Saturday, March 29, 2014

lost and found

In between meeting new people, visiting Proyecto Itzaes sites, and delivering books, I'm also learning. About a people and a culture that the history books are getting wrong. Why did the Maya disappear? Well, they didn't. Mayan people, culture, and language are just as alive today as they were hundreds of years ago. Did the Spaniards invade Mexico and massacre millions of Mayas? You bet they did. But they didn't exterminate them. The current scientific theory that the meteor that hit the earth and killed off the dinosaurs occurred where I'm sitting right now (on the Chicxulub Crater) is an example of extinction; what happened to the Mayas is not.

And thus, all my pre-trip research had gotten it wrong; there are many Maya, 2012 was not the end of the world, and the Mayan civilizations were not socialist. Then what, I thought, is the real story of the Yucatec Maya?

I started my current line of questioning at the beginning; seeing the ruins for myself. From Xcambo, to Dzibilchaltun, and finally to Uxmel, I think I'm beginning to learn an accurate thing or two. The research of ruins will culminate with two stops next week in Chichen Itza and Tulum. By then, I hope to know what I'm seeing without being told by a guide.

Uxmal, Yucatán

Next, I asked the people. I quickly learned a few key last names (Cen, Couoh, Kú) signify Maya. These are not just the decedents of the Yucatec Maya (who built the ruins I've been looking at) but includes all the current sects of Maya who speak the Yucatec Maya language today and keep many of the traditions. I still have a lot to learn about the different Maya sects and provinces.

I have also found some common trends, at least among the Maya of the Yucatán. I have heard many time about being sure to feed the Alux - a mystical being who guards your garden. Everyone knows that March 21 is the solstice and you can see a snake in the stairs of Chichen. But most of these same people (actually everyone I asked) have never actually been to Chichen. (And it's only about a 2 hour drive away). 

As I continued along my Maya educational journey, I went to a first rate museum (as I am a museum-goer in every city). The Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (Great Museum of the Maya World) covers the history of a local people. And, not only did I get to take in as much learning and history of Maya as I could stand in one morning, I was accompanied by my new friend, Proyecto Itzaes library supporter Veronika. Vero, who lives in Chicxulub Pueblo about 40 minutes from the museum, had never been. She was enthralled; Vero is Maya afterall. And while Vero's parents speak Yucatec Maya (which is a language option throughout the entire museum), she does not. Vero knew many things about the history and tradition of the Yucateco Maya, but she told me afterward she learned a lot at the museum.
Vero in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida, Yucatán

My hope is that Vero can take her kids to the museum next time. And that she and her family can some day visit Chichen Itza.

To learn more about Maya legends, I recommend this website:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

a book snob

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
― Cicero

I did two little things. 

I decided to come to the Yucatan. I bought a ticket, packed my bags, got on a plane, and arrived here. Simple. Every day I think about how incredibly blessed I am to have the time and means to come here.

I delivered books to Chicxulub Pueblo. Again, simple. And very easy because of the infrastructure Proyecto Itzaes has set up over the past 15 years. Wonderful people and a dedicated leadership system has keep the Chicxulub Pueblo Proyecto Itzaes library thriving.

The welcoming entrance to the library in Chicxulub Pueblo

Books change lives. I know it sounds cliche, and if you know me personally, you've probably heard it at least a dozen times from my mouth directly. I am a product of books (and public libraries). The world I enter every time I read a book is a world of discovery and learning. But it's also a world I create, pictured in my head the way I see it. It's not one director's interpretation, picking the characters he sees and showing them to me. When I read a book, it belongs to me. And I couldn't be happier. I have something of my own.

I didn't just grow up in a typical household with books, school, and sports teams. I grew up with a mother whose consistent involvement in two specific activities spanned my entire life. The first is volunteer. From CASA to big sister, my mom is the essence of volunteerism. And from whom (I hope) I developed my lifelong commitment to service.

The second is my mother (and my father) are readers. And they took me to the library. Every single day. I am not just a typical occasional reader; I'm a reader. I've even been called a book snob (but only by my older brother). I'd rather be a book snob than have specific opinions on any other topic.

A lifetime of books has been the greatest gift. And as such, I choose to pay it forward. I give books to my niece and nephew, to my friends, and even to complete strangers. Books need to be off the shelves and out into the world. 

