Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Long-distance learning

A couple of interesting pieces about Mexico's legal system and the Mayan "Apocalypse" in the Canadian media this week.

David Johnston is Canada's Governor General, who serves as the Queen's representative in our Commonwealth country. Before he was appointed to that job he was a distinguished legal scholar. In The Globe and Mail newspaper this week he writes about the collaboration with Mexico to help reform the legal system: "Canada and Mexico, partners in the pursuit of justice".

Then last night the CBC Radio program Ideas broadcast this hour-long documentary about the Mayan calendar. Fascinating - for the first time I actually began to comprehend some tiny part of the logic behind the elaborate cycles of days and the tun and katun and baktun. The doc is called "The End of Days".

"In Lak'ech."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Puerto Vallarta

The morning's catch
Pelican, waiting for scraps
Nail shop
We've only been home for a couple of days from our week-long working trip to Puerto Vallarta, but already it's hard to believe we were there.

For the first time ever, we stayed in a high-end resort hotel. Staying there made it easy to connect with the doctors, patients and other medical tourism players I had traveled all that way to meet. We have always insisted we were not resort people, but it turned out to be awfully easy to get used to a bit of luxury.

The week was a blur of interviews, scenes and sounds of hospital rooms and dentists' offices. It was profoundly moving and also disturbing to hear from several fellow Canadians about the circumstances that led them to Mexico for major, potentially life-saving surgery. I am looking forward to sharing their stories soon in a CBC Radio documentary.

We had only a few unscheduled hours one day  to make the short trip to the historic centre of Puerto Vallarta. Our first time to the city. What a pretty, charming place, with its steep cobbled streets and spectacular waterfront. It was hard to resist the displays of stunning workmanship in pottery, masks, metal and glass, as well as intricately carved furniture and fine textiles. But maybe there will be another time for buying things.

We did manage to capture a few of the vivid sounds and scenes of the streets to bring home with us.

Great fish tacos at Marisma

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Travelling for treatment, not tourism

More renovation pictures arrive. It's hard to believe this is the same unlovely back patio and guestroom we started with almost three years ago, when we bought the house.

Almost every day I click back through the pictures Victor emailed to us, and feel transported to a warmer place and a more relaxed state of mind.

With the guest suite, the crushed-stone patio and its newly planted bougainvillea and oleander, it's easy to imagine lazy days hanging out by the pool with visiting friends and relatives. It's becoming the kind of tropical scene that lures so many of us to Mexico.

These days, though, my mind is preoccupied with a different enterprise that's drawing thousands of Canadians and Americans south of the border: medical tourism. Instead of afternoons by a pool, I daydream about gleaming white hospitals and sketchy strip mall clinics, dental implants and bariatric surgery. I follow the discussions about the relative merits of vertical sleeve gastrectomy versus Roux-en-Y . I pore over patient reviews of bariatric and cosmetic surgeons, of happy outcomes and, sometimes, life-threatening complications. I post messages on patient forums and contact support groups. I'm making travel arrangements, not for Mérida this time, but for the west coast of Mexico.

I should explain. I'm not in the market for treatment myself (although it's tempting to see about getting a bargain on a crown for one bothersome back molar). Instead, I'm exploring the world of medical tourism as a journalist for CBC radio.  I've been seeking Canadian patients who can share their stories about why they need to leave the country that's so boastful of its universal health care, to pay out-of-pocket for medical treatment in an unfamiliar land.

One thing I'm learning: It's nobody's first choice to go to Tijuana for major stomach surgery. Or to India for hip resurfacing, or Costa Rica for vein angioplasty. The "tourism" part of the medical tourism tag tends to be a bit of a misnomer.

By the way, if you're a Canadian who's travelling to Mexico or another country for treatment, I'd love to hear from you. You can reach me at deborahwilso at gmail dot com (it's not a typo, there's no "n" in the address).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mérida on my mind

image courtesy of Victor Cruz/Estilo Arquitectura
This morning's distractions from the writing I'm supposed to be doing: A link to a post by someone who recently had a lot of fun in Mérida, plus another enticing shot of our now- finished pool. It makes me wonder, why are we not there?

Oh, right, it's because there's way, way too much work on my plate, and a renovation plan that's gone sideways for our wonky old Victoria house, and must now be rethunk.

Oh well, it's always good to have something to look forward to.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Pool time in Mérida, and Honduras

(photo courtesy of Victor Cruz /Estilo Yucatan)
Victor sends pictures. The pool takes shape. With a layer of fine finishing cement, its curved steps look like sculpture.  The local abañiles are renowned for transforming stone and concrete into any shape or purpose. Their art is a modern form of an ancient tradition. I wonder if any ancestors were builders of the Mayan pyramids that dot the peninsula?

