Category Archives: 2020

Love by Any Definition in the Age of a Pandemic Lockdown

By Susan Birkenshaw

February 2021 is upon us. and while this, traditionally, is a romantic time of year it may take on a new twist of meaning for many of us this year. Valentine’s Day has so many ideas behind its concept. It could mean anything to any of us – from horrific murders, to the loss of a Saint or even love – long-enduring or love at first sight! For me, it is a time to consider and strengthen relationships of any kind – romantic, friend, family or even with your furry four-legged friend!

This has been a long and weird year of lockdowns, health fears, personal loss, and even worldwide turmoil and political unrest, which has brought me to considering how the relationships that are most important to us can survive and thrive. So, I have been on a quest to find out how my pals – close and worldwide – have created success in the relationships they hold most dear. In mid-December 2020, I sent a 5-question survey to 40 of my friends and connections around the world – representing a cross-section of singles and couples, with responses from both men and women aged 45 to 78. Much to my surprise, I received almost 60% back.

My questions were simple to write but when I started to write my own answers, it was much more difficult than I anticipated. The questions I asked all related to the lockdowns in 2020 and included the respondent’s top three critical relationships, what was most important to keep these relationships moving forward, what gets in the way, what is next in keeping relationship success going in the near future and how are we feeling about the coming year 2021 – specifically and in general?

Here are the respondents’ common themes. First, friends old and new are critical – my sense is that by year’s end everyone is craving connections and a wider variety of conversations, especially if they are living alone. I know that my mom who is 94 years old – spry, savvy, and with-it – wants desperately to be able to meet new people in her seniors’ residence, not because she doesn’t like those whom she knows but because a variety of connections give her energy!

Second, the absolutely most important connection was family – the definition here changes often from a single person (spouse, mother, brother, one person from the family at large) to a broader focus, say with a weekly family group ZOOM meeting. I find it fascinating that these definitions were not surprising when I spoke to my respondents – for example, I spoke to one person who has a large and widely spread family and the most important connection he has is his sister. On pondering this, he found this realization curious, but then his comment was “Well, my kids are busy, and I shouldn’t bother them!” I’d say this is something to think about.

Another critical insight that came up regularly was the friends who were long-term pals, the ones people have known for as long as 70 years. These come in the form of college or university friends, friends from first jobs, spouses of 50+ years, siblings who are close and supportive, and of course kids and grandkids.

In reviewing all the answers that I received, I found the most common themes of what worked and keeps the connections ongoing is a shared history, using technology (many learned new tech) – playing bridge online, fitness classes via ZOOM, simple phone calls. People develop new mantras that become important to them, often quotations: “It will be fine in the end and if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” And my New Year’s Resolution, which I can’t claim to have written myself, but it works for me: “Think with honesty, speak with sincerity and act with integrity!”

Most of my respondents were grateful for two or three common things – laughter was first, honest conversations and a friends’ network that remains optimistic/supportive/challenging. Those who have pets of any kind were grateful for a different type of responsibility and sounding board: “Lucy (my pug-dog) doesn’t talk back but she does listen to my ideas as I talk them through, and she really does hear my sad tones when I need a cuddle!” “No matter what, I have to walk the dog!” “Sure, I can’t travel but it’s not as difficult to have a dog who I love when I have none of that choice.”

What I found deeply saddening was when I asked what gets in the way or makes it difficult to keep these important connections going in the times of lockdowns, there were many responses that were self-critical (“it’s my fault that …”) or less than positive when reviewing personal successes during 2020.

There were detractors or negatives common throughout the responses, such as fear of so many unknowns – COVID, economy, lack of personal value; perceived personal laziness; anxiety was a big issue along with self-doubt; lack of personal purpose; really poor time management with no personal schedule and if there is one, it is often tipped by a well-meaning spouse; no energy and becoming complacent.

The whole impact of COVID fatigue eats away at our personal foundations and the lack of clarity from each other and from any government agency is getting to us. Many of us are suffering My fear is that self-sabotage might become a habit and excuses are easy; since 2021 may continue to be stressful and fear-ridden, we all need to find ways to avoid these horrid habits. They get harder and harder to break!

Now, thinking about this new year we find ourselves in – what will we do better, how do we feel about the short-term future, is there any reason to be optimistic? My survey folks all had a similar responses – their goals and commitments to themselves and to their relationships all had a similar flavour. We all want to use our time better – more personal development that may be on our own or include our close connections, protecting the good health we have so that we could if absolutely necessary ward off any disease or virus. Increasing family connections came up surprisingly often – more regular Skype or ZOOM with siblings and more honest asking for support, simple help, or ideas for problem-solving – either personal or business-related.

