ruins of Uxmal, and then return for a walking tour of
Mérida.  And with plenty of pretty photographs -- I hope.

When we checked into our hotel, we were welcomed by the staff who handed out glasses of a very green liquid. 

I tend to trust my taste buds in these matters.  And the drink was quite good.  I told a fellow traveler, it tasted like orange juice combined with a pungent herb.

It turns out I was correct.  The herb was chaya -- a leaf that is often compared with spinach and is served cooked.

The cooking is important.  The leaf has a high cyanide content.  Cooking neutralizes the poison.

But the chaya in our drinks was not cooked.  Why didn't we all topple over on the spot? 

For the same reason that fish and seafood in cerviche is not really raw.  It is "cooked" by the citrus juice in the dish.  Or, in the case of the green drink, by the citrus juice in the cup. 

Who says you can't learn anything on the internet?


Monday, February 17, 2014

calling all photo sleuths!

Two months ago, I offered you a challenge -- to identify the smiling man in a photograph that hangs on a wall in the men's room of Rooster's Restaurant (we don't need another hero).  You met the challenge by identifying him as President Francisco Madero's brother and chief adviser, Gustavo. 

The photograph is a masterpiece of the Revolution -- with Gustavo between Victoriano Huerta on his right and Pancho Villa on his left.  Within a year Gustavo would be dead at the hands of Huerta.  Three years later, Huerta would be dead in a Texas jail.  Soon to be followed by the assassination of Pancho Villa.

You did such a good job on your first task, I thought I would give you a second chance.

The photograph at the top of this post is from the same men's room.  But a different wall.  And I think a different guy.  Though, it is rather hard to tell.

There are clues.  The photograph was taken during the Revolution.  And the chances are very good that the man is a commander in the Division of the North.  Perhaps another Madero brother.  Or The Man himself.

I did a quick Google search and found nothing.  During our last scavenger hunt, Kim mentioned that there is a Google Images search function where a photograph can be be dropped into a box and matching photographs will captions will magically appear.  Perhaps a photographic version of Milton Friedman's black box model. 

I hate to admit it, but I have no idea how to do that.  Perhaps one of you can.

One of the side benefits of these searches is that we all have an opportunity to learn a bit more about Mexican history.  Especially, the single event that seems to baffle most observers -- the Revolution.

Put on those thinking caps.  I suspect I am about to learn something new.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

scorpions in a bottle

Scorpions were once a rarity on the walkway around the laguna behind my house.  I would see one or two a year.

No more.  I see two or three each week.  Some small.  Some big.  Feasting mainly on the ants that send massive invasions into my garden to strip plants.  I am happy to see the scorpions are doing their job to kill the invaders.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  At least, in a Metternichean world.

But these efficient stingers are pikers compared to some exchanges that pop up on the internet.  You all know Jennifer Rose and Felipe Zapata.  Both are long-time residents of Michoacán, and both are open-minded about the flaws of their state -- and of Mexico.  When they say something, I pay attention.  And neither one is shy about taking me to task when they disagree with me.

So, I was rather taken aback when I saw how a fellow blogger responded to their comments on his blog.

But, there I go, getting ahead of my story.  Let me set this up just as I experienced it.

I recently ran across a blog: "MGR -- Mexican Gulf Reporter: Guadalajara, Jalisco and Mérida, Yucatán."  Undoubtedly, one of those blogs whose scope has burst its initial stitches.  Edward V. Byrne, the author styles himself as "Journalist and Correspondent, U.S. licensed attorney."  More on that later.

I ended up on the blog because Mr. Byrne drafted a post about an American missing in Michoacán: "Mexico opens investigation into U.S. citizen missing in Michoacán, as long silence grows increasingly ominous." 

I have a guilty pleasure to which I readily confess.  Breathless headlines that promise National Enquirer material always sucker me in.

