Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How things change

Here's a great way to start a new year: dropping in to Mérida  for a week. This is how I imagined it would be someday; making more-or-less impromptu plans, and slipping back into our casa like a pair of comfortable shoes. There will be a few minor errands to accomplish, a chance to shake off the chill of a West Coast winter for a few days, and time, I hope, to see a few friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile I'm trying to comprehend the many different traditions and celebrations in Mérida at this time of year: Ramas and posadas and Guadalupe day and the Three Kings. The calendars for Mexico and the Yucatan are packed with celebrations and holidays, and it seems that we land on different ones every time we arrive.  I wonder about practical things, like, will the buses run on their usual schedules? What offices and businesses will be open or closed between New Year's Day and January 6?

Here in Victoria, old traditions and rituals shift. This Christmas was different, and perhaps a glimpse of what's ahead. For the first time in 22 years, our son was not home with us, but instead, at the other end of a Skype connection in Tokyo, where it was already Boxing Day.

We're fascinated by his  descriptions of  the cultural differences there, too. Who knew the traditional Japanese Christmas dinner is KFC, and 7-Eleven is a four-story retail mecca that sells everything including furniture? La Princesa wants him to bring her back a robot.

We begin to see how our own routines and obligations will change, in the future that's not quite so distant anymore. Already it's more than two years since we put in a house offer and began our Mérida "initiative". Since then I've met, online and otherwise, so many people also tilting southwards, preparing and making the move to Mérida and other locations in Latin America. I identify with  Lee and Barb, writing about paring down possessions. Others like Sara and Ty uprooting their lives and plunging in to become full-time Mérida residents. Our Victoria friends Paul and Jody packing up their lives in Canada to go live and work in Honduras for CUSO.

Everything changes, and faster than we think.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"Green"-ery on the ceiling: Our new LED lights

Photo by Victor Cruz/Estilo Arquitectura
It's very exciting, for me, anyway, to see pictures of the new ceiling lights in our sala. I know, I am a nerd. They look like plain little fixtures that you'd see anywhere. Nothing as impressive as a dramatic arch or beautiful tiles.

But they are LED, which means they will use hardly any electricity, which in Mérida, and all over México, is quite expensive and produced by highly polluting methods.

The new LED lights go along with our solar hot water heater. It is a wonderful feeling to stand in a hot shower and know there's no gas-fired tank at the other end of the pipe. I often hear people say these things are not economical; that is, they don't pay for themselves, or at least not in a decent period of time. Neither do cars or many other nice things, but that's another discussion.

 The economic argument for solar water heating is actually pretty strong in México, anyway. Here in Canada a solar water system can cost $7,500 or more (US or CDN, your pick) and because the light is weaker here, it doesn't provide sufficient hot water for a household. With Mérida's broiling sun, you need no backup (though you might need a second one for a large household), and it costs $1,500 U.S. or less, installed, including an electrostatic water softener.

 I'm not sure why they cost so much more in Canada. But the cost made it a no-brainer here. Sure, it's a lot more than a new gas-fired water tank that will rust out in a couple of years, but for me part of the attraction of living in Mexico is the idea of living more lightly and reducing our resource footprint.

 If I had a ton of money, I'd get a photo-voltaic solar system to replace at least part of the household electricity. Mexico has a net-metering program so the electical utility company will give you credit for feeding excess power from a PV system back into the state power grid. Haven't yet met anyone who has done this, but it's a long-term dream.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Internet service: Telcel Banda Ancha review

Back in March I found one kind of solution to my unhappy state of internet-less-ness.

I had been wandering from park to café, wearing out the laptop battery, getting a sore butt from sitting on wooden benches for hours.

With some helpful advice from a couple of local store employees, I got a broadband internet USB stick, called Banda Ancha, and bingo! I had working internet access for the first time at our almost-empty house. It does make a place feel cozy.

At that time I posted that I would give a more fulsome review after using it for awhile. I was reminded of that when someone on the Yolisto forum asked this week about broadband USB "dongles". During my last stay in Mérida the little device got a good workout and I now can say a few things about it:

Ease of use: It's pretty easy to install, once you figure out where you need to enter different bits of information (such as the CURP, which you will have if you have a Mexican cellphone. I'm not sure how else you get one). When I returned after several months, of course I forgot everything I had learned but it wasn't hard to plug it in and get it running again, once I had figured out how to top up the account.

Price: It's advertised as 199 pesos for 2 weeks, but that appears to be based on light usage. I went through more than twice that amount in a week. So it would start getting expensive, compared to a cable or telephone company internet service, if you were going to use it on an ongoing basis.

Performance: It was pretty good. It does time out sometimes, but you just have to reconnect, hear the little jingle, and you're back in business. There were a couple of evenings though, where it would not connect at all. It might have been what technical people call a PEBKAC error (Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair). Or not.

Speed: Not fast enough for Skype. It would crash, even without video. I missed my little chats with the family and the dog.

Recharging the account: Your Banda Ancha stick essentially has its own phone number, so you can go to any shop that will recharge your Telcel account, give them the number and the amount you want to add to the account, and hope for the best. This worked for me the first time, when I did it at the Soriana supermarket checkout. The second time, at a small independent shop, it didn't work. Perhaps the account wasn't entered correctly.

My conclusion: I was glad to have it, and still think it's a good solution for occasional use, if you don't need enough bandwidth for video or skype. But I'm getting Cablemas internet service installed this month.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Winter blahs

Feeling sluggish, slowing down. It's hard to do get motivated to do much after work these days - so tired. Can't seem to execute plans to get out and get some exercise. A man on the radio is saying this is a normal response when the days get shorter and colder and greyer here. He's suggesting one of those lights that trick your body into thinking the days are longer.

I wonder if this wintertime energy deficit is less of a problem for people living closer to the equator? These days I'm trying to work out a date for getting back to Mérida in the next couple of months. Despite my own laziness, work is underway there, as well as here in Victoria, and I can't wait to see the results of both.

