April 30, 2011

This short story is based on a true account… Victoria lived in Cancun during the 1980s.  Not much more than a girl herself, she found herself raising four children on her own…


I’ll be on that bus so soon! Fifteen minutes to four. A quarter of an hour from now, Victoria would check the hotel time card, quickly peel off the very efficient-looking maid’s uniform, remove the regulation hair net, and step into the clothes she was used to.

She’d open her tattered tote for inspection, and then move towards the door set into the side of the building. The final indignity before exiting involved the security employee’s pat down. She figured he wouldn’t bother going too far today. He wanted to be on his way as much as she did.

She ached to see the four children waiting for her in the miniscule four meter by four meter shed. By rights, their house should be called a room. A total of sixteen square meters, the place featured nothing more than a rough cement floor, four leaning concrete block walls and a rusted tin roof.

Two hammocks slung from one side to the other, the clothes closet, a small table, two plastic chairs, a cupboard and her sewing machine comprised the entire household inventory.  The kerosene burner and wash tub sat outside under a tall tamarind tree. The privy could be found still further back, by the rock wall.

Her two girls, Pati and Lois slept in the tattered blue hammock, and she, with the twins,  in the  faded pink one, They still nursed and fleeting thoughts of their slumbering moon-shaped faces filled her with such emotion that her eyes welled and she could feel her breasts filling. Crossing her arms, she applied firm pressure to her chest. The rushing abated. The wind picked up stronger with each minute and the rain drummed steadily.

Earlier this year, she became the sole provider for her four young children. Her eldest would be desperate by now. At six o’clock this morning she’d left the seven year old to look after them all, “Lois, you’re in charge but your sister will help you with the twins.”

The worst of Victoria’s anxiety centered on the fact that she’d been unable to leave much food. Just a loaf of bread. They’d gone all day with only that, and by now they surely waited for her like famished fledglings in a nest.

The sky looks so grey and the frothy clouds circle the horizon.  Is it true what everyone is saying? Will a hurricane slam right into us tonight? ¡Ay Virgencita! How much more can I endure?

Victoria held on tightly to the bag she’d carry out of the hotel. Food. Her children would have their fill tonight. A large group of tourists cancelled their mid-day feast and the restaurant manager distributed the sumptuous dishes amongst the personnel – like Jesus with the loaves and fishes. A funny thing… the man told them his name. Jesús Santos – a saintly man. One of the few Victoria had ever met.

The driver of the employees’ bus dropped her at the downtown terminal and luckily, the one she needed to take to the “Zona Obrera” was just departing. And after forty bumpy minutes, Victoria stepped through her flimsy front door. Lois’ eyes widened with relief.

She and Pati passed the babies to their mother and the whimpering mouths rooted until they found Victoria’s nipples. They clamped on like tentacles. Stroking the bobbing dark haired heads, she felt sad to think they already knew how hunger feels. They’re a year and a half; soon I won’t have more milk to give them. How will I find the money to pay for it at the cooperative?

Too patiently for tiny girls, Lois and Pati begged permission to open the bag. Victoria nodded and laughed out loud when she saw the surprise on their faces. Meat! Lots and lots of meat!

And for a few treasured minutes, Victoria and her children felt supremely content in the four by four “first home” that she and her husband had been awarded upon their arrival in Cancun.

“Welcome Settlers!” the government official had said to them. She remembered the comparisons she made between the slapped together, shade-less workers compound and her traditional home in her pueblo, with its orange trees and leafy hibiscus. She immediately told her husband, “We need to go back where we have chickens, corn and comforts.” He grew angry when she said that and told her, “We’ll stay for one high tourism season and then, we’ll leave.”

One season turned into five, and six months ago, the leave taking finally happened – for him at least. He went north with his buddies – la banda. His farewell note, tucked up beside the serene face of the framed Virgen of Guadalupe simply stated, “I will make my fortune in Gringolandia, you’ll see…” So far, not one peso had come to her and the children.

How the wind blows!  Victoria herded her small flock into the corner of the single room. Lois and Pati’s frightened faces convinced Victoria she needed to secure their fragile refuge.

I have to find the cause of the terrible racket! She passed the baby boys to their sisters. “Stay here and don’t even think about coming out, no matter what happens!”

The rusted tin roof raised and slammed down, raised and slammed down. The gusts of horizontal rain poured in. Just six-thirty and almost completely dark. She’d have to hurry! Looking up, she realized that the roof could be blown off at any moment.

Victoria had never experienced a storm like this! She could hardly see and in less than ten seconds, her clothes clung to her body like the wet T shirts the gringas wore at the hotel’s poolside bar. But she’d have to ignore her modesty right now; she needed help and headed for the neighbor’s home – an identical dwelling to her own. Victoria could see it looked as endangered as hers.

“Ines, you’ve got to come outside and see what’s happening to our houses.”

The eyes of her only friend in this hopeless place looked so frightened.

“Victoria what the hell are you doing?”

“Ines look up. It won’t be long before our roofs are blown away. Where is your husband?”