My last question was one that I asked to test the waters of where our lives might be going in 2021; of the two dozen or so responses I received back, an overwhelming number of people are quite optimistic about what this year will bring. Without a doubt, there is some pessimism, which seems to stem from the anger so many feel about the things the news media spit out every day (many of us have turned off the news). This pessimism also stems from fear of the disease – especially in those who have vulnerable family members.

Most were looking forward to the vaccine process; most are quite proud of what they have learned in the lockdown months, and many had a clearer plan about how they will handle the isolation of lockdown better. People definitely see things that sit at the end of the vaccine rainbow – hugs without fear, shoe shopping, a meal with nice menus instead of QR codes and certainly live entertainment, including concerts and galleries and sports with a real audience.

Finally, focusing on Valentine’s Day 2021, I believe that it is a perfect time to rekindle the fun in self-care, relationship nurturing and the romance in our one-on-one relationships. So here is a simple list of ideas of things to put energy back into your most critical connections. Of course, all of these ideas can be done purely as self-care, over ZOOM or Skype with your closest folks or in person with your live-in partner.

  1. Find some sunshine, outdoors play or simply sit on the balcony. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is truly a thing – commit to getting enough Vitamin D.
  2. Have breakfast in bed.
  3. Recreate a special event – go on a date, attend a concert (Spotify), take an art class.
  4. Create a scavenger hunt within your lockdown boundaries – around your condo, in your back yard – like an Easter egg hunt for kids or adults!
  5. Take a class on a subject new to you – mixology, wine appreciation, Van Gogh painting night, singing (yes, to yourself works!).
  6. Game night – cards, Monopoly, gin, JENGA – dig out the old cottage board games – checkers, chess, even Chutes and Ladders.
  7. Movie binge night – yes, you can do this on the net! Each one of your “safe” group gets to choose a title.
  8. Write a love letter – romantic, grateful or expressing things others may not know about you or how you feel about them. You don’t need to hit the send button – this is for you and those you choose.
  9. Plan out series walk routes – for yourself alone or with your partner and another series of routes for your connections in their neighbourhoods. Take the time to make it interesting for them – Google Maps is incredible for this. Please stay safe here – walk in the daylight.
  10. Plan an incredibly special meal for yourself, get your group to do the same, choose a common time and then cook and eat with them at a ZOOMed table – there is something about breaking bread with those who mean the most to you.
  11. Stargazing – take a long moment to look up when walking the dog just before bed.

Here’s what I have learned from this exercise. Any relationship or connection will benefit from some simple reminders.

  1. “Pay It Forward” works when you find yourself grateful for some amazing thing in this time of lockdown.
  2. Be strong!
  3. Share a smile!
  4. Be kind – to yourself and others!
  5. Wear a mask – safety for you and others, and purely simple respect for those around you!

Thank you to my “survey pals” – I deeply appreciate your thoughts and time and willingness to share.

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.”

Bertrand Russell

The Christmas/Holiday season always presents us with an interesting dichotomy. It is the time that we are encouraged to be generous and think of others, especially those whose needs are not being met, yet it is also the time of the greatest and most decadent consumerism and gluttonous excess.

While this year may be different, with Covid lockdowns restricting mall visits, I am sure online shopping will be there to pick up the slack. If you are anything like me then you have a roof over your head, food at the ready and plenty of things to entertain you. What more could any of us possibly need?

The key to happiness is to stop wanting and finding the balance between what we need more of and what we need less of. It is simple. Stop wanting a new car, more vacation days, your political party to win, your leaders to provide you with more, your neighbor’s dog to stop barking, your kids to get jobs, and whatever else it is you find yourself complaining about or ranting at. There is nothing you can buy that will take away your frustration.

Just stop wanting and instead focus on having less; a smaller house, less responsibility, less clothes, less screen time, less information. I am guessing that you are free – that you are not reading this from prison or a refugee camp. What do you want your life to look life? You have the power to make it happen.

Let this be the season of getting rid of stuff and simplifying. Let us be prepared to face 2021 with a clear head and not the rose-tinted glasses of the past. Let us appreciate the time we have and not waste it on the accumulation of more stuff.

In this issue, our writers explore trash and the obvious conclusion is that we are creating too much of it. Even though we have given up using straws and plastic bags it has barely scratched the surface of how much waste we create.

I know it has been a challenging year for everyone – health concerns, economic restraints and political worry. I am not sure that 2021 will be much better but we can prevail freely and nobly.

See you in 2021!

