Monday, September 05, 2022

the torch passes


My mother, Marilyn Cotton died at noon today in a hospice facility.

Darrel, my brother, informed me of her death while I was waiting in Seattle for a flight to Redmond. It was not unexpected, but startling nonetheless. 

I am in Prineville now. Starting tomorrow, we will execute her burial wishes -- to be buried in Powers in a plot next to her first-born son, Craig.

But, for now, I wanted her friends and family to know that her soul has moved on into the presence of The Messiah, around whom she built her life.

When matters calm down, I will write more about her.

For now, we note her death.

 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

a winner -- hands down


The question is not a new one.

People new to the area are often flummoxed at some Mexican custom or other. Noise for example. This question showed up on our local community Facebook page yesterday.

"Does anyone know why cannons are going off in Barra?"*

Of course, there are no cannons. The last cannons fired here involved pirates in the late 1500s. (The pirates won in a double-header.) What they are are the usual cohetes (the skyrockets that carry an M-80 wham). And the answer is always the same. A religious feast day is being celebrated.

This week's celebration is very special for Barra de Navidad because it celebrates divine intervention that saved the village from destruction. I am certain most of you know the story, but it is one that deserves re-telling.

The year was 1971. The night of 31 August-1 September to be exact.

A hurricane by the name of Lily was headed straight for Barra de Navidad. It was obvious the storm would demolish a good portion of the town if it maintained its projected path.

And Lily did maintain her path. She came ashore near Barra de Navidad with winds of up to 85 miles an hour.

With disaster on their doorstep, the residents of Barra did what came natural to people of faith, and for people who have suddenly discovered a faith they did not know they possessed. They congregated in the church -- and prayed. As the winds battered the walls, they sought deliverance from the storm. The sailors on Jonah's ship could not have prayed more fervently.

And then it happened. A miracle. A standard crucifix of Jesus on the cross stood above the altar. For no apparent reason, each of Christ's arms fell to his sides. And the storm abated.


It was like something out of the gospels. Mark 4:39 to be exact. "He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, 'Quiet! Be still!' Then the wind died down and it was completely calm."

Ever since then, the congregants celebrate Jesus of the Cyclone (el Cristo del Ciclón) this time of year -- as a day of deliverance and remembrance.

As Ben Franklin once said in recounting a story about a fly reviving in a fifty-year old cask of Madeira, "Now, I do not know how scientific that tale is ... ." But it is an article of faith in these parts.

The story goes that the parishioners wanted to repair Jesus' miraculous shrug, but the priest informed them that God had caused the arms to drop and only God could restore them. The crucifix still stands in the church in its hands-down splendor.

This evening, the week's daily procession formed up on the main road into town. The guest of honor was carried ceremoniously to the church for evening mass.


A side note. After sparing Barra de Navidad, Hurricane Lily rumbled north like Attila the Hun to lay waste to Puerto Vallarta in the worst hurricane it had suffered in 20 years. Favors apparently have a limited jurisdiction.

So, that is why the non-cannons are sounding. To celebrate a miracle.

I talked to talk with Sara, a local realtor, who helps organize these affairs. She told me that Saturday will be a very special day -- involving the remnants of the cross that once stood in the shipyard that built the ships that left Barra e Navidad for The Philippines in 1564. As you might imagine, their is quite a tradition that has barnacled that small piece of wood.

Unfortunately, I will be flying north to Oregon on Saturday for my monthly check-in.

For those of you who are in town, I have been promised that this year's celebration will be something special.

Disfruta la fiesta. And look out for flying cannon balls.


* -- A friend from Alberta who lives here part-time refers to these questions as Canadrama -- closely related to their cousins Mexidrama and Ameridrama.


Monday, August 29, 2022

little orphan annie eyes


It had been some time since I played video poker on the Banamex ATM.

I usually get my pesos during work hours from the Intercam teller. But I recently found myself short of pesos on a Saturday night. The only option was to saunter down the street to Banamex and try my luck with one of its ATMs.

