the Yucatan & Casa Hamaca
What’s Past is Present (Part II) 
The Thrill of Discovery: There's Old Stuff All Around Us

“Eureka! I’ve found gold!”
I don’t remember if those were my exact words since I was only about 11 years old at the time, but I know I was very excited. I had found a rock with a vein of glittery, shiny, gold. I lived in Bozeman, Montana, at the edge of town. So I could freely wander the creeks and the woods and the fields that abutted where we lived. My friend and I were wading in the creek looking for whatever struck the fancy of an 11-years old boy when we came across the gold-filled rocks. We had struck it rich! The mother lode! When I showed my prize to my father (who had his master’s degree in soil mechanics and lots of geology under his belt), he explained that my discovery was just iron pyrite. Alas, it was the mother lode of iron pyrite sometimes known as fool’s gold …and I was the fool. POP! There went my dream-bubble.

Since that time, there have been any number of “Eureka” moments in my life. One of the most memorable was the discovery of my first ceramic shard while attending an archaeological field school in northern Belize. Most of the school participants were anthropology undergrads fulfilling a field school requirement. Another large group comprised grad students and post-grads working on specific projects. A small group of us were just interested volunteers, along for the ride, and hoping to experience archaeological fieldwork. Along with two undergrads and one other volunteer, I was assigned to a professional archaeologist and his guide. Our project took place in the heart of the jungle. Every morning, we were loaded in the back of an old pickup truck and driven to the drop-off point for the work site. To get there, we followed the axel-deep ruts of previous passages by the pickup, trying to avoid getting stuck. We had to stop every few hundred yards to open and then close the barbed wire gates. One field full of cows, the next corn, the next cows, the next corn, etc. We could not allow the cows into the cornfield. If we did the farmer who owned the land where the digs were would stop the projects cold. So we were very careful.

Our first stop was near a small hill at the edge of the fields. We dropped off a group that was digging there and looking for a burial site. We had to drive for about another 10 minutes to the end of the line before we got out. We crawled over or under another barbed wire fence and then followed Ricky (our guide). Every day he had to chop back the jungle with his machete to keep our path clear. The jungle almost grew faster than he could keep up with it. Our objective was to discover the general plan and dimensions of a residential complex. A very small part of a much larger site. Kind of boring compared to looking for a tomb! The previous group of diggers had laid out a one meter-wide set of lines running over a small mound. My job was, shovel-full by shovel-full, to uncover all of the dirt and rubble, down to bedrock, to the other side of the mound. I was in Belize for two weeks for the field school and it was the most physically demanding two weeks that I have ever spent in my life. It was hot and humid. Once we entered the jungle in the morning we never saw the sun for the rest of the day, but we sure felt its heat. Everything just dripped with moisture. Using small mason trowels and brushes, we removed the dirt and filled a 5-gallon bucket with the mixed dirt and rubble. Then we screened every bit of the dirt through a framed square of hardware cloth… made from welded wire with 1/4 inch opening. The dirt easily passed through the screen, the larger pieces didn’t. We had to sort through everything that was left looking for ceramics, bones, flint, obsidian, jade, wood or anything else unusual. And then bag and tag any findings. After about the third or fourth bucket, I suddenly saw my first shard (or sherd). It really was a “WOW” moment. I had just discovered (actually uncovered) something that had been made by man and had been hidden for hundreds of years beneath the earth. I felt like Indiana Jones. It was so exciting to see and then hold this small piece of broken clay. I ran to the archaeologist to show him. Ho-hum. Just another piece of a broken jar. After the first piece, my eye had learned what to look for and I discovered sometimes dozens of pieces with each screening. Nothing of real consequence but filled with rich meaning for me.

Earlier that same year, I had been in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for the first time. I had a few hours to explore a local market before leaving to visit the local archaeology museum and then on to the Mayan ruins at Copan. I wandered through the market seeing nothing of great interest, nothing I thought was unique to the area. Since I have a mask collection of over 60 pieces from numerous places around the world, I asked at a few shops if they had any masks. One or two had some freshly carved wooden masks for the tourist trade, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. When I attempted to explain that I was looking for old masks or ones that had been used ceremonially, a shopkeeper beckoned me to enter her shop. After we talked for a few minutes she reached beneath one of the counters, literally under the counter, brushed away a handful of spider webs and withdrew an old cigar box. Old and dusty and slightly moldy and covered with mouse droppings. And full of small clay figures and broken pots. I had never seen a shard before or if I had, never paid any attention to them so I didn't really know what I was looking at. The contents of the box were for sale. I selected two of the intact small clay figures and as I paid for them, the box was returned under the counter.