Jane

Talking about the Pandemic: New Daily Words for 2020

By Michelle Vanderbyl

Covid. Coronavirus. Masks. Face shields, Social distancing. Hand sanitizer. Quarantine. Self-isolation. Social bubble. Cohort. The curve. New normal. New traditions. Virtual hugs. Virtual classes. Virtual chats. Zoom meetings. Covid hot spot. Covid fatigue.

Suddenly, at the end of March, all of us had to learn some new words. It did not take long before these words became part of our everyday vocabulary. That was all we heard on the TV and radio. And now most of us are using them just as we do any other words.

It has been quite the experience for all of us. Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would live through a period of unknown territory like this. A pandemic.

I found it very stressful the first time I went grocery shopping back in Ontario. Wearing a mask was not a pleasant experience. Follow the arrows! It always seemed that what I was looking for was the wrong way of the arrows, so I had to go around the other aisle and come back to get what I needed. Next aisle … OOPS! Again, wrong way! I will admit, I have been seen walking backwards down the aisle instead of going around again!

Now, I think I have everything on my list. On to the cashier to pay. No cash please! The virus could live on plastic money! Don’t forget to use the hand sanitizer before, during and after!

At the beginning of April, when everyone was doing renovations and/or a major spring cleanup, we could phone the local hardware store, order what we needed and collect it outside. That was handy! What you ordered is what you got, so we saved some money. There was no impulse shopping – walking down the aisle, seeing something you need, putting it in your cart, paying for it. Leaving the store with five things when you only went in there to buy two!

I was always hesitant about shopping online. Entering my credit card number on my computer was a bit out of my comfort zone. When only the essential stores were open, most people started shopping online. And so did I. The delivery person’s white van soon became a regular sight on our country road. Many neighbours ordered online too and kept this person very busy!

Going out for dinner is always a treat. Since March, we have ordered take-out a few times and also enjoyed eating on a patio. But I must say, I have never cooked so many home-made meals as I have in the last few months. The recipe books I have bought over the years have proven very useful!

There were no annual trips or annual visitors this summer. Thank goodness for the phone and Zoom meetings, so we could keep in touch with family members and friends. It’s just not the same, though. Virtual hugs? Can’t wait to give a real one!

During Thanksgiving weekend, we realized how fortunate we are to live in the country where we can walk breathing in fresh air, without a mask! There is lots of room to exercise and do some gardening. We didn’t have a family Thanksgiving dinner this year. To the people in our bubble, I served apple pie, cake and cookies in the middle of the afternoon on the picnic table. My mother-in-law used to call this “tea time.” It’s a lot less work than preparing a whole meal! A new tradition for us?

Now back in Huatulco, we are learning new Spanish words: el cubreboca (face mask), una sana distancia (safe distance), lava tus manos (wash your hands). To protect ourselves, our Mexican friends, and our community, we are practicing social distancing, wearing our masks and hand washing and sanitizing just as we did back home in Canada. Stay safe and stay healthy.

Oaxaca and Air Quality: Protocols, Accords and Agreements

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The state of Oaxaca has traditionally been one of Mexico’s top ranked in terms of air quality. That’s because we have virtually no industry except for tourism and agriculture. However, that’s no excuse for our government’s doing relatively little to combat climate change. This is particularly problematic given that, first, the country as a whole has been priding itself on its efforts since 2005, if not earlier, to combat climate change, and second, Oaxaca is being increasingly subjected to the negative impact of environmental change every year.

In early 2005, the Latin American & Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico published an article entitled “Mexico Strongly Endorses Kyoto Environmental Accord.” Vicente Fox, president at the time, was quoted as saying that Mexico was among the early signatories of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, contrasting his country with the US, which did not endorse the accord.

Jump to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation, supported by upwards of 200 countries, including (at the time) the US. Mexico was one of the first nations to ratify the agreement. Despite the US having begun formal withdrawal proceedings late last year, Mexico has remained steadfast. In fact, shortly after the US announced its intention to leave, Mexico issued a press release on June 1, 2017, reaffirming its support for and commitment to the agreement. Mexico had been one of the main leaders in the negotiation process, which had taken five years to conclude.

Mexico then went even further. In April 2018, the senate approved harmonizing the agreement’s global goals with the country’s own national legal framework (General Law on Climate Change); 84 votes in favor, 0 against, with one abstention.

That was at the federal level. Turning to Oaxaca, the state is one of the most vulnerable in all of Mexico due to its complex orography, or mountainous topography, having the greatest diversity of climatic zones in the country. Perhaps most importantly, its geographical location is in the narrowest part of the nation; it’s heavily influenced by both the Pacific ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as well as two cyclone forming areas, the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Caribbean Sea.