Mr. Byrne tells us that an American citizen motorcycling through Mexico on his way to Brazil has gone missing in Michoacán this month.  There is a grieving mother.  And concerned friends.  Wherever these events occur in the world, our hearts always go out to the people who yearn for more information about their loved one.

One of my goals in life is to take people at face value.  But there are times when subtext speaks so loudly that attention must be paid -- as Arthur Miller would have it. 

Mr. Byrne seems to have his own agenda in publishing this tale of personal tragedy.  For him, the enemy is Michoacán.

Let's do a little list:

"If one were searching for the single most dangerous, avoid-at-all-costs destination in the Republic right now, the choice would be quite easy: Michoacán."

"No foreign traveler should enter Michoacán today, absent an ultra-compelling need, in part because it's impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys."

"Michoacán has been a deadly no man's land for years."

Those three sentences are a perfect example of what we try to teach children not to do.  If you exaggerate, no one will believe what you are trying to say.

There are areas of Michoacán where the American policy on drugs has created an almost untenable civil disaster.  In a handful of villages, drug lords have become the local default government.

But it is not the entire state.  Most areas of the state and the vast majority of its citizens go about their daily lives without once encountering a mythical "deadly no man's land."  Mr. Byrne's logic would be similar to advising Europeans to avoid Yosemite Park because of gang violence in Los Angeles.

And then he slips into the Chris Matthews syndrome -- bad facts make for bad opinions.

"But whatever temporary lifting of spirits that might have occasioned were quickly dashed Wednesday evening, when Michoacán's chief prosecutor told a national news network interviewer, 'We have no evidence that this man actually entered our state; he could be anywhere.'  That comment did not suggest a sense of urgency, or indeed of any particular interest, in Morelia."

Despite his headline and the text of his article that violence in Michoacán is at blame for this poor young man's fate, the route the young man supposedly followed was only briefly in Michoacán.  I suppose Mr. Byrne is of the school that you should look for something where the light is better rather than where you may have lost it.

That brings us to Felipe and Jennifer.  They both commented on the post.

Felipe:  "As a longtime and current resident of Michoacán, I can assure you that we live in peace here.  Sure, there are some areas that are best to avoid, just as you avoid certain parts of Detroit and Los Angeles and New Orleans."

Reasonable.  Well-informed.  And completely unanswered by Mr. Byrne.

But it was Jennifer who set him off.  And her tone was a bit more combative: "Morelia and Patzcuaro, in fact most of Michoacan, remain just as safe or safer than Chicago or Kansas City for foreign travelers.  To declare that Michoacan has been a deadly no man's land for years is just as ridiculous.  Where do you get your information -- from first-hand, boots on the ground experience or from the Estadounidense alarmist press?  Please write more responsibly about Michoacan in the future -- or don't write about it at all."

Now, this is the point where a blogger with self-confidence would see his mistake, and would write something like: You are both correct.  I may have painted Michoacán with a brush too broad.  But there are dangerous spots in the state."  And everyone would have walked away knowing that they had actually passed on accurate facts and reasonable opinions.

Instead, Mr. Byrne responded as if he had developed his manners on a pirate ship: "It is obvious to me, however, that you have not the vaguest idea what's going on in Michoacán (or has been for the past decade).  As for MGR's sources of information, they are domestic Mexican news sources, almost exclusively, and they are continuously updated and linked for all to verify.  Perhaps you don't read Spanish . . . or perhaps you just don't read."

The fact that Jennifer is a Mexican citizen, is fluent in Spanish, has lived in Morelia for decades, and is an attorney seems to escaped Mr. Byrne's notice.  And I happen to know he knew all of that when he launched his diatribe against her.

One of the things I love about the blogosphere is that it is generally a place of courtliness -- made up of the type of people who have widely differing experiences and opinions, but who can discuss those differences in a courteous manner.  But I guess not always.  There are always the Byrnes of the world who act as if they are a scorpion trapped in mortal combat inside a bottle -- when philosophers on a hill is a far more functional model.