In Mérida, we await the installation of cable and internet service - the comments I read about long waits and no-shows by installer gives me a bit of concern, especially with holidays approaching. The other work that's about to be done includes replacing one hideous door and one that doesn't open properly with two new ones. They will be custom made to match the sole remaining original door in the house. We'll get new iron protectadores for the back door. As well, a couple of damaged sections of stone wall at the back of the house will be repaired, raised and I think some lighting will be added. This abandoned space will become an extension of the garden until some far-off day, when we see the need to build the casita in our architect's plans for a little extra guest or studio space.

In Victoria, the long-delayed plan to transform Fallingdowne, our rambling 1911 eyesore, is currently in the hands of a local designer, Will Peereboom. Since it has nothing to do with Mérida, that project has got its own blog space here.

...will be replaced with ones similar to this.
These worn-out doors (pre-reno)...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Small kindnesses

We needed a 60-meter garden hose to reach the beginnings of a garden at the back of the property. Some big lush plants, thinned from someone else's place, had been dug in there. They were looking limp.

Lucio said a place downtown called Fernandez had good prices for a manguera de jardin, a garden hose. Barato. Cheap.

Found Fernandez, parked the bike, bought the hose, and lugged it back to the parking garage. 100 meters actually, because it didn't come in 60-meter length. Did you know, 100 meters of garden hose is heavy? I didn't. I had a feeling this could be a problem to bring home on the bike.

I rigged up something to hold the hose to the rack, using the bike lock and my only bungee cord, paid the parking attendant, who wished me luck, and started home. It was precarious and the bike wobbled along the busy street. I had to go slow. A couple of blocks along a woman in a passing car pointed at the back of the bike and I looked. I was losing my load. The coil of hose had slipped halfway off the rack. I found a quiet spot on the sidewalk and tried to untangle things. Somehow in the process I had lost the key to my bike lock.

I looped the heavy hose over my shoulder and started to walk the bike and the damned manguera the 10 or so remaining blocks home, thinking of how much it was going to hurt. Then a bottle collector, a scavenger, pulled up on his tricycle - the cargo carriers that are ubiquitous here. He said something about how I should tie the hose to the bike rack - it could take 80 kilos.

I told him something like, I had tried that, it was too heavy, it had already fallen. I was feeling irritated, and was probably kind of dismissive.

Overlooking my lack of graciousness, he calmly took a skein of twine from his own bike rack and methodically unwound a length. He brought it over and expertly, patiently, bound the hose to the bike rack, looping and knotting it on three sides. Now it won't fall, he said.  Ahora no se cae. I asked if I could pay him for the twine but he refused. After I thanked him and asked his name, Juan Jose wheeled away, merged back into traffic with his collection of empties and disappeared around the corner before I could take a picture.

It was extraordinarily touching to receive this needed help from someone who surely didn't have a lot to spare. Why reach out to this foolish gringa lady who should have, could have taken a cab or something?

I made it home without a hitch and slowly untied the hose from the bike rack. The twine was a fine braid of henequen, strong and soft from long use. Such a simple object, and a simple act of kindness on a busy street. Both of them, typical of this place. Tipico.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The fair

I won't be at the Feria Yucatán x'matkuil (Yucatan state fair) this year. It opened today. Unfortunately, I have a previous engagement to sit around shivering in the wind, cold and dark of a Canadian November. But if I was there, I wouldn't go so early this time.

I'm one of those nerds who can't figure out the right time to show up for stuff. So last year, I thought I'd beat the heat and catch an early bus. Rides make me dizzy, and I try not to each too much fair food, and I wasn't interested in the night-time concerts. I mostly wanted to see the sights. Mostly I was interested in the displays of local products,such as stonework and furnishings and things that might be nice for our new Merida home. I also had read about the spectacle of kids playing in fake snow, and dolphin tanks, and suchlike things that appealed to my taste for the bizarre.

Well, at the end of an interesting bus ride from the main  Merida market, I got to the fair and the plaza was nearly empty. Most of those who arrived around the same time as me were school kids, who didn't have any choice in the matter. Many of the commercial displays I wanted to see weren't open that early in the day. But I did get to see the livestock (one of my favorite fair features) and walk around a bit. Bought a nice hammock at a reasonable price. The Mayan building near the entrance was a nice touch - you are definitely not going to confuse this with the Red River Exhibition back in good old Winnipeg.

Next time I'll go late, with friends, like everyone else.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Getting around the neighborhood

Usually when I tell people the neighborhood we're in, I get a blank response. Even people who've lived in Mérida a long time have never heard of it. Chen Bech, also spelled as Chem Bech. The house was advertised as being in Mejorada, which is better known but still not very familiar to a lot of people. I am still not sure if Chem Bech is truly part of Mejorada, or if it is in Chuminopolis, or is a separate place of its own.

I can't feel too smug about my own knowledge of the neighborhood. I hadn't heard of it either, until house-hunting a couple of years ago brought me to this place. And until now there hasn't been much time to check out the neighborhood much, with all the renovations and other things to do.

On this trip I decided to make it a priority to get off my own beaten path to the usual destinations. Some mornings, before light, I'd strap on the sneakers and go for a little run down the side streets to the north and east of our house. It's always striking to see how early people start their days here. At 6:15 and 6:30 in the morning they're leaving the house, kids in their school uniforms, adults carrying their work things. Most of the houses are modest, but there are some grand old colonials.

I follow the rhythmic thrum of machinery up one street and come upon a factory. A big one. "Hilos Agricolas de Yucatan". Here's what I learn about it online
"Hilos Agricolas de Yucatan" grows hemp, manufactures hemp yarn and other products of sisal fibers. It history dates from the eighteenth century, producing such items as beds and sacs, to the present days, in 1993 that was acquired by the state government of Yucatan."
A corner of the henequen factory.
Who knew that this link to the region's history was sitting on the edge of the neighborhood? Well, everyone who lives around here, I suppose. Heading east I pass a disused soccer pitch and then in the distance, people in white are streaming towards a large building complex. Medical staff, starting the day shift at the public  IMSS hospital. I'm told it's the biggest public hospital in the city. I didn't know it was so close to us. On the street fronting the hospital is a busy commercial strip, including at least a couple of Chinese restaurants, numerous copy and office supply stores, tacos and other handy shops.