Too often, my card will not work or the machine does not have cash or it will charge my account and leave me as noteless as when I started my transaction.

I started with the machine on the left. It would not read my card. The next machine read my card, but was out of cash. Fortunately, the third machine turned out to be the Goldilocks option. It was just right.

Then it was my turn to be reduced to a cultural stereotype. I took a look at the notes the ATM had disgorged -- and my eyes rolled back so far there was nothing left but Little Orphan Annie whites.

You can see why for yourself.

Like most ATMs in the area, the Banamex machines regularly disgorge wads off 500-peso notes. There is nothing wrong with the notes -- other than the practical consideration. Merchants here have historically not been able to handle purchases with 500-peso notes. They do not keep that much change on hand. Often, it feels as if a wad off 500-peso notes is like having no money at all.

But what I received was even more daunting. 4000 pesos of my withdrawal were in an even more problematic denomination. 1000-peso notes.

This version of the 1000-peso note was issued in November 2020. I did not see the first one locally until almost a full year later, and I thought they would be as rare as ivory-billed woodpecker sightings in Manhattan.

I was wrong. They are now common issue from the Banamex ATM. I have no idea if the other ATMs in town are trying to save space by filling the bin with portraits of President Madero.

The appearance of the notes are a harbinger of another not-so-welcome phenomenon sweeping the country. Inflation.

For the past year, the cost-of-living has risen precipitously -- just as it has in other countries. At least, we in Mexico are not suffering as badly as the Turks or the Lebanese or the poor Venezuelans with their current 1198% rate. Compared with them, Mexico's official inflation rate of 8.15% is almost anemic.

But official rates do not always tell the real story. Food is a prime example. I have seen lists recently from local stores with incomes totting up 20% to 40% increases. Grocers verify those ranges. As do restaurant owners who have been forced to increase the price of their menu items. I seldom leave a local grocery store without leaving a full 1000-peso (or two) behind.

My neighbors tell me tales of despair of trying to stretch pay to cover increasing food costs. Because just like everywhere else, pay is not keeping up with the price increases.

I was talking with Antonio, the guy who keeps the sparkle in my pool, about the cost of food. As part of the conversation, he told me the chemicals that he supplies as part of his cleaning contract with me have shot higher than a cohete. Until he mentioned it, I had not even thought about how supply chain problems and cost increases had cut into his profit -- not to mention the cost of gasoline for his car.

The same goes for Dora, the magician who helps me clean my house. Both of them are feeling the pinch of local economics.

Wages here are a bit difficult for me. I come from a culture where workers will ask for a raise when they need one or feel that they deserve one. That is not the Mexican culture. Neither Dora nor Antonio have ever asked me to increase their wages. Over the years, I usually increase their rate of pay around the New Year. 

I decided not to wait. I cannot control inflation (and the Mexican government does not appear to have a comprehensive plan to do so nationally), but I do control the purse strings of the microeconomy of The House With No Name.

So, I have increased the wages of Dora and Antonio in an attempt to help them meet current cost-of-living challenges.

Sometimes, every little bit helps.

And it gives me somewhere wortwhile to spend those 1000-peso notes.  

Monday, July 18, 2022

it takes a pillage

The scene is inevitable.

In every murder mystery, the detective will assemble the cast -- usually in the parlor -- to reveal the who in the whodunit. Or, even more cleverly, as in The Last of Sheila, arranging them by name.

And, so it has been this season. The suspects blew in alphabetically: Agatha, Blas, Celia, Bonnie, Darby, Estelle.

Of course, those names are not the cast in a local Agatha Christie Revival. They are the string of hurricanes (and one tropical storm) that have slipped past Barra de Navidad this season.

From June to October, there seems to be at least one new storm being born in the Pacific off the coast of Central America. Most do not amount to much. They burn out in the formation stage. Even those that make it to hurricane or tropical storm status stay far enough out in the Pacific that we see only their tertiary effects. High waves. Some rain. Usually, not more than that.

