Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Holiday goat woes.

It has been a long time since I've done a farm update.  Nothing very interesting or unusual has happened over this past year, and I started a new, art-specific blog to make the writing more cogent.  I'll stick to homesteading and sustainability topics here, with some travel and family updates.

This holiday season has been unusual for us, though, because it was wrought with pet crises, mainly of the goat variety.  First, right before the break, I noticed our oldest goat, Pan, just didn't look right.  He was standing awkwardly, looking skinny and rickety.  Something in his face was different.  His luster was gone.  But, he was still friendly and affable, and was eating fine.

This is Pan at about age 2.  He was only 3 months older than my daughter.
But, over the next few days, he grew weaker.  Soon, he was lying down, and I wrapped a blanket around him, hand-fed him, and sat with him as often as I could.  Pan was one of our first goats, and the other passed away several years ago.  He was a whether, and the friendliest, most lovable goat I've ever met.  He knew his name, and always came running when called.  He tolerated mishandling by Anouk through her toddler years and even let her ride on him.  But he would have been 11 this spring, and he had lived a good, long goat life.  After two days of lying down, still animated and eating, and showing no signs of discomfort, I found him dead the day before Christmas break.  We started off the holidays with a big loss.  The barn isn't the same without Pan.

But then, on Christmas eve, I found our newest 10-month-old billy lying on his side, crying, and unable to move.  I scooped him up and took him straight to the house.  Mike and I tended to him in our bathroom, squirting baby goat formula into his mouth with a syringe a little at a time.  We noticed that his fur was full of hay grain, making it (and him) appear thicker than he was.  He also has a thick undercoat that the other goats don't have.  (Mike is convinced that he's a Pygmy and not a Nigerian.)  As we brushed and picked the grains out, we could feel that he was very, very bony.  He slowly regained composure, and was soon back on his feet, acting normal.  We gave him a dose of wormer, some aspirin, and kept him in the bathroom overnight to monitor him, then put him back into the barn, separated from the others.
This is Thorin last summer.  We bought him to breed with our females in hopes of milking this spring.
He seemed a bit weak, but ok, so I just kept giving him extras like veggies and formula, and he spent the night in the barn.  By the way, we were experiencing some unusually cold weather, and it's possible that the low temps affected our weaker goats.  But, the next evening, Christmas Eve, I took a break from cooking a holiday dinner to close up the coop and barn, and I found Thorin out in the goat yard on his side, head arched back, crying weakly and limp.  Again, I rushed him indoors, but this time, he was much worse.  Liquid was dribbling from his mouth, his eyes were half closed, breathing was quick and shallow, and he couldn't even lift his head.  Also, he was bloated, and obviously in pain.  Meanwhile, my dad was arriving and dinner needed to be finished.

We set up a bed for Thorin and kept checking on him.  The stinky gases slowly escaped from his insides, and he deflated.  Then he regained some strength.  We were able to get some formula into him.  And suddenly, he was standing again and acting normal.  We were flummoxed, but relieved that he was not dying after all.
Goat fains dying in order to sleep in the house.
We were doing frantic internet searches, I blind-emailed random goat owners I found online, and we just kept feeding him what we had on hand.  The first day stores were open, we both went on separate hunts for mineral supplements, selenium, and advice.  We came home with vitamins, electrolytes, and goat treats.  And he is slowly getting better.  Our best guess is that he either had a selenium deficiency, which can cause weakness in the legs, or that the older, bigger goats were preventing him access to the feed, and that he was actually starving.  I hate that option, because I feel awful that I overlooked it until he had lost all muscle tissue in his legs.

But, he has always been very shy, and doesn't like being handled.  So, I haven't pushed him.  After all of the special attention he's been getting for over a week now, he is our little baby.  He's wearing a modified sweatshirt and has a buffet of yummy, nutritious food laid out in his area, with a cushy bed and heat lamp.  If anything positive has come out of this, it's that I learned a lot about goat nutrition and this billy will be much friendlier than he would have been otherwise.

Finally, the other night, our new dog, Bilbo, got into the dog food and overate so severely that he had to be rushed to the emergency vet clinic.  His stomach was stretched to 5 times the normal size and was in danger of rupturing.  He had to be kept overnight and given injections to induce vomiting.  He is finally back to normal, but still on medication to help his tummy heal.  And we had to cancel a trip to visit friends for the holidays.

So, that's what we did over the holidays!  

Monday, September 9, 2013

Summer 2013 in review...

This was a particularly delicious summer in Western Washington.  The weather was perfect and our garden continues to produce the most abundant harvest we've ever experienced.  I have tomato plants in my greenhouse that grew to 10 feet, then fell over and kept growing (they are wound around supports, growing horizontally.)  The garage freezer is packed with berries and veggies and the countertops are piled with tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, with daily containers of beets, carrots, string beans, and more waiting to be used or preserved.  All of the farm animals are thriving on peels, seeds and foliage leftover from each day's harvest.  It's a lot of work, but it will pay off this winter when I only need to grab organic, homegrown food from the freezer instead of buying it from a store.

In the meantime, I have been reflecting on all of the art activities I participated in over the past three months. There was the invitational Bathers of the Sun, Bathers of the Moon 3-person show at B2 Fine Art Gallery in Tacoma.  The opening reception was very nice, with live Flamenco dancing and a lovely crowd.  I completed my re-working of the Blue Moon mosaic (mentioned in a spring post) in time for this show:
Blue Moon, stained glass on wedi, 16" x 22"
My mosaic portrait of my daughter eating an apple at Mardi Gras was featured in a juried exhibit called "Being Human" in Issaquah.
Fascinator - stained glass on wood cabinet door with Mardi Gras swag.
I led several mosaic activities over the summer.  The first was with a group of 60 participants at a Presbyterian church in Olympia.  I've never taught more than 10 people at once, so I was very nervous going in.  However, everyone had a blast and all of the little cross mosaic projects turned out great.  I most enjoyed the young children, who added glass pieces, found objects and beads with reckless abandon.  They didn't get hung up on composition or perfect placement, and the results were really fun.

The second event was at my daughter's 4H camp, where I put out wooden picture frames, scrap glass, and glue.  Kids from 3rd grade and up glued glass to their frames and filled the gaps with glitter.  (There was no time for grouting with either workshop.)  I forgot my camera that day, so no photos, unfortunately.

In August, I led an event through the City of Auburn Parks and Rec department, which I wrote about in its own blog recently.  I delivered that finished mural on Thursday, and they have decided to mount it on a wall inside of the General Administration Building at eye level.  They are very happy with their new artwork.

I had one commission over summer, which was also delivered recently to the new owner.  This will be the design for her upcoming book, which should be published for sale in time for the holidays.  I will post more about that when the publishing process is finalized, but here is a sneak peek of her mosaic:
4 dancing women with falling gifts for author Kay Christy
Finally, I had the pleasure of spending four days in Hillsboro, OR with Lynn Adamo.  For two days, I took a hammer & hardie workshop from her, learning to use the tool I had purchased over a year ago.  I look forward to breaking some of my salvaged stone tile, and collecting more organic materials for mosaic in the future.  After the workshop, Richard Davis arrived from Whidbey Island, and Lynn put us to work on her current public art project for Astoria.  It was a great experience to see how Lynn approached her project and to watch her work through some of the challenges faced while I was there.  You can read all about the project at her blog: http://www.lynnadamo.com/blog/

Those were all of my official summer art projects, but I also started cleaning out my studio, moving a huge pile of random salvaged tiles outside and thinsetting them to a concrete patio.  Progress has been slow because of other commitments, but if weather holds, I hope to get most of it done this month.  I have a lot of older artwork in storage that I would love to clear out of the studio, so I may do a major studio clearance sale later this Fall, after the studio is reorganized.  I also started a bottle wall, but had to stop to attend to other things.  I will continue work on that this month as well, and post a photo when it is completed.
The beginning of my patio mosaic.  I have a LONG way to go!
My September and October have been filling up fast, as well.  I have some exciting new projects in planning, but I'll write about those another time.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Auburn Community Mosaic Mural

Last spring, I saw a call for art that involved facilitation of an art project for the Auburn Parks & Rec's new "ArtRageous Art Zone."  It hasn't been easy to find opportunities to do more community mosaic since the Artesian Well project, so I submitted a proposal to lead a mural-making project.  The finished product would be donated to a non-profit organization chosen by the City of Auburn.

