Thursday, May 29, 2008

Everyone Loves a Parade

The first time I heard a marching band approaching my house I was lying in my hammock reading the Sunday paper, El Diario del Yucatán. It was early August, 2007. I had recently moved to Mérida from the Big Island of Hawaii, a rural area that reluctantly tolerates two annual parades, but none up in the hills where I used to live. Here, adrenaline pumping and filled with intrigue, I ran out into the street. What a sight it was! It would be the first of fifteen days of random (or so it seemed to me) processions from San Sebastian Church to the Virgin of Guadalupe Church. There were Mayan women in colorful huipiles in horse carriages, the men on horseback dressed in their finest guayabera shirts, fixated Mexican flag bearers, numerous school marching bands, and women carrying elaborately adorned statues of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. A while after the parade had passed, when I thought the ceremonies had ended, I was surprised to hear fireworks exploding in the sky. They originated from the church two blocks over as well as from the parade’s destination church 12 blocks away. The lighting of aerials went on every fifteen minutes all day every day for the next fifteen days.

To the best of my recollection, after midnight that they did not blow off fireworks, but they started up again at 5am. Perhaps they were announcing church services as well. The Mayans may have adopted Catholicism and other Christian religions, but they never actually abandoned all of their indigenous beliefs. Rather they incorporated them into the teachings of the Spaniards to keep the peace.

At the time I did not know how many festivities Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe required per annum, but there are many and they take place for weeks at a time seemingly several times a year. Later I found out that the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico. What was being celebrated was the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. All the activities culminated August 15th. Again in December, the parades began to celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th.

Having lots of parades was a surprising bonus to this move to Mérida. When I first arrived here, I was in a state of overwhelm. I was trying to adjust to a different culture, speak and think entirely in Spanish, renovate a house, find my lost cat Buster, and figure out what to do with the rest of my new life. I would ask my acquaintances about what was going on, but much of the information went over my head. This ongoing
learning experience is time consuming and often causes brain freeze.

Mexican Revolution Day is November 20th. My friend Pablo had been preparing some sort of march for “the parade”, but the gist of it went right over my head. He was teaching physical education to preschoolers in a small Mayan village and was in charge of his school’s participation in an important annual event. Before the big day Pablo played one particular marching song over and over and marched around the house for weeks. Then came the big weekend. I accompanied him to Oxcutzcab to watch the parade, which was held the Friday before Revolution Day. The participants were all school children and each school had worked a theme. The costumes, the makeup, the flowers, the routines….every bit of it gave me chicken skin. The little girls gussied up in full Mayan huipiles and big smiles brought tears to my eyes. The young boys were all little Pancho Villas. They wore white cotton shirts and bullet belts and carried plastic guns. They had little mustaches and big eyebrows painted on their pudgy faces. Some little girls wore colonial dresses with white gloves carrying umbrellas. There were miniature tricycles decorated in orange branches and oranges; filled with fruit and enchanting Mayan boys and girls. . These folks do not like to have their photos taken, so with caution I filled my camera that day.

Each group of them - there must have been 80 participating groups, also had their precise and proud flag bearers, all the students with hula hoops or props in green, red and white (the colors of the Mexican flag). The parade lasted over two hours. It was a moment in time I felt blessed to experience, just to watch the smiles and pride on the faces of the parents, children and teachers that day.

On the day of the 16th, Mérida had its own Revolution Day Parade. There were 2200 participants. By that I mean groups participating, not individuals. The festivities went on for well over three hours. Every school in the municipality must have been involved. Each with stoic flag bearers, drummers or complete marching band, all alumni walking uniformly in uniform, the firemen and emergency personnel performing firefighting stunts and pretend rescues, the policemen taking down fake criminals. I almost forgot to mention the floats with the spectacular paper flowers and live green foliage. Or the stilt walkers, jugglers, and others. There was so much going on. The street vendors were out in full force. It was impossible to avoid a hot roasted corn on the cob with salt and chile. Or an ice cream cone. When it was nearly over, Pablo said simply to my awestruck eyes, “Just wait until Carnaval!”

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ko'ox Báab

Ko'ox Báab Escuela de Integración Acuática

Who takes swimming or exercise classes in the Yucatán? First it is important to note that although Mérida itself is not on the water, the beach is a mere twenty minutes (or 13 pesos by bus) away. The average day time temperature from May through October is 100°F with about the same percentage of humidity. The Yucatecans love to spend time at the beach. They love to fish, drink, dance, eat fish, drink, and chat. They also love to visit the unique and mysterious cenotes (sink holes or fresh water pools) that dot the peninsula. Many of them have some kind of swimming pool, even if only a pool for dipping and cooling off slightly. (My feelings about having a swimming pool will come in another session.)

