Tag Archives: learning

Learning to Swim

By Randy Jackson

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” — Isak Dinesen

A kind of cultural cornucopia can bring fresh perspectives and new insights. When the land, the people, the climate are all different from what we are used to, it’s possible – if we are open to it – to learn new dimensions about something we thought we already knew. Spending time in Huatulco can offer such opportunities. As an example, in my time in Huatulco, I’ve come to appreciate new aspects of swimming.

I learned to swim as a child. As far as I can recall, like most children, I loved every moment in the water. Water meant playing. Amongst my band of childhood buddies, we named a small island (mostly a pile of driftwood) in the Columbia River after me because I was the first one (of us) to swim across the frigid brown spring waters (in doing so contravening all parental dicta not to do that). When I was a teenager, my high school was located within walking distance of a beach on a recreational lake. With our local hot springs pool below a cloud of shifting steam in the winter, and the coarse cinnamon sand beach in the summer, we teens had swimming meetup places free from parents the whole year round. Swimming throughout my childhood and youth remained synonymous with fun and play.

As an adult I decided to enter triathlons. This decision made swimming a more serious undertaking. Rather than swim for play, I swam for fitness. I began a long process of trying to learn how to perform the front crawl efficiently and for longer distances.

The front crawl is a weirdly complex series of motions performed while remaining face down in the water. Of all the swim strokes, the front crawl seems awkwardly unnatural, unlike anything seen in the animal kingdom. Almost all land animals know innately how to swim, moving their limbs while keeping their heads above water. What we call the dog paddle seems to be THE swim stroke of any animal with legs. However, camels, giraffes, porcupines, rhinos and, most notably, apes can’t swim. As an ape species, we humans have to be taught how to swim.

Worldwide, only about 50% of us know how to swim. The World Health Organization estimates that 320,000 people per year drown. Drowning, the WHO report, is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional death in the world. The CDC reports that in the US, on average, 10 people drown every day. Swimming lessons are not primarily intended to teach people how to have fun in the water, rather, they teach a skill set for survival.

As unnatural as swimming is to people, it’s curious that we humans have such a natural affinity towards water. In Egypt, at a place called Gilf Kebir, cave paintings dating back 8,000 years depict people swimming. How, in the eons of evolution, could a creature afraid of water and without an innate ability to swim – learn to swim? Could there be some evolutionary reason for this skill? Well, maybe – there’s the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.

In 1960, an English marine biologist, Alister Hardy, pointed out that hairlessness is virtually unheard of in the animal kingdom except where the creature spends a good deal of time in the water. He proposed a different evolutionary narrative from that of the mainstream. He suggested that in our evolutionary history, a group of apes were forced, due to competition, to scavenge for food such as shellfish from the sea. This led to certain evolutionary adaptations: principally, to stand erect as the apes would have to do in water to propel themselves and to keep their heads up to breathe. Second, to become almost hairless like other creatures who spend large amounts of time in the water. And third, that humans have an insulating fat layer between their skin and their skeletal system that no other non-aquatic creature has – including the great apes. Elaine Morgan (1920 – 2013), a writer on evolutionary theory, has helped popularize the theory of the Aquatic Ape in her books on evolutionary anthropology (she has a TED talk on this theory – https://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_i_believe_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes?language=en ).

In Huatulco, I came to realize that my swimming life, parallel to life overall, had three basic phases. The fun and play of youth, the work and responsibilities of adulthood and midlife, and the quiet enjoyment of things in retirement.

My enjoyment of swimming in Huatulco actually starts as I head out the door for an early morning stroll to the beach. With a towel draped over one shoulder, my swimming goggles in hand, my 3-block journey to the Pacific begins. The street sweepers, the shop owners, and passers-by all smile and greet me knowing I’m off to the beach for a morning swim.

