The Boogeyman


During “voluntary isolation” I’ve been sleeping remarkably well, but this morning I woke up at 3:48 am… absolutely terrified. Of everything.

I opened facebook and read Chris Strickling’s amazing May 1st post. She lives in Izamal and every morning she takes a pre-dawn bike ride. When she gets home, she uploads the photos she took, her thoughts and observations. And this morning, like me, she seems frightened… of many things, but not seeing far-away loved ones, ever again, is the scariest of all.

My 67th birthday is just a few days away, and right now, I am remembering my 6th one. On that day, my parents gave me my own room. It was a surprise to me, but they acted as though I should be thrilled. I was one of those children who always wanted to please the grownups, and so I acted “thrilled”. I thanked my grandmother for sewing the turquoise comforter with little pink roses embroidered along the edge. I insisted on phoning my Godmother (long distance, no less) to thank her for mailing me the fluffy pink throw rug to place beside the bed. My toes would not ever hit a cold floor, thanks to that rug. I could look out my window and see the mini carnations and white daisies that Mom planted in a flower box. I thought it all looked perfect, except the closet… my “very own closet” spooked me from the start. And once the sun set, I got more and more worried about what might be lurking in there at night. Mr. Boogeyman got into my head and would not leave. He let me worry-away, night after night. Of course I told my parents that I was scared (the room was in the unfinished downstairs, and everyone else slept upstairs) They tried to tell me I was a “big girl now” and I had nothing to be anxious about. My mom said she would never put me in an unsafe bedroom… surely I knew that?

My Dad understood me though, and he got cracking on the finishing of my brothers’ space, called thereafter: “The Boys’ Room”. And with two of them in that room around the corner, I felt much more secure. My “very own closet” and the laundry room with its noisy furnace and bumping-banging pipes separated me from my brothers, but if things got dicey, I figured I was a pretty good runner and I’d be able to sprint past the beasts and get to the safety of Peter and Stephen’s bedroom before it did to me, whatever it had planned… Tommy eventually joined my other two brothers, and Anne also became one of “The Downstairs Kids”. Barb and Cathy never moved to the depths; they shared the upstairs room that I originally slept in with my two brothers, before I got my “very own room”. When John, the last of us eight siblings came along, his crib was set up in the 6 X 9 space that had once been a small playroom. I must have believed that my big family kept that boogeyman away. And probably that is how I came to feel most secure with lots of family around me. I am missing them so much.

COVID 19 is the Boogeyman. And after sixty-one years of exile, he is back in my life. I can’t see the virus, or feel its presence. I won’t hear it if it sneaks up on me. It is not like tobacco or “barnyards”; the virus’ proximity is not announced by an evil smell in the air, nor will it leave a scratchy taste in my mouth. No, none of that… This 2020 Boogeyman is the real deal.

We need a re-play, and we can’t do so on our own. We have to learn to get along and stop this infernal bickering. To accomplish this we need a more level playing field. As I learned as a child… all of us are happiest when surrounded by those we love. And … if we aren’t… divided we fall.

A “staying-safe-at-home” Project

This man is standing in front of a “canche”

Have you heard how many villages are now without a source of fresh produce? In Yucatan every household used to have a home garden. But now, they are not as common as you would think, and I wonder how people could be encouraged to grow more vegetables and herbs; this would add so much nutrition, fibre and flavour to their diet. Of course I know that “gardening” in Yucatan takes a Hurculean effort. There are so many hurdles to overcome, especially for those without any money. Some of them are:
1. nutrient-poor soil
2. too much sun, and scorching temperatures
3. insects and other critters that devour the little plants
4. the cost of seed
5. mold and “rot” that easily set into pots if they are not properly drained.

So, I have thought up an “experiment”. I am going to try and grow garden veggies and herbs, without purchasing seed, special soil or pots.

I’ve decided to try a variation of the millennia-old method used by the Maya. To grow small quantities of produce, they used a “canche” (a raised growing bed built from poles lashed together with vines) Since I have neither poles nor vines, I am going to try suspending my “planters” from my orange tree.