We're building a swimming pool for our own pleasure, to cool off on hot days, or float under calm night skies. Such a thing has always seemed like an unimaginable luxury, but there it is, in Victor's pictures.

Can I say, it makes me feel a bit guilty?

Not too, too far from Mérida, our friends send pictures from another pool. Jody and Paul are two of the people I admire most. About a year ago they quit their jobs, gave away or packed away almost everything they owned, and moved to Honduras. They were always compassionate people who put their principles into action. Now they help non-profit groups that are working to overcome the abject poverty of people living in that region.

In their spare time Paul and Jody go to the local orphanage. Forty children, from babies to teenagers, live there. The home is basic and bleak, dim, with a worn concrete floor. The kids come there from circumstances ranging from desperate to tragic.

At first, Jody said, she didn't know where to start to be of help to these children. But Paul and Jody are family people, and they couldn't ignore children in such great need. As the months progress, and the posts on  Paul and Jody's blogs, you can see they're finding ways to make a difference.

They discovered a nearby hotel with an unused pool (their community is near the famous Copan ruins). So they struck a deal with the hotel and now twice a month, they pay to bring a dozen kids from the orphanage for a swim. For many of the kids it was their first time in the water.

Jody and Paul are also raising a few bucks from friends and acquaintances to help with the most basic needs at the orphanage - some decent mattresses, laundry soap, art and craft supplies, a little more food.

Paul and Jody do all this for no fame or personal gain. They live in a small rented house that would satisfy few Merida expatriates' standards, and certainly no one among our circle of comfortable mid-career media types here in Victoria. They receive a bare stipend for their official work. They don't have great restaurants, or nice things to buy where they live. It can't be easy. They've given up their comforts, their income, and nearness to family and friends. But in their Facebook pictures they look radiant and happy.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Reno x 2

Photos courtesy of Victor Cruz,  Estilo Arquitectura 

Thesis: It is more fun to renovate in Mérida than Canada. For some reason we find ourselves working on two homes at once, and so comparisons are unavoidable.

Fallingdowne, as we call our 101-year-old Victoria fixer-upper, is getting ready for its long-awaited makeover.

Work is already underway on phase 2 of the Mérida reno, which will add a pool and bathroom and fix up the existing guest bedroom.

The Victoria house is cold, old, crooked and run-down. The scale of the project is overwhelming: Empty the house, move out, remove chimneys, lift house, blast rock face under house, pour new foundation, construct ground level apartment, gut two upper floors, replace upstairs kitchen, replace upstairs bathrooms, rewire, insulate, re-roof, drywall, paint. We've been delaying this project for 15 years, while making stopgap repairs year after year that never solve the fundamental problems.

The Mérida work is underway sooner than we originally planned, because it became clear, even to this perpetually cold Canadian, how important a pool is in a hot, hot place.

It will probably be a while before we get to test the waters ourselves, as long as north-of-the-border reno and work commitments keep us busy.

Still, just looking at the pictures of the progress in Mérida makes me smile. Fallingdowne  keeps me up at night, worrying.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What renters want (Part 2)

A while ago I created a survey about renting a home in Merida. (you can take the survey by going to the "Rental Survey" link in the upper right corner of this blog).

We dream of the day when we'll be able to spend months in our tropical retreat, but for now, work and family obligations will keep us in Canada for all but a few weeks of the year. So it made sense to rent out our house to long-term tenants in the meantime.

As I searched for information about renting a home in Merida, it seemed mostly anecdotal and often contradictory. I wanted to know what renters want and need; especially people planning to settle in, as opposed to short-stay vacationers.

I shared some early results and promised to provide more detail. But then things got busy and I haven't followed up for a while. Meanwhile, survey responses kept trickling in, so my procrastination turned out to be a good thing. The more respondents, the better the quality of the information.

Here are some of the details I've learned, from 21 respondents to the survey so far:

About 2/3 of the respondents were renters or potential renters. The rest were homeowners who rent out accomodations, or "other".

Length of rental:  1/3 said they rented or planned to rent for six months or more. 1/3 rented for three months or less, 1/3 did not specify. (I'm interested in information about longer-term rentals, so I didn't specifically ask about rentals of a week or a weekend.)

Got pets?  Lots of people bring their pets to the Yucatan. 11 of the respondents said they do have pets, 7 did not.

How many people in your household? 12 respondents had two people in the house. Two were singles, and two had a household of three people.

