Saturday, May 21, 2022

my lizard in hand

I say I live alone in Mexico.

I don't. There is always some new sentient creature seeking shelter at the inn.

When I returned home earlier this week my month-long sojourn, I discovered a new roommate living in my kitchen. Rather, living on the screen door in the kitchen.

The screens must hold some fascination for lizards because all sorts of varieties like to roost there. Iguanas. Mexican spiny-tailed lizards (often misidentified as black iguanas). Alligator lizards. Geckos.

Maybe they like the bit of breeze that manages to find its way into my patio. Though, I doubt that. As cold-blooded reptiles, they would normally be drawn by sunlight. But not in the house. They set their screens in the shade.

My theory is the lizards hang out on the screens for the same reason the geckos gather around the patio lights at night. It is a great place to hunt. Like a watering hole in the Serengeti. Kitchens tend to draw flies who also rest on the screen doors. Dinner on the wing.

That, of course, is all speculation. I am not privy to the wiles of the mini-Jurassic Park that surrounds me. Nor do I have any idea what type of lizard it is. Do you?

In silhouette, it could easily be confused with an iguana -- with those Sigourney Weaver-snatching claws. But as soon as it fell to the floor with the same sound a package of chitlins makes when it accidentally tumble to the kitchen floor, its iguana disguise was dropped.

With those brown spines, it almost looks like a cousin to a horned toad. Well, a horned toad that has spent a couple of months on a keto diet.

Matters became a bit more complicated when I caught sight of the other side of the lizard while he was once again pretending to be invisible on the screen door. He looks as if his mama could have been a lazuli bunting.

For the past week, the lizard and I have been living a peaceful coexistence. I have left the screen door open to let him escape to the brave new world outside of the kitchen. He is having none of it. Like a squatter evading his lease obligations, he hunkers down in what he now sees as his new home.

Dora is aware he is in the kitchen. But twice, while she has been cleaning the sills above the door, he has surprised her. This morning she nearly fell off of her ladder when she ran her hand over him.

So, in the kitchen he will stay. Probably until he shrivels up from a dearth of flies. I left out some lettuce and meat. He showed no interest. But I did manage to attract a long line of ants. He showed less gourmet interest in the ants than he did in the lettuce.

Now, I just need to remember to turn on the light in the night to avoid my toes turning him into lizard marmalade.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

shooting the moon

The event had more titles than María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva.

"Super." "Flower." "Blood." And the Duchess of Alba equivalent -- "Super Moon."

It was all part of the hype that greeted Sunday night/Monday morning's total lunar eclipse. I use "hype" advisedly because I was every bit as gaga as everyone else who sat up lawn chairs to watch one of nature's most mysterious performances.

Being an amateur astronomer, I try not to miss any of these events. Comets. Planet alignments. Exploding novas. Though I am far more likely to see a 1979 Chevy aflame before I get to see a star perform a full Monty.

I knew exactly how to take full advantage of this lunar eclipse. I pulled my writing table and chair to the west side of the upper terrace. That would give me full range of fire from the moment the moon came over the horizon. My good camera and its telescope lenses were next. I set up the camera for a night shoot, and dug out my best pair of binoculars. Then I connected my laptop to the internet. I was fully-prepared to document every second of the evening.

About two months ago, I was listening to National Public Radio (what a leftist friend calls "Nazi People's Radio") on my ear buds while walking just outside Barra. The newsreader had just been exercising her particular brand of bias and bigotry when the tone of the broadcast made a sharp turn into something interesting.

She started interviewing a woman whose thesis was that, even though she was an advocate of technology, some recent inventions have isolated us from the natural world. Radio, for instance. Rather than being outside enjoying the daily sounds of life, we prefer to have a stranger read the newspaper to us. It was a good point.

Then the newsreader slathered on her own irony. She suggested that listeners turn off their radios or remove their earbuds (in my case) and indulge in the surrounding sounds. I did.

I cannot say what I heard was better than Bach, but it was better than NPR. Traffic noise. The shuffle of my shoes against the pavement. Birds. Children screaming and laughing. Music throbbing from the fitness center. It was life. The life I chose for myself as an immigrant to Mexico.

I thought of that little experiment as I reached for my camera on Sunday night just as the shadow of the moon started crossing the southwest corner of the moon. My intention had been to shoot each stage of the eclipse. Until I heard a little voice ask: "Why?"

I did not have an answer. The purpose of my tiny scientific station was not to memorialize the moment in photographs but to enjoy it as it was happening. And so I did. I sat and watched as the Earth's shadow slowly engulfed the moon turning it into the type of red that has fed the apocalyptic imagination of people the world over for millennia. 

For almost an hour, what had started as a full moon lighting my patio had turned into a shadowy presence. Until the shadow moved on and the moon revealed its true self bit by bit. Earning each of the titles it would bear Monday morning in newspaper stories. 

Super Flower Blood Moon of May 2022. And that could very well be the name of the substitute Sean Penn sends to next year's Academy Awards.

You may already have concluded that I did not pick up my camera during the evening. I was too busy being one with the night. Well, not really. I did use my binoculars -- a lot. And I knew that one of you would be doing a good job at the heavy lifting of astronomy photography.

And I was correct. I can always count on Vern Gazvoda to bring his camera to the party. He did.

