Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Earthquake: "It Was Strong, and Terrible"

I believe that this old roof is now gone


I was asleep in my hammock at the beach when last Thursday night's earthquake struck in Southern Mexico, so although the shaking was felt in Yucatán, I missed it. When I heard the news the next day, I sent a text message to my friend Victoria, who is from Juchitán, Oaxaca, one of the hardest-hit areas.

A few hours later I received a reply, stating simply, "it was strong, and terrible," and assuring that she was OK.

I tried calling on Saturday and couldn't get through. She called me Sunday from Mexico City. Still quite shaken, she told me how by chance she had boarded a bus out of Juchitán only hours before the quake hit. When she finally got news that her house had suffered significant damage, with a partial roof collapse and fissured walls, she realized that if she had not left on that bus, she might have been injured or killed. Several dozen in Juchitán are confirmed dead.

I have never mentioned that some of my best stories never get shared in this blog. I have very good friends, like Victoria, who have introduced me to aspects of Mexican life and culture not generally accessible. To blog about some of these experiences, to publicize them, would violate the privacy and the confidence of people who have shared with me and accepted me into their lives. So this friendship and this old house which was passed down to her from her grandmother and mother, are things that are exceptional for me in ways that I have not talked about in this blog.


Vela in Juchitán. We drink a few beers.
There have been wonderful times. In the kitchen of this house we once spent a simple but memorable evening preparing food, talking and sharing a bottle of fine mezcal. On another visit she invited me to a leisurely, old-fashioned comida with her extended family, during which we enjoyed plate after plate of seafood delicacies while enjoying singing and guitar playing, recitations of poetry and conversations long into the evening.

In this house we dress to attend velas, traditional indigenous festivals celebrated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Victoria, attired in the traditional Zapotec manner, takes my arm, as I, in white guayabera, balance a case of beer, the admittance fee to attend the event, on my other shoulder.

Through Victoria, who has spent her career involved in the music and art communities, I've met some of the premier musicians, singers and artists in Mexico today. I have attended marvelous concerts and hung out backstage. A painter she introduced me to took me to two velas one night in Oaxaca. One was of the "official" sort, where we rubbed shoulders with the governor and other members of the Oaxaca elite. The other, after midnight in a barrio on the outskirts of the city, was hosted by muxes, Oaxaca's "third sex," men who dress as women but in general do not consider themselves either transvestites nor transgender. That uninhibited and raucous party endured until daylight.

The crowd gets into the spirit at a vela in Oaxaca (above and below)


Velas are family events in Juchitán

I have had many additional experiences associated with my dear friend and her old house, and I expect there will be many more. But first, Juchitán and other hard-hit areas have a lot of work to do.

The government and other organizations are mobilizing aid for those left without homes.

I just read that (sadly) demolition has begun on historic buildings in Juchitán centro too damaged to repair, such as the Palacio Municipal and Casa de la Cultura so that reconstruction can begin.

Oaxaca artists Lila Downs, Susana Harp, Alejandra Robles and others have organized a benefit concert for victims of the quake for this Sunday, Sept. 17, in Auditorio Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.

On the phone, Victoria told me that the facade of her house seems to be intact, and that the rest of the damage, according to her nephew, should be reparable. I certainly hope this is the case. Her fine old house resonates with family history and memories and it would be very sad to see it fall to the wrecking crew as well.

I was planning a visit to see Victoria this winter,  and due to circumstances for the moment those plans are on hold. Perhaps I will wait until spring. May is the "month of the velas." If I have learned one thing about Oaxaca, it is about its persistent and enduring spirit. Buildings crumble and people pass away, but the velas will go on.


To read more posts about Oaxaca, click here.


Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

Friday, August 25, 2017

Story: The Roll of Wire


A roll of barbed wire has been hanging for many years, perched on the corner of the corral out at the ranch.

Many times I've noted that I ought to do something with it. Although it's not in the way, the wire slowly rusts there where it is, exposed to the weather. I could store it under cover somewhere. It might be useful one day.