How many bedrooms required? 13 need two bedrooms. Two need one, and two need three bedrooms.

How many bathrooms needed? Nine respondents say they need two bathrooms. Seven say one bathroom will do.

The most important features:

- fans: 89 per cent
- dishes and cooking equipment: 84 per cent
- fully furnished and equipped: 79 per cent
- pool: 74 per cent
- cleaning one or more times a month (combined results) 69 per cent
- Internet: 68 per cent
- air conditioning: 53 per cent
- TV/Cable: 42/47 per cent respectively

Turns out nobody really cares about my preciosa solar hot water system (11 per cent). That, and a garage (16 per cent) and a cell or land line phone (16, 26 per cent) were at the bottom of the list of desired features.

Rent budget: I might not have structured this part of the survey very well. It doesn't distinguish between short-term and long-term rates, or sort the responses according to the types of services or features required. For what it's worth, here's a rough breakdown of responses:

Six months or more: $400 to about $1,000 a month (Notably, the respondent with the lowest budget wanted the most services, and some of the respondents with higher budgets were amenable to minimal features and services.)

Under 3 months: $1,500 to $1,800

Under 1 month: $750 to $2,000 a month; up to $1,000 a week.

Some comments:

"I've rented both long- and short-term. For the short term I preferred lightly furnished places. My second short-term rental was so crammed with furniture it seemed like a storage unit more than a house."

"There's a big difference in price between the for-gringos market and the Spanish-speaking market. On the gringo side, I rented a one-bedroom furnished, charm-free apartment for $650, if I remember right, and then a one-bedroom tiny colonial (heavily furnished!) for $600 for 5 months. I've switched to the Spanish-speaking side and now pay $5,000 pesos ($370-$420 US) for a 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath unfurnished house with a big yard in a nice neighborhood north of the Centro."

"For us, TV wasn't important but of course will be for most people. Finding a pet friendly place in a ''safe'' neighborhood with a pool was most important."

"We've paid as little as $500/wk for a really nice place with a pool. For our first full winter, we are paying way too much ($1,200), but it was hard to find a full winter stay, as owners want to use their home, too."

"(Requirement:) family-friendly pool. Many of the places we have looked at have direct access from the bedrooms to the pool. Not good for families with young kids. Many rentals also don't allow kids."

"We have been offering vacation rentals for 3-1/2 years.  The first thing that you need to decide is who your market is.  If short term vacation rentals, I would suggest going high end.  Top quality sheets and towels, fully equipped kitchen with great quality gadgets and appliances, nice decor touches.  Have a pool.  Have air con and either include it or charge electricity as an add on (especially in summer).  Get cable internet (Cablemas).  Get Canadian satellite tv through Shaw - sign up for an account up north and bring one or two satellite receiver boxes down.  Have a local install a dish and the connections.  Offer weekly maid service.
Or go mid-range and slightly less luxurious.  I suspect there is a bigger market for rental in the mid range than in luxury.  You still need to fully equip the house...  In any case don't charge extra for anything with the possible exception of electricity charges in April-September when air con use is high.  People hate extra charges."  

"If you decide to rent long term either to expats or to the local market, rent it completely empty.  Don't include a single thing.  They can get the cable and electricity hooked up in their own names and get the bills.  The rental rate will be lower but it will be occupied full time.  Don't install air con if you go this way, just in case they don't pay their final bill and stiff you for it.  Get your lawyer in Merida to draw up a rental contract.  The tenant pays the fee for this, which is usually one month's rent.  You could decide to accept pets if you go this way since you are not providing furniture." 

"I think a pool and AC (charge by use) is really necessary in Merida. Little touches like colorful dishes, wall hangings and furniture that calls out, "Mexico... Mexico." A good list of  "Where to go if you need..." A person the renter can call if there's an emergency or something breaks. If there's a market or a friendly plaza nearby, point it out. Would prefer centro and rental with good electric and plumbing plus screens; also closet space.  In a perfect world, there would be one king bed with a good mattress."

"Outdoor living with good beds, bathrooms, kitchen, tv, wifi, pool and yard, security, neighborhood are important."

"We've rented houses here for a much as $650 US and as low as $275 a month, long-term. One house was 2 bedroom, 2 bath and the other 3 bedroom, 3 bath. The lower rent was a bigger nicer house but only semi-furnished. For a long term rental I would probably pay $300-$500 US a month depending upon the house and location. I'd want it unfurnished."

Thanks to everyone who responded, by the way.