The two figures I purchased in San Pedro Sula

I met up with the tour and went to the archaeology museum and there, in a showcase, saw one of the figurines that I had just purchased. It was part of a display showing how 1000 years ago, mass-produced whistles were made by casting clay in molds. The very same figure! Made last week in an original mold? Or found on a washed-out riverbank where it had been uncovered by the floods, a riverbank where it had been lost 1000 years ago? ¿Quien sabe? Some time almost two weeks later, and in another country, I showed the pieces to my guide. He was an experienced digger and guide at Copan as well as having extensive experience at other Mayan sites in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. He looked at the pieces and said they were authentic. And then asked “where was the shop I purchased the find?” He would go there on his next trip to San Pedro Sula to purchase the entire shoebox.

Later that same year, I took an archaeological tour of Peru. I first went to Iquitos on my own and by boat down the Amazon to the Napo and then up the Napo River for a bit to reach a jungle lodge where I spent a few days. When I returned to Iquitos, I joined the tour and we flew to the north coast of Peru to Chiclayo. At our first ruin we had to walk about a kilometer or two from the parking area to reach the ruins. As we were walking, I noticed we were walking across a field of shards. Thousands of them, covering the field in all directions as far as I could see. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them. I asked our guide about this and she told me that the north coast pyramids were built of adobe or dried mud/clay. Since this area has almost zero annual rainfall, the pyramids should last forever. And they probably would except for every hundred years or so, a huge rainstorm (literally a hundred-year storm) comes through and dissolves a bit more of the pyramids. And washes down more shards to the plain below it. The guide said all the shards were out of context and of no value to the archaeologists because they couldn’t learn anything from a single piece without knowing where it came from and what had been next to it.

At each site in Peru that we stopped, I found shards. Near Trujillo, near Cusco, along the Urubamba, even at the top of Machu Picchu. I never knew if they were broken, contemporary pots that had been brought into the sites as fill for the paths or had been there for hundreds of years waiting to be found. Once my eye knew what to look for, the shards magically appeared.

In Mexico, when I went to Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Ek Balam, Yaxunah, Muyil, Calakmul, Tonina, Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Dzibilchaltun and other smaller and out-of-the-way places, I saw shards. In caves, caverns and around cenotes, I saw them. In my gardens in Valladolid, at the Casa Hamaca, when I dig to plant some flowers, I come across shards. From 10 years ago? Or a thousand? Who knows.

Last week one of my masons brought something to show me. He lives in a small village near Valladolid and farms a small milpa. He had completed this year’s slash and burn and discovered something curious in the ashes. The left forearm of a statue or an idol made of fired clay. Hollow, with the hand gripping an undefined something…like a ball, perhaps? And with a heavy bracelets encircling the wrist. Half of the forearm was fire-blackened, the other half terra cotta color with, maybe, suggestions of paint or color. Roberto was pretty proud of his find, as he should be. But now he has gone back to look for the rest of the statue. Based on my calculations (read: best guess) the full statue might be 12 to 14 inches in height. I hope he finds it; I’d love to see it.

The forearm Roberto found in his milpa

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What’s Past is Present (Part I) 

On of the reasons that Valladolid first grabbed me was the age of things. The antiquity and the history of so many of the colonial buildings blew me away. And underlying the colonial history was the realization that the Mayan people had lived here for a very long time before the Spanish came. As I drive or walk anywhere in town, I sometimes complain to myself that the streets and the sidewalks are too narrow. And then I remember that the streets were built to accommodate horses, carriages and carts not our modern automobiles, busses and trucks. They were built just right for the horses and still seem perfect for bicycles, tricycles and motor scooters. But not for driving. Not for walking. Of course, in colonial times the only people who had to walk were indios and they sure didn’t need sidewalks…they could walk in the gutters. No proper Spanish lady or gentleman ever had to worry about such a base endeavor as walking in the street! When sidewalks were finally put in to allow people on foot to get around without getting run over, there wasn’t a lot of room for them since virtually all the houses were built right to the street. So the width of the streets became even narrower.