With his permission, I share one of his shots. It is a great way to see what we all saw here on the Pacifc coast of Mexico.

Of course, seeing it in person was even better. Now, I will save my camera for my trip to South Africa.

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

sign here

I empathize with people who compose signs. Whatever they do, some fellow who thinks he is the next Quintin Crisp will come along to ferret out a bit of wit from the quotidian.

Today, that fellow is me.

Here is a sample from my meanderings of the last two months.

Bathrooms provide a wealth of writing material. Take the photograph ar the top. The sign is from a bathroom on the Explorer of the Seas (where I now am -- somewhere in the southern Caribbean.) Looking at the sign, I was tempted to stand around and wait. It looked like an exciting place.

I attribute that odd behavior to too many Buster Keaton films during my misspent youth.

But it was nowhere as interesting as the list of instructions on the mirror in the men's bathroom at the Georgetown, Grand Cayman cruise terminal. In very official bright red. 

And it just got better. I can only imagine that people who wash their feet in face basins may be a bit confused about how to use this odd toilet -- though they know it must be flushed.

Someone may have had a similar idea when they editorialized this pedestrian sign in the Yucatán village of Chichimila.

I will let the rest of you take this Rorschach test. I call it "Dolly Parton meets Me Too."

She apparently has a companion figure who works on the ferry at Playa del Carmen.

Directional signs are almost always a good source for mixed messages -- as is that sentence. This one in Puerto Vallarta puts the following information on equal footing: showing me the way home, diverting me to Old Town, or helping me find a realtor I had no idea I needed. The Eurasian collared dove appears to be equally confused.

The best signs are where the poster has done all the heavy lifting for me. Some fellow in 
Mérida has posted that he will glady offer a free service to anyone parking in front of his garage -- tire punctures.

This sign did not strike me as being a wit mine as it was surprising. I guess if cryptocurrencies exist, ATMs for the medium will be needed, as well. The juxtaposition of the jewelry store with Bitcoin made it that more fascinating to me. I always imagine that bitcoiners are also gold bugs.

When we were in Valladolid, the three of us drove past this house several times. I finally asked Dan to stop. There has to be an interesting story to go along with the wall. I did not inquire within, so I am free to take it from there.

This one I have saved for last because I see it on every trip to Prineville. It is so old and worn that it is hard to read, but it is displayed on the ice cream case of the Tastee Treet. Like everyone else, I tap the glass and watch the ice cream scurry about. And I always laugh.

I hope you do, as well.

Sunday, May 01, 2022

what's love got to do with it?

Prince Charles is Tina Turner. Or, at least he has done a credible impersonation.

In 1981, when The Prince of Wales and The Soon-to-be-and-then-not-to-be Princess of Wales consented to an interview about their engagement, the interviewer asked if they were in love. The Jug-eared (and apparently, ham-fisted) Wonder answered: "Whatever 'in love' means." Indeed. He may as well have asked the interviewer: What's love got to do with it?

British playwright Alan Bennett may have hit a dramatic home run in The Madness of King George when he gave Charles Fox a sentiment I share: "If a bunch of ramshackle colonists can tell him [the king] to go, why can't we?"

But, even this card-carrying republican can appreciate the princely sentiment. "Whatever 'in love' means."

A couple of weeks ago, our local pastor spoke to us about that elusive word -- love. How all other Christian virtues are based on that one word.

I found the sermon challenging. Not because the concept was new to me and not because I disagreed with anything my pastor said. Theologically, I agreed with every word.

The challenge for me is that that the meaning of the word is as elusive to me as it apparently is to the hapless prince and the lion-maned singer. We are three souls in search of meaning.

Sure, I have spent the last seven decades reading and hearing about love. Poems. Novels. Philosophical treatises. Movies. Some of the world's greatest literature centers on the concept. Where would Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky have been if they did not have love to bounce along with?

A few days after the sermon, I had dinner with my pastor, Al, and his wife, Sue. While we were discussing Sunday's sermon, I confessed a deep dark secret. Or, at least, one I do not talk about readily.

And, as Kurt Vonnegut might write, here is that deep dark secret. I cannot remember telling anyone that I loved them. Nor can can I remember anyone telling me they loved me. That I could believe.

We batted the topic back and forth -- readily conceding that, as in most discussions, we simply might be using words without an agreed-upon defintion. I am superlative-adverse. That may be part of the problem.

Here is the real dillema for me. To paraphrase my favorite Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart: Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining it]. But I know it when I see it. And I am daily surrounded by acts of love.

In his sermon, Al pointed us to Paul's utilitarian definition in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
Love is patient and kind, not jealous, not boastful,
not proud, rude or selfish, not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not gloat over other people’s sins, but takes its delight in the truth.
Love always bears up, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.
Love never ends.  
"Love keeps no records of wrongs." That phrase seemed to sum up for me the very essence of "love." Reading it was an epiphany. At least, I felt I was learning to hold on the edges of love like Pauline dangling from a cliff. 

Or so I thought. 

As I was drafting this essay on an airplane over a month ago on my way to the Yucatán peninsula, I turned in my notebook to what I thought was the next blank page. Instead, of a blank page, I discovered the words you see in the photograph at the top of this essay.

The sight was physically wrenching. Startling. A stranger cared enough to say they loved me.