I received notice that I was approved to lead the project, but I found it difficult to get more information.  Apparently, the ArtRageous Art Zone is a new program, and it was yet to be seen who would come to the planned events.  On various dates throughout summer, entertainment and interactive art projects would be available in Les Gove Park, open to anyone who wanted to participate.  By July, a location for the mural had not been identified for certain, though there is a blank wall on one of the buildings in the park, perfect for mounting the mural, so that was being considered.

My design, therefore, was a simple landscape featuring Mt. Rainier (as seen from Auburn) and some NorthWest-looking plants.  Without knowing how many participants would come or what age range they would be, I decided to try to make it as easy as possible, though it meant a lot more work on my part.  I outlined the mountain and clouds with mirror, and made outlines representing the low mountains at the base of Mt. Rainier.  Then I completed the ferns, leaves and flowers myself, using the boldest shapes I could manage.  After all, the stipend for this project was quite small, and I had a commission with a steep deadline to complete at the same time.  Here is how the mural looked before I took it to Auburn:
3' x 5' mural, prepped and ready for kids to fill in the empty areas.
Sorted scrap stained glass was set out in bins - only 4 colors to keep it very simple.  Two Seattle mosaic artists, Kathryn Henne and Christina Vaule, came to volunteer, and it would have been sheer chaos without them.  As it turned out, the live band that played on a nearby stage was the Roly Poly Guacamoles and most of the kids in the park that day were preschoolers.  We did have a few older kids, but most of the work was done by very little hands who often had a very hard time even understanding that certain colors needed to go in certain areas, let alone how to place pieces so that they fit together nicely.  Thinset was dripping and glopping everywhere, lots of areas had pieces of glass overlapping or pressed together without space for grout, and at least one kid wanted to stack the glass, gluing pieces one on top of another.  It was all I could do to keep up with thinset mixing and going around adjusting and cleaning up areas after they were abandoned by each child.  Most of the kids were from daycare groups, so adults were not able to help them out - which I did not anticipate!  I was very impressed and utterly grateful that Kathryn and Christina were awesome with the kids, showing them how to dab the right amount of thinset onto a piece and strategizing where each piece should go.
Here, two older girls are working independently while Christina gets 3 newcomers set up.

This mom was awesome, making sure her kids followed directions.  
None of us took time to stop and take photos during the busiest part of the day, but we often had kids wrapped all the way around the table, and it was very hard to keep up with all of them.  The lesson I learned is that, in future, I will not be so ambitious.  While I really wanted this project to be a mural, it was mainly out of self-interest.  It will make a nice addition to my portfolio, showing how community mosaic can bring people together and contribute to the beautification of cities within a limited budget.  So, I'm glad I did it, but I now know to only do these large projects in a more controlled environment.  There should be a minimum age or required adult supervision, and possibly advanced sign-up or limited space at the table.  

Earlier in the summer, I did two other group projects.  One was with a church group of 60 participants and I had no volunteers.  But there were parents and grandparents, and the project was a very simple, small mosaic on wood using water-based glue.  Another was similar, but at 4H camp with kids in 3rd grade and up.  Both of these were very successful, low stress, fun for participants, and everyone got to take their project home.  If I had it to do over, I would have done that for the ArtRageous Art Zone.

However, with the help of family, the mural was finished at home over the past couple of weeks.  (I needed unskilled labor so that it would all blend together.)  Today I grouted, and I think it's a very cute mosaic project that, hopefully, will be mounted in Les Gove Park in Auburn, WA sometime this month.  The children who helped create it will be able to see it every time they visit the playground, and point to the area they worked on.  Who knows, maybe they will be able to show it to their own kids someday.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Art auctions can be a humiliating experience for donating artists.

There are many blog posts already written about the many reasons for artists to stop donating to benefit art auctions.  I recommend this one: http://joannemattera.blogspot.com/2007/06/no-i-will-not-donate-to-your-auction.html

But, there is another aspect of the art auction experience that is harder to explain.  I will try.  Something about attending an art auction to which I have donated my artwork is a little bit humiliating.  I think if I were an established artist it would be different, as attendees and organizers may treat those artists with some level of respect.  But as an emerging artist, it can be very uncomfortable.

I've donated to small and large organizations, and each event has a completely different character, but the dynamic of predominately struggling artists donating items of a very personal nature to be bid on by people with discretionary income is the same every time.  Understand first that art is very personal to the artist.  It's like taking your dreams and putting them up for everyone to see and bid on.

Sometimes we are not even invited to the event.  We are not present to meet potential bidders, discuss our process and techniques, or connect with the collector in any way.  The first time I donated to a benefit, that was the case.  I donated a $100 gift certificate toward a commission to support a children's museum, even though I couldn't afford a membership for my own child.  The winning bidder sent me an anonymous email requesting a piece of work at the $100 value.  They did not want me to know their name and requested that I drop off the completed work at the museum so that we wouldn't have to meet in person.  That was rather unsettling.

For several years, I donated to the foundation for my alma mater, and I did get to attend the event.  They never included background information about the artists, so one year, I approached the high bidder of my artwork to introduce myself.  She looked at me like I had just asked what kind of sexual position she prefers and excused herself.  I still wonder why she bought the art?  And who was she?  Artists like to connect with the new owners of their art.

Last year, I donated work of a higher value to a local arts organization.  The required opening bid was for the actual retail value of the piece.  I still have it.  It is disheartening that artists making below minimum wage will donate to a cause, but supporters with solid incomes will usually not match the value.  And it feels really crummy to donate your work for charity, and have it not sell.  I was at the home of a collector one time who showed me a piece of mine he had acquired at one of these benefits for a fraction of the value.  He was very proud, and had no idea that the experience was degrading for me.  "Look!  I bought this $800 artwork of yours for only $200!  Isn't that great?"

And finally, at the higher-end art auctions, such as an art museum, there is a very obvious divide between the haves and have-nots in attendance.  I've given my artwork (through a juried process, by the way) to a museum each year for its fundraiser, which is a swanky party with great food and an open bar.  Guests wear formal attire and it is common to overhear, "What are you wearing?" in reference to the designer.  The donating artists, who can't afford to bring a date, slowly identify each other by the lesser quality of their clothing.  Artists and bidders are seated together at tables, but conversation is awkward.  "You must be an artist!", someone will say, looking me up and down. Last year, a woman commented, "You are so brave to wear that outfit here,"  (referring to my secondhand dress and boots).  Trying to be funny, I said, "You wait.  Next year everyone will be dressed like this."  "No," she said.  "They won't."

So, I had a nice meal and free booze, and watched my $800 piece sell for $140 and drove home thinking I probably wouldn't donate to any more auctions.  The fact is, I can't afford memberships to these organizations or tickets to their events.  When I tried to have my jewelry displayed at the museum, I was rejected outright.  During the first few years of donating to auctions, I felt altruistic, but increasingly, I just feel taken advantage of.