Occasionally, at this beach, I see someone who has outfitted their dog with a lifejacket in the water. This allows pooches, like people in aqua fitness classes, to paddle their limbs madly without much forward propulsion. Buoyancy and propulsion, however, do not necessarily mean swimming. Hippos, who spend about sixteen hours a day in the water, don’t swim. Their dense bodies cause them to sink naturally. Hippos propel themselves by walking or running along the bottom. They have masterful control of their buoyancy by regulating the air in their lungs. They bob along the bottom like astronauts skipping semi-weightless on the moon.

At the beach, the regular morning swimmers are typically returning from their swims when I arrive. Como la agua hoy? Hay medusas? (jellyfish). There is comradery amongst us daredevil adventurers, who, with a bit of practiced swim technique can leave the security of land for that other, and larger part of the planet, the world of water.

This water world offers an engagement with nature like no other. Viewing a beautiful panorama or listening to the crash of ocean waves can be wonderful experiences – except for all the many distractions. For most of us, our minds continue to churn on other things wherever we find ourselves. When immersed in water however, we leave those distractions behind as the “here and now” floods our awareness. And we begin. Reach and stretch and pull and kick – breathe – a rhythm forms – rocking from side to side – breathe – we glide through the water.

Occasionally, I will experience a sense of efficiency and flow that more accomplished swimmers often speak of. For me, those moments are few and brief, but wonderful enough to keep me coming back for more. After all these years, I am still trying to learn how to swim properly. I’m slow and my front crawl needs work, but more than ever before I now understand what I want out of swimming. I seek the quiet thrill of moving through the water smoothly and efficiently. With luck, and more time in Huatulco to practice swimming, I can continue learning new aspects of swimming.

I Do Not Want to Go Back to Normal! Re-Learning the Craft of Storytelling

By Susan Birkenshaw

A friend of mine is a fine art photographer; to keep herself occupied, she has been revisiting her travels by looking at her past virtual albums. She shares one new photo each day with the world and tells us a short story about her memories of that image. She is not following any set timeline or single trip – simply what catches her interest on any given day. As I write this, she states that it is Day 176 of lock-down in Buenos Aires, Argentina – she has lived there for many years and has no intention of changing that even in the face of the pandemic gripping the world at present. My friend is one example of numerous creative ways we are finding of keeping our brains active in the face of difficult and changing times.

In most cities around the world, the options for activities have simply been closed to help the population stay strong and safe. This means – art galleries are closed; restaurants have been forced to shrink their seating, create take-out menus or to simply close their doors; movie theatres are closed; schools for any age are just re-opening (not necessarily a good thing) and even churches are unavailable. The way we survive has changed and isolation has become a new way of living for many.

As we pass the time in isolation, the most common thing I have watched is that many of my contacts share stories of their successes and down times with equal passion. We seem to want to share our “airtime” – written, video call or even new hobbies – with our connections to show we are alive, surviving and moving forward.

After following my friend’s retro travelogue for so many days, I began to ponder what I really miss about my “early days” and to look for a common theme in what I learned as I went through my life. As you probably know from my previous articles, I have been blessed to be able to travel extensively throughout the world, to have lived in several vastly different places and to have experienced numerous cultures. I have learned many things about the history, the arts, and most importantly the storytelling of many of those cultures. So, it is not surprising to me that what I really miss and want to learn more about is just how stories and cultures are passed down through the years.

You might be interested in what triggered this longing – earlier this summer I was looking for something to decorate my freshly painted bright red door and I remembered the trip we had taken to the Canadian Maritimes in 2017. There, the lobster fishing industry had been in trouble for many years, so many people spent their off time and long winters creating folk art from the floats, traps and even the ropes and wires involved in their industry.

I ventured to create a door decoration in the same manner. After a number of tries, I have succeeded with bits of driftwood between four red birds to match the door. I painted each bird in the same manner I had seen in Nova Scotia, using left-over door paint and extra craft acrylics to add a variety of wings, beaks, and tails for simple fun. My project was quite time consuming, complicated and a learning process.

I remembered that the artist I chose to emulate was a man who lives on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. Barry Colpitts carves every one of his pieces to be fun, whimsical and have a story behind it. Family, neighbours and events are all favourite subjects of his. Maybe, after many more attempts, my folk art will shine through as his does. The “Not for Sale” pieces adorn his home inside and out, but if you get there, take a wander into his workshop just to get lost and mesmerized by his stories.

After my folk art effort, I have been wandering down memory lane and remembering that each of my major travel memoirs holds a specific experience of storytelling, passing history from generation to generation.

One of our adventures took us to Machu Picchu. On the way, we stopped for an overnight home-stay at Lake Titicaca (between Peru and Bolivia); this huge body of water is the largest freshwater lake in South America. It is also said to be the highest of the world’s large lakes. It sits at 3810 metres (12,500 feet) above sea level. From the shore, we took a small boat to Taquile Island to “enjoy” our local home stay – from their docks we climbed up another 300-plus feet. The ancestors of the Taquileños, who have occupied the island since pre-Columbian times, paid homage to the Sun God – that’s a lot of cultural stories to be chronicled.

The Taquileños created a small welcome event for us. Each family gave us appropriate garb to wear for this event. My blouse was a beautiful display of large red roses and poppies, with splashes of sunshine, and greenery. The blouse had obviously been lovingly preserved for many years. Once in the communal hall, we learned that the culture had created their own unique method of communication through these blouses. Our group consisted of 16 people – 9 women now dressed in 9 white cotton blouses with entirely different embroidery on the front. We learned that each design represented its family. The stories included their way of life, the background, where they originally came from and possibly even the types of animals that were involved in their lives.

There is virtually no electric power on this island, so before we began stumbling back to our host house in the very dark, we were reminded that the embroidery on each woman’s blouse was specific to each hostess, to each of the homes, and if we got lost or needed help on our way, all we had to do was knock on the next door, show them my shirt and they would get us “home”!

When we were taking our leave the next day, we were also told that it was impossible to purchase one of these beautiful shirts as the husband in each family creates these beautiful works of art. They create them for their new bride for the day of their marriage. His story for and commitment to his coming marriage and the beauty that would be their lives together – all carefully embroidered on his gift. I think that they did not tell us this tidbit until we were done – no damage, no spills and back in safe hands. While this experience was only two days, it truly is one of my most memorable and humbling experiences. I must think that these blouses could even be a burial outfit, as the young women of the culture would receive their own upon their marriage – my imagination runs wild!

Our most recent travels before COVID-19 were to Asia in October/November 2019. Primarily travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia, we had the opportunity to visit and explore a variety of craft shops producing some of the most beautiful things we had ever seen – hand-tooled silverware, lacquerware, and mostly prized intricate scarves in both silk and cotton.

Every Cambodian has a krama – a scarf of various colours and patterns which is widely accepted as the symbol of their country. It is most commonly made from cotton – often woven by the local women and worn and used in a variety of ways – warmth, personal covering, belt, baby carrier, marketing bag (to and from), pet carrier or even mask for protection. In the time we were in Cambodia, we did not see anyone without a krama and if we asked them what it represented, we were often told “everything” – family, practicality, and beauty. Mom usually designed, created, and then passed on the first one – with her stories woven into the threads.

The common theme in each of these craft studios/shops was that the stories and skilled craftsmanship behind had been passed down from generation to generation. The patterns on each product all had great personal meaning to the craftspeople and these interpretations were readily shared. Any questions we had were willingly answered and the openness filled us with welcome.

I find it interesting that my memories of the krama are mirrored by my experience in a vastly different country. Over the ten years we lived in Ecuador, I collected makana, scarves produced with the ikat technique of weaving. I love the texture, warmth, and fine detail of each one. The one atelier we frequented was a short drive from our home in Cuenca, Ecuador. La Familia Jiménez live and work in this small open-air adobe home. Here they work hard to protect and grow the knowledge from generations from long before them in weaving and dying methods.