Residents of Oaxaca have been experiencing the effects of climate change continuously over the past three decades, at a minimum. Some of the impacts I have been witnessing include:

· Our hot season begins earlier than traditionally has been the case.
· Our rainy season is much less predictable than before, with farmers never knowing when to plant and if their crops will grow to their potential, the result being lost revenue. When the rains do arrive, they can be monsoon-like, destroying those very crops, and wreaking havoc in the state capital. Our antiquated drainage system was not built to withstand the new flow pattern.
· Our municipal water delivery system is much less predictable than before, residents never knowing when the water will arrive and to what level their home and business cisterns will be filled. Much more often than even a decade ago, we see water trucks wending the streets delivering up to 20,000 liters at a time to hotels, restaurants, other retainers, and homes.
· Wells run dry, necessitating excavating deeper or people scrambling to find alternative sources of water.

Academia has recognized the gravity of the situation. The state funded university, Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO), has instituted a Master’s program in climate change. In 2017, Environmental Science: An Indian Journal, published an article on using Oaxaca’s State Program for Climate Change (Programa Estatal de Cambio Climática) as a planning tool, defining policies to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and suggesting adaptations for those in high risk areas.

But throwing pesos at the problem and instituting policies at the federal level, self-lauding all the while, means nothing without enforcement at the local level. True enough, some Oaxacan city residents actively participate in recycling programs, most no longer burn their garbage, and there are nearby villages in which green trash bins are strategically placed no more than 20 yards apart. However, all the protocols, accords and agreements do little without enforcement, except perhaps enabling the government to boast about being a world leader in the fight.

Here in Oaxaca, our verificación program dictates that one must have vehicle emissions tested twice yearly. In some first world jurisdictions, you cannot renew your license plate without proof that your car has passed. In these countries, without a new plate or renewal sticker, the police pull you over. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, you renew your plate (if so inclined), and part of the fee covers the emissions test. Once your car passes, you get a sticker. But only late-model vehicles seem to appear at the testing facilities, given that owners of older cars know they won’t pas, and that state enforcement is effectively non-existent.

Rent a car. Tell the rental agent you will be driving out of Oaxaca state. Then, and only then, will you get a vehicle that has been tested and has the sticker. While other states do enforce, everyone knows that Oaxaca does not, though there is a law on the books. With my own car I have been stopped outside of Oaxaca when I have not had the sticker, but never in my home state.

Just look at the black smoke spewing out of some city of Oaxaca transit buses. Does government really care, or does it all simply enable Oaxaca to appear in the federal government’s good books?

There are issues with emissions control programs. They have been scrapped in some first world jurisdictions due to equity concerns, test accuracy and their questionable impact on air quality. Regardless, the point is that without enforcement, rules and regulations mean nothing, and are just window dressing.

Let’s assume there was enforcement. Yes, it would be unfair to car owners of modest means to be compelled to pay the same amount as the wealthy for emissions testing. However, banning their clunkers from the road would likely result in greater use of public transit, meaning bus companies would have more revenue to upgrade vehicles and it would be easier for government to enforce laws against public transit culprits. Commuter parking lots and mass transit are still rare in Oaxaca, though dedicated bus lanes have arrived. With a bit of enforcement, the city would be a better place in which to live, and to visit.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Treasured Trash

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The year 2020 has indeed been trashy. Almost everyone’s plans have been trashed by COVID-19. The lockdown of restaurants for onsite dining was partially solved by converting to takeout service, but this led to a proliferation of boxes and bags, many of which cannot be recycled. Over the last decades, hills of trash have grown throughout the world – author Louis Alberto Urrea graphically describes the phenomenon in Mexico – and the situation has been aggravated this year by the COVID crisis and its accompanying lockdown of people in their homes, where they receive home delivery in bags.

Trash, for most of us, consists of items and materials we consider to have no value. In fact, we actually pay for tons of trash to be removed from our homes. Even if we are ardent proponents of recycling, we convert only a small amount into compost for our gardens, and the rest we carefully sort into bins for plastic, metal, paper, and glass. We rarely think about where those who are hired to remove the assorted bags actually haul them, and what happens next.

But for some people, our discards may have considerable value. Who has not noticed the omnipresent trash-pickers or dumpster-divers in urban areas around the world, including U.S. and Mexican cities. Some of them are hungry individuals who exist on a diet of food tossed away by markets and restaurants. For them, trashed, slightly-bruised or over-ripe fruit that would be rejected by regular shoppers is a great find. If they discover sandwiches or baked goods that were dumped for exceeding their expiration date, it is as if they have found gold.