I am starting this project with a couple of hardy varieties: Roma tomatoes and local green peppers.

1. I have saved the seeds from a few tomatoes and peppers (leaving some of the membranes around them) I have placed them on a paper towel, and they are drying on a table in my laundry room (a place where I have never seen ants). When they look dry (in 2-3 days, I estimate) I will throw away the dried membranes, and separate the seeds.
2. To germinate the seeds, I will use 2 cardboard egg cartons. I plan to perforate the bottoms and sprinkle some dry earth in each of the little “cups”. I’ll get the earth damp by sprinkling water (not soaking), then spread a few seeds in each cup, and set them back on the same counter. (a place that is well-ventilated, warm but not sunny all day) I’ll keep them moist, and I hope they will sprout in a few days.
3. When the sprouts look a sturdy (I calculate about a week) I will plant them in four tin cans I have saved. Soon to be transformed into “planters”… Here’s how I plan to prepare the cans:

With my ice pick, I will liberally perforate the bottoms of the cans, and I will also make 3 holes around the upper rim of the cans, about an inch from the top. I’ll attach a length of wire through the three top holes, secure them, and then bring the 3 wires together and make a loop (so I can hang the “planter”) Next I’ll prepare the soil.

On the bottom of the cans (now called, “planters”) I will place a single layer of little stones for drainage. On top of the stones, for added filtering, I’ll put about an inch of dry sticks that I’ve broken into short pieces On top of that I will lay about 2 inches of torn-up dry leaves that I trust will break down and add nutrients to my soil. And finally I’ll scoop in 6 inches of dry dirt. (this will not be “nursery planting soil”, but just regular dirt that I’ll scrape up from around the plants in my own side garden. If it is too rocky, I will sift it with an old kitchen strainer)

I’ll then carefully plant the hardiest seedlings, adding a bit of water at a time.

I’ll hang 4 hammock “S-es” from the lowest branches of my orange tree, and from them, I will suspend the planters… and we’ll see what happens.

I am not so worried about large varmints eating the plants, but I do have some concerns about leaf-cutter ants. I have thought about maybe affixing a plastic cup of water between the “S” and the loop, but have not quite worked out how to do this. Any ideas?

I could use my nice big hose to water “my crop” but I know that in the villages, not all people have hoses, so I will use a bucket and a small dipping cup. I think I will need to water at least twice a day, being careful not to get the pots too soggy (which I know will not be good either)

After I cull out the best seedlings, I will have a lot of left-overs. I am going to plant these amongst my garden plants and give them water but no fertilizer or other special care… and we’ll see if any of them mature.

Does anyone have experience with this kind of “vegetable gardening”. Do you see any flaws in my plans? Let me know because the seeds are drying as you read…

If my experiment is successful, maybe I will try some larger “planters”. Maybe I will write and illustrate a children’s book that demonstrates this traditional gardening method.

I don’t know what the outcome of my experiment will be, but I do know that the COVID 19 pandemic has fully convinced me of one thing… we as a society need to find alternatives to “just going to the store” to get what we need. Because as all of us have learned… especially those over 60… going to the store is not always possible.

I don’t advocate ditching all the comforts and conveniences of our society, but I do believe we need to be just-a-little-less dependent. We need to develop strategies and adopt good habits that will see us better prepared for the unexpected.

A Good Place to Start


Last week I wrote a blog post about supporting our neighbours and the local government. It got a lot of response from international residents, not just in Merida but also from those who live in different parts of the country: The majority said they would like to be more involved with their neighbours and the Mexican community in general, but they don’t know any specific ways to do so. One person wrote:

I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t know the Mexicans who live next door to me and I’m sure they have no interest in being friends. So just what am I supposed to do?

