A Tale of Two Bloggers


One of the things I like best about blogging is meeting other bloggers. It is amazing how well you can get to know a person by reading his or her posts. Each of us has a unique take on life.

One of such people is Steve Cotton. He is from Oregon, and now lives on Mexico’s west coast in Barra de Navidad, a small fishing village that’s popular with snowbirds in the wintertime. I imagine the place is a bit like Chelem, a town on Yucatan’s Gulf of Mexico.

Steve entertains me almost daily with stories about his present home and about his former one. He writes about his shopping expeditions to bigger cities, the restaurants he stumbles upon, and the people he meets from all walks of life. I feel like I know his family who visit him frequently. He is a serious Spanish language student, and a man who has taken up walking for health, with a vengeance. He wrote about Mr. Jiggs, his golden lab, and after the faithful dog’s demise, another golden lab came into his life. That pup kept Steve hopping from one doggie-created disaster to another.  When the seemingly unstoppable Barco died, way before his time, I cried.

Yes, I love dogs – and I share another of Mr. Cotton’s passions – travel. When I learned he’d be taking a cruise in Australia, I resumed a search I’d let slide for way too long.

My grandfather, Joseph van Waterschoot van der Gracht was a geologist and marine artist on the Mawson expedition that sailed from Tazmania to Antarctica. (Granddad was actually on the second sailing of the SS Aurora in 1912). While in Antarctica, he painted and photographed scenes of camp life, the fauna of Antarctica, seascapes and landscapes.

I knew about a collection of his Antarctica paintings.  I knew it was in Australia, and thanks to Steve, I decided to renew the hunt. My internet sleuthing put me in touch with Mark Pharoah, Manager of the Mawson Centre at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. When Steve posted his cruise itinerary – and I saw that Adelaide would be one of the ports of call – I had to write and tell him my family story.

For me, time in a foreign city is enhanced if I have even a tenuous connection to the place. I figured Steve would feel likewise. I never imagined that during his six hours in Adelaide, a city of more than a million, he would make it a point to visit my grandfather’s legacy.  And yesterday in Australia (today for us on the other side of the dateline) Steve Cotton wrote about the experience. You can read his account at this link:


From Steve’s description, the viewing was not at all what he expected.

In the post, you’ll read that he photographed the paintings but did not receive permission to reproduce them for his blog followers. I do however own a painting that I’ve placed at the top of this post. It depicts a stormy sea off Cape Horn early in the 20th century. Granddad was shipwrecked there, and in about 1930, he painted the oil from memory.

Thank you Steve for what you did. I know my grandfather would feel honored to know you went to such lengths to track down his paintings. He would call you – a member of an inquisitive band of intrepid likeminded men and women – an explorer.



Lori Simek, Joanna, and Marion Bale - the organizing team
Lori Simek, Joanna, and Marion Bale – the organizing team

In 2016, Jorge and I organized a fund raising tour for the International Women’s Club of Merida. We’d done so several times before, but this trip had more participants than any of the others, and a more complex itinerary. We  planned to see the sights all the way from Merida to Guanajuato and back again.

But we never would have even made it out of town without the help of club members, Lori Simek and Marion Bale. As former teachers, no detail escaped their scrutiny. Margey Alexy, Linda Lindholm and Lori Walters also helped an enormous amount once we got on the road. The trip was IWC team work at its best.

Our fellow travelers donated ten large boxes of toys, school supplies,  personal hygiene items and clothing that we planned on giving to people we would encounter along the way. That’s what we’d done on every previous trip. However, a week into the tour, we still had not found anyone who needed what we had to give. In Puebla, I went searching for a day care center or hospice – and the one place I did find was closed for renovation.

Eventually our group arrived in Mexico City, and I discovered why we still had those 10 boxes. (Now, I need to give you a bit of back story)

In the 1980s, I met Cliff Hinderman, a high school Spanish teacher from Spirit Lake, Iowa. He brought his students to Merida every summer and eventually he told me about a social service project he was involved with in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots  serves children in the city of Oaxaca, who do not have access to an education. The group helps the poorest of Oaxaca’s children live their dream of going to school. Their motto is:

When you give a child money on the street you feed them for a day – when you give a child an education you feed them for life!