I hope this might be of use for anyone who's thinking of renting their home, or looking for a place to rent. We are not looking for renters at this time, but it was fun to do the survey and I think I'd structure it a bit differently next time to improve it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Cablemas guys

Waiting for the cable guy: It's an almost universally shared experience north of the border. A bad movie. A metaphor for frustration. Who knew that Mexico has its own version? Sorting out our cable account in Mérida has become an ongoing test of patience, strategy and language skills.

I've been striving to become more independent and self-sufficient in Mérida. I needed a lot of help, early on, with basic needs and arrangements. Now as my Spanish slowly improves and I learn how things work, I'm trying to start paying our own bills and arranging services on my own. There's only so much I can do when we're only there for a small part of the year. But amending the cable contract seemed do-able.

 The contract with Cablemás was opened by the property manager, in her name because I was back in Canada at the time. I wanted to change it to my own name, and set up automatic payment so it would be one less thing to think about. It seemed to be going so well.

I got a copy of the letter that needed to be signed by both of us to change the name on the account. I got a copy of her ID, and brought in  my passport. After a bit of a wait at the air-conditioned office in the Garcia Gineres neighborhood, my number came up and I presented  my documents. A form was filled out and it all seemed right. Another form was produced to start the automated credit-card payments. I was happy to learn there is a healthy discount for paying by this method.

I was lulled into complacency by how well it appeared to be going. Even Tom, waiting patiently, remarked on the apparent efficiency of the operations. We've endured much more bureaucratic and frustrating experiences with Mexican bureaucracy in the past. 

After returning to Canada the next day, I registered for online access to my account, checked the latest statement and  - ack! - see the account information has been changed, and is now completely wrong. Instead of my name and address, it now has the property manager's name and address. The wrong information must have been typed into the system by mistake. I take another look at my copies of the paperwork from Cablemás. The name change form looks right, but that's when I notice another mistake: the account  number for the automatic payment is incorrect. Looks like I could end up paying someone else's cable bill.

I email Cablemás, and get no reply for several days. So I call the office. The phone line is terrible and I can't make out most of the important details in the responses of the patient Cablemás employee on the other end of the line. She kindly offers to try it in very slow English. It goes a bit better, but her main point is that I have to come in to the office to change anything. When I explain that I won't be in Mérida for months to come, and I have no relatives there who can do it for me, and I'm afraid my service will be cut off, she says she'll see what she can do, and asks me to call back.

After a second phone call with a different person goes no better, I try the online chat support. It is much easier than the phone. I toggle back and forth to Google Translate to check unfamiliar phrases and parse my questions. Flor, the chat support person, says not to worry, the account details will be changed on the next bill. I relax a little and wait.

Update #1, April 2012: 

Flor is right, the account information is changed. It has my name but now it has my former property manager's address instead of our house. Not good. But the cable service is uninterrupted at my house.

I promise myself I will contact Cablemás and try again to sort out the problem with the account address, then spend the rest of the month distracted by other obligations.

Update #2, May 2012:

The new account statement arrives in the email. The bill is paid, and the payment is showing up on my credit card statement, so that eases my worry that I will end up paying someone else's account.

But the address for the account is still wrong. And there's another strange change. The latest charge is half the cost of the previous ones. Just under 180 pesos. I'm supposed to be charged 379 minus the discount for automatic payment. Has my service been changed? I check the Cablemás website and there's no price reduction in their package for TV and internet.

Back on line I go with the chat support service. Once again I'm told I have to come to the branch to sort it out.  Once again I say that's not possible. Once again I'm asked if a family member can come in. Once again I explain I have no family in Mexico, which seems incomprehensible to Cablemás employees. I'm promised someone will be able to help me in English if I try their toll-free line, but I feel I've been down that path.

I find the online chat support service with Cablemás is very pleasant. But nothing seems to get resolved. Why can't they just check their records and see that someone made a mistake typing in the account change?

I'm slowly conceding that I have to give in on this one and get someone to go in to Cablemás and sort it out for me. It's a bit of a defeat in the quest to master independent living.

The whole exercise gives me more empathy for immigrants and refugees everywhere, learning to live in a foreign culture, language and bureaucracy. Also the realization that frustration with the cable company knows no borders and needs no translation.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Finding furniture

I was surprised to discover that it's kind of hard to find interesting furniture in Mérida. I love things that are old or modern classics, or at least unusual. Also, cheap. So it's a long hunt for the right object at the right price. NOB, I tend to find my favorite things at thrift stores and garage sales. Sometimes free, at the curb.

I'm not sure why Mérida, the oldest continuously-occupied (European) city in the Americas, and the wealthiest one in its heyday, appears to have a relative scarcity of good used furniture for sale. I wonder where it all went after the henequen industry collapsed early in the last century.