But hungry individual trash pickers are only the tip of a whole underground trash industry. Many of the people you see diving into dumpsters or surveying city dumps are long-time professionals who earn subsistence wages by knowing where and to whom they can sell specific trashed items such bike parts, motorcycle parts, electrical components, clothes, and glass bottles, not to mention items that display a deposit-back label.

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish impoverished trash-pickers from artists hunting for the perfect tossed item for their collages, found-art pieces, or installations. Some works of art worth tens of thousands of pesos are hard to distinguish from a trash pile – unless of course you happen to encounter the artwork in a gallery or museum. During a music and art weekend festival at a university, an acclaimed contemporary artist who will remain nameless had displayed his masterpieces around the campus. Early Monday morning after the festival, the janitorial staff hauled away the trash left after the Sunday night jazz concert, including the masterpieces that they assumed were piles of junk.

Do you think this was a mistake of the uneducated? The next time you head for one of the plethora of contemporary art galleries or museums in Mexico, for example Museo del Objeto in the Roma section of Mexico City, imagine how you would regard some of the displayed works of art if you found them abandoned on a city street.

Among those who collect and resell items from trash piles are those who reap relatively high amounts of money for items that are marketed as vintage, “retro,” or collectible. Flea markets in cities all over the world are outdoor environments for selling and buying treasured clothes, shoes, accessories, bric-a-brac, old kitchen and dining ware, used books, vinyl records, crafts, and artwork of dubious vintage. One person’s trash is another’s must-have item. While spending a winter in Buenos Aires, in one of the enormous Sunday flea markets I found a black shawl shot with gold and elaborated with long silky fringes; it turns a simple black dress into ageless elegance. Even now I can almost hear the sounds of a tango whenever I wrap this shawl around my shoulders. At that same flea market, friends visiting from Mexico filled bags with objects that were common in Argentina but exotic gifts for friends in Guanajuato.

Some stores also provide venues for shopping for other people’s throw-aways. While used clothing stores may be déclassé, vintage clothes stores are definitely sought after by young women seeking a certain look. The piles of old vinyl records and old comic books that filled closets and attics and used to be tossed when parents grew old can now be found in specialty stores. And some dishes and glasses that grandma discarded can be delivered to an antique store where they sell for a pretty penny.

One doesn’t need to visit flea markets to paw through mounds of other people’s castoffs to find the perfect whatever. The internet has created international online flea markets such as Craigslist and eBay, both operating in Mexico. The prices for stuff people want to offload can be minimal, but some are high when marketed by someone who is savvy and sells online for a commission.

A ballgown I wore once and would never have the occasion to wear again was sold on eBay by such a savvy entrepreneur, and even after she took her cut I received twice as much as I paid for the dress. Several neighbors who have more money than they can spend in their lifetime buy old cars for fortunes from people who rescue them from junk yards, and then they spend time or money to restore them to their previous shining glory.

Archeologists often spend large portions of their careers sifting through ancient garbage. Last March in the Yucatán, a cave containing more than 150 objects that hadn’t been unearthed for over 1000 years was discovered in the pre-Columbian Mayan city of Chichen Itza. By studying this veritable treasure of Mayan detritus, the archeologists hope to rewrite the whole history of these inhabitants.

We are fortunate enough to have truly creative people around the world reworking the essence of trash and demonstrating that “worthless” trash can be turned into treasured items. In New York City, two artists made a matching gown and tuxedo out of used masks and paraded around town all day displaying their “wear.” We were delighted, when visiting a bookstore in San Cristóbal in Chiapas, to receive our purchases in a beautiful yellow and white patterned bag – washable and practically indestructible – woven out of trashed plastic grocery bags. One kibbutz we visited in the Negev of Israel has no concept of trash – everything left over by kibbutz members, including human waste, is recycled and reused. If you are interested in pursuing this idea further, the website Pinterest.com has hundreds of creative recycling ideas submitted by people from around the globe.

Hopefully, we will emerge from this pandemic with the realization that we are reaping what we sow. By sowing mountains of refuse, we are literally trashing the world. But by creatively treasuring trash, we can save the globe.

Ten Gifts from Mexico

By Brooke Gazer

December is the month that many of us associate with exchanging gifts, so I thought it would be a good time to remember some of the scrumptious gifts that Mexico has given the world. I’ve wrapped each gift in some interesting bits of history and trivia.

Popcorn
This may be the world’s oldest snack. Next time you go to the movies, thank Mexico when you order a tub of popcorn, called palomitas in Mexico. The people of Mexico domesticated corn some 10,000 years ago, but even before that, a hard variety of corn called teosinte grew wild. These kernels were too hard to eat or to grind into flour but could be popped; some form of popcorn existed a millennium before the domesticated corn used for tortillas came into being.

