Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yucatan portal to the Underworld

On the way back to Cancun we stopped at two cenotes, those places in the Yucatan where the water that never manifests itself on the surface, becomes visible, even if it means peering through a hole in the ground to a an underground lake 70 feet below. The two cenotes we visited were in Vallodolid, the cenote Zaci and the cenote Dzitnup. The cenote Dzitnup was virtually entirely underground, with only a 10 feet diameter hole at the roof light into the cavern. It was not deep, and was lit up with tri-color LED lights. The roots of the trees above hung down in the cave, reaching to within 3 feet of the water. The Zaci cenote had been worked on more by man, and there was a nice thatched restaurant at the top. This one was very deep, and we were not even to the bottom when suddenly Nate Butler launches himself off a cliff…plummeting to the water 25 feet below…followed by 6 other members of the group. Last off was Justine LaMantia, who reluctantly jumped. We didn’t quite land right, and it was accompanied by a painful slap sound. But she bobbed to the surface quickly and was just fine.

I jumped twice, but had the most problems with the swing rope. It was that hard nylon and it slipped almost immediately These are amazing sites, and a trip to the Yucatan would not be complete without seeing at least one.

Thoughts on the Middle School of Santa Elena- As expected, they are bare bones. Basically four walls, hard chairs, whiteboard with black dry erase markers, and a couple of desks. The bathrooms have there own building and are atrocious.

The kids seem mostly intent and alert. They came prepared with pens and paper, and brought scissors when asked. When asked to copy something down, they mostly did so immediately. They arrived at 1pm, even though the people to unlock the gate often did not. There seems to be no worry about students showing up late for class…they simply come in and sit down. In many ways, these kids seem to be treated as adults. Perhaps it is because they are given more responsibility at home. At one point during the chemistry project demonstration, a 14 year old boy launched a rocker. Everybody else had built their projects around plastic. This was the theme that the teacher assigned I believe…mostly because if there is one thing you can find in Santa Elena that would be free, it would be plastic. I can be found in ditches and backyards, if it isn’t burning in the fire. This young man had built a red space shuttle kind of rocket. He marched out and set up a launch ramp, which pointed at some kids playing on the soccer field. Eventually it was set and he lit the fuse…this was no water bottle rocker. Much to my surprise, it didn’t explode on the launch pad but shot off at a high speed. When the fuel ran out, it did a quick spiral and fell right behind the soccer goal…with the kids playing soccer cheering along with the spectators. There were about 10 things that would not be allowed in the USA.

During the chemisty, the four of us…Justine, Diana, Nate and I… sat at the front of the classroom as guests of honor. At one point, a girl took the cap off two plastic bottles that used to contain Gatorade and poured four cups of a viscous fluid and brought them over to present them to us. We had been warned not to consume local food, but we knew it would be disrespectful to refuse so three of us drank it smiling. It seemed to be some kind of banana apple concoction. Justine held hers and took pictures. Later we were served some kind of mango/milk/ pudding that everyone ate. As far as I was concerned, no intestinal upset came from the event.

School seems helter skelter, but when students get left with free time, they don’t go home or leave campus (for the most part), they just do what kids like to do, play soccer, throw a baseball, or sit and talk…waiting for an adult to show up and tell them to get into class. They were polite and respectful, but one never knows if this is the way it is all the time.

Love the idea of uniforms for Durham Public Schools, and the visit to mexico reinforced this idea. Despite the poverty of the area, all the kids looked neat and clean. And if they strayed off campus, they stood out in town.

While leaving, I noticed a piece of wood with a rusty nail sticking out on a piece of un-concreted earth, I picked it up to remove this “hazard”, only to have it pointed out that this entire piece of earth was covered with boards with rusty nails.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hacienda and Merida

Left Santa Elena about 9:30, and stopped at the Hacienda Yaxcopoli. After the Caste Wars, and the Spanish retook control of the peninsula, the ruling Europeans set up haciendas and gave away great tracts of land. The local people then lived on the land as serfs. Their main crop was henequen, used to make fiber. This Hacienda is well maintained, and was voted “Best Hacienda experience in Mexico in 2007.”

They were ongoing repairs being made on the estate, with a mason rebuilding a stone patio while we were there. He said he had been working on that particular patio for two months. There were some very old trees on the estate. It is interesting to see what we would consider houseplants out in the tropical wilds. A philodendron was strangling an old oak tree, with it virtually encapsulating the tree, and parts hanging down 20 feet from the branches of the tree. If they reach the ground, then they take root, and begin to take even more water and nutrients from the tree.

There was a small chapel with a religious statue I had not seen before, it was of Saint Geronimo, the patron saint of workers. Ironic considering the way the Hacienda was run.

