Category Archives: 2020

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.

Trash to Cash: The Positive Impact of Scavenging on the Mexican Economy

By Kary Vannice

On November 18, 2020, the Mexican Senate approved a bill that first had been proposed back in February of 2019. The bill proposes an overhaul of waste management at every link in the supply chain, starting with city garbage collection and ending with a “zero waste” circular economy where all garbage is either recycled, reused or composted.

However, there is one critical link in the chain that is often overlooked by policy makers because it comprises the politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized poor – scavengers.

In 2014, a study sponsored by Boston University estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 4 million people scavenge through trash for a living in Latin America. Six years and at least a dozen economic crises later, it’s only logical that number is now much higher. And like much of the rest of Latin America, Mexico has not been spared economic hardship in the last six years.

When interviewed by Bloomberg Law, Rusty Getter of Balcones Resources, an American environmental services company with close ties to the Mexican recycling sector said, “Any significant change in the Mexican waste processing landscape will be a major challenge and affect untold throngs of people who currently depend on that stream for their livelihood.”

He went on: “I would go so far as to say that the true recycling rate in Mexico is significantly higher than that of the U.S., due to the fact that the ‘hand-picked’ commodity volume can apparently allow a family to eke out a subsistence income.”

According to Greenpeace, Mexico produces more than 37.5 million tons of garbage a year. And while Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are applauding the bill on the grounds that it will mean reductions in land based pollutants as well as improvements in both air and water quality, they are leaving out the fact that families who make their living from scavenging trash bins and dumpsters may suffer if the government’s total cleanup a success.

Martin Medina, a Mexican-born political scientist, has dedicated his life to the study of trash scavengers. He remembers as a child often seeing men, women and even children picking through piles of garbage in the Mexican town where he grew up. He is one of the world leaders on the underground economy of turning trash to cash and just what it means to local, regional and national economies.

His studies have helped shed light on what most societies and governments would prefer to keep in the dark, or at least push to the outskirts of what they consider to be civilized living. In an article published by ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Medina broke down the numbers of the true economic impact of the life of the lowly scavenger:

The World Bank estimates that about 15 million people worldwide work as scavengers. Assuming a median income of US$5 a person per day, their global economic impact is at least US$21.6 billion dollars a year, and about US$7 billion in Latin America. Scavenging cuts down on imports of raw materials, which enables the country to save hard currency. Scavenger-recovered materials are often exported, thus generating hard currency. In Argentina and other countries, for instance, PET, the clear plastic used to make beverage containers, is exported to China, where it is recycled into new products. … In Brazil alone, scavenging has an annual economic impact of about US$3 billion.

But plastics aren’t the only high ticket item here in Mexico. Medina’s article also pointed out that wood pulp in Mexico is seven times more costly than the recycled wastepaper recovered by scavengers. Couple this with the fact that recycling factories are cheaper to build and use less energy, and all of a sudden, those scavengers are dramatically helping to reduce a company’s bottom line.

Medina also often debunks the myth that scavengers have no place in the modern waste management systems. He argues that relying heavily on advanced technology not only reduces the number of available jobs, but also edges out the critical link scavengers play in the garbage chain. They essentially offer free labor to municipalities. Their positive impacts are not only economic, but also environmental, since they contribute to more items being recycled than normally would be, which saves both energy and water. It also means fewer raw materials are needed to manufacture goods, thus reducing the destruction of Mexico’s valuable natural resources.

While last month’s “Zero Waste” bill did pass, the means to achieve that lofty goal have yet to be determined. Perhaps Mexican policy makers, like Medina, will see scavengers as part of the solution and not the problem, and find ways to ensure they can continue to feed their families and positively impact the Mexican economy.

My Favorite Reads of This 2020 Pandemic Year

By Carole Reedy

One advantage of the pandemic is the illusion – or is it an illusion? – of excess time. With limited lunch dates, relaxed shopping, and evenings out, perhaps there actually are more hours in the day for reading.

In my wayward hours when I’m not actually reading, I’ve been pondering writing and reading and how it all comes together.

What makes a book? Start with a room, a desk, paper, and pen. Add a key ingredient, the human imagination. It all seems quite simple. In this day, most writers substitute a computer for pen and paper, but some of our favorite authors, such as Woody Allen and Paul Auster, still use a manual typewriter (Woody an old Olympic) after scribbling notes on whatever scrap of paper is available when an idea sparks.

But arriving at the finished product remains a mystery to those of us who admire the resulting work of the icons of art. Whether it’s War and Peace, the Mona Lisa, or the Moonlight Sonata, it’s the creator’s imagination that creates our universe.

The novels I read this year, which span the globe and the centuries, will permeate my life forever. Perhaps you’ll experience a similar feeling upon discovering these gems of literature.

History of the Rain, This Is Happiness, and The Fall of Light, all by Niall Williams

What took me so long to discover this ethereal writer who has been creating novels for more than 20 years? Several months ago a close friend and avid reader insisted I read History of the Rain (2014) “Because it’s all about reading, Carole.”