Elsewhere on my explorations by bike and on foot I have found a campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in the stately complex that used to be a sanitorium.

 Next to it is a park with free wifi. The park is named Articulo 123 and it features a statue to an unknown (to me) historic figure. Need to study up on my Mexican history! Across the road from the park and UNAM campus is a railway museum with numerous rusted-out rail cars standing, half obscured, in tall weeds. At least one of them reminds me exactly of the train in some old half-forgotten photo with Pancho Villa or some other revolutionaries. I couldn't come up with the photo to refresh my memory in a quick online search. But it makes me want to visit the museum and find out more about where these relics came from.

 I like our neighborhood.

What is Articulo 123 and who is Hector Victoria Aguilar?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rental survey - results so far

So I promised to report the results of my rental survey and then things got busy and I got distracted.

I wanted to know: What do you need to make a place an attractive one for potential renters?

Here is what I've learned from the 13 responses so far.

They included 5 renters, three potential renters and 4 homeowners (and one "other").

There wasn't a clear picture of the average length of rental. A few people rented for less than a month, a couple for more than six months, but most didn't specify. Perhaps I didn't format that question very well.

The most common size of household for Merida renters is two people (7 out of 10 responses).

Number of bedrooms required: 9 responses, all said 2 bedrooms required.

Number of bathrooms required: 8 responses, 4 wanted one bathroom, 4 said two bathrooms.

Got pets? 11 responses. 5 no, 6 yes.

Essential features: 

Top responses:
Furnished -82 per cent want their place fully furnished, 91 per cent with a fully equipped kitchen.
Pool -73 per cent require a pool.
Fans vs. a/c -82 per cent require fans (I think that's low) but only 64 per cent insist on air conditioning.
Internet - 73 per cent want internet via cable or telco, only 18 per cent say a broadband USB connection is sufficient.
Cleaning service - 55 per cent want cleaning twice a month or more frequently, compared to 18 per cent favoring once-a-month cleaning.
TV - 55 per cent want a television, and 45 per cent want cable channels.

Low priorities:
Unfurnished rentals :  9 per cent (1 response)
Phone: 9 per cent (1) want cell phone, 18 per cent (3) want a land line.
Green features: only 9 per cent (1) thinks features such as solar water heat are important.
Garage: only 18 per cent (2) require one.

Rent budgets run from under $400 a month to $1320. I will do a bit more work to compare what package of features people expect, and get, at the different price points. I'll write about that in a future post, and share some of the comments I received (avoiding detail that would identify the renter or owners).

I will leave the survey open for more responses.

What do you think? Does this seem to represent the rental picture in Merida or is it a skewed sample because of its small size?

It is enlightening to me to see what people want and need. Also, it supports Tom's longstanding view that we should go ahead and build that pool.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

El Huracan

Many street corners around Mérida display name plates like this one just a few blocks from our house. They are reproductions of the ones created long ago to help people get around at a time when many didn't read or even speak Spanish.

This seemed like an especially appropriate image for this week, with Hurricane Rina bearing down on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Mérida is not directly in its path but it could get a lot of rain and wind, as it did during last week's "tropical depression".

The communities on the Caribbean coast could be in for much worse than that.

Update Oct. 28:  It didn't even rain in Merida.

Precautions were taken, including evacuation of Cozumel. My neighbor Ricardo's family are there, he said they were among the storm refugees, comfortably ensconced in a hotel with their cats.

After a couple of days of losing steam,
Rina was downgraded to another "tropical depression" on the coast.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Getting things done

Insta-kitchen from Soriana (except the essential French press)
I thought this would be a vacation vacation, not as much of a rush-around-and-get-things-done vacation. I sincerely intended to carry out the foot doctor's prescription to walk barefoot in warm sand. And call everyone I was hoping to see. Instead, it has been busy with errands and chores although I have had some nice visits with friends.

The house is feeling homey and very liveable. You still would call it "lightly furnished", but that's a refreshing contrast to our Victoria clutter. There are places to sit, and dishes to eat on, utensils and pots and a few pictures on the wall - thanks to Alfredo for that.

Lucio and his assistants cleared the weedy, overgrown patio and back of the property which someone has mistaken for a free dump.

Already, only a few days left and still lots to do, and some choices to make about what won't get done until the next trip.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Do something that scares you...

The city feels damp. The afternoon threatens rain. So many small creatures are about: ants of all sizes, and when I opened up my mailbox the only thing inside was a surprised gecko. Two more geckos clamber around the walls in the sala tonight.

The rainy season sprouted a new crop of weeds in the patio. Blue morning glories climb the wall, tall grasses are setting seed, there are tiny daisy-like flowers and something with a seed pod that looks a bit like a green grape. Several branches of the sour orange tree are bent to the ground, weighed down with fruit and fresh growth. Surprise, the snake plant and henequen, gifts from friends, didn't die of neglect but are thriving, still in a pot, in the shade of the orange.

The back of the property has also grown weeds, along with substantial deposits of the neighbors' trash. Pipes, wood, prunings of palm and other trees. Not very neighborly, but I guess we'll clear it out and see if future dumping can be politely discouraged.

Now for settling in. After a day with the fans running, the house feels less dank, and now it's filled with the fragrance of lilies - a lovely housewarming surprise.

Dragged the bike out of the unfinished guest bedroom where I stashed it in March, and cleaned it up with dish soap and a damp cloth. It was filthy, and seemed to grow an extra coat of grime in the summer heat. The key for the bike lock was rusted almost beyond recognition. The tires were flat of course, but a neighborhood tire-repair guy refilled them for free.

