Sidewalk Symphony

I love this quote by Ernest Hemmingway:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Now granted, not too many of us are portraying the brutality of the Spanish Civil War or the desperation of an old man wrestling with a giant fish and the sea. Nonetheless, most writers struggle to transcribe their thoughts into coherent, artful sentences.

It all starts with an idea. Sometimes authors are blindly in love – feel challenged – or stimulated by the idea. Conversely, there are ideas that outrage, terrify or paralyze. Either way, the idea won’t go away and it nags the writer to the point that he / she feels compelled to tell the world about it.

Writers’ angst shows up on the page as ponderous prose, and reading to the end of the piece feels like a chore. Other times, finishing a 600 page tome is as easy as downing a quart of ice water on a hot day.

Marianne Kehoe
Marianne Kehoe

There are writers who spend pages and pages getting to the point, but my friend Marianne Kehoe can express a whole gamut of thoughts and emotions in a few simple lines.

Marianne began her professional life in the same place as many of us – the classroom. After a few years of working with young children, she moved on to new challenges, and  returned to university. She built a career in dentistry, followed by a third incarnation as a motivational speaker. Retirement saw her move to Mexico, where she immediately began studying Spanish.

The linguistic and cultural nuances between English and Spanish fascinated her. “You can say something in English and have it mean exactly what you want, but often, if you use the same words, translated into Spanish, you have conveyed an altogether different thought,” she said.

So she began writing down the riddles:

Why are there two verbs in Spanish that mean “to be”?

Why are there two prepositions that mean “for”?

Why does the English word embarrassed sound almost identical to the Spanish word for pregnant?

The notes Marianne made soon morphed into lines of poetry – she had found a new passion – writing. She joined the Merida Writers’ Group and attended writers’ conferences. In no time, her short stories appeared in anthologies and online literary magazines. The State of Yucatan’s Secretariat of Culture offered to publish a book of her bilingual poems.

The volume of poetry has received outstanding reviews in Merida, and this week, Marianne Kehoe is visiting her former home state of Illinois to present “Poetry from Yucatan.”

Marianne will read from “Sidewalk Symphony” – Sinfonía de las DSCF1424Escarpas , a collection of poems in English and Spanish that describe her impressions of Yucatán, the place she and her husband have called home for the past eight years.

Some of the poems point out the perplexing realities of adapting to life in a new place. One of my personal favorites, “Queen for a Day” – Reina Por Un Día touches on the closeness of family relationships in Yucatan. And “Buying Rosas” – Comprando Rosas speaks of an observation the author made in a place where cultures collide: Costco!

Are you from the Chicago area?

If so, be sure to attend Marianne Kehoe’s reading.

“Poetry from Yucatan”

6 – 7 pm, on Wednesday April 27th

Salón South Elgin at the Gail Borden Main Library

270 N.Grove Ave, Elgin, Illinois

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And for those not in the Chicago area this coming week, Marianne’s book can be purchased at the Yucatan Secretariat of Culture’s Book Store in Merida, located across the street from the Park of the Americas.

The 2016 IWC Tour: Merida – San Miguel Allende

Today I am posting the advance information for the International Women’s Club of Merida’s 2016 fund raising trip. The proceeds will go towards supporting the group’s program that helps Yucatecan women with limited means, to pursue university studies. The recipients are given economic support as well as tutoring in English, mentoring and counseling. Over the years, this initiative has helped more than 20 young women to attain their degrees in various areas of education such as Law, Medicine, Tourism, Veterinary Studies, Science, Languages, International Trade Marketing and Administration. You can read more about the program here.

The cost of supporting university studies is considerable, and so fund raisers are important. One of them is the annual IWC sponsored tour to a destination outside Yucatan. In 2014, a group of 40 traveled to Palenque and San Cristobal, in Chiapas; and 30 participants visited the archaeological sites of southern Campeche and Quintana Roo in 2015. Both trips were a lot of fun and the scholarship fund received a donation of 1,000 pesos for each participant. The 2016 tour is open to IWC members and friends. Space is confirmed on a first-come-first-served basis.