However, if the pressure areas along the cyclone's path are just so (as Rudyard Kipling would say), we do get to feel one of Nature's shows of strength at its rawest. Last year's Hurricane Nora is a perfect example. A mere category one hurricane that, because of its path, caused a surprising amount of damage.

At the start of hurricane season, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts whether each region's hurricane season will be below or above average. The Atlantic received the bad news of an "above-normal" season. The Eastern Pacific (our region) the seemingly-better label of "below-normal:" 10-17 named storms, 4-8 hurricanes, 0-3 major hurricanes.

Mother Nature has an impish sense of humor. The bytes in the NOAA press release were still damp when something unusual happened in the Eastern Pacific. Hurricane Agatha struck. And she was unfashionably early. Not waiting for the season to begin in June, Agatha arrived in May -- earning herself the title as "the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in May in the eastern Pacific."

For added novelty, the cyclone had formed in the Pacific and then crossed over into the Caribbean.

This may be the season for trans-storms. First there was Agatha. You may have noticed in the alphabetical list of hurricanes and storms that have already paraded past us, there seems to be a mistake. 
Agatha, Blas, Celia, Bonnie, Darby, Estelle. What is that extra "B" doing in the mix?

Bonnie was another exchange storm. But, she started in the Caribbean and then slipped across the isthmus into the Pacific before waltzing harmlessly past us completely oblivious to the fact that she was out-of-step with the other chorines and chorus boys. 

It is an odd year. I do not know what to make of NOAA's low-count prediction. The estimate was for 4 to 8 hurricanes. We have already had five (counting runaway Bonnie), and we are only six weeks into the hurricane season.

Fortunately, for our area, the effects have been minimal. Except for the fishers. The wave activity has played havoc with the local industry.

I enjoy the summers here. The heat. The humidity. Nature's power in storms -- especially, the thunder and the lightning. Surviving summers here is a reminder of how survival itself can be an adrenalin rush.

But weather is always a topic that draws me back to the keyboard -- when I can find a break in my walking routine. I will let you judge whether that is a good thing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

sleeping with the fishes?


That, among other queries, has come my way the past two months. Wondering about my unprecedented (and unexplained absence) from these pages.

It is a fair question. My last post was on 21 May when I pondered the mysterious lizard that had taken up residence in my kitchen. Since then, Mexpatriate has ceased to echo the pace of my life. 

But the fish have jolted me out of my reverie.

This afternoon I started a quick walk to the local Oxxo when I paused to pick up the trash and detritus that daily accumulates in the street in front of my house. Most of it is refuse that the guys on the garbage truck drop while toting off the neighborhood rubbish.

Amongst the styrofoam cups, potato chip wrappers, and dirty diapers was a small fish. It could not have been there long because it showed no signs of rot in the sun. Why, I asked myself, would one small fish be in the middle of the street on a Tuesday afternoon? Apparently, I had no answer because I didn't.

Well, it was not one. I soon saw another. Then three more. And five. Between my house and the house next door, there were thirty-one lost piscine souls resting eternally.

I have a friend who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1940s who believes that every odd thing discovered in a neighborhood is a message from the Mafia. I know exactly what he would have thought of the fish in the street. Fair warning. Of what? Well, something. And it could not be good.

Having turned in my aluminum foil hats some time ago, I tend to default to the analysis that Sigmund Freud famously did not say: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." I sleep a lot better that way.

Who knows why the fish are there? Most likely a fisher had caught them at the beach, stuffed them in a bag, and, while walking or riding down my street,the bag decided to do its impression of Hansel in the forest.

But they were excuse enough for me to break into my walking schedule to write you a brief note to say the world goes on.

And, should I find another open period, I will probably share a bit more of what has been happening during the past five months.

For now, I am going to enjoy something the unschooled fish no longer can -- I am going to relish the gift of another day.   

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.

Valladolid 


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


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 
Mérida.

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.


Izamal

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.

MANI


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.

Cozumel


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.