Still, the house in Mérida is slowly acquiring things I like that turn up here and there. On the latest trip, the priority was finding a coffee table or a couple of side tables for the sala. The front room had seating but no flat surface where you could set down a book or a drink, except the tile floor.

Over a couple of weeks, I searched without success, as far as my bike would take me.

Triunfo's basement
Triunfo, the overstuffed emporium of mostly junk and bad taste on Paseo de Montejo, sometimes has nice canework and tropical wood furniture in the basement level. On an earlier trip I bought a couple of plantation chairs there, but this time no coffee table spoke to me from the dark recesses.

"The junkyard", an open lot full of salvaged bits of houses, industrial remnants and some refinished furniture pieces, had some nice small tables that were tempting. So were the old-style wooden carts, possibly from the hacienda era although they seemed too pristine. However, the carts were too heavy-looking, and probably full of splinters.

"The junkyard"

Old wooden carts, or maybe reproductions?

Various shops sold mass-produced pieces made of particle board, or simple, rustic tables, or elaborately carved ones, but they wouldn't go with the other stuff in the sala. 

Then finally in one workshop near our house, obscured by the semi-darkness near the back, I noticed this old iron cart.

The shop-owners seemed a little puzzled that I would choose this amid all the lovely carved wood pieces they made. But dusted off and fitted with a glass top, we thought it was just what was needed.  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A day without water

It wasn't the first time that no water came out when I turned on the tap. So I wasn't too worried when it happened again one night. Probably someone, working on something, turned off the lever at the meter, in front of the house, and forgot to turn it on again. I'd get by until morning when I would be able to flip it back on, and check to see the dial spin and the numbers tick over on the display.

But the lever at the street wasn't shut off, and the dial didn't turn when I opened and closed it a few more times.

It was tinaco time.

When something's wrong with the water the usual thing is to climb up on the roof and check the water tank, or tinaco. Everybody has one. The city water is pressure-fed to the tinaco, and from there it is gravity-fed into the house. That's one reason why the water pressure from taps in Mexico isn't always so great, unless it gets a boost from a pressurized system and pump.

Of course I didn't think about the tinaco too much before now.

Dragged the ladder out of the closet, leaned it up against the roof, climbed up, dragged the ladder onto the roof, carried it over and leaned it against the tinaco, which at our house, is on a concrete stand 1.5 meters high. That's so water will flow with sufficient pressure into our nearby solar water heater. At the top of the ladder you twist off the lid of the tinaco and yes, there's nothing in there you'd want to come out of your taps. There's a lot of sediment in the couple of inches of water on the bottom, and a dead gecko. Good thing we don't actually drink this stuff.

Several helpful people will go through the same exercise through the day, and all of them know more about tinacos than me. They'll check the float valve that controls the shut-off when it's full, and the pvc pipes that lead from meter to tinaco. A few theories will emerge: float valve might need replacement; sarro buildup in the pipes,  the seasonal reduction in water pressure as heat, and consumption, rises. The municipal water company sends four workers to check it out, and they tell me the tinaco has to be lowered from its perch, or else I will need a second tinaco, or a cistern, and a pump to get the water up into the main one. At least I'm pretty sure that's the gist of it.

At the end of the day I still have no water. I am dirty and tired from climbing ladders and standing in the sun. I'm in a strange kind of limbo, a little uncertain about who to call to deal with a problem that is surprisingly difficult to conclusively pinpoint. I put out a couple of requests, and wait, and feel increasingly sorry for myself.

Times like this can be terribly discouraging, when you've been thinking you can get along okay in another country and another language, putting down roots and making a home for our eventual dotage. It feels like punishment for all my bravado; a big cosmic kick in the ass.

Tomorrow will be better. I thought of a way to get water from the street-front tap into the tinaco by hooking them up with the garden hose, after a cleaning, of course. So if it works, we'll have water, even if we don't have a solution yet.

Update: Overnight, the tank quietly refilled. In the end it looks like someone might have forgotten to turn off the hose while watering the plants the day before. I fished out the dead gecko. There hasn't been any further problem but we'll see about getting that cistern and pump at some point in the future.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Exorcising ghosts

The microwave light flickers on and off. The plate turns, the motor hums, but the food doesn't heat. Unplug and move the appliance off its shelf, and discover a small pile of dried ant corpses underneath. Although they are no longer climbing the walls in great numbers, clearly our ant invasion continues.