Rather than play into the world of the bully, Jennifer parted with: "Your nastiness is unwarranted -- but then maybe that's just who you are. Your site now has one less reader."

And proving that he was not only nasty, but also a world-class narcissist, Mr. Byrne had to have the last word: "Sorry to see you go. You were already uninformed about your country, now you'll be even less so."

He claims to be both a journalist and an attorney -- professions that pride themselves on accuracy and professionalism.  He appears to be a stranger to both.

I seriously thought about not writing this post.  After all, neither Felipe or Jennifer need me to protect them from this type of insult.  But I tend to get my back up when I see bully-boys pretending to be something they are not.

Now, I know several of you will probably troll over to his site just to see the car wreck.  Don't bother.  I already took the bullet for you on this one.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

browsers and surprises

I am not a big fan of Blogger -- Google's free blog program.

It allows a bit of flexibility in setting up a blog page.  But it also has a witch's grab bag of problems -- none of which are the subject of this post.

What Blogger does offer is some interesting information on the people who stop by from time to time.  Most of that information is predictable.  A majority of my readers are in The States -- followed by Mexico, then Canada.  Past that, I have a smattering of hits from a lot of nations.  And a lot of those are spam hits.

I did find a major surprise yesterday, though.

Even though it should not happen, the look of my blog varies from browser to browser.  I revised the format a couple of years ago.  Since then, Internet Explorer users have not been able to see my banner.  And, recently, some Firefox users have been losing connection with my comments section.

Both of those concerned me -- primarily because those two browsers (Internet Explorer and Firefox) were once a large majority of my readers.  That is no longer true.

This is a snapshot from yesterday of "Page Views by Browsers:"

9239 (35%)
5927 (23%)
5559 (21%)
Internet Explorer
3488 (13%)
Mobile Safari
313 (1%)
Bing Preview
312 (1%)
301 (1%)
268 (1%)

Surprised?  I was.

Firefox and Internet Explorer are starting to get the type of results that minor parties in Italy receive.  The two most common choices for browsers are Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

The Safari result appears to be related to an increase in Apple tablet users and a disproportionate number of Mac users.  Even though 50% of the computers that read my blog are still running Windows, 20% are iPad-run, and 17% are Macintosh. 

And the point of all these numbers?  They are simply a reminder to me that blog readers are not using the same technology as when I started posting back in 2007. 

My readers are far more mobile and they have immediate access to what pops up on line.  Most of us were reading blogs on our stationary desktop PCs in 2007.  Now, I look at as many blogs on my Android telephone as I do on my laptop.

But let me hear from you.  Where do you read my posts?  And what do you use?  I would not be surprised to discover that commenters fall into a completely different profile.

The floor is yours.

Friday, February 14, 2014

housing my dreams

It was inevitable.  You could almost hear the syllogism clicking into place.

First, I write about being on the road for most of 2012.  Then, I write about the vagaries of the Mexican taxation system.  And, last night, I discover that the interface between Mexican home ownership, the IRS, and Mexican hacienda has become more complex.

So, what is my natural reaction?  I start house shopping again.

It all started quite innocently.  I saw a condominium advertised on our local message board.  Now, I am not a condo kind of guy.  But I thought I would take a look.  After all, there was an open house on Thursday.

It turns out that there were several open houses.  Before I arrived at the condo complex, I saw an open house sign on a house that has long intrigued me.  It sits off by itself.  On a rather large lot.

The facade is nothing special.  It is pleasant.  But it does not give a hint of what lies beyond the door.

It is one of the best-built homes I have seen in the area.  All of the wood (and there is lots of it) is first rate.  The architect did a great job of building in a sense of class without that rather disturbing echo of nouveau riche

Three bedrooms.  All built around a center courtyard that looks vaguely Moorish -- with an eccentrically-placed pool at the foot of the garden.  All for just under $600,000.