My memories from my first visit are still strong – they showed us how they used a variety of plants, insects, flowers, nuts, and minerals to make specific colours. The purple is made from part of an insect with a bit of water – add lime juice to this purple – blazing red! Then they showed us how they weave and create each pattern – painstaking patience, back-breaking movements and long hours sitting on the floor in a backstrap loom.

Ikat patterns are often similar to each other; they all have themes of strength and passion, but as time goes on the family ventures out to be a bit more innovative in designs and stories to be told.
The dying process can be months long in a barrel of colour – these colours are then mixed to find the exact colour the artisan has in mind. Tightly wrapped bits of string create a unique dyed pattern. There are never two the same – the designs are personal to each family member and like the background stories, each has a different woven ending. (Thanks, Tina Paul, for reminding me of this.)

Surprisingly, my most enduring learning about storytelling, fables and customs being passed down each generation comes from the Inuit culture. I have learned from Bryce and Natali, the owners of http://www.inuitsculptures.com, that there a number versions of the background of these small fascinating pieces. They all have stories, meaning and value to the carver and the collector alike.

In the beginning days of the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company (circa 1830), the traders found the toys that the Inuit carved for their children were both fascinating and valuable. While the locals simply saw these beautiful, imaginative, and inventive pieces as way to distract and entertain their young ones, the fur traders chose to trade them for day-to-day items. Today they are highly prized and collectible artifacts.

Creating narratives – tangible art or simply the spoken word – has been with us since before history. Right now, we cannot wander the world, and I find myself trying to keep my brain from daydreaming in the past to avoid feeling sorry for myself. My reading has moved from whodunits and biography to stories with more fantasy, history, and mystery. As for telling my own stories, I’m not likely to be taking up the fabric arts or carving beauty out of rock. I’ll be going down the paints and crafts road – a bit messy, but my own stories! Clearly, this will be coming with new adventures, as travel and learning may never be the same again.

Photos for this article were taken by the author, and from http://www.spottedfrog.ca, http://www.incaworldperu.com, http://www.eluniverso.com, http://www.cuencahighlife.com, and http://www.withapast.com.

 

Learning Mexican Spanish

By Julie Etra

Spanish was established as a distinct language around the 13th century, distinct from Catalan and Portuguese, when Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise), assembled his scribes in the courts of Toledo to document various subjects, including astronomy, law, and history, thus acknowledging it as a written language. Spanish, like its cousins, was considered a Latin dialect, the Romans having invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 206 B.C. It is laced with Arabic words, such as almohada (pillow), as the Moors, from Morocco, arrived on the Peninsula about 711 (and were conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella in Granada in 1492). It is the fourth most common language in the world, following English, Mandarin, and Hindi. Standard Spanish can be considered Castilian Spanish.

Oaxaca, the name of our home state, is not a Spanish word. It is derived from the Nahuatl word Huaxyacac, which refers to a tree called a “guaje” (Leucaena leucocephala) found in many parts of Mexico. The name was originally applied to the Valley of Oaxaca by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, aka Aztecs, who had conquered the region.

Here are some helpful words and phrases to help you with your coastal Spanish.

Let’s start with “cool,” an American word supposedly coined in the 1930s by saxophonist Lester Young to describe something as intensely good.

There are three common ways to say something is cool.
padre (this widely accepted term means “father”)
chido
perrón (literally, “dog”)

And then there is chingón. This is a bit more intense and means something outstanding, super, and is very slangy. Watch it with this word as conjugations have totally different meanings. Chingar, the verb, is very vulgar in Mexico. Chingadazo means easy and quick, as in a quick and easy recipe, but also means a forceful blow. (The -azo suffix is very common, for example slamming a door is a portazo, derived from puerta). And chingadera, well, that means everything is screwed up, annoying, much like the US expression “SNAFU”; it also means to be far away in a nebulous place, as in hasta la chingada. You will hear these, but I don’t recommend using them.