Jorge and I have visited the shelter several times, and we are always amazed with the easygoing relationship between the volunteers and the eager-to-learn children. For many of the kids, the center is the only stable, supportive place they know. The youngest children begin their day with breakfast and attend a state-funded kindergarten right on the premises. When the older children arrive from their various schools, everyone has lunch, and then its homework time. The center offers music and art classes, sports, personal hygiene workshops, and academic tutoring. Volunteers come from many countries in the world, and the children learn to appreciate diversity. Several of them have continued their education and have graduated from University. Many more have learned a trade that provides them with a solid way to support themselves and their families.

Now back to the Mexico City part of my story. If you guessed that we ran into Cliff there – you are absolutely right. There he sat in our hotel’s restaurant, having breakfast. Cliff is about six foot six and slim, but when Jorge called out, Clifito! –  his eyes wildly searched the room and he responded with – Don Jorge!  He hurried over to join us. Pointing to his heaping plate, he pulled on the elastic waistband of his running pants, and said, “Good thing I’m wearing my buffet pants!” Everyone cracked-up, and  then listened in awe to his funny, poignant, inspiring anecdotes about Oaxaca.

Actually as soon as I saw my friend, I knew why “The Universe” had not provided an opportunity for us to give away our gifts – they were meant for Cliff and his children – more than 600 of them.

Cliff found someone who agreed to deliver the boxes to Oaxaca – then he went his way, and we all went ours. Today I received one of his periodic emails, and I would like to share an excerpt with you :

“Again, I want to thank you so much for the gifts you sent to Oaxaca with me last February. They were used this year in my gift bags for the K-6 children (200 bags).  Our Three Kings party is Saturday (tomorrow). There will be food, clowns, a show, and games. As they leave, each child will receive a new backpack, a candy bag, and a gift bag.  There are always smiles from ear to ear…thanks to your group for helping bring these smiles! More later, the best in 2017,   I will send a photo or two of the party.”

And when I receive the photos from Cliff, I will pass them on for you to look at too.

Those who were on the IWC trip will remember our “sorting party” in Villahermosa – I hope everyone enjoys these few photos of that fun evening. Although no IWC trip is happening this year, we hope to be on the road again in 2018.

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***Information on how to help support the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots, or volunteer can be found at: http://www.oaxacastreetchildrengrassroots.org/

More Guatemala: What Dreams May Come?

With all my heart, I believe that as we “grow up”, we don’t have to “grow old”. On a friend’s blog today, I read a piece of creative fiction about dreaming.  Her words inspired me to write today’s post.

Earlier this month when I traveled to Belize and Guatemala, I felt I was taking an adventure, not just a trip.  Jorge had not ever been to Belize and his last time in Guatemala was 50 years ago. Neither Efrén, nor I, had ever been to either country. Why, you ask – both are so close to Yucatán.

Concerns about civil unrest, being robbed, getting stranded, and worrying that the physical challenges will be too much for us are partly responsible – but so is the rut – the place we dig into and forget to stray out of.

But Carlos, our son who still loves to dream, kept after us. “Come on,” he said, “You’ll be fine.” Thanks to him, we took the leap of faith and I am so thankful we did.

On Day Three of our expedition, we visited Tikal – and what an amazing place it is. (Read about that here) We got an early start and saw the site in the morning, and so the afternoon lay wide open for more exploring. Even though we had trekked more distance than we have for some time and climbed about 400 steps, we felt energized and ready for more.

Carlos had seen a sign pointing the way to another Maya city: Uaxactun.

The site is located about 30 kms. north of Tikal. After a little asking around, we found a guide who would take us there. He mentioned he drove a 4 X 4, and once we started the journey, we realized why this was important.

A good patch of he road to Uaxactun
A good patch of he road to Uaxactun

The path (not road) cut straight through the lowland jungle. Potholes, debris from the recent hurricane, mud and encroaching vegetation made it hard going, but we saw monkeys and exotic birds just a few feet away (Carlos took beautiful photos you can see here)

When we got down from our vehicle, Jorge remembered seeing a drawing that the American archaeologist, Sylvanus Morley had made there in 1924. It depicts an early Maya astronomical complex, where alignments can be drawn between three buildings to mark the solar solstices and equinoxes.