But I have left it where is hangs, mostly out of inertia, and partially because I like its air of pending usefulness.

I was looking at it one morning recently as I finished up some work nearby, and it prompted memories of a story I heard years ago.

In the early 90's I was working on a video project for the Simon Paneak Museum in the remote Nunamiut (inland Eskimo) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, and the crew and I were staying at the home of the museum director, Grant Spearman. Incidentally, Grant's house was the last inhabited traditional sod house in Alaska and a living museum itself. Staying there was an interesting experience, but that's another story.

In his capacity as museum director, Grant coordinated closely with village elders, and had worked a lot with one, "Arctic John" Etalook, who had spent his youth living in the old way, as a nomadic caribou hunter. In his later years after his people settled in Anaktuvuk Pass in the late 40's, Arctic John ran a trap line in the Brooks Range and had remote hunting and trapping camps in the Bush.

Grant related how one day in the early 80's he'd told Arctic John, then quite elderly (he died in 1984), that he was going into the country and would be passing near one of John's old campsites. Arctic John asked Grant to pick up some of his traps that he'd left there on his last visit. Grant collected John's traps, which he'd found hanging right on the small tree where John had left them. The interesting part of this story is that it turned out that John's last visit to that spot was decades before. And the traps Grant had collected remained shiny and uncorroded, as if they'd been hanging there a week or two.

It's fascinating to know that there are still places where one can set something down and it will remain undisturbed and untouched as many years roll by. Or longer. I recall once climbing a hill in a remote area of the Brooks Range to stumble upon a tent ring, a circle of stones used to hold down the edges of a caribou-skin shelter, that may have been abandoned hundreds of years before.

But the message I take here is that life is a lot like the roll of wire and Arctic John's traps. We have resources, tools that are available, that often we just leave on the shelf and neglect to put to use. I wrote here early in the year that I was about to start renovating the little house at the ranch, but I have yet to start. My plans changed course and I am glad I took more time to think them over. Now it's time to get moving. I believe I am about to take down that roll of wire and put it to use.


Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Ranch House: Raising the Roof


The casita at Rancho San Benito has been abandoned for many years. That is about to change.

The first time I approached the little stone building after buying the property, there was a large rattlesnake staring at me from under the kitchen counter. Scorpions, beetles, tarantulas and a variety of other creeping and crawling organisms scuttled away as I explored the dingy, dank rooms and moved accumulated debris aside.

Since the ranch house in this state is uninhabitable, I've been renting a small place in the nearby pueblo. Now I have decided it's time to quit renting and live in my own house. However, it needs more than cleaning and fumigation to be made comfortable.

The floor is cracked and uneven and the doors rotten and termite-damaged. The galvanized, corrugated metal roof, where it has not collapsed from rotten supports, is so rusted that pinholes of daylight show through like constellations in the night sky. And the ceiling is so low that I can reach up and touch it without stretching.

I'd like to have a little more headroom to keep the heat out of the living space and generally want to make the place more comfortable and secure. The work will include reinforcing the old walls and increasing the height of the ceiling by about 80cm, putting on a solid roof with skylights, enclosing the outdoor kitchen, replacing the floors and putting in new windows, doors and mosquito screens to help with safety and ventilation.

We'll also build a 5 x 7 meter above-ground water storage tank, to be filled by the windmill pump from the old hand-dug, stone-lined well. This will allow us to accumulate water for household use and irrigation when the wind blows and will serve as a swimming pool for refreshing dips after hot work in the fields.


After a long, fruitless search for a good contractor who would work in this remote area, I fell back on the engineer who has done several projects for me in Mérida. It turns out that some of his albañiles actually live in a pueblo not far away, so the logistics will not be as difficult as I had thought. Two of his employees, an engineer and an architect, came to the ranch with me this week to measure, draw plans and put together a budget for the project.

I hope to break ground within two weeks and to move in by April.


Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson