Friday, April 25, 2008

Caribbean Photos

Cenote at Tankah.
On the aqua sea.
Gonzalo y Pablo.

Akumal: Paradise Paved


By the time I decided to spend my birthday weekend in Akumal on the Mexican Caribbean coast, I had already overcome the shock of paradise having been paved and pillaged. I have been living in Mérida for almost a year. In September 2007 Pablo and I went to the Caribbean Coast to celebrate his birthday. I had not been to the Caribbean in 20 years. On that trip we stayed in Tulum, but we did take a spin through Akumal late one afternoon. We drove the four lane superMexicanhighway* approximately 20 kilometers north. That was shocking. I felt like I was seeing the area for the first time, so much had been cleared and built up. When we got to the turnoff for Akumal, Pablo started to turn left. Left!? There is no left! Well, there WAS no left turn when I used to live there. There is now a sizable pueblo on the west side of the highway, complete with bull ring. As we slowly drove into Akumal’s beach areas, I was in shock, I think. The best way to explain it is this: we took over 200 photos that weekend, but not one in or near Akumal. The beach road to Yalku Lagoon was nearly unrecognizable: so many houses, condos; even restaurants and stores. I was able to pick out Dick Blanchard’s garage where I first lived, and Nan Haff’s servant quarters where I lived later, and a few other spots, but we confined that first visit to mostly a wide-eyed open-mouthed drive through. We briefly walked along the beach in Akumal Bay, and then quietly drove back to Tulum. Ah, but that was in September!

(*a superMexicanhighway shall be defined as a very gringo-looking freshly paved high speed four lane highway with dangerous unpredictable turnarounds, unapproachable entrances, unannounced “topes”(speed bumps) and numerous lunatics on a leming drive…..)

On April 11, 2008, Pablo and I headed to the Caribbean coast again. I had done some advance planning by contacting old friends in the area before departure. Nancy and Miguel graciously offered us hammock space in their fabulous castle on the beach in Tankah, 7 kilometers north of Tulum. We used to dive with manatee in the cenote in Tankah. The cenote is just a short walk from our friends’ house so we enjoyed a snorkel in the lagoon. It was beautiful there; much different from the narrow dirt road through the jungle Tankah of the 80’s, but not destroyed in any way. So far. Except of course for the disappearance of the manatee.

Then we went to Akumal. We visited with Gonzalo at the Akumal Dive Shop. He now is Don Gonzalo the sole owner of the shop, and of other divine luxuries. He graciously accepted us and after introducing me to the staff as the first instructor to work there when the dive shop opened, he gave me run of the house. I gave Pablo a resort dive course and we took tanks into the bay for an hour and a half. Putting that tank on my bare back and walking into the warm clear waters of the Caribbean revitalized me. I felt like I had never left Akumal. Until we came up from the dive and there were 30 boats in the bay, where once there were 3. It didn’t matter, we saw lots of life on the dive: two rays, three turtles, at least two huge barracuda, and several schools of fish, so numerous they create a giant circle around you watching you watch them, everyone suspended in time and space. Wow was it great to be back in the waters I loved so much.

Upon our return from the dive, the staff told us that Gonzalo invited us out on a sail on his 36’ catamaran for the afternoon. We ate fish and drank a beer to celebrate the dive and get ready to go sailing. Gonzalo had invited some other folks out on the boat, plus Captain Angel and his crew Porfirio. We drank beers and danced and chatted our way to an isolated beach at Xcaret, where we lay anchor and swam to the beach. Upon our return, Angel and crew had prepared delicious fresh ceviche, salsa and guacamole. We drank in more beer and sun and headed back toward Akumal. It was an excellent excursion.

Now, of course, we want to go to Akumal and dive every weekend. That is not possible and we will probably not get away for a month or two, but we will go back. Having overcome the shock of progress several months ago, it made the recent weekend trip a most pleasurable one. They have paved quite a bit of paradise, but they have not ruined it. The people and atmosphere at Akumal always have and always will hold a special place in my heart. If I have to have birthdays, Lord, let them all be like this one!

Monday, April 21, 2008

For Whom the Bells Toll and Whistles Blow

One of the primary reasons I chose to move to Mérida was the strong presence of a slower, simpler way of life, reminiscent of my childhood in some ways. Families walking, talking and laughing together. Neighbors chatting on their stoops. Well, here in Mérida, sitting on the sidewalk in plastic chairs, but still... Locally owned shops run by extremely friendly people who barely spoke English. Traffic redirected from the town square for several blocks every Saturday and Sunday so everyone could dance in the street to Latin rhythms. Young boys dancing with their grandmothers. Couples who obviously have been dancing together for decades. On my scouting mission last spring I felt I had walked through a time machine.