The building that held the machinery was the neatest, as some of the machines with working as late as 1984. A large diesel motor powered all the machinery that processed the henequen. All the belts were gone, and there was much rust, but I could imagine someday it being restored to working condition.

We arrived in Merida about 1pm, checked into out hotel…the Hotel Casa Del Balam, Balam is another Mayan term for jaguar. It is very nice. There are two people in our room, but we got only one large key, which we are to turn into the desk whenever we leave. The door to the room cannot be left unlocked, and later on that day I locked the key inside the room.

The downtown part of Merida on a Friday afternoon reminded me of the pictures I have seen of Shanghai; narrow streets, hundreds of shops and stalls, and overflowing with people. The are eating and hawking wares, sitting and using their laptops in the plaza, feeding the pigeons, and generally bustling from place to place. We went to one of the grand markets, a warehouse with what seemed to be one hundred individual shops inside. I was looking at the comisas…shirts…and one of the women there was trying to explain the difference in the fabrics. The cheapest was a polyester blend, the next step up was all cotton, the fabric I had asked about was Sisal…a blend of henquen and cotton. In honor of our trip I decided to buy only Sisal items. I bought a Phillipino style sisal shirt and a traditional collared, pocketed, embroidered shirt.

We visited the cultural center and spent time looking at the murals painted in the 1970’s by artist Carlos Pacheco. They showed the history of the Yucatan as viewed by the indigenous people. My favorite mural was the birth of the Mayan people as a man arose from an ear of maize.

After dinner we walked to more modern section of town, which contained the Merida Anthropology museum. Lining one side of the street were large metal sculptures. The trees are lined with rope lights and the sidewalks were wide. We stopped into a art gallery, and some gift shops. That section of town had a much different feel than downtown. Nate bought some crazy sunglasses at the gift shop, and many of us had our pictures taken with the giant inflatable Corona bottles found in front of one the bars.

After dinner we went to the plaza for what we thought was going to be live music, but was actually a audience participation comedy routine performed by a Mexican troupe. The danced and did slapstick. While we were taking a breather a very small girl…of approximately 3 or 4, came up and asked for “uno peso”, she was dressed poorly and was smudged with grime. I asked “Donde es su madre?” . but she just looked away and shook her head. Shanna and I both gave her a peso and tried to watch where she wandered off too. There are many children set out on the streets to sell things…particularly Mayan girls to sell embroidered fabrics, but this was the first child we had met who was begging. It was heartbreaking

At night they close off 60th avenue after 8 pm and a lot of the restaurants take over and there are small bands that play at each one. We took over one small place and danced for about an hour…and got some locals and other gringos to join us. It was much fun.

I has been decided that Merida is a neat town in a lot of ways

On top of the world of Santa Elena/teaching


Today was the day I was scheduled to teach, I spent much of the morning refining my lesson plan, although I was not sure if I was teaching one 1.5 class or two classes that took 1.5 hours. After finishing I spent some time videotaping the street leading up to the church.

We had climbed to the top of the church last night at about 8:30 pm. The Catholic church in Santa Elena is not only the tallest building town, it sets on hill which is the highest point in town. The stairway to the top is a scary, tight, spiral staircase. The stairs are supposedly secure by being anchored to a central post (which is absent in various sections) and the wall…where the step is set into the cement of the wall about 6 inches. The stairs are made of 6 inch deep timbers cut into wedges. The second to top step is missing, so it is a big scary step tot get on the roof. The view from the top is spectacular, increased only if you climb up another 10 feet to the top of the arched dome that runs the length of the church. It was a clear night, with stars becoming visible. The wind is much stronger up there. We laid down and looked at the stars, then instead of climbing down off the dome on the steps (which are almost right next to the edge of the building) we scooted down on our butts off the dome. A few minutes after we left the church, they locked it up. We are lucky we weren’t all locked up on the roof.

In the town square they had opened fruit stands, sold French fries, and had a dozen ancient…but well maintained…Foosball tables. It was 5 pesos for 5 balls. The proprietor gave us 5 balls for free. Justin, LeAnne’s son, took on Nate and me and cleaned our clocks. Then we went to the local bakery which has a huge wood fired oven. It looked a hundred years old but was apparently built 30 years ago.