I do still donate small items to small, local organizations.  They are not targeting artists, exclusively, to provide donations.  They generally don't invite me to their events, but their budgets are very low, so I don't expect it.  I can give something small and feel ok about it, and I know it helps a little bit.

The blog post I linked to at the beginning does offer some suggestions for changing the yucky relationship between artists and fundraising auctions, and I hope some of the organizers start paying attention.  If I can split the take with the organization, I am more likely to donate something of higher value and feel like I at least received something for my effort.  If they put some effort into promoting me and my work by giving bidders a lot of good information and posting a link to my website online, it shows respect, adds some benefit for me, and is more likely to generate higher bids, which is a win/win.  Making sure the artists have name tags so that bidders can ask questions makes a huge difference.  And treating the artists as if their contribution is at least as valuable as the money being raised is vital.  Welcome us and talk to us, introduce us to potential bidders, and for Pete's sake, give us a glass of wine if it's a cash bar and we can't afford it.  It's no fun being a socially awkward artist attending an event alone, standing in a corner without a drink and not knowing anyone in the room, waiting for someone, anyone to please bid on your artwork.  A little extra effort might make it a less painful experience.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mosaic retrospective

I was asked to return to The Evergreen State College to deliver a lecture presentation about my work.  I did this last year for the same class, but different students.  This year, I decided to tell the story of my work from the beginning, demonstrating my slow learning process, and how attention to andamento has influenced my style.

While going back through old images, I was shocked to realize how rudimentary my technique was only a few years ago.  I also recognized that I have learned to make mosaic the same way I've learned everything: a little bit backwards.  In art classes, I always infuriated the instructor by jumping ahead.  They give the class some clay and ask us to begin by creating a coil bowl, but I'm already sculpting a figure.  But, my figure breaks in the kiln because I didn't work the clay correctly, and during the next session, I want to know how to make those coil bowls.  My learning process is to rush in and make mistakes, and THEN follow directions.

So it has been with mosaic.  Granted, when I began in 2000, the internet was new.  There was no youtube or tutorials online and I was just learning to use my big monster tower computer, and I may have found a few photos of mosaic on the internet, but nothing like the vast amount of information available now.  So, I was just busting up tiles and sticking them onto wood panels with mastic (which is all wrong, by the way.)  When I was given a big box of scrap stained glass, I didn't even know how to cut it.  Here is one of my first pieces:
Yes, I was so proud of this, a friend helped me put a title and watermark over the image and he posted it online for me.
As I've been collecting images for the powerpoint I'll be showing to this class, I keep seeing work that I once thought was really great.  And I still like the designs I created - I just had no clue about how to place the pieces to create a sense of flow and direction.  They are choppy.  I put pieces where they fit.
Now, this Blue Moon mosaic isn't bad, if you ignore the odd grout lines.  You can see that I was trying to use light and dark pieces for shading, but the placement of tesserae is a mess.  Now, I feel compelled to go back to my old work and re-make them using skills I've since acquired.  I think I would start with this one.

It was a relief to come to this point in my work, where I am finally starting to "get it."  There are a couple of things I would change about this, mainly in the face, but I have at least begun to be more careful about my placement of glass, making sure the grain of the pieces moves in the direction of the flow, and the keystoning radiates out from the central of the spirals.
Gypsy Rose, designed by Marco Hernandez
I really see my progress in this mosaic.  I played with different styles of andamento, cutting solid shapes for the roses, placing pieces randomly in the face and scarf, and using a more classic andamento for the background.  I think this is from 2010, so it took me 10 years of doing mosaic to start to understand how to make mosaic that is controlled and appealing to the eye.
Now, in 2011, I took a class from Carol Shelkin, and I've been playing with the techniques I learned from her.  Since I use small, odd-shaped pieces of salvaged stained glass, I'm not patient enough to cut each piece into little squares.  BUT, there is still some serious control taking place within what appears to be a random mess of colorful pieces here.  Without my past experience, I'm not sure I could have made good use of Carol's instruction.  And, I'm still learning.  In five years, I expect I'll be using these more recent examples to show all that I was doing wrong in 2013.  I can only hope so.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April Homestead Update

As for life in the country and efforts to be self-sufficient, we are kicking into high gear this month.  Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like, while we keep moving forward, we also fall back.  We might be learning how to make better use of our space, getting a greenhouse and hoop-houses built, learning more and more about beekeeping, and enjoying an increasingly established garden, but there is so much to maintain!  Garden gates are sagging, paint is peeling, weeds find new places to push through, and our barn walls are rotting into nothing.
This is our goat barn.  We've been ignoring the problem for too long.  But the solution is daunting!
We finally, after YEARS of working at it, have the pasture fenced for the goats.  (It was finished in 2007, but two winters of severe flooding took it all down.)  Now, the pasture is a short walk down a hill via a switchback, but the goats have all become very comfortable in a fenced area close to the house.  They love to graze just outside of their enclosure, but they get nervous when I take them down to the pasture, and they panic if I put them inside of the fence and leave.  So far, they have always found a way out, and will work their way back up to our driveway, sometimes limping as if they went to desperate measures to escape.  Yesterday, I believe I secured all exit points by stretching chicken wire across any slightly wide openings and putting concrete blocks under the gates.  They stayed put, bleating as if their hearts were broken, for a couple of hours.  The goal is to have them grazing down there during the day, reducing our need to buy feed by about 90%.  (It's about time!)

This is just a small area of the pasture; a giant goat buffet.
This is part of our effort to make sense of having goats.  Until now, they have been expensive weed-composting machines and sweet pets.  We recently bought a baby boy goat named Thorin.  In a few months, he'll be old enough to impregnate our 3 does.  We plan to sell the offspring when they are weaned (we have enough goats) and milk the does.  Yes, we have had goats for 10 years without successfully milking them.  It's a long story.  So, if we can cut cost of feed and have fresh goat milk, it will justify my choice to keep goats.
Introducing Thorin.  He is very shy and nervous around people.  He sure is adorable, though.
We lost 2 ducks in early spring to raccoons.  But the remaining 3 include a female, and I'm still hoping she'll hatch some babies.  So far, she has no interest.  I find her cold eggs scattered all over the place.  But, they wander around all day and through the night munching slugs.  Tomorrow, I will be picking up a pair of baby geese to live in the veggie garden.  Ducks and geese are excellent slug control.  We also have 2 teenage Buff Orpington chicks and 2 baby Polish chicks living in the greenhouse with Blind Chicken.

Blind chicken was attacked by our cute little lap dog last year and, while she recovered her health, she can't see.  I put her in front of food and water every day.  The other chickens are incredibly cruel to her, so she lives in the greenhouse for now.  We have a new coop in progress, which needs to be completed soon so that we can put plants into the dirt in the greenhouse without them being eaten by the chicks.  Blind chicken will live in the old coop with the ducks and geese.

We spend all of our spare time trying to keep up with weeds, failing gates that are tied together with bungee cords, seed planting, and general cleaning.  As usual, we are late getting the garden tilled and planted, but Mike is advisor for his school's horticulture club, so we get starts from them each year at the plant sale, and that helps us catch up.  Then, Mike has a couple of months during summer to spend working the garden and taking care of all of these huge projects.
This is a section of the perennial garden, which is interspersed with herbs, hops, grapes, strawberries and raspberries.