In 2016, a 12 day excursion is planned. Exact lodging and pricing details are not yet complete, but the itinerary and dates have been set… If you are interested in coming along, you can get your name in the pre-registration list by sending me an email: writingfrommerida@gmail.com

In 2016, our 12 day tour will begin in Merida on Sunday January 31st, and it will finish in San Miguel de Allende on Thursday February 11th .

Day 1, Sun. Jan 31: We will travel by bus from Merida to Villahermosa. This is an all-day trip, but necessary in order to get off our peninsula! We will spend the night there; and in the evening you will have time to rest, walk or dine.

Day 2, Mon. Feb 01: From 9:00 – 10:30 am, we’ll visit Parque La Venta in Villahermosa, where the huge Olmec basalt heads can be seen. We’ll then continue our drive to the Catemaco lake region in the state of Veracruz. We will sight-see and check into our hotel in the picturesque town, one of Mexico’s “pueblos magicos.”

Day 3, Tues. Feb 02: Today is the Día de la Candelaria, in Mexico. We’ll join in the major fiesta and parades in the town of Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, and then drive to the port of Veracruz, where we’ll spend the next two nights.

Day 4, Wed. Feb 03: We’ll tour the main attractions of the city, including the central plaza, La Paroquia the port and the Fuerte de San Juan Ulúa. The evening will be free so you can explore on your own.

Day 5, Thurs. Feb 04: We will drive to the city of Puebla, stopping in Jalapa to visit the wonderful museum there. Our hotel for the next 2 nights is located right on the main plaza in Puebla, close to all attractions

Day 6, Fri. Feb 05: Today we will tour El Centro de Puebla, including the Parian district where the streets are lined with Talavera pottery. Puebla is famed for its cuisine and we’ll enjoy a typical meal at the Fonda de Santa Clara. Again, you’ll have free time in the evening – you’ll probably want to have a another look at that pottery!

Day 7, Sat. Feb. 06: An early start today so that we can be in Mexico City for the Bazar de San Angel, this weekly artisan fair is one of the most famous in the country. From there we’ll go to Xochimilco – the floating gardens. We’ll take a boat through the canal, serenaded by mariachi music, feasting on tacos, and sampling tequila. We’ll check into our hotel, right downtown, for the next 3 nights.

Day 8: Sun. Feb 07: Sunday in our country’s capital is a marvelous experience, and we’ll see the best: the Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, The Frida Kahlo House, and in the evening, the Balet Folklorico de Amalia Hernandez.

Day 9, Mon. Feb. 08: A visit to Mexico City’s largest artisan market and the colonial fortress of La Ciudadela are this morning’s highlights. In the afternoon and evening, you’ll have free time to stroll around the city, shop, dine or whatever you want to do.

Day 10, Tues Feb. 09: Today will be a full day. We will drive to San Miguel Allende, visiting the archaeological site of Teotihuacan on the way. After checking into our hotel for 2 nights, you’ll be free to visit the charming downtown area.

Day 11: Wednesday Feb. 10: Today’s road trip will be to Dolores Hidalgo – the birthplace of Mexico’s independence from Spain, and to Guanajuato, the capital of the state. This day is also the start of the San Miguel Writers’ Conference and individual tickets are available for all events. The program will be published about August 1st. Check out the website here. For those not interested in attending the writers’ conference events, the city offers a large variety of restaurants and other entertainment

Day 12, Thursday Feb. 11: Our tour ends today. At noon the bus will go to the Mexico City airport, and from there, it will return non-stop to Merida.

Participants will have the option to:

  • Fly (own expense) back to Merida or onto another destination
  • Ride on the bus (at no cost, but non-stop) all the way back to Merida
  • Remain in central Mexico and travel (independently) to other places

And how can we carry home our shopping?

Participants are asked to carry just one suitcase containing their clothing and personal items for use during the tour. However, most people will shop along the way. Everyone on the tour  will have the option of sending ONE additional piece of luggage – not larger than a 30 inch suitcase or box – back to Merida on the bus. If the owner of the suitcase or box is not traveling on the bus, it will be delivered to a TBD pick-up spot.