As soon as the words shot out of her mouth, Victoria lamented them. She didn’t want to make Ines feel worse. She reached out her hand and rested it briefly on the other woman’s cheek. Stoic and unsentimental, Ines simply said, “OK, let’s get on with it.” It seemed clear to both women that the roofs were of primary importance. Ines’ five children cried and tried to cling to her as she stepped out into the raging wind. “Get back, you’ve got to stay dry,” she said.

Clambering over a pile of tree trunks, that had been left lying on the ground after the last bad storm, Victoria’s vision just reached the edge of her hut’s window. She saw her children in there –resigned to whatever would come. Equal amounts of fear and fury rose up and out of her and she said to her friend,

“Ines we have to get some of these heavy pieces of wood up on the roofs to hold them down.”

” And how will we do that,” asked Ines.

“We’ll pile up these logs and stand on them.”

When they had three solidly stacked on top of one another, Victoria climbed up and told Ines,

“Help me raise one of the big round pieces.”

For half an hour the two women stretched, pulled, lugged and thumped down weight onto their flimsy roofs.

Their worry for the little ones, waiting below produced an energy and strength that neither of them imagined they possessed.

“You are as strong as one of the porters at the market,” said Ines.

“And I bet you could beat most men in the arm wrestling contests they hold down at the cantina,” Victoria told her friend.

When eight large thick branches had been firmly thumped into place – four atop each roof, Victoria said,

“Now we’ll lower the wash lines, throw them over top and anchor the whole works.”

After many attempts to get them positioned, the long ropes finally lay crisscrossed over the wooden weights straddling the humble homes.

“The rest is up to God,” said Victoria.

Too tired and too anxious, the women didn’t say goodnight but Victoria mouthed a kiss as she turned back to her four by four. Ines pantomimed a catch and held her hand to her heart. Verbal thanks and congratulations would come later – maybe.

Pati held back the crying toddlers while Lois opened the water sodden door and let her mother back inside. Rain seeped through wall cracks and Victoria stuffed her wet clothing into them. Naked but for her undergarments, sweat oozing from her exhausted body, she mopped up the puddles on the floor. Taking dry clothes from the shelves of the wardrobe she dressed each child carefully, cleaned their smudged faces and placed all four in the pink hammock. She then removed the vinyl cloth from the small table in the corner and loosely draped it over her bewildered babies.

“It’s like a game… help Mama… go to sleep now… it will be better in the morning.

The girls, lying foot to foot, hugged their brothers close and almost in unison, the quartet began to snore. Soft little nasal sounds. Like kittens purring

After scraping off the mud and grime as best she could, Victoria slipped a cotton house dress over her head and lit the stub of a candle beneath the image tacked up on the wall. The faint flicker would be enough to show the Virgen de Guadalupe where she hid with her four treasures. The nuns from the mission where she received her First Communion told her that when the Queen of Heaven had appeared to Juan Diego she asked, “Am I not your mother?” Victoria took comfort in those words. She had to, there was nowhere else to look for it.

The wind came in wild waves; the rain seemed intent on soaking through every fissure in the plaster. When one of her makeshift dykes sprang a leak, Victoria would rise from her hammock and jam in whatever she could get her hands on. Clothing, towels, a cushion cover. The whole night … it went on and on. Victoria did not allow herself to sleep. She heard the storm growling above their heads and increased her prayers. The flame continued to burn, the candle stub did not go dark.

At one point, the whooshing seemed to abate, only to surge again. Later she would learn the name for the quiet period. The next day the neighbors would call it, “the eye of the storm.”

Dawn arrived and the wind wound down but rain still beat hard on her beleaguered building. When they were sleeping, she thought her children looked like four little tacos. Now they stretched and peeked out through the mesh.

“Girls, stay in the hammock until the day light shines enough for you to see your way through this muddy mess.” One baby tucked in her arms, Victoria crossed through the debris and retrieved the leftovers from last night’s windfall. Pati and Lois gratefully grabbed the plate. She leaned out for her other son who tumbled into her ample arms. While drinking their fill, as they’d done every day of their lives, the brothers took positions that accommodated one another.

Today would be hard. But what day was not? The mental checklist started:

Check on Ines… Find out about work… Get more food…  Clean children… Clean floors,

Clean, Clean, Clean…

No sleep last night and it seemed doubtful that there would be any today.

So much lay ahead but right now, with her four children feeding and feeling full in the still standing four by four, she felt so powerful, so resilient, so… VICTORIOUS!

Note: This story may be reprinted with consent of the author. Contact me at: joannavdg@gmail.com


June 7, 2010

For several years I have led life writing workshops. This Fall I hope to facilitate another group of Merida residents who are interested in this type of writing. The workshop will start in October and will last for 12 weeks. Keep reading to get an idea of just what life writing can encompass. If you’re interested, make a comment on this blog or send me an e-mail: joannavdg@gmail.com


Perhaps people lovereading others’ life-stories because the authenticity of the writing is compelling for both the reader and the author. If the narration is about your family or someone you know, it has even more meaning.

Life-writing is a broad term.  There are important differences between life-writing and autobiography. Both are human interest stories, both have style and structure but autobiography recounts a full life story. Life-writing is not so detailed and often focuses on stories portraying growth and discovery.

Anyone who has the desire to tell their personal story will certainly be able to do so.