I was attracted to a Colonial house in the oldest neighborhood of the city. The area is undergoing many renovations within its historical reconstruction zone program. Most new owners are foreigners, or as we are more commonly known, expats. The cobblestone streets are being re-cobbled. The 400 year old church of La Ermita de Santa Isabel is getting a face lift. Within two blocks of my house are several conveniences: a beer outlet, a tortillería, a bakery, three grocery stores, a fresh fruit and meat market, sidewalk "loncherias", a pharmacy, an internet café, and a carwash – just to name a few. How fun!

There are several churches within earshot, and the bells sound half an hour before each service, five minutes before, and when the service begins. Church bells ring all day long providing a peacefulness not outwardly felt on the busy street during the day in the city. That peace is often interrupted by the explosions of fireworks, a unique aspect of the Mayan interpretation of Catholicism. Many holy days require the blowing off of fireworks nearly every fifteen minutes, all day and night, for weeks, just outside the church during ceremonies.

As I settled in, "servicio a domicilio" – home delivery service – made its availability immediately known. As exhilarating as it is to walk into the centro and look around at tourists and artisans' wares while running errands, it is more amazing to learn how much can be accomplished without leaving the comfort of your own home, or writing desk.

I won't go hungry here. Early every day either the man on the tricycle or a couple pushing their cart shouts out "Tamales! Pozole!" while ringing a bicycle bell. The tamales and boiled bean stew make a great and simple breakfast. Who needs McDonalds? Pork rind lovers, listen for the call of "Chicharra!" Don Julio has the freshest smokiest pig skin around. Several times a day the ice cream man can be heard calling out "Bolis! Bolis! Bolis! Eskeeeeeeeeeeeeemos!" This somehow translates into popsicles and Eskimo pies. His coconut popsicles are heaven on a stick. If I miss the tamale delivery, I have to listen for the whistle of the man on bicycle selling fresh bread and empanadas. He comes by at noon every day.

The coconut wireless took effect as soon as I took occupancy. A truck drove up and honked the horn. At the gate was a beautiful Mayan woman handing me a small photo album full of furniture photos. There were beds, tables and chairs, couches, bookcases, etc. Prices were more than reasonable. Every item displayed in the album was piled high on her small pickup truck. I had been camping in my house with a hammock and a hot plate for nearly a month; thus a prime candidate for that pine bookcase Angelica's boys carried into the house and neatly placed in my empty living room. She visited once a week until my house was furnished to her satisfaction.

The plant vendor rang the doorbell yesterday. Somehow he knows exactly when one's patio area is cleared of construction material and ready for plants. He had the most beautiful roses on his cart. Luckily the folks who sell pots had passed by earlier in the week. So I listened for the afternoon clip-clop of a horse and the call "Tierra!", and that would provide the dirt I would need to begin the job.

Once established, new needs arise. Luckily the sound of a flute can be heard far enough away for me to find the knives, machete, scissors, etc. that need sharpening, if any. If my cooking pots need cleaning or replacing, I will be listening for the clinking of pots and they will be repaired on the spot. It is common knowledge that everyone needs at least one long stick, either to hold up the laundry line or to pick fruit from a tall tree – or both. I will be listening for the bird-whistleof the man with "horquetas" soon because my giant mamey fruit tree is nearly ready.

Bottled water is delivered to the house by the friendliest man in Mérida twice a week. The garbage collector rings the bell once a month, yet they pick up trash three times a week. The paper carrier visits every now and again to assure continued delivery service. The mail carrier rings the bell with the mail. Food of all sorts is available via delivery on motorcycle. If I am unable to walk two houses down to the neighbor's taco stand, then I may have to wait half an hour for pizza, chicken, tacos or whatever delicacy I have chosen to come to me, assuming I am too lazy to warm up tortillas and scramble an egg or something. Pharmacies are open all night and deliver for free. The streets are miraculously cleaned by a cute little old man as we sleep.

I moved to Mérida to walk and get plenty of exercise, among other life changing aspirations, and I find myself glued to my writing desk next to the window on the street. I do not want to miss any servicio a domicilio! I am fascinated by this passage through the time machine. If you remember buying vegetables from a street hawker or chatting with the milkman, that memory will be sweetly stirred the longer you stay in the Yucatán.

23 Jan 2008