That reference to three bedrooms should signal that I have not yet abandoned the idea of enticing my brother and sister-in-law (easy targets) and my mother (not so easy) to retire down here.  However, after my almost 86 year old mother spent part of this week shoveling snow, her resistance to moving down here may be duly eroded.

My visit to the condo was not in the family enticement category.  It was entirely a search for Steve's nest.  Well, the condo was not it.  I am gregarious, but I appreciate having living space away from non-family members.

On the way back from the condo, I saw another open house.  This one was being held by one of my favorite realtors.  And it is a very tempting house.

Three bedrooms.  With the master suite on the ground level.  Great for Mom.  With a pool.  And air conditioning.  How could my family resist that type of compound?  (Take a look at Casa de Olas.)

At the beginning of the year, I had considered having my brother and mother fly back to Melaque with me after my February visit to Oregon.  That probably is not going to happen.  The moment I get back I will be on the road to Panama.  That would not leave much time for house hunting.

But time is on my side.  My sister-in-law will probably not be ready for retirement until 2016.  And by that time, I may be ready to put down roots somewhere in Mexico.

And why not around here?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

killing ivan's cow

There is an old joke that goes something like this.

There were two farmers, Ivan and Mikhail, both equally poor.  One day, Ivan inherited a cow.

Ivan's life immediately improved.  The cow pulled his plow.  The cow gave milk.  The cow produced calves for meat.  Ivan's farm outpaced Mikhail's.

One night, starving and miserable, Mikhail drops to his knees and prays: “Oh, God,” he implores, “Ivan and I were always equal.  And now look at him -- rich.  God, please, make us equal once more.”

There is a sudden thunderclap, and suddenly Mikhail hears the Voice of God.  “Your prayers will be answered,” says the Lord. “You shall once more be equal.”

Mikhail practically screams with joy. “Great!” he exclaims. “You’re going to kill Ivan’s cow!”

I am one of those restaurant denizens much feared by my fellow patrons.

Being single and gregarious is a difficult combination.  I am like one of those lone wolves always in search of a new pack.

If you are foolish enough to sit near me at dinner in a restaurant, I will soon be ensconced in your conversation -- and, possibly, in your life.  A simple greeting will get the same result as giving a bit of liver to a street dog. 

Yesterday I was eating at one of my regular food bags in town when I noticed a fellow sitting by himself at the next table.  Mexican.  Middle class.  Nicely dressed -- in that "we're here to help you" sort of way.

My guess was correct.  After I politely (if that is possible) interrupted his dinner, he told me that he works for hacienda -- the Mexican tax man.  He was in town talking with businesses about the implementation of a new electronic income reporting system.

The details of the reporting system are not important.  The fact that the tax people are taking the tax law seriously is.

I have written about the government's goal to increase its take of GDP by 6% (pass the tax plate).  The strategy is two-pronged.  The first is to extend the VAT to new sales.  The biggest change for our little tourist town is the extension of VAT to restaurants -- at the rate of 16%. 

Businesses will either eat the increase through decreased wages or profits.  Or the amount will be added into the cost of meals.  Or a combination.  My money is on increased costs.

The second way to increase tax revenues is through enforcement.  The man from hacienda gave me an example.  There are plenty of houses in our little town that are rented out.  That is probably true of every beach town in the world.

Even though there has long been a requirement for landlords to pay taxes on any rental money they receive, there are plenty of scofflaws.  There are also people, like my current landlady, who are scrupulous in paying all required fees.  That makes me feel proud that my rental check is actually doing something to contribute to the infrastructure of my community.

Even though my dinner partner was not in town to find revenue-dodgers, he gave me an example how easy it is for the newly-computerized hacienda to check on people avoiding the revenuers. 

He asked me where I had lived since I arrived in Mexico.  That was easy.  I have only lived two places.  He said with the names, addresses, and dates I gave him, he could determine who owes taxes to the government over what period and for what amount.