Sometimes, I think I should keep two blogs: one for homesteading and one for art.  I'm not very good at writing about why they are inherently connected.  But, I use each to support the other, if that makes sense.  I earn shockingly little income from my mosaic at this point.  My daughter is still young enough, and we are so remote and lacking a support system, that the cost of getting a job outweighs the benefit.  Through my efforts  splitting my time between homesteading activities and trying to grow the business, we are able to squeak by on Mike's income.  Plus, we get fresh, homegrown food and best of all, a really great lifestyle.  Our daughter has grown up with a mom who creates almost every day and she has been by my side at art shows and festivals since she was a baby.  She is very proud when people come to see my work, or when I make an appearance in a newspaper or magazine.  She has also helped harvest a lot of our food, and she helps herself to food straight from the garden, happily snacking on kale and fennel and using chives as straws.  So, I am considering starting a separate blog just for art, but I don't know if it's necessary.  I would be curious to know what my nine followers think.

Monday, April 29, 2013

April Mosaic Whirlwind!

After hibernating through winter, just working on projects for myself and not dealing with the business end of my mosaic business, April was all about breaking out of my shell.  I was in charge of one part of the American Mosaic Summit that took place during the second week of April, plus I was one of the presenters.  The weeks building up to the conference were filled with frantic computer work, collecting and documenting a record number of entries for the annual mosaic salon and auction, and finishing my powerpoint presentation.

Each year, the Society of American Mosaic Artists has a conference in a different host city.  We take over a conference hotel, hold an international exhibit demonstrating the quality and diversity of contemporary mosaic art, host a wide range of workshops and presentations, provide a vendor marketplace, and give SAMA members an opportunity to meet each other and spend 5 days straight talking about andamento and smalti and double indirect method and all of the other things that no one else in our lives understands (or wants to.)

This year, the conference was at the beautiful Murano Hotel in Tacoma, as well as the Tacoma Convention Center.  Over 500 people attended, many from as far away as Australia, and a whole contingent from Ontario.  The Mosaic Arts International exhibit took place at the Museum of Glass and several regional mosaic exhibits took place nearby.  The summit was a big success, and it was a huge relief and satisfaction to see my own part of it come together.
This is the SAMA salon before crowds filled the room.  This is a time for members to show off their own work, and it is  also for sale in a silent auction.  Over 140 members participated - a third more than any previous year!
This is one of my favorite mosaic pieces in the Salon, by Tammi Lynch-Forrest.
The conference was a whirlwind, as usual.  I enjoy the company of fellow mosaic artists, getting to know more members of the organization each year, and filling every recess of my brain with mosaic information.  During this week, most of us get very little sleep, and we leave with our minds spinning with new ideas.  It can be hard to integrate all of the new information, and I usually find that it takes weeks for me to re-adjust.

My presentation took place mid-way through the conference, and while I was incredibly nervous, all feedback from the audience has been incredibly positive.  I was surprised how moved people were, some of them approaching me with tears in their eyes afterward.  I told the story of the Artesian Well project from a very personal perspective, including the many challenges and culminating in a triumphant outcome.  (I documented the project in this blog exactly a year ago, in detail.)

A group of 15 Pacific NW mosaic artists held a group exhibit at the Handforth Gallery in Tacoma coinciding with the conference, so that we could strut our stuff a little bit.  This was a great opportunity for local mosaic artists to connect, the show was very successful, and I hope we can continue to create similar shows in the future.  I was approached by a Tacoma gallery and will be participating in exhibits there in the future.  I really enjoyed meeting the owners of B2 Gallery and I look forward to branching out and showing my work in Tacoma.
This is Gimli, one of my pieces in the Handforth Gallery exhibit.
As soon as the conference was over, I had to focus on getting ready for Olympia's Spring Arts Walk.  I hoped to finish a large, sculptural egg mosaic in time to use it as a centerpiece for a show in the window of a local boutique.  So much of my work would still be in Tacoma, and I wanted to have a big, beautiful, eye-catching piece in Arts Walk.  Unfortunately, I had to face the fact that I wasn't even close to being on schedule with the egg.  So, I asked permission to work on the egg in the window, and the shop owner loved the idea.  So, I hung a body of older work on the walls behind me and set up a teeny-tiny work space in the window.

And it was a hit!  Crowds gathered outside while I worked, and I could see by facial expressions that people were very excited to see how the mosaic is made.  It was very strange to be on display while working, but also kind of nice to be able to just focus on my work while all of the mayhem floated by outside.  A photographer from the local paper, Tony Overman, took his time getting a shot so good that it was on the front page of the Olympian on Saturday morning.
I worked on that egg for 5 hours on Friday and over 4 hours on Saturday, which is normally not a big deal.  But, working on low makeshift tables (a bucket with a 12" tile on top), sitting on a little folding seat, in cramped circumstances with crowds of people staring in... it was exhausting!

Since I had applied fresh thinset on Saturday, I had to leave the egg in place.  The shop would like for me to leave the show up for a bit, especially since people were calling to say they wanted to come from far away to see the mosaic they saw in the paper.  (So: the shop is Hot Toddy at 410 Capital Way in Downtown Olympia.)

It's Monday and I have a long list of things to catch up on here on the farm.  I plan to take this week off from mosaic to tend the animals, fix the chicken coop, get the garden planting started, and prep for my daughter's 10th birthday party on Saturday.  I expect May to be much less intense, and that is just fine.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Follow up to my presentation at the 2013 American Mosaic Summit

This post is a follow-up to a slide presentation that I delivered at the American Mosaic Summit in Tacoma, WA last week detailing the challenges and rewards of facilitating my first community mosaic.  I had to talk fast because my time was limited, and I was so nervous I failed to tie up some loose ends in the story.  I've been asked a lot of questions over the past few days, so I'll try to answer some of them here.

The most popular question: "Would you do it again?"
  • Yes!  I hope to continue to create mosaic in communities at least once or twice each year.  This first project was hard and had some challenges, but now I can anticipate some of those problems and plan ahead.  
  • I would pre-grout the individual fish before adhering them to the substrate (so the thinset couldn't push through.) 
  • I would insist on doing outdoor installation in summer and avoid a steep deadline.  
  • I would do more to disseminate information about the project before and during execution.
  • I now have a posse.  I know who to call when the next project rears it's head.
  • I would probably even do the work indoors on mesh, then do the installation myself (although that doesn't allow for passers-by to get involved, which felt essential in the case of the Artesian Well.)
Next most common question:  "Did you stay in touch with Thor?"
  • Yes, Thor and I stay in touch via email and facebook.  After the project, he moved out to my friends' goat farm and worked as a farm hand, but since it wasn't on the bus line, he had to move back to town after the summer and his housing situation continues to be tenuous.
  • I had Thor and my other core volunteers out to my house for a mosaic workshop as a thank you for all of their dedication.  I gave him some tools and materials to work with, though it can be a challenge for him since he doesn't have a place to keep his stuff or a work space.
  • I did a little fundraiser for Thor last October, which was originally intended so that he could attend the conference.  However, his immediate needs have to do with housing, food, and a way to keep making art, so I used the money I raised to buy him some mosaic books and supplies.
  • Thor owns very little, but he does have a laptop and vinyl cutter and he does freelance work making signs and designs that can be adhered to just about anything.  His goal is to get back into graphic arts school so that he can get back on his feet.
  • If you have any ideas for a vinyl design (Your logo for your car or laptop?  Signage?) here is Thor's facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jasun.thor  Send him a message.  Keep in mind that his email access is intermittent, but he usually responds within a couple of days.  Hopefully, he'll be in a solid living situation soon with his equipment all set up and ready to go.
  • If you are in the Olympia area and you have a lead on a space that Thor could use to keep his equipment and work on art, please contact him.
People asked, "Why is there such a large homeless population in Olympia?"
  • Ok, I don't actually know the ins and outs of this topic, but here's my take:  For one, there are homeless folks in every city.  I think many cities do more work to hide the homeless.  There are strict ordinances against loitering and the services for street dependent people are placed far from the business districts so that "regular people" don't have to interact with those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction.  (I could expound on the influence of Reagan-era changes to the mental health system and how that created our current situation, but I'll spare you.)
  • Yes, it does have a very devastating impact on the downtown businesses.  Those "regular people" avoid shopping in that area.
  • The climate in Western WA is temperate, so people are less likely to freeze to death without housing.
  • Olympia is a very "earthy-crunchy" place, where Evergreen State College students and graduates are working hard to subvert the dominant paradigm and laws are being passed on the capital campus, so there is a lot of activism.  There are a lot of compassionate people who pass out sandwiches and try to help however they can.  And there is a free source of water for washing and staying hydrated.
And the loose ends that I didn't tie up:
  • I started out my presentation describing myself as introverted and shy, lacking in leadership skills.  Through doing this project, I learned that I have quiet leadership skills.  I can mediate and diffuse.  I am flexible and open to ideas.  I overheard someone telling a reporter that I was "the only person who could have done this project successfully."  I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all of this, but I see myself a little bit differently now.
  • My own relationship to the well:  I moved to Olympia in 1988 to attend college.  I've always seen the Artesian Well as a sign of hope.  As we get more and more bad news about the Puget Sound (Oysters are dying, sea lion babies are starving to death in droves, the water is full of phosphates and acid...) there is still clean, pure water flowing out of this pipe in a parking lot.  Somehow, it makes me optimistic.  When the water starts failing the monthly tests, or the pressure starts to drop, I will really start losing hope.  Water is life, and the Artesian Well is a constant reminder that we have to protect it.
One more thing: I blogged regularly while I was doing the project.  If you go back to March of 2012, I was just starting, and you can read about the progress in more detail.  Here is the first entry about the Artesian Well project: http://cosmicbluemonkey.blogspot.com/2012/03/olympia-artesian-well-mosaic-beginnings.html  

