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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

You never know

Last week, on our way to meet some acquaintances for lunch, the friend with whom I was walking quietly suggested that we cross to the sunny side of the street, not our general practice at noon in Merida.  Further down the block, a seriously disheveled man was sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against one of the houses, hand extended for money. No doubt harmless, as every beggar either of us had encountered here has been, but sixty-something women, sad to say, have generally learned to be cautious around strange men.

So cross the street we did, planning to continue on our way, but the block is home to a quiche shop that I frequented last year. My friend stopped, having been struck with the idea of at least providing a good meal to the scruffy stranger. When she explained what she wanted to the shop owner, the young woman said, "Oh, no need. I take him quiche every day." At that point, she shared what she knew of his story.

"He is a neighbor," we were told. "He speaks five languages and was a professor, but something happened. He lost his mind, and now, he sits there. He does not use drugs, he hurts no one, and I feed him. If you have change, he can use a few pesos."

I did indeed have change, so we crossed back to the shady side of the street and placed it in the stranger's open hand. "God bless you," he said in unaccented English before nodding and dropping his gaze back to the sidewalk.

You never know what another person has gone through until you hear their story.

Monday, February 19, 2018


The weather here in the Yucatan has been of the variety that makes me empathize with the Wicked Witch of the West: "I'm melting" is of late nearly a statement of fact, leading me to spend much more time on the terrace than is my preference.

Today I had considered taking the bus to Merida for a last bit of solo wandering before the Ohio contingent starts arriving tomorrow, but when a 7:30 AM walk into the village induces sweating, pounding the pavements of a major city is probably not the smartest idea. So to Chicxulub's central Mercado I went to pick up some fruits and vegetables, only to find that none of the usual vendors had arrived from the country yet. My favorite little tienda (purveyors of 5-peso cinnamon rolls, among other evil things) had not received its verduras, either, and I was out of bell peppers, which will not do. Walking to the beach house and back was out of the question, so I wandered the back streets of the village for a while.

Then, on Calle 18--a tiny storefront with golden mangos, tomatoes, and green peppers! I quickly selected the things for which I had come, then noticed a cantaloupe and decided to ask for the word in Spanish. (It is melon, for anyone interested.) This question precipitated a language lesson from the young proprietor, the gray-haired neighborhood woman there to do her morning shopping, and the older man who had just arrived on a motor scooter and may have been an owner. A not-particularly-attractive gray-brown fruit was bursting open, so the young man separated the halves of the oozing object and handed one to me. The older gentleman excitedly informed me that "Eso es Yucatecan" and pointed to a tree across the street. Remembering warnings about the dangers of consuming street food and briefly wondering if the thing had been washed (though not worrying too much, since the pulp is consumed, not the skin, and the other half was being consumed by the person who gave it to me), I tasted my first sapote. Oh, my. This ugly, too-soft-to-ship fruit is incredibly sweet and creamy, or as my enthusiastic guide described it, "muy rico y dulce." Of course, I had to buy some, which necessitated more samples of more indigenous fruit varieties being placed in my hands. The shopper took it upon herself to teach me the names of everything on the tables, and I bought a couple of unfamiliar items on her recommendation. When I knew I had all I could carry (since the house was at least a twenty-minute walk away), the other shopper and I enjoyed a conversation (in my extremely limited Spanish) about the difficulty of finding a rental house in the village proper.

Free samples, fresh produce, and language lessons before 9:00 AM--not a bad way to start the day.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Magic of Light

There are moments when I long for a different camera than my nearly indestructible little Canon point-and-shoot (until my clumsiness reminds me that some of us should never handle fragile, expensive objects like really good camera lenses). It does most of what I need it to do, fits in a pocket, and has survived serious accidents like being dropped on a brick sidewalk (though its cobbled-together repair is sometimes frustrating). What it has thus far not been able to do (and this may reflect more on the photographer's limited skill than the limitations of the camera itself) is capture some of the light of this place, which is a big part of what I will remember.

It does fine on sunrises, sunsets, and general sky and sea shots.

What I have not been able to do is capture what for me has been the real magic of this place: the way the light reflects off the white parts of the most common birds, turning seagulls and sandpipers into dancing sprites, and frequently-clumsy-looking pelicans into dive-bombing flashes of light. 

My recommendation: when possible, sit near a large body of water and see what it allows you to see.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Things that Break Your Heart

The northwestern Yucatan is a place with a lot going for it: beautiful beaches, biodiversity, lovely old cities, excellent, modern medical facilities, and one of the lowest crime rates in the Americas. (Yes, Merida, in regularly-warned-about Mexico, has less crime than any city of its size on our two connected continents. Less crime than any city in Canada.) But it is not utopia (which literally, of course, means "no place," and this place is very real). Some aspects of life here can break your heart.

  • One of the first things animal-loving gringos notice is the ubiquity of street dogs (and cats, but the dogs are somehow more shocking). They are everywhere. Spay/neuter programs have not kept up with the need (if people even know they exist), and scrawny dogs with full breasts are a distressingly common sight. I have seen few puppies and do not want to think about their fate. Most families seem to have adopted a dog or two, at least to the point of naming and feeding them, but I have not seen an overweight dog or cat since arriving here. Another problem that I hate to mention but which is real: most street dogs are harmless, but dogs in groups can be aggressive, and at least one eightyish woman I know carries a large walking stick on her perambulations (and I must confess to keeping an eye out for available small stones just in case).      

This little guy, encountered with some regularity on the beach near our house, is one of the lucky ones. His name is Yoyo, and he has been adopted by the caretaker of one of the beach houses.