Life-writing is not difficult because:

* You do not have to write about your whole life and you do not have to start at the beginning

* You don’t have to deal with complex structure

Often the writers of autobiographies get hung up on recounting every single detail, even if it isn’t very interesting! They forget they are telling a story and start at the beginning (no matter how boring that beginning was) and keep going… right to the bitter end.

Life-writing can take many forms, such as:

* Prose and poems about the events and incidents of a person’s life

* Scenes about specific experiences and how they make us feel

* An apology or confession

* Memoir

* Diary / reminiscence / anecdote

* Recollection / personal history vignettes

It can also be a tribute to a loved one or to commemorate special-occasions

* Celebration of Anniversaries & Birthdays

*Family reunions



Why not take a few minutes and think about what you want to write. Is it on the above list or is it something you consider to be quite unique? Write it down and send it to me. Maybe this will be the opportunity for you to write the story you’ve always wanted to write?



June 2, 2010

Starry, Starry Night

I’ve been working on this short story and thought I’d post an installment to see what you think. Let me know if you want to read more…


His bleary blue eyes snap wide open and down on the plaza, the bells of San Blas ring out five times…

Peering through the louvered window he can see the shadows have snaked fully down the crumbling compound wall and he heaves himself out of the hammock. The aroma of shellfish blistering on a hot grill seems to have awakened his appetite. But, nah – he can’t really eat in this heat. He uncaps a cold Corona instead.

Once he told me that growing up in California he learned street Spanish and I guess he uses it to tell the curious townspeople that he and his daughter Janet are traveling in search of a place to call home. If asked when his wife will be joining them; I bet he simply says, “She is out of the picture.” An uncomfortable silence no doubt follows but the locals would smile anyway. Aparently on Sunday, a neighbor had said, “Such a sweet little girl.” In the next sentence, Señora Sonia invited Janet to her daughter’s birthday party, just two days and two doors away.

He needs to go for the girl in an hour’s time. He sighs whenever he thinks about his tiny, timid six-year-old. Here, no one knows what she’s been through – what they’ve been through during the past year. This afternoon, for the first time in months he hasn’t needed to worry about her. She is in the neighbor’s happy haven of a home and I can imagine Michael hopes the regrettable incident will begin to blur. He must pray that today will re-start her interrupted childhood. He’s wiped. Perhaps in this place, he too will regain his former confidence and calm. Hard to say. As he tends to do several times every day, he’s talking to himself and asking the Universe what cosmic mistake made his family the victims of this complete deviation from normalcy? Why did Connie do what she’d done? What drove her to such totally unexpected behavior?

Showered, shaved and dressed in light kakis with a matching short sleeved cotton shirt, Michael looks ready to go. No longer young but still decades away from old age, I think he looks good and Iwonder about this Sonia… It is then he senses the familiar but out-of-place fragrance. He sniffs again but its gone.  He loathes the cloying and sticky sweet “Anais, Anais…”

Moving quickly he slams the screen door open and lurches into the sandy street. A thousand tears welling, the inky sky reminds him of a favorite Don McLean song.  “Starry, starry night / Paint your palette blue and grey…” There now… Michael can’t resist turning back to the house and his attention is drawn to the silhouette in the window… Seeing my hands pressed against the glass causes him to hyperventilate. If he’d not seen me for a century, he’d recognize the tilt of my head and the long curve from neck to shoulder. He asks, what on this cursed earth, am I doing in San Blas? How long have I been here? How will he keep me away from Janet?

Image: Google Images


May 28, 2010

We Have A Guest Today…

This is just the second time I’ve had a guest contributor on Writing From Merida.

Marianne Kehoe is a member of my writing group and at today’s meeting she read a piece that contrasts taking a walk in Frankfurt and doing so in Merida. I enjoyed it so much, I asked her to let me post it.

And so here you have…

Sidewalk Cultures

Frankfurt sidewalk

Scarf pulled tight against the bitter winds of May,

I steel myself to walk along the Main River’s paths,

Dodging cyclists and joggers and an occasional leashed dog,

That resolutely pace the right half of groomed, measured sidewalks.

Leaden skies accent gleaming, geometric office towers

While sleek boats, rowed in synchrony, dot the gray river with red and blue.

Automaton comes to mind, with nary a Guten Morgen uttered from lips

Held in strict, horizontal freeze under eyes hypnotized to the journey.

A lone Turk sits at the apex of the footbridge over the river,

Fingers free of his half gloves, playing a peppy accordion tune

That brings no smiles to the passersby, nor does it alter their gaits

Or their gazes, or invade their bubbles of privacy.


Returning to the land of Buenos Dias, I unconsciously slow my pace,

Making way for couples strolling hand-in-hand, sharing melting flavored ice,

Stopping in every shadow for long kisses and tender promises,

Wishing the night, and the walk, would never end.

I hop over the long strings of balloon toys pulled by toddling children,

And see them turn to delight in the tinkling bells that roll in the wheels

And in the glitter of the neon paint as it catches the lights of the plaza.

I stop to watch a vendor sprinkle extra onions on the hot dog he’s just sold.

The marquesita man turns up his flame and splashes batter on the grill,

Extra dough tails spilling onto the ground to feed the dog waiting nearby.