Williams’ novels take place for the most part in western Ireland and are written with the gentle lilt of speech and style accompanying the spirit of the Irish heritage the world so envies. It became apparent to me as I read these masterpieces that a mixture of charm and intensity permeates the landscape of the characters and setting. I’m not a fan of the magical realism so prevalent in Latin American writers, but here within the ambiance of the Emerald Isle it more than works for me

The three books differ in plot, but brilliantly depicted characterizations and sublime settings remain a staple of the structure. I would recommend the finely crafted History of the Rain as your first read. The Fall of Light (2001) is a lengthy satisfying saga of the Foley family in 19th-century Ireland and other environs. This is Happiness (2019) centers around the remote town of Faha in the 1970s and the struggle over so-called progress.

Williams takes me to another axis. One observant reader sums it up: “Niall Williams writes like one who has seen the face of God.” Move over, Proust, you have met your match!

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)

A Glaswegian friend advises me that the first name is pronounced with the “u” as in “jug.” Shuggie is a loving nickname for Hugh, the young protagonist, named for his father. The time period is that of the moral destruction resulting from the policies set forth by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s: miners out of work, everyone on the dole, hope lost. Be forewarned: there are few happy moments in the book, although tender emotions are hidden among the travesties.

Stuart, a native of Glasgow who now lives in New York City, didn’t set out to write a book. He merely started putting his thoughts and experiences on paper. It turns out he wrote a best-selling novel that has just won the 2020 Booker Prize (it was also a finalist in the National Book Award for fiction).

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable skill is her ability to create a variety of characters, changing tones and plots, each novel vastly different from her others.

Hamnet, her latest, is the story of William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son (Hamnet is a variation of the name Hamlet) who dies in the plague of the 1590s. Although little is known about the life of Shakespeare or his family, Maggie O’Farrell has woven a world in which Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife, is the protagonist.

Good writing for me falls into two categories: books that are written so well that you can’t put the them down and books that are written so well that you intentionally put them down in order to slowly savor them. Hamnet falls into the second category. It is a mesmerizing read.

The pace is set by the thoughtful, resourceful wife instead of by her frenzied husband. A friend writes, “I liked so much that Maggie O’Farrell reclaimed Agnes as one who had her own worthy life.”

I am most disturbed that O’Farrell’s novel was not present on the Booker Prize short list. Who knows what politics drive these awards?

Flights and Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, both by Olga Tokarczuk

These two novels by the Polish-born winner of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature make it difficult to categorize the works of this intense and unusual author. I saw this charming woman interviewed at the Hay Festival this year and was quite surprised and pleased to see such a light-hearted, amusing person since her novels reflect a more serious and daring nature. It must be that dichotomy that factors into the unusual ambiance she creates.

The title Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) is enough to perk up the attention of any avid reader. This is a novel of a mysterious nature with colorful characters and a riveting plot.

The novel Flights (2018), on the other hand, is structurally more free-flowing and even more philosophically intense and satisfying. Based on thoughts of movement, the uniqueness of every moment and risk-taking, the numerous short vignettes solidify and flow to create the novel, a well-deserved and winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize International Prize (shared with Jennifer Croft, her translator).

The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes (2019)

Any book by Barnes always makes my best-books list. Barnes’s writing is consistently engaging, and the themes of his novels are diverse. Here’s a new twist. The man in the red coat is a gynecologist from 19th-century France who is part of the Belle Époque society crowd. Enough to capture your attention? As many of you know, Barnes is an utter Francophile, and his knowledge of everything French captures the interest of even those who have never visited the European continent.

The physical book is a joy to behold (making it an excellent Christmas gift or a special treat for you in these times of pandemic) with its high-quality paper and large size, as well as beautiful color photos of all the engaging characters of the era.

Leave the World Behind: A Novel by Rumaan Alam (2020)

“Awestruck” is the only word I can find to define this short novel. I started reading one afternoon, went reluctantly to sleep at 11:30 pm, only to awaken a few hours later with the characters invading my disturbed sleep. I heeded their message and stayed up to finish their story.

Concurrent feelings of certainty and uncertainty dominate the characters’ actions and emotions. This is the story of two families caught up together during an apocalyptic event in New York. Alam’s fast-paced framework for the disaster and the reactions of the various people involved makes for disturbed but exciting reading. Leave the World Behind was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (2010)

This memoir of the European/Jewish banking Ephrussi family, originally from the Ukraine, kept popping up from time to time in discussions with varying opinions of its worth. Essentially there are those who love it and those who are utterly bored by it. I finally bought a copy and found myself in the first camp. The descriptions of Paris and Vienna are riveting, significant, and timely in our world today.

De Waal introduces us to his uncle’s collection of netsukes (miniature sculptures from 17th-century Japan) that follow the family and lead us through the journey of success and destruction of this once-prominent family.

The Pull of the Stars: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (2020)

Here’s another work I read in two long sittings for the simple reason that the theme, the influenza pandemic of 1918, is close to our hearts and minds these days.

Most of the story takes place in a cramped storage room that has been converted into the maternity/influenza ward in Dublin. Donoghue’s story is simple and intense, involving just a few female characters to engage us in a world rife with uncertainty, pain, and hope.

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin (2014)

The title implies a light-natured, entertaining tale. It starts out thus, but midway through the tone becomes darker, revealing the effects in his later life of the protagonist’s youth. This is a memoir of hardship and prejudice against a Jewish family in the Ukraine and their subsequent lengthy journey and eventual re-settlement in the US.

The skillfully written memoir makes for another page-turner.

So, dear readers, here’s to 2021 and the inspiration that the pandemic may bring to new and old authors alike!