The bike made it easy to get to the Oaxaca festival. It was a couple of kilometres away, set up in the Parque de los Americas in the Garcia Gineres neighborhood. All the treasures of Oaxaca were represented there: the park was lined with vendors' stands selling everything from woven shawls and beautifully embroidered clothes, to the region's gorgeous black and green pottery. There might have been music and dancing before I got there.

The food tent was hopping. I got in line for a tamale and some of that famous Oaxacan hot chocolate, but couldn't help noticing the fried chapulines. Grasshoppers. I had heard about this dish, but still, it was a little surprising to see a big platter of them at a public event.

A young fellow behind me was telling his novia he was getting the chapulines - hoping to impress with bravery, I think. I asked a server if they were popular - yes, she said, did I want a taste? I told her I was too afraid to try them, but la novia behind me said she'd had them before, and liked them, and her boyfriend took a sample. So I swallowed my fear and took a few from the spoonful the server proffered.

They actually tasted pretty good.

 So now I figure I'm ready for the apocalypse, or the post-global warming world, when bugs are all we have left to eat.

Brought the tamale home and put it in the fridge. For later, I figured. But I'm too intimidated to turn on the new range that was installed back in March and hasn't even been turned on yet. It has a funny button to ignite the gas burners, at least I think that's what it's for. And is there any potential problem with a tank of gas that's been sitting on the roof untouched all summer long?

I'll face that fear tomorrow.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Foodie paradise, here I come

This sounds good:

Haven't been to any of these swank places yet. Nothing against fine dining - it would be a treat to check out a few of them.
At a more modest price point, I can vouch for the panuchos at our corner market, and at the nighttime food stands beside the San Sebastian church. And the pibil on the days that it's on the menu at our nearby cocina economica, Las Palapas.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Seeking your opinion

Just one week to go.

For months the next trip to Mérida seemed unbearably far in the future and now it seems impossibly near. I can almost feel the tropical air and the energy of the streets on the short drive home - home! - from the airport. I'm imagining what the house will look and feel like with the finishing touches that were done since our last visit. Hot water. Window coverings. Chairs. Lighting. A kitchen sink with the drain connected to the plumbing. Mosquito screens.

I'm really looking forward to some shopping for the things that will make the place comfortable and fully functional. First, though, I need to get better information about what other potential guests and residents will want and need.

The reality is that it will be a while before we get to live out our little fantasy of spending much of the year in Mérida (I know I mention this far too often - me quejo mucho). In the meantime it seems sensible and smart to make it available to others for vacation or long term. An empty house just doesn't seem right, in so many ways. We're hoping friends and family will come, but not everyone is into a 12-hour trip to a hot place without a beach on the doorstep. Go figure.

So, rental. I was a landlord for the past six years in Victoria and it's fairly straightforward. Advertise a nice home in a good location at a decent price and you get mobbed with about 75 applicants. There is little available and what is, is expensive. The hardest part is choosing one of many fine candidates (and some not so fine) and then saying no to the others.

In Mérida it's clearly different. Lots of empty places. Prices all over the place. Unfamiliar rules. Different currencies - will that be USD or pesos? The challenge of long-distance rental management. I see lots of lovely places listed for (what seem to me) high prices and some that look like ruins rented for very little. But I'm not sure about the priorities of the type of potential tenants I hope to attract: people looking for a reasonably priced longer term stay, perhaps while they renovate or try out life in Merida or just settle in for awhile. I'm not sure whether such people actually exist. They might be as mythical as the $10 a day wages for skilled tradespeople that some real estate agents touted as little as a couple of years ago.

 To me this is all a learning experience, so I figured it would be fun and educational to take a survey and try to get a clearer picture of the rental market, before I go shopping for household items or do any serious advertising.

So I created a survey. I hope you'll help by sharing any info you have and passing it along to anyone else who might be interested.

Your input will be appreciated and I'll be sure to share the results.

Rental Survey

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tuesday nights, en español

Find more photos like this on Se Habla Espanol

At work I'm listening to Mexican public radio - something historical. Trying to write a script for the morning show, trying to follow the conversation on the show that's on the air. Multitasking is especially ineffective when you're trying to follow two audio streams at once. The Mexican podcast is suffering the most from my divided attention. I've decided to just let the language wash over me, and not worry about comprehension for now.

Several bloggers have posted recently about learning and speaking Spanish (including Moving to Mérida, Yucatango, Imagine Mérida, An Alaskan in Yucatán ). Lots of great tips and resources. My own efforts to grasp the language have been on and off. It's high on the nice-to-do list, but not yet one of the must-dos, while work and family obligations limit the time we can spend away.

My Spanish skills lie somewhere in the territory between beginner and intermediate. I often have the unfortunate experience of starting a conversation with a local person in Mérida, and getting a long, fast and to me, mostly incomprehensible reply. I recognize a lot of the words but can't put them together fast enough. Many of the verb conjugations and articles and expressions are unfamiliar. I feel foolish and my face starts to freeze into an embarassed grin. Times like that I wonder if I'll ever get much better at this language thing.

Back when we first got our place, I went with our property manager to meet the next door neighbor. She was graciously describing the nearby conveniences, shops and transit and such. I guess I was looking increasingly befuddled. The neighbor turned to Maggie and asked, with what I thought was a hint of incredulity: "She doesn't speak Spanish?" Maggie kindly replied that I knew bastante, enough. I wish it were so.

Sometimes I feel like it is coming to me. Comprehension begins to emerge from the fog of words and phrases. Other times I totally suck at it, and feel like my language skills are heading in reverse; that I am un-learning.

Lately I've been meeting other Spanish-language enthusiasts Tuesday nights at a local café in Victoria. Se Habla Español  has been meeting for years. It started as a handful of people playing Scrabble in Spanish in someone's apartment, and grew.

