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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Commemorating a complicated history


A cultural difference I am noticing: the (admittedly limited) parts of Mexico I have visited are very upfront about their bloody history. More importantly, they take pride in the mixed identity of modern Mexico. While Merida has a more diverse ethnic mix, with folks from China, Korea, Lebanon, and Italy wandering in during the 19th century (and never mind the flood from everywhere today), Cozumel has won my heart with the public art along its waterfront. Not only is there a fountain for Ixchel and a pyramid topped with a Franciscan chapel , right on one of the prettiest stretches of the Caribbean, just up the street from the city museum, is the Monument of Two Cultures, sometimes called the Monument to Los Mestizos. This complicated structure celebrates race mixing. (Take that, alt-right!)



The story told in the monument is one of shipwreck, conquest, love, and hard choices. In 1511, a shipwreck caused some would-be conquistadores to wash up on the shores of what is today Quintana Roo, in the land of the Maya. Some were sacrificed, some escaped and were enslaved by other groups, and two remained with the original group of Maya. (Historical note: the Maya of this period were no nicer than most other empires.) A few years later, Cortes, on his way to destroy Tenochtitlan and found Mexico City, landed on the Isla de Cozumel and sent for the two Spaniards still living with the Maya. One of the shipwreck survivors, a Franciscan friar, rejoined the Spaniards and served as an interpreter, but the other refused. This man, Gonzalo Guerrero, had become Maya: he had a wife, children, and an honored place in the society of the people who had saved his life (okay, after enslaving him first). Go home? This is my home. Rejoin my people? These are my people. Seek honor and glory? I have them right here. Or at least, that’s how I read the face on this sculpture.

I have to argue, however, with the depiction of the wife in this monument. Not only is she physically smaller than her spouse (as she probably would have been, the Maya of my acquaintance not being very tall people), she is depicted sitting on the ground, beneath him, behind him, and looking up to him.

Now I have no problem with a woman sitting down to feed an infant, as she is doing, or looking up to a spouse, for that matter, but the artistic choice here is troubling. On the Island of the Goddess, she should at least be his artistic equal, and Zazil Ha, the actual historical person, was a princess, the esteemed daughter of a warrior king. One early account, based on the stories of the friar who returned to the Spaniards, has her referring to Cortes’s emissary as “a slave” and ordering him to get out of town. Hardly a sweet, submissive little thing.

The sculptor, however, included another detail that I love, and one that carries a subversive message. This couple had three children: the eldest is the son standing next to his father, one is the infant being nursed by the mother, but the third child is sitting on the ground behind the other figures. This third child is playing with a conquistador’s helmet: a soldier's armor has become a child’s toy.




History, of course, is seldom quite so simple or so uplifting. While some of the Maya actually got along with the Spaniards for a (brief) while, war did eventually break out. The man who fathered the first mestizo family in what eventually became Mexico was killed fighting his former companions in 1536.

But another message was delivered this morning. A rather handsome bird landed on the warrior’s elaborate hairstyle, preened for a while, then flew off. The human stories told in the monument seemed not to interest the bird at all.







Wednesday, February 8, 2017

More perfection

I am not generally a fan of "touristy" stuff, having spent a good portion of my childhood in the Sunshine State and believing firmly that life there was better before the Mouse and that the hawkers of tacky mass-produced souvenirs are a blight on society. Casinos are my idea of one of the circles of hell, and the idea of being trapped on a cruise ship with a few thousand strangers appeals not at all. And did I mention that I loathe loud music and hate to shop?

Much  of Cozumel's waterfront is the kind of tourist hell that I generally avoid, and most of the "island tours" available seem to be of the spend-15-minutes-at-a-Mayan-ruin, go-to-a-tequila-tasting, and hit-a-beach-club variety. Yuck. This week, however, I was lucky enough to track down a different kind of tour offered by a small company run by a biologist. Three lucky companions and I got to spend five hours with Sergio, the owner, exploring different island ecosystems and looking for birds (though I got more photos of beaches and plants, birds not being particularly cooperative with my little point-and-shoot camera).

Our adventure started at 7:00 AM, when we climbed into Sergio's Chevy Blazer and took off for the wilder, eastern side of the island, specifically Punta Ixpalbarco. The beaches there were generally deserted, and in most places, there are no services for travelers beyond pull-offs for parking.


It was rough.


