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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Satan's food

at least, according to John Milton in Paradise Lost, in which the fallen angels eat apple of Sodom, instead of the actual apples that they had forfeited. "Apple of Sodom" is the provocative name of Calotropis procera, a tropical shrub in the milkweed family. The plant is commonly cultivated here in coastal Yucatan, and in bloom, it is gorgeous.

This six-foot plant grows in almost pure sand, in shallow soil, in dryland areas. It tolerates salt, hence its popularity in some beachside communities. Its taproot holds soil. As a member of the milkweed family, it can host monarch butterfly caterpillars. In its native range of parts of Africa and Asia, it has served as a cover crop and green manure and has long been used in traditional medicines. Beautiful, tough, useful: what's not to like?

Plenty, it turns out.

First, it spreads. This lovely plant produces lots of seeds, nestled in silk and carried away on the winds. Given its propensity for growing in areas where most plants struggle, it is now found throughout the tropics and in many subtropical areas, including Hawaii.

Second, because it attracts butterflies and can host monarchs, Calotropis shows up on lists of good butterfly plants, and from what I have read (and the numbers of monarchs I am seeing here), it does indeed feed monarch cats and other lepidoptera. However, like all invasives, Calotropis displaces native species and disrupts already-fragile ecosystems. Enough habitats are at risk already; we do not need to make the situation worse because of our fondness for pretty flowers and orange butterflies. 

 Third, Calotropis, like all milkweeds, contains toxic alkaloids, a trait that helps to keep it from being eaten (and increases its invasiveness). However, in the dryland areas where the plant is most likely to spread, hungry goats and sheep have been known to browse it, with unfortunate (though fortunately not generally fatal) effects. Still, endangering the livestock and livelihoods of small farmers is not a good idea. The plant is so toxic and so invasive that South Africa and Australia have not only banned its cultivation but have ordered its eradication wherever it is found.

I would not go so far as to call this lovely thing Satanic, but it does seem to be a baleful beauty.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Less clumsy than they look

A perched pelican is a comical sight, like these specimens spotted on Cozumel last year. 

Who wouldn't love that face?

However, a squadron of pelicans, or even an individual, flying overhead is something else, riding the air with a grace one might not expect in such an ungainly-looking bird.

And when they dive--oh my.

They come down fast, from heights of as much as 65 feet according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, deadly dive-bombers aiming for fish that they can see even underwater and from that distance. Here on the Gulf, they put on quite a show, particularly in the mornings and late afternoons. Gulls trail after them, hoping that fish will slip from a pelican's distended pouch as it drains the water, though I have seen few successful thefts.

The pelicans, however, do signal their fishing success. Once a pelican leans its head back and swallows, it does a most entertaining little butt-wiggle. 

The things one learns by sitting on the terrace.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

What a wonderful world

Sometimes life has its perfect moments. This past weekend, visiting Ohio friends and I joined some friendly Canadians from the neighborhood for the Full Moon Jazz Festival at Telchac Puerto. This annual event, sponsored by Telchac Education, raises money for the school expenses of fifty students from that village, including college tuition for eleven young people majoring in fields ranging from tourism to dentistry. Even if the event itself were a dud, what a great cause.

But the event was definitely worth attending for its own sake. Several hundred people of a variety of ages, ethnicities, and nationalities gathered at an elegant condominium resort for excellent food, drink, listening, dancing, and socializing. Nearly five hours of live music included a young woman totally owning songs first made popular by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald when the current performer's grandmother (or possibly great-grandmother) was a girl, followed by a big band with a handsome thirtyish singer whose repertoire ranged from Queen to Frank Sinatra. The group's rendition of Van Morrison's classic "Moondance" (which has long had my vote for one of the sexiest songs of all time) found a seventyish man at the next table playing a mean air guitar while his female companion (looking good in a little black dress) scatted accompaniment to the main vocalist. Dozens of couples, groups, and singles enjoyed themselves on a dance floor set up over part of the venue's enormous pool. A no-longer-young couple jitterbugged with the energy of people fifty years their juniors, while the dancing of one young man in a shirt of almost blinding whiteness evoked memories of romantic old movies. Only one person fell into the pool and had to be hauled out by friends. 

Exploring the venue, I discovered stairs leading to a second-floor terrace behind the bar, where a few other people had gone to escape the (friendly and perfectly safe) crush of the main level where tables and folding chairs filled the garden and clustered around the complex's pools and pathways. The overhead setting gave a view of the stage and the dancers, with the Gulf of Mexico and the evening sky shimmering in their twilight blues and pinks. Lights placed in the palms were softly illuminating the scene, while the performers' light set bathed the dancers in changing hues and sent tiny beams of white light into the sky. When the singer began "What a Wonderful World," it was impossible to disagree. 

An oceanside setting. Musicians, singers, chefs, bartenders, and volunteers giving it their all. Couples with babies, baby boomer norteamericanos, well-to-do Meridanos, gorgeous young women and handsome young men of a variety of complexions, elegant abuelas and dapper gentlemen, everyone enjoying themselves under a just-past-full moon. 

Sometimes magic happens.

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.