Life of an average joe

These essays cover a tour in Afghanistan for the first seventeen letters home. For an overview of that tour, and thoughts on Iraq, essays #1, #2 and #17 should suffice. Staring with the eighteenth letter, I begin to recount -- hopefully in five hundred words -- some daily aspects of life in Mexico with the Peace Corps.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Letter-71: week-end in Puebla

My stay in Puebla with Mr Jajean Rose and his lovely better half, Ms Ana Hernandez-Balzac, was not only restful but quite a learning experience.  After a mood-settling bus ride, I arrived in Puebla about two hundred miles southeast of Querétaro.  Ana kindly met me at the bus station, which gave me a chance to catch up.  Before I launch into what may seem like a simple recounting of conversations that we all have every day, I want to say that these two Peace Corps volunteers are interesting people and are well worth the recount.

Ana filled me in on the imminent end for her and Jajean of their tours with the Peace Corps and some prospects emerging for them.  I have been keeping my fingers crossed that Jajean will enjoy an emerging opportunity to work for a land conservation organization in New England.  Ana is looking at applying concepts of living space management from Europe in the United States.

This would be an advancement in planning and reminiscent of the quip of many historians that Europe tends to trend a generation ahead of the United States.  We arrived to the office shared by Ana and her husband, Jajean, in the local office of the national environmental ministry, wherein Jajean filled me in on his current efforts.

Jajean has been a life-long birder and has given full reign to his two first loves: birding and his birding wife. He has put together, as a product of his own initiative, the first catalogue of local species of birds for the State of Puebla.  The Municipio of Puebla has three and the State six million people.  This job of re-writing, collating personal photographs and keeping the text accessible to non-birders is a far bigger effort than it sounds.

Why?  Later in the week-end, Jajean and Ana explained to me the unexpectedly vibrant intellectual world of birding.  Not a staid re-tweet from life at all.  You see, the same bird can have different names in different places – even in a small state like Puebla (i.e., roughly the size of Maryland) – owing to a lack of scientific knowledge compounded by the absence of a standard taxonomy in Spanish, traditional names assigned locally and the multiplicity of indigenous dialects.

Thus, it is quite likely that a group of people looking at the same heron will delight in identifying what sounds like three different birds.  Beyond this confusion, the grouping of different species is a moving – no, high-flying – target provoking often heated debates.  For example, Jajean and Ana explained to me – if I remember this discussion well – that falcons are more related to seagulls than to eagles (or inland predators). Tried though they did, this young couple could not ‘shore’ up this and other gaping chasms of my ignorance.

What it all said to me, however, was that this beautifully designed book of fifty pages represented the ´fine-point’ tip a very large iceberg of knowledge, research and professional judgements focused into a first-class product.  Jajean had also spent several months researching the flora and fauna; coordinating the efforts of local academics and birders; as well as composing in Spanish a technical proposal to make an area reservoir, Valsequillo, a ‘Ramsar’ site.

Being designated a 'Ramsar' site would make this reservoir a globally recognized wetlands area, and a site worth saving in México.  Most of us ‘al norte’ have not heard of this designation for two reasons: this 1971 wetlands convention was formalized in Iran and we are the bad boys of wetlands.   The odds were not in Jajean’s favor since the reservoir has been condemned to be a sewage and industrial waste dump.  Most locals (known as poblanos) had given up on Valsequillo as a lost cause.

Not Jajean Rose: his spirited efforts overcame probabilities and institutional resistance, not the least of which was that an ‘extranjero’ led the charge.  Nevertheless, the reservoir and its adjacent land were designated as a Ramsar site by the Mexican government earlier this year.  All this was on Jajean’s spare time while he did more mundane things (i.e., office-work) for the Environmental Ministry.  Ana has been doing outreach work on eco-education as well as protection in the use of Valsequillo, a biosphere nearly twice the size of Pittsburgh.

We closed the night talking about the re-election of President Obama and the trends my friends see in – as well as their beliefs about – American politics.  On Saturday morning, the three of us joined six other volunteers and about twenty-five poblanos, with a collective wing-span of three generations, in Puebla to go bird-watching for about five hours in the Valsequillo biosphere.
The great thing about bird-watching, for those who do it, is that it provides an opportunity for enjoying a shared interest, for healthy debate among experts (or at least those who know a hell of a lot more than I do) and for catching up among friends.  Since Jajean was actually leading the tour, I did not get to yammer with him too much during that stretch.  As I like to do with happy couples (being a ‘confined’ bachelor myself), I asked Ana how these two met.

It is a wonderful story.  Jajean had finished his undergraduate work at the University of Buffalo – quite the under-rated school smack-center in the burr-zone of Northern New York State – while Ana had studied at a University in Puerto Rico (where her French ancestors had settled as migrating Communards in the 1870s).  Ana and Jajean met at the University of Buffalo in the same graduate program in (I believe) urban planning.  Ana had been a birder since high-school.

When they happened upon lunch together, Jajean apparently asked Ana about her interests.  Now as young students, I suspect that more than a few of us agonized over what to disclose, lest something come across as quirky…Not Ana.  As she told me (in effect), “I really don’t know but I just decided to be who I was…and so I said I like bird-watching…”  I can see in my mind´s eye twenty-five or so poblanos who were very glad that Ana made that decision several years ago.