At first, I had no idea who would be so kind. I simply reveled in the thought. A meaningful thought.

As I sat there looking at my notebook, the mystery solved itself. I had left my notebook sitting on the table when I went to tend to billing matters at the restaurant. My pastor's wife was the source of the gift.

A true note of Christian love in action.

In the opening monolog of Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein, as Arnold Beckoff, gives us his pithy insights on love.
And not once has someone said, "Arnold, I love you."

-- That I could believe.

And I ask myself, "Do you really care?"

You know, the only honest answer I can give myself is "yes."

I care.

I care a great deal.

-- But not enough.
For those of us who have struggled with the nature of love, we fully understand those conflicting phrases. "Yes. We care."

"But not enough."

As a result of Sue's gesture, I am not so certain that I can say that any more.

Friday, April 08, 2022

a tale of six cities

There are many faces of Mexico.

When I told friends I was on my way to the Yucatán Peninsula, the response was predictable. And varied.

"You will love it. We spent five days at an all-inclusive in Cancun. It was one of the best weeks of our lives."

"There is no better place to see authentic Mexico. How the Maya lived -- and how they live today. With the exception of Guatemala. It is more authentic."

"Don't miss Mérida. It is true Mexico. Its colonial and pre-Revolution architecture make it the 'Paris of the Yucatán.'"

And, you know what? They were all correct.

The debate (carried on mainly by people not born in Mexico) about what is truly "authentic" in Mexico amuses me because it says more about the prejudices of the participants than it does about Mexico.

There are many Mexicos. And each is as authentic as the last -- for one simple reason. Each place exists. And it is in Mexico.

So, here is a brief summary of the cities and towns Dan, Patti, and I visited during our expedition on The Peninsula. Each place is worthy of its own essay, but we will leave the details for the comments section.


I already gave you a taste of our base camp in Valladolid for this trip in on the back of the snake. That was an essay about how modern Mexico reflects its past.

And Valladolid has quite a past. When the Spanish arrived in 1543, there was a Maya settlement, Saki, where Valladolid is now built. The Spanish used the stones of Saki to build their new city atop the ruins of the Maya town. Urban renewal by conquest.

The Maya did not appreciate being a conquered people. They rose in revolt in 1546 and 1705, and then havoc broke out in 1847 with the Caste War when the white and mestizo settlers abandoned the city in flight to Merida. The Maya killed half of the escapees in an ambush. That war continued until 1915 when the British agreed to stop arming the Maya -- all in a dispute over the oddly-named British Honduras.

That tension is reflected in the city's architecture. Churches on The Peninsula often look like fortresses. For good reason. In times of revolt, the churches served as arks. As refuges.

Even this tiny chapel looks more fortress than place of contemplation.

This was my third visit to Valladolid. In the past, I went there as do most tourists -- to use it as a base to visit the surrounding Maya ruins. But this time, I had the luxury of time to see the city for what it is. A destination in its own right.

It does not have the beautiful architecture of Mérida. But it does have a colonial core built around a town square that is as attractive as any other city of its size. It also has a certain air of contemporary quirkiness.

One of its more interesting attractions is Casa de los Venados, a grand home restored by an American couple, John and Dorianne Venator. They filled the house with Mexican art. Each of the rooms is based on a regional theme and decorated accordingly.

One of my favorite rooms was the formal dining room with faces of noted Mexican personalities painted on the backs of the chairs. It may be the only time that Porfirio Diaz, Miguel Hidalgo, and Cantinflas dined together.


Mérida was familiar to the three of us, On my prior two visits to The Peninsula, I spent most of my time there. A few years ago, Dan and Patti auditioned The Peninsula as a possible retirement spot. They lived on the Gulf coast just north of 

Our visit to 
Mérida was brief. Our Valladolid hostess had a medical appointment there. So, we drove her to the city and decided to take a brief walkabout in what is one of the nice colonial restorations in Mexico.

That was the culture part of the trip. What we mainly did was eat an early lunch (or late breakfast) at one of the city's more famous restaurants: La Chaya Maya.

Everything I have eaten there in the past has been good. This time was no different. For the sake of irony, I chose lomitos de Valladolid -- a pork dish cooked in a tomato sauce that is a specialty in Valladolid.


By reputation, Izamal was not new to me. But I had never visited. The city is renowned for its colonial architecture painted a bright yellow. The choice is stunning.

We came for two reasons. The first was Dan and Patti wanted to introduce me to this special part of The Peninsula. The second was for lunch.

Driving a total of four hours to eat lunch raises expectations. And they were met. The most famous restaurant in town is Kinich -- known for its regional Maya cuisine. My choice was poc chuch.

You may wonder why I tend to choose pork dishes on my taste tests. The answer is simple. Mexico's pork is some of the finest I have ever tasted.


We had an additional special stop on our trip to the ruins at Mayapan (finding my inner maya). Mexico has a program to honor and protect some of its heritage sites -- Pueblos Magicos. Magic towns. There are 132 of them strewn throughout the country.

The sardonic see them as a clever mechanism to lure tourists where they would not usually tread. And it works. The three of us were lured to the interesting little town of Mani because of its Magic Town designation.

The big draw is the church -- Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel. I visited it twelve years ago. Like other churches on The Peninsula, it was periodically used as a place of refuge during Maya uprisings.