Eight people crowd into the back of a pick-up truck. Grandmother sits

In the plastic chair, baby on her lap, all ready to bask in the breeze of the ride.

Merida Sidewalk

Pictures and text by: Marianne Kehoe

May 27, 2010

May 12, 2010

Where do you write?


Several weeks ago on a writers’ blog, I read a tongue in cheek posting about the tediousness of revising our writing projects. In the fictitious scenario, the author goes to a cocktail party and when asked, “What are you doing with yourself these days?” He replies, “I’m revising. In fact that is what I am – a professional reviser.” The new acquaintance’s eyes grow wide, “Like, wow… a professional reviser! But hey, doesn’t ‘Word’ do that for you?” Ha! Revising, revising, revising… this is what I do all the time.  It takes me about six months to write a book and at least double that time is spent catching mistakes and fretting over those I might not have caught.

And where do I do this revising? The picture above was taken at my write / revise /play station. You can see the book being revised and my “arsenal” – one big fat Websters dictionary and a tattered Roget’s thesaurus. When I lack inspiration, I gaze at the Chiapas wall hanging for a few minutes. Something usually comes to me. If it doesn’t, I indulge myself  and think back to the day I bought it at the market in San Cristobal de las Casas. I had looked at many but I knew I would recognize “mine” when I saw it… and I did.


If it’s a break I need, I swivel around in my chair and look out at the pool. It’s just a few steps to the turquoise water. Half an hour of lapping back and forth removes the kinks from my body and sharpens my mind.

Sometimes, I don’t need to actually involve myself in another activity… A quick look

at the orange tree outside my bedroom window is tonic enough. Imagine that? An orange tree; when I was growing up in North Vancouver, Canada, I sure never imagined I’d have one of these.

Stephen King says that serious writers need a room with a door that locks and they must be prepared to turn the key. I say that a room with a fanciful tapestry, a pool close by and oranges I can watch grow is infinitely better.

And you? Where do you write?


April 16, 2010

I saw “Julie & Julia” last night and totally loved it!

This film is, of course… all about all things French but also, about all things American – an odd juxtaposition indeed!  We are treated to lots of footage of the streets of Paris and the bucolic south of la belle France . As I watched, sensory and gastronomic memories of our trips there threatened to totally overwhelm me! The seething streets of New York provide a not-unpleasant counterpoint.  Throughout the movie, good natured fun is poked at French arrogance and very deserved homage is paid to the unparalleled preparation technique and flavor of French cuisine. The American heroines are portrayed as good intentioned and ultimately triumphant.

As well, the movie tells the story of two, generations-apart but parallel love stories that demonstrate how a supportive relationship between two strong people is like a Petri dish for creativity… ah-ah-ah-ah how we need those enormously  encouraging men!

I didn’t know that blogging was such a big part of the story.  Julie sets up a blog and states her goal: to prepare all the recipes in Julia Child’s superb book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (I’ve maybe attempted three recipes up until now, but am inspired to do MORE) Julie’s blog eventually becomes the third most widely read in New York (Come on followers… stay with me!) This part of the story really shows how blogging has become such a hugely influential media tool.

Then there is lots of foodie and writers’ angst thrown in. Two more topics I am intimately familiar with! Poor Julie despairs over the texture of her soufflé and the pounds piling on… and she watches her blog stats with equal trepidation.

When Julie finally reaches her goal – all the recipes are completed on time; she hears news of what the doyen really thinks of her efforts.  Yes, she’d hoped for more but doesn’t discount the wonderful self development that the year’s experimentation has given her. And she is deluged with offers to publish her book.  (At this point I am salivating… 65 offers! ) Oh my God!

This film spoke to me… no it didn’t, it YELLED at me to pay attention to what IS possible. But it also addressed the need to keep perspective and not forget the family, the brilliant man or any other important aspect of my life.

Writing is a drug. In the unending quest for the perfect turn of words or plot twist one can easily lose sight of the real world.

Of course Meryl Streep as Julia Child gives a stellar performance and the ingénue Amy Adams is darling  as the determined but delicate Julie Powell.  BRAVO director Nora Ephron for another super-entertaining and subtlety enlightening lesson in life, love and lusciousness.

All photos, taken taken from Google Images


April 8, 2010

Who Turned Up the Heat?

Who turned up the heat? Yesterday was a hot one, wasn’t it? After several months of very pleasant weather, the higher temperatures are definitely blowing in. In my book “TOMANDO AGUA DE POZO – A Guide for the Neophyte Yucatecan”, there is a section called “The Alphabet”. Addressing themes from A – Z, it deals with issues we all face.

“And today’s posting is brought to you by the letter H…”

H is for… HEAT – How to make your peace and live with it. Why is a siesta so important? Your health and general well-being are dependent on how well you handle this hot, humid climate.

If you are in the process of buying or renovating a home in Yucatan, it’s very important to look for a layout that works with the climate. You want to have as many northern windows as possible because this is the direction the cooler breezes come from. You will also need to have cross ventilation and the higher the ceilings are, the cooler the rooms will be. Avoid southern and western exposures, as the hot afternoon sun pouring in will render the rooms uninhabitable during several hours of each day. Put awnings over your windows and keep the doors open to allow for the free flow of air. If you have enough space to dig even a small pool, do so! Planting big shade trees and installing water accents will also strengthen your home’s defense against the awesome Yucatecan sun!