Recovering from the American Mosaic Summit of 2013

I just returned from another whirlwind trip to the annual American Mosaic Summit.  This year, we met in Tacoma, WA, which is only an hour and a half from me.  This means that I was much more intimately involved with the hosting of the conference than ever - in fact, I've never had to concern myself with the inner workings of the conference at all.

While I did not, like a couple of friends of mine, spend the past two years working very hard to secure the hotel, convention center, exhibit space, meal arrangements, multiple tours, and much more, I was in charge of one of my favorite parts of the conference; the Salon Auction.  It was a bigger job than I expected, but since I was saving so much by not flying to another state, I was happy to be part of the team.  And while it was sometimes very frustrating and stressful, it was also rewarding.  The night of the Salon, we had about 140 beautiful and diverse works of art on display.  Many of the participants sold work and the event was a big success.  There were no disasters!

The end of the Salon was very gratifying, because a huge responsibility was completed and over.  However, I had to get up early the next morning to give a presentation in front of, potentially, 500 conference attendees.  I was terrified, and no less because many in the audience have as much or more experience than I do with my topic.  I was worried that my little story would be boring for this crowd.  Plus, I was following one of my favorite people in the world of mosaic: Laurel True.  (Laurel True's website.)  Laurel has done amazing work in facilitating community mosaics, and I hope to someday spend some time working alongside her.

Although I am very shy and I find it hard to stand up and speak to large groups, I've been doing a lot of it in the past few years.  I've spoken to a rotary club, the Association of University Women, Olympia City Council, and I gave a lecture to a college class all within the past couple of years.  Each time, when I look out at the sea of faces, I feel like I leave my body and hover somewhere behind myself.  My mouth starts moving, I can't see my notes, I'm not sure what I'm saying or whether it makes sense.  But afterward, people approach me and tell me it was great.  So, I guess I'm not so awful at public speaking.

This time, I heard compliments over and over for the rest of the conference.  People said they cried!  They told me I was funny, that the delivery was smooth and concise, and that I didn't seem nervous.  Ha!  Take that, Inner Voice!  Despite all of this great feedback, I know there are things I failed to say and that I left a few parts out that I've been asked about since.  I will post a follow up page with some of that information, so if you were in that audience and you have some questions about my story, look for the next post.  I will try to answer them as well as possible.

So, I'm home and  back to stacking wood and wrangling goats.  Unfortunately, I wore myself out over the past week and I now have a nasty cold, so I'm dragging.  And as much as I already miss all of the amazing friends I get to see each year at the conference, I am so glad to be sitting in a quiet house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trees and creeks and animals.  Time to re-fuel and get back to making mosaic.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yucatan Peninsula continued: Quintana Roo (Tulum to Cancun)

I'm going to try to be succinct and make this the last post about our February 2013 trip to the Yucatan Peninsula traveling from Merida to Tulum and up to Cancun.

My last post ended on our arrival at the Eastern coast of the peninsula.  The cultural atmosphere all along the coast felt very different from the inland areas.  Our hitchhiker had explained that Tulum has expanded in the past 10 years from being a small community of residents and hippie ex-pats to the laid back, high-end resort town it is now.  The hotels are mainly comprised of thatched-roof cabanas on the beach, mostly powered by solar and wind.  Staff at the hotels seem fairly international and there is a strong focus on health.  There were yoga and fitness classes on the beach, people learning to samba, a full-moon celebration, and a lot of people were jogging, windsurfing, and cycling.  Unfortunately, the signs of growth to come were everywhere, and I'm sure  tall buildings and gated communities will soon begin to displace much of the surrounding jungle.
Our hotel, Coco Tulum, right on the beach with a wind turbine generating power overhead.
We stayed in Tulum for 4 days, taking short trips each day.  The first day, we drove to Punta Laguna, where there is a nature reserve.  We hired a Mayan guide to lead us on a hike through the jungle in search of monkeys.  It was a long, almost silent hike, and very enjoyable in and of itself.  We saw amazing foliage, birds, and leaf-cutter ants.  It took a long time to locate a group of black howler monkeys, and when we did, they bounced through the trees to position themselves right over our heads.  Then they began to pee and poop in our direction!  We had to duck and run, but I have always wanted to see monkeys in their natural environment, so it was a thrill.  Later, we found a spider monkey with her baby.
A black howler, right before getting ready to release a stream of urine at the human intruders.
The tour ended with a canoe trip across a peaceful lagoon and a visit to some very eager Mayan women with a variety of crafts for sale.  (We bought a little embroidered monkey patch.)

We also found a cenote that day, which was not a cavern.  It was more like a very deep pool with a baby crocodile lounging on the edge, but divers were exploring the depths.  They told us that there are caverns below that lead to other cenotes.  Mike and Anouk swam for a while, but I just dunked myself to cool off, then relaxed at the edge.

On our second day, we decided to succumb to a tourist trap, so we drove to Xcaret (pronounced "Shcar-et") which is a sort of theme park.  The entry fee is astounding.  We paid $200 U.S. for the day!  And it was not exactly what we expected (which was something equivalent to Disneyland.)  But, it did have a lot to offer.  I think, for a lot of visitors, this sums up the whole Yucatan Peninsula in one day.  There is a beach for swimming, zoo exhibits throughout, several "lazy rivers" to float, swim, or snorkel through, a boat ride, a Mayan village with educational exhibits, genuine Mayan ruins to explore, bat caves, the largest butterfly house in the world, a Space-Needle-style ride, the most incredible cathedral I've ever seen, a fantastic folk art museum, mushroom farm, orchid farm, jungle walk with labeled plants and trees, a sisal factory, horse show, and this underground crypt with a cemetery that is indescribable.  And more.  In the evening, there is a performance in an auditorium modeled after ancient Mayan ball courts.