After lunch today I took a taxi to the school and when let in proceeded to hide my butterflies. I had thought that the word for camouflage in Spanish was camoflauge, as I had looked it up on the translator on Google. That apparently is not the word…it is mimista. The first lesson was a little disjointed as I got started late because I had to set up my equipment, and then some of my software wasn’t running right. I just barely got to my part on the butterflies. The second class went much better. We talked about physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations. I had translated a lot of the lesson into Spanish…next time I will simple imbed it on my Powerpoint. This would help with the children’s understanding as well as my pronunciation of new words. The other problem was the first class was 45 minutes, and the second was 1.5 hours. So I had to add lesson plan to the second class. I had a couple minutes left at the end of class so I showed some soccer video (3 minutes) which they really appreciated. He seemed to appreciate my attempt to do my class with little help, even though I mangled many words. I am a talker, and the lack of a decent Spanish vocabulary frustrated me.

Later was our last dinner at the Chac Mool, with is one of the Mayan words for Jaguar. All week we had lunch and dinner there, with a different dish each time. Some of the teachers here helped prepare the meals that we ate, especially the tortillas. This was our last day teaching, and Orlando Magana Vega stopped by the Flycatcher to say thank you. He lives in Tikul, and is kind of a tech guru. He even has a radio show where call in to ask tech questions. He will be our liaison between Durham schools and the Santa Elena Middle school. He is not sure when the school will have internet. We will set up either a Facebook page for us to exchange thoughts, pictures and videos….or simply exchange videos through Youtube. One of the more difficult things for me to get used too is the veritable lack of internet. The connection is so slow that watching a Youtube video live is difficult as it plays very jaggedly.

It has been decided that we will have breakfast at 8:30 in the morning, with the van leaving at 9:30. Eventually we will end up in Merida, after a long detour to catch some more sites.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Una ciudad tranquila

LeAnne remarked today that locals always describe Santa Elena as a relaxed (tranquila) place. It's true! The people are super nice and friendly. The town pretty much shuts down between 2pm - 7pm because it is so darn hot. I finally hit the paleteria when it was open today. I tried coco, galletas con crema, fresas con crema, chocolate, and nancy (a local fruit). The popsicles were tasty, but La Monarca Michocana still has my vote.

We have been busy in the schools all week. I am learning a lot about the culture and attitudes about education and teaching here in the Yucatan. There are many similarities, and a few differences, between the schools, students, and teachers in Sta. Elena and Durham. I learned that in the past 5-6 years teachers/schools have been working to get parents more involved and feel more responsible for their children's education. Kids are only in school for about 5 hours/day and teachers feel the parents need to spend time interacting with their kids. They encourage kids to ask their parents questions. 

Some students and many parents only speak Maya, which makes communicating with the teachers (who only speak Spanish) difficult. The language barrier reminds me a lot of schools in Durham, but the problem is manageable in Santa Elena because the schools are so small (180 students in one of the 2 elementary schools - only 4 students who only speak Maya).

Internet access is limited (and slow), but we hope to start working on uploading all of our videos and pictures when we get to Merida on Friday. One more day in Santa Elena.

First meeting with Don Felix

This is a blog of our first meeting with Don Felix on Monday, June 20th- Nate Butler and I met with Don Felix of Santa Elena today. Don Felix is a farmer, Mayan healer, teacher, Mayan historian and life philosopher. He lives in an 18’ by 12’ oval building with a painted concrete floor, stone cement and stucco walls and a thatched roof. In it are two hammocks, one is big enough for two people (the matrimonial hammock), the other for one. There is one large dresser and a table that contains a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with some candles surrounding it, one is lit. There is also a wall hanging of the Virgin of Guadalupe. On the walls hang some pictures, including his wedding picture from 50 years ago. From the ceiling hangs a single fluorescent bulb. Two exposed fuses totaling 20 amps power the house and grounds. He moved into this house 50 years ago, for it is a tradition that a newlywed couple should move into a new house. Don Felix is 77 years old.

He and his wife had 10 children in this house, with the children being born in the small hammock with Don Felix presiding. The children are grown now, and Don Felix has 34 grandchildren. A couple of the sons live next door. The back yard contains his dog Primo, as well as chickens, turkeys, a black goat and hogs. It is well maintained. It also contains various fruit trees, including bananas, mandarin oranges, and limes. Interspersed are plants that have healing powers. One is used during childbirth to ease delivery, which Don Felix credits with the healthy birth of his 10 children.