This part of the island gets the highest winds and waves; it is also the most likely to be hammered by hurricanes. This rather scruffy-looking variety of palm is the plant that does the best job of holding the soil in place. According to our guide, during the last big hurricane, a lot of the big trees went down and large swaths of mangroves died from saltwater intrusion. (A note: mangroves are far more salt-tolerant than most plants, so there must have been a lot of saltwater.)


A surprise to me is Cozumel's lack of seagulls; for whatever reason, only a small number frequent the island. Their job of cleaning up beach carrion is here performed by vultures, both turkey and black, the latter of which is ubiquitous. Here a volt of black vultures has taken over what is left of a restaurant destroyed in a hurricane.


Given the number of vultures riding the thermals over our heads, I would not recommend lying still for too long on these beaches.

We were able to explore a variety of ecosystems, not only the dune area but the coral rock beach, where the geological history of the island can be read by people who know what they're seeing.


 Leaving the beach, we explored a trail through the mangroves, much drier than normal due to a warm, dry winter, and a coastal scrub forest, winter home to some of the warblers that make their way to Magee March later in the spring. A highlight of the scrub was getting to watch a small bird known as a bananaquit steal palm nectar from hard-working bees (and here I had barely realized that palm trees bloomed!).

The intended final stop was a slightly higher elevation forest, but when one of our number noticed an obviously healthy wetland alongside the highway, Sergio managed to pull the Blazer off the road enough that it and we were safe. This wetland was a birding jackpot:


Standing by the side of the road, we saw teals, grebes, two kinds of egrets, three species of heron, a jacana going about its business, and--oh yes--more warblers.

A morning spent with a knowledgeable environmental educator is a morning well-spent.


Monday, February 6, 2017

A perfect day

Yesterday began with a sore throat, most likely contracted from the elderly Italian gentleman who coughed the entire day of the trip to Celestun, the pink wonderland. (Etiquette tip: do not cough on strangers in a closed van, or at the dinner table. If you are sick, even if you have booked a nonrefundable tour, stay home. No one wants your germs.) Fortunately for me, it improved, as I am currently traveling solo, with no one on whom to cough, and warm salt air does wonders for all things respiratory. 

This last portion of the first phase of my post-retirement life finds me on Cozumel, Mexico's "Island of Swallows" (of which I have yet to see very many, but so it goes). I could fall in love with this place, despite the frenetic horror of the cruise-ship area, where every shop has hawkers calling from the entryway or even the sidewalk, attempting to entice customers into the store with the absolute best prices on silver, artwork, t-shirts, or whatever the case may be. (Note to the young man near one shop: calling "Hey, sweetheart" to a 60-year-old woman with whom you are not acquainted is not likely to make her patronize your establishment.)

For one thing, how many towns center a plaza near their public beach with a fountain commemorating a Mayan goddess? This particular monument to Ixchel is a modern creation, totally separate from the ancient ruins on another part of the island, but communing with the goddess of love while sitting on a park bench has its charms.


Right across the street from the Ixchel fountain is one entry to the free public beach. Cozumel's beach clubs are the places to go for beach umbrellas, chairs, and lifeguards, but with this as the view from a handy rock seat in a grove of palms, I was content. Yes, those are the water's actual colors. Sigh.


But rock seats grow hard, and with the throat much-improved from a good seaside rest, it was time to wander northward, to explore a little more. A sand path leading past a patch of coastal scrub forest proved too enticing to ignore; it led to this view.


This segment of beach, while it felt isolated, was not uninhabited by humans. Two young bicyclists had wandered in, another young man was watching his friend snorkel (and with the rocks and the waves, having a spotter did seem like a good idea), and yet another youngish man was simply wandering the coral rocks, drinking in the view, as was I. He struck up a conversation, in the course of which I asked for the name of a plant, seemingly growing right out of the rocks, totally unfazed by the salt spray. (I should probably add that my Spanish is "poquito y malo," and his English was even more rudimentary than my Spanish, but I have enough words to ask questions, and pointing helps.)  This yellow composite with succulent leaves is the plant in question. 


It turns out that Crispino (my new acquaintance) is from the country and knows quite a lot about plants. This one is good for abejas (bees, of which I had seen quite a few visiting the blossoms) and makes excellent miel (honey). He was pleased that I had been a profesora whose estudiantes had planted a jardin para las abejas, bees being muy importante. As I continued to wander (stay tuned for pictures of fossils and other delights in a later post), Crispino brought me a spray of bloom from another pollinator-friendly plant, a small tree with blossom clusters that look like those of black locust. (Alas, the pictures did not turn out.)  He did not know the scientific names but gave me the Spanish common names; alas, they have vanished from my memory, but the quest to ID the plants will continue.