Time to stop dilly-dallying. Call a nice-sounding extermination company found on the internet, Ecologia y Plagas. (Well, the ecologia part sounds nice. Plagas sounds pretty scary, but we try to ignore that.)

I feel great pride at arranging the appointment on the phone in Spanish, including questions about the type of chemicals used, and precautions that are needed. Phone calls in Spanish have been difficult in the past, so this must be progress. However when I call back to change the appointment time, a different employee on the line insists on switching to English. I guess some people have a lower tolerance for gibberish.

At exactly the appointed time, Javier the exterminator arrives. Everything in the house that can fit in a plastic bag or bin, or in the fridge (even empty containers) is bagged or stashed. Javier is a lovely young guy. I forgot to ask about taking his picture. It would have been nicer than more pictures of bugs. He starts with a plunger tool that is bigger than a syringe but smaller than a caulking gun, and dabs a bit of clear liquid near the electrical outlets where the ants come and go. Soon the ants are crowded around it like guests around the pulled pork spread at a Nebraska wedding.

Javier explains that the ants will eat the liquid and take it back to their nest, and within four days, they'll all be dead. This is when I show him the three different kinds of ant bait I brought from Canada, which are all supposed to work the same way. One of them was popular with the ants, but clearly didn't deliver the knockout.

Javier checks the contents on each one and points to the illustrations on the package. This one, he says, pointing to the sugary one, is for black ants. Another is for fire ants (yes they have them here in Merida, he says.) The third one, I don't quite get the name of the ants, but they aren't my ants. My ants are hormigas fantasmas. Ghost ants.

I was weirdly delighted to hear this because La Princesa is far too interested in those ridiculous Ghost Hunter type shows, even though she claims not to believe a bit of it. I am thrilled any time I can tell her anything about Merida she might find even remotely interesting, although perhaps this will be a stretch.

Anyway, I'm fascinated, and I have learned many other Merida-dwellers also find ants to be a compelling topic of writing and reading. It's like talking about the rain where I come from.

Javier explains, as he dabs around more outlets, that the ants attack the wiring because they're drawn to the sound of the electricity, and they will completely destroy appliances such as the stove, the fridge, and the microwave. As returning readers might know, they already wrecked the nearly-new fan in our kitchen.

After all the dabbing is done and the ants are gathered around the delicious poison, Javier gets out his spraying apparatus and starts soaking the walls and windows and corners with another chemical. This is where I get out of the house and stare blankly at my 501 Spanish Verbs book for a little while. It's hot out there, but there is shade, and the symphony players who live in the house behind us are practicing, so it is like a private concert, just for me. I am thinking we need to get some outdoor furniture and start spending time out there.

Soon the spraying is done and there are ant bodies everywhere on the floor, below the spots where they had been enjoying Javier's treat. When I come back from my endless errands after about an hour, more ants have come out of the walls to begin dining again at Javier's dabs on the wall. So I guess they're the ones who will poison the nest. What drama!

The treatment is done, I pay, and if we repeat it in a month, there's a six-month guarantee that we won't have ants. For those of you who care as deeply as I do, I will keep you posted.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

T'saan : Mayan for beginners

I had been waiting for a long time for a chance to attend one of the "Conversations with friends" nights at the Mérida English Language Library. They run for a couple of hours every Monday night. Conversaciones is for people who want to practice their Spanish or their English skills. I wondered how that would work, and which language would predominate.

We arrived late-ish (myself and friends Gail and Alfredo, also first-timers) and it was surprising to see about a dozen tables full of people, already in full gabfest mode. We were hived off to a couple of tables with people we hadn't met before.

There were no rules, the conversation just went back and forth from English to Spanish. More English than I would have preferred, though no doubt it varies from table to table, and week to week. One of our table-mates, Pablo, was pretty quiet, especially when the conversation was in English. But we got to talking about common Mayan words and Pablo was like a walking dictionary of the language.

I've been hoping to someday learn at least a bit of Mayan - it's spoken by half a million people here; in fact many Mayan people don't speak a lot of Spanish, so it is very useful to know some. Here are some of my first Mayan words, thanks to Pablo:

maquech - the beetles sold near the Plaza Grande, with tiny artificial jewels glued on their backs.
chan shipa - muchacho, boy
macachi-pek - shut up
purux - a fat person
dzao yan - skinny
mis - cat
ba oosh - how much?
hach ko - too much!
dios bo teek - thanks
chu huk - candy or sweet
choko kin - too hot

Of course these are missing the accents and apostrophes. I haven't noted the emphasis on syllables, and pronunciation - it is such a musical, percussive language. No doubt some of them are mis-spelled or just plain wrong. Corrections and clarifications are welcome.