San Felipe

If I ever complete this series, I will tell you about our flamingo journey. On our way there, we stopped at the small fishing village of San Felipe to investigate the available boat trips.

We did not take one, but I was re-introduced to an interesting aspect of culture on The Peninsula. Geography makes The Peninsula a world apart from the rest of Mexico. Because of swamps, distance, and other obstructions, the area was effectively isolated. The first railroad and highway linking The Peninsula to the rest of Mexico were not built until the 1950s and 1960s respectively. Before that, commercial links were by sea.

As a result The Peninsula was linked closer with the Caribbean and New Orleans than with Mexico. That is why San Felipe has a distinct Caribbean look in its architecture.


My experience with Cozumel prior to this trip was as a cruise ship passenger. As a result, I saw it as a place for snorkeling and rinsing sand out of my swim suit.

Dan and Patti showed me it is far more than that. They ran a business and lived there long enough to establish an extensive commercial and personal network with people on the island. We have already discussed those contacts briefly in 
on the back of the snake.

What I once saw only as a tourist haven, I now see as a place that people call home. Much as people in Barra de Navidad see its touristy surface, while others see it as a place where they live and live nowhere else.

That thought came to me in an odd disguise while Dan and I were walking through the market where residents do their daily shopping. One of the small restaurants caught my attention. An Indonesian-Philippines eatery tucked in amongst the butcher and fish shops.

It was not there to feed tourists. Though I suspect some tourists might seek it out. It was there for cruise ship crew members looking for food from their homeland. Local and international folded into one big murtabak.

Is a murtabak folded and served in Cozumel authentically Mexican? Why not, we think of tacos al pastor as being "authentically" Mexican when they are simply a Lebanese 
shawarma tarted up with local ingredients.

That was the hook of this essay. What is authentically Mexican? The question, of course, is a tautology. If it is in Mexico, it has become Mexican. And it is authentic.

Like the pelicans of San Felipe. The Valladolid cuisine served in 
Mérida. The back streets of Cozumel with their pun-ridden restaurants. The helpful policeman in Mani handing out business cards to tourists. The Izamal shops selling foreign goods as local. Even the high-rise hotels of Cancun that suck in foreign hard currency and employ thousands of Mexicans.

Part of me wishes I had made the trip to Ukraine that this trek supplanted. But, at the end, Dan and Patty offered me two weeks of joy in a place that I will always enjoy visiting. 

Note -- The next (and perhaps last) installment of this series will be about wildlife on the peninsula. Or, at least, a specific type of wildlife. While going through my photographs of this trip, I realized I have some shots that I would like to share with you. If I have time (and due to family circumstances, that looks less likely), I will post them after the next installment.  Without comment. From me. 

Saturday, April 02, 2022

spending my time not-so-well

There they go again.

To paraphrase one of the most effective lines used in an American presidential debate.

But this time the target is not politics. At least, not directly. It is the arrival of daylight saving time in Mexico.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how airline schedules are skewed by an hour for three weeks on flights between Mexico and the other two big North American countries because of the two-step dailight saving time dance (the lost hour). The United States and Canada switched to daylight saving time three weeks ago. Mexico's turn is tomorrow.

In one of those only-Tom-Clancy-could-create-such-a-scenario, the same week the United States moodily switched to daylight saving time, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to stay on daylight time permanently. Citizens are tired of the switch. Their senators listened. There would be no more switching. Or that was the intent.

All seemed well until the medical community jumped in to point out that everyone agreed with the problem, but the politicians chose the wrong solution. According to studies (those received wisdom studies, again), the human internal clock (especially those of teenagers) work best when standard time is used. It is called "standard" for a good reason.

And that is where the matter lies. A dwindling minority of citizens likes daylight saving time. Now, the politicians are at sea how to choose what seems to be an obvious choice. A true Hobson's choice.

They can choose the standard time steed beside the livery door or they can schlep around back and mount one of the pigs in the sty. Being politicians, the chances are they will simply wander back to their high stakes poker game and gamble away our money.

That leaves us to do the tiresome duty of pushing our clocks ahead one hour tonight. Of course, in this digital era, most of our electronic doodads will set themselves, and we will be left to groggily wonder why the night passed so quickly.

So, without commentary on whether or not I like daylight saving time (I don't), I will pass along the reminder for those of you who are in Mexico.

I think I will steal an hour siesta from this afternoon as an investment for tomorrow morning.    

Friday, April 01, 2022

when tunnels trump roads

Last week I drove friends to Puerto Vallarta. They were flying home to Canada.

When I moved to this area of Mexico, the highway to Puerto Vallarta, 200, was a challenge. Narrow. Lots of blind curves. And traffic that would range from tractor slow to Ferrari fast. The type of drive that brings out the Stirling Moss in a lot of us.

The quality of the highway has greatly changed. Even I would have to admit that it has improved. Newly-paved. Widened. Plenty of passing spaces.

The only mosquito in the tortilla soup are two mountain patches. The first is just south of Puerto Vallarta where the road is simultaneously steep, serpentine, and narrow. Buses and trucks regularly constipate the flow of traffic.