And that’s all the information I have for today. The cost is yet to be firmed up, but it will be about $110.00 USD per day – which works out to around $1,200.00 USD per person – sharing double. I can’t give the exact price, and I won’t go into what is included until I have all the details. However, I hope I’ve told you enough today, to get you as excited as I am, to take the tour, and at the same time, support a very worthwhile cause.

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Happy Easter!

My computer has been “touchy” for the past couple of weeks. The email has not been coming into the inbox in a dependable way and typing a message has been total frustration. The words take forever to appear on the screen, and sometimes they are garbled. Whenever something goes wrong with my computer, I am always afraid that I have a virus, but my daughter says the internet browser is to blame. Of course I don’t know how to fix the situation. I’ll have to wait until next week when the IT guy at our college is back from holidays.

Writing for this blog has been equally challenging. But it IS Easter, the day of rebirth. Maybe my old HP will get into the spirit of things and revive itself enough for me to actually post today.

Did you set your clock ahead last night? Jorge and I are attending Easter Mass at Monjas Church this morning at 9:30 am (daylight savings time) and then driving to the beach for lunch with our friends who are visiting from Canada.

Lou and I have known each other since Grade One. Fifty-five years! It is hard to believe that SO MUCH time has whizzed by. We both attended Holy Trinity Elementary School, located on our church grounds. Her parents and mine not only sent us to the parochial school… we also went to Brownies and played sports there. On weekends we had other activities organized by the church . Yes indeed, we spent A LOT of time at Holy Trinity, especially during Lent.

For the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday, we children went without treats and Monday to Friday, we attended Mass as part of our school day. We went again (of course) on Sunday morning and Benediction that evening. Stations of the Cross were held on Wednesday and we had our Confessions heard on Saturdays.

When I got old enough and moved away from home, I stopped regular church attendance. I’d had enough of that to last me for the rest of my life. Or so I thought…

Then, out of the blue, my past snuck up on me. One day I told my daughter that I wished I lived closer to a church so I could walk to Mass. I could not believe those words had come from me… and neither could she!

But the feeling persisted and a year ago, an English-language Mass started up at Monjas Church. Jorge and I met one of the parish priests, Father José Arruda, and found him to be open minded and accepting of all. That seemed perfect for Jorge and I; we now look forward to Sunday Mass.

I haven’t mentioned Mass because I think everyone should be attending, I DO NOT think that. Spiritual observance or non-observance is up to each person. But if you have felt an unexpected urge to go to church, especially today because it is Easter Sunday, Mass at Monjas is at 9:30 am

Happy Easter to all!

Easter candy for the kids
Easter candy for the kids

Life as an expat in Merida

This post is long… I hope you’ll read all the way to the end

On Friday night Jorge and I went to a party hosted by our long-time friends, Chloe and Jorge.

Almost all the women who attended have lived in Merida, the lion’s share of their lives, and their husbands, except for youthful sojourns of short duration, have lived here forever.

I arrived in 1976, and it was 16 months before I ran into Lynne at Komesa, one of the few grocery stores we had at the time. I rejoiced! She was a Californian; I come from Vancouver. English was our native language. We missed our mothers and hated cockroaches. And THAT was more than enough to engender a life-long friendship. I wanted to hang onto her ankles and never let go.

But I digress… back to the party. What did we talk about last night? We lamented that our mothers and our mothers-in-law are either resting in peace or close to doing so. We brought one another up-to-date on the lives of our children… And yes, we talked about how much we still hate cockroaches.

We also commented on the huge number of people who have come from other countries in the past ten years. They have settled in Merida, and they call themselves “expats.”

The term has never been my favorite; I have always used “international resident”.

My online dictionary stresses that “expat” is an abbreviation. The proper word is: expatriate.

However in Merida, “expat” is commonly used, so for today, we’ll stick with it.