When I scribbled these words on  my note cards I felt like I had been let in on some big secret. Many people I speak to here in Canada are surprised to learn there are still Mayan people around, or that the language is widely spoken. 

So a couple of months later on another trip back from Mérida I was surprised to find a Spanish/ Maya dictionary in an airport convenience store. Not such a secret after all, I guess. I'm hoping to give the little dictionary a lot of use in the years to come.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Entertaining the ants

The street sign should have warned us
We had a taste-testing event at our house on my latest visit. Our expert panel of testers - thousands of them, actually, were invited to sample three different products. So far the peanut-buttery tasting one is a bigger hit than the sugary one.

Yes, even though there was nothing to eat in the empty house for the past few years, ants have moved in. They are fascinating creatures. It is amazing to see how, in minutes, they find and attack even the tiniest crumb on a counter. Their bizarre fascination with electrical outlets and gadgets. The little highways they follow to go to and from their nests - I could watch them all day long.

I learned quite a bit about ants in Merida from other bloggers  such as Blah...blah... blah...Ginger! and Yucatango. People have different attitudes to them. Some say live and let live, others say bomb the house with insecticides, and there are gradations in between.

My preference is to stay away from heavy-duty pesticides and try to use organic or natural methods to get rid of them. In Canada I buy ant bait made from a combination of sugar and borax (the same stuff you can use to make your laundry whiter without bleach). Ants take it back to the nest and poison the whole colony. It seems to work.

I could not find the borax product in Mérida, so I bought some in Canada and brought it down this time to try it out - three different kinds. I figured the ants in different rooms could try out the options for a week while I'm here and give their reviews. Or preferably, just die.

But this is the tropics, and the bugs and creepy crawlies are in a whole different league.

Over the week-long test, the ants dined enthusiastically on the ant bait, especially the savory kind, and seemed to disappear for a couple of days. But now they are back.

I didn't worry too much about the ants until we discovered the kitchen ceiling fan wasn't working and the reason was, it was clogged with the detritus of ant activity; polvo and bits of... I don't know, ant shit? The fan motor was completely burned out and the whole thing had to be replaced.

They work fast! These new fans were installed just a few months ago. The ant paths include pit stops at several other electrical outlets, so I fear more problems ahead. I had heard about ants chewing the wiring but never quite believed it until now.

So my fence-sitting on the ant question is over. It's time for heavy, or at least heavier artillery before they destroy more of our electrical work. Recommendations, anyone?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The first trip to Mérida

Sorting through papers, I found an old journal from my first trip to Mexico, overland by bus and train with a friend in 1982-83. It's funny reading the first impressions of 23-year-old me.

 Merida, January 24th:Maria Teresa Hotel... it seems so odd. We keep finding coffin shops and funeral parlors next to the hotels we take. There's always the sweet smell of curry when we round the corner next to this one... Progreso tomorrow. This city is very pretty. The man who sold hammocks was very charming... If it rains all the time in Progreso we'll feel at home...

 Rereading this for the first time in decades, I'm surprised  at how few notes I wrote in this journal about Mérida and Progreso. My memories of that first visit have remained so vivid over the years. But this was near the end of a long backpacking journey around the country. I remember being tired of travelling by then, a bit  homesick and missing Tom, who stayed behind in Vancouver. Hard to imagine I was even missing the West Coast rain.

I guess that's why I didn't recognize at the time that some day I would want to bring Tom back to Mérida to stay.

I have such strong memories of the place - the calesas clopping down quiet streets, the abandoned feeling of Progreso in January. I remember our hotel interior had an air of faded grandeur, with a colonnaded second floor balcony, and an old man who every morning slowly pushed a squeegee along the pasta tile floors. I remember the springs poking through the worn-out beds. And nearby, good food, cooked in banana leaves.

I have often tried to remember where the hotel we stayed at was located, and wondered what it's like now. So after unearthing my journal notes I did a quick Google search - found a news story. Yikes!

 Feb, 11, 2011, The Yucatan Times

Of course I see now I've walked past it a hundred times in the past couple of years but didn't recognize it or remember the name. I didn't realize it was such a dive - perhaps the years have not been kind, and it has clearly not become part of the restoration of the historic centre. I will take a peek inside next time I pass.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Postcard from the past

Tom found another old  postcard from Mérida on ebay. I wonder if anyone can identify the location and the buildings in the background?

Could it be around the main market?