The second is a similar stretch just north of Melaque where the road has exactly the same characteristics. It seems odd that the work done between El Tuito and La Manzanilla did not include the most problematic stretches of the drive between Barra de Navidad and Puerto Vallarta. After all, it is the main north-south highway on the Pacific coast of Mexico -- starting at Tepic and heading south to the Guatemala border.

As it turns out, something is being done. At least about the switchback section of road between Melaque and La Manzanilla.

Today, of all days, the Mexican federal government announced that that section of road was not improved during the last 5-years of construction because there has always been another plan on the books.

When the new bypass to Highway 80 was built, the highway designers intended it would be extended to join Highway 200 just north of La Manzanilla and it would essentially be a straight road. That did not seem possible because the same mountain spur that hosts the current road is as crooked as -- well, you can add your favorite target here.

Everything was made clear in today's official announcement. The road (the red line on the map) is almost straight because it does not go over the mountain; it goes under the mountain.

Taking a lesson from Swiss, French, and Italian highway designers, Mexico has opted for the Alps option. Or a mini-Alps option. The St. Gotthard tunnel is 10.5 miles long. This project will only be about half of that.

Funding is not a problem. Pemex is flush with cash because of the increased cost of petroleum. If Mexico can build a tourist train in Yucatan to compete with Disney, it can certainly afford to tunnel through a mountain spur. After all, there are plenty of Mexican companies who are experts in tunneling.

Including the company that dug the tunnel under the lagoon from Barra de Navidad to Colimilla back in 2016 (the tunnel to somewhere). Coincidentally, that project was announced on a day similar to this day.

Now -- what could 28 December and 1 April have in common?    

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

putting on a happy face

I like silly things.

At least, things that are silly to me.

Pets that dress their owners in outlandish costumes. Sailing boats trimmed as Christmas trees. Or almost any Guinness record -- like the largest ball of sisal twine (in Cawker City, Kansas, if you are interested). 

Apparently, some people get stuck on one definition of silly -- "showing lack of thought, understanding, or judgment." A perfectly utilitarian use of the word. 

But it is not how I usually use it. "Silly" is anything that is not practical or serious. Something that will make people laugh. And anything that can make people laugh is a good thing. A silly thing.

There should be a special category of silliness for those "Ten Best" lists. You have seen them. 10 Best Places to Retire that are Ruled by Authoritarians. 10 Best Dresses Worn by Women You Never Heard of at Events No one Knew Happened. 10 Best Investments in Nigerian Commodities for People who Lost All of Their IRA on Red at Caesar's Palace. All of the lists have one thing in common -- they seem to be based on some rather eccentric criteria. Dare I say it? Silly criteria?

This morning, a headline greeted me in The Oregonian: "These are the 10 happiest countries, according to 2022 World Happiness Report." The report is produced annually by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (a name that hints at its particular brand of political bias). And despite its "mutton-dressed-as-lamb" scientific fig leaf, the report is good for a laugh or two.

After declaring that the report is designed to measure actual well-being as opposed to national GDP (implying that money does not buy happiness), the report unveils its top 10 happiest countries for 2022: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand.

With all of the "beyond GDP" talk in the report, I almost expected the happiest place list to feature Haiti, Somalia, and Bangladesh. Instead, the happiest countries make up about one-quarter of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a rich-country club. It appears that money does buy happiness. (Interestingly, the top ten countries of the OECD's Happiness Index includes 8 of the same countries, adding Canada and the United States to the favored ten.)

The reason I find these reports amusing is that they attempt to morph subjective feelings into objective criteria and then weigh the frequency of positive feelings against negative ones. But that sentence sucks me into the report's number game.

These are the numbers that surprised me -- because they involve the countries with which I have the most contact. On the happiness scale, Canada is number 15. The United States is number 16. And, just for you Dan, the United Kingdom is number 17. All three bunched together.

But, my home country? Mexico? Number 46. 46! Below such paradises as Nicaragua (at 45) and Guatemala (at 39).

That alone is enough to make me doubt the objectivity of the report's findings. My frequent trips north and my conversations with Canadians and Americans here in Mexico would not support the notion that Canadians and Americans are markedly happier than the Mexicans I know. If anything, even with some of the terrible problems my Mexican acquaintances face every day, it appears to me Mexicans are far happier than the northern visitors.

And I am not talking about the Mexican mask that figures into Octavio Paz's work. I am talking about a full-throated enjoyment of what life has to offer.

Mexico is not paradise. A number of my Mexican acquaintances cringe when they hear northerners call this part of Mexico "paradise" because they know the struggle life offers. Two nights ago after leaving my house, a Mexican friend, while riding his motorcycle, was injured by a hit-and-run driver that also left his motorcycle inoperable. Without insurance for himself or his motorcycle (a motorcycle that is his sole transportation for work), the incident was a major setback.

It is just one of the many stories of hardship here. Life is often lived on the edge. But, given all of that, my Mexican friends and acquaintances have a Lake Wobegon attitude of getting up and doing what needs to be done.

I suspect what I really find silly about the happiness reports is the very word they attempt to measure. "Happiness."
It has taken living into my eighth decade to realize that the chase for happiness is just as chimeric as Johnny Depp's quest for the perfect cochinita pibil in Once Upon a Time in Mexico. To my taste, happiness is too circumstantial. Too ephemeral. Happiness, by its very nature is an emotion subject to all the tugs and pulls of all emotions.