I wondered how to answer that, and later in the day, I got an idea from another reader:

Two weeks ago, I was thinking, I am locked up in my house and so are my friends. I know everyone is having a really hard time, and I have no idea what to do. But I will go crazy soon if I don’t find something to keep myself busy. On Pinterest, I saw some very cute face masks and I made a couple, just for something to do. I had no one to give them to, so I just sat them on the ledge outside my window. Soon enough someone picked them up. Now, I make a few every day, and it feels good to know I am helping, even if I don’t know “who”.

When we live in the same place for a long time, we accrue random knowledge… We can tell by the wind when the seasons will be changing, and the look of the sky tells us when it will probably rain or snow or be a good day for a hike. Most of us know how to choose local fruit that’s ripe, and we know how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B, without Mr. Google’s help. “Back home”, we instinctively know how to interact with others.

Truly, in times like these, it is not easy to live in a place where we have no history. Even ordinary outings are peppered with pot holes. For example, at a local market… how did you feel the first time you saw a giant papaya? Did you have any idea which one would be a good choice? Have you noticed how Yucatecans greet (and often kiss) everyone in sight when they arrive at someone’s house or even a meeting? Many newcomers have language issues and experience a multitude of thorny cultural clashes… your neighbour’s dogs bark day and night, and he expects you to be OK with that? Ditto party noise. What do you do?

The local people often have cast-in-stone ideas about what constitutes a good neighbour. If you have missed out on these “mystifying interchanges”, you have probably not been getting out in the community.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, a lot of foreign residents wish they had made more of an effort to get to know their neighbours. In this never-before-experienced situation, it is comforting to know there are people living right next door who could help you if necessary. And truthfully, I doubt this “voluntary isolation” will end soon.

The good news is that it is NOT too late to become more active in your local community. Learning Spanish may not come easily, but you would be well-advised to have a minimum vocabulary. You could use this time of “voluntary isolation” to get started (or pick it up again) There are lots of online options, and really it is not a difficult language (like Dutch or Mandarin Chinese)

It came as a surprise to most, when people over 60 were no longer allowed to shop at Costco, Walmart or other large supermarkets. On a regular basis, you might be wise to start buying some items in the local smaller stores and markets because if you have a relationship with the local shopkeeper or vendor, they will make sure you don’t run out of essentials.

Try to keep busy. Like the lady I mentioned earlier, you could make some face masks; if you don’t have a sewing machine or fabric, tear up a piece of clothing you no longer use and cut the masks from that. Here’s a good website for mask making: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8OyV15ua24 If you don’t have a sewing machine, no problem, you can hand sew them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN4qWMKfbSo If you don’t sew at all, here you are: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgp7DSGN33k

Another good icebreaker with your neighbours or other social contacts is to offer cookies. When I first moved to Merida, I met so many people because I offered them cookies. They liked everything I baked, even plain old sugar cookies. You might set out little bags of cookies with the masks.

Offer a (disposable) glass of cold water to anyone who comes by, like the trash collectors, the mail man, the gas delivery guy, etc.

To show support, you could make a sign to hang in your window. I made one that declared my support for health workers.

You could make one that simply says,
HELLO NEIGHBOURS… WE’RE FINE, AND YOU? –

HOLA VECINOS… ESTAMOS BIEN ¿Y USTEDES?

And of course, hopefully, we can all donate money or goods to organizations who are helping the many, many, many people in need. Two excellent organizations are:
Yucatan Giving Outreach – YGO : https://ygo.mx/
International Women’s Club – IWC: https://iwcmerida.com/

Right now the government says they hope we will begin to see normalcy returning by June 1st. But as I’ve said,  I think our “voluntary isolation” will last a lot longer. The numbers of new cases are climbing… On April 22nd, Mexico passed the 10,000 point, and by yesterday there were 13,842 confirmed cases. Interaction with “strangers” may make you feel a little weird. Maybe you never intended to be “part of the crowd”.

But these are extraordinary times. For our own self-preservation, we have to keep busy and we have to keep safe… contributing even in small ways, is a good place to start.