Because when I give a book, I get to give a journey. It's a conduit to a different world; often times, a completely new world. And thus I go, to the other side of the world (almost), giving out books. In return, I am welcomed by hungry little minds. I'm continually astonished by what one book (or 10 or 50 books) can do. I opened one book in the Proyecto Itzaes library, and before I knew it, four little bodies morphed into giant minds. A two year old yelled out every animal on the page, and then proceeded to turn every single page for me.

Budding readers in the making.

Every day, a new reader is born. It is my job to provide each reader with books. And I plan to keep doing my part.

For more information about Proyecto Itzaes and the amazing work they do in the Yucatan, check out

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ride the bus

I woke up this morning with a mission; to pick up a rental car in Mérida.

Sounds simple enough, but anyone who has taken a bus in a foreign country knows this involves going where you not only have never been before, but also going to places you're not sure if you'll know when you stumble upon them. I took a camión (small bus/van), got off, walked 2 blocks, bought a ticket, stood in line, got on a bus, watched and watched to make sure we didn't pass my stop, asked the bus driver to help me out, got off the bus, walked 2 blocks, and voila, I was at Avis Fiesta Americana.

Fiesta Americana, Merida

I forgot how much I get out of riding the bus. I'd say I enjoy it, but it's a bit hampered by my ridiculously strong motion sickness. But if that's under control, riding the local bus is a wonderful experience. We're all just on the bus, sitting, or standing, and sweating. And I'm snapping as many pictures as I can. Clearly fulfilling my role as tourist extraordinaire.

Riding the bus in the Yucatán involves making friends. While the woman who sat next to me in the camión only smiled, the man I sat next to all the way down to Mérida was a lot more talkative. He was soo enthusiastic about fishing for pepino (sea cucumbers), he showed me video after video on his cell phone of him on a fishing boat.

I arrived at the strip of car rental companies and realized I didn't bring my passport and drivers license with me (they're locked away safely in my luggage). Oh no!!! But, then I remembered I had taken photos of each and saved them on my iPhone camera roll. I showed the Avis rental agent my photos, but she wanted paper copies. No problem, I thought. I'll just find a place to print them out from my phone.

This turned out to be slightly easier said than done. The closest business with a business center was the Wal-Mart across the street. While I entered Wal-Mart and immediately felt relieved to hit some air conditioning, I felt really strange. I may as well have been in any Wal-Mart. The consistency of certain chain stores is really quite astonishing. The Wal-Mart photo counter didn't have an iPhone USB plug and didn't have internet (for me to email the photos directly to them). I was out of luck. I asked the counter agent where the closest ciber (internet cafe) was. Perhaps this type of internet/computer place could help me. I was quickly directed to a place somewhere across the street.

When I entered the convenience store/copy place, I wasn't hopeful. But the girl covering for the normal clerk told me she would help me; her computer had an internet connection. I just signed into my Evernote account (where I had saved copies of my IDs) and printed them out. 10 pesos later, we were in business. Technology saved me yet again. 

Although, when I went back to pick up the rental car, their system was down. I had to wait several hours before being able to pre-pay and get the actual car. Technology had caused me delays yet again.

I hit the road in my little Chevy Aveo. I stopped at some ruins for some photos and chatted with a few Americans (they wanted some translation regarding rules for swimming in the cenotes). On the way out of the ruins, I passed three young boys walking and hitchhiking along the road. Thinking about my transition from bus rider to car driver, I thought about picking up the guys. I definitely thought about it. But in the end, I drove past the boys, on to Progreso, and ended up driving the long way home along the coast.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

king of the forest

Yesterday, I had a chance to go where very few non-locals have ever gone. And I received a crash course in native species conservation.

Five rocky, hard to stay in your seat, kilometers outside of town of Cenotillo, Yucatan lies the entrance to the Reserva San Nicolás. Once we finally arrived to where we were arriving to, it was magnificent.

Many of the indigenous species of the Yucatan are slowly disappearing. From the jaguar, believed by local Mayans to be the king of the forest, to the meat eating vulture (which I had a chance to witness firsthand). Sadly, an ever increasing human population and the destruction of many animals' natural habitats cause all these species to face extinction. Kudos to those working with organizations like Pronatura, to protect and educate us on the local ecosystems on the Yucatán Peninsula.