Morley drawing

A little history… The Carnegie Institution conducted archeological excavations in Uaxactun from 1926 through 1937. The remains of several badly ruined late Classic era pyramids were removed, revealing well-preserved earlier temples underneath them. The study of these added greatly to our knowledge of the early Classic and Pre-Classic Maya.

The Carnegie team opened an airstrip and a small village grew around it. It soon became a center for the gathering and shipment of chicle from the Peten jungle. In the late 1970s the rough “road” was opened, connecting Uaxactun to Tikal and Flores.  Uaxactun is part of Guatemala’s Tikal National Park , and lies within the protected area of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Tikal and Uaxactun dominated the Guatemalan Peten during the Classic period. Although Tikal was definitely the stronger power, the Tikal rulers allowed Uaxuactun to keep elite prerogatives of monument carving, temple erection, and rich burials during most of the Early Classic era, The last inscribed monument in Uaxactun was dated in 889 AD.

Along with Tikal, Uaxactun was virtually abandoned shortly after that.

Subsequent exploration of Uaxactun has continued and in fact, while we visited the site, we saw a team of archaeologists restoring magnificent stucco masks.

Restoring stucco masks at Uaxactun
Restoring stucco masks at Uaxactun

As we climbed through a section of the site, a small boy named Wilson came up to me. He had a doll made from corn husks that he wanted me to purchase a souvenir of our time in Uaxactun. Of course I did so and we spoke together for a while. Wilson has dreams too. He wants to study high school in Flores – the biggest place he can imagine.

Wilson and Joanna
Wilson and Joanna

After an hour at Uaxactun, we bumped our way back to Tikal, and then to Flores. At our hotel, we enjoyed alternate dips in the hot tub and the pool, followed by a delicious dinner.

I fell asleep that night with the sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells of the day running through my brain like a 3D virtual reality movie. I awoke the next and felt pain in every muscle and bone of my body.

Tikal and Uaxactun gifted me with sensory and physical overload. Indeed the day was the stuff dreams are made of.

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Day Three: Tikal

After six hours riding the bus from Merida to Chetumal, crossing the Mexico – Belize border, another twelve hours of travel through Belize, and a second border crossing – Jorge, Carlos, Efren and I heard the bus driver announce that we had (finally) arrived in Flores, Guatemala.

The 900 kms of travel left the four of us feeling bone-tired, eager to find our hotel, get some food and crawl into bed. But when our bus rolled to a stop, we could see nothing at all – the electricity was out.

An authoritive-looking gentleman came on board and told us the starlings were to blame. Apparently, like Merida, Flores has an overpopulation of the shrieking black birds. That evening, their jostling and crowding along the electric cables caused the connectors to break loose from one of the tall wooden poles, and the electric company was forced to cut off the juice until the live wire could be put securely back in place.

I must say this is one excuse for a power outage that I have NEVER heard before – but nonetheless – I fully believed it.

By the dim glow of the interior lights of the bus and a few lanterns set in the shop windows, we collected our bags and huffed our way through dark streets to the Hotel La Casona.

Glory Be! Bright light produced by a private generator spilled out from the welcoming lobby. I was all set to start my happy dance, but when we showed our voucher to the receptionist, she told us there was no room at the inn. “We are full” (AKA oversold, thought I) “but don’t worry, we have a second hotel and they have ‘lovely’ rooms waiting for you. You’ll be just fine,” she assured us.

What could we do but pile into their van and go to the other hotel. The driver tried to comfort us by saying the alternate lodging was “even better” than the one we were leaving behind. “You’ll be just fine,” he promised. I figured – You’ll be just fine – must be a phrase their English teacher told them would rescue any situation.

But in fact, those young people were absolutely right. The Hotel Casona del Lago seemed to be the perfect property for us. After a speedy check in, we were escorted to our well-appointed rooms. We even had a spacious balcony overlooking the lake. I thought we should just stay put the next day and recoup in Paradise Found – but no – the three men traveling with me figured we needed to stick to the program and visit Tikal the very next day, departing at 4:30 am, no less.

After a shower, a delicious dinner and assurance that the hotel’s restaurant would provide coffee and rolls for us the next morning at 04:00 hrs, we tired travelers passed out cold. It had been a l-o-n-g day with m-a-n-y twists and turns but in the end, we felt – just fine.