I have observed five basic types:

  1. Expats who blend in
  2. Expats who stick out
  3. Expats who hunker down
  4. Expats who are mover-shakers
  5. Expats who are chameleons

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Blend In

Blend In expatriates arrive in Mexico, jump into a taxi or bus, and head to the market for local-style clothing. In restaurants, they order a regional dish, observe and then emulate the way the locals use tortillas to spoon food into their mouths. Within weeks, Blend In expats have learned the names of their neighbors and local shopkeepers. Their door is always open.

Blend In expats know they aren’t nationals and don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. But they are keen to adapt in every possible way. Their homes soon become an eclectic mix of local art and their home culture. A Blend In will set the dining room table with rustic textiles and Grandma’s fine china that she carted here bit by bit. Blend In expats rejoice at local success and weep when the country struggles.

They know blending takes effort. They adjust to different standards of dress, learn as much of the language as they can, and relinquish behaviors that don’t fit in with the new location. They are eager for challenges and treasure the personal growth that comes from succeeding in an unfamiliar setting.

Stick Outs

The Stick Outs are not known for their cultural sensitivity. The men can often be seen wearing baggy shorts and stretched-out T shirts, even at the Symphony. The women favor Capri pants and loose colorful blouses. Most of them are very into “happy hour,” and can be heard calling loudly down the supermarket aisles to one another, in English, when everyone else is conversing in Spanish. The Stick Outs say that Spanish is a “hard language”… they claim that after a certain age, the brain cannot absorb a lot of new words.

With the help of local English-speaking architects, lots of them have renovated an old colonial house. These places are full of Talavera tile and Frida Kahlo prints, but thank god, there is a Home Depot in town where they have been able to procure American-made bathroom and kitchen fixtures. They say they love Mexico and the Mexicans but don’t really socialize with them. They enjoy having a variety of “colorful” experiences but don’t attempt to integrate.

Many of the Stick Out expats moved to Mexico when they retired because their savings go much further here, especially with the current exchange rate. They don’t seem to realize that this is a different country. They want to live in Merida but don’t intend to modify their standards and don’t expect to be changed.

Hunker Down

Hunker-down expatriates are harder to find because they are “hunkered down” in restored colonial mansions, villas by the sea or expensive new high-rise apartments. They are here because their job or their spouse’s job sent them, and they are counting down the days until the ordeal is over and they can return to a “civilized place”.

Television and internet are lifelines to the Hunker Down expats. They know little about what’s going on in Mexico but they devour the news about what’s going on “at home”. Fear of the unknown, a distrust of the unfamiliar and distaste for a “sandy, sweaty lifestyle” makes leaving the confines of their home an ordeal.

“You shop in the market?” a Hunker Down once asked. “Don’t you worry you’ll get sick? Or hot? Or lost? Or cheated? I buy absolutely everything at Costco or Sams.”

When the Hunker Down expats accepted the move to Mexico, they prepared for a long, lonely existence. Rather than engage in the culture, they use their children, their cats, or their at-home projects as excuses to never leave their “refuge”.

The Mover-shakers

These expats seem to think it is their duty to save the Mexican culture from itself. They see local styles, customs and practices as “stone age” and they are bound and determined to introduce new and better business ethics, products and aesthetics.

The Mover-shaker expats are here to make money. The “untapped market” in Merida is ripe for innovation. Maybe it is, but is it necessary to “throw out the baby with the bath water”?

The Chameleon.

This is where I find myself.

I run around in capris, and I complain about the heat and humidity (a lot). When returning from a trip “home,” I pack a suitcase full of items I can’t find in Merida. I have acquired more than my fair share of Talavera and Frida memorabilia, and Grandma’s tea set sits proudly in my china cabinet. I waste too much time on-line, and use Skype to talk for hours with my far-away friends and family. I certainly enjoy a cocktail – or two. And believe me, if I could afford to restore a big old colonial mansion, own a villa by the sea or set myself up in an expensive new high-rise apartment, I would do so in a heartbeat. I am totally in favor of embracing comfort.

On the other hand, I speak Spanish. My husband is from Merida and our children grew up here. Over the years I have made many local friends. You may conclude that my situation is “completely different” from most other expats, but it isn’t… not really. I find myself immersed in the Yucatecan culture, but in no way have I shrugged off my own.