While waiting for the performance to begin, we discussed whether we felt it was worth the entry fee.  At that point, we both felt, adding all of the things we had done, we would have paid about $160 for the experience.  By the time we left, we really felt it was a fair value.  The show was much better than I expected.  It included a dramatization of the history of the area (the brutality and the blending of cultures) and demonstrations of dances and costumes from different areas of Mexico.  The most impressive part for all of us was a recreation of the Mayan ball games, which were incredibly athletic.  One involved a ball of fire being volleyed through the air with sticks.  I expected it to be a cheesy Vegas-style show, but it was actually very well done.
I love this church dedicated to the Virgin de Guadalupe at Xcaret.  The carved tree overhead, the cave pulpit, and it is full of art.
On the 3rd day, we drove to Coba to find cenotes.  Following signs, we eventually found a cluster of three that we could visit for about $10 total.  These were all completely underground.  We had to descend via long stairways, finding deep pools underground with that crystal clear water.  You can see all the way down, except where it appears to be fathomless.  In some, you can dive from a platform high on the stairs.  The first was more shallow, but very beautiful.
A shallow underground cenote.

This view is from near the top of the stairs.  The little black thing in the water is an inner tube.
I think the cenotes were my favorite part of the whole trip.  Granted, we try to visit caves on every trip we take and many people are not as enchanted by entering the depths of the Earth, but I can relate to the Mayan belief that these are holy places.

On our last day, we decided to spend more time enjoying the beach and ensuring that I return home with a painful sunburn.  We did go into Tulum to walk around and we found a very out-of-the-way cenote called Isla Adonis that was different from all of the others, and worth the confusing drive over many rocks and pits.  Then we picked up some salt, lime and tequila and spent the last evening playing at the cabana.

We drove to Cancun for the last 2 days of our trip.  While others stay in the fancy Hotel District, we stayed in town at an affordable chain hotel that was completely without charm, but was comfortable.  We were easy walking distance from a market for locals and one for tourists, and we enjoyed both.  This was our easiest and most enjoyable trip to a foreign country thus far.  It offered history, geology, culture, and archeology.  It was a warm break from our chilly winter weather.  We found it safe and accessible, people were friendly, we never ran into trouble, and we never found ourselves holed up in a room eating dry bread and cheese because there was a holiday where all of the businesses had closed.

Things we would have done differently:
  • We would have gotten pesos before leaving and not taken U.S. dollars.  (Much of the advice we received was that everyone takes U.S. $$, so there's no need to have pesos.  Many do take dollars, but will round up the exchange rate and not have change, so you spend a lot more.  This is probably not the case in resorts.  ATMs are plentiful and the exchange fee is minimal.
  • I would not have taken make-up or jewelry.  It was too hot for make-up and there was no occasion to dress up.  It was just extra stuff to carry around.
  • I would have brought nail clippers, antihistamine ointment, facial toner, immodium, snack bars, talcum powder, and athletic sandals like keens or tevas.
  • Somehow, I only packed tank tops.  In the inland cities, I wished I had a more modest, light blouse.  On the coast, people walk around in tiny bathing suits, but Merida and Valladolid were very traditional.
  • I would not have packed all of those almonds, pistachios, and dried fruit that had to be tossed at customs.  Sealed snacks would have been acceptable, and would have been handy on long drives.  
  • The water bottles and to-go coffee cup would have been left at home.  Maybe one water bottle for the flight, but the rest were just extra luggage.
  • Most things can be purchased when you get there.  Pack light.
If you are planning a trip to Yucatan or Quintana Roo, feel free to email me if you have any questions.  We were only there for 2 weeks, but we managed to do and see a lot.  I'm happy to share what we learned.



Friday, March 15, 2013

Yucatan Trip: from Merida to Tulum

This is a continuation of a series of entries describing a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, as a family of 3 (with a 9-year-old) on a modest budget, interested in learning about the history, culture, and unique landscape of this area of Mexico.

One thing that struck me was how different the culture is in this part of Mexico from Baja; the only other area of MX that I've been to.  I anticipated the gregarious atmosphere I had experienced on those trips across the border.  On those earlier trips (granted, I was 10 years younger and then some) my blonde-ness generated a lot of uncomfortable attention.  On the streets of Ensenada while pregnant with my daughter, men would mutter suggestive comments to me as they passed, just loud enough for me to hear.  It was unsettling, and I braced myself on this trip, thinking it might be the same.  But it wasn't.  The people in the Yucatan are gentle and shy, and very polite.  The salespeople can be persuasive and exhausting in their efforts to make a sale, but I never felt uncomfortable or unsafe in the least.  In fact, I felt much safer there than I do here in the U.S. (The police armed with assault rifles are a little bit scary, but they are actually quite nice when you ask for directions.)

On our 5th day, we left Merida and headed toward Chichen-Itza, one of the most well-known archeological sites in the peninsula.  We stopped in Izamal, where we had lunch and took a carriage ride around the city.  This little town is definitely worth a visit, and maybe an overnight stay.  All of the buildings are painted ochre and white and it is exceptionally clean, which makes it very picturesque.  In the center of town, like most that we visited, is a large square park.  Senior citizens sit on park benches, little kids play, and there are a few vendors offering traditional crafts and food for very low prices.  Rising up next to the park is an old monastery with gorgeous architecture.  From the courtyard of the monastery, you can look out over the landscape, and you'll see that there are ruins a few blocks away, right in the middle of a neighborhood.  We visited a very nice folk art museum that is right in the centro, on the edge of the park.
The carriages lined up in the square in Izamal.  If you look at the center of the horizon, you'll see the top of Mayan ruins that are a few blocks away.
After lunch, we headed to Chichen-Itza, where we stayed at another Hotel Dolores Alba.  The Dolores Alba in Chichen-Itza was a disappointment, unfortunately.  They charged us a lot more than the listed price, and wouldn't explain why.  And, like their Merida hotel, the food was abysmal.  It seemed like an attempt to make U.S. or European fare, but failed miserably.

If we had it to do over, we would give Chichen-Itza a miss.  It is very commercialized, with all of the walkways lined with aggressive hawkers of Mayan arts and crafts.  Unlike most people we met, these guys could get downright rude if we didn't look at wares from every single booth.  Plus, they all had these cheesy clay jaguar heads that you blow into and it roars like a jaguar.  I prefer the sites where you can quietly explore and contemplate the magnitude of the place without constant harrassment.  Plus, all of the ruins are roped off, so you can't even get up close and personal.
Walking to the Chichen-Itza ruins is an exercise in patience.
On the other hand, if you are interested in buying Mayan artwork, save it for Chichen-Itza.  We saw high-quality masks, pottery, and textiles here at the lowest prices anywhere.  Many of the vendors who were not busy heckling visitors were carving masks or embroidering beautifully detailed flowers onto huipils.  Unfortunately, we had depleted our art budget in Merida.  It was almost painful to walk past these folks as they begged, joked, and sometimes insulted us when we just wanted to see ruins.

The ticket to Chichen-Itza was supposed to include a light show at night, and we had planned ahead this time, strategizing with Anouk so that she wouldn't freak out.  We drove a couple of miles until we found the only non-hotel restaurant in the area, which turned out to be a great choice.  We were served by a very sweet, grandmotherly woman who spoke no English, but we managed to have choppy conversation with her while we ate.  We were able to communicate details about our family, our lifestyle, and understand her description of her children and grandchildren.  And the food was some of the best we'd had, but our three meals and drinks came to less than $20.  We made it back to Chichen-Itza in time for the light show, to find the gates closed and parking lot empty.