What I am looking for, and I think I have found it, is contentment. That state of knowing you are at ease with who you are and where you are. And that circumstances cannot erode.

So, my bottom line is that the annual happiness reports provide me a chuckle or two with their silliness.

And I am content with that. Just as I am content to live my life in Mexico.   

Sunday, March 27, 2022

finding my inner maya

I came to archaeology late in life.

That is not entirely accurate. I came to Mexican archaeology late in life. And I am not certain why.

In the 1960s, I was an avid reader of Francis Murphy's "Behind the Mike" column in The Oregonian. Murphy was the television and radio critic for the newspaper.

I found his column interesting not because it was about television (a medium I have never found appealing) but because he was a craftsman at writing. Each summer he would head off to the Yucatán peninsula to participate in newly-uncovered Maya city-states. To me, he was a cross between Tarzan and Jungle Jim. Because of his writing, my undergraduate history degree centered around Mexico.

But not Mexican archaeology. Not yet. I came to the Maya through a back door.

When I was stationed in Greece, I was surrounded by several archaeological sites -- including Olympia, Sparta, and Mycenae. During my year on the Peloponnese, I put my hand to trowel in a couple of digs. It never became more than a hobby. But it is one of my passions. And Mexico has turned out to be a great place to salve that itch. Especially, the Yucatán peninsula.

Mesoamerica was filled with sophisticated cultures. Especially, the Maya.

Unlike the Aztec, the Maya never formed an empire. If the Aztecs were imperial Romans, the Maya were ancient Greeks.

The Maya politically organized their civilization into city-states, some of whom had greater influence over their neighbors, on the peninsula and in what we now know as Belize and Guatemala. Even though the city-states were never joined into a centralized empire, the Maya civilization shared common trade practices and religion, as well as developing sophisticated systems of writing, counting, and calculating the passage of time through an advanced knowledge of astronomy.

There are three types of archaeologists: those who divide Mesoamerican civilizations into three stages of development and those who don't. Let's pretend we are in the first group, if for no other reason than the Maya had a very long history of maintaining their civilization. Almost 4000 years:

  • Preclassic (2000 BC-250 AD) when the first cities were established and corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers were grown as farm crops 
  • Classic (250-900 AD) when what we now know as the great cities thrived (Palenque, Tikal, Chichen Itza) all using the extraordinarily-detailed Long Count calendar 
  • Postclassic (950-1539 AD) when the great cities were abandoned and the Maya settled in smaller cities until the Spanish arrived     

On my prior three visits to the peninsula, I visited the great classical cities of Uxmal (looking into chac's eyes), Chichen Itza, and several of their smaller allies, as well as the postclassic ruins at Tulum that was still an operating city when the Spanish arrived. On this trip, we decided to restrict our Maya exploration to two cities: Ekʼ Balam on the eastern side of the peninsula just north of Valladolid, and Mayapan just south of Mérida in the west.

Ekʼ Balam is fascinating because of its long history. It spanned all three historical periods, starting as a preclassic settlement that grew into a thriving classic city-state dominating the surrounding cities about the time the  western calendar switched from BC to AD-saving time. And just like the other classic cities, it was abruptly abandoned, though a remnant of the population stayed in the city until it was completely abandoned before the Spanish arrived.

Even though it is not as large as the grander sites, Ekʼ Balam has all of the elements of a great city-state.

A ceremonial entrance arch.

A temple with an unusual oval construction -- showing an individual style within a common architectural heritage. Its geographic position indicates it also served as some form of cosmological purpose. Perhaps to calculate rainy seasons.

No civilization is ever complete without a sports arena. This one is for the traditional Mesoamerican ballgame. Only a handful of Maya city-states lack them. Such as, the grand Palenque.

The largest and most magnificent of the buildings at Ekʼ Balam is the Acropolis. A temple that contained the mortal remains of one of the city's most famous rulers -- Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok. His tomb is under the palapa on the upper left -- the one that looks like a Kon Tiki bar in Seattle.

Compared with Ekʼ Balam, Mayapan is nouveau arrive. The city was not built until the postclassic period. Somewhere in the 1220s. But it was important as the capital of the Maya in the Yucatán peninsula (with over 4000 structures and an estimated population of almost 20,000) until it was almost entirely abandoned around 1461 -- just before the arrival of the Spanish.

Like many civilizations, when they head into decline, construction techniques suffer. That is certainly true of Mayapan. Many of the buildings collapsed soon after the city was abandoned -- as opposed to most of the classic period buildings that survived even when covered by jungle.

But there is a visual clue that Mayapan attempted to be the successor of Chichén Itzá. If this temple looks familiar, it should. It is an inferior copy of the much-visited Temple of Kukulkan.

It is what Chichen Itza would have built as a replica if it had a budget of only $100.

That raises the question of what happened to the Maya. Well, what happened to the Maya city-states? We know what happened to the Maya. The people. Because they are still living on the peninsula.

There are plenty of theories. Interestingly, the theories tend to reflect disasters that the theory-propounders are suffering themselves. The list is the usual list of suspects.