He also verified what I had only heard as a rumor.  I knew that hacienda would go after back taxes, penalties, and interest.  But I had heard rumors about property of foreigners being seized and the foreigners deported.  Actually, I had heard of only one instance -- up north.  He verified the rumor was true, but the circumstances of that particular example were egregious.

Our local message board has been discussing the rental tax issue.  The big question is how will hacienda get the names of people who have paid rent, but the landlord has not paid the appropriate tax?

I now know.  Ivan's cow seems to be feeling a bit ill.

Note -- If you are interested in the obligations that apply to foreigners earning money in Mexico, you can find out more at the hacienda site.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

the inevitability of surprise

If you have ever spent an evening with a life insurance salesman, you have had great training for attending writers' conferences.

Writers' conferences are the equivalent of the singles night on cruise ships.  If you show up at the event, you quickly learn you are doomed.

Take the lecture on "plot devices."  You will hear about shoulder angels and deus ex machina and the Hitchcockean MacGuffin.  And then there is my favorite: the "plot voucher."  Where an innocuous event or object allows a character to escape certain doom during a climax.

Good plot devices work because they seem to flow naturally from the context in which the characters live.  One scent of contrivance, and the house of cards will come tumbling down.

Whoever is writing my story provided me with a "plot voucher" yesterday.  Even though I had planned on spending most of this year in Melaque, The Great Author had other things in store for me.

Each year I await the electronic arrival of the Form 1099 for a family trust of which I am the trustee.  Without it, I cannot have the CPA draw up the necessary tax filings.  When the tax form arrives this year, I was going to fly up to Oregon to sign the documents and to see people I missed visiting on my burglarly-initiated early departure in December.

The only potential conflict was the Yucatán trip (working on my yucatán) next week.  Then my cousin Dan informed me our Central America trip is back on -- and he would be here in early March.  That would mean a very narrow window of a couple of days to get to Oregon -- if the tax documents showed up before then.

My experience with life is that everything comes out well in the end.  And I should have strangled that niggling bit of worry that showed up last week while trying to figure out if I could get to Oregon before Dan arrived.

I need not have worried.  I received an email yesterday that the 1099 will be on the way to the CPA tomorrow.  Based on that information, Dan informs me that our trip will start for me on 15 March when he and Patrice show up at my front gate in Melaque.

And what is the schedule of the Central America trip?  There isn't one.  We have an objective -- to get to the end of the Pan-American highway in Panama.  Otherwise, we are playing it by ear.

Along the way we will most likely stop in Lázaro Cárdenas, Acapulco, Puerto Escondido, Antigua, Guatemala City, Leon, Granada, Northern Costa Rica, the Golfito area, David, central and coastal Panama, Panama City, and Yaviza.

On the way back, we may take a different path, but there is an inclination to include San Cristobal Las Casas, Palenque, Oaxaca, Monte Alban, and Taxco,  I may make up for missing the Oaxaca bus tour earlier in the month.

A simple plot device.  A 1099.  And the rest of the pieces in this little action drama fall into place.

Of course, no good plot is worth its salt unless there is a major twist that leaves us all saying: "I didn't see that coming; but it was inevitable."  And you can count on seeing some of those cross our path on this trip.

You might ask, what was the purpose of this little essay?  It certainly has a Seinfeld aroma.

Easy.  I just saved you $500 and two days.  You can now skip the next writers' conference.

You are welcome.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

working on my yucatán

It seems as if I just got back to Villa
Obregón, but I am about to head out of town.  Just for a few days.  This time.

My destination is Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula -- on a 6-day bus tour.

Well, not entirely a bus tour.  We will fly to and from the peninsula out of the Guadalajara airport.  But getting from Melaque to the peninsula will be the equivalent of driving from Seattle to Denver.  Or about the distance from Paris to Moscow -- for those of you with Napoleonic urges.