In Yucatan, we have “four seasons”:

  • Very pleasant with a mix of warm weather and a few quite cool days; some rain: November – March.
  • Very hot but not too humid; almost no rain: April & May.
  • Almost as hot and very humid; frequent tropical rainstorms: June – August.
  • Unbearably humid but not quite as hot; this is peak hurricane season: September & October.

Needless to say, the November – March weather is popular indeed, especially because it’s so bitterly cold in northern climes. But when the heat kicks in, it does so with a vengeance… In fact, it is impossible to describe the weather from April – October to anyone who has not experienced it. It’s like trying to explain intense transitional labor pains to someone who hasn’t gone through natural childbirth!

On very hot & humid days, when I get up in the morning I can feel the heavy air all around me. Emerging from my bedroom and padding out to the kitchen, the first beads of sweat start to form on my upper lip and on my forehead. By the time I’ve set up the coffee maker, I am feeling moisture trickling down my neck and back. And by the time I take the first sip of coffee I am perspiring as though I’ve just worked out – vigorously! But that is yet to come… I go for my morning walk and when I return home, sometimes, it’s actually possible to wring my clothes out… I know I really need a shower and while under the spray, all is well. But, when I turn off the water, evaporation begins immediately; it’s like being in a sauna. I cannot dry off, so I need to go and stand directly under the ceiling fan for a while. Eventually, I must get dressed and if I don’t need to leave the house, all will be fine. I put on some loose cotton clothing and it’s not too hard to live with the heat – in fact, I find it quite pleasant… However, if I need to go out and especially if I have to “dress up”, I’m in for a huge challenge. Makeup runs down my face as I’m putting it on and my hair wilts before I can get the spray on to hold it in place… each item of clothing sticks to my body and it is impossible to look “put together”. I feel like the wicked witch of the west in the “Wizard of Oz” movie when she cries, “I’m melt-t-t-t-t-ting!”

Walking just a few blocks leaves me wilted and dehydration can set in quickly. In order to stay healthy, it is necessary to drink several liters of water a day (in addition to regular liquids such as coffee, tea, juices and soft drinks). Although alcoholic beverages are “wet”, they actually accelerate dehydration. Water cleanses and keeps the system from losing too many electrolytes. Energy drinks purport to do an improved job but I believe good old-fashioned H2O is the best thing in this climate.

Staying out of the sun is also a wise move. You can always spot the tourists – they’re the ones trudging along on the sunny side of the street (and all the Yucatecans are the ones on the shady one). Walking with an umbrella or wearing a cap will also help to keep the body temperature from climbing too high. The Yucatecans are also the ones who are conserving their energy; they are not fast-walking or running along, and no native son or daughter would dream of exercising except in the early morning or the evening. To do so would court disaster. I have heard some visitors rather smugly remark that they “can take it” and maybe they can for a couple of days, but in order to live here for any length of time, it’s necessary to follow the lead of people who have been born here.

Non-residents of Merida are also prone to scoff at the siesta. Do they think Yucatecans lie down during the heat of the day because they’re lazy? They do so because they’re smart! I always rest for at least two hours. I don’t necessarily sleep but I always take the time for my siesta and I don’t go half-way either! I take off my clothes, put on my nightgown, and get right into the bed or stretch out in my hammock. About 5 PM, it’s time to resume the day. I shower again and I’m all set to put in several more hours of work, to water the garden, or do other odd jobs around the house… and I’ll still have lots energy for socializing in the evening.

Partly because of the heat, the timing of social events is very different in Yucatan to what it is in North America. Five in the afternoon is a popular hour for North Americans to begin a party or even have dinner! My husband and I are sometimes invited to parties that start at five. We can never get there by that time… to do so, upsets the whole day because we consider it is still too hot to be dressed for an evening out. As well, 5 – 8 is the space we use for finishing up the day’s tasks. When Yucatecan friends are included, it would not be a bad idea to reconsider the time of your get-together. 8 PM is the earliest a party ever gets going in Merida; dinner is never served before 10.

It is important to remember this if you don’t want to have spoiled dinners and end up feeling resentful. I often hear international residents comment about their Yucatecan friends, “They are very nice but they can never arrive on time!” This appears to be bad manners but it is not viewed this way by the locals. To them, it is the contrary – it is strange to expect guests to arrive too early and upset their day. A comparable example would be if you had a friend who was an early riser and she expected you to be at her house by 6 AM for a breakfast party!

If you are inviting a mix of international and local friends to a party, you can accommodate both groups by saying there will be a “happy hour” or cocktails beginning at 5 PM, but be sure people realize you don’t “expect” them to show up at that time. Yes, this does make for a very l-o-n-g evening, but this too is customary here!

Almost every afternoon, Merida is “saved” by the refreshing breezes that blow in from the Gulf of Mexico. I have always loved the evenings and nights in this city. They are sultry and sensuous and there are the heady aromas of night-blooming flowers in the air. Once the sun goes down, Meridanos love to get dressed up and go to the parks and plazas or have a light meal at an outdoor café. They actually stay up quite late, enjoying the cooler temperatures while strolling along the avenues and visiting with their friends.