The Spanish architecture that was brought here in the 16th century had been strongly influenced by the Moors who ruled Spain for almost 1,000 years…they last of the Moors were defeated at almost exactly the same time Columbus “discovered” the Americas. For all kinds of reasons, the Moors built a very plain façade facing outward, with either a high wall or buildings (or both) facing inward to a central courtyard. That’s where all the family life took place…in the courtyard. The horses were stabled there, the chickens roosted there, the family smithy might be there, the kitchens and laundries were there. There might be fruit, vegetable and herb gardens. And maybe a fountain or some reflecting pools for cooling. When I was about 15 years old, I visited Toledo, Spain, with my parents (we lived in Madrid for two years in the mid ‘50s). One of the few things that I can really remember of that excursion was visiting the house of El Greco, the artist and painter. I remember thinking how cool it would be to live in a house like his…an open courtyard surrounded by inward facing rooms…and to make it even cooler, many of the structures were two stories with an open balcony and walkway wrapping around much of the courtyard. His house followed the Moorish style to the “t”. Partly because of the Moorish influence, Spain and Portugal were so different, so foreign and so strange that, until the European Union, people said that Europe stopped at the Pyrenees. Spain and Portugal are part of Europe now and not nearly so interesting.

It seems if I have always liked old things, antique things, ancient things. And, now that I am an antique, I seem to like them even more. I like the patina of age. The side of a three or four hundred-year-old building with exposed layers of multiple colors of paint. When you get up close, you can see the demarcation lines of the various layers, but if you step back a few feet, the wall becomes an abstract mural. It’s amazing; the most humble wall or building transforming that way. I was waiting in the car for my wife a week ago and was looking at a stone wall (it was too high to be called a fence). Many years ago it had been painted yellow (maybe the wall owner was originally from Izamal where the entire town is painted yellow), and then repainted yellow and repainted again. I could see the multiple layers and the richness of color…of the play of light and shadow.

So that’s part of the reason that I am here in Valladolid…because it’s old. I like it that way. But do the people who live here? Do the people who grew up here like it that way? Or do they just think that things are sort of run-down? Sort of shabby? Sort of old? That some of the old building, basically abandoned homes that have turned into overgrown ruins, should be torn down and something nice and modern should be built there…like a Seven-Eleven or something. Torn down even though some of the walls are almost a yard thick, built of stone and 400 + years old. I can’t answer that question, but I do know the laws say you can’t change the exterior of buildings of a certain age. You can put new windows and doors in the original openings, you can paint the building a different color, but that’s about it. From the outside, things must remain the same. That’s good for a lot of people. That’s good for the cultural and architectural heritage of the city. It’s good for the preservation of the past.


What all brings this to my mind is the church across the street from me. The San Juan Church. The guidebooks don’t give an age for the church because, I believe, the early records were lost in one of the many conflicts that involved the city. I have heard the story that the church is from the 1600s. It could well be. It sure is old. Old and charming. With pigeons and buzzards sitting on tops of both steeples each morning waiting for the first warming rays of the sun. I used the word patina before; this church has a patina. I really like patina. I like the green patina of corroded copper, for instance, more than I like polished copper. But what I call the beauty of patina, some might think is just grimy and dirty and grubby. And should be cleaned up and made to look young and fresh and new again. There is something to be said for that. I wish that I could be made young and fresh and new again. Well, I can’t…but the building can. And that’s what’s happening with the San Juan Church. It’s being restored to its original glory and shininess and brightness and cleanliness. The stones are being re-pointed and scrubbed. The cleaned part of the building seems to glow now. In contrast, the un-refurbished part is still covered with bird droppings. It has shrubs and small trees growing in tiny pockets of wind-deposited soil, high up of the ground. It has character. It has patina. But I’m slowly of getting used to the idea of the “new“ church. But, for today, at least, there is still part of the character left. Still some of the patina. And there is always the rest of Valladolid. Almost the entire historic district still has the patina of antiquity. It still lives in a time warp. It will be a long time coming before that changes, I think.