I love where I come from and I love the place I moved to. However, I realize that for all the gains I have made because I live in Yucatan, I have lost part of the intimate belonging to my home culture. Not quite fitting in is the price I must pay for having a foot in two cultures.

Local people look at me, and think: She’s not from here. The expat community has decided: She has lived here for so long, she isn’t quite like us. My family and friends in Canada say: She moved away a long time ago…

So I have become a chameleon, and I am not alone. People like me try to adapt to whatever situation presents itself. We are not always successful, but that’s OK too.

It’s all food for thought, I think… Now, what kind of “expat” are you?

 

Haciendas of Yucatan

Talk about the splendor of the past!

In its day, Uayalceh de Peon was one of the largest haciendas in Yucatan. I believe, one of the fifty-two that belonged to the Peon family. Hacienda Uayalceh processed 1,000,000 sisal spikes each week. Can you imagine that?

In 1763, Alonso Manuel Peon acquired 10,000 hectares of Yucatecan countryside, and the family estate was kept intact ( in fact, added to) until 1935 when the agrarian reform expropriated many of the vast holdings.

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The agrarian reform initiative, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, was meant to bring equality to the lives of the country people. Unfortunately, the government did not provide the technical assistance the farmers needed. The agricultural workers understood how to plant, harvest and process the henequen (sisal) but they did not understand the intricate crop and field rotation practices, or the marketing and sales aspects of the industry. This lack of skills and the introduction of synthetic fibers were the main causes of the decline of the henequen industry.

In 1983 the Banco de Crédito Rural Peninsular purchased the manufacturing plant at Hacienda Uayalceh and local families operated it until 2000. But today, even the machinery is gone. The Decauville train track that was laid down through the fields (in order to carry the harvested sisal leaves to operations center) has been torn up, and the rails lay stacked in a former corral. I suppose they will be sold as scrap iron.

I’m afraid that the principal residence, the manufacturing plant, and paddocks have deteriorated to the point of no return. Many of the floors are caved in and the walls are decrepit with mildew. Bat guano and cobwebs adhere to the beams of the 20 foot colonnade ceilings that surround the house.

The chapel, run down as it is, is still used on Sundays

Nonetheless, it is still obvious how marvelous this complex must have looked during the time when the sisal industry was at its peak.

Of course the splendid life was enjoyed by just a few families. The rest of Yucatan’s population was indentured labor.

The caretaker allowed Michael, Jorge and I to explore the buildings and grounds. Jorge and I have been to Uayalceh several times, but on each occasion we have been awed. It is a majestic place, and well worth a day trip.

Especially when combined with lunch at Hacienda Ochil.

Hacienda Ochil entrance
Hacienda Ochil entrance

The entrance to Hacienda Ochil is right across the highway from the turnoff to Abala (the road you take to Uayalceh)

Hacienda Ochil also dates from the XXVII century but it has been tastefully restored as a restaurant for families from Mérida, and travelers to the ruins of Uxmal and the Puuc route.

A niche in one of the workshops
A niche in one of the workshops

We also saw artisan workshops where souvenirs could be purchased, and a small but interesting museum, with relics and photos from the henequén era.

Jorge wants to ride too!
Jorge wants a ride too!

The old Decauville train tracks are intact, and the children seemed delighted, riding around in a wooden cart pulled by a small engine. We didn’t swim, but we saw a natural pool (like a cenote) where another bunch of kids were splashing around.

The swimming is behind the roots
The swimming is behind the roots

Our day excursion to the Uayalceh and Oxchil haciendas was the perfect follow-up to the night we spent at Uxmal.

If you live in Yucatan, avoiding the heat is a major focus. But this weekend showed me that climbing out of that rut is good for body and soul! Yes it is hot, but there are ways to cool down again and the excitement of seeing the sights, far outweighs the discomfort.

Indeed… we need to get out more often and enjoy the wonders, all around us, in Yucatan

Lord of all he surveys
Lord of all he surveys

And as my friend says… stay cool like the iguanas!

Writing and Intercultural Living…

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