One thing “from the outside world” that the Yucatecans have embraced fully is air-conditioning. They love AC – and the colder it is set, the better! It is a Godsend on very hot days, although you do need to try and refrain from frequently going in and out of air-conditioned rooms. Who knows why, but doing so seems to propitiate sore throats and colds. We do not have a fully air-conditioned home but there are wall units in the bedrooms; they allow our family to get a break from the constant heat and heavy humidity. We sleep well and knowing we can “cool down” whenever we need to, helps to keep us from getting too uncomfortable and cranky because of the heat. It is expensive to run air conditioners but we prefer to scrimp elsewhere in order to allow ourselves this comfort…

To manage the heat, mimic the locals: make the daily siesta a part of your life; exercise in the early morning or later in the afternoon; stay out of the noonday sun; wear a hat or carry an umbrella to protect yourself from the direct rays; drink plenty of water and do your socializing in the evenings… Yucatecans have learned to handle this extreme climate and we can save ourselves a lot of grief by following their example.


I hope you enjoyed the excerpt from my book, TOMANDO AGUA DE POZO – A Guide for the Neophyte Yucatecan.” As well, I hope it will give you some ideas as to how YOU can better handle the Yucatecan summer.

I am currently in the process of updating  and editing a new edition that will be published under a different name,


Much of the text from the first book will be included and new features will be added.

MAGIC… MADE IN MEXICO will go on sale before Christmas. If you would like to reserve an autographed copy, please contact me by e-mail:



Saturday April 3, 2010

A Special Post For Writers


By Joanna:

How many times have you said, “I wish I knew then what I know now!” This is very much the case with the editing of my novel.  I’ve mentioned that writing is a second career for me.  I’m a fair story teller but far from perfect when it comes to many of the technical points.

Another great maxim is, “Knowing your faults is half the cure.” In the past couple of years I’ve attended several writer’s workshops and conferences where I’ve learned a great deal. The most recent was the San Miguel Writers’ Conference in February. One of the presentations concerned character development. Without strongly defined characters, you really have no substance and your poor story just wallows away in a swamp of inconsistency!

The presenter, John Reed has an editing and critique service called, WRITERS WELCOME.  John and his team assist authors to tighten their manuscripts.  One of the most useful handouts we received at the workshop was the following, “38-point character chart.” John explained that we should fill out one of these for each of our characters before we begin to write and then keep them handy to reference all through the writing process. Hm-m-m-m-m-m

Okay… I bet I’ve spent hundreds of hours correcting my characters’ contradictions from one chapter to the next. Like I said at the start of this post, “I wish I knew then what I know now!”

John Reed has kindly given me permission to share the following information with you. If you’d like to know more about John’s service, visit:  http://www.writerswelcome.com


1. Name

2. Age

3. Height

4. Weight

5. Birth date

6 Birthplace

7. Color hair

8. Color eyes

9. Scars or handicaps (physical, mental, emotional)

10. Educational background

11 .Work experience

12. Best friend

13. Men/women friends

14. Enemies and why

15. Parents

16. Present problem

17. How it will get worse

18. Strongest and weakest character traits

19. Sees self as–

20. Is seen by others as–

21. Sense of humor and kind

22. Basic nature

23. Ambitions

24. Philosophy of life

25, Hobbies

26. Kind of music, art and reading material preferred.

27. Dress

28. Favorite colors

29. Pastimes

30. Description of home physical, mental and emotional atmosphere

31. Most important thing to know about this character

32. One-line characterization

33. What trait will make the character come alive and why?

34. Why the character is worth writing about

35. Why is he/she different from other similar characters?

36. Do I like/dislike this character? Why?

37. Will readers like/dislike for the same reasons?

38. Characters who are remembered are those who are strong in some way, saints, sinners or    combinations of both. How will this character be remembered?


March 31, 2010

Do you like the blog’s new look?

Rainie Baillie and Joanna  with  our “blog guru” Debi Kuhn

My friends often joke about how  I often  change my  hair color and  style. (This week it’s red  and I’m growing it longer) And  now I have a  new  place where I  can  fiddle  with c o l o r and play with l–e–n–g–t–h  …  this blog!

I think the current version is easier to navigate. My most recent post (and your comments) will now appear here in the middle column and earlier ones will be moved to the categories.  To view them, just click on the green tabs at the top of the page. As well, you can now subscribe to the blog and receive automatic e-mail updates of new postings.

A huge thank you to Debi Kuhn , “the guru” who helped me set this up. Debi has been posting for several years ( www.debiinmerida.blogspot.com )  About once a week, she answers my questions concerning the addition of new features to my in-progress blog.  Debi uses Blogspot and  WordPress. Both these hosts have their advantages but the format of WordPress suits my needs.

The LIFE LONG LEARNING program will likely offer a workshop on Blogging in 2011. Information on dates and times will be posted here.


The international residents of Merida are a very diverse collection of souls. To provide an outlet for their social and creative needs, many special interest groups have formed.  The MERIDA WRITERS’ GROUP is one of them. There are about ten of us (depending on the season) and we meet each week to support and encourage one another’s writing projects.