A camouflaged vine snake in motion

Navigating our way through the acres and acres of land that encompass Reserva San Nicolás, we were actually on a mission. Spread throughout the terrain are seven cameras. These small devices, attached inconspicuously to trees, record video in the area in front of them on 10 second loops. The videos are recorded onto SD memory cards. What I love about this idea is the combination of nature with technology. Here we are, miles from anyone or anything else, using small recording devices and memory cards to capture nature. The video boxes are placed (logically) in front of small holes/pools. We'd grab the video cards out of each box, place them in a digital camera, and watch the animals come by. From agoutis to foxes, there were lone travelers, as well as packs of animals congregating by each watering hole. It was our very own nature channel, right there in the middle of the palm trees. I can't emphasize what it felt like to stand in the forest, sweating buckets, covered in insects, surrounded by orchids and snakes, and pull video chips out of little recording devices.

The video recorder, which currently runs on battery.

While the fauna of the Yucatán is different from anywhere I've ever been, the people and the culture are what makes it completely beautiful. When we arrived at Reserva San Nicolás, there were two amazing gentlemen waiting for us. These men live at the reserve, in the stone structure under re-construction, and work hard to build into a three hundred year old structure some modern amenities. When completed, the house-like structure will house students and teachers, scientists and researchers from around the globe. 

What Arial and Jorge have accomplished so far is gorgeous; it's of the earth, made by hand, and functional. 

Made by these two men, this stone structure will serve as an outdoor stove (grill).

There is no electricity out in Reserva San Nicolás. Both men have motorcycles, so they can easily travel back to town (Ariel has a wife and daughter he tries to visit daily). But when they're out there on the land, they are dependent on the sun, on the weather, on their arms and legs. Before we headed out of the reserve for the day, Cindy handed 2 solar lights to the men. Once placed in the sun for about 8 hours, each lamp will provide about 3 hours of light. I can't wait to check in with these guys and see how solar light has benefited them, if at all. The only way to truly know if something is working is to test it out and solicit feedback. I wonder if they will still go to sleep in their hammocks as soon as the sun goes down. Only time will tell.

If you'd like to see the videos of the wildlife captured by the Reserva San Nicolás cameras, they are constantly uploaded to the facebook page found here:

To learn more about the company that provides solar lights, check out WakaWaka's website at

If you'd like to see all my photos from our visit to the Reserva San Nicolás, they can be found online here:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

don't drink the water

Don't drink the water. It's the first thing I'm told in response to, "I'm going to Mexico."
Well, it's still true. And yet it's easy to forget. Well, not really.

I looked around the airport while I was waiting for my bus to Mérida to arrive. I wanted to refill my water bottle. I searched up and down the arrivals hall, but found not a single water fountain. That was the first time (and certainly not the last) I remembered "I can't drink the water." I was tired from a flight full of coughing people; I quickly bought an orange juice. Because bad tap water accounts in part for Mexico being the highest consumer of bottled water and soda, an average of 43 gallons are consumed per person every year. That's alarming.

The Cancun airport looks like Miami's airport. It's hot and humid outside, and air conditioned inside. People are dressed up, dressed for the beach, traveling with their families. The signs are all in English and in Spanish. The announcements are in English and in Spanish. I could be in any major city in the US. But there are no water fountains. I am in Mexico.

Without getting into water engineering, I just want to say that I don't know why we can't partake in the tasty beverage of tap water. I spent my first full day in the Yucatán, in a village on the Gulf of Mexico coast, known as Chicxulub Pueblo, and the first home I walked into had a giant 5 liter gallon of potable drinking water. For the family. For everyone. Apparently, the water does not discriminate. Man or woman, foreigner or indigenous, the water is not for drinking.

A quick Google search about why to not drink the water (is it still true or an urban legend?) sent me on a shocking path of learning and discovery. Did you know Mexico had an outbreak of Cholera in the 1990s (and water was named the culprit)? Or that Mexico city's giant 1985 earthquake burst water pipelines and sewers, increasing waterborne diseases? Not to mention that years of water traveling through underground pipes on to dirty rooftop water tanks before heading into consumer houses have led to public doubt that tap water is currently safe enough to drink.

Much of Mexico is not any different from its fellow North American neighbors. Streets are paved, there's running water, electricity, and flushing toilets. There's even a Costco in Mérida. There are businesses that happily accept dollars, and resorts that look no different from an Island Getaway in Hawaii. Except that you can't drink the water. I pass people in nice cars, on cell phones, going to school and work, playing with kids, swimming in their own pools, and drinking coca cola with their lunches. But not drinking the water. They still just can't. And they never forget. I just hope I don't.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

fly the friendly skies

"There's no substitute for just going there."
-Yvon Chouinard

I love airplanes. For me, flying through the air is the only way to travel. This sentiment may have much to do with my absolutely debilitating motion sickness. Or my hurry up and get there mentality; I hate being late. But where my love of travel by air truly stems from is my father.