PS a friend set up a MySpace page for Casa Hamaca at Check it out and add yourself as a friend and help get the word out about Casa Hamaca.

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Some Internet privacy concerns: things I forgot…but the Internet didn’t. 
Every so often I do a name search on Google or Yahoo to see where Casa Hamaca stands in their rankings. Today after I ran the Casa search, I ran a search on my name; Denis Larsen.

When I just typed in Denis Larsen the results were (on Google) about 1,470,000. I thought that was too many to look through this afternoon. So I ran the search again with quote marks around the two names, like this “Denis Larsen.” That returned a more manageable number: 329. And I was at the top of the list! Hurray. Makes one feel good to be recognized and known. It turns out that there are a number of other people named Denis Larsen or some variation like Dennis Larsen, Dennis Larson or Denis Larson. There is a General in the US Air Force, a rock musician and a hockey player (I don’t think they are all the same person). I started scanning the results. They were all pretty much related to one of five endeavors of mine that have websites. But then came some surprises.

1. The Casa Hamaca website and various links to the casa including personal posts to other sites letting them know about the casa. The only surprises here were a few comments that I had left on some different blogs or message boards…some of them some time ago. So long ago that I had forgotten I had posted the comments. I don’t think I said anything to offend anyone.

2. My massage therapy business, aNeed2Heal, LLC. There were multiple pages from the website itself. And a surprising number of “find a massage therapist” type listings, many of them with addresses a number of years old. There were also some links to some writing about massage that I have had published on other websites (ie: No real surprises here either.

3. The volunteer work that I do with Mano Amiga in the north of Mexico as well as in the Yucatan.

4. And a goofy site, Dalisllama that I write. It contains some of my travel writing on Peru, Belize, Isla Mujeres and the Yucatan as well as some links that I find funny, interesting or just curious. No real surprises here either.

5. Easy Isla…a site about Isla Mujeres that I started almost 7 years ago and just got bored with. Maybe some day I will revive it.

6. Then the surprises started. I came across my name at I registered with them some years ago for a free listing and stopped using the service as soon as I realized that all they wanted was money and they weren’t shy about asking for it. They list a couple of schools that I attended. But I had forgotten the site even existed.

7. More surprisingly, I came across a number of sites that listed contributions of money or time that I had made to churches, summer camps, and political campaigns and to the Mayan Research Program (reviewed at I didn’t realize that these details of my life would ever see the light of day. Nor did I think it anyones business where I donated time or money. But there it is.

8. Then I came across a few real surprises. An article in Spanish published of news of the state of Quintana Roo, about a volunteer project of audiologists on Isla Mujeres that I coordinated. ... ] ... amp;y=2007[/url]

9. A couple of different references to a series of business meetings in late 1971 and early 1972 (way before the internet was born) between the R&D folks at Phillip Morris, the cigarette makers, and myself, my ex-wife and a friend for whom we were pretending to work for. We (my ex and I) were freelancing for him to develop new consumer smoking products. Right after this project, my ex and I agreed never to work again in tobacco products. And neither of us ever did. This stuff got on line, I think, because of suits from consumer interest groups to examine how the tobacco industry seduced people to smoke. ... h78e00.pdf ... -7773.html

10. A reference from the Seti (seekers of life on other planets) project. They had a program (maybe still do for all I know) that borrowed your computer when you were not actively using it to analyze signals from outer space. They listed how many total hours of computer time I donated as well as the average length of a computer session. Wow. I really had forgotten about doing that. ... 51731.html

11. In 1954, when I was 14 years old and living in Urbana, Illinois and attending University High School, I spent the better part of one summer working for a research project for the University of Illinois. It was a study of the thiamine requirement of teenaged boys that finally was presented as a paper a few years later and published in The Journal of Nutrition. They must have put their archives online.

Lots of bits and pieces of my life here. So I ran a search on Yahoo to see what happened there. 143 results for “Denis Larsen”, including a Linkin listing that I had also forgotten.