Now, on a typical night 20 or more people at all levels of proficiency turn out for two hours of conversation en español. You just show up, buy a coffee or whatever, and contribute a dollar to cover the group's modest costs (principally running the website and organizing occasional parties). It was a pleasant surprise to discover friends, and friends of friends, and parents of our kids' friends, among the regular group. Everyone has a different reason for coming. One friend is an artist who sometimes works in Spain in the winters. Another, a doctor who volunteers with a project to provide health care to poor communities in Honduras. One has a novia in Colombia. Several have spent months or years traveling or living in Latin America. Some participants are native Spanish speakers from Mexico or elsewhere.

At first when I went it seemed like after an hour of concentration my brain started to hurt. Now two hours doesn't feel too overwhelming. I discovered it helps to bring index cards with a couple of verb tense conjugations I'm trying to learn, for quick reference. Increasingly, I'm experiencing that wonderful, elusive feeling that I'm following whole conversations, not fading in and out of range like a bad radio signal. Could this be real progress? We'll see, next month.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The blog of others

At the 2010 Latin American Bloggers Conference
Do you ever have a spell when everything you write seems like crap? I've been going through one of those lately.

Maybe I'm too preoccupied with other deadlines, or it might be harder to feel connected and current when I've been away from Mérida for several months. Whatever the reason, my blogging efforts these days usually fall flat. The words don't seem right. My thoughts feel precious or obvious or dull. It's the same when I try to comment on other people's blog posts. Type, re-read, reconsider, delete.

Fortunately other people are still writing and posting much more interesting stuff than anything going through my head. A while ago, John and Alan pointed out some engaging newer blogs I hadn't seen before. It made me realize I had some catching up to do.

 ¡Qué sorpresa! people keep coming to Mérida and the Yucatán from places all over the U.S. and Canada and who knows where else.

Just when some things begin to feel familiar, and certain milestones pass in our own Mérida adventure, these newer arrivals are seeing the place with fresh eyes and different perspectives. There's some great writing and illuminating information. I'm enjoying these new voices so much I don't feel such a terrible need to fill space with my own ramblings for now.

Here are several great recent additions to my regular reading list:
Imagine Mérida
Casa del Gato Azul
My Mérida Life
Mérida - Are we there yet?

I'm always eager to hear about new ones - let me know what I'm missing!

Fittingly, I learned yesterday that the date`s been set for the upcoming Latin American Bloggers Conference. It will be in Mérida November 5th. The conference was a real highlight for me last year. It was wonderful to meet many of the people who had inspired and (perhaps unknowingly) encouraged me to take the big leap  a couple of years ago and start to put down roots in this magical place. I`ve been looking forward to reconnecting and possibly meeting some new bloggers, getting some new ideas and maybe even curing the old writer`s block.

Sadly I`ll miss the conference this year. Leaving town October 28th because that`s when the cheap fares ran out. But I`ll be thinking of the blogging friends who made me feel like less of a stranger in our future home and have been so supportive with their suggestions and kind words. Oh well, next time!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chocolate museum

Mayan glyph for cacao

When I learned that the ancient Mayan city of Tikul was once ruled by Lord Cacao, and that one of the deities, Ek Chuah, was the God of Cacao, I knew the Yucatán was going to be my kind of place.

I've read that cacao pods were used as currency here. So puzzled me that it seemed so difficult to find good chocolate in Merida. There's a little shop near the Plaza Grande where you can buy processed cocoa and small bags of dark and milk chocolate molded in the shape of little corn cobs. It's nice for gifts to take home but not exactly the fix for that mid-afternoon craving.

People mentioned a larger fine chocolate maker in the suburbs, and I even got an address, but could not figure out a way to get there without a car or spending most of a day getting lost on unfamiliar buses.

I could find no evidence of modern cacao cultivation on the peninsula, only some scant and vague historic references. I was a little disappointed to conclude it would be necessary someday to travel to Tabasco state and the Ruta del Cacao to experience my favorite food in its natural habitat. Blogger Madeline Weeks wrote a great account of doing just that.

Then in Yucatan Today I came across the story of a new museum of cacao opening on the Ruta Puuc, south of Mérida, beyond Uxmal. It appears to be created by the owner of the hard-to-reach Belgian chocolate maker in Colonia Pensiones. The museum is located on a cacao plantation.

We're really just getting started exploring around the Yucatan peninsula. It's going to be a little easier now that we have a livable home base in Mérida, and the busy-work of real-estate transactions and renovations are more or less done for now. A visit to a Yucatán cacao plantation is definitely going to be up there on my list of things to see and do, although probably not for the coming trip next month.

P.S.  As I've been dithering with this post over the past while, Valerie, who operates the terrific Pickled Onion restaurant in Santa Elena near Uxmal, posted an item about the museum with much more info than mine. Thanks, Valerie!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Old Mérida

I often wonder what it was like back in the days before the henequen industry collapsed and Mérida was left more or less forgotten and crumbling for decades. Yesterday a colleague flagged an amazing resource on Flickr called The Commons as a source of neat historic B&W images with no copyright restrictions. So I immediately queried "Merida" to see what showed up.

I was captivated by these images from an 1899 expedition. Aside from the unpaved streets and the absence of cars and converted commercial storefronts, the streetscape looks a lot like today.

Maybe someone recognizes the locations in these photos?

You can see the full collection of images from the Allison V. Armour Expedition on The Commons. The photo locations aren't all that well-described, so it can be hard to tell if they're from Mérida or some other Yucatán site, or somewhere in Central America. In fact it's possible even a couple of these might be from a different Yucatan city or town.

Looking down street, a few people. Two-story buildings with small balconies, signs painted, "cademia" [verify the rest]. 1899.