He loves to fly. He doesn't do boats (okay, he does, but he doesn't tolerate them well). Buses are brutal and trains rough. He, like me, has the motion sickness; the bane of all world travelers. We have thrown up in almost every major city in the world (and minor ones as well). We've tried pulse pressing wristbands, behind the ear patches, and Dramamine in every shape and form. But we still get hit. However, we don't give up.

Instead, we travel by air. Every time we would fly as a family (luckily, a few times a year), my dad would relegate us with his story about the first time he flew on a jet plane. It was the late 50s when my father learned he could go anywhere fast - and forever he would. My father walks so fast that when I was little I ran just to keep up with him. He's always on the go. Why should his travel be any different?

Except, that it should be different. It should be slow and calculated and most of all fun. Plus, as my father and I have both discovered, travel is excessively educational and all consuming. I remember my first time in Asia (last year), sitting in a Seoul Airport boarding area, when two dozen flight attendants and pilots walked into the seating area and sat down. I couldn't stop staring at them. They were, in a word, gorgeous. But they were also, just as I found much of Asia to be, unlike anything I had seen before. I didn't yet have my DSLR, but I had a point and shoot camera, and I quickly pulled it out of my bag and snapped a few shots. 

Not my best photograph, but I had to start somewhere. And that is exactly what I did. I began to look at the people around me as subjects; for my photos, but also for my memory. For my association with a specific time and place. 

I still prefer to fly, but I might think twice about booking a direct flight next time and take the bus, train, or boat. Especially if there are interesting people (who will let me take their photos).

Monday, March 10, 2014

packing for Mexico

I leave for Mexico in 5 days and yes, I'm packing already. I am not a procrastinator. Especially when it's something I want to do. I'm packing early for a reason: to see if everything I plan to take will fit in my suitcase. Actually, I have suitcases. I'm checking a bag, but also get to carry on a small bag, with another backpack as my personal item. These items will all be heavy and bursting at the seams. But it's all for a good cause. Okay, most of it is for a good cause. 

The libraries need books. That's something I can get behind. But they also need Legos and origami paper (which I realize I could just convert from regular paper, but why settle for less than the real thing if you have a couple of Gringas heading down from California to shower you with gifts).

How do I pack for a month in Mexico? I'm not the light traveler I used to be (see my first post, entitled a digital revolution (and revelation) for the exhaustive packing list of electronics I plan to pack into my three bags). When I returned from Honduras, I could fit everything I owned in a car (which I didn't even own). Now I not only own a car, and a bicycle, and an entire house full of furniture, but I also have furniture in my parent's basement. Does anyone really need this much stuff? Don't worry, this will not be another one of the posts about how I simplified my life. My life is not simple, I have "stuff" I use all the time, and I'm planning on keeping it.

But, aside from all my cameras and computers and charging cables, what else do I pack? I have so many unanswered questions - what do people wear in Mérida? In the libraries? At the ruins? What I'm really trying to ask is, "do I want to look ridiculously American? Or do I want to try to blend in a little bit?" And how am I going to deal with the heat? I've been in San Francisco way too long. I'm always cold, don't have air conditioning, and don't even own a single pair of flip flops (I bought a pair for the trip!)

So, here is what I really think as I pack. What will the final ratio be between items for Karen and items for the Yucatecos? At quick glance, I estimate 50/50. But I haven't packed any of my clothes yet. 
My suitcase so far
The Harry Potter in Spanish is for the kids. As are the Legos. 
The hat and shoes will be donated when I leave. 

So really, I'm not packing 50/50. I'm at 95/5.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

how to write an iBook - part 1

A few months ago, I met a professional colleague. We were comparing tablets/digital book reading apps, when she showed me her iBooks. She had created them by writing the code herself. They were fun, beautifully laid out, and, most importantly, interactive. There were pictures and stories narrated by her daughter. There were student drawings and activities and a page inside an iBook where you can practice writing your signature directly on the pad. I was sold. Actually, I was more than sold - I joined the company. And that is how my partnership with Sue was born. I knew a good (actually, a great) idea when I saw it. This is where my allegiance with StoryRobin, Inc comes from.

What do I do for StoryRobin? Well, aside from editing content and writing our business plan, I am going to write an iBook. The iBooks (StoryRobin is up to about 10 at last count) are Sue's lifeline. Trained as an Art Docent for her daughter's school district, Sue works with fellow docents to create the best, most educational, most accurate iBooks about different artists. From Georgia O'Keeffe to Leonardo da Vinci, Sue is passionate about her final products. 