  • Drought. The peninsula gets very little rainfall. When it does arrive, it quickly drains off into the underground rivers beneath the limestone surface. Unless the rivers are fed by rain, there is no water.
  • Overpopulation. The cities grew so fast that they may be the only place on earth where Malthusian theory actually had a practical application.
  • Social breakdown caused by warfare and a stratified military social class.
  • A sudden outbreak of war between between all of the city-states and their allies.
  • A combination of the above caused the lower classes to lose faith in their leaders. They rose up, overthrew them, and the social structure collapsed. I call that one the nightmare that keeps Xi Jinping awake every night.
  • Or -- a combination of several (or all) of those causes.

The point is that no one really knows. There are plenty of clues, but like any good mystery, they contradict one another and lead to no conclusion.

And it is just that type of mystery that keeps drawing me back to the heartland of the Maya civilization. Each trip I have taken, I have learned more.

What is not a mystery is that the Maya will welcome you to a land that celebrates their past -- and their present. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

on the back of the snake

Tolstoy had it partly correct.

All happy trips are alike, but every trip is special in its own way.

That was certainly true of our trip to the Yucatán peninsula. The three of us (my cousin Dan, his wife Patty, and I) have a certain fondness for the peninsula with its history that makes it feel almost like a country separate from Mexico.

That may be because it almost became a separate country -- twice. Due to its Maya cultural heritage and its isolation from the rest of Mexico, it was almost inevitable that the people of the peninsula would seek their own national destiny.

The first time when it declared its independence from the Spanish empire in 1823; the second when it declared its independence from Mexico in 1841 following Texas's example. Had it not been for the unfortunate Caste War, those dreams of independence may have been realized. Politically, the peninsula is part of Mexico. But, to this day, its residents see themselves as a people apart.

There was a second reason, though, why this trip was special. Dan and Patty ran a business and lived on Cozumel several years ago. As a result, they have formed some long-lasting friendships. Around September they are making a permanent move (or as permanent as wanderers who are not lost can be) to Mallorca. For them, this trip took on the aura of a farewell tour, where my family's wish of "next year in Jerusalem" was replaced with "next year in Mallorca."

Our first stop was to set up our base camp in Valladolid for the first eleven days of our stay at La Dichosa, a bed and breakfast owned and hosted by Carlos M. Gonzalez and Teresa Castillo, friends of Dan and Patty during their days on Cozumel. Dan told me to be ready to be amazed -- and I was.

La Dichosa is not so much a bed and breakfast as it is a functional piece of art. Carlos is a wood craftsman. No. That does not do his work justice. He is an artist who works in wood -- and soil -- and stone -- and ceramic.

La Dichosa currently consists of two buildings. The main house that offers a master suite, and three bungalows. Each room is decorated with Carlos's creations.

The lamps. The tiles. The furniture. Carlos created each piece to give the rooms their own character with all of the furnishings echoing the uniform theme. It is like living in a disciplined artistic mind.

Rooms are always an important consideration at any bed and breakfast, but Carlos extended his artistic theme into the surrounding pool and garden. One of the great Maya myths is Kukulkan -- the War Serpent, who is probably best known these days in his depiction of a shadow that undulates down the stairs of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá each equinox.

Carlos incorprated the myth into his design of the garden that joins the bungalows with the main house. The three levels are divided by undulating walls echoing Kuklkan's serpentine shape. A pool tops it off.

The overall effect is similar to a secular monastery. Time runs at its own pace. The effect is complemented by the shifts of birds that visit the trees on the property each morning. Each with its own colors and song.

I am not so naïve as to believe that the birds were there for my pleasure. Most birdsong, if translated literally, would go something like: "Hey, birds. Get out of here. This is my property. Go -- or I will peck out your eyes." Sometimes it helps to be monolingual.

Maybe that is one reason I am an advocate of bed and breakfast accommodations when I travel. There is no better way to know an area than to sit down with your hosts and fellow guests during the day to discuss respective discoveries.

Valladolid is not a traditional tourist destination. It is best known as a central point to see the sights of the peninsula. That is how I used it on my prior two visits in 2010 and 2014. But that is changing. And our fellow guests were examples of that. They had come to see Valladolid as much as they had come to see reconstructed Maya cities.

And a cosmopolitan lot they were. Most of them young. Primarily European -- two French couples, two young women from Switzerland, and a young couple from Chile. And all spoke multiple languages, with the exception of an older Canadian couple. 

Carlos may have provided the artistic integration of La Dichosa, but it is Teresa that keeps it running with the loyal assistance of Alonso. Food and drink magickly appear. Dishes are whisked away. All of that is as much of an art as are the individual tiles in the bathrooms.

We have all had the experience of tagging along with people visiting their friends -- people we have never met. For shy people like me, that can be a recipe for social disaster.

Carlos was going to have none of that. Even though he was not my years-long friend, he made me feel a part of every conversation and gathering. He has raconteur's ear for ferreting out interests and avoiding social landmines.

Of course, food is the great leveler. Yucatan food always interests me because it is different than Jalisco food. For Carlos, that meant a meat-fest.

The same thing happened when we visited Cozumel. On one of their last extended visits to the island, Dan and Patty stayed at Rancho Chichihualco, a 77-acre bed and breakfast owned and operated by José Qunitana Ahedo and Adriana Barrena. Her grandfather, while he was the commander of the nearby Air Force Base, had acquired the property. She and José have developed it into a bungalow-oriented bed and breakfast.