Every time we get together, it’s different. Usually some of us read our most recent pieces and get feedback and constructive criticism from the rest. Sometimes one member will need the entire two hour session. .. Once in a while we invite a guest speaker like Grant Spradling who shared a lot of his information about self publishing. From time to time, we do a writing exercise together.

In February of this year, three of us attended the San Miguel Writers’ Conference. We had such a wonderful time and would highly recommend this event to both novice and experienced writers. All of the presenters were generous with their knowledge and experience, the social functions were really a lot of fun and for the most part, everything ran on time…

THE MERIDA WRITERS’ GROUP characterizes itself as open-minded and embracing. While we do offer strong opinions when needed; this is not done mean-spiritedly. We feel that in almost every situation, positive reinforcement is more effective than cutting critique.

I have benefitted very much from my association with this group. I work hard at writing… I still have a lot to learn! And it is THE MERIDA WRITERS’ GROUP that keeps me centered.

MARCH 27,2010

Not much new under the sun…

“This no-nonsense vendor always had the freshest fruit, vegetables, farmers’ cheeses, and flowers. Gorgeous ones.”

Not too much new under the sun this week. I continue to edit my manuscript…

It’s really a long process but at the same time, such an interesting one. What I enjoy most is writing descriptive narrative.

Here’s a short example from IF YOU ONLY KNEW:

“After finishing my coffee, I dressed in loose comfortable clothes, tied up my curls and headed for the local Mercado. Like most redheads, I freckle, but I didn’t care. I turned my face full into the sun but felt little heat. Fall was in the air and I zipped up my quilted denim jacket. Fast walking would have warmed me, but leisurely sauntering allowed me to take in the drama that teemed and steamed all around.

As I entered the market, the heavenly aromas of freshly baked bread, ripe strawberries and fragrant herbs wafted into the narrow aisles, helping to cover up the pungency of rotten watermelons and stale puddles of water. Brightly colored plastic pails and intricately woven reed baskets sat side by side. As I advanced through the maze of wares, I savored a crusty chorizo torta. But, hearing the mournful chords of a blind beggar’s guitar slowed my step.

The tinkle on tin caused the old fellow to jerk and he raised his head. In thanks for the peso now in his cup, he held out his spindly arms and intoned a blessing, “¡Que Dios le bendiga! – May God bless you!” I remember I wanted to stay and exchange a few more words with him but mi marchante waited. If I didn’t hurry, she’d be sold out. This no-nonsense vendor always had the freshest fruit, vegetables, farmers’ cheeses, and flowers. Gorgeous ones…  “

March 26, 2010

“You must remember this… A kiss is just a kiss…”

The other day a newcomer to Merida asked me if I wasn’t “just a wee bit put off ” by all the kissing in Merida.  I suggested she read the following from TOMANDO AGUA DE POZO – A  Guide for the Neophyte Yucatecan

K is for… KISSING – Lots of this goes on! When a hug, a pat, a handshake or a nod will suffice…

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Merida was all the kissing! I could see it all around me… Where I come from in Canada, I was used to seeing mothers and fathers kiss their small children at every opportunity. Little ones need a kiss hello, a kiss bye-bye; they need a kiss to say, “Well done!” and one when their feelings are hurt. They need “I love you” kisses and quick little ones that say, “Be careful out there!” But what about big, hulking, full-grown boys? Do they need this array of kisses from Mommy and Daddy? In Mexico they certainly do… I’ve seen gruff-looking men who meet on the street, give each other resounding kisses and hugs and then one will tousle the other’s hair and say, “¿Como estás hijo?” – How are you Son? They often lope off together, arms around one another’s shoulders. Mexican men are not at all shy about showing affection. The same young man, upon meeting his mother will probably get double the hugs and kisses and she’ll also ask, “¿Ya comiste?” – Have you eaten?

However, if the men are not shy, the women are totally uninhibited when it comes to showing their feelings. Their greetings include many kisses, stroking the cheeks, embracing the shoulders and full contact hugs followed by a rocking back and forth! Mothers and daughters, sisters, cousins, school and family friends, comadres, neighbors, grandmothers, and aunts all get the full treatment in certain situations. But on other occasions, the women approach each other; turn their cheeks, purse up their lips and air-kiss near one another’s ears, pull away, and smile. I could not for the life of me figure out when one style was appropriate and when it’s not. Sometimes I would come across a woman I knew well and give the full, effusive greeting – only to feel her pull away… I needed to know when, where, who, and how to kiss…

So I started to really watch for the subtle signals. It wasn’t easy to figure out until I had observed the rituals literally hundreds of times! And here’s what I’ve concluded…

Between men and women who are related, there is usually an air kiss exchanged. If the man and woman are comadres or long-time family friends, there will be a kiss on the cheek. Between women who are related, you see the whole ritual if they like each other, and at least the air-kiss even if they can’t stand one another. Two men who are related, often cup one of their hands on the nape of each other’s neck or on the shoulder and with the other arm, they clench the opposite shoulder; they lean over one another and commence to pat each other on the back (quite forcefully sometimes…) This is called “el abrazo.