Yucatán Peninsula has fascinated me since the 1960s when our local television reviewer, Francis Murphy, would report on his vacations uncovering new Maya cities.  It filled that little niche in my head that wanted to be the next Frederick Catherwood.
You may recall that I spent a week in 2010 in that part of Mexico -- for a Latin American Bloggers' Conference.  I swore I would return.  And I will.  Next week.

So, here is my basic schedule:

On 17 and 18 February, I will be in
Mérida (my kind of town) along with a visit to one of the grandest Maya ruins -- Uxmal (looking into chac's eyes).

On 19 February, we move on to Valladolid and the greatly over-rated Maya ruins at
Chichén Itzá (it's not chicken pizza!).  I may elect to do something else rather than spend another day at what I found to be one of The Greatest Yawns of the World.

On 20 February, we spend the day at Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, and 21 February at Tulum.  Tulum is the real reason for taking this trip.  Unlike most of the other Maya cities, Tulum was a functioning city when the Spanish arrived.  It should make for some great blog material.

Then, on 22 February, we will spend the day traveling -- flying out of Babylon on the Caribbean: Cancún.

You and I have already had some conversations about
Mérida, Uxmal, and Chichén Itzá.  But I am certain that the well could stand a few more bucket dippings before it runs dry.  And who knows what Tulum holds in store for us?

My departure is still a week away.  And there are Melaque tales to tell in the interim.  But I thought you might like to know where we are all headed -- for those of you who like to plan.

For those of us, like me, who could not care less about plans, we will meet the rest of you on the bus on Monday.  Until then, there is a life to lead here on the broiling beach.


Monday, February 10, 2014

the eyes have it

The other day on our local message board, we welcomed a newcomer.  She is a young American woman in love with an equally-young Mexican.

She informed us she would soon be coming down for a visit, and wanted to know what authentic Mexican foods she could expect.  (She hedged that bet by informing us she is not very open to new foods.)

My fellow board members suggested a list of what I would call "safe" choices.  Pork ribs at Scooby.  Chicken tacos at any number of indifferent taco stands.  Shrimp in hot sauce at Red Lobster.

I suggested that she should march to the beat of a different jefe.  She should try the eye tacos at the stand next to the bus station.

My inbox was buried with some expected responses -- and some rather original suggestions, that I could not possibly do even if I were not so overweight.  Most of them were on one theme -- there is no such thing.

Now, I have been known to put a spin on a good story.  I inherited enough of my Aunt Bessie's DNA (my best girl) to not let facts get in the way of a rousing tale.  But I remember my one experience with eye tacos.

There was a woman who had a stand by the bus station when I first moved to Melaque.  I made a deal with her.  She was to give me a taco with different fillings each time I visited -- and I would then try to guess what I had just eaten.

One day she served me a taco with what looked like egg salad.  Well, egg salad with undercooked egg white.  I tasted it.  The white portions were chewy, and the "eggy" substance had a distinctive taste.  Not entirely unpleasant.

I knew on my first bite what it was -- just as you do.  I finished it and said: "Ojos."

She smiled.  And I felt as if I had soared over another culinary hurdle.  But I have never eaten one since.

I was going to put a link here to the original story.  But I cannot find it.  The lack of a post made me start wondering if the event was merely a product of my very vivid imagination.

So, off I went to the scene of my dining encounter.  There is a very shiny cart in the spot where I recall a rather rustic stand.  And there is no woman.  I have walked by several times now, and the stand is always manned -- by a man.

But I suspect it is the same spot.  Look at the choices: cabeza de res and lengua carnaza.  The first is tender meat cooked from a beef head.  The second is one of my favorite meals in the world: tongue.

So, it is more than likely that this is the place.  I am going to gather up a couple Mexican waiters I know, and we are heading to the stand to see what other treasures we can find.

My hope is that I will have some documentation to go along with my quest for the eye taco.  The gauntlet is down.