Back at the hotel, some guests from Oregon filled us in that the show was cancelled, and it has been for more than 2 months.  They had heard about this from the front desk, but no one had mentioned it to us.  All in all, Chichen-Itza was a bust.

In the morning, after a breakfast of "Mexican Eggs" which turned out to be a small plate of dry scrambled eggs with no seasoning at all for about $9 each, we drove toward Valladolid.  We took the smaller (non-toll) road through villages, and arrived at our hotel at about lunchtime.  We stayed at Ecotel Regia, which was one of our favorite hotels of the trip.  The Ecotel Regia is clean with nice landscaping and beautiful buildings.  It's an easy walk (for able bodies) to the town center.  Again, there is a square park in the middle of downtown, with a cathedral rising up on one side.  We learned that, as in Merida, the square that is now a park was once a Mayan temple.  But Spanish conquerors tore down the temple and used the stone to build the cathedral.  And that's sugar-coating the story:  They enslaved the Mayan people and forced them to do the work.  It's an ugly history that repeats throughout the Americas.

But Valladolid is quaint, with a lot to do.  I would say that it is as charming and interesting as Merida, without the hustle and bustle of the bigger city.  The best thing about Valladolid is the cenote that drops down into the earth only a vigorous walk from our hotel.  We followed a map on foot, passing houses and little shops, and then entered a walkway where, as you descend, the Earth opens up into an immense cavern with a deep pool at the bottom.  Stalagtites hang from the ceiling, along with tree roots and vines.  There were a couple of tour groups also enjoying the cenote, but it was so large and magnificent that it didn't bother me at all to share the experience with a small crowd.  Everyone was so excited and expressed it in all of their different languages.  Almost everyone was getting in the water and some were diving from the high cliff edges.  Mike and Anouk got in, and I was very nervous for Anouk at first because the pool is incredibly deep.  But, she proved that her swim lessons have been a good value, and those two spent a long time in the water.  I even got in for a bit, and I'm skiddish in water.
Look for the little people to see the scale of this cenote!
I really can't describe how amazing the cenotes are.  You have to experience it.  The water is crystal clear and fairly warm.  Rays of light stream down from above, passing through tropical vines and trees.  Birds and bats fly in and out overhead.  These caverns are considered holy to the Mayan people because they connect to the underworld and to the Gods that provide water and take care of souls after death.  Many of these were used as temples in ancient times and religious ceremonies were held here to ensure that the life-giving water continued to flow.

It is very important that visitors respect requests to use only biodegradable sunscreen and avoid use of lotions and deodorants when swimming in the cenotes.  Most are owned and maintained by the Mayan people, and opening them to the public provides much-needed income for these groups.  But they are still trying to find a balance between sharing their incredible cenotes and keeping them pristine.  Some have installed showers at the entrance, and you are required to use them before entering the water.

As we drove away from Valladolid, toward Tulum, the next morning, we spotted a woman on a long, fairly desolate road trying to hitch a ride.  She looked harmless and we had room, so we picked her up.  She is an ex-pat from Arizona but has been living and working in Quintana Roo for many years.  Serendipitously, she is also a mosaic artist!  What were the chances?!  She filled us in on life in Valladolid and Tulum, on how affordable land is and how plentiful resources are and how environmentally responsible the culture is, and by the time we reached Tulum, Mike and I were discussing a retirement plan.  Our new friend rushed to catch her bus to Cancun where she had to file some paperwork with immigration, we hugged good-bye, and I realized I didn't even remember her name.  She has my card, and I hope she'll get in touch.  It was a long drive to Tulum, but it flew by because of good conversation.
We happened upon this amazing mosaic in a courtyard in Valladolid.  Our hitchhiker works at the  location,  and filled us in about the significance.  This is only the central part of the sculpture, which has more sections and a fountain, all made of colorful pottery and shells.  Now I want to make mosaic that incorporates whole vessels, plates, cups, etc.
In order to keep this read-able and to get some work done today, I'll go into our visit to Tulum when I get a chance to write again.  Next up: the beach, monkeys, and a theme park.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Yucatan Trip: Flamingos and Mangroves

This is part 3 of my chronicle of a recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula.  I'm writing it out partly to share the story with friends and family, and also for anyone researching their own potential trip to that area.

We are a family of three, with one 9-year-old girl.  Ours is a teacher-supported family, so we can't afford lavish vacations, but travel is a priority for us, and we sacrifice other things in order to make room for it.  So, our trips are designed to be affordable, but we also try to keep it relatively comfortable and fun for our daughter.  Gone are the days when we strapped on some giant backpacks and headed to a post-communist country during the off-season with no plan, staying with someone we met in the train station.  But we are also not satisfied with an all-inclusive resort hotel on the beach.  We want to learn about the history and culture of a place, to explore and engage with it.  So, our trip is different from most that I have read about online.

For this trip, we rented a car and had our budget hotels scheduled between Merida, Tulum and Cancun.  After enjoying Uxmal, we headed to Celestun on the West coast of the peninsula.  By this time, we had figured out that the pages of google maps directions I printed out before leaving were completely useless.  I had a Tomtom Via that usually can't find a signal, but on this day, it directed us to our destination very reliably, taking us on small two-lane roads through a number of little towns.  This gave us a chance to see how people live outside of the larger city.  If we had it to do over, we might have spent a day in Maxcanu, which looked really sweet.  Most of these villages were made up of thatched roof huts and crumbling adobe houses, but in the center would be the remains of a large Colonial building that was obviously once a beautiful symbol of affluence.  We saw people on their bicycle-carts; the main form of transportation.  Often, these are laden with wood or foliage just gathered in the jungle, and the driver would have a machete.
A house in one of the villages.

Since we in the U.S. are in constant conversation about our economy, this trip was a reminder that U.S. citizens have a very different idea of poverty than most countries in the world.  Also, our lifestyle is completely dependent on consumerism, and we don't know how to go out and gather resources from our surroundings.  These peoples' lives depend on their ability to hunt, gather, and to live in clusters where resources are shared.  The villages are full of cisterns that collect water, and we saw some that were raised up with spigots underneath.  Once we saw someone showering under one of the spigots.  We saw freshly butchered chickens hanging in windows, a dead cow in the bed of a truck probably on its way to be turned into food, and a lot of people offering their fruit or tamales in their front yards.  Luckily, fruit trees grow everywhere there, so it is a major part of the diet.  Juices of all kinds are very popular and are served in restaurants.  They can contain prickly pear and aloe, along with more common ingredients.

So, we arrived in Celestun and found the nature reserve where we hired a boat to take us out to see the flamingo nesting grounds.  The cost for a boat was more than double the amount stated in the guide book, and it was nearly $125 for 90 minutes.  An Austrian couple were standing in front of us, experiencing the same sticker shock, so we asked if they would like to share a boat.  We pooled our money, which still cost us $75, but I think it was worth it.  The boat took us on a long ride out to the flamingos, which was an indescribable experience.  As we approached the nesting grounds, there was a thick line of pink across the huge body of water.  As we got closer, we could see the individual birds.  The driver cut the engine and we just floated around as close as we could safely get to these amazing creatures.

After that, we were taken on a beautiful tour of the mangrove forests, through little lagoons and waterways, and finally docking at a spot where we could get out and explore.  Some people from other groups were swimming in the crystal clear water and we got close-up views of all kinds of loons and cranes.

