Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pink Surprise

When the north wind blows over Isla Mujeres, Nancy & I often take a morning walk around Salina Grande, a brackish lake on the less windy south part of the island. Occasionally a roseate spoonbill appears there, running its large beak through the scummy water for a tasty breakfast.
Last year, only once did we spot its unmistakable pink feathers and long spatulate bill, like a huge gray tongue depressor with an enlarged end. Spoonbills feed by immersing their beak in water and swinging their head back and forth, snapping up small fish and crustaceans.

Normally roseate spoonbills like to be in a group (called a bowl). We tend to see only solitary spoonbills on Isla—maybe it’s the same one year after year. We spotted one when Nancy happened to have our camera in her pocket and was able to photograph this beautiful bird.


Wearing Flippers to a Museum

Whoever heard of wearing flippers to a museum?

Nancy and I did just that recently when we visited The Silent Evolution, a marine “museum” in the turquoise waters off of Isla Mujeres. Created by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, a British-Guyanese scuba diving instructor, this recent marine installation of life-size human sculptures is an eerie presence next to Manchones Reef, a swatch of ancient coral near Isla Mujeres (where Nancy and I spend several weeks each winter).

The 400 sculptures will become an artificial reef where coral and fish can thrive, relieving some of the tourist pressures on natural reefs in Cancun Marine Park, which draws over 750,000 visitors a year.

The Silent Evolution is a place where human intervention can renew and sustain nature in an aesthetically pleasing way. No rusty sunken barge containing toxic substances. This artificial reef is intentional and beautiful, the statues made from materials that will promote coral life.

As we snorkeled over the 420-square-meter installation, the silence and the human forms reminded me of the incredible archeological find at Xian, China, with hundreds of terracotta soldiers in formation, everyone a distinct individual. But here the Mexicans who were used for casting were ordinary people, not soldiers. They include a butcher, farmer, clerk, nun, nursing mother, children—just regular folks who could be milling around a town square that happens to be 30 feet underwater.

Although installation of “The Silent Evolution” was completed only this past November, fish are already swimming about, sea stars are finding anchors, and vegetation is sprouting from a cheek here and a hand there. Mexican marine and art agencies are finding a new way to promote life, to regenerate nature, and to bring pleasure to others.

For more information, check out the website The Silent Evolution. This museum is a must see, and one that will impress even kids.


[Note: Photographs used with permission of Jason deCaires Taylor. Check the above website for more pictures.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Walls of MayaLand

“The Maya of popular history and legend didn’t disappear; they just stopped making big buildings,” says Martin Prechtel in his book Secrets of the Talking Jaguar about his fifteen years living in a Mayan village. I can actually see the imprint of prehistoric sea flora and fauna in the towering Mayan pyramids on the mainland and in the limestone walls we pass on our morning walks on Isla Mujeres.

At Luum Ayni (see previous entry) we saw Mayan men breaking boulders they had wrenched from the farmland. Owner Lisa Hernandez told us she marvels as these short workers tote rocks most men (including her husband, as Cesar himself agreed) couldn’t budge. The knack for handling limestone is deep in the culture memory, and these modern Maya know just where to land the sledgehammer to shatter the rock into the correct size for the Luum Ayni guest rooms they are building.

The skills of their ancestors are on display at Chichen Itzá, the most impressive Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. The immense El Castillo Pyramid towers over the site, each piece of limestone in the four sets of wide stairways cemented into its proper spot. There are 364 steps plus the crowning platform, one for each day of the calendar year. At spring and fall equinoxes, thousands of people gather to witness the shadow of Kukulkán, the beautiful, powerful Mayan snake god, slither down these steps to bless the fertile earth.
At the base of this ancient pyramid, excavation continues, unearthing more beautiful stone work.
Nearby is a temple with huge jaguars and eagles carved into the rock. Upon closer examination, we see the eagles poised to devour human hearts. At other sites around the Yucatan, the ancient temples were disassembled by the Maya under the lash of the Spanish conquistadors and then re-assembled into Christian churches, sometimes right on top of the sacred ruins.

Now instead of temples or churches, Yucatan limestone is used in hotel and bank facades, in walls and houses. Here on Isla we see walls built in the old Mayan way, stones fitted into place with mortar, sometimes with shells or small stones or even paint as decoration.
On the eastern seaboard, a huge wall of rocks has been laid in place to cushion the huge waves that slam into the island during storms.

All of these walls are extremely labor-intensive in their creation, something that has not changed for ages.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Mayan Dream

It’s not often that one can witness the opening sequence of a dream, but Nancy and I had that opportunity when we visited Luum Ayni (pronounced Lume Ay-nee), a combination of Mayan and Quechuan (indigenous Peruvian) terms for Tierra de la Armonia, "Land of Harmony."

For several years, Austrian-born yoga therapist Lisa Hernández and her Swiss-Peruvian designer husband César Hernandez, owned Elements of the Island, a restaurant and yoga studio here on Isla Mujeres. Nancy and I often attended Lisa’s yoga classes in the big open-air palapa above the little restaurant. Back in Minneapolis, we practice to her yoga DVD 2-3 times a week, transported back to the Caribbean beach.

Three years ago, Lisa and César bought 400 undeveloped acres of jungle in the Yucatan Peninsula, started attending workshops in agriculture, and studied with a traditional Mayan medicine man. Last year, they left their successful business to follow their dream—living amidst the Maya and operating a farm that honors the ancient traditions of Mayan agriculture while employing cutting edge sustainable permaculture practices.

Three months ago, Lisa and César bought a small cattle farm near the colonial city of Valladolid, two hours west of Cancun but just up the road from their own land. The farm already has the infrastructure for their dream (wells, electricity, buildings, and mature fruit trees), shaving off seven years of work.

They are now renovating the existing house, replacing the thatched palapa with a roof that will support solar panels. Next month Lisa and César will leave their house in the nearby village, Chichimilá, where they have been trying out eco-technologies such as a composting toilet, greywater system, and rainwater collection. Their experimental garden of nearly 100 plants and herbs is a little nursery and seed bank for the plants they want to grow on the ranch.

Next to the huge, deep swimming pool, which will double as a reservoir for irrigation during the long dry season, Lisa and César are building two guest rooms. A concrete pig barn is destined to be guest quarters, and the cattle barn will be transformed into a classroom and yoga studio. They use local and recycled material as much as possible. Eventually, through solar and wind power, Luum Ayni will be totally energy self-sufficient.

Meanwhile, their tierra armonia is providing avocados, limes, mangos, oranges, papayas, bananas, and herbs. Much of the current water-hungry lawn will be planted in practical crops and medicinal plants. They will avoid monoculture, letting the mix of plants nurture and protect each other. This approach resembles the Costa Rican biodynamic farm we fell in love with two years ago (See our Luna Nueva blog post.)

Lisa and César are hard workers and will accomplish much in the coming year. Their appreciation of Mayan culture is palpable, and their vision of incorporating that ancient wisdom into their modern dream is inspiring. We wish them the best!