That got me wondering about other aspects of my life that hadn’t shown up on the web. I wrote, edited and published a monthly newsletter on Japanese Woodblock Prints for two years in the early 1980…before desktop publishing or personal computers. I did this every month in my basement on a top-of-the-line IBM Correcting Selectric. And then cut and pasted the entire issue. I also kept a database of some 3,000 individual Japanese prints (ukiyo-e in Japanese) on 3 x 5 cards. I tracked their description, artist’s signature, printer’s signature or seal, sale prices, condition, color, impression, location of sale, etc. After I had done this for a few months, I asked a neighbor who had just purchased a large IBM computer if they could put my database into the computer and maintain it. She answered that her database program could not handle the information. So I continued by hand. And then a few years later came the home computer revolution. A search on “Japanese Woodblock Print Dealer and Collectors Newsletter” on Google returned “no results”…same as Yahoo.

I often use the online name of xxxxxxxxx. A Google search turned up 38 results…everything from YouTube video postings to dumb questions or comments that I had posted all over the net. Yahoo surprised me with 1,760 results. They were mostly the same kind of thing that Google returned along with an at least one online auction bid that I had made a few years ago. There does seem to at least one other person who goes by the name of xxxxxxxxxx, but he is not too active on the net.

Last week, announced that they have just put a huge database of US military records on line. I quickly found my uncle and my grandfather, his brother and my great grandfather…but could not find my father since he was in the Navy in WWII. The current records are only for the US Army. I was in ROTC, but never served in the military so my name turned up zip.

The net/net on the net is that there is a lot of information out there on anyone who has any kind of online presence. And some of it just won’t go away. I recently read about services that attempt to clean up your web records and delete embarrassing questions, comments or whatever. Politicians and top business people seem to be the biggest users of these services. I sure don’t.
However, I did go back through the article and changed a few things to make it a little more challenging to do an identity theft. !

Vanity thy name is Denis. That's Denis with one "n". and Larsen, with an "e", not Larson.

What are your experiences with this kind of information about yourself?

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Cipro works for diarrhea? No Sh*t? 
Note: this article was recently rejected by the Editors of InTheKnowTraveler
as not fitting the needs of their readership. Maybe their readers all stay at really ritzy hotels all the time and never experience tummy problems...or maybe they never actually even leave their house because everyone I know who travels experiences this problem at one time or another. This article also published today on our sister site:

Dateline: Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Almost every traveler experiences what is sometimes know as traveler’s tummy, the trots, diarrhea, or, more commonly here in Mexico, as Montezuma’s Revenge. Most of these stomach problems are not life threatening in themselves and will pass within a few days. The most critical problem is dehydration. Small children and the elderly are at most risk for this but it can be a mortal danger to anyone.

According to Where There Is No Doctor, a village health care handbook by Werner, some signs of dehydration are: thirst; little or no urine; dark yellow urine; sudden weight loss; dry mouth; sunken, tearless eyes and loss of elasticity of the skin.

Treat dehydration first. Act quickly before the problem becomes critical. A mixture of 1/2 level teaspoon of common salt plus 8 level teaspoons of sugar with one liter of clean water provides a good dehydration drink. Add in a half-cup of coconut water, fruit juice or mashed ripe banana, if available. These replenish the potassium, which has been lost. Give frequent sips of this to the dehydrated person; 3 liters per day or more for an adult. Continue until urine is normal. If dehydration gets worse, seek medical help. An IV to replenish lost fluids may be necessary.

After the hydration issue is dealt with, there still remain the problems associated with diarrhea. This can range from a minor inconvenience to a severe attack with cramps, high fever, chills, nausea and dizziness. If you are in the middle of a trip, spending a few days in the hotel room (actually the bathroom of the hotel room) is just no fun after the first few times. Pink Pepto BismolÒ to the rescue! Pepto Bismol, or the local equivalent, is sold in most part of the world. It’s basically the same stuff wherever you purchase it (bismuth subsalicylate along with whatever makes it bright pink). Don’t use if allergic to aspirin. Follow the directions for diarrhea on the bottle: 2 Tablespoons or 30 ml every 1/2 to 1 hour as needed until the diarrhea stops. This might take a while. Be patient.

If you can’t be patient because, for instance, you need to get on an airplane for an extended time or the last launch up the Napo River is leaving at dawn, you might want to consider Cipro (ciprofloxacin). Some years ago, my MD gave me a prescription for Cipro to take along with me on my journeys in the event of diarrhea. His suggestion was one 500 mg tab per day for 6 or 7 days. That does work if you have the time to wait. Perhaps there will be another launch for the Napo early next week.