Obviously, a common interest goes a long way to transcend the language barrier.

Heading back toward my temporary home, I stopped for lunch at one of a cluster of thatched palapas, this one housing the only café in the area not blasting music. A New-Agey instrumental was playing softly in the background, but the sound of the waves predominated. This was the view from my table.


The cafe's weather-beaten German owner moved to Mexico thirty years ago for business but fell in love with Cozumel when he visited (which seems to be a theme among the expats I have met) and has now been here more than fifteen years. The café boasts not only good food and a view of all the seaside action, but a golden retriever mix who lounges on the deck boards and occasionally looks hopefully for a handout. (The dog was not interested in my vegetarian baguette.)

Well-fed, I finally left the café and headed for home. Not wanting to brave the gauntlet of hawkers in front of the stores, I strolled the seawalk and was rewarded with the site of a snowy egret, looking lovely and elegant as they always do. A perfect ending to a perfect day's wandering. (Keep going below the picture.)


A few moments later, the egret pooped on a rock. Back to reality.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A (mostly) pink world

In my long-ago Florida childhood, flamingos were a cliché, and in more recent years, they have become something of a joke in the North, with flocks of the plastic variety descending on yards and driveways to signal birthday parties. Truth to tell, there is something vaguely ridiculous-looking about a flamingo line-up


particularly when close-ups allow views of their particularly knobby knees.


The Celestun Biosphere Reserve on the northwest coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is home to the world's largest colony of the American flamingo, with as many as 50,000 descending on the park at one time. The day and area I visited, the flock was much smaller, estimated by our boat operator to be about 1500--possibly a good thing, as he noted that the flock of 6000 near his home was so loud that the family often could not sleep! Given the volume of our small group, I can believe that gaggles of flamingos are not conducive to serious rest.

video

Still, the sight of large numbers of large pink birds is a cheerful and cheering one.



Fortunately for them (and for us), flamingos are not currently endangered, but their very specific habitat requirements place them at risk. They need shallow salty water, algae, and tiny crustaceans, a beta-carotene-rich diet that creates their color. Young or malnourished flamingos are grey or white, not the pink or coral of a well-fed adult bird.

The reserve is perfect habitat not only for flamingos but a host of other birds as well. "Bird Island" in the same lagoon is a rookery for frigate birds and brown pelicans, rendering it another noisy (and smelly) place. But who could resist that face?


Given the limited time that day, I knew that we would only be sampling the riches of the biosphere reserve. But despite that, we saw white as well as brown pelicans, great and snowy egrets, and a new bird for me--the small, secretive tiger heron, lurking among the mangroves.

Celestun is home to over a hundred species of birds, so my hope is to visit this pink world again someday.






Sunday, January 29, 2017

What a night to forget the camera

On this, my last Saturday in Merida, I finally managed to get myself down to the weekly Noche Mexicano held at the beginning of the Paseo De Montejo, one of the loveliest streets on the continent. There is something going on every night of the week here, much of it free, and the people-watching is so good as to render the featured entertainment almost irrelevant.

But not quite. Tonight's show of more-or-less-traditional music from other regions of Mexico began with a rangy old cowboy (or a fair imitation of one) addressing the large crowd in Spanish too rapid for me to follow. Appreciative laughter followed his introduction of the first performer, Roberto Gonzalez, wearing the kind of suit and enormous hat favored by Mexican villains in bad Westerns. When his musical accompaniment proved to be pre-recorded, I didn't expect much, since my thinking has always been that live music should have live accompaniment. (Yes, I am married to a musician, so a bias is present.) But his voice was a clear, mellow baritone, and the crowd loved his songs. At one point, a smallish gaggle of teen and tween girls linked arms and swayed to the music while the elders in the audience sang along. Fun was definitely being had.

The next act was the Ballet Folklorico of Merida, young dancers whose black and white costumes seemed a cross between square dance outfits and The Day of the Dead. Their faces illustrated the ethnic melting pot of this city, where people from Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas have been meeting and intermarrying for several centuries. The dances were likewise a high-energy mix, combining what looked a lot like Irish step dancing with occasional polka moves, line dance, and a cattle ranch motif. Even these young people were getting winded.