I always wish I could somehow walk into these old photos and see and experience the city as it was long ago.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

More changes

doors, before
This is how you keep spending when you thought you were done for now. I thought we could make do with some of the old doors for a couple more years. But they looked so terrible once the other work was done, and neither one closes properly anyway, so now we have two new ones. Meanwhile the work on the patio walls is also finished. When Victor sent the photos, I sat mesmerized, toggling through the pictures again and again. I must have needed a psychological break from the relentless weather around Victoria the past couple of weeks: snow, ice, and windstorm after windstorm. This is my favourite hammock spot, so I am daydreaming about leaving those patio doors open to the breeze on lazy afternoons.

It was nice of the builder to provide a sense of scale

Monday, January 23, 2012

Settling in

Seven a.m. The sky has been brightening for almost an hour and now early sunlight is splashing on the wall across the street and over the tiles on the garage floor. Birds are calling. I don't know their names, but their sounds are distinct to this place. The nights have been cool lately, which is both welcome and not.

Each time I come here the house feels more homey. I'm not sure if this is because it's gradually accruing furniture and other conveniences, or whether it's just becoming familiar. Little details are getting done. A ceiling fan, already destroyed by ants, is replaced. The patio is cleared again of leaves and weeds, some crushed limestone is spread around and new plants are heeled in. Even the unrenovated old addition at the back of the house looks more charming with a new fringe of spiky snake plants along its footings. One night I stood out there, admiring the changes and the glow of the patio lights. For the first time it felt like a pleasant place to hang out, not just a fairly unattractive space with "potential". I shared the early evening stillness with with a small bat that swooped about the patio, hunting insects.

It has been busy, getting jobs finished, furnishing, arranging, overseeing. Cleaning. Lots of cleaning. I learned that white vinegar, undiluted, really does do a good job of removing the mineral deposits, or sarro, that build up everywhere that the hard tap water collects - there was a lot on the kitchen sink and the ceramic floors. I think some harsh chemicals, like muriatic acid,  had been used on it in the past without complete success in removing it. But I soaked a dry cloth in straight vinegar and left it on any particularly nasty spot for an hour or so, and the sarro dissolved and wiped away easily. No scrubbing!

Sarro bugs me a lot. I've whined before about what it does to hair - mine is already coarse, and within a few days of exposure to tap water it's stiff with buildup. Now that I have large garafons of water in the house, I'm indulging in washing and rinsing hair with bottled water. It seems like a guilty indulgence, but it seems to work.

Just because I love before-and-after pictures, here are a few. It's still a work in progress, so maybe they are really before-and-during pictures. Still, it's encouraging to see the difference.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reclaiming lost space

(photo by Victor Cruz, Estilo Arquitectura)

Sometimes you don't get to do things in the order you want. A pool has been high on the priority list. It was going to be the next thing. But then one of the high stone walls began to collapse at the back dogleg section of the property, so it had to be fixed.

I guess a few rocks and some mortar would have patched it up for the time being. But we're beginning to turn this neglected area into a garden, and the walls in that section appear to be built more haphazardly than at the front of the property. I hate to do the same job twice. So it made sense to rebuild the wall properly now, following the plans from our architects. Otherwise we'd have to redo the repair at a future date and also destroy any landscaping done in the interim. At the same time as the repair on one side, we decided to replace the  low, crooked wall that borders the other neighbor at the back.

I love the traditional limestone walls around here, but these ones won't be solid rock. They are being built with concrete blocks, and the sides along the path will be faced with rough limestone pieces. The face that will someday form one wall of a casita at the very back of the property will be smoothly plastered, and painted. I'm sure it will be a nice contrast to the adjoining solid stone walls.

Even though it wasn't at the top of our to-do list, I'm looking forward to seeing the transformation as this abandoned bit of land turns into a private, usable garden space.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The old man after the party

Remains of El Viejo, Jan 1, 2012, Merida
Scenes like the one above would have been very disturbing to visitors to Mérida this week if they weren't aware of the tradition of burning the "Old Man" on New Year's Eve.

It's a good thing I read about it on one of my favourite Merida blogs just a few days before I arrived, very late, on Dec. 31st. The tradition is, people stuff old clothes with paper and fireworks, then set it on fire right at midnight. There's symbolism that I won't pretend to know. I briefly saw a viejo propped up on on our street corner, from the taxi window, minutes before midnight. Once lit, it blazed and banged and shot out dangerous flares and shrapnel for a good long time, with neighbors viewing the spectacle a bit closer than seemed entirely safe.

Cycling around the quiet centre of the city the next morning (searching in vain for coffee and something to eat), there were remains of incompletely incinerated "viejos" all over the place. It was kind of creepy. I wonder if the unburned parts carry any special symbolism for 2012?