An anthropologist, with whom I was spending some time in a small Mayan village where I contracted a severe case of diarrhea, told me the official anthropologists method. And that is three 500mg tabs of Cipro the first day (all at once), two tabs the second day and one tab the third. Since that time, I have used this method a number of times and can attest that it really works! Usually the first day, I am really whipped (no pun intended); but by the morning of the second day am able to jump in the launch or get where I need to be without discomfort or embarrassment. I am not an MD so I cannot suggest that you use this method, but it has worked for me.

As an aside, both Pepto-Bismol and Cipro should be in your travel case wherever you travel. Pepto-Bismol is good for heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, and nausea as well as for diarrhea. Cipro is great for diarrhea as well as lower respiratory infections (pneumonias), urinary tract infections, STDs and is the drug of choice in case of a surprise anthrax attack in the middle of the jungle. Cirpo is available, in Mexico, at most pharmacies without a prescription; in the USA a MD's prescription in necessary.

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The Wrinkles of Fate & Learning to Eat Soup Without A Spoon 
I’ve been reading Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatan, Vol. II by John L. Stephens. It was originally published in 1841 and is his account of his journeys, mostly on horseback, through Central America and the Mayan lands of Mexico. Boy, do we have it easy nowadays! As travelers, most of us never really leave the comforts of home. We quickly fly to our destinations, take an air-conditioned taxi or shuttle bus to our hotel (some of us never even leave the hotel grounds while in a foreign land), have plenty to eat and drink, a clean and secure place to sleep, can bathe with clean water, never worry about revolution or volcanoes or fording raging mountain rivers on horseback, etc., etc., etc.

Every morning, I get up early and sit on the veranda drinking a cup of coffee and watching the world come alive. The hummingbirds and butterflies and honeybees visiting the flowers for breakfast. The school kids in their uniforms making their way to the school down the block. The birds greeting the dawn with song. And the roosters joining them, just to make sure everyone and everything is awake. The tiny newspaper truck that speeds around the square delivering the daily paper to the vendor in the park. Once I am satisfied that the world is up and going about its business, I read for a while before starting my workday. Today Stephens wrote about crossing from what is now El Salvador into Guatemala, finessing his way through opposing sides of a bloody revolution and cross-border civil war strife. Throughout his travels, he was able to stop at almost any hacienda and be offered hospitality, even from perfect strangers, with food and drink and a place to sleep. This is quite a concept in our day and age, with the thousands of travelers that make their way even to remote places. Stephens was welcomed at a hacienda near the border and, as he writes “We had a supper at a small table placed between the hammocks and one of the beds, consisting of fried eggs, frigoles (sic) and tortillas, as usual without knife, fork, or spoon.”

As I read that, I flashed back to the beginning of this year on New Years Day. My wife, Nena, had been looking in Valladolid for a church that suited her. She tried a few different ones and was disappointed not to find one that appealed to her. We had started going for drives when we had some downtime, each time in a different direction. We wanted to see and explore and experience what the small villages were all about. On New Years Day, we were passing through Chichimilla, a small village south of Valladolid, going slowly because of the topes (speed bumps) and with our windows down, when Nena’s ears perked up. She heard her kind of church music! We looked to the left and saw a small group of people near the side of the road having some kind of service. I turned the car around as soon as possible and slowly approached the group of people, intending just to listen to the music for a short time. Before we could come to a complete stop, both of our front windows had people leaning in and inviting us to join them in their service.

As we got out of the car, other people scurried to bring us rickety, folding wooden chairs to sit on. Others moved to the side to make room for us. The pastor acknowledged us and welcomed us. As I looked around at, perhaps, fifty adults gathered in an open yard, next to a house, I saw mostly women, a few men and lots of children. Many of the women were dressed in huipiles (the traditional Mayan dress). The men wore long pants and short-sleeved shirts along with their straw hats to ward off the sun. Almost all were Mayan, I surmised, by their look and by the mixture of Spanish and Mayan the pastor spoke. A very traditional, typical and conservative Mayan village. Not one necktie to be seen, not one gringo except me…and I was wearing shorts and a tee shirt. The pastor was speaking in front of a small table that was between two enormous loudspeakers, each at least 4 feet high, that looked like they would be more at home at a night club than in a church service.