Public fiestas in Merida involve lots of vendors: jewelry, hats, leather, hennequin bags, ceramics, and  lots of  beautifully embroidered clothing. Food is abundant. A local food truck favorite that I have yet to sample is the marquesita (not to be confused with the margarita), a kind of thin waffle pressed until it begins to crisp, filled with shredded cheese and something sweet, and rolled. Lots of those were being consumed, along with that other local favorite, corn on the cob, here eaten with a stick inserted into one end so that it is easy to hold. Of course, there were taco trucks. (And I had eaten dinner and resisted everything.)

Parking is often at a premium in the center city, so many people choose to walk to the Paseo. Others, however, arrive by carriage. Merida is home to a number of coach owners who give horse-drawn tours of the older parts of town, or just serve as elegant taxis. Many of the carriages are trimmed with flowers. Upon asking a taxi driver where the horses were kept, as one sometimes sees the carriages parked on residential streets, I learned that most of the drivers live in the old parts of town, where the Spanish colonists would lead their horses in the front door, through the house, and out to the back yard. Today's carriage drivers do the same thing.

Merida does sometimes feel like a fantasy, and tonight, I passed a horse whose equipment included a sparkly rainbow horn, which it seemed to wear most proudly. If you have ever wanted to ride in a carriage pulled by a unicorn, you can do it in Merida.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Backyard Birding in Merida

I stole the title from Cherie Pitillo's great column, published twice a month in The Yucatan Times. She has documented 55 species in her yard, and her photographs are way better than mine. (Check out this recent entry.) 

The Yucatan Peninsula hosts some of the greatest avian diversity in the world: 546 species in roughly 76,000 square miles, a little bigger than South Dakota, which has documented around 350 species. For someone who has not done a birding tour and is staying in the middle of a large city, I have been pleased with what I have noticed from the guesthouse terraces and patios and just walking the streets of ordinary neighborhoods (despite the abundance of concrete and lack of obvious greenery, Meridanos being prone to planting their gardens in their back yards, rather than in front where wandering tourists can snoop). Just this morning, with my first cup of coffee, I got to observe white-winged doves building a nest, wild parrots, tropical mockingbirds, at least one hooded warbler, a horde of great kiskadees, the usual grackles, Altamira orioles, some kind of small falcon moving too fast for me to get a positive ID, a hummingbird (no idea of the species as it moved too fast), and a variety of unidentified little brown birds (probably the females who went with some of the various yellow and orange males). From my lawn chair. Still in my bathrobe.

The frustration is that these lusciously beautiful creatures are in the trees, darting in and out among the leaves, most of them grabbing insects, fruit, and seeds and refusing to hold still for pictures, neither my hand nor my camera being good enough to zoom in instantaneously on rapidly moving targets. Sigh.

However, some of the local birds are most cooperative. The other morning, two great-tailed grackles were having quite the contest, it seemed, hopping down the street in front of me, stopping periodically to engage in the handsome-grackle pose. One nearly got himself run over by taking the contest into the street,


but this fellow granted me the best photo-op.


One must love the young, handsome, and self-assured.

Friday, January 20, 2017

For the birds

Today's discovery was the first "real" park I have visited here, meaning one in which green space and wildlife are the focus.


It is the Acuaparque, an old quarry now home to a pond and wetland and lots  of birds. The park is hardly wilderness, being surrounded by city and well-populated with human visitors, but it definitely is a haven for small wildlife. In the first ten minutes of meandering up a paved trail, I encountered two life birds, a little blue heron and a number of northern jacanas, amusing robin-sized creatures that can walk on lily pads. One name for them is the "Jesus bird" since they seem to walk on water.


Another interesting tidbit about the jacana: it is polyandrous, with females seeking out multiple mates, and the males are responsible for most of the child-rearing.

Ducks, great egrets, kiskadees, grackles, and the occasional sandpiper added to the life in the park, along with joggers, dog-walkers, and people just out for a stroll before the heat made being outside too unpleasant. With the help of an expat resident in Yucatan for the last several decades, I was able to encounter two other "life birds" today: one of the anis (which are evidently so common here that my birding companion almost failed to point it out) and a great-crested flycatcher, like yours truly, spending the winter in the tropics.

My favorite inhabitant of the park was another winter resident, the American coot, almost as ubiquitous as the grackles and the doves. These white-footed and white-billed clowns were everywhere today, swimming, diving, feeding, feuding, and being generally entertaining.


As much as I have enjoyed the human history and culture of this old city, my soul has hankered for green. The Acuaparque delivered.