We are going to visit Don Felix’s milpa of good deep soil today. It is a parcel, which means there is a deed to it. Much land is farmed and “owned” by tradition…everybody knows it is your land. This piece has a deed. Don Felix usually rides his bike the 5K to this milpa, but today with take the motorized scooter taxis, which are basically carts with seats and awnings, pushed by scooters. The land there is much different than the other land I have seen here in the Yucatan, with no rocks and a spongy soil. It is a deep rust color. The land is prepared by being burned, then allowing it to sit, and then tilled. The tilling is done by another person with large machinery…the sowing of the seed is done by Don Felix or his sons. He ties on his gourd filled with corn kernels around his waist with some nylon twine, then takes off down the row. About every three feet he pokes a hole in the ground with a pointed stick, drops in three seeds and then moves on. He allows me to try, and after finding the twine will not reach around my waist, ties it through my two front belt loops. I try to emulate Don Felix, but fall short. I had not noticed he was dropping three seeds into each hole…I was only putting in one. "Tres", he says, dropping more kernels into my hand, "Tres" It reminded me of a country saying from North Carolina…that when planting corn you always plant three seeds, one for the bird, one for the worm and one for you. After a short, pathetic effort, I untied the gourd and handed it, and the stick to Nate Butler. He had realized that Don Felix was left handed and attacked the row from the other side with much more success. He finished the row and was proclaimed "wi NEEK", which is Mayan for Manly man.

After viewing the pump that irrigates the land during the dry season we headed back to town.

Don Felix has seen Santa Elena grow much in his life, when he was little there was no school and no doctors. He is a healer, but does not dismiss modern medicine. He helps with his knowledge, and doesn’t charge much, as the people he sees usually do not have much money. He seems especially proud of his medicine for snakebites, which is a kind of poultice which draws out the venom. Some come to him for this, rather than going to the hospital in Merida.

As we go he lets us know that we are always welcome in his house. And, as foreigners, we are always welcome in Santa Elena. Santa Elena welcomes everyone.


Jen, Andrea, Cherese, and I have had the pleasure of visiting Cobay, the Colegio de Bachilleres, in Santa Elena. The school is similiar to what we call a high school in the U.S. The attend for six semesters, and although it is public, there is a tuition. This level is not required, although primeria (elementary) and secundaria (middle school) are. Cobay has been open for 12 years, and the current director of curriculum is a young woman named Silvia, who graduated from the school. She attended university in Merida, about 90 km north of here. Silvia works to make sure the school follows the curriculum standards, but also she writes grants for supplies, and works to get scholarships for students so they can attend school.

On Monday Jen and I observed second year students after receiving a tour of the grounds. School is from 7-12 and students remain as a group in one classroom, and the teachers rotate into and out of classrooms. The class periods are 50 minutes, and some subjects take up two back to back periods. There is a ten minute break between each class for students to use the restroom, get a drink of water, or visit the canteen where they can purchase snacks including freshly cooked tortillas with ham and cheese. We observed two class periods of Fisica (Physics) then a class called Structura de Mexico, which included lessons on politics and economics of Mexico. The day´s topic was on the social costs of neoliberalism and included some discussion of emmigration. The last class of the day was Tutoria, which is like an Advisory class and the day´s topic was sexual education. The next day we worked with first year students in their English class. Thankfully Jen is a great English as a Second Language teacher and led in teaching three 50 minute class periods of practicing the language, and making family trees. We also had a whole class discussion where students could ask questions about us, where we are from, and what the U.S is like. Several students were really excited to practice their English!

Today we are headed over to San Simon, a small Mayan village where three of our students from yesterday live.

Overall we are having a great experience and the change of lifestyle is refreshing! We walk most places, eat fresh foods and spend lots of time outside, or in buildings that very open with a nice breeze coming through. Most of the people are very friendly and we´ve had great conversations and opportunities to practice our spanish!

Baking Bread in Santa Elena

Stephanie, Channa and I had the pleasure of meeting with Don Gonzalo and his wife, Mariana, during a normal workday in their bakery in Santa Elena. Don Gonzalo had prepared dough earlier in the day, and invited us to see him bake it off. He thoroughly explained to us the cost of his ingredients and equipment, which he has accumulated through a lifetime of hard work and planning.

What emerged during our conversation was the narrative of a self-made man. Gonzalo began working at ten in a tortilleria owned by a prominent Santa Elena family. He later enrolled in a military academy in Merida. The rigid hierarchy of the institution did not appeal to his independent nature, but he used the opportunity to advance himself and save money to launch himself in baking. He returned to Santa Elena in the mid-1970s to establish his business. He started with a traditional wood-burning oven that is still in use, and later supplemented it with a large commercial gas oven.

Gonzalo and his workers worked quickly and efficiently as they removed tray after tray of pan frances y pan yoyo from the oven, Gonzalo talking all the while. He still oversees every step of the bread-making, because he knows he must guarantee a quality product to his customers. Clearly this is hard work, but Don Gonzalo considers it a good life, because he has made it for himself and his wife with his own hands. In the words of Don Gonzalo, he prefers his work because "nadie me manda."