Name of Expedition: Allison V. Armour Expedition
Participants: Charles F. Millspaugh, Edward P. Allen, Edward S. Isham Jr.,Jordan L. Mott Jr.
Expedition Start Date: December 21, 1898
Expedition End Date: March 11, 1899
Purpose and Aims: Plant collecting and photography for Botany in the Bermuda, Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Yucatan.
Vessel Name: Utowana (Yacht, Sailboat)
Location: Central America, Mexico, Yucatan, Merida

Street. 1899.
Name of Expedition: Allison V. Armour ExpeditionParticipants: Charles F. Millspaugh, Edward P. Allen, Edward S. Isham Jr.,Jordan L. Mott Jr.Expedition Start Date: December 21, 1898Expedition End Date: March 11, 1899Purpose and Aims: Plant collecting and photography for Botany in the Bermuda, Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Yucatan.Vessel Name: Utowana (Yacht, Sailboat)Location: Central America, Mexico, Yucatan

Street, people, buildings, horse drawn carriage, church at end of street with several bells. 1899.

Name of Expedition: Allison V. Armour Expedition
Participants: Charles F. Millspaugh, Edward P. Allen, Edward S. Isham Jr.,Jordan L. Mott Jr.
Expedition Start Date: December 21, 1898
Expedition End Date: March 11, 1899
Purpose and Aims: Plant collecting and photography for Botany in the Bermuda, Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Yucatan.
Vessel Name: Utowana (Yacht, Sailboat)
Location: Central America, Mexico, Yucatan [verify]

Cathedral. 1899.

Name of Expedition: Allison V. Armour Expedition
Participants: Charles F. Millspaugh, Edward P. Allen, Edward S. Isham Jr.,Jordan L. Mott Jr.
Expedition Start Date: December 21, 1898
Expedition End Date: March 11, 1899
Purpose and Aims: Plant collecting and photography for Botany in the Bermuda, Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Yucatan.
Vessel Name: Utowana (Yacht, Sailboat)
Location: Central America, Mexico, Yucatan [verify]

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Truth, rumors and mosquito screens

Mosquito sculpture in  Komara, Manitoba. Photo by James Sapara/Flickr

Mosquiteras were installed this week to keep out the moscos. Window screens for the mosquitoes, that is. Their Spanish nicknames are so charming, aren't they?

My first couple of trips to Mérida I was fooled. We didn't encounter any at all. Tom read something about mosquitoes but I thought it was a vicious rumor. It was the dry season, and I didn't know that made any difference.

I am from Manitoba, Winnipeg to be specific, and I still sorely miss some things about that place, decades after moving away. Wonderful aunts and uncles and cousins, the skyline, the way fields of flax in bloom look just like water. Summers on the farm and at Delta Beach (you might have seen it in recent coverage of the Manitoba floods). I miss the openness of prairie people. I do not miss the cold winters. Perhaps in reaction to it, my adult life has been a migration to progressively warmer climes. I thought I left the mosquitoes back on the prairies as well.

By the time I discovered the truth about mosquitoes in Mérida I was too far along for it to be a deal-breaker. Perhaps it's kind of like discovering too late that your novia is a chronic snorer (sorry, Tom).

Mosquitoes in Mérida aren't big like the ones in Manitoba (see photo). I'm not sure they can possibly be as numerous, though some fellow bloggers certainly have stories. They can carry disease, and in Merida the concern has been about dengue fever.

The government works hard to prevent it. City employees hunt down sources of stagnant water at homes and businesses, pouring chemicals into drains. Dengue cases in Mérida are fairly rare, but it's a reality. I know one person who had it, long ago. It is also known as breakbone fever, apparently because that's what it feels like. If you get it repeatedly, the possibility increases of getting the haemorrhagic form, which can be fatal. (Check official sources such as the WHO or CDC for reliable information; I'm just repeating what I've picked up along the way).

Life is risk. We have our insect-borne diseases in Canada as well. But it seemed important to minimize the risk to ourselves and our guests, as well as avoiding the discomfort of getting itchy bites all over. I figure the screens and one of those electric swatters that the street vendors sell on the traffic medians should pretty well cover it. We still lack some basic things like a full set of dishes to eat on, but with the mosquiteras installed, I feel like our place is finally fit for company.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Shakira drops in

The blinds for our front windows are now installed, after several months of bare windows, and they do look nice in the pictures our architect Victor sent. It's one of those small details that preoccupy my mind beyond any real importance. When you're a worrier like me, there's always some small thing to stress about, such as the long-distance logistics of getting some chairs paid for and delivered, or getting water for a few parched plants in the back patio.

Still, it's a big relief. The house now seems more finished, and much less exposed.

Now our neighborhood is about to get a whole different kind of exposure. After months of publicity and preparations, Saturday is the big outdoor concert by Shakira. Up to 150,000 people are expected to attend. It's free, sponsored by some local business people, though you have to get tickets.

I'm not too familiar with Shakira's music, but she's a huge star, especially in Latin America. She did the 2010 official World Cup theme song, Waka Waka (This time for Africa), perhaps the pinnacle of fame for any star.

It's clear that this is a big deal for Mérida:

The free concert takes place in the old railway yards just a few blocks from our house. Shakira's impending visit has prompted some major improvements on that site, known as "La Plancha". The name apparently translates as "the Iron", though I think it means "the flats" rather than a reference to iron rails.

News stories in local media, such as this one in La Revista, describe the rehab of the railyards. The area was abandoned, overgrown, strewn with garbage. When workers started on the work they found a seriously injured man, near death, in an empty building on the site. Another story on the Sipse site says they removed 200 rail cars and 220 tons of trash in the cleanup. Here's an earlier Yucatan Times story in English. Victor says people are starting to use the new public space and it's a real improvement in the area.

The city's mayor describes the La Plancha project as part of an overall urban renewal plan for central Mérida. The Columbian superstar herself seems to be getting a lot of the credit for the transformation. It's her image on the billboard proclaiming the La Plancha renewal project, in silhouette, bent over a microphone, whipping her hair. So, thanks Shakira! I'm glad our windows are decent for your visit.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Parque Mejorada

I got to know this area better over many internet-deprived days during the last few visits to Mérida. I'd sit on the slatted wooden benches until my butt got sore, or until the laptop ran out of power; whichever came first.

