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?
Yucatango

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]