  • Trash. It is not unusual to see impromptu dumps under the "No tire basura" (basically "No littering") signs, and I woke one night, fearing an electrical fire because of the acrid smell seeping through the closed windows. It turns out that workers on one of the numerous construction sites (and this area is undergoing a lot of construction)  were burning waste, which evidently included rubber or wiring of some kind. Trash-burning is still common here--most of it paper and palm fronds, fortunately. But the plastic inundating the Gulf and its beaches can have tragic results: a few days into my stay, a dead loggerhead sea turtle washed up a few blocks from here. An autopsy revealed that it had died from ingesting plastic waste.

  • Poverty and inequality. There is great wealth in this part of the world, and has been for some time. The restored colonials, the 19th-century hennequin baron homes along the Paseo, and even the beach houses that stretch for miles are evidence of prosperity. But the homes in the colonias, the neighborhoods where most people actually live, are generally tiny, and often not in good repair.  In 2005, a retired nurse who winters here opened the Chicxulub Food Bank to address the problem of malnutrition in the area. Its programs have grown and now provide vitamins to all village children under the age of ten, monthly food dispensas, English lessons, and nursing home programs. In the city, elderly beggars are common. The monthly social security payments are often not enough to meet living expenses, and people with no families to provide a safety net often sit outdoors in busy areas, holding a Styrofoam cup into which those so inclined can drop their spare change. It quickly struck me that, if I had lived in Mexico rather than the US and had not had the benefit of a decent public education system, I, as a childless female from a working-class background, could have been one of the old women begging outside the downtown churches. Something to think about .
This is a beautiful place, but like many places, it can break your heart.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Always a new favorite

This particular new favorite is a mid-sized tree, Cordia dodecandra, commonly known as ciricote. It first caught my attention because of how spectacular it is in bloom.

It turns out that this Cordia species is not just a pretty face. As the obvious throat and the guide lines of the blossoms indicate, the plant attracts pollinators, as do others in its family. Although they look nothing alike, ciricote's relatives include the herbs borage and comfrey as well as the springtime favorite, Virginia bluebells. (That's plant classification for you.)

Ciricote fruit (here in its unripe state) is edible and is believed to have been cultivated since the time of the Maya.

I have read that it is popular in preserves but have yet to see any offered for sale.

This lovely is not just useful for insect and human food. Its rough leaves were traditionally used as natural sandpaper and dish cleaners, and its wood has had multiple uses, notably boatbuilding, fine furniture, and musical instruments. And the plant is tough. This young specimen evidently managed to seed itself next to some other tough customers on a salt-sprayed, windblown, unwatered beach.

And it's fruiting.

Beautiful, useful, hard to kill--my kind of plant.

Friday, February 9, 2018

A royal bird

I had intended to write about the great kiskadee, but a review of my photos revealed that the only decent shot of an MYB (Mid-sized Yellow Bird, the Yucatan equivalent of the LBB, or Little Brown Bird) was of a tropical kingbird.

These handsome flycatchers are almost as common here in the coastal Yucatan as chickadees are in Ohio, since their preferred habitat is open woodland, meaning that they do well in towns with trees. In this neighborhood, they are often found perched on utility wires, looking for the insects that are their primary food. (There is a reason they are called flycatchers.) Since the climate here is definitely tropical, insects are plentiful, as are insectivorous birds. The fact that these hungry little songbirds are also pretty and fun to watch is a plus.

Some good news for kingbirds: human-induced landscape changes (i.e. less dense forest and more trees scattered among human habitations) have allowed these birds to expand their range and increase their numbers. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists them as a Species of Least Concern. They venture into only a few parts of the US, though, so I will just have to enjoy them while I'm here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Very different worlds

only a few hundred feet apart. I am referring to the life found along the beach here in the western Yucatan, below the nearly endless line of houses and condominium complexes stretching from Progreso nearly to Uaymitun, as compared to that found on Calle 17, behind the giant windbreak formed by the aforementioned buildings. I am staying in a property with one terrace directly overlooking the Gulf and the other facing the grove of palms that screens the house from the "street" (a pitted sand road where none of the cars that pass by every fifteen minutes or so can go very fast).

The beach, of course, is the beach: mile after mile of constantly-changing sky- and seascapes.

On the other side of the houses, out of the wind, things look a little different,

and different again a few hundred yards away past the edge of the village.

A reminder that this part of the Yucatan is basically desert, with a few inches of soil over limestone. Those spiky-looking plants, by the way, are some variety of agave, though whether they are potentially tequila, I do not know.

Any plants that survive in this general area have to be salt-tolerant, as the norte winds sometimes coat furniture thirty feet from the high tide line with salt spray. Sea grape seems to cope fairly well, as does an attractive succulent-leaved shrub planted in front of many of the beach houses.

On the calle, people are growing a much greater variety--lots of bougainvillea, oleander, plumeria, ciricote (which not only sports these gorgeous orange flowers but produces edible fruit and a valued hardwood),

Cordia dodecandra

and this lovely shrub that I have yet to identify.

These differing ecosystems host different animal life. Even though birds fly, the grackles and great kiskadees common on the calle rarely venture beachside,

A great kiskadee on a wire on Calle 17

while I have yet to see any shorebirds other than the gloriously floating frigates in the airspace beyond the pool terrace.

Pair of Frigate magnificens, or magnificent frigatebird. The white-throated bird is the female.

(Update: 24 hours after the original posting, I spotted two pelicans flying away from the Gulf toward the lagoon.) The beach is home to some interesting characters. Gulls and pelicans are everywhere, and the tropical cormorant, here drying its non-waterproof feathers, is a common sight.

and frequently rests in groups atop buildings, posts, and other structures.

(I recommend against walking too closely to any such groups, as the cormorant's bowel movements can be explosive.)