The wake-up call blasted us out of bed at 3:30, and by 4:15, we sat waiting in the hotel lobby. Not even steaming coffee, flaky pastries or the anticipation of the day ahead managed to get our motors running. The van rolled into the parking lot at 4:30 on the dot and we hoisted ourselves onto the bench seats. With only six hours of shuteye during the night, we snored through the bumpy two hour drive to Tikal.

And thank God for that! When I saw the Bienvenidos a Tikal sign, I felt rested and ready for whatever would come next. I had dreamed of coming here for such a long time. I wanted to see the similarities and differences between this Guatemalan Maya city and the many Mexican ones I had visited over the years.

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Tikal National Park encompasses 575 square kilometers of jungle and has thousands of structures – some restored and many in ruins. Just the central part of the ancient city contains 3,000 buildings and covers about sixteen square kilometers.

Archeologists estimate that early Maya groups settled in the Petén about 900 BC. Over the centuries, Tikal grew into an important ceremonial, cultural, and commercial center.  Most of the city’s huge temples were constructed during the VIII century AD when Tikal, the greatest city in the Maya world at the time, had a population of about 100,000. As was the case with Maya complexes on the Yucatan peninsula, wars, drought, famine, overpopulation and resource depletion played a part in Tikal’s decline.

My first impression of Tikal was not what I expected. I imagined it would be more like Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, cities where the main buildings are laid out – fully on display – as the visitor enters the site. To me, Tikal is more like Calakmul, Kohunkich and Coba – one must walk for quite a distance before the enormity of the site can be appreciated. The most imposing pyramids are separated from one another, and a 10 K trek is required to see the main restoration.

Now, this is NOT to say the site is any less magnificent than I thought it would be. I felt overwhelmed. The opportunity to gaze upon buildings that have existed for millennia makes my heart pound and sends my imagination into full flight.

I think about all the artisans, engineers and builders who erected the mega-ton constructions – did they believe their work had value or were most forced into their labor? Centuries later, what was the first impression of those who came upon the “lost” cities? After studying ancient civilizations in their classrooms, how do young archaeologists react when they see these cities for the first time?  How many of the tourists who climb the steps or walk in the shadow of the Maya temples experience the sense of wonder that I do?

I could write about the number of buildings, their dimensions, their positioning and astronomical relevance. But a good internet site like. http://wikitravel.org/en/Tikal  can better inform you of these facts than I can.

For historical perspective, you can read Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843)  by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, two intrepid XIX Century explorers who documented Maya sites from  Copan in the south to Chichen Itza in the north.  Stephens vividly recorded their experiences, and Catherwood made meticulous drawings that compliment the text.

Or, right here, you can link to a PDF version of the Sylvanus G. Morley / Robert J. Sharer classic text, “The Ancient Maya”.

What I offer readers of Writing from Merida is my enthusiasm for living in this wonderful corner of the world.

Certainly, there are days when I lose patience with some of the cultural conundrums I am faced with. Many days the heat and humidity exhaust me. Although I speak Spanish, sometimes I would prefer to explain myself in English – but the excitement of days like the one I spent in Tikal is ample compensation for the petty stuff.

When I began this post, I did not intend to compose an Ode to My Life –  but often writing takes me in a direction I do not anticipate.

If you live in the Maya World, I hope you’ll take advantage of your good fortune – get out and see these amazing places. If you don’t live here – come for a visit.

Either way, your heart and soul will thank you.

A Ceiba tree in Tikal
A Ceiba tree in Tikal

Day Two: The bus ride from Chetumal to Flores

Last week, I joined my husband, Jorge and our son, Carlos on a road trip through central Belize and the Petén area of Guatemala. At the last minute, a long-time friend, named Efrén also decided to come along. We were able to reserve some of our lodging and transportation, but Carlos warned us that the tourism infrastructure in Mexico is much more developed than it is south the border. “Flexibility is the secret to successful travel in Central America,” he advised us. Just one day into the trip, we realized how right he was.

The red line on the map roughly shows our path from Chetumal in Mexico, through Belize and across the border to Flores, Guatemala – approximately 900 kilometers.


A rough idea of our route from Chetumal to Flores
A rough idea of the route we traveled from Chetumal to Flores

We started with a 6 hour bus ride from Merida, Yucatan to Chetumal, Quintana Roo. We spent the night at the Hotel Marlon, which I wrote about a week ago. Every day, I intended to post more, but that didn’t happen – there was just too much to see and do. As well, Internet was somewhat sporadic, and I didn’t want to waste my time fussing around with that. After all, this was a holiday!