Avocados
Archaeologists have found evidence of avocados growing in central Mexico 12,000 years ago. Due to the shape of the fruit, the Aztecs called them ahuacatl from the word huacatl, meaning “testicle,” and they were thought to be an aphrodisiac, possibly due to this shape.

Chewing gum
Ancient Mayans chewed a sticky substance from the Manilkara sapota, or the chicle tree. Later, when the Aztecs adopted the practice, they established firm social rules surrounding its use. Only children and single women could chew it publicly, while men and married women could only chew it in private. It was used to stave off hunger and to freshen their breath. In the 1850s, a New Yorker named Thomas Adams was working as secretary to General Antonio de López de Santa Anna, the exiled former president of Mexico. Santa Anna was a chewer of chicle, which Adams had imported as a possible substitute for rubber. When it proved unsuccessful, Adams adapted it as the base for chewing gum and the popular brand Chiclets was born.

Chili Peppers
Chili peppers may have been the world’s first introduction to fusion cuisine. When Columbus discovered America, he found chili peppers growing on the Caribbean islands. However, the word chili comes from the Aztec language. and this plant was originally domesticated around 5000 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley, which lies between the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. The word pepper was combined with the name chili, because of the hot taste. Columbus was seeking a similar plant; black pepper corns were known in Europe as “Black Gold” and before long chili peppers were grown around the world.

Beans
If you are on a budget, these could be your best friends. One cup of cooked beans equals 14 grams of protein, the same as 2 ounces of lean meat, which only provides 9-13 grams of fiber. While a few varieties are from Africa or the Middle East, most beans originated in Mexico, with evidence of their cultivation dating back seven thousand years. Some 200 different varieties of Mexican beans have been identified, but the most commonly known are kidney, pinto, black, red, and white beans.

Papaya
Some people associate this exotic fruit with Asia, but it originated in southern Mexico and Central and South America. Spanish explorers spread its cultivation; papaya was the first crop to be genetically modified for human consumption.Aside from its mildly sweet flavor and soft buttery texture, this tropical fruit contains enzymes that aid in digestion and protect tissues that line the digestive tract. And without papaya, New York City would have been bereft of its beloved combo, papaya juice and hot dogs. Purveyed by Papaya King, Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Frank’s Papaya, etc., etc., from the 1950s on (Papaya King lays claim to another two decades, 1932), the combo had its heyday in the 70s. No less than Julia Child declared the hot dog served at Papaya King the best in New York, better even than Nathan’s Original! After many ups and downs and franchise failures hither and yon, you can still get a Papaya King drink and a dog on St. Marks Place downtown and on East 86th Street (the original) uptown in Manhattan.

Tomatoes
Some say that tomatoes grew wild in the Andes, but the Aztecs had domesticated and cultivated them by 500 BC. Cortez brought them to Spain and tomatoes became popular in southern Europe soon after the conquest. In some parts of Europe, however, they were considered poisonous. This was because acidity from tomatoes caused the lead in pewter plates and flatware to leach into food. Over time, lead poisoning is fatal. It was not until the time of the American civil war that tomatoes became a common part of our diet. Thank goodness they did, because without tomatoes from Mexico, there would be no pizza today!

Tequila
Compared to some spirits, tequila is a fairly modern development. The Aztecs fermented the juice of the agave cactus into a drink called pulque somewhere around 300 BC, but the Spaniards found it a bit rough for their tastes. Using the same plant, they distilled something called Vino de Mezcal. Later, copper stills were introduced and they enjoyed an even more refined product. In the 17th century, the town of Tequila in Jalisco developed a reputation for the fine quality of mezcal they produced from a variety of blue agave.

Soon people began referring to all distilled agave spirits as tequila. However, in 1902, an official distinction was made and only blue agave spirits from this region in Jalisco could be labeled “tequila.” All tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals can be called tequila. (See many articles in The Eye by Alvin Starkman on the making and enjoying of mezcal.)

Vanilla
This delicious flavoring is from the pod of an exotic orchid of the genus Vanilla. It grew only in what is now the state of Veracruz and the Totonacs were the first to cultivate it. The flavor quickly became popular in Europe, but until the 1840s, Mexico had the vanilla market cornered. This was because the orchid needed to be pollinated by hummingbirds or bees specific to the region. Then a French entrepreneur discovered how to pollinate the plants by hand, and production of vanilla expanded to other countries. Like saffron, vanilla is a labor-intensive product, making it an expensive flavoring regardless of where it is produced. However, many experts agree that Mexican vanilla is smoother, darker, and richer, with more floral notes. So, if you are going to spend the money – wouldn’t you want the best?