Jajean apparently did a double-take…”¿¡bird-watching!?”  And the rest is a history that ably affirms the aphorism that birds of a feather do indeed flock together.  I also had a chance to meet three new environmental volunteers who had just moved out to their centers after plus catch up with an acquaintance stationed in the area for over a year.  Finally, I got to spend some time with another great Peace Corps couple just as they were heading home to the United States.

One of the newbettes teased me mercilessly about my bird-brain or lack thereof, we both got a good laugh out of it.  The irony is that, if a guy had said these things, I might well have taken umbrage and raised a fuss. Yet, when such ribbing comes from a fair lass, I feel perversely praised...  The couple that is leaving is looking to create a business that would enable public schools to out-source the teaching of a religion course without getting snared in Church-State issues .

First, there would be a degree of separation so the public school is not directly promoting a religion or the concept of religion in general. Additionally, the idea does not represent a traditional religion course in the sense of comparing and contrasting faiths but a course in pursuing a spiritual dimension through authentic American voices like those of Martin Luther King, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Buber, etc.

These ideas enliven me and that is why I always enjoy listening to the visions of these and other extraordinary young people.  The course-work would also include spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, etc. to give children a base on which to anchor their future lives in a spirit based on values from America past and present. What  a pity (for me) that I did not meet this couple, the wife of which was a spitting image – more by temperament – of one of my favorite cousines, Katy Koppanyi.

Now bird-watching itself has always been a subject of curiosity for me, never fulfilled due to my lack of patience and discipline to learn at every opportunity.  Anyways, I learned many things in those five hours. The most important was why I had admired so much two teachers under whom I had been lucky enough to flounder as a fifteen year old.

Long after these mentors had won my lifelong respect (i.e., within a couple of weeks), I found out that they shared one thing in common: bird-watching.  One had been a Rhodes Scholar and the other had been one of a very few who booked on Milgram after the third switch.

That morning, with half a dozen Peace Corps types and two dozen poblanos, I learned the reason why bird-watching made those two teachers so special, as it does these two friends four decades later.  It is an activity – though often punctuated by little, almost reticent, movements – that requires a patience that few people have.  Beyond that and good eyesight, it requires the ability focus one’s kinetic and intellectual energies minutely to dis-embed frequently camouflaged birds from subtly hued backgrounds.

Like Zen masters, then, bird-watchers have that ability to harness their humanly fragmented minds into a focus that, with time, becomes a beam of conscience.  Bird-watchers not only know their species, they know their birds. Even a 'lard-carrying' member of the "booboisie" like me understands how timid the great majority of birds really are.

To approach these beautiful beings requires time, patience, a little stealth in silence.  Beyond the absence of sudden movements apt to startle a bird into flight, I sensed that the really good birders could almost connect with the objects of their commitment and costly cameras.  This rare ability to focus one’s being in the here-and-now, not to mention an uncommon ability to connect on some level with an animal, are traditional signs of an elevated conscience.

The last thing I learned was that there is great humor in all of this heady stuff.  For example, catching a bird in the act on camera is almost impossible to do by design, but those ‘poopoorazzis’ lucky enough to catch the fecal flight-line have set up a site to document forever their moments of shutter-clicking shame.  It seems that the private world of birding has its own exclusive club of bathroom humor.

Afterward, we took two hour naps, which benefitted me a great deal and then out for a night on the town. Those who know me well know that I am ‘rather sedate’ (i.e., dull), especially as I do not like alcohol. Fortunately, this preference against pursuing the spirits worked for my far more interesting hosts, too.  We had an elegant dinner and I had some of the best mole (pronounced moe-lay) ever with delicious chicken.


For two or three hours we walked around the ‘Centro’ (the old town) and I got to see first-hand just what a beautiful city Puebla really is.  Americans are indirectly familiar with Puebla because it was here, one hundred fifty years ago, that the Mexicans defeated the French on the ‘cinco de mayo’ 1862 to curtail any further sustained hegemony from outside powers.

In truth, Corona Beer has managed to make ‘el cinco de mayo’ a larger figment of American culture than fixture in the Mexican.   One reason why this holiday may be less important than others in Mexico – so I have heard – is that poblanos are snooty and think they are better than everybody else.  Well, permit me to report that poblanos are not at all conceited.  Truthfully, I found the people to be friendly and cosmopolitan. They reflect their city.  Puebla is truly an international city.

As we roamed those streets, I would find that some blocks would remind me of Paris – complete with a grand bistro parisien – while others were more like Madrid and still others like Italy.  Another interesting facet of this city, which makes it worthwhile to visit, is the ‘story of the block’.  It seemed that every block in the core part of the Centro had a building with an interesting history, either an old art-school (with representations of different types) converted into museums.

My favorite story involved the frieze around the door of a grand old home that related a relatively recent legend of a man who (I believe) had lost a son to some nasty serpent from a nearby river (paved into the history books some sixty years ago) that came slithering to shore every night.  In any case, the grieving father let it be known that whoever felled the serpent by his own hand would win the hand of his daughter.  Well, this campesino, who was an Arthurian type (i.e., from modest means but innately patrician), did away with that serpent, married rich and learned to love.

Proved to this paragon of downward mobility (i.e., me) that upward mobility is still alive and well…yeah!

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