Yesterday, Sue shared her "secret sauce" with me. 

I'm heading to Mexico (the Yucatan) next week. Why not ask the Yucatecos to help me write an iBook about Mayans? I can't wait! I have big plans for this project. Write the iBook, visit the ruins, learn more than what's in the Encyclopedia, take pictures, and ask the children of the Yucatan to add their content; original drawings and stories. Oh, and translate it all back and forth (English to Spanish then back to English).

But first, Sue has to tell me "how to write a StoryRobin iBook." While I don't want to give away our secret formula (we are selling these iBooks for profit after all), I do want to keep my audience in the loop as I go through the new process of writing my own iBook. It's not that frequently any more that I have access to students interested in drawing and art.

Plus, Mayans are cool. The whole lunar calendar, codexes (sounds cool), and human sacrifices (Sue told me NOT to mention anything in the book about cannibalism/sacrifice). Easy enough.

I spent the day creating an "Outline" for the iBook - what will we cover, what do students already know (or assume) about Mayans, where should be focus (the Yucatec Mayans, of course). What I ended up with was a perfectly cited research paper. In a word, boring. No wonder I need to Sue.

Take out the words, and add in the pictures (example below).

So, how to write an iBook - part 1 is under way. Stay tuned for parts 2 - infinity. I have a feeling this is no small undertaking.

Sue's comments:
  • Add stories.
  • Add something related to today’s life.
  • Add pictures.
  • Include more fun facts.
My response:
Ceramic cacao vessel lid from Tonina, cacao beans guarded by monkey (Photo in public domain)
Ceramic cacao vessel lid from Tonina.
Cacao beans guarded by monkey

Photo courtesy of Maya Exhibition, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau

Saturday, March 1, 2014

life before technology

I took part in a sociological study; one that I think about often.

In the village I called home from 2004-2006, a few of my neighbors had
televisions – and cable. What kind of cable tv worked out into the rural
countryside of Honduras? I don't know. What I do know is that one single cable
made its way into my village, and snaked it's way throughout the more posh
parts of town (some streets had nice houses, while others had shacks with no

What's important about this "cable" is that what it truly brought with
it was Telenovelas. If you aren't familiar with a Telenovela, a Spanish soap
opera, it's a 5-6 month long saga that plays out for one hour, four nights a
week (Monday-Thursday).

Here is the opening from one of my town's favorite Novelas: 
Rubí. It was quite
addictive, honestly.

With the injection of a steady stream of Telenovelas into Pulperias up and down my street, I witnessed dramatic changes. Changes in behavior and vocabulary. Changes in teenage drama and a staggering increase in teen pregnancy rates.

I saw a direct link between the plotlines of these Novelas, and the dramatic issues the teens in my town would complain about. How did I know their problems were Novela driven? 

Let's take a look at the plot of Rubí: Rubí starts dating Alejandro, but when she finds out that he comes from a middle-class background and is not rich, she decides to dump him. She then decides to seduce Héctor, who is wealthy but engaged to a friend. When Hector dumps his fiance, and marries Rubí, she decides several years later she wants Alejandro, because he is now rich (she even kills Alejandro's fiance). These were not the problems common to the teenagers in a rural Honduran village. But they were now the exact problems the students (many my students) would complain about. So and so is rich (a ridiculous concept in Gualaco) and must be "seduced". I could hear the students repeating lines from Rubí verbatim. How did I know? I watched Rubí for background.

What I want to know now is this: what has technology brought and changed? Are the inhabitants of Latin American villages smarter, now that they are "more educated"? Are students who have never set foot outside the village more worldly now? Are their babies healthier because they can look up answers to common infant illnesses?

Or have computers (and the internet) just brought easier, more universal access to Novelas? Are students concentrating on teenage drama and sex scandals more than homework assignments? Haven't Americans been caught doing the same? Perhaps technology really does even the playing field. We can all spy on Kate Middleton bathing nude, if we so choose. We can spend our hard earned Pesos on an hour of internet, instead of on a Coca Cola. There isn't any more money in my village, just another way to spend it. 

I can't wait to see how the Mayan students of the Yucatan choose to spend their limited (albeit no cost) internet search time. Will they look up maps of the world, answer math problems, sign onto Kahn Academy, or read books online? Will they watch YouTube and Vine and Telemundo? Or will they do all these things? I have my suspicions (social networking - but which ones?) 

I can't wait to see how life before computers becomes a fading memory.