Chocolate
Cacao trees grew wild in Mexico for nearly10,000 years, until the Olmec people began cultivating them. Mayan glyphs suggest that a beverage made with fermented cacao pods was reserved for only the most elite members of society. The dried beans from the cacao pods were so prized that the Mayans used them as currency to trade with the Aztecs. The Aztecs mixed them with chilis to make a bitter drink that no one today would recognize. Our English word “chocolate” derives from the Aztec word chocolātl, or xocoátl, but it was not until 1590 that cacao began to gain popularity. This was when Oaxacan nuns had the brilliant idea of sweetening the beverage. From that simple innovation, chocolate spread across Europe becoming the world’s favorite flavor.

Thank you, Mexico!

Brooke Gazer runs Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Recycling in Mexico:One Person’s Garbage is …

By Julie Etra

This is not a typical discussion of recycling of aluminum, PET containers, cardboard, paper, foam, plastic, etc. For the basics on that, you can look back at my 2014 article in The Eye:
(https://theeyehuatulco.com/2014/04/01/recycling-in-huatulco/). In Huatulco, recycling of these items by the Federal government via FONATUR is standard and in our neighborhood, Conejos, we get pick up three times a week (although the garbage is no longer sorted).

Used plastic bottles
Look around town and the surrounding communities and you will see all types of flowers and herbs grown in re-used bleach and detergent bottles. Instead of a clay cazuela, shattered in the June earthquake, I now have an indestructible sawed-off plastic bottle birdbath, thanks to my buddies Mick and Maggie (the kiskadees also thank you). Hold on to your 5-gallon paint buckets, there is no Home Depot here, and you won’t find empty buckets to purchase at the paint stores.

Corn
Let’s start with recycled corn components, primarily used in folk art. Corn husks, known as totomoxtle in Nahuatl and hojas de maíz in Spanish, husks are used in handicrafts and furniture. They primarily come from one region of the State of Jalisco, Jala, and from a particular variety of corn named for the location (maíz de Jala). This variety of corn is well-known for the large size of the stalk as well as the cob and is, or at least has been, genetically distinct. It can grow up to five meters in height and prefers a very fertile soil and humid climate. Common handicrafts include dolls, flowers, and furniture. Look for the flowers at the organic market (MOH, or Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco) on Saturday in Santa Cruz. A cooking tip: I like to leave the husks on the cobs, sprinkling them with a little bit of chili powder, tying the husks, and steaming them over the grill.

Multi-Media
My friend Irais says that, due to COVID, she is home-schooling her 5-year-old daughter Sofia. Their current school project is to fill in a drawing of “Adelita” using recycled and/or natural products to instill appreciation of both materials in young children. What a concept! Adelita represents the women soldiers who participated in the Mexican Revolution, typically shown with a bandolier (bandolera or cartuchera in Spanish) across her chest (there is also a famous song or corrido “La Adelita”). So, Sofia is using totomoxtle for the skirt and part of the sombrero, the seed of the tabachin or flamboyan (royal poinciana) tree for the bullets, beans for her toes, petals for her blouse, and corn silks for the braids. Her skin is colored with the native red clay; this is a work in progress. And for Día de los Muertos, the children were similarly tasked with making a mask out of natural materials. Sofia (and her mom) chose the petals of marigolds, known as cempasúchil in Spanish (cempohualxochitl in Nahuatl), the flower of the dead, a Mexican endemic, thus teaching the children horticulture while instilling traditions.

Coconuts
In between the outer green shell of the coconut fruit and its hard internal shell is found a fibrous husk. This material is used in a variety of common products, including door mats, hanging planters, paint brushes, mattresses, furniture stuffing. It is also used in horticulture. I work in erosion control, and this material, also known as coir, is woven into nettings, blankets, and mats to help stabilize erodible soils, in combination with vegetation. Coir is an excellent byproduct of coconut cultivation, where the primary products are the coconut meat, milk, and oil. Coir has historically been produced in India and Sri Lanka. More recently Mexico has begun processing this versatile material in Cihuatlán, Jalisco, as Fibredust™, a growth medium that can substitute for peat moss, which is an extracted, non-sustainable, environmentally harmful resource. The Fibredust™ parent company produces the same product in Sri Lanka and India, but chose Cihuatlán due to the abundance of plantations in the vicinity, and convenience of container shipping from the nearby port of Manzanillo. The material is superior as a growth medium due to its water retention and associated slow-release properties.

The coconut shell, or concha de coco, can be sanded, carved, and polished and used as ornamental bowls, light fixtures, inlay, jewelry, etc.

Palm fronds

Let’s not forget these. If they fall off or are harvested, they are what makes a palapa a palapa, after all!