In social situations when women and men do not know one another, a kiss is usually not appropriate. I see they look at one another and either shake hands or nod in one another’s direction and say, “Mucho gusto” – Pleased to meet you. Men meeting other men for the first time respond to one another in the same fashion. Women sometimes “kiss on first meeting” but not always – I usually wait to see what the other one does and then follow suit.

There are occasions though when your reputation precedes an actual encounter. I was once introduced to a man who upon hearing my name, “pounced” on me with a kiss, “¡Qué gusto!” – “What a pleasure!” he exclaimed… I was quite taken aback until I realized he was someone who was “a friend of a friend” and we had both heard a lot about one another but never actually met before.

Professional colleagues, teachers and students, doctors and their patients, my employees and I all kiss from time to time but not always. Usually this occurs on holidays or at other festive times.

The other related-to-kissing activities that used to floor me are the asking of very personal questions and the use of very descriptive nicknames. Where I come from in Canada, asking a relative stranger about their family’s business; how much money they paid for an article or their opinion about other mutual acquaintances would be considered very, very rude. But here, it is not at all – this shows that the person is interested in getting to know you and wants to see what makes you tick – there is no wasting of time on formality! Calling one another, “Gorda” – Fatty; “Flaco” – Skinny or “Chivo” – Goat (and so on…) was something I thought was very strange and unkind. Again, it isn’t meant to be. Political correctness does not carry the same connotation in Mexico as it does in Canada. I remember the first time someone called me, “Gorda” – I burst into tears. “They hate me!” I told Jorge; “Why else would they call me such an awful name?” I was not easily convinced when he told me this was an endearment!

Yes, it’s pretty hard to figure out – this when-and-when-not-to-kiss business… and it’s hard to get used to the easy familiarity that Yucatecans fall into. It certainly does add a dimension to social interaction that’s missing in other cultures. I was quite overwhelmed during my early years in Merida. The most daunting circumstances were when I’d arrive at a party or get-together of some kind and I’d see the others, making the rounds and kissing everyone on the cheek… and calling one another by their nicknames. To this day, I still don’t know some people’s “real” names. I didn’t want to kiss all those people and I certainly didn’t want to call anybody, “Gorda”!  But I did it anyway; it was easier than standing awkwardly aside, offering a little wave and a tentative smile…

The best course of action is to observe the others and do as they do. After all, a little extra affection and attention – offered or accepted, is never an altogether bad thing. Go with the flow and it will become second nature to you!


March 11,2010

La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City

The novel begins here.

On October 2, 1968, Mexico City’s overly zealous government troops turn a peaceful student rally into a blood-soaked battle. Many naïve young people lose their lives and on this infamous day, Mexico’s age of innocence is also  forever lost.

In the aftermath of the massacre, former lovers, Amalia and Alejandro meet again and in their desperate emotional state, passion re-ignites.

Amalia’s poignant story is peppered with descriptions of historically accurate socio-political events and portrayals of Mexico’s diverse culture. Among the many memorable secondary characters is Hortensia, a clairvoyant Mayan woman who helps Amalia resolve the issues that threaten her peace and well being.

The novel’s conflicts and turmoil as well as its joyful abandon accurately portray the essence of Mexico and mirror the universal quest for hard-won love and ultimate liberation.

A poem serves as the introduction…

“If you only knew…

the absolute truth

about that tender, tragic time –

would forgiveness grow in your heart,

and ease into our lives?

If you only knew…

why the pattern of our days and nights

was utterly and irrevocably altered –

would this knowledge,

redeem me in your eyes?

If you only knew…

what I have learned

about glory, growth and grace –

would this understanding,

lead you back to me?




10 responses to “Writing

  1. Joanna, your blog i interesting and I love reading your articles. I am planning to move to Merida next June, and I cannot wait to get there. I am also looking forward to find employment in Anthropology or Educational field, but they told me it s not that easy. Can you give me an advice since you ‘ve lived there for so many years? Thank you in advance!
    also, I am going to post your address to my favorite’s links. It s very interesting!

  2. Marie Ros

    Love your blog and enjoyed so much seeing you again in Merida. Look forward to your updates and can’t wait for you to publish your books. Carinos, Marie

    • Ah Marie… we had such a great weekend. I look forward to another reunion next year… at your place! Keep in touch… Joanna

      • Bravo Giuseppe… you will love Merida. What you’ve been told about the difficulty of finding employment is true. But it will be much easier if you are here and get to meet people. Merida is very much a place where people prefer to hire their friends

  3. Paulina Ley


    Loved it thanks for sharing. Living so far from the family we had no idea how this all took place. Very entertaining. I really felt as if I was there.

  4. I enjoyed reading about the kissing and other affectionate rituals here in Yucatan. When I contrast it to the other country I lived in, Japan, it is a universe apart. In Japan, there is no public kissing. Rather, you bow. The depth and length of the bow represents the degree of respect you have toward the other person, and sometimes two men will stand there bowing at each other, each time more deeply, for up to a minute. Even children bow to adults, though not vice-versa.

  5. Mary Moore

    I really enjoyed these samples of your writing and look forward to reading more. The story of your coming to Merida to be with your true love, Jorge, was captivating! The piece about Yucatan kissing was quite humorous and may prove to be helpful as well. Amanda and Alejandro’s story sounds as though it will be a great one.

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