I grew to like this park, in many ways, better than the busy Parque Grande about half a dozen blocks to the west. No one pestered me relentlessly to buy inferior hammocks, or tested pick-up lines while I tried to work ("Hey that's a really small computer...where you from?") No aggressive panhandling, which I experienced in Parque Santa Ana. It seems in those parks if you sit around too long you attract uninvited attention, like mosquitoes.

I found myself hanging out more and more in Parque Mejorada. A smaller park with fairly busy streets on two sides, but otherwise peaceful. As an added attraction it's pretty close to our house.

On my first few visits I felt like Mejorada didn't have much going on. Perhaps that's because there are no sidewalk restaurants like the ones surrounding Parque Grande, or market food stands as in Santa Ana. It's also not a location for any of the regular public concerts.

Over time I got around to exploring beyond some of the striking facades. I followed the sound of music to find a school with a band practicing in interior courtyard of one old building. Another day I ducked out of the afternoon heat into the museum of popular art. It was holding a spectacular exhibit of work related to Day of the Dead. On earlier visits we toured the Museum of Yucatecan Song, which is dedicated to the icons and history of the indelible Yucatecan music that you hear in the public concerts and on the radio. I have yet to explore the school of architecture which stands next to the cathedral, or the ancient cathedral which is the source of much street activity. Of course the famous Las Almendras restaurant with its Yucatecan cuisine faces the park as well. One day I was able to peek into the expansive green spaces of the Centro Cultural del Nino Yucateco, which lies behind the imposing walls across from the southeast corner of the square.

I took a bunch of pictures of what I found behind some of the grand facades, but in my current state of disorganization can't seem to find most of them. Here are a few from the Museo de Arte Popular and the music school.

I also found this link with info about the park and a few of the places around it. I'm looking forward to discovering more about the neighborhood now that the initial busy-work of renovations is done.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

if (have_pool())...

It has been a while since my last post. Instead of blogging, for the past few weeks, many hours disappeared into my latest course at the local college. The objective has been to learn a new language. Not Spanish, but PHP, a computer language for building websites.

Two nights a week, after work, I sat in a classroom trying to get my head around strings like this:
if(isset($_POST['submit'])) {
    $sql = "INSERT INTO entries (cat_id, dateposted, subject, body) VALUES (" . $_POST['cat'] . ", NOW(), '" . $_POST['subject'] . "', '" . $_POST['body'] . "');";
    header("LOCATION: " . $config_basedir);
} else {

Can't say I understand it yet, even now that the course is finished. 

I now know what a statement like the one above is supposed to do, but I couldn't tell you if there's punctuation out of place or why it's arranged the way it is. If you took away my textbook and asked me to write something like that from scratch, I would probably put my head down on the desk in defeat.

The reason I took the course is I've realized I need to understand PHP  to do what I want to do with websites. It can also make it practical to hand the site over to people who are even less technical than me, so they can add and update stuff easily.

Spanish is much easier and more fun to learn. But learning to work with PHP is part of the long-term plan.

The plan is to get to spend lots of time in Merida before we're too decrepit to enjoy it much. I love the idea of being able to work wherever we are. This is not so easy to arrange with my day job. I sort of have to be there. The boss would notice if I stopped showing up at the morning story meetings.

Back when I started meeting people in Merida and the nearby beach towns, it became clear that a lot of Canadians and Americans work online for employers located north of the border. Some are web designers or programmers or other types of technical people. Some are more the writer/editor types who handle online content. These include the people who provide comment-monitoring services for my own employer, which publishes the top news website in Canada, among other media things.  I realized these smart people in the Yucatan have it figured out: They can sit by the beach or the pool and get paid for their work, while suckers like me toil in the cold and damp, thousands of kilometres away.

So this is what I hope to do:
1. Keep practicing PHP until it starts to make sense.
2. Get a pool.
3. Sit by pool working on web stuff that might include complicated strings of PHP.

Quite possibly none of these things will come to pass, although I'd guess the pool is going to happen sooner or later. No matter, it's interesting to try and pleasant to daydream.

The great writer Malcolm Gladwell, in The Outliers, calculates that it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of experience for a person to master a complex skill. That sounds okay. There's no hurry. I'm not quitting my day job.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Casa Azul

The pale green paint was flaking off the facade by the time interior renovations were underway. At the back, the walls had been patched after the drainage pipes were buried in the wall. I thought it would be hard to pick a new color from all the incredible hues that are splashed on walls all over Merida.

A few nice shades were tested on the front wall.

But then I came across this grand house in the Santa Ana neighborhood. I found this shade of aqua blue completely electrifying.

It happened to be the work of our architects at Estilo - so Victor knew exactly what color it was.

Here it is on our (much less grand) facade and back walls.

Like it?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mexico's Mennonites and Irma Voth

Since my first trip to Mexico in the early 1980s I've been fascinated by the Mennonites. I knew many migrated from the Canadian prairies, where Mennonites continue to have a strong presence. It was thrilling to encounter one in Merida for the first time a few years ago, a tall blond man in overalls selling cheese from table to table in the Alameda restaurant. For some reason I assumed he'd speak English and would know stories about life in Canada - perhaps I felt a connection between their history and my own farming relatives who settled in Manitoba. But no, he was from Campeche state, period; there were no stories of Canadian or any other foreign roots. He was puzzled by my questions. The cheese was excellent, though.

I've seen Mexican Mennonites occasionally since then. Most recently in a group at a building supply store in the Mejorada neighborhood: the men dressed in formal black overalls, the women covered in their long dark printed dresses. First time I'd seen Mennonite women in town. A small boy, maybe aged three or four, perched on a crate in his wee black overalls, white shirt and hat. I started to go for my camera, then hesitated, realizing that taking a photo might violate their cultural and religious rules.

So I was excited to discover Canadian writer Miriam Toews' new novel, Irma Voth, about a young Mennonite woman and her family in Mexico. Toews is of Mennonite background herself, and happened upon the subject matter after she was inveigled to play the role of a Mennonite wife in the art film, Stellet Licht (Silent Light), by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas.