Garbology

By Randy Jackson

My father-in-law was one of those people who liked garbage dumps for the treasures they held. There is a family photo of him in a suit, checking things out at a dump while on his way to his daughter’s wedding. Garbage dumps have changed somewhat over the years, but I’m sure there is still a lot of good stuff that ends up in a landfill.

There are mountains of stuff going to landfills every day. Mexico, according to Wikipedia, sends 95% of its waste to landfills. For Canada, it’s 72% and the US 54%. Too much, way too much, as we all know – but is there anything good about piles of garbage besides the odd treasure? Well, there is Garbology and Archeology, or what we can learn about ourselves and our society from studying garbage.

A. J. Weberman has been credited with the invention of the term “Garbology.” Weberman billed himself as the world’s leading Dylanologist (also his invented term). In his intense study of Bob Dylan and his music, Weberman collected and studied Dylan’s garbage and labeled the study Garbology. He claimed Dylan’s garbage revealed real insights into Dylan as a human being, an artist, and a family man. Weberman goes so far as to claim his work led to Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. However, knowing that Bob Dylan once beat up Weberman on the streets of New York, I’m not sure that Dylan sees Weberman as being that influential.

Weberman, an odd eccentric even to this day, was onto something; You can learn a lot about someone from their garbage. The term Garbology has since been taken up by a Harvard-trained anthropologist, William Rathje (1945-2012). Rathje’s work led to Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage (Harper Collins 2001), co-authored with Cullen Murphy. The book is based on Rathje’s ongoing Garbage Project with the University of Arizona.

Rathje saw the Garbage Project as a combined study of archeology and sociology. A 1992 New York Times review of the book was aptly titled “We are what we throw away.” The review essentially expresses what Weberman said about going through Bob Dylan’s trash. One example cited in Rathje’s book was that of alcohol consumption. Rathje found that people drank 40% – 60% more alcohol than they reported they consumed. Among numerous other findings, Rathje found that people from poorer neighbourhoods more often choose smaller portions of name brand merchandise rather than larger quantities of the less expensive no-name or generic brands.

Rathje’s garbage project has also done some myth-busting about what is actually in landfills – substantially more recyclable paper than fast food containers, for example. His study also found that landfills are dry and oxygen-starved places that tend to mummify rather than biodegrade material. One way Rathje’s team dated material in landfills was simply to read the perfectly preserved newspapers buried at the level they were studying. To this day, the Garbage Project studies landfills across the US (in Toronto and Mexico City as well) going back to trash levels from the 1950’s. Even trash layers from past decades show that organic material is only partially biodegraded.

Archeologists and anthropologists go farther back in time in their study of trash sites. In these disciplines, trash sites are called “middens” (the word comes from the ancient Danish for “dung heap”). Midden later became the scientific word used for a kitchen mound or shell heap. Middens are the cornerstones of how archeologists and anthropologists piece together their knowledge of ancient peoples.

As an example, at Yucu Dzaa, a late postclassic (ca. 12th to early 16th centuries) Mixtec capital on the coast of Oaxaca, excavations of middens revealed numerous aspects of cultural life including levels of prosperity between households – indicating socio economic classes. Materials from other parts of Mexico indicate distant trading. Non self-sufficiency in food preparation indicates existence of local markets for goods.

Worldwide, ancient trash heaps have been central in our understanding of our history. The East Chisenbury midden, for example, provided information on the transition between the Bronze and Iron ages in England. Ancient middens in Japan have demonstrated evidence of extensive trade networks. In Egypt, at a place called Oxyrhynchus, a substantial midden contained large quantities of papyrus texts. This site held so much important information that scholars have commented that this midden would have been comparable to finding the ancient library of Alexandria. Among the many texts excavated at Oxyrhynchus was the gospel of St Thomas, discovered in 1945.

One thing they don’t tell you at the dealership when you buy a pickup truck, is that you will be hauling something to the dump (just as surely as you will be moving someone’s couch with it). As a truck owner, I’ve learned that modern landfills are dramatic places to visit. There are swirling flocks of crying gulls or, as in Huatulco, charging troupes of zopilotes (vultures). Monster machines roam at high speeds with huge iron wheels crushing everything in their wake. There is a tapestry of colors from all manner of things discarded. And there’s that acrid smell. It’s that smell and the rush of the crushing machines, I think, that seems to evoke haste among us trash deliverers. I’ve always felt in a rush to empty out the back of the truck as quickly as possible, jump in the cab, and speed off – thus leaving behind some of the evidence of our lives for garbologists or archeologists to study one day – no time to look for treasures, as my father-in-law would have done.