Even though we were not guests, they invited us over for an afternoon-long barbeque that drifted into the evening. There is something magic about cooking that much meat for a group of people. Almost Mexican alchemy that turns a pleasant few hours into hours that pass unnoticed amongst the company of people with backgrounds I do not encounter where I live.

Tales were told in a mixture of Spanish and English. Large portions of meat were washed down with ambiguously-described beverages. And people, who did not know one another well a few hours before, were now unwilling to break the circle of fellowship.

I will write about the sights we saw and the journeys we took because they are an integral part of the trip. But it was the relationships that we recreated and extended that will have the longest-lasting effect on me.

To share my life with my cousins, with Carlos and Teresa, and José and Adriana, with the young people from France, Chile, and Switzerland who I suspect I will never see again, was an experience I dd not anticipate, but one that I thoroughly appreciated.

And what could be better than that?

Maybe we will find out in the next installments.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

feliz cumpleaños, benito

No. Not that one. 

The birthday we celebrate this three-day weekend is not that of the late and not-lamented Il Duce, but that of President Benito Juárez.

The beaches and restaurants are filled with Mexican tourists. The orange juice guy on the highway has abandoned his customary post. And Dora messaged me that she would not be in today because she and her family are on their way to Manzanillo to celebrate the man known by some as "The Lincoln of Mexico."

The Mussolini-Juárez connection is not one of my inventions. Benito Mussolini's father was an avid socialist, just as his son would be, and admired Benito 
Juárez's commitment to humanism. So much so that he named his elder son Benito. Juárez most likely would be horrified at both comparisons.

There was much to respect about 
Juárez. He was the only full-blooded Indian (Zapotec, in his case) to serve as president of Mexico. Ironically, he would have disliked the label. As a leading liberal, he railed against what we now refer to as "identity politics." He found his blood line to be irrelevant. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., he believed people should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

So, how did a young Zapotec overcome the class restrictions of early nineteenth century Mexico to climb to the top of the greasy pole? As is true with so many of these Horatio Alger tales, it was through the beneficence of one man.

Antonio Salanueva, a Secular Franciscan recognized that the young Juárez was intelligent and motivated, and assisted him in entering school to become a priest. That career did not happen because Juárez felt he had not been called to the priesthood. Instead, he became a lawyer. 

Even though Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the country was divided over an existential question. How Mexicans would identify themselves.

There was a major political split between conservatives (who looked to Spain and Europe for political inspiration and favored a strong central government) and liberals (who looked north to the United States and to a mythical Aztec past for social and political ideals; they also favored de-centralized power). Each group argued their position was the true Mexican identity.

These battles were not merely intellectual. They were also physical fights for political control finally breaking out in the War of Reforma (1857-1861).

Prior to the war, Juárez married well, and became active in the liberal cause in his home state of Oaxaca where he joined forces with other liberals in challenging the power of the Catholic Church -- the very institution that had provided him with the opportunity to advance in Mexican society.

And rise he did. To become the governor of Oaxaca, where he came into conflict with one of Mexico's true scoundrels -- President (and dictator) Antonio Santa Anna -- the man who lost the northern half of Mexico to the United States. In fear of his life, 
Juárez went into exile in New Orleans in 1853, where he fleshed out several liberal principles that he would support when he returned to Mexico: that all Mexicans should be equal before the law and that the powers of the Catholic Church and the Mexican Army should be restricted. His activism eventually led to his election as Chief Justice of a newly-constituted Mexican Supreme Court.

When liberal President Comonfort was forced to resign in 1858, the constitution designated the chief justice as interim president. The "interim" label did not last long. Juárez would be elected to the office three times in his own right.

His terms as president were responsible for much of what we know as Mexico today. The church was stripped of its income-producing lands and some of its church buildings. The land was then distributed to the Indians from whom the church had taken the land.

Unfortunately, the reform did not last long. The new landholders eventually sold, or were forced to sell, their land to large landholders. When the next great land reform happened after the Revolution, the law entailed the Ejido holdings to prevent a similar failure.

Juárez also survived the years when a French emperor (Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew) put an Austrian archduke on the Mexican throne as Maximilio I -- forcing Juárez to flee for his life. Once again, he was in exile. This time in the portion of northern Mexico the French had not conquered.

Events in Europe and active opposition from the United States forced the French emperor to withdraw his troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilio to defend his throne with the support of Mexican conservatives. Juarez’s liberal Mexicans prevailed, Maximilio was executed, and Juárez resumed his position as president and continued the liberal reform movement.

Like far too many politicians who have faced tumultuous careers, Juárez probably stayed in office too long. He eventually turned on one of the defining elements of the liberals (decentralization of political power) and created a highly-centralized government in Mexico City.

Eventually, a young liberal general by the name of Porfirio Diaz revolted against him when 
Juárez declared he would once again seek reelection. Juárez put down the revolt, but he died soon after. The next 40 years of power would belong to that young liberal general (Porfirio Diaz) who also outstayed his worth becoming a notorious dictator.

Juárez , it was a rather tragic ending to a career that held so much promise.

But it is not for the dreams that were not realized that we celebrate Benito Juárez's birthday. It is because he set Mexico on the modern path that we recognize today.

And certainly that is good enough to pause in our work week, to take off a Monday to thank and remember him.