At 9 am on Day Two, we traveled for 12 more hours, to Flores, Guatemala. We actually rode on three different buses – all of which featured rudimentary AC and shocks – we had to pack our own bags from bus to bus and across the borders. We felt grateful that we’d followed Carlos’ advice and packed light. “If you can’t carry it, don’t bring it,” he warned.

Belize is so different from Mexico, starting with the style of construction. Many of the houses are clapboard. High concrete walls, wrought iron fences, colonial style buildings, splashing fountains and flower-lined courtyards are not seen as commonly, as they are in Yucatan.

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For the first four hours, we drove through the territory hit by Hurricane Earl. Even though Earl was only a Category One storm, the damage to the countryside and the flimsy construction was extensive – lots of twisted aluminum roofing and broken tree limbs littered the countryside.

Broken limbs and rubble from Hurrican Earl
Broken limbs and rubble from Hurrican Earl

Belize is shaped like a rectangle that extends about 280 kilometers (174 mi) north-south and about 100 kilometers (62 mi) east-west, with a total land boundary length of 516 kilometers (321 mi). Most of the territory is flat, swampy coastal plain, although there are some heavily forested areas.  We found the climate very similar to Yucatan – hot and humid.

I looked up the statistics for Belize’s population, and the latest figure I could find was – 324,528 – from 2010.

A park in Belize
A park in Belize

The ethnic make-up of the country is quite different from that of south-eastern Mexico.

Belize has a diverse ethnic population
Belize has a diverse ethnic population

Although the Maya settled in Belize in the second millennium BC, much of the country’s original Maya population was wiped out by disease and conflicts between different Maya city states and with Europeans.

Creoles make up roughly 21% of the Belizean population. They are descendants of the Baymen slave owners and the slaves they brought from western and central Africa to work in the hardwood logging industry.

About 4.5% of the country’s population is Garinagu – a mix of Western / Central African and Caribe ancestry. Though they were captives, removed from their homelands, this group of people were never documented as slaves. It is believed that, in 1635, they were either the survivors of two recorded shipwrecks, or somehow took over the ship they came on. The Spanish employed them as soldiers, and they settled along the Caribbean coast of Central America.

Approximately half of the people in Belize are Mestizos – mixed Spanish and Maya descent. They originally came to Belize in 1847, to escape the Caste War in Yucatán. Spanish is the main language of the Mestizos, but most speak English and Belize Kriol fluently.

Thousands of Mennonites also live in Belize. They farm the land and live according to their religious beliefs. Some 4% of them are German-speaking. The vast majority are called Russian Mennonites – even though they too, are of German descent. During the 18th and 19th centuries, their ancestors settled in the Russian Empire. Most Russian Mennonites speak Plautdietsch – a German dialect – but use mostly Standard German for reading and writing. The Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites mostly immigrated from Europe, first to Mexico and then to Belize after 1958. There are also Old Order Mennonites who came from the United States and Canada in the late 1960s.

The remaining 5% of the general population are a mix of immigrants from the United States and Canada, and many other foreign groups brought to assist the country’s development.

Building costs are high, but the government of Belize has made tourism its second priority after agriculture. In 2012,  917,869 (with about 585,000 from the United States) visited Belize, and tourism revenue amounted to over $1.3 billion.

In Belize, there is infrastructure that caters to the high end tourism and there are services available for backpackers, but for middle-of-the-road tourists, the selection is meager. We found the country’s accommodation, transportation and food to be expensive. But the people certainly tried to provide all they could in terms of service.

Belize was granted independence from England on September 21, 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation because of its longstanding territorial dispute with the British colony, claiming that Belize belonged to Guatemala. About 1,500 British troops remained in Belize to deter any possible incursions.

Even though Belize is now an independent country, the structure of government is based on the British parliamentary system, and the legal system is modeled on the common law off England.   The symbolic head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. She is represented in Belize by the Governor General, but the country is led by the Prime Minister and his Parliament.

As mentioned earlier in this post, we did not visit any Belizean tourism attractions during the first half of our trip. I will post about what we saw there, after I write my impressions of Guatemala.

The coast of Belize
The coast of Belize