HANDY EXPRESSIONS

A menos que: unless, as in “unless the flight is late.”
¿A poco? and No me digas: Both mean REALLY? As in “Are you kidding?” or “No way!”
¿A ti que mas te da?: What’s it to you?
¿Como vas? ¿Como te vas?: How are you doing? What’s happening?
Con permiso: Excuse me – literally, “with permission,” as in when you want to pass in front of someone; perdon also means “excuse me,” as in when you bump into someone or want to get someone’s attention.
Cuanto antes, en cuanto: as soon as
De vez en cuando: from time to time
Estamos a mano: We are even, as in when you pay your bill.
Mas vale tarde que nunca: better late than never
Ni modo: Too bad, tough luck
Para llevar: to go, as in food to go
Por si acaso: just in case
¿Que tal?: What’s up?
Sale vale: okey dokey
Sin son ni ton: neither here nor there, it does not make sense
Tengo ganas: I feel like it, I have the urge. As in Tengo ganas de regresar a Huatulco – I want to go back to Huatulco! Or Tengo ganas de llorar – I feel like crying.
Vale la pena: It is worth it.
Que pena: What a shame. (Also, que lastima – What a pity.)

HANDY VOCABULARY

Atajo: shortcut
Ballena, caguama: big bottle of beer
Banda: group of friends, clique
Chavo/chava: kid/child
Chela: beer (instead of cerveza)
Degustar, probar: taste, as in try a taste
Disponible: available
Eso (literally, “that”): That’s right, looks good, quite so, thumbs up
Garrafón: the 5-gallon jug of water
Grupo: band (music)
Hielera: cooler, essential for llevando las chelas a la playa
Huevos revueltos: scrambled eggs; huevos bien cocidos: over hard; huevos tiernos: over easy
Lana (literally, “wool”): money
Los invitados: guests, like those coming for dinner, as opposed to huespedes (hotel guests)
¿Mande? ¿Como?: What? Say that again? (used almost exclusively in Mexico)
Nunca: never
Próximamente: coming soon, like a vaccine for COVID 19
Quizás, a lo mejor, tal vez: perhaps, maybe
Pausa, descanso; break (as in take a break) – Tomar una pausa. Tomar un descanso.
Sino: in addition, on top of it

SLANG

Although we extranjeros may not feel comfortable actually “slanging,” we hear a lot of these common sayings.

Dale: Give it your all, everything, best effort
Fresa: snob (literally, strawberry)
Fuchi: smells bad
Güey or wey: dude, as in ¿Que honda güey? What’s happening, dude?
Hasta la madre: fed up
Huacala or Guacala: gross, tastes bad
Hueva: laziness, noun with same import as the adjectives
perezoso or flojo. Tirar/echar la hueva, tener hueva: to be doing
nothing
Porfa: short for por favor, please, Also porfi, porfis
¿Q’ hubo?: What’s happening?
¿Que onda?: What’s up?
Sale, dale, vale: Ok, let’s go! Let’s do it. Also, sale: See you
later.
¡Simón!: Yes! i.e., with enthusiasm
¡Ya basta!: Enough already!

Enlarging Your Scope in the Time of COVID

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We are inveterate and indepen-dent travelers. We’ve touched down in every continent except Antarctica (too cold) and love immersing ourselves for weeks or sometimes months at a time in different communities and cultures. We’ve kidnapped our grandkids to live with us in Rome, Paris, Geneva, London, Jerusalem, Mexico City, and safari camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

So when we flew back to our home in California from our home away from home, Huatulco, on March 15 and immediately went into quarantine, followed by shelter in place, there was every reason to expect to feel trapped – that our world would shrink to our two-bedroom cottage. It hasn’t. In fact, we are bouncing around the world on a daily basis, meeting new people and as ever, immersing ourselves in communities and cultural events.

This of course has been made possible by incredible new technology including Zoom, WhatsApp, and AirPlay. We’ve also been supported by the unbelievable generosity of major music and arts institutions. And there is such ingenuity at universities and schools with a passion for providing opportunities for learning even in the most trying times.