The point here is that most Yucatecans do not know how to swim. After we opened Ko’ox Báab (¡Vamos a Nadar!) (Let’s Go Swimming!) swim school, there seemed to be a deluge of incidents of fishermen drowning at sea. Like 17 in the first three months of 2008 between Progreso and Campeche. The bottom line was always the same, they did not know how to swim. Ok, not always the same….no radio…one who swims but had no lifejacket…one who swam to shore and left the nonswimmers holding on to a sinking boat….whatever. That is not the point. The point is that the grandparents did not learn to swim, they are now beyond that. (Ay! Dios Mio! El agua me da miedo!) The parents would like to swim but have had a fear installed in them that seems insurmountable at present. (Me gusta el agua pero me da mucho miedo!) They all want the young generation to swim. (Los chicos saben que calor hace y no conocen miedo!) The added bonus is that the kids can occupy themselves while they eat fish, drink, dance and chat at the beach. So we get a lot of kids learning to swim. The youngest have been three years old. The oldest “kid” is 27. All kids are proud to learn to swim, and the coordination and muscle development is amazing to watch.

Not surprising to me we have several adults who have taken our classes. Our first adults were the direct result of the fishermen’s accidents. One of my neighbors owns Pedal Loco, a motorcycle shop here in Mérida. He came with his kids for snorkel lessons. They own a boat in Telchac Puerto and go fishing almost every weekend. He wanted to have something he could do with his kids so they all wanted to learn to snorkel. I taught that class. They brought the first adult swim student, Jorge. He works at the motorcycle shop. He goes out fishing with them every weekend and does not know the first thing about floating or swimming. He came to a few classes, then they got busy and he just let it go. Ok, not the success story we are seeking, but he felt comfortable in the water after three of Pablo’s classes, he floated, tred water, and he could put his face in the water. He overcame major fears.

Now, a month or so later, we have a 27 year old adult with a bad shoulder whose wife is an avid scuba diver. He really wants to be able to swim. There is a 21 year old guy who had a bad experience (like someone pushing him into deep water…) and has a fear of water to overcome. He and his friends go to the beach all the time and he can not participate, but he is making great strides. A family from México City moved to the Yucatán but never learned to swim. The parents of some of the younger swim students are now asking if they too can take the swim class, they now feel they can overcome their fears.

So, okay, the school will not make us money rich. But the true definition of rich, my version and the Yucatecan version “¡Que rico!” have such broad inferences. A major reason I am here is that particular definition differential. Your food can be rico, the day, the weather, your luck, your life, seeing a young person conquer a fear. This school is a way to pay the bills and also feel good. Everyone wins in a small, somewhat private swim school, really. The instructor feels satisfied, the parents (and grandparents!) enjoy the time in the patio watching the kids learn and practice, and the students leave hungry, tired and very pleased with themselves. I am still somewhat shocked about how it all works here, right down to the required swim cap and goggles, but it is fun in the grand scheme of all things considered.

Can't Write

I have been trying to figure out why I am having so much trouble concentrating on my writing. I brought with me miles of piles of folders full of ideas, research, photos, half-written articles, and more. Since moving to México I have created additional folders full of ideas, photos, etc…you get the drift. Is it a case of “too much information?” I asked myself. “No, it is easy enough to grab one idea and run with it….usually,” I answered.

The computer was giving me a hard time. That must be it, I thought. So I bought a new one. Now I cannot seem to get the files transferred from the old laptop to the new hard drive so I am sitting here with TWO computers, two keyboards, two mousse (mice?) and still, words are not flowing. I like to write by hand, so I went upstairs and tried the guest bedroom, then outside at a table on the patio. I had to lug too much crap upstairs and got distracted doing laundry. I had some luck IN the swimming pool until the wind came up a couple of days and flew my papers all over the place.

Maybe I am still overwhelmed with the major life change, pretty much abandoning my life in Hawaii and plopping myself alone in the middle of a huge, hot Mexican city. I only began mingling with other foreigners, or expats, in the past month or so. Until then I was camping out in this huge house with several types of construction projects constantly underway around me involving mostly Spanish speaking folks.

Then there is Pablo. He and I hooked up around Hurricane Dean last August and have been stuck like glue since. It is wonderful to have a friend like Pablo. I am not even going to go into how amazing our relationship is. I have to say that it takes a lot of time and effort to communicate feelings carefully. Conversation about tacos is much easier than one about the differences in educational systems, privileges, cultural backgrounds and personal preferences, just to name a few. I will admit I spend much of my time simply being (and living simply) with Pablo, but it is not his fault I am not writing.