It was a very satisfying tour, and when it was over, we went into town to play in the ocean.  I'm not sure we found the normal area for swimming.  As we looked for parking, a man approached the car and spoke to us in very quick Spanish, helping us to find a suitable parking spot.  We gave him some change, and he led us to the beach where he handed us over to another guy.  This guy asked us for more money.  We asked, "Por que?!"  He said, "For a boat!"  We managed to explain that we had no interest in a boat, but only wanted to come to the beach, so he walked away.  I think we had found a place where boats come and go, but we spent a little time enjoying the beach and water anyway before heading to Merida.

This was a second trip to Merida, and I wrote about the city in my first segment, so I won't go into it.  But we stayed at a small family-owned hotel called Hotel Casa Nobel.  It is in a more affluent area of the city, just a few blocks from Paseo de Montejo, which is a whole street of beautiful buildings and the Museum of Anthropology.  As usual, the exterior of the hotel blends in with everything else, but the interior is a little oasis.  The room was clean and comfortable, the pool is small but just right for us, and the courtyard is nicely landscaped and a very peaceful place to relax.

Next time, I'll write about our trip to Izamal and Valladolid, and introduce you to cenotes.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Yucatan trip continued...

By our second day in Mexico, we had adjusted our aesthetic sensibilities, and began to see the humble charm of Merida.  This city is much older than a typical U.S. city, with narrow cobblestone streets and many colonial-style buildings, some dating back to the 1500s.  The streets are very busy with vendors and shops and people rushing from place to place.  There are little Mayan women selling fruit or hand-embroidered napkins with babies strapped to their backs next to modern clothing stores blasting pumping hip hop beats.  We once noticed a little old lady in traditional dress dancing to the modern dance music.  There is a striking mix of modern and traditional all over the city.

It was Sunday, and many stores were closed, so it was less chaotic than when we arrived.  The central square was filled with booths for a folk art/craft market, along with vendors selling all kinds of food, balloons, and toys.  We spent a lot of the day walking around, just enjoying the atmosphere of Merida.  We found very good food at a restaurant called El Chili Habanero.  Every little park was filled with artists and craftsmen and music and even dancing.

The atmosphere became more festive as evening turned to night, and one of the streets of the downtown filled with dancing people.  With the old buildings and the cathedral lit up, smells of food everywhere, and kids running and playing, it felt like a huge party.  And I guess it's like that every week!

On our third day, we checked out and headed to Uxmal.  After checking in at our hotel, we drove farther along the Puuk route and visited a couple of archeological sites.  It was much hotter inland; probably around 90 degrees F.  We headed back to the hotel when we were too hot and hungry to continue.
Kabah, near Uxmal.
When we got back to the hotel, the restaurant was closed.  They told us to go to a nearby resort hotel (same owners) closer to the Uxmal ruins.  We walked over to that restaurant, attached to a much more expensive hotel, and found a buffet lunch in progress.  We were told to grab a plate and help ourselves.  The food was good, but we were shocked when our bill came to more than $50!  Anouk had eaten only a small plate of beans and rice and a few pieces of fruit.  Our lunch cost more than our room, and was the most expensive meal of the entire trip.  Fellow travelers, beware and stop for lunch before you get to Uxmal!

Uxmal was the most fantastic archeological site of our trip.  It was far better than the more popular Chichen-Itza.  Uxmal is open for exploration, vast, well preserved, and we were able to climb one of the pyramids.  Mike and I both studied anthropology in college, so we love visiting places that give us a sense of history.  I especially enjoy the hieroglyphics and relief carvings embellishing the buildings and learning about ancient religious beliefs.
The ticket to Uxmal includes the light show at night.  After swimming and dinner, we walked back to the ruins and Mike and I tried to enjoy seeing how the geometry and design becomes more clear when strategically lit, while Anouk freaked out and begged to leave.  We did give in and took her back to the room, where we all succumbed to physical exhaustion.  Those pyramids don't have escalators.

Yucatan trip!

I'm going to begin writing about our recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in February 2013.  I'll write about it in multiple entries, partly because my spare time is limited, and because we fit so much into our trip that I want to cover, it would be overwhelming to put it all into one document.

We flew overnight from Seattle to Denver to Cancun, arriving at 5:25am.  We had scheduled a rental car and they were supposed to pick us up at 7am.  When we arrived at the airport, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the taxi drivers told us that our rental company didn't actually open until 8am.  Luckily, a few other people had made the same arrangement with the same company, so we all waited together until the shuttle came.  While we waited, we soaked in the warm air, watched the sun come up, heard increasing and unfamiliar birdsong, and watched an animal that looked something like a capybara, but smaller, running around in the bushes.

We had paid for the rental car online, or so we thought.  It had been remarkably cheap, which was a deciding factor in choosing to rent a car rather than use public transportation.  However, the fee we had paid did not include insurance, as it turned out, which is vital.  (Do not rely on your car insurance or that provided by your credit card!)  But, the insurance cost was more than triple the cost of renting the car, and the total we paid came out closer to $600.  This was a shock, but by the time we got this news, we were in Mexico, at a rental car counter, and utterly exhausted after traveling for over 12 hours overnight.  Also, they gave us an SUV instead of a compact, which added significant gas cost on top of the rental.

Despite all of that initial disappointment and sticker shock, once we were on the road, it was smooth sailing and we were grateful for a vehicle that could contain our luggage and allow Anouk to sleep comfortably during the 3 hour drive to Merida.  Had we taken a bus, the trip would have taken much longer, and we would not have had the opportunity to see all that we did over the next 2 weeks.

*Note: We paid about $40 in tolls.  It would have been less if we'd had pesos, and we could have taken a smaller road without a toll.

When we arrived in Merida, around noon, it was not exactly what we expected.  Coming from the relative affluence of the U.S., our expectations of the capital of the State of Yucatan were very different from the actuality.  Buildings are run-down, half built, dirty, and with walls or rooftops that sometimes look like they were blown off in a tornado and just left that way for years.  Streets are crowded with people, cars and motorcycles shifting lanes and honking unpredictably, and all of the architecture and streets are very old.  The directions I printed from google maps proved useless.  Streets were numbered, but we couldn't make sense of it because we would see 14th and expect the next street to be 15th, but there would be no 15th, yet we would cross 63rd and think that would lead us to 72nd, which didn't work out either.  Later, we learned that all even numbers go one direction and all odds go the other.  When you know this, it makes getting around supremely easy, but that first day, we were sleep deprived and very lost.  We finally just followed traffic to the City Center and found our hotel almost by accident.  The exterior matched the rest of the city, but when we stepped inside, we were pleasantly surprised to find beautiful courtyards, a pool, and and a nice, clean room.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and we didn't want to fall asleep early in the day.  So, we headed out onto the streets to find food.  We ate at a chain restaurant called Los Trompos, which was very satisfying.  I was surprised how hard it was to make sense of the menu items, despite plenty of experience ordering and eating Mexican food and Mike's half-Mexican background.  I know the names of meats and veggies, but had to guess at the way the food would be cooked.  I don't think I ever ordered something I really didn't like, though.

After our late lunch, we hired a man with a very emaciated horse and carriage to take us around the city.  We were so tired, this worked out well.  We could just relax and look around, making note of things to go back to later.  After a long and circuitous walk back to the hotel, interrupted by hawkers insisting that we look at their wares or directing us to follow them to one of the Mayan cooperatives, I literally passed out in the hotel room and slept for about 12 hours.  That was our first day, and I've already written a much longer entry than I intended.
This is the oldest cathedral in the Western hemisphere.  Spanish colonizers tore down Mayan temples and used the stones to build this structure.

*Our hotel was the Dolores Alba, and I would recommend it for budget travelers like us.  However, the food at the hotel restaurant was absolutely awful.  Mike and Anouk ended up going to a nearby Dominoes for dinner while I was unconscious.  The continental breakfast was fine, however.