When the pastor was about to read a passage from the Bible, he asked me if I would like to do the reading for the congregation. I shook my head, “No”, since I don’t read much Spanish. When he asked Nena if she would like to, she jumped at the chance. Someone handed her a worn Bible, and she read aloud the chosen verses. This was repeated at least four more times during the service with Nena stepping to the front of the congregation to read aloud the indicated passages.

As the service ended, the pastor invited us to share a meal with them. The Mexican version of a church supper. After the service ended, others repeated the invitation until we felt they really meant the invitation. So, we decided to join them. As we chatted, we explained that we sometimes did mission work in the Yucatan with Mano Amiga constructing concrete roofs for the poor and needy. We were told to go to the house next door for our meal. Following the example of the others, we took our chairs with us and entered. A long table filled the entire room. We were directed to sit. A pitcher of horchata (a cold, sweet beverage made from rice milk) was placed in front of us along with plastic cups. Since the horchata had ice in it and because the horchata was made using water, I declined the drink. I get nervous about ice and water whose origins I do not know.

We were each served a bowl filled with a black liquid surrounding islands of chilies and pieces of turkey…Relleno Negro, a traditional festive dish throughout the Yucatan. It looked delicious; it smelled delicious. I was ready to dig on. But they had not yet brought out the spoons. So I waited, and waited and waited. Until I realized that we were not going to be served spoons. We were supposed to eat the soup using tortillas from one of the stacks of tortillas that had been placed along the table. I watched others to see how this was done and then joined in. I tore off a quarter of the tortilla, formed it into a scoop for the broth or used it to grab a piece of the turkey or a chili and carry it to my mouth without out getting my hands in the soup. It was tricky, but tasty.

I finished my bowl but declined a second serving. As we gathering ourselves to leave, it seemed dozens of people thanked us for joining them and invited us to their regular service at the church. This service had been just a special, open-air service to celebrate the New Year. They gave us directions and times and were so earnest in their invitations that I was touched. A stranger, and a gringo at that, should be made to feel so welcome. It humbled me.

Nena has since found a church in Valladolid in which she feels comfortable and attends on a regular basis. Last night, Nena asked if I would like to join her at a special service they were having to dedicate their new building. It was a blowout occasion. Pastors and their flocks came from a far away as Tizimin, an hour north. Individual pastors came from Merida and Guadalajara (almost at the other end of the country). And the pastor delivering the sermon came from Indiana. It was quite something to listen to the pastor from Indiana preach, one sentence at a time in English, pause while the sentence was translated into Spanish with appropriate gestures and inflections. He was a powerful and dynamic speaker…and his translator (another gringo) followed suit.

It was my first time at this church and I was greeted and welcomed by numerous people. We were seated in the front row, in stacking plastic chairs stenciled with the Pepsi logo. The church was overflowing with people and many had to stand near the back of the building throughout the service, which lasted almost two hours. At the end of the service, we were all invited to take our chairs with us and pass out to the side yard and join them in a meal.

Very different from the other church meal that we were served! First an individual, unopened bottle of cold soda (soda pop) then a tiny paper napkin then a foam plastic plate with four tacos. Some of the tacos were filled with cochinita pibil (pork rubbed with herbs and spices, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in an earthen pit until moist, tender and flavorful), some with lechon al horno (roast suckling pig). Both were delicious. I can never decide which I like more. The cochinita or the lechon.

As were making our way through the crowd, out to the street to leave, someone shouted out “Mano Amiga.”We looked and there were a dozen of people from Chichimilla that we had met on the first of the year. They remembered us and remembered Mano Amiga and greeted us like long-lost brothers. And invited us again to join them. Again, I was touched.

When we returned home and fell into hammocks, I reflected on the hospitality of the Mayan people. The openness and friendliness that they demonstrated to us. I was overwhelmed. I imagined a Mexican stranger, dressed differently, speaking a different language and having a different skin color, arriving at almost any gathering in the United States and wondered how he would be received.

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