We have the swim school. We opened up the swimming pool for swim classes and aquatic exercises. We have students from 3 to 27 years of age, and our exercisers are baby boomers, let’s say. The hours are staggered. The paperwork involved in operating a little swim school is staggering. But no, I do not personally have to maintain the pool, or teach the classes. I administer the paperwork and have it pretty well organized. Class is going on as I write this and as you can see, I am writing. Not much. More of a rant, but I am trying. Anyway, I cannot blame the swim school.

Ok, it must be the total language immersion. Speaking Spanish 97% of the time, occasionally talking in English to neighbors or on the phone. Deciding to take 6 hours a week of Mayan language classes for five months may have triggered some decline in concentration. I am enthralled by some of the concepts interpreted in one word in Mayan for which we require multiple sentences in English! I want to write about that! However I am having trouble finding time to study all we learn in those six hours a week, let alone analyze it and explain it. My writing blank (not block, exactly) may indeed be affected by too many languages spinning in my head. A little bit anyhow.

Today I came up with an idea. Perhaps it is my work space. I set up my writing space on a huge desk with grandiose plans in my bedroom. There was just the laptop and me. I added a printer. Pablo. Another computer. A webcam for Skype. And of course, miles of piles of paperwork. One day last week I went through some of the miles of files and tossed out documents that felt aged. That helped. The piles are smaller. But I sat with several ideas in my head at this desk for days and stared at a blank page….ok, on and off, an hour here or there…

The first rule of writing is to WRITE. The second rule is to have a space. It just has to be a FEEL GOOD space. I think I made a mistake putting my office in my bedroom! I can hear every “Uno! Dos! Tres! Vamonos!” of Maestro Pablo, and every scream, laugh and cough of the kids. If there is no class going on, the television may be on in here. Or there is a constant parade of the commando of cats heading toward the feed dish. There are so many distractions.

What’s more, I have my own bathroom which I stare at from my desk. We have a saying “Don’t eat where you shit” and I think that that is sort of what the problem is. I can literally spend 24 hours a day in this one room. I have to bring food in but still, that is only a four meter walk, round trip to the kitchen. I have created too small a world for myself and I live in a castle. For now I have decided my biggest distraction is the need to reorganize my space. I am moving to the green room, aka the hurricane room, opium den, recording studio. It is worth a try. It has a door that closes, no windows and room for my miles of piles, the desk, three fans and a hammock hanging on a life-size painting of a palm tree on the wall. Attached are the last photos of me in my berry colored bedroom, and a photo of the palm tree Pablo painted in my new SPACE. Wish me luck.

Monday, May 19, 2008

La Ruta PachecoAddams

Hey, this is just a sample of what this story is about. I thought I would pressure myself into writing it by posting these photos. These are of Palenque, the great Mayan ruins in the state of Chiapas, during the vernal equinox.
Sunrise on the one of the temples of the crosses, possibly XIV.
The snake Kukulkan rising with the sunrise during the vernal equinox, 22 dic 2007.
An interesting shot of the waterfalls at the Cascadas (200 of them) of Agua Azul, Chiapas, where we spent New Year's Eve.

Pink Flamingos

You have probably seen flamingos in the zoo. Perhaps you have been to Florida and have laughed at many residents whose plastic ones adorn their yards, like I have. Ah, but that has all changed. I have been living in the Yucatán Peninsula of México and have been to the biosphere reserves and seen thousands of bright pink flamingos wading in the water. I have learned why they are pink, where they live and what they eat, and I think they are fascinating.

I read that the Yucatán boasts the most colorful species of flamingo. The biosphere around Celestún surrounds the Ría Celestún forming perfect shallow water habitats, lots of brackish water and plenty of mangrove. It is the red mangrove, in fact, that causes the flamingo to develop its rosy hue. The birds eat algae, shrimp and seeds they filter out of the water. The food they eat is full of carotene which in turn gives them color. The water in the lagoon of the biosphere is so red that my photo looks more like lava than cool water.

To see the flamingos at Celestún one has to hire a boat either under the bridge or at the beach. The birds keep themselves tucked back into numerous bays, and when the boat zooms into an area full of them it is a sight to behold! They can often be seen in the lagoons on both sides of the main road simply driving from Progreso east toward Dzilam Bravo on the northern Gulf of Mexico coast. Our guide told us the same flamingos spend half the year at Celestún and the other half at Dzilam Bravo, at the second Yucatecan biosphere. I cannot confirm or deny that as I haven’t been here long enough to see any migratory behavior. I have been to the biospheres a few times so far, plan to return, and when I learn new and amazing facts, I will be sure to tell you about them.

Meanwhile, after a trip to the pueblo of Ticul in search of pots for some plants, I now am the proud owner of three ceramic flamingos. No, I am not moving to a double wide in Florida, but have to admit I feel happy when I look at the world through rose colored birds.