I don't know how closely Irma Voth reflects the Mennonite experience in Mexico, or even Chihuahua state where it is mostly set. There are narcos and violence, and a deep, oppressive unhappiness. I loved the book anyway. The story line  includes the making of a film involving the Mennonites and a foreign actress. Beyond the drama, it gives a view into the sensibility of this tribe who, as the fictional Irma says in the book, "live like ghosts", and "move all around the world in colonies looking for freedom and isolation and peace and opportunities to sell cheese."

Here's an article  from the Globe and Mail if you'd like to read more about Toews and Irma Voth . Now I can't wait to see the film, Stellet Licht, if I can track it down.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Changes in the 'hood

Our house wasn't the only thing undergoing a transformation in our neighborhood in the time between my visits.

This time, right away, I noticed  new paint colors on some of the houses on our block. One end of the block had been anchored by two empty storefronts for at least the year and a half that I had been haunting the area. Now one of those
storefronts was occupied by a sharp new Dunosusa grocery/drygoods store, a nice complement to all the fresh produce and meat available at the Chem Bech market on the next block. The other storefront, while still empty, was freshly painted and looking much nicer - who knows what could be there by the time we return?

Other changes were less obvious but hinted at a changing mood or sensibility in the area. I went to the tendejon at the other end of the street to get water and cokes for the workers at our house. The shop owner is very friendly. On my first visit he informed me that there were many Canadian paysanos in the neighborhood, to my great surprise. I thought our area was a bit beyond the encroachment zone, where one charming neighborhood is so populated with American and Canadian expats it's sometimes referred to as "Gringo Gulch".

Dunosusa: Your full range of votive candles
This time, with my change for the drinks, the tendejon owner surprised me with a sales pitch: Did I want to buy his building? He listed off the features, opened the door to show me the living space in behind the shop area, divulged the asking price. I wasn't sure what to say, as I already have a house and wasn't thinking of going into the corner-store business. I told him I'd certainly let people know about the property. Then I left with my purchases and lingering questions about the exchange. Was he feeling pressured by the well-stocked new Dunosusa at the other end of the block? Is there a sense of a land rush in the neighborhood after a couple of (I was told) very slow years in the local real estate market? Or do random foreigners get these kinds of offers all the time?

My curiosity intensified a couple of days later at the local lavanderia. After I dropped off my clothes, out of the blue, the operator's husband approached me with his card and started to tell me how he could find me beach property at very good prices. Now I admit I am a bit of a real-estate weenie. Endlessly fascinated with the market, the prices, the opportunities, the hidden potential of even the sorriest wreck of a place. I've enjoyed buying and renovating a few places over the years, and would have done more if money wasn't such darned hard stuff to get. But I've never been approached repeatedly by total strangers who assumed I was "in the market".

I wonder what it means.

Dunosusa: I don't know what these are but I think you eat them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Early retirement

This old bike has been my trusty steed and daily transportation for the better part of the last two decades. Got it second-hand from a bike-mechanic friend. It's the best bike I ever owned, but also the only one that was never stolen. I am sure that's because it's so ugly and usually also could use a bit of cleaning. That, and a good lock.

When I rented a house in Merida, before we bought our own, there was a bike available for guests and I took it out once or twice a day, exploring neighborhoods, checking out the street vibes after dark, pushing beyond the places my feet could take me. Getting lost on a bike isn't so bad because it doesn't take long to get un-lost.

With no plans to get a car, I wanted a bike in Merida to get around. The ones I saw in stores seemed big and heavy. My old bike is light, responsive and so familiar after all these years that it feels like an extension of myself. When the mechanics told me it might be getting too old to find replacement parts, I figured it had earned a good retirement home.

So I had it dissembled and packed in a shipping box for the trip to Merida. Cost $30 for the box and packing, around $50 more, I think, to get it on the plane. Once in Merida, I humped it down to the local BiciMaya store and they charged me 80 pesos (about $6.60) to put it back together.

Cycling in Merida is something that seems best approached with some caution. The streets are narrow and uneven, traffic is packed in, and drivers can be somewhat aggressive. I've been told the licensing process for drivers is not what you'd call rigorous. The tabloid papers frequently feature gory accident pictures.

Still, you've got to appreciate a city that closes its main north/south artery to traffic every Sunday and turns it into a dedicated bike route. When I got my wheels put back together and started riding, I began to notice the other cyclists. No one else wears a helmet; all seem to be workers or elderly men.

After I got the bike back to the house I decided to head to the nearby mall for household supplies. Arriving there, the parking lot seemed to have nowhere to lock up. Then I saw a cluster of bikes near the main doors. Getting closer, I realized they were unlocked, with a man keeping watch over them. A bike valet. This bike was retiring in style.

At many parking lots around Merida you see similar parking helpers and minders, a sort of unofficial and often unwanted service. They who wave a red rag and direct drivers into their parking spots, then expect a propino for keeping watch while you shop or whatever. I had no idea a similar informal economy existed around bike-minding, but I was happy to leave it with my valet and accept a little wooden token with a number so I could claim it back.

When I returned, laden with pillows and a curtain rod, it was a bit of a comic scene trying to jam everything onto the bike rack. I discovered the rack was missing a spring and suddenly stuff was all over the pavement. Maybe it wasn't put back together quite right after the flight. But we made it back through the zig-zag neighborhood streets, me no doubt looking like a gringa nut, all laden with pillows and other bulky items, weaving around on the old bike.

The next day I forswore the beast-of-burden routine, but took a city map and made an excursion to an obscure (to me) location in a semi-distant neighborhood on a furniture scouting mission. Felt a sense of accomplishment actually finding it, and making it back. On the way I discovered a sign advertising a public cenote not far from our house, something to check out another time, and something I would not have seen taking the main road.

It's going to take a bit of fine-tuning to get the bike and the routes sorted out. But even now, back in Victoria, it's comforting to think of my familiar friend leaning against the wall, ready for adventure.