During the first couple of months of shelter-in-place we binged on virtual trips to New York and London. Although we had frequently traveled from Huatulco to the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City or the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá in Oaxaca, where we saw operas in HD streaming live from the Met in New York, during some months we were just too busy to leave Huatulco. And of course, we later heard about the superb performances we missed. We were very gratified to learn in March that the Met would be streaming recordings of a different opera every night gratis into our homes. And so, many nights in the first few months of confinement were spent captivated in a good way, watching the operas we had initially missed.

When the Met ultimately depleted its stock of recent recordings of live streaming performances, they began to present relatively old videos of past performances. We were reminded of why we used to travel to Europe for opera. Unlike European opera performances (and today’s in the US) that emphasize the story and character development, the Met formerly concentrated on each aria as an individual performance, and great applause – even curtain calls or encore performances – were encouraged in the middle of scenes. We didn’t appreciate the interruptions then, and even less did we enjoy them in old recordings. So, with nearly the totality of recent HD live operas happily part of our repertoire, we bade farewell to the Met.

Our virtual trips to London were weekly and specifically to visit the National Theatre Live. Although we have more than excellent theater in the U.S. and Mexico, and have seen memorable performances in the Teatro Telcel in Mexico City, there is nothing quite like a London performance. The brilliant performance of Jane Eyre was worth the cost and time for flying across the pond, but this year of course we only had to hit a button or two to attain first row seats. One Man, Two Guvnors was such a comical romp that we completely forgot we weren’t actually in pre-COVID-19 London.

Although we enjoyed other weekly offerings, we were pleased with the National Theatre’s fresh take on some of the Bard’s finest. We had completed our Shakespeare folio several years ago with a superb Pericles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and were even thinking of skipping the NT Shakespearean offerings. We’re so glad we didn’t. Twelfth Night, which we have seen at least five times, was stunning! Malvolia (yes, Malvolia) emerged as the main character in an unforgettable and deeply emotional performance. And we certainly weren’t sorry we didn’t have to navigate the tube stations and “mind the gap” to get to and from the theater.

By summer, we were ready for a virtual trip to Israel. We signed up for a three-week program of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. There were so many classes offered that we were like kids in a candy store trying to decide which to attend. Classes on art, on poetry, on philosophy, and current events, all tied to two predominant themes – social justice and living through plagues. We decided to view classes separately and then compare notes during meals. Our classes took place on Sundays to Thursdays from 9 am PDT to evening seminars. It was definitely like being back in college – but now we had a better appreciation for the professors than we did in college days.

Our studies at Hartman were followed by a week-long virtual tour of Israel – a different community every night. The most interesting community by far was an Ethiopian neighborhood in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. Our tour guide that evening was a young woman who was very open about the discrimination she had experienced as an Israeli of color and her life with one foot in the modern Israeli world and the other in the culture of her immigrant parents. We also met with a very gracious rabbi who described his passage from Ethiopia to Israel, including his shock at learning that Israel was full of white Jews. He knew no English and spoke to us in Hebrew with a translator. His final wish was that we all would learn enough Hebrew so the next time we met, we wouldn’t need a translator. We are trying to make his wish come true.

We are now zooming to an Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language program) on a kibbutz in the Negev south of Beer Sheva. We join fifteen other students who are located in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Argentina for two-and-a-half to three hours every Wednesday. During the other days we have plenty of homework. And we practice our lessons with the other students on WhatsApp.

When we’re not bouncing around the world for incredible learning experiences, we’re widening our horizons right here in our own community with book clubs, play readings, and classes in our congregation, and dinners with fascinating people – all these also safely on Zoom. Sometimes, admittedly, in the middle of the night, the walls do seem to being closing in, especially with windows all closed to keep out wildfire smoke. But, for the most part, our world is growing larger, not smaller, and including a greater variety of people. So, if you’re finding yourself feeling confined to wherever you’re now located, Mexico or the U.S. or Canada, open your mind and your computer, and join us in our explorations or your own.